Hue made his way through the monastery’s lower depths, a place of twisting alabaster corridors and alchemical laboratories, cloistered in darkness, surrounded by terrors imagined and real. For now he was alone, no Trumpeter to cast his mad light around and no defense other than the dark. The music above had drawn most of the hungry Jhem topside but if he should meet a lingering horror he had no means of protecting himself.
Somewhere Eluax waited. At least this was the assumption. The great teller had ventured off what seemed like centuries ago, but was little more than an hour ago. There was no sign of the man in the monastery proper and it was doubtful that he’d brave the hungry dead of the outer slopes. If he was anywhere he'd be down here, engaging in whatever his strange motives dictated. Even after breaking his silence the ochre man hadn't told much.
Hue found the mummified octopus room much as he had left it; shattered, strewn with stone debris, the embalmed cephalopod posed in relief against one wall, each arm holding up a treasured silver test. These things glowed, a strange, pale light which burned off at strange angles. Magic infused the night and these radiations caught the physical world like flotsam on a sea wreck.
With no sign of Eluax anywhere Hue decided to follow his nose. The Embalming room wasn't far off.
Whispered shuffles of ragged feet met the crimson man as he was about to take the last bend in the tunnel. Up ahead the birthplace of the Jhem lay, left to the dust of countless ages.
Creeping closer he tried to peer around the corner. Darkness. More sounds, not those of footsteps, but of hushed activity and every now and then a clink of metal or glass. These noises grew neither closer nor farther. For long moments Hue crouched, thinking, trying not to breathe too much. Then he picked up a risky stone.
Casting the rock back down the hall broke the almost pure underground quiet. Immediately he pressed against the wall’s outside curve. Something fast and deathly silent passed by. This close the pungent reagents in the mummy's flesh made his eyes water and tickled his nose.
Stepping from his hiding place he went into the vast embalming room. Picturing how it looked in his memory Hue moved carefully and managed not to stumble into any of the stone operating tables or knock over the various vases, beakers, flasks, alembics, vials, or other apparatus. Living in the dark was becoming second nature.
When he found the table he was thinking of he put out a trembling hand. This is where he was certain he had heard the Jhem working. He clattered over assembled implements wet with an unseen fluid. Murky body smells, sharp copper, sea salt brine, swam with the potent scents of incense, spices and alcohols. Then Hue's hands found warm flesh wrapped in soft linen.
Involuntarily he uttered his shock. Behind, somewhere down the long corridor, a quiet thing turned. Knowing he hadn't long the crimson man pulled at the body. Glass and metal tumbled, ringing on the stone floor. He dragged the body away, towards the other exit he remembered. In his haste he bumped into more tables, knocking over more glass. Sounds of strange chemical interaction burbled up behind him.
Then he was through the doorway. The form he held was light as a child’s. If the Jhem followed he couldn't be sure from all the noise he was making in his frantic retreat. Down the hall faint silvery light showed the way to the octopus room.
Fear greeted this illumination. In his arms was the body of a mummy, newly made, wrapped in strips of black linen. Eluax, it seemed, had joined with the Jhem he so admired.
A moan escaped the bandages. The process was incomplete and the man not yet dead. Hue waited at the edge of the next moment, sensing a future soaked in fear.
Shadow things came eagerly over the roof. Their steps were silent, hungry, illuminated by a bright moon and brighter magic. It seemed there would be no end of the Jhem. They hungered after the Fencer and the Trumpeter and the memories they held.
"Maybe some entertainment will do," said the tall musician, who then put his sterling trumpet to his lips but was stopped by a hand on his shoulder.
"No," began the Fencer setting his face in that manner which denoted stubborn resolve. "You brought them all here and now I'll see if my guess proves true."
"What guess?" The Fencer only responded with his sword, cutting open the roof so the Trumpeter could escape. The tall man wriggled down into the D’gpha’s empty crystalline garden.
At that point the Jhem raced for their prey and atom-edged Dhala met them.
Waterfalls throw great swarms of spray into the air, making the lands around cloudy and fog-bound. Though the icy falls of Haga Ephos stood still, frozen by powerful sorceries and treated by the alchemy of the Golden Order, they still emitted a kind of particulate into the air of the whole mountain. This was the magic they had sensed from the moment they saw the great rainbow spanning the countryside. Clouds of the stuff, at times invisible to normal sight, at others charged with noetic flux, hung heavy in the air. This medium connected the mountain with the surrounding countryside and all things within. This night glowed with the awakening of the D’gpha.
Dhala caught neither bone nor bandage. It left the assaulting Jhem untouched. The Fencer held his crystal blade into the air with both hands while the hungry dead tore and fought over the man and his memories. He did his best to not let this disturb him.
A flash of glassine ice, blue, compressed, it moved like a living thing. Memory of Vael's golem rose like the dawn and then diffused, making the leap from memory to phenomena. That automaton had been sculpted to steal Dhala's essence through the medium of specifically enchanted ice. But the process could work either way, if the will was correctly attuned and a channel provided.
Their minds rode into his on the magicked air. Not the frantic chemical things of the living, but the cold focused intelligences of the dead. It was a mechanical hunger, a need, a program. They came to take memory for safe keeping, as this was their dharma, brewed in the labs far below. What they found was that the act of remembering could be shared.
Gasping with effort the Fencer pulled back on the hungry minds with his own. Through the charged air, by virtue of Dhala's nightmarish lens, he drew down a curtain of ancient memories. It was like forcing oneself to remember something forgotten from childhood, only more intense and visceral. These memories were alien. Taking them flooded the Fencer with a terrible fear, a fear of the self being diluted by the other.
Still, he drew on these threads of thought. Tingling pain crawled along his scalp and Dhala went even colder in his hands.
