Thursday, October 27, 2011

XXV. Cold Futures

            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.
            "That song?"
            "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."
            "Winter's Riddle?"
            "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.
            "What song?" 
            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."
            "By whom?"
            "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.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

XXIV. Crown of Sky

            The world bled, one thing into the other, one moment into the next, the last, a body of events stretching back into the millions of years.  Streaming light echoed and flowed, softly against the eternal night.  Into the dark the Lattice soared.  A strange magic, an alchemy really, of memory defeated time up on Haga Ephos, it even defeated Winter.
            Perhaps it was some intangible magnetism from the mountain which had tilted the Fencer's attentions northward, to the balmy isolation of Winter's equatorial lands, or maybe it was just a whim.  That much was left undecided, as if memory was teaching him to not be a slave of the past.  Perhaps.  It was increasingly difficult to latch onto the fragmented thoughts which passed through his mind as he faced the illimitable sky child in doomed combat.
            The Stranger still didn't understand it was a duel.  He boiled with emotion, bleeding into the scene even as he changed the scenery.  His luminous palace above the monastery grew and shifted.  New works stretched like early morning dawn and hummed into physicality.  This was the fractal palace, now unmasked.  Here the unfiltered creature was at play.
            In the Fencer's hand faceted Dhala glimmered black and indigo, crimson eye-like gems peering out from the glassine substance.  It remembered.
            The Fencer flickered across the floor of shifting tile and brought the point to bear on the Stranger, who did nothing in response.  Impaled, he fell and died, stepped out from a column as it grew and said, "I hate the touch of that thing."
            Turning, the Fencer charged again, and swung through the pillar.  The nightmare blade caught in the support's substance, suddenly syrupy, thick as tar.  The column bled into a protoplasmic thing.  Its black tentacles uncoiled and sought to pull the swordsman toward its triple-beaked mouth. 
            At first he fought, but the creature proved too strong.  An old memory blossomed.  Changing tactics he dove into the oozing thing, sword first.  The blade cut deep and within something broke with a sickening pop.  The creature receded from existence once more.  When it was gone a column of light stood in its place.
            Time weighed down on the Fencer who leaned over, heaving out great gusts of steam into the cold night air.  He regarded the weapon the Stranger hated so much.
            "Funny," he said between gulps of breath, "your memories have proved most beneficial to me."
            "Have we met?"  The Stranger paused, his attention focused.
            "You don't remember?"
            "History is a liar.  Even if I did recall us meeting I couldn’t trust it," responded the Stranger, but the words lacked conviction.  His strength was his emotions, which led him into much doubt. 
            "Then what is this?"  The Fencer presented Dhala.
            "That," began the youth, gaining something of innocence before harshening again, "is a trap.  My answers are prisons.  Whatever agents have sent you--"
            "I'm here through my own desires and agency," interrupted the cobalt-haired man.
            The Stranger smiled.
            "I'm beginning to hate that smile," frowned the Fencer.
            "It's just that you have no idea of the games at play," said the boy with a terrible fatigue.
            "All plots are conspiracies," said the Fencer, throwing the Stranger's own words back to him from across whole of his journey across Winter.  These struck home and the Stranger said nothing for a bit.  The Fencer casually broke down the distance between himself and the youth until he was within striking range.
            "Who told you that?"  The boy flickered between smiling demon and terrified child.
            "You did, some time ago." 
            The boy was like glass, the swordsman began to understand, through him secrets shined.  While he wore the mask of the D’gpha he was opaque but when unveiled much light streamed forth.  When fully revealed the Stranger revealed unprecedented secrets and memories.  Light was emotion and the boy was like glass.  Like snow.  Like snow so compressed that it became a lens through which colors bled, through which memories flowed, and secrets.  The Answer waited.  Winter hesitated.
            The Fencer struck again when his blade could reach, and again the Stranger did nothing, being too wrapped up in his conspiracies and passions.  Besides, the blade couldn't hurt him.  What was violence against a dream?  The goal wasn't to kill or to injure but to make contact, to break the glass and see what memories came spilling out like all the rays of heaven.

            Hue seemed dead up to the point where the Trumpeter laid his addled head against the youth's chest and heard faint whisper of a heart beat.  He slept.  Left abandoned he would've been just another cold corpse frozen on the surface of Winter.  For some reason this made the Trumpeter very sad.
