He had yet to find Hue and the distractions of these wondrous passages proved too great a temptation for his double soul. He was a coward, but his cowardice served a purpose; to survive in order to slake his equally compelling curiosity. This curiosity often led to danger and thus a perfect paradox was born, not unlike the Fencer’s reason and rage, though he would never admit such similarity. He wondered if the swordsman had perished from his stomach wound. A twinge of fear and sorrow came with the thought. Pressing onwards the musician sought distraction from this worry in the dark.
There seemed no end to the winding tunnels. Imagined initiates wearing away the dense stone with their bare hands haunted his thoughts, granting vast excess to the history of the Golden Order. It would be comforting to know that the time before Winter dwarfed the current span of cold men had endured for generations. It was a proportional battle for the memory of the world.
These thoughts stopped as he entered the next chamber. A powerful scent spilled forth and overwhelmed the man. Beyond, a wide flat space extended into shadow, populated by numerous low stone tables placed by some unknown aesthetic. Fine pottery made from clay similar to the white stone of Haga Ephos lay in organized rows alongside each platform as well as glass receptacles of sizes varying from the miniscule to those as large as a man. Pungent spices, desiccated plant material and other unknown reagents provided testament to this being the birthplace of the Jhem.
Closer inspection revealed tools of embalming: silver hooks on long stems, sharp knives, calipers, scoops, sutures, needles, prongs, and so on. The devices had an unwelcoming similarity to eating implements and the room's size made the Trumpeter nervous. Imagined Jhem strolled out of the darkness and set to plucking out his brain and intestines. This was only natural since it had been done to them.
Curiosity overcame cowardice. In one glass cylinder a flower, a lotus blossom, rested on a resovior of alcohol, its vivid orange petals alive and eternal. Here lay a symbol to which the monks aspired.
In looking closely at the preserved lotus the Trumpeter became aware of other details. While there was a light film of dust on all the contraptions a few showed recent signs of disruption. Fingerprints could be seen clearly here and there. He never noticed the quiet of the place until it was disturbed by a sudden clamor.
Sounds of violence echoed into the chamber. Something frantic and huge thrashed not far off. Then the first cry for help followed the noise. The Trumpeter couldn’t tell if it was one of his companions or some unknown actor. In the end curiosity won again.
Racing through a side tunnel, following the sounds rumbling through the ancient stone, he desperately sought the source of the commotion. The winding passage snaked about, the noise growing with one turn only to dwindle at the next. It could be that this path didn’t lead directly to the source and he would only be able to listen as some unknown monster and victim played out their drama.
At last the way grew clear, the shuddering, slamming, booming noises gaining volume. The Trumpeter recognized the tunnel now and knew who he would find in the room ahead. If he had any sense of responsibility he would’v cursed himself then; he didn’t.
Upon entering his swaying lantern light caught two beings struggling. A man holding a gleaming bar of silver stood against a towering profusion of black arms leading out from a nebulous central mass. The lantern beam glittered against two red gems on what could only be described at the creature’s head. The Trumpeter jolted with fear at the sight but didn’t run away. In fact this time he recklessly leaped upon the tentacled monstrosity.
The silver trumpet hit the central mass with a dull, hollow sound. This close he saw the beast was wrapped in the same manner as the Jhem. A plume of spiced dust shot out and speckled the air where the lantern’s light hit. Ignoring this additional foe the creature pressed its attack on the crimson man.
Hue moved with desperate speed, each step meeting a barrier of black tentacles. The silver sword in his hand moved like a blade of grass in the wind, flickering this way and that, striking the thing's ancient flesh, barely making any sort of mark. It was difficult to harm the unliving.
Changing tactics the Trumpeter played some music, lightly at first to avoid a cave in, but then with increasingly violence and loud, bone jarring, ear numbing notes. He gasped all his breath into the instrument but managed to only deafen himself and Hue. The dead, he realized, have no taste in music.
Desperation set in. Hue charged into the eager swath grasping appendages which coiled around gladly. Struggling just close enough he brought the silver point of the weapon down on the great bulbous octopoid head. It was like piercing a tightly bound leather sack full of bones. There was no effect.
He was under its power now. Coiling limbs whirled and twisted about him, covering his face with cloying gauz, binding his limbs with mountainous strength. The Trumpeter fought towards the man to no avail; the thing had more than enough tentacles whirling about to keep him at bay. At any moment it would twist and there would be fresh red on the ancient stones.
