Like all dreams without a dreamer the luminous palace, a thing of mystery and memory, succumbed to entropy. The imagined masonry ceased all motion and growth. Thus becalmed, the more pious energy from which it was first formed the edifice turned to real matter, to gold and silver, to fine carven wood and marble, reinforced with an almost black material, neither metal nor stone and strong as hatred. It ran as a lattice, elegant and absolute and heavy as empire.
Reality dragged the palace down, this place so familiar to the Fencer, or so his stolen memories intimated. This was a hazy recollection; a feeling of a feeling. This was the revelation of the mountain. A dreadful sinking sensation entered the man's bones. With reality came mass and gravity, and under such weight the whole impossible structure began its tumble.
He knew he had to flee, there was nothing he could do to halt this inevitable progression, but visions arrived. Curious beings intruded upon the scene. They fluttered in as living-like humanoids of pale, colorful skin, garbed in cloudy raiment akin to clothing or membranes. Around them hazy auras of power obscured and confused the senses. This was a magic of careful illusion against which the boldness of the Stranger stood out clearly. At last a lady arrived with a flash of gold eyes.
Despite his curiosity the Fencer fled just as the garden broken. Down he ran, down the listing ramp leading form the balcony, down the halls and galleries, the sitting rooms and audience chambers. Reality infected the building at increments. At first the fall was slow, almost imperceptible to the eye, but increasingly parts broke from the whole and rooms became a tangled mass of drifting satellites trying to remember their true structure.
When the way became cluttered Dhala cleared a path. No substance was equal to the sword's atom edge. Yet for all its power it could only destroy, and when the Fencer finally arrived on the lowest works the weapon couldn’t help bridge the gap between himself and the monastery below. The ensorcelled blade couldn’t murder emptiness. Soon the falling palace would bury him under a thousand tons of dreamed up masonry.
Frantically he searched from room to room on the bottom floor. While various portals and apertures looked out over the mountain none offered anything other than air and a long fall down. Then, at last, he found a thread of hope.
Tied to a balustrade leading into the void a coarse-woven scarf trembled in the breeze. Obviously the Trumpeter was dead; in life he couldn’t be so thoughtful.
The palace fell and he with it. Quickly he slid down the scarf to the black-timbered roof below where he barely had time to scamper down the side of the cloister before the dream came crashing down.
It landed with a splintering boom. Metal bent, glass shattered, stone fracturing in an earthquake symphony. The ancient Monastery of the Golden Order caved in and burst outward. Countless years of impossible history leveled in less than a second. All was mutability.
The Fencer watched as the two structures disintegrated, half the mass scattering about the cliff, half tumbling down onto the lower slopes. Wonders shimmered in the dark at the moment of their destruction. Those sorcerous visitors were gone. The palace was mere copy of whatever place haunted the Stranger's memory. Still, it was beautiful, perhaps more so at the moment of its destruction, in the manner of a storm cloud or an icequake.
Slowly making his way down the great spire the Fencer descended into dawn. By the time he reached what he had come to think of as the upper slopes day had arrived in cloud and gold. Following the Trumpeter's tracks he rounded the southern face of the mountain.
Glimmering strangely, the still lingering dust clouds from the two buildings haunted the air. He could almost smell the pulverized Jhem, all spices and perfume. Those were memories, he thought and considered what effect it would have dispersed on the world.
These ponderings were disrupted by the empyreal sounds of a horn being played. This was the Trumpeter's work to be sure, but not his usual blustery stuff. Blissful tones echoed across the peaks, sharp and clear, with a painful beauty, as if in echo of the sublime destruction.
The song led to his wild-haired companion who played at the edge of another descent, a far gentler slope than the hellish reaches of the topmost peaks. At the player's feet crimson Hue lay senseless. The Fencer didn't say anything, just soaked in the music.
"Well played," he said when the Trumpeter was finished with his aria. The musician startled at the words.
"How long have you been alive!?" he demanded furiously.
"By the way my people reckon time, no more than twenty seasons, though I've lost track in these northern habitats."
"Weren't you destroyed when the phantom castle fell into the monastery? No," he said, answering his own question. "You wouldn't die from that, all too simple."
"You seem disappointed," said the Fencer, sensing ill favor on the wind.
"What? Oh, no. No." The musician seemed to be heavy in consideration. "What did you find at the top of your mountain?"
"The problem of memory."
"Just as the first Jhem mentioned," pondered the Trumpeter. "Was there a solution? And what does this have to do with the Answer to Winter's Riddle?"
"I wasn't going to find it up there, but now I think I know where I went wrong. I neglected Summer’s puzzle."
“It was always a fool’s mission but I do so love the foolish.” The Trumpeter gestured down the slope which beaconed brightly in the morning sun. "Then shall we?"
