Sliding across the glacial meditation pool the Fencer stepped towards the quiet form of abbot, the high potentate of the whole monastery, of the whole mountain. This youth slept like the ocean, thoughts like icebergs. Over the countless years crystalline structures of unknown nature had grown up around the figure as a feathered shroud. The swordsman bled out his dreams.
Some floors below an untenable silence hung. The mad Fencer had barred the way with his wanton destruction, and muttering things he had loosed from the seals roiled cantankerous and vile within flesh of pseudo-real magic. So, these were the Caturae, thought the painted teller as he listened to the elemental movement on the floors above. Eluax had learned much from his ascents up Haga Ephos. His was a special talent for understanding, for listening. While others simply heard the Jhem he could glean subtleties from their psychic emanations and plumb secrets beyond textual absolutes. His intimacy with the hungry dead made it reasonable that he die by their hand.
Rows of Jhem lay before him. The sun set. Soon they would arise. He had no special means to escape their strangling, thought-eating ways. His only hope, as he approached the closest ascetic, was that they might slumber just long enough for him to receive one last telling.
Down in the tunnels on the spire side of the monastery Hue had become lost, though in truth he was lost a long time ago. Not content with the shallow posturing of his fellow Phosians his heart had legs and wished to take him far. At this moment he moved slowly along smooth dark tunnels smelling of complex chemistry.
“Trumpeter!” he shouted out to resonant echo. “Where did you run off to? It was only a carving!”
The object in question was ten meters high, with the likeness of an octopus bearing eight objects painted silver. Its red eyes glittered, rubies probably, and the craven musician had bolted through the tunnels at first sight of the thing, taking the lantern with him. The last thing Hue saw was the glittering red of the cephalopod’s gaze following the Trumpeter's light.
Time changed in the absolute dark. These caverns held an element of infinity, lapsed topologies stranding the youth in an endless maze. The incident in the relief room might've happened five minutes ago or a thousand years past.
At last he felt he was making some progress. An opening yawned. Cautious to avoid any drops or hazards Hue’s first impression was that he had returned to the lair of the ruby-eyed monster. But it kept going.
He counted out ten meters, which was his recollection of the place, and found no end, then fifty, then a hundred. It was boundless and almost defied the dimensions of the spire in which they were presumably lost. Here he gave up to the big empty nothing. Inwardly he dared himself to take the first step out, away from the wall.
The Trumpeter was large-hearted and had commensurately gargantuan fears. It wasn’t the octopus which had startled him, or the evil red of its eyes, but the silver.
The Trumpeter had a secret which even the Fencer didn’t know, which even the Jhem could never pry loose, which even the sun couldn’t reveal, which even the night couldn’t shadow. Great superlatives streamed from his mind as he raced through the soft white corridors. How many apprentices had spent years wearing these through the strange rock? How many never progressed past apprentiship?
He stopped when the gold started. The glimmers were faint at first, pale traces along the ground, like tears or blood from a wounded god. The Trumpeter cursed inwardly and giggled outward.
Up ahead he found the treasure room. The once beaten gold doors had melted and the tracks of whatever small things living here were cause of the trail he followed.
Within was a sea of gold. Piles of coin had sloughed down, creating stalagmites. The whole room seemed to reach up from the floor. Globules told of once gilded chests, heaps of cutlery and place settings. Gems peeked out from the flowing glory like the eyes of some amorphous creature. All things were worn away by the passing of time but still the musician’s head swam with the scope of ages since the era of the Order and the pre-Winter world which it represented.
Also, he was saddened by the lack of silver and now that thought brought back his anxiety of the instrument he carried and the box it came in.
The man before the Fencer was no Jhem; he had flesh and hair, eyes, plots, plans, conspiracies. Murder welled up the swordsman’s arm which jittered cold at the approach of death. His bloody mind fantasized about killing the object of his ascent before even one word was uttered.
He strode up to the man, blood trickling down to mingle with the descending waters, but froze. There was no reaction. A sense of proportion brought back his senses. He let his sword arm relax as he reached out and touched the blue haired proxy of the Stranger as this was the proper fashion in which to converse with a Jhem. He only hoped that this thing wouldn’t rise to steal his thoughts as well. The abbot opened his crimson eyes.
