Certain constraints. Fragments and memories of things long dead. Petrified consciousnesses from an elder world whispering through the centuries. The Fencer frowned into the sunset. Glory all around, reflecting off glassine ice from ancient falls riddling the lower slopes of Haga Ephos. Here the temperature was just low enough that their icy tombs never melted, in spite of long sunlit hours.
The day had been more troubling than most. Promise of secrets and answers propelled the swordsman upwards to an uncertain fate, but in these cold calm moments he was left to contemplate the exegeses of the journey, and the possibility that his whole goal of solving Winter’s Riddle was a fool’s errand, or worse.
A few more Jhem waited along the path they took upward that afternoon. The Fencer was inclined to dismiss these ancients for being too common, within reach of the underachieving Tellers from the village below, but the Trumpeter insisted they stop for each one.
Words chased the men up the mountain, words from minds long frozen, possessed only by memory. The Jhem spoke of green times, of lush forests where impossible expanses of trees stretched on across the continent. In fine detail they told of heavy blossomed flowers, extinct fruit-bearing plants, and warm climates which verged perilously close to the blasphemy of Summer. These were dangerous notions and the Trumpeter drank the words up eagerly. The Fencer didn’t, he had his own memories of a lost garden. The faint smell of blood and sweet, rotten meat, arrived, but was quickly lost to music.
“I shall now play my evening concert,” declared the Trumpeter solemnly as he put whetted lips to his trumpet. The Fencer pulled the instrument clear just as the musician blew out a great gust of air. At first the mountain man seemed put off by this critique of his playing, but then beamed a wide smile; he had known this would happen.
“Can’t have you staring off into the distance like that, it’s dangerous for the rest of us,” he said, sitting down next his friend on the ledge near their camp.
“Maybe that’s the only way,” pondered the Fencer. “If you care to notice there is some commotion down in Phos.”
At the base of the great mountain the polychromatics were agitated. It was difficult to see clearly down there, where the bright stone of the slopes first burst from the earth and ice and the roaring cataracts of the lowest cliffs spilled into rivers to run like glimmering ribbons towards the distant and hazy sea. The sun was soon to set, but there were a great many fires in the town, many more than the night of their arrival, warding off the coming dark. Hue, worried that the two were up to something, ventured out to the ledge from the safety of the great stones where they planned to wait out the night.
“A ceremony of some sort?” asked the Fencer.
“Not that I know of,” responded Hue before adding, “though it’s not unknown for Phosians to invent sudden traditions in our endless search for novelty.”
If this was a ceremony or performance it confused the watching men. Every light in the town seemed lit, framing the many wondrous structures with a brilliant glow. At this great height it was impossible to make out individuals, but some aspect of the vision described movement and activity.
Annoyed by the mystery, the Fencer left to inspect their shelter; a room of tumbled stones created by an ancient rock fall. It lay out along a buttress jutting from the mountain’s main body. Seeing night coming Hue and the Trumpeter had chosen the spot after an hour of careful investigation. Unknown danger lay on Haga Ephos and they needed to take every precaution. Again the rank smell of meat hit the Fencer and departed. He looked around for a corpse.
Then movement showed in the dwindling light, a form crouched in the shadows leading from the little cul-de-sac. The Fencer drew and charged. The figure dodged away only to dart back in under the swordsman’s guard and grapple him. In a mass they twisted across the uneven rocks, stumbling terribly close to the edge and the endless drop beyond. Hue and the Trumpeter wavered at the edge of the confrontation, unsure of what to do.
Then the musician played his evening tone. The mountain sounded as the last rays of sunlight fled over the horizon and night breathed cold. The chiming stopped the mad wrestling men just as the Fencer was poised to bring a deadly strike down on his adversary. Night came robed in the song of rung metal. A prayer wheel turned in his mind and the memory of another rang through his soul.
“Stay your hand Fencer, it’s just Eluax.” Hue calming words were true. Beneath him was the compact form of the gibberish Teller. He had followed them and was grinning despite a bit of blood trickling from a gashed lip.
“Another madman,” smiled the Trumpeter as they untangled the fighters and helped them to their feet.
The trumpet’s note receded and soon only the high wind whistled in the black air. The shelter, a fractured room barely high enough for the Trumpeter, smelled of distant carnage. Bones lay here and there with the snow and detritus; punctured skulls, cracked ribs, snapped femurs. By the look of the place it was the occasional feeding ground of an erratic, possibly deranged predator which feasted on the soft organs of men. The Fencer felt that whatever made use of the place was something truly awful and thankfully rare.
They kept Hue’s lantern lit and watched time pass until they felt the fatigue of their journey enough to sleep. Eluax, despite his glossolalia, intimated his willingness to take the first watch and the others fell away into dreaming.