The red eyes found what they were looking for and the tentacles followed. They coiled up Hue's bound form like writhing roots and fought for the silver weapon in the youth’s hands. He lost his grip and it slipped into the creature’s grasp. Then he was free.
The mummified octopus flowed back to its wall with fluid grace. There it resumed its form, like a monk on a pedestal, and froze, its sterling implements emerging from some unknown fold in space. Silence dominated, the only motion was that of the dust kicked up, dancing in the lantern light like snowflakes.
When he was sure that Hue wasn't seriously harmed the Trumpeter asked, “So all it wanted was that silver thing?”
“It seems so,” the crimson man replied sadly. He was tussled about, his wrappings torn. “It was a sword. I thought…”
“Oh, I see,” said the Trumpeter after several seconds. “You wanted something to call your own.”
“I need some sort of advantage; everything is beyond me.”
For the first time the Trumpeter had no answer, no glib remark or insane diffusion. Here was an extension of Winter’s Riddle suddenly emerging from the chaos of the journey. The Riddle demanded power in its seekers. If only the Fencer were around to prove that wrong.
Instead of answering the musician walked up towards the statue. On the ground lay fragments of stone, bits of the sarcophagus which had once entombed the thing.
“What do you think it was?” he asked at last.
“A Jhem,” replied Hue tersely.
“I guess.” Now the Trumpeter really did wish the Fencer was there. Events were beginning to make less sense. If this was a Jhem then why was it entombed? Why didn’t it hunger for memory? Did it have a story to tell? He groaned under the strain of mystery. Then his eyes caught something.
“That’s not a sword,” he said at last.
“What?” said Hue, angrily moving up to get a better look.
“It’s a needle,” continued the Trumpeter, pointing. “Just a really big one. Wonder what it represents.”
“Maybe it’s a lesson,” said Hue after a bit of silence.
“As in be sharp and uselessly big?”
“No, the Jhem,” reasoned Hue. “It only came to life when I pried the needle loose, and for all its power and thrashing it didn’t do much harm to me; it simply was taking the object back. I had to give up. Maybe that was the lesson.”
“What a terrible lesson.”
“There is no advantage,” said Hue, understanding now why he didn’t need a silver sword. “Hey, what are you doing?”
The Trumpeter had approached the thing. Though frozen in place it seemed ready to spring to unlife at any moment. Setting down his trumpet the musician took out his knife and began to climb the ancient, withered limbs which proved as strong as he imagined.
“If you take anything it’ll come back to life! I’ve seen how you’ve eyed that trumpet it holds.”
“Not after the trumpet,” explained the musician as he reached the great balloon like head and began to pry at the two giant ruby eyes. “Besides it’s just a cone now that I look at it more closely.”
Hue backed up towards an exit. He had no wish to face the thing again and just the thought of what those stone splitting limbs could do if it really attacked sent a chill through him. Most teachers hated to repeat lessons. Then the Trumpeter tossed something sparkling red at him.
The object which Hue caught was one of the huge ruby eyes, tear drop cut and larger than his fist. The musician tucked the other jewel into his coat and then descended, whistling. Hollow sockets gazed blackly from where the two adornments had been set. If anything their absence increased the thing's menace. Still, it didn’t move.
“The myopic mind yields much if you can stand outside its narrow focus,” said the Trumpeter wistfully.
“Why didn’t it attack?” asked Hue, much confused.
“The eyes seemed so much more important.”
“Not to the monks of the Golden Order,” explained the Trumpeter. “To them the eyes were mere decoration. Not part of the focus, which is the lesson. Discipline is just another word for obsession.”
Hue didn’t respond. There was some truth to what the Trumpeter said, though conflation abounded. All the Jhem were focused on that one mote of knowledge they were tasked to hold. Now, some of their obsession was certainly due to the effects of mummification and the process by which their brains were made immortal. Still, even in life, they did hold onto a dogmatic rigidity of thought. And there was a critique of the Phosians here as well; their well-crafted modes of being just entertainments, inflexible masks as frozen as anything else on the face of Winter. Obsession might be a better word for the problem presented. As evidence he now held an eye that proved sometimes treasures lay at the boundaries, just to the left of the narrow-minded.
