“When the young abbot came to us with his plan there was talk of schism, dissent and resistance.” The voice from within the cave spoke wordlessly and cold as three directionless men scrambled into the niche, a tiny placed hand-carved from the side of the mountain.
They had lost their direction only moments ago. It tumbled down from the sheer ice face of Haga Ephos, and down was a direction in which they would rather not follow. Now they rested, uncomfortably curled up inside the stone alcove's restrictive confines. Within the shadows a black corpse huddled inside its prison of frozen snow. From this thing thoughts flowed like the heady spice exuding from its form.
“Seeing troubles within the Order the abbot challenged any who took issue with his edict,” continued the mental voice. “For being such a youth none of the experienced brothers understood how he defeated them so rapidly, so readily, as if he had a thousand years practice with the Way. He was always victorious and merciful. As the climate cooled it became clear that his wisdom was without peer.”
“I’m sure of that, so very sure,” spat the Trumpeter angrily, his long ceremonial scarf dangling out the niche, at play with the winds. The mummified Jhem continued.
“The abbot let it be known that there was nothing we could do to stop or slow the encroachment of eternal winter. A fundamental imbalance to the forces of nature had occurred, corrupting the cycle of the seasons through the wheel of the year. For all our understanding and wisdom, armed with no end of discipline and mysticism, we were powerless to fend off the icebound future.”
“He talks of Winter as if it was a time and not a place,” sighed the tall man, angry at something else.
The three travelers, Eluax, Hue and the Trumpeter, let their eyes wander in the semi-dark. While the tale spun by the ancient dead was curious, full of veiled allusions to the world’s current state, the voice was not to be trusted. So easily had their hearts followed the presence of these storytellers, but in the end all the voices produced was empty air; they knew that at least some, if not all of the Jhem, were liars. What they needed was a blade to cut through the lies, but that weapon had fallen.
It would’ve set their minds at ease to know that the short-tempered swordsman from the southern polar reaches was alive some hundreds of meters below. Alive but not well. A certain memory had been taken from him and he struggled with the loss in a similar niche, similarly occupied.
The Jhem in the corner stared at the Fencer with empty sockets and the Fencer in turn look out over the expanse north of Haga Ephos. The lands beyond were further from his lost home than any place before, the topography wrinkled with streams pouring down from the magic mountain’s glaciers and frequent snows. In the distance the ground grew increasingly white, showing that the Riddle of Winter held true there as well. The sky filmed over grey, a skin of featureless clouds intersecting the peaks not too far up.
Grey was the color of his heart. Grey thoughts dominated where the Fencer’s usual reason held sway. At first, after eating the magic butterfly and gaining the swordmaster memories locked within, he had felt cursed, as fit his superstitious upbringing. With time, and the education of travel, these memories became his through the twin alchemies of utility and need. Even his name was tied up in the concept of his unnatural swordsmanship, paired with his very unnatural sword. Now that he was bereft of these memories he felt hollow, false, like a one the Jhem's lies.
Grey sky turned to slate, to ash, as evening’s troubles approached. The things would be out soon as the last glimmers of daylight left their waterfall tombs and rocky bowers. The Fencer wondered whether he would lose his mind first or his life, and was undecided about which was less desirable.
The men above were in an equal melancholy. While Eluax had at first been frantic at the prospect of the coming dark he now sat in calm serenity, meditating on subjects of which his addled tongue could never tell. Hue had spent the afternoon thinking up ways they could gamble for their lives, though the other two stayed aloof of these plans. The Trumpter simply polished his instrument. His madness was of a simple sort and he figured that no plan would last a moment against the hard edge of reality. It was best to simply react to developments as they happened. The air within their little cave became increasingly tense.
Then there was darkness. Hue’s face became a sudden mask of absolute terror and the other men in the alcove felt the cause; a brushing touch of hungry intelligence delving past the point of acceptable proximity. A soft rustling accompanied this feeling from the rear of their little vestibule. Eluax and the Trumpeter turned to see the fourth thing in the room.