            Looking the boy over he found no evidence of harm, except the mark of the Jhem around the neck.  Hue, as he was, as a personality, may be no more, that personality having been stolen by one of the frozen dead of the mountain.   
            The Trumpeter scouted around for sign of the attacker.  Strange, he remembered the Fencer destroying most of the Jhem.  Ah well, he thought, nothing is ever complete, bits and pieces always end up left behind.  The nature of the tracks leading from unconscious Hue brought him back to the scene before him; they were Eluax's.
            Life was a series of gambles for the Fencer.  He had gambled that he could find safety in the Wondering Mountains when his fellow narwhal hunters had chained the stone of shame to his neck and hunted him along the great sound.  He had risked everything at the steam city of Nock in endeavoring to stop the despot Vael from angering high Summer.  Now he stood at the top of the magic mountain wrestling the secret of Winter from a being of rage and magic.  It is the nature of gambles that eventually one loses; that, after all, is the risk.
            Like a blue-black iceberg plunging into a red sea Dhala fell into the youth's ephemeral flesh.  Blood spilled on the luminous floor.  The boy didn't mind much. 
            They neared the top, ascending by some magician whim.  Each floor parted for their platform like a tumble of toy blocks.   
            Focusing as he had learned to do the Fencer drew out, through the lens of the enchanted ice.  What he drew upon were memories, as the Jhem had with their chemical touch, as the snow golem had through its ensorcelled snow. 
            His will strained and twisted, struggling like the mind does when it wants to hold tight to a dream upon waking.  As a boy the Fencer would hunt fish along the shore where the ice sometimes thinned and melted.  It took determination and endurance to trail one's fingers in the frigid waters, feeling for the faintest brush of scale.  It was death to dive in, but the boy dreamed of doing so, of chasing the fish through icebound underwater caverns.  Though this urge remained unfulfilled but he had been quick to master catching fish.  Now he envisioned hunting memories in the manner of his daydreams.
            That which he sought was crystalline, like so much in the realm of magic and dream.  It wriggled and darted through the waters at the speed of thought.  The waters were of all bright colors, being energy and power and raw, pure emotion.  Ideas and memories held more concrete forms.  The hunter also moved with the grace of the mind unbound.  As his hands closed around the little secret, the high truth of Winter, and the Answer to the Riddle, the fish changed.
            In his hands was the little practice sword which Grey had given him.  Its nostalgia was poison and he threw it down as a serpent, much to the delight of the woman next to him.
            She was well known, close, intimate as family.  A fine gown of golden ribbons spiraled around her shapely form.  On her head she wore the ornate headdress of her station beneath which rainwater hair spilled out wildly.  Most of all he was taken by her eyes, irises of drunken gold, illuminated by her madness.  At her voice the world darkened, the flowers of the humid garden closed and high Summer cooled.
            The Stranger knew he had made a mistake and dove for the sword once more.  This was the game she played, the game of rules, of words and masks.  When he went for the weapon he wasn’t himself any longer.  Again the sword was a fish of wriggling glass. 
            Then the crystal entity grew, frothing the waters, becoming a behemoth of power and facet.  It reared and broke the icy surface.  The Fencer swam upwards and flopped onto the latticed ice floating on the sea of the mind.  Spots danced in his eyes which showed a skewed world, all topsy-turvy.  This was a bad place to be with a rogue bull rampaging about, smashing icebergs, hunting for blood.  Its horn was a fractal spiral.  It charged up through the ice and into his self.
            The wound wasn't physical, couldn't be in this place.  The whale, the sea, the ice and the Fencer collapsed from metaphor into pure magic.  Dhala, the lens, held fast in the Stranger’s flesh, though it was the Fencer who was impaled.  Instead of pure emotion poured in, unfiltered, absolute, crowding every corner of his being.  Then the Stranger opened his heart and everything disintegrated before the deluge. 
            There was no doubt in the Trumpeter's mind; Hue had been dragging Eluax from the building.  Then, at the point where he lay, there had been a struggle and Hue had fallen.  The attacker was the painted teller, who then stalked away towards the far edge of the cliff. 
            They needed to escape but the bridge to this place was now only smoke.  This left one way down from the spire.
            With a sigh the Trumpeter hefted up unconscious Hue and began the long trudge towards the lowest edge.  From there he would think of some way to get down and fulfill his promise to the Fencer.  Hopefully the Stranger wouldn't follow.  That youth’s scattered thoughts were the only hope any of them had. 
            "You thought to do to me as you did to the Jhem."
