Thursday, August 25, 2011

XVI. The Monastery of the Golden Order

            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 alchemists 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 Strangers memories had been different.  At first, just after ingesting the butterflys strange flesh, the Fencers 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 Strangers memories, or so the Fencer reasoned.  He remembered the memories but now had his own experiences to add to the mixture.  Dhalas 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 nights 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 wouldve 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 Trumpeters 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 didnt notice the unarmed ochre man sweep in from north.  He spun the first attacker he came to around and with both palms struck the mans 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. 
            Youre wounded, grimaced the young man, blinking at the arrow sticking out of the swordsmans 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 Eluaxs 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 Im 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 Fencers 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 Fencers gut wound and the musician couldnt 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 Fencers 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 thugs attack.  The mans eyes were unchanged but the wounds added an air of desperation to the grey iriss 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 hell bleed to death in minutes, rather than hours, which is whats 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 cant 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.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

XV. The Troubled Mountain

           Light, a bend and joy of brilliance, broke across the land.  High up on the peaks Haga Ephos stood illuminated in light unfiltered by the thin air.  The only clouds bunched up at the horizon, gathering like rumpled bedding or the dress of a girl at play in the endless day.  Springing off frozen pool and still life waterfall, scattering diamond clear and prismatic from the northern face of the enchanted mountain, morning showed in stark glory all about the men who rested after challenging night and surviving.
            Soon they realized the surrounding brilliance incorporated a powerful noetic flux, a magic gained in reflected from the ancient ice.  Rumor told that the mountain produced strange radiations and the superstitious southern villagers made plain that curses emanated from Haga Ephos' frozen waters.  This truth was evidenced by the shambling ancients who assaulted the travelers the night before, but the only truth the men knew at this moment was exhaustion and they lay where they collapsed after the terrible ascent.
            There is something wrong with me, stated the Trumpeter flatly, breaking the stillness of the morn after some hours of dreamless sleep.  When nobody responded to this absolutely clear statement of fact he continued on helpfully with, I cant remember something.
            The Fencer, tired yet concerned, sat up with a start.  So those thought-eaters did gain purchase on your mind after all?
            Yes, stated the Trumpeter glumly.  I cant recall why it is that I always follow you on your mad whims.  Climbing these cliffs at night?  I mustve lost my good sense to the things too!  We couldve simply waited for the dawn, this dawn, to make the journey at our leisure.
            You never had any good sense, said the Fencer as he collapsed again, grey eyes taking in the limitless frame of blue sky above.  And whos to say that we wouldve been any safer stuck in that pit?  Barely room enough for us all to sleep, let alone combat any further disturbances.  Im glad we took to the cliff.
            After a few more minutes of blissful quiet they began contemplating their surroundings.  Though the high atmosphere here held little warmth the unfiltered sun bathed them with such radiance that they were comfortable, despite the traipsing winds.  Before them the mountain continued on and upwards in spires and peaks of white stone.  At the base of the upper reaches, where they rested, broad expanses of ancient pools lay frozen beneath equally static waterfalls.  The rocks were riddled with more of those same hand-carved niches and here and there lone Jhem meditated.  Up and beyond this, on the higher peaks, structures clung to the stones for support, ancient things, waiting.
            We should continue, said the Fencer, gathering his crystalline sword and checking his dwindling provisions.  By night this place will be alive with the dead.
            The others were less convinced or maybe just more exhausted.  Hue worked his throat where the ice mummy had throttled him, Eluax carefully tested his tender head, and the Trumpeter polished his instrument.  If they heard the Fencers recommendation they didnt respond.
            We should not continue on, said a voice which broke through the silence after some minutes.  It was a coarse, raspy thing, full of dust and cobwebs, similar to the inner voice of the Jhem in terms of meter and temperament.  The words carried somber importance.  The three turned to make sure they werent hearing things; it was Eluax who spoke.
            Your addled tongue has been cured by simple application of blunt force to the back of your skull! exclaimed the Trumpeter excitedly.  It is too bad that Alyssa is dead, he couldve made great use of such a miracle, all in the name of his pantheon, that is.
            Eyes like lightly smoked glass regarded this development.  The Fencers mouth tightened with thought, yet he didn't speak.
            I am serious when I say we should not venture any further, repeated the Teller, who kept close watch on the Fencer. 
            But why? asked Hue.  Weve come this far, why not finish the ascent?  If you know what is up in that building then tell us.  If not then tell us why we should quit.