Nodding, the Fencer began hefting the Hue’s unconscious form when a terrible note erupted in his head. Light and sound mixed. He must've dropped his crimson burden at some point but couldn't say for all the ringing in his skull.
He kept his senses and despite the pain he managed to fend off the wild sings which followed. Something metallic and hollow rang off his arms and shoulders, never finding purchase on his skull. When his vision cleared of stars he faced the mad-eyed Trumpeter.
"Have you gone insane?" Instantly he knew it was a redundant question and pulled Dhala from its hangar. "Why are you attacking me Trumpeter?"
"You've heard the forbidden," said the man with cold concentration. Winter blew against them, brutish, absolute.
"What if I were to forget it?"
"That is something I'm trying to ensure," said the Trumpeter who leapt at his friend. Silver rang off black glass. The instrument's mysterious metal the equal of Dhala's vorpal matter.
"What if I promise to forget?" wagered the Fencer.
"Are you feeling alright?" The Trumpeter let his guard down and squinted at his friend. "Would the Fencer ever let his petulant trap of a mind give anything up?"
"I'm willing to make certain reasonable allowances. I doubt your music will keep me from my goal."
"I've had enough of the past for now. There is no answer there. It's a sick and frozen place, warped by the bend of light through the ice of Winter. All another part of the Riddle."
"It's in the future then?"
"No such easy dichotomy." A laconic smile spread across the Fencer’s face.
"So you promise you will eradicate all memory of the most secret song of the mountain people from your mind?" asked the Trumpeter.
Murmuring, Hue became restless in his sleep. Awakening, he cringed in the bright sun.
"What is that?"
"That's the sun," said the Trumpeter.
"And that?" He pointed to the peaks above.
"A mountain," replied the Fencer.
"And you?" Hue demanded, looking around with a look of absolute incomprehension.
"Oh dear," commented the Trumpeter.
They helped the Phosian up and led him down Haga Ephos. The way was easier, it always was going down. They passed the time by listening to the Trumpeter’s unbelievable side of things; of the room of gold, the embalming room, the final escape from the heights and Eluax’s transformation.
Hue remembered nothing, not even his name. He was a blank slate. Only the barest mechanisms of cognizance remained. Yet, for all that, he eyed the two travelers with distrustful eyes.
"So you know me?"
"Of course!" exclaimed the Trumpeter. "We're your friends. Together we've braved ignorant savages, novelty addicts, and a thousand thought-hungry undead."
"I'm not so sure," Hue said, considering.
It was true, of course, he couldn't be. Surety was nebulous even with a solid memory. Now his mind was wide open sky. The Fencer seemed a murderer and the Trumpeter crazed. These were not trustworthy people on first appearance. They wore tattered, battered clothing, and had harsh, Winter-worn features. They smelled of their troubles. Without the experiences of breaking free from the isolation hut, of their travels up Haga Ephos, moods and biases reigned. Hue spent the trip a few meters behind the other two, on guard at all times.
He wasn't the only survivor. On the second day, after sleeping the sleep of the dead, they found another.
Wandering Omya met them at midmorning. She had a hazy look to her eyes and an aimless direction. Her path led up the mountain. The Fencer drew his sword immediately upon seeing her, but she only regarded the weapon with mild interest.
"What is that?" she asked, squinting, vainly rubbing her frost burned hands from her time with that very weapon. Another casualty of the Jhem joined them and together they made for the bottom.
It was a terse few days amongst strangers. Omya and Hue immediately banded together against the coarse adventurers. The one's hate and the other's acceptance had vanished on the last night of Jhem. Nothing could melt the ice between the two groups; every attempt just pushed the amnesiacs further away and closer together. The future, it seemed, was a victim of the past.
The nights were peaceful and cold. With each daylight step things grew warmer. Below the land spread out in swaths of purple grass and patches of tenacious snow.
Inwardly the Fencer felt an acute sense of strangeness at the return, as if his brain couldn't believe in any place other than the magic mountain of Haga Ephos. All else seemed like fiction.
They dipped beneath the clouds. Like canopy boughs the clouds cast huge moving shadows over the land. When these faded away never did the sky seem so blue. What power there was at an end.
Drinking from a stream on the third day the two with memory hesitated. This was part of the D'gpha's alchemy. Were there memories in the water? Notions? Archetypes? The strange middle lands of the equator, were they blessed by the past, or cursed?
Considering the source, the Stranger didn't seem in control of his actions most times. His emotions ran high and potent, they animated the youth, they made him something other than human. His powers extended beyond his physical form, which seemed a mask, a means by which he was recognized by others. His mysteries tainted the melt water. Indeed the streams might be even stranger now. Those tunnels were filled with fluids and reagents, and the powdered remains of the Jhem had spread all over the mountain. In some way the lost knowledge those corpses represented might still be in play, waiting to be drunk by the future.
On the fourth day they reached the bottom. It was morning and a warm wind played in from the west. Each night they had seen the torches of Phos burn bright. The unknown vigil continued.