            Even through his disoriented senses the Fencer could feel the cold accusation in the Stranger's voice.  He was having a difficult time sorting out his sight from his sound, and his touch and taste, but he was certain of the quiet anger being leveled his way.  Emotion had overloaded his senses.  Pure sentiment, absolute passion, crystalline and liquid, the raw stuff of the Stranger’s heart.  Before this unreason all things withered or combusted. 
            "You thought to do to me as you did to the Jhem!"  The Stranger screamed it this time. 
            The image of the youth settled: eyes the color of stoked coals, hair like twilight, features wide and expressive.  Again they were in the light-paned palace, as if they had ever left.  The magician contorted with rage, large eyes wide enough to swallow heaven.  Holding his tongue, the Fencer waited. 
            "Your gamble has failed, now what do you intend to do?"  The words held a trick.  An answer could tip the moment this way or that.
            "I have to know," said the Fencer.
            "Know what?"
            "The Answer to Winter's Riddle."
            "What does that matter?"  The Stranger curled his nose at the notion. 
            This was a different being.  The boy acted much the same as he had when released from his petrified prison but with slightly different temper.  He was a bit more petulant.  It could be recent events, the unmasking of the D’gpha, or maybe something else entirely which caused this shift.  Still, the Fencer reminded himself that there had been two such creatures in the forbidden lands upon their first meeting: one imprisoned, one a demi-mute; one of pure power, the other longed for death.  The man was a chimera.
            "It is everything, but you wouldn't understand," said the Fencer as he rose to his feet.  Fatalism was all he had left now that his last gamble had failed.  "You even know the Answer, but won't tell me.  You can't die, or don't want to.  You are as far away from Winter as the sun is from us, or the stars.  It’s difficult to talk to you."
            The Stranger, who had been pacing about, soaking in whatever unseen nous employed his attentions, turned back to the Fencer.
            "Flattery now?" 
            Confusion overtook the Fencer.  It was impossible to understand the Stranger's whims.
            "But you do know the Answer?" he said in a desperate effort to regain some hold on the course of words.
            "I could make one up."
            "What good would that be?"
            "It would be as good as any other," sighed the youth.  "Another simulation."
            Like a Diorama, thought the Fencer recalling the mindscapes and memory traps he and the Trumpeter had encountered along their long journey.  Some were as real as what he felt now and only broke down in terms of comparison.  Some were as real as memory. 
            They had achieved the top now.  Above them a deep blue night sky framed the narrow arch leading towards the last and highest palace room, a balcony really.  Light as a feather the Stranger crossed over and the Fencer followed, deep in thought.
            Puffing with effort the Trumpeter managed to get wounded Hue to the lowest edge of the cliff before collapsing.  More than ever he wished that the Fencer was here; he always did the heavy lifting.  When he had caught his breath the mountain man went to survey the way down.
            As he feared the spire housing the Golden Order was nearly sheer, probably hand-carved along certain aesthetic lines.  Alone he might manage the climb, but without help he could never get the crimson man down.  A smell of spices wafted in and the Trumpeter looked behind him with a jerk.
            There stood something like a Jhem, black-bound, smelling of rare oils and incense, but this was no walking skeleton with only a few scraps of flesh and tufts of hair around the bones.  This creature stood well-muscled, a bit on the short side, and moved with a practiced grace.
            The Trumpeter went for his trumpet but the thing was too quick for him.  In an instant the sterling instrument was in its hands.
            "Ok, now I want to see you play the damn thing," laughed the Trumpeter as he tried to think of something.
            He was utterly unprepared for the Jhem to hand the instrument back.
            "Well, if you insist," gaped the musician.
            The creature uncoiled something from around its form.  Soon hundreds of meters of fine silk rope lay at their feet.  When it was finished the undead monk tied one end to a stout pillar of alabaster and the other around Hue as a sort of harness.  The Trumpeter looked on, not knowing what to do.
            When preparations were finished the two men, one living, the other not, lowered dreaming Hue down the side of the cliff.  And when that was done the monk drifted into shadow and was gone.

            The uppermost floor of the palace was a garden of flower-like crystals, or flowers which had become petrified through the long action of time or sorcerous caprice.  It seemed a copy of the D’gpha's meditation chamber, or perhaps the reverse was true.  Realization sprung upon the Fencer.  More copies. 
