Resembling crystalline structures or the narrow web of a pale blue snow spider time catches things in an arrangement both beautiful and strange. Its mode is incomprehensible, in a way which hooks the mind and narrows the vision. Looking back the latticed past seems so clear.
For all this clarity the Fencer couldn’t figure out why he was standing at the top of a twisting stairway waiting for the mummified dead to arrive. He hoped it would make sense in the future, or that some illumination would arrive and cast light on past incidents to show why he had chosen to climb the ancient mountain. Perhaps revelation would come once he reached the pinnacle, or maybe there was no reason to anything. Strange reasoning had propelled him this far. Also, he was dying.
Below, the elements lived; he could put it no other way. Crackling, grumbling, gusting, sloshing things, animate or at least motive, they could be heard moving about. These had been loosed when he broke the ancient seals leading to the D'gpha’s crystalline garden. The Fencer thought to ask the long slumbering ascetic next to him what they were but hesitated, realizing how pointless this would be. Much like the mountain on which he considered the many infinities, the D'gpha, the most revered monk of the Golden Order, kept to his secrets. Maybe this was simply part of the ruse; a semblance of unassailable discipline designed to dissuade any unwanted prying. The Fencer didn’t have long to consider this as something made its inhuman way up the stairs.
Part of him wanted it to be the Trumpeter, his erratic companion, or crimson Hue or even teller Eluax, who had been driven mad by the secrets revealed to him by the Jhem. Less reasonably he imagined dead companions scaling up the steps. Little seemed out of place amongst the swarming magics here and it would do him good to see Clea or Aglyss or even Uiha once again. A familiar face would diffuse his ever growing inner conflict, the piling up of ideas and thoughts and elements which threatened to suffocate him under sheer metaphysical weight. Even Omya would do, which showed how desperate he was.
Just as he thought to check his bleeding the ancient beside him spoke, “Now let us see the trouble which follows you."
A glow preceded the thing, and a whisper. The high mountain cold grew warm. A thing of flame moved up the stair. It came garbed in brilliance, eyes on each lick of fire, like leaves spread from an infernal bough, or petals of a rich and plasmatic nature. It flowed up the steps, scorching the ancient timbers but not setting any alight. It was an intelligent thing and had great control over its combustion.
“This is not a Jhem,” stated the D'gpha coldly, putting a considering finger to his lips.
The heat grew and the thing's many eyes looked on with alien intent. The Fencer readied his icicle blade. The monk next to him seemed offended.
“You would harm one of the sacred Caturae?” The look of reproach in those crimson eyes would've humbled a less certain man. “By my art I formed this creature when the world was still warm to be a binding spirit for the wards you so recklessly destroyed. We should be glad that such a wonder survived your violence and now stands as a testament to the greatness of what has come before.”
“We’re in a building of wood with only sheer rock and sheer nothing framing us. It is a thing of magic, an inferno at that, I would trust to the cold in this situation.” The Fencer kept his guard up but hoped the D'gpha was correct as he was exhausted and half swooned by the magic radiations in this place.
“I trust to my works,” responded the monk who approached the creature with open arms. At once its eyes focused on the youth and it struck out. Before it could engulf the D'gpha the Fencer interposed himself.
At first the Caturae recoiled from the flourished blade. It was anathema, constructed of terrible cold and other, more insidious matter. The Fencer attacked with painful swings, but each was buffeted back by a barrier of superheated air around the thing. Then it moved, like a snake, or river, dividing and flowing about with inhuman agility. At last it got the bearing of the swordsman and lashed out. Rippling its plasma flesh along the flat of the icy blade the heat differential spawned a violent reaction which threw the man back against the stairwell. Dazed, the Fencer half-thought his life would end enveloped by the flames. No such thing occurred.