The dead ceased their attack, which the man realized was part of the process of thought-taking; fear produced chemicals efficacious for their purpose, and violence caused fear. Fear was a primal impulse, something he knew intrinsically, but now he also knew academically as lifetimes of study on the phenomenon entered his mind. There were many arts in the old world, before Winter, and all these lines of inquiry and chains of philosophy flooded in. The ancients resisted at first but then something in the aether broke loose and there was no end to the memories.
Experiences and dreams and emotions crashed in. The eons old lattice of memories spilled and focused on the Fencer. Boundless information overwhelmed his senses. It was like drowning, which he had never experienced but through the memories he could now understand.
Schools of thought raced past like schools of fish. They swarmed and suffocated. He fought his way to the surface of the metaphor, considering the weight of the sun and the truth of the far planets. The information was unfocused, a raging torrent, one fact flowing into the next. Then something light and red fluttered by.
Reaching out his mind he clutched at the thing. It fought between his fingers, seeking escape, just out of his control. Out of the corner of his mind he sensed the nebulous fog of the magic mountain but was too intent on his catch. He struggled his way towards the butterfly, which he remembered knowing, and with his mind straining to the point of destruction finally held it and knew it once more.
Cold wind brought him out of the realm of thought. A crowd of sweet smelling dead surrounded the Fencer. The wind kicked up and they became a billow of dust and ash, bone fragments and streamers of black linen. The ice mummies of Haga Ephos were gone.
The Fencer's mind was anything but quiet though. A fragmentary catalogue of thoughts and lost dreams infused his being. Most of the ancient wisdom was lost in the flood, only a few scraps of trivia remained. Yet once again he remembered green heavens, and the twitch swordplay. There was a certain way to move against a towering foe and a manner in which an atom-edged blade could best be wielded. The Fencer once again possessed the stranger’s peculiar memories.
"What have you done?"
Across the roof the D’gpha stood. His eyes were owl-like, intense, soul-piercing, gone was the absolute calm. The Fencer twitched at the words, sword defensively held outwards.
"Answer me," stated the monk without emotion.
"I've regained what had been stolen from me."
"At the cost of the Jhem. At the cost of tens of thousands of years of history, learning, knowledge and wisdom. You have slain memories on a scale far beyond the capacity of any analogy. Think of what has been lost." The D’gpha's voice was calm and even, but by virtue of a fragment caught in the memory exchange the Fencer realized a mote of rage smoldered in the man.
"It doesn't matter," he responded matter-of-factly.
"Enlighten me as to why this is the case."
"Many reasons," began the Fencer as he went to the edge of the roof to ponder the stars, the names of which he now knew. "It was a broken cycle to begin with. While some learned from the Jhem during the day, others lost their lives when the hungry things came alive at night. For each drop of knowledge imparted a life was lost. The bones on the slopes cannot be disputed."
"This does not devalue their information, especially considering the pre-ice secrets they held." The D’gpha's eyes took on a glimmer. From below music played; the Trumpeter had grown bored. If only he had seen the death of the Jhem.
"I will concede that point, but I am not finished." The Fencer searched out the Nerut sea to the east but could only make out a haze at this distance. "There is the question context. What use are memories and thoughts simply stored? Without the surrounding wisdom such things are nonsense. Right now I know the name of the seas and stars, but I do not know who named them, what they are named after, or their significance. I don't understand it. And now I realize what always bothered me about the memories I had stolen; I didn't understand those either. They were objects held at arm's length across the ocean."
The music sputtered. The Trumpeter had been listening and the Fencer's sudden capacity for self reflection must've rattled the musician's nerves. The D’gpha didn't respond and when the swordsman turned he saw why.
A smile greeted him. Not happy by any estimation, it could only be labeled as enigmatic, and this enigma hid something disturbing.
"Is something wrong?" he asked.
"No," said the D’gpha, "all is a portion of wisdom, even this. It might be time to walk out into the world once more. A new order might be formed."
"What of Winter?" demanded the Fencer, remembering why he had set out on his long journey.
"You mean, you still don't know? For all the wisdom you have waded through, all that you've thrown away…."
The Fencer didn't respond. The indictment implied was true. In the flurry of knowledge he only held on to fragments. Only through will and bloody determination was he able to pull back the memories he sought.
He swayed a bit with the realization that he had ignored the possible Answer to Winter's riddle in order to gain back the cursed otherness of the Stranger's heart. Now the cold air bothered him and his stomach soured. For all the climbing he had done on this mountain it was as if he had never ventured north.
"You don't, do you?"
"You could still tell me."
"All things are possible, but you have given me no reason to help you."
"But you know."
No response but the enigmatic smile.
"Tell me," requested the Fencer. The D’gpha walked up to him, like a child enjoying the pain of a small living thing. "Tell me!"
A demon stirred. The monk laughed. Down below wide metal trumpet sounds blasted out from the frozen monastery charged with sound to go along with light and magic. Despite all he had learned the Fencer responded with violence.
He had only one chance at it. Fragmentary other lives remembered the challenge of the D’gpha, who was as much sorcerer as monk, faster than thought, creative in destruction. Only one chance and Dhala's icicle blade took that moment to dive deep into the heart of the blue-hair youth.
The weapon sank into the flesh bloodlessly. Immediately the body ran like water, upwards, against the sky. The Fencer struck again and this time the flesh boiled, clothes, hair, eyes and all, like water touched to white hot meal. Collapsing from the insane heat the swordsman tried to crawl away. When he looked back another form greeted him.
The mask had fallen and the Stranger stood. The difference was slight, but potent. The D’gpha had been a thing of intense discipline and self control; the Stranger was all emotion, action and magic. The magician at last remembered himself.