            Going to the edge the Fencer saw all in stark objectivity.  The monastery looked to be the size of a modest hut and the peaks and ridges of mighty Haga Ephos took on the aspect of a snow castle.  If he strained he could see faint glimmering light, Phos, perhaps.  The lands around were dark, somewhat shrouded in clouds, gauzy things no bigger than blankets.  From up here all things were simplified, objectified.
            Devotion had failed the quest, as had rage, faith, innocence, wonder, death, cunning and madness.  The Fencer was left to consider a blank space, an open world, like the one which spread out before him.  It could just be that this was not the place to find the Answer despite feeling so close, after all he and the others had been through.  To not have a satisfying end to the journey unplugged his heart, leaving him hollow enough that the high mountain winds seemed ready to lift him off into the sky.  His breathing sped up and Winter possessed him.
            The man from the village of the narwhal hunters leapt the few strides it took to reach the Stranger and met the youth's smile with Dhala's nightmare blade.  The strike took the boy at the shoulder and went downwards at an angle, through heart and rib and viscera.  The boy's blood was thin, watery, and didn't last.  Soon it turned to glowing insects.  He was dead for a second but gave it up quick.
            The body sat up, eyes blazing.  A sphere hazed into existence around the Stranger and then blasted against his attacker.  Dhala froze most of the spell and the Fencer charged again.  This time he sheered the top of the youth's head clean off.  Red caught on the wind and splattered into art.  Still this wasn't enough. 
            The swordsman kept at the corpse, splitting it down, shattering the crystals of the garden with wayward swings.  There was no goal, only blood and mayhem and pointless destruction.  This was Winter.  The Riddle told.  This was despot kingdoms fighting petty wars for scant resources and starving wretches cut down by the cold as they fled.  This was each child exposed at birth to the frozen sky and all ruins of warmer days playing home to savages waiting to prey on the weak and thoughtful.  This was Winter.  Suddenly the corpse froze, turning to red glass and white crystal.
            Nothing matters, thought the Fencer as his arm gave out and he bent panting in the thin air.  Now the Stranger wore a gown of red and was whole.  Looking down he saw his own corpse lying there.  There was no more perfect escape. 
            When the Fencer swung again the Stranger grabbed his neck and tossed him away.  He slid to a stop at the edge of the balcony where the wind tore at his clothing.
            The Stranger tasted the air with dreamy eyes drunk on conflict.  To say anything would be to break the moment, the brittle, crystalline moment.  An emotion to the side of hope came over the man as he awaited the magician's whim.
            One, long, lanky arm rose up, the crimson garment falling away to reveal parchment flesh.  With this motion of command the crystal sword flew to the magician’s grasp.  Nightmare black glimmered in the radiance cast by the palace.  The Stranger held Dhala; it was his, after all.
            Or was it?
            Does anyone rule memory?  The notion came to the Fencer with a chill.  There are happenings and events, but these are ephemeral things, leaving only wreckage and skeletons witnesses as evidence.  It was given that people brought the stories of the past with them through life, but it was reasonable, as the Jhem had shown, that this passage through time warped and twisted everything. 
            The present was a copy of a copy of a copy of that noetic pinprick event known as the past, but those events were always happening, constantly, and many were the witnesses, and many more were the listeners.  How many times had the men in his village argued over the results of the hunt?  Embellishing the size of their catch and belittling their peers was common practice.  Each was a storyteller, even if they had no evidence, no direct experience with the story being told.  No memory except that which exists as a copy.  The past lay in flux, the truth mutable, wide open, one moment bleeding into the next. 
            The Fencer decided that he had as much claim on the sword, and the nightmare memory held within, as the Stranger, the one whose ancient dream made up Dhala's matter.
            Before the swordsman could say anything the Stranger tossed the weapon back.  It clattered to a stop next to the Fencer.  He couldn't help but smile.
            "I wasn't lying about the curse," said the youth.  A weird mood showed on his face. This was not a person who could hide his feelings well, but his emotions were complex, enigmatic. 
            Sensing that the boy was about to leave the Fencer said, "You don't know, do you?"
            "Nobody does."
            "You told me that before.  I thought…I thought things might be different now."
            "Did I?" frowned the Stranger.  "I'm not always myself, or maybe I'm yet to be."
            "And the curse?"
            "The journey destroys the goal," said the boy with a softly evil smile.  "I'd get moving soon, if I were you.  All my dreams swiftly fall to ruin."
            For the briefest fraction of a second the Stranger stood framed by sky.  When he vanished his palace listed and fell.