The Fencer remembered only dreamless sleep and wondered if that was what it was like to be dead. Vaguely he recalled watching the Jhem turn to dust and his bitter debate with the Stranger. No, not the Stranger: the D’gpha. Rebirth or awakening, he fuzzed between the two notions, had left him calm, serene, infected perhaps by the ancient monk’s balmy spirit. Anger was slow to arrive, lethargic, like everything else.
Pale blue was the color of the world, a bright change from the grey past. Dim clouds and filthy ice, slate and stone, this was the matter of Winter, all so cold. Even memories of the world before were frozen, latticed, corrupted by the endless chill of the immortal minds holding such information. The promise of the mountain held a paradox court in the Fencer’s mind.
“What’s that in your side?” asked Hue who crouched down to get a better look at the wound in the Fencer’s side. The swordsman had been absentmindedly fiddling with the golden lotus blossom tucked into his gut.
“Witchcraft,” hissed the Trumpeter.
“Perhaps,” said the Fencer with more consideration than was normal before plucking at the flower. As he pulled a great pain welled up, his whole being threatening to flow out. He stopped.
“You went all blue and deathly for a second there,” said Hue with concern. “That’s a flower, right? But what kind and where from, and how did it get inside you?”
The Trumpeter became furious, “Witchcraft! You Phosians always dodge the easy answers. It’s Witchcraft!”
“I don’t think I should do that again,” said the Fencer, regarding his navel. He felt like he should be angry at this invasion of his personal self, but somehow couldn’t. Perhaps it was gratitude for having his life saved. No, he thought again, it couldn’t be that. This calm was due to the D’gpha’s Art. Perhaps the aesthetic had cured more than just a physical wound.
“What should we do?” demanded the Trumpeter. “Eluax is missing; we are at the top of a cursed mountain surrounded by memory-eating undead, all for some notion which you can’t even put into words. If the Answer to Winter’s Riddle is here I doubt we could even make sense of it.”
“What you say is true,” said the Fencer with a smile. “I guess you are the reasonable one now.”
This sent the Trumpeter into an incomprehensible sputter.
“What are we going to do?” pressed Hue. He was worried, not the death-fear in which the Trumpeter indulged. He didn’t want the whole journey to be a waste, a loss. The youth’s red eyes searched for hope, those all too familiar eyes. It wasn’t the color though, the color was all wrong.
Now he understood the benefit to the D’gpha’s ministrations; clarity. Though he liked to boast of his reasoned ways the Fencer was often blinded by his passions. These were warming fires against the cold of Winter and yet they obscured so much. The question of why he chose to head north, to brave Haga Ephos, and to break through the barriers to the D’gpha’s chamber, weighed on him during those few respites from brigands, savages, and the terrors of the mountain. His heart made everything so complicated.
In this moment he regarded Dhala. The crystal’s facets, striations, and colors echoed this clarity, coldly. Yet it was opaque, with glimmers of indigo, obsidian and sapphire; whorls like interlocking fans; crimson eyes staring out, watching, testing this and all possible realities. Now he saw the past unfold from the heights of the mountain, detailed from the moment he felled the irtosk bird, through the battle with the snow golem, the encounter with the silver cube, to the empty headed Phosians, and the ice mummies of Haga Ephos. This was a test of information, knowledge, and its transmission. His thoughts ended with the D’gpha’s balmy non-smile, and yet found no rest. Like the lotus, realization unfolded in his mind, just as a dark shape uncurled from the shadows.
In their thoughtful silence a ragged Jhem managed approach unnoticed. Surprised, the Trumpeter backed away, as did Hue, while the Fencer met the thing with his eager weapon. His movements were sluggish, some lingering effect of his cure. It, however, had no such weakness.
Expertly holding Dhala in one hand he made a few testing strikes but caught only air. On the last strike billowing ancient locked its bony fingers onto his weapon hand and squeezed. Crushing pain welled up distantly. In that space he felt its mind engage his through the medium of contact. There was also a third presence, a sort of conductive lens absent from previous encounters. Thoughtlessly the lotus unfolded and the Jhem froze, crumpled and fell. Dust rose up, as did memories in his mind, quick things vanishing before he could even realize them.
“That was easy enough,” smiled the Trumpeter at the Fencer who stood pondering the mechanics of what just occurred while rubbing the pain from his hand.
“I need to see the Jhem,” the swordsman said, eager to push past his calm self.
“Which one?” asked the musician.
“All of them.”
“Why would you ever want to do that?” The Trumpeter shifted uncomfortably. His friend was hatching a scheme. “Oh right, madness and all that.”
“I think we should find Eluax,” said Hue.
“Fine, I would rather not gamble anyone else’s life.” The Fencer hung his weapon at his side and took a drink of water from a flask. “Though you might wish to meet me atop the monastery if you are at all curious about the Answer.”
He left before they could respond. Only Hue took the bait and stood wondering what he meant. The Trumpeter knew not to ask. The Fencer was being dramatic and that meant violence was sure to follow. Not much time left to find a hiding place, the musician thought. Instantly he felt guilty and the feeling proved unshakeable.