It didn't move as living men do as it unfolded itself out of the black interior with the grace of a curtain in a soft breeze. This tall thing of ancient ribbons picked up the similarly dressed crimson man, who was cataleptic with terror, and began choking the life out of him. Fighting past their fears the remaining men jumped at the assailant.
The Jhem flowed like water around the attackers. Against the Trumpeter’s swinging trumpet he was empty air, the instrument clanging off the low ceiling. It then shoved the still quavering Hue into the musician, sending both men to the lip of the niche, the Trumpeter half tumbling out. Only his well practiced mountaineer reflexes grasped a rock in time to prevent him joining the Fencer in death below.
Eluax fared slightly better. After using the Trumpeter as a distraction the strong-armed Teller grappled with the ancient creature. Knotted muscle met descicated bone and wrappings in a careful series of joint locks, motion traps, and limb twists. This was no mean barroom brawl but a careful art which both parties practiced equally well in the same style. The undead thing had the advantage of being dead.
Painted Eluax managed to pull clear one wrapped arm and hammer down on the bone with a free elbow. A terrific snap came from the breaking limb and the smell of incense and potent oils grew stronger. Ignoring the wound the Jhem’s mangled arm knotted into a claw and struck out, opening a gash along the Teller’s chest. Stunned, the man was unable to dodge the open palm strike which followed and sent him into the far wall with a wet smacking sound.
Hearing the combat mostly, seeing only fragments as he fought himself over the lip of the alcove, the Trumpeter at last managed to climb to safety only to find himself facing the tattered thing in the near dark.
Terrible and empty thoughts invaded, searching, finding, grasping at a certain memory. The invasion was terrible, crippling, the potential loss devastating; the grand secret of the mountain people was being wrenched from him. This occurred the moment the mummy grasped him and began crushing the life from his body with a strength which could shatter stone.
Then he was free, tossed aside as some fifth party knocked the Jhem into a corner. The room was thick with bodies now, each step taken brushing up against a collapsed form or stumbling over a dazed man. His mind clearing, the Trumpeter made out glimmers of indigo and violet in the weak moonlight.
The Fencer pressed his advantage and lunged at the Jhem. The thing was impaled on Dhala’s edge which cut into the very stone. The ice mummy showed no signs of discomfort. A backhand strike sent the Fencer tumbling out of the niche, catching himself at the last second he swung halfway out and over the edge. The monster advanced as the swordsman desperately fought back to the ledge. With a single motion he muscled his way back, Dhala glittering through the dark at the same time. The Jhem's flesh was no match for the blade which cut both arms clean off.
It looked at its destroyed appendages. In the pale light the Fencer saw past the bandages to the empty sockets regarding its stumps. For a moment he thought he beheld a look of intelligence on the weathered face, but then a clang sounded and the thing went toppling down into the boundless night below.
“A perfectly timed distraction,” commented the Trumpeter happily as he began cleaning the mummy dust from his instrument.
The look of terror on the Fencer’s face was almost as terrible as that on Hue’s, who gaped in shock near the entrance. Gone was any hope that this particular creature held his lost memories, or at least those he had kept until recently. At last he had been resolved to be just the Outcast again, but the promise that somehow the devoured past could be returned had brought bright hope into his mind. This served as a grim lesson.
“I’ve not been quite the same since last night,” explained the Fencer sadly. “The Stranger’s memories, they’re gone.”
“I know,” responded the Trumpeter with startling clarity. “That thing tried a similar trick with me. I must say, you handled the effect better than the rest of us.”
The Fencer had no immediate response and they turned their attentions to their wounded companions. Eluax the Teller had a nasty concuscion from the hard stone wall. He was awake, but dazed. Languid words tumbled from his mouth, some almost familiar to the southerners despite the unique language the painted man usually espoused. Hue, however, had a more visceral hurt.
“So many colors,” he mumbled as they tried to get his attention. The young man’s crimson eyes eventually registered present company. “Is it dead?”
“That would presume it was alive,” responded the Fencer. “How do you feel?”
“My throat hurts terribly and my mind is a haze, but as a sum things could be worse.”
“Have you forgotten anything?” asked the swordsman intently.
Hue glanced about, taking stock of his surroundings, building a context for his predicament and extrapolating the past from this tethered moment. The Fencer grew impatient.
