Much of what passes for memory is simply a copy of things lost. Often we think of the mind as a storage device, like a book or even a song, but it grows ever onward into the future, shedding pages like serpent scales. What we carry with us from day-to-day are copies of copies of copies, each losing something in the translation from the past. Imperfections arise, conflations synthesize events to stand in place of many disparate moments while confabulations of never-been things emerge, like crystals from an alchemist’s flask, onto the plane of history. Rigor and discipline accounts for only so much, writing and documentation are acts prone to entropy and revisionism, leaving the being traveling through time with the unalloyed realization that the past is a lost civilization peopled by great mysteries.
The Stranger’s memories had been different. At first, just after ingesting the butterfly’s strange flesh, the Fencer’s mind swelled with the pungent thoughts. A garden in full bloom breathed; colorful, dream-wrapped inhuman beings sighed in a swell of conflict and a dance of swords, bent by powers beyond the scope of the memory. These fleeting images were only bare garments for the full body of the understanding imparted. This being a knowledge of forms, models of conflict, experience of battles against swordmasters and entities beyond the Fencer's icebound comprehension. And there was a terrible lust for conflict, a feeling of opposition, which dovetailed well with his antagonistic heart.
This was what Eluax had spoken of when he redefined the value of memory. Absolute recall was nothing compared to understanding and extrapolation from the raw matter of the past. This was how a future could be won even without the Stranger’s memories, or so the Fencer reasoned. He remembered the memories but now had his own experiences to add to the mixture. Dhala’s atom-edged blade would serve well to cut out a desirable new day.
All this in a fragment of a second, in that way time compresses to diamond intensity. A high cold wind blew over the topmost spires of Haga Ephos, troubling the previous night’s thin snows into long ribbons of white against the blue sky. Near the highest peaks violence sounded.
The Fencer ran like lightning but took an arrow for his troubles. The archer would’ve hit him in the neck if not for a sudden gust. He continued charging towards the armored man brandishing a great curved blade, the one who had challenged them. Starting off with the nightmare sword held overhead he shifted at the last moment, bringing the weapon down low, to sweep up from the ground.
In a crash of prismatic shards, cold blue crystals spewing up like sea spray, the first opponent fell as two pieces. The Trumpeter’s horn sounded and the combat continued.
The archer never got another chance; Hue pegged him with a crimson feathered arrow as the man gapped at the terrible death which the Fencer wrought. The rest of the men regrouped and advanced more intelligently.
Smiling, one of them unstopped a large copper tube and a white powder flurried out over all the travelers except Eluax, who was circling the conflict.
“My eyes!” exclaimed the crimson man as he loosed his next arrow blindly. The Trumpeter attempted to send out a mighty tone from his instrument but found the same dust irritated his throat and stole the breath from his lungs. The Fencer simply charged.
The lead opponent now had a length of chain hooked to the base of his blade and threw the thing as the Fencer came swinging. He jumped the weighted blade but was caught by the jangling metal attached. He fell heavily to the glassine ground. Bare hints of reflection showed on its scratched surface.
So intent were the attackers on the notorious Fencer that they didn’t notice the unarmed ochre man sweep in from north. He spun the first attacker he came to around and with both palms struck the man’s chest with such force that his breastplate shattered and he went flying back.
Quick as serpents the remaining thugs, some five of them, brought their swords to face this new attacker. Eluax caught the first blade but it turned at the last minute and he hissed with pain as he cut his own hands. He wove around the raining swords, dodging, losing ground against the coordinated onslaught.
The Fencer fumbled with his pouches as Hue attempted to lift him off the ground, partially blinded by the sorcerous dust. At last the southern swordsman discovered what he was looking for; a flask smelling of lamp oil.
“You’re wounded,” grimaced the young man, blinking at the arrow sticking out of the swordsman’s gut.
“I have enough blood to reach the bridge, if we hurry,” said the Fencer weakly. The initial rush of combat had left him jittery and cold.
Frustrated by Eluax’s seemingly impervious defense the brigands failed to noticed Hue and the Fencer make their way to the base of the long, winding series of ancient wooden bridges and steps leading up the various spires and gaps to the monastery above. The Trumpeter coughed his way behind them. Over all the noise an unwelcome commentary started up.
Clear and beautiful as chimes, laughter trickled in on the wind. Though the travelers had never heard this laughter before there was a familiar, needling quality to it. They looked back in half stumble, squinting against the sun until they noticed a familiar woman in reed armor lounging on top of an ancient building, long spear in her hand.
A terrible change had overcome Omya and the Fencer felt his role in this transformation too well. He had broken her, or maybe nightmare Dhala had. When he had run her off from the village of Phos, denying the law of her people, the world had been pulled from beneath her. When faced with the great wide open she had chosen a way many had taken; that of strife and ecstatic revenge. The Trumpeter and the Fencer had seen many people like this. These were the Riddle-eaten; through them the cold of the world took on a metaphysical quality.
“What is that?” asked Hue, still unable to see well.
The Trumpeter tried to cough a reply but it was the Fencer who responded reasonably, “Don't pay her any attention. Keep us moving the direction I’m leaning. Our only chance is to make for the stairs. Trumpeter, get a taper lit and ready.”
They made it most of the way before one of the swordsmen, a short, sharp-faced man, saw them. He cried out, distracting his fellows, which gave Eluax time enough to strike one of his attackers unconscious and run to join the party. He bled from several nasty cuts and came with a limp.
Omya watched all with passive humor. Her being was like the wind, blowing a bit this way and a bit that, but heading in a certain direction at the end. She pondered how best to torture the travelers for all they had shown her.
They were up the first flight of stairs leading towards the monastery when the lead swordsman reached them. The rest of the silvered warriors were meters behind.