At a word the crackling creature stuttered. The Fencer’s vision cleared just in time to see the living flame’s eyes go wild and then the whole of its form become a shape of light. A shape he had seen the like of only once before, when the Stranger had pulled back the curtain of the world and certain incomprehensible designs whirred away at tasks occluded and sublime. Then the shape of the shape of the thing faded, leaving only the D'gpha standing there with arms out stretched, fingers relaxing from the effort of banishing.
“How long have I meditated?” asked the ancient thoughtfully. "Could it be that the elements themselves have gone mad?"
The Fencer took his own time in answering. He felt light as a feather, as if he could drift up from where he had been thrown by the Caturae. Looking down he saw all sorts of red pooling up where he rested. The attack had broken open his wound but for some reason this didn’t concern him. He laughed a bit, quietly, before speaking.
“No way to tell,” he said, half astonished at how cold everything was becoming. “Where I come from there was no need of years as the present occupied our concerns. Few scholars have accurate estimates, we’ve tried to pry out their best guesses but they range so wildly. But, to answer with my own evidence, I would say long enough for mountains to rise and continents to drift. The oldest maps of these middle lands show a much different geography; there should be a huge central continent here, not a narrow passage between two land masses.”
“Middle lands?” queried the D'gpha, a touch of trouble in his eyes. “We are near the equator?”
“Right on top of it.”
“The world moves mysteriously,” he said. “Also it moves slowly. When I embarked on my journey through the various kalpa Haga Ephos rose up from the northern climes, facing the southern sea.”
“Then you have been thoughtful a very long time,” responded the Fencer slyly, though he was becoming increasingly certain that what the D'gpha remembered was a myth, no more certain than the scattered fictions of the other Jhem, and perhaps just as artificial. Or it could be he who imagined it all, like the dreams of the silver cube.
Troubled, the D'gpha descended and the Fencer drifted after, floating on blood loss and the swarming magics. Three more elementals approached them as they made their way down the various floors. To living wave, enchanted stone and gusting air the D'gpha answered with a motion at which they fell away to whatever source they first arose. Perhaps they died in this manner and the Fencer wondered how long it would be before he joined them.
They reached the grand gallery where the swordsman had last seen Eluax. The platforms, where robed Jhem meditated since forever, were empty. There was no sign of the ochre man, only violence displayed in broken beams and shattered walls, and the strong scent of lotus and sandalwood.
“Where are my fellow monks who were to wait for all eternity cogitating upon the manifold mysteries?” asked the D'gpha after wandering to the center of the chamber. Some manner of the way he swept about betrayed a sense of urgency. His calm was deteriorating.
“They were here only a few minutes ago,” explained the Fencer. “You see the Jhem have become anxious, some flaw in your process corrupted them, and they now stalk the night in search of new memories to make their own. Those they catch they kill with their peaceful arts. They have even taken something of mine.”
The D'gpha closed his eyes as if in pain. His youthful demeanor remained stern and disciplined but the Fencer wondered how long he could keep it up like this.
He brushed against something with his foot. There, on the floor, lay a preserved lotus blossom, petals reaching out to encompass the whole world while the inner workings of the flower displayed a particular enigma. The Fencer picked it up. Already the smell of the thing overpowered the vile blood and terrible cold. When he looked up from his find he was alone in the great chamber. Many halls spread out, any of which the D'gpha could've entered. In the quiet the rustling of anxious Jhem could be heard.
“I wonder if they will make a feast of your pristine mind,” said the Fencer to nobody in particular.
A deep gonging, a soulful sound, resounded. Following this only point of interest the Fencer wandered in the dark. At any moment one of the ancient dead might whisper through the corridor, snap his neck, and steal his memories. This only partially concerned him. He was gaining peace.
After a few minutes he found the source of the sound. Like most of the chambers of the monastery this one’s purpose eluded him. An octagonal series of benches radiated many meters from a central shrine or contraption. Built into this device was a huge bell or chime which was being rung by a shadowy figure in a voluminous robe.
“You might not like whom you call,” smiled the Fencer, presuming it was the D'gpha. In the dim light emitted from the upper windows the figure stopped its labors and moved soundlessly out from the cubic workings. A robed Jhem stared up at the Fencer with coal black sockets. A distant and fearful cold took the swordsman.
