They didn’t breathe for fear that of attracting the terrible thing at the door. It stood in silhouette against the pale moon radiance, perfectly still within the frame of the cave mouth. It had a man’s shape but lacked the breath or movement of the living. There was a statuesque impression about the form and a smell, a pungent aura of ancient spices, extract of extinct flowers, and rare oils, all unsettlingly familiar.
With the smell, heady though not all together unpleasant, arrived a mind. Like the Jhem they had met on their ascent up the cursed slopes of Haga Ephos a presence fluxed outwards from the thing and cloyingly presented itself to each man’s soul. This time the presence was different. This time there was a hunger to the mind.
A tremor twitched through the entity at the door and the Fencer let out a chilled rattle. It sprung. The huddled men made for their weapons, if they had any, but it was too fast, even as fast as the Fencer who met the thing with his bare hands.
The creature easily broke his grapple and slowly, irresistibly, pulled the living man’s arms away. No matter how hard he strained, no matter how much his inner demon boiled, nothing could stop the monster’s cold strength. In that terrible moment of absolute loss the Fencer took in a breadth of details, as if these would be his last memories. He felt the coarse wrappings wound around bony limbs and regarded the musky scent in detail. Time slowed as the thing brought first one hand, then the other, to the mortal’s neck.
Despite their fear the others came to their companion’s rescue. Together they heaved against the mummy and forced it back. The Trumpeter gnawed at the strangling fingers and Hue drove his knife into its belly over and over again, but it was Eluax who made the difference. With absolute determination and a mad burst of effort by the Fencer they pushed the thing outside and then off the nearby cliff. There was no sound of it hitting the bottom.
It was gone, they hoped. Quiet footsteps softly receded into silence and the dark. There had been others.
“What manner of creature was that?” rattled the Trumpeter trying to shake his fear.
“One of the many horrors which roam the mountain at night,” replied Hue with a whisper, “As I have said many, many times.”
“Will it be back?” queried the Trumpeter. “Will we end up hunted like those lemur-men last night?”
“I wouldn’t begin to determine the caprice of the mysteries of Haga Ephos. It is a great unknown, and be assured that if a Phosian knew they would most certainly relate this fact.”
The other two men were silent. Eluax was wary, perhaps because had just assaulted the company earlier that evening for, as it turns out, good reason. He watched the Fencer with sober understanding.
The swordsman, for his part, was uncharacteristically quiet. His breath showed hot in the faint light coming into the grotto and he kept gripping and regripping a stray stone. Dull noises bothered his reverie and only after a few minutes did he realize the Trumpeter was seeking his attention.
“What do you think Fencer?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t know?” said the Trumpeter incredulously. “What do you mean, ‘don’t know?’ Cut off a bit of your icy reason and give me something to go on here. Trouble lies out there and you’re the one with a bloody enough internal demon to keep the horrors at bay.”
The dark hid the worry in the swordsman’s eyes and the tick in his muscles. “I think Eluax saved us,” he stated finally. “Unable to communicate, he knew he must save us and used the only means available to him.”
“I suppose that’s the glory of communication,” said the Trumpeter wistfully. ‘You don’t need to beat someone senseless to get your point across, though I’m sure you will disagree with that sentiment.”
The Fencer didn’t reply. He had grown tired and melancholic, as he often did when the journey seemed interminable and the quest for the answer to Winter’s Riddle impossible. Only the dark hid the truth; the swordsman of the endless wastes was terrified. Virtue alone kept him from running off into the night.
A night full of shuffling things soon dawned into silence. Little sleep was had by any of the company and together they watched the southern lands bloom from black, to indigo and then green, aquamarine and white as the sun rose in the east. It was a reversal of the phase shift the Trumpeter and the Fencer had seen far back at the Wondering Mountains.
Tracks lay in the light snows outside their shelter when they finally ventured out, the Fencer strangely being last to emerge. Sheaves of white stone reached jagged and spectacular into the morning light. Footprints showed wherever there was snow.
“More of your people up here?” asked the Trumpeter when he had taken full measure of the tracks. He looked at Hue intently with his blue eyes.
“Only the dead if any,” responded the crimson man, thinking this some joke on the Trumpeter’s part. It was, after all, difficult to conceive of the musician being at all serious. “Why do you ask?”
The Trumpeter lunged and caught Hue off guard. Stumbling back the young man fell onto the rocky ground. His assailant lifted up a crimson wrapped foot victoriously. “Because these tracks display a very similar tread.”