            There is nothing up there, stated the small man plainly.  He had a meticulous way with these words, a carefully sculpted manner.
            Then we must continue, judged the Fencer tersely.  Instantly Eluax grimaced.
            I wouldnt be so quick to disregard what the master teller has to say about matters of Haga Ephos, recommended Hue.
            Hes a liar, like a storyteller, since thats all he is.  Just like these things waiting to tell their tales.  His reasoning is constructed to keep us away from that place.
            Amongst the common rabble of the southern civilizations this would be call for a feud, but on the ascended slopes of Haga Ephos Eluax remained calm, with only slight hint of pained disappointment.
            I did indeed try to mislead you, began the ochre man.  I had hope that the breaking of my silence, a discipline I have maintained for years now, would be enough to impress upon you the veracity of the request, if not its truthfulness.  If I mislead it was for your collective good; nothing pleasant will come from venturing inside the monastery.
            So this was home to the Jhem while they still lived? asked the Trumpeter eagerly.
            Yes, what you see above is the Monastery of the Golden Order, which flourished while the world was still warm.
            If you can be sure of even that, muttered the Fencer as he began the trek towards the nearest and lowest rise, setting a course for the most likely means of ascending to the dark dwellings above.
            You will not enjoy what you find there, shouted Eluax after the man, straining his voice and coughing from the effort.  The Fencers demon stirred.  He stopped and turned.  "None of us will."
            This isnt about pleasance, he began.  This is about settling my heart and piercing the veiled secrets surrounding the mad cold of Winter.  Even lies provide value when shown in contrast.
            Then you should know that what I learned at the door to that place became the reason I ceased to speak, said Eluax calmly.  Consider that.
            The Fencer didnt respond but instead continued on towards the distant monastery.  The Trumpeter was quick to follow and, after a moments hesitation and a sorrowful nod, Hue as well, leaving Eluax to ponder the morning light alone.  
            The way grew strange.  Pools of vivid crystal lay scattered about, some the province of frozen waterfalls, others free standing growths of ancient construction reminiscent of flowers.  In this place the waters had transformed into something else.  Where the sun struck these lenses gave off tonal radiation which the group was forced to move through in order to continue.  Magic shapes exalted like the prisms rays, focused and orderly. 
            The way grew complicated with icy flows and rocky defiles and they were often channeled to within range of discoursing Jhem.  Perhaps it was simple foolishness, or the light, or raw curiosity, but the men would often stop to listen.
            The Pales were a vast range when the Order first came into existence, spoke one feminine voice from ages past.  For practice the acolytes were given handkerchiefs and told to wear away at each mountain.  Though this task was impossible in a single lifetime it served to give some context or scale of magnitude to those seeking enlightenment.  Over time all the other mountains of the range were worn away in this fashion and it became necessary to devise a new means to teach such wisdom.  Some argued that a new lesson was more important, matters of scale being thrown into confusion.
            The men continued on.  A cluster of three peaks rose in succession before the mountain opened up into higher and more terrible spires.  Cold winds tore at their sun-warmed garments, the air whistling where it caught around Dhalas jagged edges. 
            At the top of the first peak a wide, shallow pool of rose crystal spilled up in still-life by some hidden property of the material or through the flux in the air.  Half bathed in the frozen, pixilated waters another Jhem meditated.
            When I was a youth I would often sneak off from the stilt-houses of my seaside village to play in the great desert to the north, began the thing's telling.  From there I could see across unhindered kilometers to the great city of Onu, whose gilded domes glimmered as pools of water do under the sun.  But this day I saw no city; it was simply gone.  Instead, I noticed a figure, a hazy mark, moving towards me.  Stunned, I waited and presently a man in a light garment of something like colored glass approached.  He asked for water and I gave him my gourd, from which he drank eagerly.  At last I grew restless and asked about the city.  In response he brought forth a collection of things, as I have no words with which to describe the noetic objects presented, and said it was here.  He was about his work, gathering supplies for some great magic.  I ran and never returned home.  After a time I came at last into the Order.  Against the mysteries of the Art all is mutability.
            The party passed by this story as quickly as the teller claimed to have run from the unknown sorcerer.  Things which showed as dark fragments below presented themselves as ruined wooden structures, broken remnants of ancient construction.  Beyond these bridges stretched from peak to peak, broken up by stairs coursing around the spires and empty drops of blue sky.  More of that same worn away masonry waited in the form of steps and foundations and a bridge leading to the second peak.  Testing it a few times the span seemed sound and on they went.  Behind, a lone figure slowly followed.