"We should be going," he said to Hue and together they crept down the strange passages of the monastery.
Rooms like memories opened up before the Fencer. He had come this way once but a film of pain lay over the experience. Pain is much like the Riddle, he thought, obscuring and occluding, and in particular creating a world of blind cold and savage determinism. A twinge of anger resounded.
Increasingly wondrous spaces revealed themselves, white-bound meditation chambers, galleries where every painted portion of wall could be slid open on unknown reaches where silence and death waited amidst stone gardens and delicate paper puzzles. Reflecting the D’gpha's presence these rooms expressed certain absolutes of the mind. Proper thoughts, explained his mind with its transplanted knowledge. Pushing on through such mysteries the Fencer followed the bloody trail he had left on his first passage, now smeared by the footsteps of the dead.
The Jhem of Haga Ephos were nowhere to be seen and the swordsman smiled grimly. Ever present when unwanted, they vanished just in time for his plan, his blind gambit. This seemed purposeful, like all bad turns. If only I could have such purpose for being here, he thought, hearkening back to the caprice which had brought the Trumpeter and himself to the equator. In part it was the allure of secrets, to see if the unknown land hid the truth of Winter's Riddle. All he had found was chaos and lies. Such was the nature of information; it came in all sorts. Again he focused on a true image to keep himself going; hard packed snow, ancient, blue, like that of a glacier became a totem of the mind.
Cold thoughts infused him as he entered the octagonal room where the great chime hung. The ceiling was cut out to allow its height full range from floor to floor. It must be almost fifty feet tall, he thought, made to resound through the complex. A Jhem stood at the base of the thing, one spare, black-wrapped arm placed on the sounding bar. It waited and made no response when the Fencer entered. Strange, he didn't remember coming this way before.
Here was a chance to test his clarity and even summon the creatures. The roof seemed a more natural place to bring the whole of the mountain to the riddling D’gpha but opportunity presented itself. Moving quietly, he descended towards another gamble.
There was no response from the thing. Unlike most of the wrapped ancients this one stood as still as conspiracy, awaiting some command. Maybe it would tell him its secrets.
He focused again on icy Dhala. All his will bent towards the great experiment. So prepared there was hope that he would be more successful this time. The strike cleaved through the Jhem's skull and the body toppled in a clatter of hollow bones. Pure sensation washed in as a wave of heady incense and spilt dreams. Notions came and went, flickered, fluttered. He leaned into it, demanding, snapping his mind shut like a trap but it all flowed away. He had failed. Faint doubts of purpose came with the few thoughts gained, a bit of anger kindling.
Tall and coarsely forged the great chime waited to be rung. The Fencer reached up to work the striker but the ancient apparatus tumbled apart at the lightest touch. Jumping back from the sudden falling metal he calmed when he saw that the great chime itself remained hanging. With no proper implement he took the flat of his blade to the thing.
A shallow noise issued out, only the barest of sounds, like dropping a stone into an empty, metal cistern a hundred feet deep. The gloomy realization that he had no way of sounding the thing arrived with the noise.
Continuing upwards, he found no more Jhem. Winter was against him. He had fought off its violence and now was being treated to its neglect. Worse, his actions were null; the chime had taught as much. Perhaps this was the wisdom of the mountain and its blue-haired master.
Second floor silence rose to a third floor fugue. On his fourth visit to the grand gallery the Fencer realized something was amiss. He was going in circles. The stairs were close, he remembered, but only when he focused all his effort on the task. A quiet mind dominated. The D’gpha's presence lay all around. Perhaps that was why so few Jhem were about and those which were stood locked in place. This was a terminal peace.
Bending all his will against the subduing force he couldn't spare any energy in moving towards the stairs. He wondered about the lotus in his belly. Could it be somehow the source of the curse? Or some focus by which the D’gpha's energies concentrated on his person? He felt disciplined since his salvation. Hefting the weight of his sword he wondered whether this could be put to good use.
Dhala's cold lessened the sensation, as the more immediate presence of the weapon jealously pushed aside this outside force. A sickness then, realizing the terrible weapon's proximity, yet this compromise was enough to clear the Fencer's mind. He went for the stairs and made it to the top.
Now he recognized the shape of the crystalline garden. The boxed shapes were that of the lotus, blossoms closed. A light pervaded. It flowed from everything and went nowhere. Back in his glassine cradle the D’gpha contemplated nothing.
Hue and the Trumpeter were just now on the ground floor. The place was thick with Jhem, great statue gardens of them, still ancients in tangled parties. Only with great patience and effort did they make it this far without being hunted. Now the Trumpeter hesitated.
"What's wrong?" asked Hue. He was growing tired of being the foil for the pair's strangeness. These outlanders were fascinating, but also frustrating.
The Trumpeter listed, eaten with indecision. "Go on ahead; I have the urge to perform," he said at last, to Hue's amazement. "I mean, I'll destroy them utterly, by the hundreds. I've just been playing an elaborate game up to this point and have grown weary of the sport. Now leave me to it and find Eluax."