“Do you know which direction these tracks lead or from where they came?” asked the Fencer with cautious optimism.
“Both directions, though the ones from below show only ascending activity,” responded the Trumpeter, pointing further up the broken slope, along the western face of the great mountain and into the unknown. Then he changed his mind. “I mean, back down the mountain, where we should be going.”
It was too late. The Fencer began surveying the best route through the ragged cliffs and sheer drops which lead that way. Whomever or whatever descended from that place was either fearless, lucky, or both. The swordsman was intent on following the tracks back to their source. His quiet mood silenced any misgivings either Hue or the Trumpeter considered. Eluax sulked along behind like a good friend full of bad secrets.
To their relief their implements still rested where they had fallen after the ochre man’s attack the day before. Against the high cliff the white blaze of alchemical fire still burned, the two Jhem still waiting in their frozen tombs. The travelers were quick to retrieve their gear, though the Fencer tarried, checking the ground for signs of the Jhem which they had tumbled off the cliff the night before. Satisfied by his findings they set out towards the unknown heights of the mountain.
Morning was spent on the exhausting task of scaling the nightmare landscape. Whenever they found a break from the precariously loose and jagged rocks they were rewarded with nearly sheer cliffs plunging down onto the lower reaches. Muscles twitched with fear at each new handhold and foot placement. Only the Trumpeter found the task easy. Then the north face revealed itself.
While the way behind had been troubling, even dangerous, the prospect before the men was suicide. From a jutting prominence of wind worn rock they beheld a nearly smooth surface claiming most of the upper half of the mountain’s northern face. This facade turned to spires and peaks above. The surface glimmered with a nearly transparent sheen of ice untouched by sun or time. Here and there numerous small niches opened into darkness. These were no natural formation.
“Do you see that?” asked the unfazed Fencer after scrutinizing the high peaks for some minutes. The others followed his gaze. “There, that black structure near the top.”
Indeed, there was a dark building nestled against the highest peak. Coming from the south they couldn’t see it until now. As they contemplated this strange new find other structures, smaller, speckled with snow, could be made out leading up to the great building.
“All very nice Fencer but what is the plan? We cannot continue on and backtracking would lose the rest of the day,” said the Trumpeter bitterly.
The Fencer bristled, opened his mouth to respond, but then reconsidered. A sad, thoughtful air took him and instead he lead by example by working his way to the closest edge of the perilous north face.
“We lost the tracks hours ago!” declared the Trumpeter angrily, but he sighed with the same breath and followed after. Hue gave serious thought to returning down the mountain, things were now beyond him, but the prospect of making the trip alone was enough to spur him on. Eluax watched the icy face for a few seconds more before following.
The way proved as terrible as could be imagined. The broken rocky cliffs to which they had grown accustomed came to an abrupt end and the smooth northward face spread out unwelcomingly. Yet, there were some hand holds and other evidence that others had made the climb in the distant past. Here a worn indent just big enough for a toe hold. There a protrusion of rounded stone just large enough to provide grip to lever oneself along. The north wind, though warmer than the one the outsiders knew, tore at them with a childlike glee. Hue kept his eyes shut and felt towards his doom one step and hand reach at a time.
The Fencer pressed forward, scouting the way, almost slipping to his death on several occasions, the lowlands far below yawning up to finalize his search for Winter’s Riddle. Each time he managed to grab a hold of a lucky bit of ice or rock.
They neared one of the dark recesses. Growing impatient he moved with increasing speed as he labored up a narrow fissure. The Fencer made to swing himself forward to the cave mouth but became tangled in the complicated placement of his hands and feet in the icy groove. Down he fell.
As the Trumpeter shouted after the Fencer scrambled his weapon free and drove it deep into the side of the mountain. A great plume of shredded ice and rock responded to Dhala’s touch. Cursing the weapon’s sharpness the he struggled to slow his descent, twisting the weapon slightly to slow himself. At the slightest turn of the blade the weapon wrenched about in his hands with the force of his weight plummeting. The sword, the tumbling ice and the man from the village of the narwhal hunters became a hurtling comet.
Above, Hue restrained the mad Trumpeter from following after his friend. “He’s lost!” shouted the scarlet man in the musician’s ear as the figure, all greys and worn leathers, white snow shot with indigo nightmare, disappeared from sight.
The Fencer crashed down onto the barely perceptible ledge of a lower opening in the sheer rock and ice. By chance the manipulation of the blade on the descent had subtly curved his passage, otherwise he would’ve fallen to his death on the rocks below. Pain wracked his whole body and in a way he wished hadn’t survived.