Serenity played across the ascetic’s features. No wayward movement disturbed the delicate crystals surrounding him. A mouth like an enigma said nothing.
“What are you doing here?” demanded the Fencer.
“If I explain then the state would be lost,” responded the abbot balmily. “Some experiences lay beyond telling.”
“Don’t lie to me like that,” said the Fencer who was becoming increasingly agitated. He paced like a lion in a cage. “You creep in at the impossible edges of my life. You’re a sorcerer. A magician. And you know the secret to Winter’s Riddle, of that I’m certain, but you fear the powers which hunt you and so engage in these word games to avoid exciting whatever faculties sense such things.”
The youth considered this with a pious heart. Despite his looks the creature certainly didn’t have the mien of the mage who impetuously destroyed a horde of lemur-men and a swath of mountains with a sweep of his hands. This man was peace; he breathed the concept. There was power here, yes, and magic too, but the temperament was all different. All wrong.
“I’m afraid you have me confused with someone else,” he responded at last. “I am properly known as the D'gpha. It is good that someone of understanding has met the challenges set out by the Order.”
“Challenges?” asked the Fencer who stopped in his tracks.
“Yes, the seals of copper, silver, gold and adamant, as well as the challenge of the mountain itself and the mysteries of the Jhem.”
The Fencer laughed. “Oh, I solved my way through those problems,” and he grimaced as a bolt of pain reminded him of his wound.
“Excellent,” smiled the D'gpha. “Then it means the solution to the change in climate has been found.”
The Fencer laughed again, more bitterly this time. “Wrong. The ice still holds sway over land and man. It knows no end. In fact, I came here to learn how the endless cold began.”
“But the seals were meant to only be opened when certain climatic qualities were met. Are you telling me that you have ascended through improper means?”
At this the Fencer brandished his sword and only now did the D'gpha take note of crystalline Dhala.
“Take that evil thing away,” he stated flatly.
“Maybe, though I might die first,” said the Fencer, ashen faced.
It looked like the D'gpha would admonish him but instead he became a placid pool once more. In the silence the Fencer heard rustlings from below.
Bleeding his way back to the stairs he became certain of the approach of many Jhem, as well as certain gusts and crackles which his mind couldn’t identify. With a few savage swings the careful architecture of the stairs collapsed, barring the way for any future visitors. The Fencer smiled at the destruction.
The first Jhem was halfway through its dissertation concerning the nature of stars when its voice flickered and went silent. Eluax had never been in the middle of a telling when the shift came. There was a sense of disruption and then inversion; hints of the change from giving to taking. He readied himself for what was to come.
There was no place else to go. Outside even more of the mummified monks would be hunting for new stories to tell. That was the great perversion of the Jhem; the process which transformed them into immortal fonts of knowledge had an inadvertent mutation some unnumbered years later. They became hungry for memories, thoughts, wisdom and went hunting such things.
The hundred or so ancients stirred from their revere and Eluax made ready. He had learned all he knew from the Jhem and now they would try to take these things back. Dry limbs clattered and a rustling sound came from the garments they wore, like rushes in a lively breeze. For some reason the ochre man began thinking about what trouble the Fencer was in and this had a peculiar effect on his mood.
And down below Hue had given himself over to the great emptiness. Walking out into the dark he felt the expanse surround him. This was a humbling sensation, a revelation of the self in regards to the absolute. He was about to lose his mind when he smacked into something huge.
He took up the mystery’s challenge. Feeling over the fluted columns, the various nebulous objects, he became convinced that a puzzle or challenge was being presented. If only he could figure out the tropes of the game. He made increasing effort to do so, even climbing up the thing’s face, looking for some clue higher up. That is when he found the eyes.
Two facetted things lay cool in the dark. Rubies probably, he thought with a sigh. Somehow he had managed to wander back into the room with the octopus statue. There was no huge enigma of darkness, just a cunning sequence to the tunnels, or even his own lack of direction, to blame.
He began to climb back down but stopped. In the dark there was no direction; no down or up, only the vague inertia from his own action. Instead Hue climbed further up to the silver devices he had seen glinting in the second before the Trumpeter’s episode. What were they again? An orb. A box. A flame. A trumpet. He cut himself and almost fell. Feeling around carefully he discovered a tentacle’s tapering end and a long sleek blade held by the appendage.