            Violence greeted the men at their next stop.  Several Jhem had rested here in their crystalline sarcophagi, but there had been a disruption.  Instead of stories of dubious, if tantalizing, quality the only tale being told here was a mystery.
            Clean fragments of sapphire, quartz and topaz lay where the ancient resting places of the remembering dead had been broken open.  Bone chips mingled with filaments of scented wrappings and tufts of hair.  Dust from men dead the long millennia were caught up by the wind and spread to the west, over miniaturized lands beyond.
            What has occurred here? asked a horrified Hue as he held back his crimson tangles from the gusts. 
            The Fencer didnt respond, too busy considering possibilities and untying his weapon.  The Trumpeter searched about.
            I see marks of heavily armed tomb robbers, said the musician after some short consideration.  They arrived from the southwest, about seven of them.  Id say they are made of metal.
            Hearing this, the Fencer went to look down the indicated slope, the rest following.  There they could see that the way up was easier, not as easy as the bridge, but certainly a far cry from the dangers of the mountains north face.  What they looked on now was the way directly leading to the Phosian side, the way they had initially ascended but then abandoned when they crossed over to the north in search of rarified finds. 
            Crystal notes chimed out from behind the men.  Whirling they saw Eluax, a dark silhouette contrasted by bright day and glittering shards, reverently considering the remains of the Jhem.  Even at the great distance separating the group from the Teller it was clear that sorrow tinged his movements.  Before they could reach him the man set off towards the east where another bridge wound up to the third and highest peak of the trinity.
            Following, it became clear that they had no hope of catching up.  The three carefully ascended the troubled bridge, feeling for loose planks and brittle steps.  It was after noon before they hit the top.
            Again, destruction greeted them.  Whatever careful plans the Golden Order had were lost in this place.  Rare thoughts, lies perhaps, had been reduced to irreparable fragments.  Displayed here was the answer of violence.         The buildings on this higher, narrower peak, had withstood the test of time better than those before and several dark, wooden buildings of curious make waited in little clusters for monks who would never return.  Eluax stood in the middle as if stunned.
            What is your concern if these things are destroyed, prodded the Fencer as he approached.  Hue made to silence him but he ignored the man.  There are more lies here than truth.  If there is any value to the tales the Jhem tell then it is lost to time.  Their stories are ghosts.
            What of it? came the simple response.  Now it was the Fencers turn to be stunned.
            What if everything they said was false? rasped Eluax.  Does that negate the value of the medicinal secrets I brought back from my journeys?  Do the people cured become any less well?  Does that take away the wonder of telling a group of children of mighty deeds and strange days and scaled, winged creatures the size of mountain ranges?  No, it does not.  There is a wisdom to the Jhem and perhaps it has something to do with the ties of memory and truth.  If there is a secret to memory it is that the purpose is not the retention of the absolute but a marking of thought and dream through time, from ear to ear, from mind to mind.
            Then a strange look came over the painted mans face, stopping the Fencers retort.  He lifted and arm and an arrow appeared in his hand, caught in flight, inches away from the Fencer's head.
            Damn it Onst, did you see that!? exclaimed a narrow-faced archer as he nocked another missile.  Five more men, heavily armed and armored, emerged from the shadowed recesses of the ancient buildings to encircle the travelers. 
            Dark blade out and eager the Fencer whirled on their attackers.  Without the confidence of his memories the emotions of battle rang hard in his ears.  Then he saw something which sparked low rage within. 
            On silver armor made to withstand travel, violence and the elements, a certain scheme of design was displayed.  Like sea shells or stranger, deeper entities.  And the men had a certain, confident look, that even in death they would have a purpose, and in this place they had no intention of dying.  What they were doing here the Fencer couldnt say and the Trumpeter could only imagine. 
            Nice and easy Fencer, smiled a broad-faced goon with a wickedly curved blade.  Not here for you, just whats in your friends noggin.  Alive or dead its all the same to Lord Vael.
            There was no hesitation, at least not on the Fencers part.  With the sound of a silver horn blaring he dashed right for the grinning representative of the silver lord.  He took an arrow for his troubles but didnt bother to think on it.  Memory spurred him on, not the otherworldly notions from the Stranger, but that of green hair, and blood and lost time.  A new demon stirred.  A demon of the past.