“A funny thing to ask,” smirked Hue. “How does one realize they have forgotten something without proper context? Sometimes you walk into a room and realize that whatever task brought you has escaped the brain, or at a time of great import it becomes clear that you failed to perform some action previously. A siginificant moment is required for contrast.”
“I’m sure it will come at a hugely inconvenient time for all of us,” grumbled the Trumpeter as he bandaged Eluax’s head. The Teller slouched in a painful half-swoon.
For a while they pondered their situation in dark silence, listening always for the telling rustle of more Jhem come to devour their minds. The night grew cold and the Trumpeter often complained of the heady incense reek which the mummified ascetics left behind. After some hours the Fencer had enough.
“I have no good ideas,” he declared. “And it has taken me hours to determine that. We can either return to the troubled base of the mountain empty handed or we can continue to plumb the lies of the mountain for no other profit than to hear these creatures speak thoughts most likely stolen from previous travelers.”
“But there is some truth to what they say,” interjected Hue. “I’m not saying you’re absolutely wrong, but it is certain that some of the Jhem hold ancient secrets and wisdom. It is also most likely true that some espouse lies or things taken from Tellers past and now speak without context. Think of the chain of information; snippets of groundless data endlessly copied from traveler to Jhem, from Jhem to Teller, and so on. Memory is imperfect so why should the regurgitation of memory behave in a different manner?”
The psychic annoyance of these possibilites only worsened the Fencer's mood. Even if he could regain his stolen memories they might lose some visceral quality in the translation. At last this anger made him search out the opening to the pale night beyond.
“Trumpeter, could you perform a little night music for us?” he asked.
“Certainly!” replied the musician with such gusto that he forgot his care of the concussed and swept forward with trumpet brandished.
“Right about there,” gestured the Fencer upwards and out of the alcove, to a crack along the icy surface of Haga Ephos’s sheer northern face. “And give it a rising sound with all your might.”
“Wait a minute,” said Hue. “If he blows that noisemaker then every Jhem on the mountain will know where we are. We should just wait for morning.”
The Fencer braced for an argument but it proved unnecessary against the Trumpeter’s lust for performance. The note shot out, piercing strange and resonant. Their souls echoed and the mountain shuddered in response. A terrible breaking encored; a massive fissure opening up through ice and white stone.
“Now we have to move,” grinned the Fencer and they did.
Though it was tough going this was nothing compared to the icy terror of the initial ascent. They made good time up the riven stone despite having to help the wounded and addled, which accounted for the whole party at this point. Halfway up Hue’s worries proved true.
A lean black ribbon of a man moving with unreal grace dropped from above. The Fencer met this Jhem with all his will and the vicious edge of his sword. The mummy caught the first overhead swing between its palms in the same manner as Eluax. With brute strength the swordsman used the weapon catch to pivot the Jhem over the side of the mountain. Ancient fingers slipped from the blade and the tattered creature tumbled down out of sight.
More of the things came with time, the tickle of their hungry minds heralding. The Fencer struggled with some, the Trumpeter blasted others into dust and bones with his silver notes. They wearied after a dozen, and still more came, some perhaps dropped time and again. In each quick and brutal melee the thought eaters could barely manage to taste their victim’s minds before being dispatched or knocked out of range. But their living flesh wearied of combat and it seemed that even the memory of being hunted would be taken.
Then the cloying minds stopped their chatter. A tall, snake-like figure battling the Fencer froze and was cut down by Dhala’s nightmare edge. Looking about for more enemies the swordsman found the ice eerily quiet; the Jhem had gone, and in the east the faintest tinge of blue pondered the dawn.
Tall spires grew gold speckled with prismatic embers. In their mad climb they had almost crested the vast northern face of Haga Ephos and were in striking distance of the spindly peaks above, where curious structures loomed, hidden from the south.
Closer now than when they spied the things from below it was clear this was a pagoda of some kind, no, a complex of linked and terraced temples. In light of morning’s deliverance the four men rested and pondered this new landmark. Curiosity of possible enlightenment was metered by troubled thoughts of more fictions obscured by mystery and magic.