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 can’t 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 can’t recall why it is that I always follow you on your mad whims. Climbing these cliffs at night? I must’ve lost my good sense to the things too! We could’ve 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 who’s to say that we would’ve been any safer stuck in that pit? Barely room enough for us all to sleep, let alone combat any further disturbances. I’m 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 Fencer’s recommendation they didn’t 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 weren’t 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 could’ve 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 Fencer’s 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. “We’ve 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 wouldn’t be so quick to disregard what the master teller has to say about matters of Haga Ephos,” recommended Hue.
“He’s a liar, like a storyteller, since that’s 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 Fencer’s demon stirred. He stopped and turned. "None of us will."
“This isn’t 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 didn’t respond but instead continued on towards the distant monastery. The Trumpeter was quick to follow and, after a moment’s 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 prism’s 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 Dhala’s 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 didn’t 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. I’d 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 mountain’s 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 Fencer’s 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 man’s face, stopping the Fencer’s 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 couldn’t 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 what’s in your friend’s noggin. Alive or dead it’s all the same to Lord Vael.”
There was no hesitation, at least not on the Fencer’s 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 didn’t 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.