Omya said nothing as she stood gazing up the peaks to where the monastery lay dark and moody against the declining blaze of frigid afternoon. Whisps of smoke tugged through the air on wayward breezes. The ancient bridge, the only path leading to the hated adventurers, burned. Her dark eyes searched for sign of the Fencer and the Trumpeter up there, where her past and her rage lay out of reach.
“It's as if I never saved you from that lemur-man ambush,” she responded finally, turning back to the treasure hunter. Her eyes were sharp as needles.
“Not so,” said the man, shifting a bit under her glare. “We are grateful, but there is a limit to any venture, and this is it. Our means for abjuring these thoughtful dead are nearly used up and our packs are full of relics from the time before the snows. A reasonable man knows when to cease gambling.”
At this she effortlessly brought her spear point to bear on the findsman’s throat. He didn’t flinch.
“I’d use a different rhetoric if I were you,” she said as the assembled warriors went quiet and drew their weapons in support of their fellow.
“Two men are dead, including our leader Karsh. Another has a broken sternum, thanks to that dark Phosian. If the Fencer seems as troublesome as he has proven so far then I’d rather not lose anyone else on a fool’s errand.”
The other treasure hunters held their breath. A sharp word had been spoken and there was violence in the air.
“I brought you to Phos,” said Omya. “I taught you their tricks, gave you their treasures without having to unsheath a sword, cut through the lies concerning the horrors of the mountain. I want my due.”
“All of this is true,” shrugged the canny brigand. “Come back with us. Vael is always looking for new blood and you’ll be made a captain in short time. You might still get your vengeance; at a better time and place. Even now the Fencer may be dead. I’ve seen many arrow wounds in my time and that one seemed bloody enough.”
The brave eased her weapon down and the rest followed. Making ready to depart, the band gathered up all their jingling Phosian loot and the stinking dust, bones and bandages left from the Jhem they had pulled from their icy graves on the way up.
One of the treasure hunters was called an alchemist, meaning he kept his magic in various vials and tubes all over his person. He had quick, fastidious hands which now mixed their passage back to Etrius. Omya hated him.
Frozen blood trailed up to the burnt wreckage of the bridge. With that structure gone any attempt up the spire would be difficult in the extreme, requiring hours of effort on a nearly vertical ascent. This was without considering the dangers that came with sunset. There was no decision.
It was true; the Fencer was dying. It was a matter of binaries. With his good left hand he could hold in his wounded guts and bleed out slowly, starve, probably lose his mind to infection. Already a slight fever moldered on his brow. In this state he was unable to wield Dhala, even his right and off hand was too bandaged to hold the thing properly.
The alternative was to let go. He could free his left and be ready to face whatever creatures loomed out from the dark, but this tact encouraged swift and bloody death. Safe and slow, fast and free; these were his options from moment to moment. For now he held his life in as he sought the vague answer to the vaguest question of all.
Much like the Riddle of Winter the insides of the monastery strained the seeker. Through a vestibule of ancient hanging beads, a thick wave of clattering resistance, passages opened up to the right and left. More prayer wheels lined the wall in front of the visitor, to be turned in either direction according to the user’s impetus. One direction lead to the side abutting the mountain, the other lead further out, out from the rocky shelf, out over the boundless depths of Haga Ephos’s highest peaks.
Each passage defied the Fencer’s sight. Delicate grids, tessellated woodwork, cunning arrangements of block and square designs all conspired against the senses. The texture formed by the architecture confused distances and lost the eye in a maze of curious shapes. The Fencer pressed leftward, the part of the monastery reaching over the void.
Hue and the Trumpeter were wary of entering the ancient demense of the Golden Order. Seals were placed over portals for a reason; there was no telling what the Fencer had unleashed by breaking into the monastery. And then there were the lights.
As the two pondered after their wounded companion the sun dipped half beneath the horizon. At that moment a flurry of luminous spheres buoyed up from the lower peaks. These orbs flitted on the strong mountain currents, tumbled, scattered, and coalesced away towards the south at great speed.
“Did you see that?” asked the Trumpeter when he felt they were safe.
“I’m not sure what I saw,” replied Hue through a shiver.
“Damn. I was hoping it was just me,” complained the Trumpeter. “I never get these things all to myself.”