The Fencer turned with his flask in hand and the swordsman, thinking it a weapon, lashed out. Splitting the flask in two, cutting into the Fencer’s hand, reeking oil splattered all over the ancient wooden steps which curled fan-like around the rock. With painful effort the Fencer tossed the sopping remains of the flask on his attacker, soaking the man with blood and nitre.
Sputtering with disgust, the swordsman prepared to press the attack. His master would reward him well for the blade which the Fencer possessed. The encouraging shouts of his comrades followed close behind as Omya looked on with eager voyeurism.
“Now Trumpeter!” spat the Fencer as he struggled to get up the steps as far as he could.
The musician stood distracted for a half second before realizing the flickering taper he had lit was still in his hand and he threw the tiny lick of flame carelessly at the sodden steps. He missed.
Instead, his wick landed on the swordsman, who took light as a dry bale of winter hay. The stairs went up with him, burning a cool blue by virtue of the ancient alchemy preserving the timbers. Shrieks overtook the wind. Dropping his blazing blade, the attacker fought against the flames only to pitch himself over the railing. A mad fireball descended to the lower slopes, screaming all the way.
With the stairs burning behind the company struggled their way up the stairs, which soon turned to ancient construction spanning the spires. Some thousand meters over and up the great monastery waited with calm discipline, jutting out between two of the greatest peaks crowning Haga Ephos. When at last they looked back it seemed their ruse had worked; none followed.
Despite his injuries the Fencer demanded they keep going. Afternoon would only hold so long and then the Jhem would be out, searching for thoughts to devour. Even Eluax conceded the need to achieve the place he had so carefully worked to avoid.
Exhaustion burned at their legs and their lungs labored for what little oxygen there was in the thin air. The Trumpeter, usually immune to altitude sickness, gasped with the rest, probably from the poisonous powder he had breathed in.
At the top ancient buildings waited on a narrow cliff where ice slept beneath dusty snows. These buildings, while old and dark, stood against the ages well. Bleeding towards the great carven doors of the main building they passed by rows of columnar prayer wheels tilting and jangling in winds which had grown with the height.
The monastery itself was strange, but fit with the mode of the Jhem. It was a wooden construction, cunningly made without use of nail or screw. The black wood fit together like a vast puzzle. There were some five floors to the place, and many shuttered windows spread across the surface. It held a cubic appearance, otherworldly, or perhaps simply from a time before the coming of Winter.
Smoke showed below; should they ever try to leave this place it would be a harrowing climb down the near absolute precipices that had made such a grand escape. Their bridges burned behind them.
The Trumpeter wandered off while the others recuperated. They would have to do something about the Fencer’s gut wound and the musician couldn’t stand to see what would become of his friend. Cold mysteries beaconed from the ancient shadows and he worked his lungs clear as he made to the structure closest.
Yawning dark the first building turned out to be some sort of bathhouse. Stray snows old as Winter accumulated in the corners of the first room. An oily perfumed scent hung heavy in the still air and in squinting his eyes the Trumpeter could make out shambling footprints on the ground.
Exploring with the help of a few stray shafts of afternoon light slanting in the musician went further. The building was some hundred feet long, curved against the rising spire of Haga Ephos. The interior began as wood but soon switched to tiles which lay loose and fractured from the expansion and contraction of heat over time. He only stayed at the baths a few seconds as they were already occupied by mummified dreamers adrift on the ice of eternity.
When he returned to the group the Fencer’s arrow was out but his left and still functioning hand now covered the wound. A smell of blood greeted the Trumpeter from his old friend and fresh red seemed to well slowly about the tightly packed fingers. His right hand was all bandaged up where it had taken the brunt of the thug’s attack. The man’s eyes were unchanged but the wounds added an air of desperation to the grey iris’s cold intent.
As the swordsman shuffled his way to the great doors of the monastery Hue came up and spoke in a low tone. “The arrow pierced his intestines, maybe some other vitals as well. If he pulls his left hand out he’ll bleed to death in minutes, rather than hours, which is what’s happening now.”
“Might be better for him,” pondered the Trumpeter watching his friend examine the sealed door of the great abbey with his mangled right hand. “If we can’t find somewhere safe before sundown there will be dozens of Jhem all over us.”
“The ones in the bathhouse?” asked Eluax who had been following all the events of intensely and whose own hands were now. “It was from them that I learned the Way and many other mysteries. It was from them that I learned never to enter the great monastery proper.”
“Sounds like an exceptionally good reason to go on in if you ask me,” grinned the Trumpeter.
“The warning they gave was strange,” continued the ochre man. “There was mention of something known as the Abomination, but also it seemed clear the great abbot was interred there. A peculiar threat, that of the Unwritten Way, was mentioned, but the Jhem which told that story seemed faulty, perhaps the process of mummification hadn't taken well, and ended its missive abruptly."
The three of them considered these tantalizing mysteries but there wasn't much which could be said without entering the sealed monastery. Thoughts drifted elsewhere.
"Who was that woman?" asked Hue, still looking at the ground.
"You mean…" began the Trumpeter, drifting off. "You mean you don't remember her?"
"No," said Hue with a pained look on his face, "should I?"
"I see," said Eluax. "She was taken from your mind by the hungry dead."
"You must've been thinking about her an awful lot," conjectured the Trumpeter, much to Hue's consternation.
"I don't know," began the crimson youth. "I can't know. It was taken for me. All of this is becoming so complicated."
At that moment a dull thunk told them their immediate future had been simplified. Turning, they saw the Fencer clumsily put away his sword. The ancient seal of the order fell to shards as he violently pulled open the great doors of the place. His cobalt hair fluttered in the sudden gust of air which came bursting from the open doors. Resolved, the Fencer entered into the unknown.