Mind overrun, the crimson man watched the tangled Trumpeter exit the monastery with a flourish of pompous grandeur. For a second he thought that perhaps he should follow. After all, the Trumpeter didn't seem capable of taking care of himself. This situation felt different, however. Strange possibilities clung to the air.
Hue continued down, into the smooth tunnels within the mountain. He hoped he would find Eluax quickly. Such was his fear of the Jhem that the last flicker of concern for the mad musician faded; the fellow had made it all this way after all.
Needle bright stars peered down from a sky pierced by the lingering spires of Haga Ephos. If only I had time to consider these, thought the Trumpeter. His audience was restless. Moonlight showed mostly rock and undisturbed snow but he knew the shadows were teaming with the dead. Something animate stood in the doorway of the far off bath house. Clearing his throat, whetting his lips, the Trumpeter began to play.
This was no blast of inchoate noise, his usual performance for outsiders. He was the last of the people of the Wondering Mountains, the last to hold the trumpet and know the score.
This time he played an inspired work, not the true secret, but a piece which held glimmers of that hidden song. Tones like tempered diamond rang out over the spires, reached up to the stars and soared over the low country below. They heard his playing in Phos where they villagers looked up from weapons and plots long enough ponder what they had lost. It reached the far village of the superstitionists who cowered in their safety and stopped up their ears. And soon the shuffling audience he was playing for arrived.
Looking up at the façade of the monastery, with its jutting beams and cubic arrays, the Trumpeter cursed himself; in his eagerness he had started too soon.
"I'm not here to thank you," stated the Fencer to the D’gpha in his crystalline garden.
There was no immediate response so he stepped out amongst the strange foliage and jagged beauty. He looked for something which might not be there. If he couldn’t find it he would have to create it.
"What is this thing in my gut?" he demanded of the black robed figure. The monk's eyes were closed but he was certain the man wasn't sleeping.
When he didn’t respond the Fencer dove at the man, black weapon gleaming. Crimson eyes opened and with a simple motion the D'gpha slapped the weapon aside. The Fencer went crashing into a delicate crystalline lotus. Even in destruction the petals chimed beautifully.
"A salvation of as many facets as petals," explained the D’gpha evenly. "You reward my kindness with violence."
"I'm not sure of your 'kindness.'" Then, shifting topics in an effort unsettle his balmy host, the Fencer asked, “What is the purpose of the Jhem?”
"They have none now," explained the monk, "much like your evil weapon they are artifacts."
"This evil keeps me free of your infectious curses," smiled the Fencer as he emerged from the broken crystal.
"I'm not sure of your 'freedom.'"
"You just don’t want to remember."
The D’gpha smiled. A distant note played. Then another and another. Music, metallic and ethereal, resounded. The Fencer recognized the artist.
"If memory is a constraint then why leave hundreds of remembering things on the slopes of this mountain?"
"It is merciful to enlighten others."
"You fear clarity in yourself even as you gift it to others?"
The D’gpha didn't respond. He only sat there, deep red eyes weighing his opponent's soul.
More notes sounded, higher now, drifting up the monastery’s side.
"I mention this because of what I have learned on the mountain. The memories being told, the knowledge imparted, may be often tainted, corrupted, changed, out of context, but still may serve a purpose. The communities beyond your realm have benefited from the Jhem, despite their hunger. Winter destroys its inhabitants for a lack of knowledge. In understanding the Jhem I think I understand you. This was never about Winter, the coming of the cold or the Golden Order. Enlightenment is a lie, a big empty place in which you wish to hide. This is about how wisdom and memory is passed along."
The D’gpha stared in silence for some time before responding. "If you know all this for certain then why bother speaking to me about it?"
"I don't need you," smiled the Fencer, "I need your roof."
The swordsman then went to a corner of the great hall, smashing the delicate lotus in his way. He could feel the burning eyes of the D’gpha on his back. If the man wished he could stop the Fencer. He only hoped that the ascetic's pacifism would hold long enough for him to try his gamble. The trumpet's notes stopped above.
At the corner of the room a few sweeps of Dhala's crystalline edge opened up the roof to the sky, cloudless and cold. In this thin atmosphere they were very close to the blade's namesake, the absolute chill which lay between the stars. There was little time for contemplation as the Fencer climbed up the wreckage and out under the stars.
He was thankful for the lack of ice and the easy slope to the tiles. Outside the night lived brightly. Strange radiations flowed from the D’gpha, making everything luminous and dreamlike. At the far side a tall figure stood.
This was no Jhem, as the Fencer first thought, but the tangle-scarf Trumpeter. As the swordsman approached the musician raised his sterling instrument to his lips and played a few more notes. A strange call indeed.
"You're supposed to be down below with Hue," admonished the Fencer with a smile.
"Thought you could use some accompaniment," responded the Trumpeter dryly. "And an audience."
"What exactly do you…" began the swordsman but stopped as soon as he got near the edge. Down below, the face of the monastery was alive with the climbing form of many Jhem. Their silence was eager and quick. Even now some neared the top. Bright moonlight revealed a horde of dead faces beneath black wrappings.
"You lunatic!" exclaimed the Fencer. "Only one! I was going to try on only one!"
But there were more. And more. The Fencer's grand experiment had now become a last stand.