They took a few moments to look about the various outer buildings for Eluax. The painted Phosian had vanished once the way into the cloister was open. Eventually they gave up and made to follow the Fencer. Night would be along soon and they did their best to bar the doors from threats without, hoping the ochre teller had slipped in when they weren’t looking.
Latticed with screens of carved wood the rooms and halls, auditoriums and isolations, seemed to blend each into the next. The walls were full of doors, unseen sliding panels revealing mysterious chambers, occasionally equipped with a few spare instruments of ascetic life.
Each meter of space displayed a cubic obsession and adherence to the mystic square. Square doors, cubic rooms, floors made from clustered ends of lumber, all built along this discipline. It showed in the art where inked demons cavorted over squared hells and summoning cubes. The timbers were exceptionally worked, all lacquered black, and showed no sign of degradation through the eons; even the Order's dwellings were mummified.
The Fencer explored the outer galleries where shuttered viewing bays looked out over the fiery sun and the frozen waterfall below, all orange, alit. He didn’t spend much time considering his situation. Pain pushed him on through the maze of rooms and passages, up the cunning series of blocks spiraling as stairs. He smelled snow and ice along with sandalwood incense, lotus blossoms, and other, stranger odors. He followed the honesty of cold.
The other two ventured towards the mountainside. Hue lit a lamp to illuminate the way as wooden walls transitioned to ancient white stone tunnels worn away by the hands of apprentices long dead. These tubes, alien, pallid, led to endless grottos and the sound of moving waters. Deep down a certain cold mystery confronted them.
On the third floor, as best he could account for these things because of the uncertain architecture, the Fencer found them waiting. Row upon row of Jhem sat in mummified silence anticipating the coming dark. They were seated on square diases raised from the blackened floor and wore the remnants of high station garb; long black robes and funny looking hats. Dead eyes pondered mysteries. One breathed.
“What are you doing here?” asked the Fencer, though he checked the far room ahead for hints of his nebulous goal.
“I don’t know myself anymore,” pondered Eluax as he opened his amber eyes. “Originally I thought to stop you from meeting a terrible end, but in that I have failed. So many events have transpired on these slopes and I find it difficult to account for all of them.”
“What is it?”
“What is what?” replied the ochre man, bewildered.
“There is a thing which you fear, above all things. It is so great that you were willing to give up speech, affect madness, follow us up the slopes, at turns attack us and defend us. There must be a reason and I would have it from you now.” The Fencer was intent with his demands, cold eyes gleaming. He shivered.
“In my ascents I ventured far past the Jhem of the lower slopes. I believed there to be some great, ultimate truth somewhere on the mountain. Caring not for the games of my fellow Phosians I wished only for enlightenment. You see, I feel kinship with the frozen dead of the mountain.”
Eluax walked amongst the descicated ascetics as he spoke. Reverence followed each step. Eyeing him with distrust the Fencer kept his mangled right hand close to Dhala’s crystalline pommel.
“Look how peaceful they are,” intoned the painted pugilist. “How dedicated. If the world were full of such people then no evil would be possible.”
“Except those dedicated to it.”
“In a way that is what compelled me. Some others, those destroyed by the brigands we fought, intimated certain qualities, radiations concerning the abbot of the Order.”
“He was not to be trusted?”
“That’s the feeling I gathered.”
“The feeling?” Now the Fencer was confused; the discourse of the Jhem held little nuance.
“Telling is more than simple regurgitation of what has been,” explained Eluax. “I've spent a great deal of time on the slopes with the Jhem. It is undoubtable that they always say the same thing, but the manner of the telling changes. More subtly than in speech, only one intimate with their souls might pick up a trace of sarcasm, a mote of doubt, a subtext of fear underlying a discourse on heroism. The tellers who spent much time on the slopes learned this, but these sparks and accents were never remembered by the listeners down in Phos. Only the grandest tales and the most curious sciences are caught by the net of the mind. So it was that we became a society of grand displays and oddments.”
“You haven’t told me why you tried to curb our curiosity,” noted the Fencer with his incisive tongue.
“Very true,” smile the teller grimly. “My quandry is two-fold. Upon the slopes I discovered a terrible secret of the Jhem and in speaking to certain mummies it became clear that the abbot was a troublesome figure.”