The room he now lay in, illuminated by the weak light of early afternoon, was unnatural, worn by hands lost since before the cold came if any story was to be trusted. It was of a rounded, triangular indent, point upward, barely high enough to stand in and only a few meters deep. A presence descended upon his mind even as he took stock of the situation, eyes adjusting to the interior gloom.
“The solution had been known to the Order for many long centuries and was used to preserve those of proper enlightenment,” began a pleasant, almost musical voice. “The process begins with the removal of certain organs in which the heavy akr rests, such as the liver, kidneys and intestines. Removing these sources of time’s want is imperative. The lungs are then stuffed with lemoth blossoms and a solution of merat, belumin, and charasadran is injected into the veins in order to pickle the heart by action of the living body’s natural akr flow. Though painful, merat poisoning is the optimal way for one of the Order to perish in their attempt to join the blessed Jhem.”
The Fencer pushed his mind against the liar voice in his head. Looking about he saw a bundled black form leaning in one corner of the niche. It looked to be a dead thing, long secluded here and edged with ancient snows flurried in by the mountain wind. He wasn’t taking any chances and looked about for his weapon.
“Special care must be taken with the brain,” continued the corpse in the corner. “Should there be any breaking of the skull or emission of blood from the head, then the spirit will have progressed in its proper fashion and returned to the Lattice. So it is with careful application of a frictionless dust distilled from the essential salts of the dream lotus, usually through a channel broken through the sinuses, that the knowing parts of the brother or sister might be preserved for our purposes.”
At the stone lip the crystalline sword showed stark against the pale sky. It leaned out over the edge and slowly tilted by virtue of its sharpness. The Fencer leapt and just barely caught the blade as it at last pitched away.
“I’m not losing you too,” he hissed as the evil weapon cut into his hand, freezing what blood flowed out as crimson ice. He turned to do violence. Without knowing what danger approached the Jhem continued its telling.
“With these steps taken the body is then washed clean, any ruptures or breakages mended, and then prepared for embalming. This process requires being soaked in oil of klee, dried, and followed by an application of xaith leaves spackled over the whole form. At last our peer is wrapped in the fashion customary to our Order with linen treated with the black pigment of reutha. When the snows come our fellows will be ready to serve out the centuries in their appointed task.”
The Fencer advanced on the figure in the dark, his old demon possessing him as never before now that it had less competition. The smell of the thing was potent and strange, the cold air heavy with lost blossoms and ancient medicines, perhaps even the ones just described. The swordsman had no faith in the truth behind anything these creatures might say. When fully adjusted to the dark his eyes stayed his hand.
The creature before him, bundled arms and legs holding close to the stick figure frame, was reminiscent of a withered old man or desiccated corpse left upon the forlorn ice. It was difficult to make out where the wrappings ended and the flesh began, so thoroughly had the ages and frostbite blackened the whole into singular jet. From the form the complex occult smell which had presented itself from time to time on the climb exuded powerfully.
All these things didn’t cool his rage. No, that was a function of certain correlations. There was something about the tatters, the chipped and ancient teeth showing by impression through the ancient gauze around the head, and the wrappings themselves in familiar composition. The Trumpeter was right. He had seen this same style of dress before, far down at the base of the mountain. Though the exact fashion was slightly different it was certain that the series of ties and cords which Hue wore, the native dress of the Phosians, was directly inspired by these ancient things. Or, perhaps, the truth was the other way around.
The complexity of memory and recitation presented itself like a sudden bluster of wind.
The Fencer sat down with a sigh while his friends scrambled above, thinking their companion dead, their journey’s heart lost. The man of the nightmare blade had other troubles on his mind. An intractable loss presented itself, which he had hoped to regain by following the thief back to its lair. But the mountain seemed invulnerable to his will, hiding its secrets, providing sanctuary for these strange frozen corpses while assaulting the living at every turn.
Dhala took up the light streaming into the room and cast it out as fragments of indigo and midnight. The Fencer worried that he could no longer control the thing. While the blade was still sharp the wielder had lost an edge he had at first worn uncomfortably then grew accustomed to. Last night, when the shadow stood framed in moonlight, a hungry mind came searching for prey, and in the Fencer’s bloody skull found a perfect morsel; the lost memories of the Stranger which the swordsman had ingested those many months ago.
The sword spoke with power and terror to the lone man in the dark, begging the answer to the old question; what is it but the hand that wields it? The Fencer just wanted to know where his mind had gone.