It moved like a bleary film on a newly awoken eye and the Fencer turned to run as fast as he could. The swimming sensation which had buoyed him this far now troubled his movements, which were slow and awkward against the undead’s grace. The passageway tilted and spun. He felt like he was in danger of slipping up the walls. He slammed into each turn of the narrow hallway. Silence followed; a silence eager and hungry for what thoughts the man had left.
He returned to the grand gallery where darkness reigned in absence of the D'gpha's light, the shuttered walls allowing little moonlight in. The Fencer crashed against this far wall and then whirled to face his pursuer.
Nothing showed at first, but then a shadow emerged. The man’s mind tingled; even at this range the Jhem's hunger reached out. What would it take from him? All? Just this knowledge of being pursued, wounded and dying? Maybe it has already happened, thought the swordsman, and these very sentiments are now being considered by the ancient monk. Perhaps other climbers and fortune seekers are listening to these inner worries through a teller on the icy slopes of Haga Ephos.
The thing drew near. The Fencer tensed and decided his worries were irrelevant against the cold, his sword, his will. Then it lunged.
Pale radiance stalled the thing as soon as it bolted. Sitting, as if he had always been there, the D'gpha was revealed. The Fencer knew there had been nothing on that dais just moments ago. He shook his head with the realization that maybe the D'gpha had never left, instead masking his presence through strange Art.
“Do you see now?” demanded the Fencer, the pain in his viscera leaning him against the wooden walls. “This is your grand design.”
“Are you not worried about how I used you?” responded the D'gpha.
“That’s the way of Winter,” sneered the wounded man who slid to a sitting position. “Now I want some satisfaction before I die. The Riddle. Ice. How did it all begin?”
During this exchange the Jhem itself sat down before the blue-haired mystic with reverence. Ancient programming distilled within the corpse, thought the Fencer dismissively. Perhaps it remembered. This was one of the high brothers of the order, all flowing robes and jangling prayer beads. It had lost its hat, which was why the traveler mistook it for the master of the monastery. Its pickled mind surely held a great mystery, one which would go unknown as the D'gpha waved his hand and the thing fell into dust.
Fighting to his feet the Fencer cried, “what are you doing?!”
“Putting a troubled soul back to rest in the tessellated Lattice once more,” responded the youthful monk as if this was the most natural thing in the world. The Fencer couldn’t decide if this was an act or true ignorance. He would never understand the ascetic mind.
“But the memories!” Weakness began to overtake him. Dhala’s cold seeped within.
“They have been broken,” said the D'gpha with a fatalistic air. “It was a careful arrangement. Each Jhem knew their particular purpose within the grander affair. But if one is discredited by confusing foundational truth with acquired caprice then what of the others? They told their stories unadorned, outside of experience, with nothing to validate their tales. Now that their knowledge has been corrupted it is better that they finally join the dust.”
“But what of the loss?” argued the exhausted Fencer. Eternity tugged at his eyes. It had been days since he had last slept much.
“Holding onto knowledge serves no good purpose,” responded the D'gpha who drew close to the wounded man. “That is the way of regret. If knowledge is shared or preserved in a fashion which serves the good then it is a mercy. But the only mercy here is to let the old world go.”
“That time before. All warm and green,” muttered the Fencer. He was losing now. The infected wound shuddered through his body as a terrible fever. He fought to stay on his feet.
“Is gone and no amount of desire, yet another negative act, will return it the same as it once was.”
“You questioned the merit of unused knowledge,” began the Fencer, faint as a whisper. “What does your knowledge say about an arrow wound to the gut?”
With that the Fencer passed out of comprehension. The preserved lotus he held fell from his hand. That feathery sensation tumbling from his fingers was the last thing he remembered. The D'gpha looked on, startled, broken from his balmy always. He picked up the lotus and gauged his troubles which now weighted down like all the stars in the heavens.