The Fencer awoke to a strong arm shaking him vigorously. The lantern had been turned low and he only caught faint glimmer of strange eyes outside in the night. Eluax muttered something urgent, gestured out and went still. An inhuman shriek sang distantly, then another, closer. The Fencer crept out of the shelter while the others were awoken.
Stone clattered on stone, punctuated by more terrible cries. He kept the lantern dim to the attentions of the night things. Then the hooting began, growing closer and closer, and he set the lantern down bright because there was only one place they were going.
Lemur-men, a throng of them, swarmed around the corner. These were shorter than the southern variety, with white fur and filthy claws, tails ringed in black. Yellow eyes wide with fear or joy, aglow in the full light of the lantern, they rushed in a frenzy towards the Fencer.
Dhala impaled the first assailant but the thing’s reeking body staggered the man as the others hopped quick and eager. Never had he faced lemur-men in such frenzy. A full sweep of his weapon split open a half dozen of the things only to have an equal number swarm in before he could bring his weapon back in time for another swing. He backed away from their delirious assault. Many made those awful shrieks, forgoing their usual eager hoots. A few hopped towards the shelter.
The Fencer made to defend the entrance but one of the furry things dropped from the cliff face above. He turned and with an elegant arc described the body of the creature into a splash of red. Still the corpse’s weight brought him down into a swarm of gnashing teeth and scratching claws.
Before he could rise the savage crowd sought to drag him to the shelter. Then a terrific noise thundered out of the enclosure, sending lemur-men tumbling. A few, clutching their bloodied ears, cast themselves off the cliff. After the success of the evening concert the Trumpeter had decided to play an encore.
With their attacker’s dazed the men made short work of the invaders; the Fencer with his terrible weapon, Hue with his bow, and the Trumpeter with his music while the painted Teller wrung the life out of several hopping fiends with his powerful hands. Yet the lemur-men, usually cowardly and devious, flailed wildly at the men in an effort to reach the shelter. At last only a few lived to run.
The Fencer made to give chase, his demon coaxing him onward into blood, but Hue held onto the man’s gore-stained seal skins.
“Don’t do it,” he implored but the Fencer wouldn’t have it. He managed to wrestle free of the youth just as the sound game. A trio of lemur-man shrieks, more horrible than any he could imagine, shot up only to be cut short.
The men stood as statues, blood cold as Winter. None of them wanted to be the first to move. At last the Fencer took a step forward, towards the bend of the cliff and the dead silence on the other side.
“Don’t,” rasped Hue and the Fencer did hesitate, his battle frenzy evaporated. A strange smell, like potent spices, drifted in, managing to stand out over the reeking corpses. With slight reluctance he accepted the mystery of the night and returned with the others to the shelter. Together they hoped they wouldn’t meet whatever it was out there which could put such fear into the horrible lemur-men.
It was difficult to sleep, some managing better than others. The Trumpeter, never to be denied his meditations, snored loudly, and Eluax drifted away like a calm cloud. For the Fencer and Hue there was no more rest that night and they watched the sunrise with tired eyes.
“Surviving a night on the slopes, now that will be something to hold over the others’ heads.”
“So it’s safe now?” asked the Fencer, strapping Dhala back into the series of cords which carried the thing at his side.
“From dawn to dusk Haga Ephos is as safe as any mountain of such height and ferocity,” the red man explained.
The Fencer went out to quench his curiosity firsthand. Not far from the bend of the mountainside he found what he sought.
Three lemur-men lay dead, only showing small wounds which must’ve come from the pitched battle the night before. Kneeling down, the Fencer was almost hypnotized by the way the mountain breeze made their white fur dance. He sniffed the air.
The rank smell of dirty fur and carnivorous breath welled up. This was how the filthy, murderous things preferred to be. Yet, besides this powerful odor, a layering of something else wafted.
Leaning down close to the dead things and their innocent, bulging eyes, the man sniffed. There. That same compound of spices. He was reminded of a bazaar the Trumpeter and he had wandered through in their journeys, all sorts of pepper, and curries, and oils and essences. This scent had the same complexity, though the particulars were even more exotic.
“By Summer, what are you doing?!” The Fencer looked up into the face of the Trumpeter who had just come around the bend. The musician stiffed and wrung his instrument defensively. The Fencer just shrugged and checked the bodies; throats collapsed, necks crushed, just like Aglyss.
“I wouldn’t touch those if I were you; remember the poppy fleas?” The Fencer didn’t take notice as he dusted off his hands and prepared for the day’s efforts.
This was a journey of listening, of observing. The frozen Jhem of the slopes were not conversationalists and the swordsman wasn’t going to waste his breath arguing with monologues. If the answer to Winter’s Riddle lay on the slopes he felt that it would come, if only he kept his ears open and his mouth shut.
Morning rose, brilliant, bloody. Breathtaking cataracts held frozen, hazy when the humid air from below blustered upwards on some strange draft. The answer waited.