They were met by a sober host of changed creatures. The endless party was over and that uncomfortable morning where someone had to be blamed for the mess had dawned. All eyes were on the Trumpeter and the Fencer. The villagers carried crude weapons.
"What game is this?" asked the Fencer to the Trumpeter, quietly, from the corner of his mouth.
"Not one I think we should play," responded the Trumpeter as he nervously polished his trumpet.
"Hue!" called out a fellow painted blue and wielding a sword obviously kept as an antique.
At that moment a change occurred. Hue and Omya ran for the Phosians as if all the lost hells were after them. They couldn't have had any knowledge of these people. No, this was a display of opposition. They were defining themselves against the other two travelers. The Fencer didn't move from where he stood, resolute and exhausted.
The escapees spoke in hushed tones with the villagers. Colorful eyes glanced back up the mountain and accused the travelers. This was a conversation on which they were subject and yet had no voice.
"Ahem!" said the Fencer blatantly.
There were a great number of Phosians now, all in their colors, many with weapons held eagerly.
"So you brought down the house of the gods?" asked the blue man, who stepped away from the gathering and approached.
"The gods are gone and we are left to our own devices," said the Fencer. "The corrupt Jhem crumbled under the weight of their own ignorance."
"We were told you would lie to us."
"The emissaries and brave Omya there."
A demon stirred in the silence after this sentence.
"And you would believe them?"
"Of course," smiled the man, "it's an exciting thing, to hate and fear. It allows for great simplicity of entertainment."
"Fencer," began the Trumpeter but it was too late. Already the crystalline blade was out and with it the swordsman charged the assorted rabble. Some Phosians scattered, some giggled, some held their ground.
The first defender erupted in a spray of red, the smile still on his face when his head came to rest. Continuing on the Fencer caved in one of their opulent houses. Those with an interest in a game of swords attacked though none could so much as nick the swordsman at his play. This was hardly the point. Excitement showed on their doomed faces; these decadents laughed as they died.
For some blood broke their entertainment and they fled screaming into their homes, none of which could keep out the madman. For others this made great spectacle, and they leaned forward with hungry eyes. Soon those bent on attacking were happily dead.
After carving up another house the Fencer felt someone at his back. He whirled just in time to sheer off the blade from a lazy swing. In the same motion he brought Dhala down on the attacker, but froze at the last moment.
Hue breathed heavy at the hovering razor, the weapon’s cold turning each breath to mist. He held what was left of his sword in a pitiful attempt at defense. All at once the world changed.
"Come Fencer!" shouted the Trumpeter from the outskirts of the village. "Or are you thinking of providing such a performance every day until they grow bored of it?"
Grey eyes took the measure of red. The Fencer plumbed the depths for some remembrance in Hue, some mote of camaraderie or understanding. All he saw was fear.
Yet for the southern swordsman there was recollection, not entirely his own. Those sword memories clattered in his brain. At the edge of recollection he felt something more specific. Fear of a tall, commanding sort. Hue was the spitting image of some entity from the Stranger's past. No wonder he had such a negative reaction to the man.
"That's it; I have places not to be." With that the Trumpeter trudged off. The Fencer took a step back, replaced Dhala in its hangar, and left.
Shouts of rage followed the two vagabonds in the noontime sun. Around them a warm paradise lied about easy times and friendly lands. In the distance the sea spoke in metallic waves. Each step they took brought up the smell of purple grass. When they were certain that no Phosians followed they took the gauge of the land from a half-eroded hill.
“Is that what I think it is?” gestured the far-sighted musician towards a curious wreck.
Upon inspection the unthinkable had happened; there was his scarf. Somehow that particular bit of masonry had fallen all the way down the mountain to this spot. Frayed but serviceable the Trumpeter happily wrapped it about his shoulders.
"On the whole I have gained a mummified hand, a packet of mummy dust, a silk rope of fabulous length and memories beyond compare," witnessed the Trumpeter, as if to an auditor. "What of you Fencer?"
"Thoughts, notions, and passing fragments of other minds." His telling drifted off as he searched the horizon.
The Fencer responded by leading them north, along the narrow lands between Haga Ephos and the eastern sea. The mountain stood resolute in the face of its revelations.
Memories haunted the slopes. It was perhaps unreasonable to believe all the Jhem perished at the top of the monastery. Those wandering fragments might hold onto their memories until the end of time. The Trumpeter fancied that he saw a single black silhouette watching them from the cliffs but said nothing.
It was a whim which took them northwards, to lands of which they knew nothing. There were bare hints of craterous plains where the red demon had worked fabulous sorceries during the Uplifting and rumors of cannibalistic natives.
Behind them the world grew colder and after some time a trio of large, flightless, predatory birds gathered. There they sniffed at the ground and turned north as well, squawking with eagerness for the hunt.