They determined to find their compatriots. Of the Fencer they had little idea where he was or if he was. The monastery lay above them, vast and confusing, and the swordsman’s wound was deep. The tracks which the Trumpeter had found in the embalming room pointed towards Eluax, but the thought of spending any more time in the twisting dark drove them upwards, into the monastery proper. The ochre man had proved he could look after himself, that he even had some raport with the Jhem, and the Trumpeter was eager to discover the final fate of his companion.
So up they went. Walls of smooth stone became halls of lacquered wood, cubist, abstract, confusing to the eye and purposed with channeling certain mental energies. They moved through air thick with magic. Outside the moon was complemented with an aurora’s light. The Trumpeter doused the lantern.
The two crept quietly through the pale halls. Jhem shambled about with their quiet, hungry minds. Considering the seal which greeted their entrance these things had never tasted living thoughts, yet still they hunted. Each passage the travelers took offered the danger of meeting one of the knowing dead and they had little hope against such a being.
Whispering movements haunted the darkness around each corner and followed close behind every step they took. The shadows of each room held the possibility of a patient corpse. They risked all to find the Fencer and had no clue where to begin.
One room held a Jhem slowly sounding an ancient bell, a dull resonance ringing out again and again. They avoided the main hall; something rattled the prayer wheels with constant supplication. No place was safe. A presence, like that of a Jhem, infused the whole environment. The travelers hoped that this mind wasn't hungry as well.
Guessing that the Fencer would aspire to the top of the complex the two men took each stair as they found them. The second level held more mummies rapt in seeming meditation. Harmless enough, or seeming this way, the Trumpeter's curiosity got the best of him and went out to touch one of the remembering things. The crimson man watched from the shadows as the things flowed up from their reverie with obvious hunger. In this way the chase began.
Hue had a difficult time keeping up but he wasn’t about to be left alone on Haga Ephos, with only the dead for company. Luck was kind and none of the pursuers turned from their quarry, who proved nimble and desperate. He hurtled through the halls and rooms, tangled scarf flailing, the things behind grasping at the vestment. The race led up another spiral stair, through chambers stranger still and increasingly infused with magic.
Up ahead, Hue watched the Trumpeter careen around a corner and then scream. Hungrily the Jhem caught him. Then there was a flash of brilliance. For a fraction of a second a strange, crystalline, tangled shape filled creation, then it was gone, back to the gloaming moonlight. Carefully he made his way around the corner.
The three Jhem were as dust and rags. Nothing was left. The Trumpeter clung to the wall facing the entrance at an angle, eyes wide and staring at the figure which stood in the middle of the room.
This was a tall man, though barely the same age as Hue, if that. He wore the vestments of the high Jhem of the monastery, unblemished by age or wear. He wore no hat and this let his long tresses of blue hair flow out. The youth’s skin was almost parchment white, glowing blue in the moonlight. From his face of wide, sleepy features two smoldering, coal-red eyes spoke of heavy lidded enlightenment.
This boy or monk began to speak, but upon noticing Hue, grew silent. This silence became concern, almost terror.
“Who are you?” he hissed. The air grew strange and Hue’s nerves jangled under the scrutiny. Before he could respond the strange youth vanished, bleeding away into a fold in space. He must've known the answer.
“That was him!” shivered the Trumpeter.
“The Stranger, I think.” Already the musician was less certain.
“I think we should find the Fencer,” reasoned Hue. The Trumpeter's cowardice had flared up and it made him more than useless.
It didn’t take long to discover the swordsman’s body as it lay in the same room, down the other side of the long chamber, on one of the meditative dais.
He rested on his back, still as death, arms over the edge of the platform, evil sword just outside his fingers’ reach. The Trumpeter hesitated for a moment but found the courage to approach. In such a state the Fencer, usually a tightly wound bundle of potential violence, seemed almost peaceful. He must really be dead, thought the musician and he kicked the swordsman’s leg.
Immediately grey eyes fluttered open and the man slowly rose from slumber to sit up and take note of his friends. This was a marked change; usually whoever rousted the Fencer found Dhala’s point at their throat. A calmer mood prevailed.
“I suppose I’m not dead,” he stated.
“Did you see him?!” spat the Trumpeter. “The Stranger is here.”
The Fencer didn’t respond. A confused look came over his face, as if the fact that he was alive didn’t sit well. Lifting up his sealskin tunic he inspected what should’ve been a mortal wound. There the wound was still, but clean, undisturbed. Something light and feathery glistened within. He poked at it. Inside grew a lotus blossom.
“The D'gpha,” he stated.
“Who?” asked the Trumpeter.