Again the Trumpeter was faced with a basic quandary in his nature. Though a great lover of trouble and an exacerbater of tempers he was, at heart, a cowardly thing. If there was a hill over which a monster stalked he would be first over the rise, and also first back. For a long time he thought this was the best of all possible worlds.
Surrounded by the warm cave of gold he felt safe. Part of him knew that the others faced the terrible dangers of Haga Ephos at that moment but for some reason he felt detached from their plight. Hue was a bright fellow and a bit of darkness wouldn’t douse him any time soon. Still, the musician was worried.
He couldn’t figure it and sat down on a golden cushion in thought. Not Hue. Not Eluax. The Fencer probably, he sighed. It felt wrong to resent the man who had saved him from so many perils but still he was the reason they were on this mountain. Look what the man’s whimsy had done to them all. There were things worse than death and they stalked this place, draining the thoughts from your mind as they crushed your neck. Poor Aglyss and his lost pantheon.
That was it! Clarity, like a lens, focused. For the Trumpeter this was a rare thing. Dusting himself off he took up Hue’s lantern and left the treasure room, though this was a mislabel. In his haste he didn’t notice the occult array of gems watch like eyes or the way the gold flexed and flowed like a living skin of brilliant flesh.
The peace was too much for the Fencer as he turned from the ruined stairwell back to the D'gpha's crystalline garden. Serene, yes, like balmy days in his memory of memory, but his nerves were tense, feverish. There was only one peace; the stillness of Winter, absolute and null. His mad demon thrashed for the Stranger thing’s blood, still convinced that this was yet another guise.
Memory. That was it. A mountain of memory. A cone drawing up the whole of the world to a point which was this immortal. No, the reverse, or at least that was the intent, with the Jhem disseminating knowledge down the mountain into an ignorant world. This room was the source of the alchemical waterfalls and somehow the D'gpha was the source of the treatment which flowed down like rays of knowledge, irradiating the nearby Phosians and terrifying the more distant superstitionists.
Pain derailed his thoughts for a second and he knew that he must hurry towards a final reckoning with the ancient monk. Already his limbs grew cold and it was a strange sensation after a lifetime numb to such things.
“It’s gone horribly wrong,” he called out to the D'gpha who had drifted once more to the distant marches of thought. “The Jhem are corrupt.”
Like a calm stream the D'gpha responded, “You don’t know what you speak of.”
“They do not speak the truth.”
“What is truth?”
The Fencer had no response to this. He licked his dry lips and tried another tack. “They prey upon the thoughts of others. The knowledge you left for them to tell has been lost, some of it forever, replaced by the thin dreams of the icebound world.”
“What is truth?”
The Fencer held back his smile. He was learning to play with a quiet face. Only his pain betrayed him.
“Show me,” responded the D'gpha at last, opening his eyes, effortlessly unfolding his tall frame from its meditative knot. The crystal growths about him broke and fell with faint music. In a way the Fencer felt guilty, more so when they reached the stairwell.
“It is destroyed,” said the young monk looking over the wreckage.
“Can’t you simply know what I say is true through your Art?” ventured the Fencer in an effort to avoid responsibility.
“I choose not to.” It was a riddle teller’s statement. A bit of anger flourished in the Fencer’s wounded gut. “Though dead in the physiological sense the Jhem are still sovereign beings. To rip out the truth from any mind is an affront to my method and a repudiation of elegant discipline. I am not a taker or a destroyer, as you seem to be, but I do make things whole if peace is served by the act.”
The D'gpha’s hands rose up and pulled at the mysteries. Again a flash of seeming overtook the youth. Magic by whatever name was still magic. The Fencer felt fear at the act and a conditioned response to violence which he fought back with growing fatigue. Knotting his fingers the ancient effected the unseen. A haze boiled in the stairwell, a stretching and a contracting, and the matter which had been cut apart fused back with the lingering scent of incense and lotus.
Immediately a shuffling was heard. Conflict and a full crackling arose, along with whispers, groans like rock falls, splashes from the shoreline. The swordsman couldn’t make any sense from the noises but imagined the hordes of Jhem they would find below.
He looked to the high potentate of the Golden Order and couldn’t decide if the man was smiling, frowning, or crying. It seemed he was prepared to become whatever the future demanded, even if he lost all in the process.