“What secret!” demanded the Fencer.
“That the Jhem not only went hunting for memories after dark, but the memories stolen would then replace their tasked monologues. Think of the secrets lost by them gobbling the thoughts of a traveler, or worse, a Phosian? What stories were true and false were muddled even further by the realization that some of the tales being told were true, but from perspectives completely divorced from the narrative. If this were known then my village would fall apart, driven into apathy by the knowledge that nothing was known. Learning that the font of all these stories was untrustworthy would be doubling damaging; we would become like the superstitionists; clinging to whatever tales we found the most entertaining or visceral or ‘real.’”
Frozen in thought, the Fencer watched the sun submerge in the west and dreamed that he might make sense of this new revelation. The uncertainty which haunted the mountain now revealed itself as a ghost garbed in nonsense. Maybe it was his wound but he felt weak. He gave Eluax no response.
“So now that you know the truth, or the lack thereof, what are your intentions?” asked the teller with metered grace.
A cold moment passed before the swordsman gave his answer.
With a frantic tearing sensation he pulled his left arm free and grabbed his blade from its hanger. He struck out, at the cold, at the vision of the setting sun. Dhala carved the ancient timbers like diamond through paper, opening a great whole, letting in the terrible winds of Winter.
Quickly he dashed from the room, blood dropping in spattered marks. The ochre man shouted after but the demon was upon the man from the polar wastes. He had chosen a quick death and the bid of enlightenment.
The second stair was sealed in copper beaten smooth against the portal, etched with potent wards. Crystal sang against the metal, magics poured out, heady radiations. The Fencer continued on, insane.
The second seal was of silver, and the third gold. Each time the crystalline blade made the way open. Ever larger, more complex patters glimmered and fell away. The sense of great heat and deadly contingencies boiled the air, but the swordsman’s key dispersed the ancient guardian spells.
Some strange black metal formed the final barrier, beyond which the unknown lay. A bare fingernail of sun remained in the sky, bright as a cat’s eye in lamplight. A strange, wheels-and-spokes sigil marked this door, circuits linking the shattered elements of the image. The Fencer brought the blade across the metal with a scream. A deep gouge responded but the seal held.
Footsteps follow. Eluax, maybe the Trumpeter or Hue, he couldn’t be sure. Maybe they would stop him. Doors shut were often meant to be left that way. He kept at the portal against all good sense.
The substance was much like metal, but also dense and homogenous like glass or the most perfect cement of ruins past. It yielded only sparingly to the atom-edged sword, at last gaving up its secrets with a metallic scream.
The opening was barely enough for the medium sized Fencer. Beyond, up an ornate staircase, a single room waited.
Long as the monastery, wide as the spires, the last faint glow of amber revealed a frozen garden. In this declining glory a single figure rested on a pool which comprised the whole of the floor. This was a thin film of water over a single sheet of ice. Little rivulets trickled off, evidently feeding into the many falls and tributaries spread down the mountain and across the land.
The air swam with magic. Dhala almost hummed. Shapes and notions flitted like butterflies amongst still-life structures. Here the screen of reality grew thin. The Fencer had little hope that what lay beyond this curtain was true in any sense.
Pain nagged his side as he shuffled towards the single Jhem in the middle; the abbot, presumably. The need to hear, whether lies or truth, had brought him this far and he wanted satisfaction before the end.
Closer, he slid short at what he saw. Long tresses flowed from the sitting form. Memory tingled. Closer still, he could make out the garments, simple, ceremonial, awesome trains of layered fabrics showing no sign of the ages. This figure wore no funny hat. Again, the feeling of familiarity tickled.
When he drew close enough his mind left him. Reason demanded he not be seeing what he saw. The twilight hair, the youthful features, pale, wide, heavy-lidded eyes closed in concentration. Perhaps he was seeing things, distortion from the septic shock shuddering through his body in quakes of pain. Lies and truth mingled.
He wanted to know for sure, so he stalked up to the resting figure which bore the uncanny resemblance of the Stranger and reached to unlock the spell of the Jhem just as the sun dropped below the horizon, leaving uncertain blues of night in which dreams and mysteries hid.
Each was alone within the monastery, singular against the hungry thoughts of the unknown.