The crystal garden resonated and glowed while the Trumpeter desperately wished to be anywhere else but here, at the top of one of the largest mountains on the whole of Winter, a place where knowledge went to die. All possible options spread out before him but any leap towards those far freedoms would end only in death. Below lay the great frozen slopes of Haga Ephos and above, well, above pure dreams boiled into the night air. Decided, he clambered up the wrecked ceiling in order to face the dreams directly.
A gust of mummy dust greeted him, a face full of the stuff. Coughing and sputtering the Trumpeter could only barely make out the shape of the Fencer shivering uncharacteristically in the cold air and beyond him a swarming collection of plasma, energy and emotion. Instinctually he knew this to be the Stranger.
It flowed up and made a home in the air. The boy emerged from the roiling chaos, his shimmer cloak of shapes frothing with constant transformation. Amongst the light of his magics he reached up his arms and sculpted strange architectures from a night awash with powerful radiations.
The Fencer’s shudders lessened as the afflicting heat passed. Half-cooked by the advent of the Stranger he struggled to gain some sort of mental footing on the situation. The light-like child above expressed this impossibility.
Sighing inwardly, the Fencer realized an internal turmoil, the curse of self reflection. Perhaps this was the lotus' work, or some mote of grace gained from the fragmented lives he had absorbed with the passing of the Jhem, but he had to face the fact that the danger before them was entirely of his own doing. The hungry dead had been trouble enough, but now they dealt with the intractable rage of a magus, a youth who tore at reality like a child does paper, vanishing lives and mountains with a mere wave of silvery caprice. The Stranger seemed to exist at some sort of tangent from normal reality, crossing over at odd angles into odd places. And the Fencer knew that if he had never unmasked the D’gpha their troubles would've been lesser. His violence had brought forth the magician just as Winter's Riddle brought out the worst in man.
Now the Stranger built a house. A wondrous thing of solid light, it phased into existence, first forming as hazy lights from the air's loose energy, then coalescing into solid crenellations, spans, stairs, floors, arches, balustrades, cubes, spheres, rings, and other forms spurred with crystalline feathering and pixilated emanations. This was an expression of pure, untempered emotion, illuminating the equatorial lands for kilometers.
Then the boy drifted upwards, towards the top, his matter heedless of the seemingly solid palace. Once he was gone the onlookers set out to plan with cunning intent.
"We should leave at the soonest possible time," stated the Trumpeter tiredly, numb from all he had witnessed.
"I've seen that before," said the Fencer, gesturing upwards to the luminiferous building. "I know the way through, if we could reach it."
"I've regained my memories."
"And this monstrosity is from that boy's head?"
"It's," began the Fencer, pausing to consider his next word, "reminiscent. All things change across the progression of memory through time."
"So it's based on a memory?"
"As much as my swordsmanship is based on my experience of his experiences."
"Why tempt a force of nature?" argued the Trumpeter. "There is nothing you can do to harm him."
"I have my reasons."
The Trumpeter looked pained. "Then share them with me! I deserve better."
"It's all my fault," said the swordsman bitterly, much to the musician's delight. "And I suppose me saying so is quite funny."
"No," smiled the Trumpeter, "Just a bit of a change, that's all." The Fencer didn't respond. Perplexed by his own development.
The house of magic hovered tantalizingly close to the slanted roof of the monastery, yet there was no clear way to reach those illuminated rooms above. The Fencer worried over the problem until he noticed that the Trumpeter had vanished.
Looking about he saw a tangled thing latched onto the mountain’s highest spire. The white stone seemed too smooth to climb but somehow the mountain man progressed up this last reach of Haga Ephos to where the palace hung close. If one were to gain enough height a leap from one to the other was possible, mad, but possible.
The Fencer attempted the same feat but found no purchase on the glassy rock. Fear of being left behind rattled him.
"How did you manage to climb this thing?" he shouted after his friend, but received no answer. Lit up by the hanging structure, intense concentration showed on the Trumpeter's face. The Fencer didn't think it possible. After recovering from his wound it seemed that the world now practiced standing on its head. Transformation from one moment to the next produced unimaginable mutations. The future was disfiguring.
About thirty meters up the Trumpeter stopped his climb, tensed and then cast himself off, and over. He strained towards an under slung balcony, part of the fragmentary architecture at the lower reaches. He landed hard, arms scrambling for grip. He lost his grasp and slipped down, half caught on an outcrop which he used to flip himself back towards the structure. There he somehow managed to grab a hold of a lower portal and vanished into the palace.
Below, the Fencer almost floated with pent up energy. He knew he should be up there to come to terms with the youth, however that might be accomplished. He didn't notice the scarf which had been lowered until it brushed against his face.
Grinning from another ovoid opening the Trumpeter stood braced and ready to haul up the Fencer.
"For once this thing comes in useful," grinned the swordsman as he began hauling himself up. The coarse knitting of the now vanished mountain people held, not that the lean Fencer weighed much.
"I'm offended," replied the Trumpeter, "and if I wasn't too busy holding up your ponderous bulk I would find some way of revenging myself upon your person."
The Fencer ascended into the palace of light. Shape and color welcomed, as well as the Trumpeter's scruffy face. There was something wrong about the structure, divergent from his tangent memories of the place. It was still whole, for one, not shattered or in ruin. Violence clouded a memory hemmed in swords. Also, it was still, frozen, and that disturbed his notions more thoroughly.
They made their maddening way up. Doors opened on floor and ceiling alike, stairways curled back on themselves while ramps jutted out into the night sky. This the Fencer did not remember. Due to structural insanity they often found that in order to move upwards it became necessary to explore downwards. No reason or intuition survived the halls and corridors, which made a certain inexplicable sense to the Fencer.
At last they found the Stranger. They had thought to make for the very top, the pinnacle of the building where a long jutting protrusion held court, but they were only halfway up when they stumbled across the mage.
It was in a modest series of rooms where the travelers though that they might be able to find a way to the next floor through the sitting room, or perhaps the balcony. Instead they were greeted by the blue-haired youth where he reclined on the middle of the floor, searching the air for invisible things. The second they entered he whirled his red eyes towards the intruders.
"Why did you bring him here?" he demanded.
"Who? Me?" gaped the Trumpeter.
"The crimson man." The Stranger pulled himself up and looked about with eyes hungry for trouble, seeing betrayal everywhere. He was a hunted thing.
"That is Hue the Phosian, though he probably wouldn't find that description flattering," explained the Trumpeter. The Fencer stood quietly. All his instincts told him to look for weaknesses and opportunities, to finish this insane conversation with bladed punctuation. His reason somberly reminded him that death, for this creature, was mutable."
The Stranger grimaced. It was complicated. Everything was complicated. He had sought a simple affirmation of his suspicions and had received instead usual, complicated, life.
"Why not use your powers to determine the truth of his nature?" asked the Fencer. "We only know what we experience, but you have faculties which we can't comprehend."
"You'd tempt me into another trap?"
"What do you fear?"
"I'm not so easily fooled. I remember. I remember the whole." This explanation bewildered the two travelers.
"Why did you hide yourself as the D’gpha? Were you always he? Or did you dream up the whole of Haga Ephos on a whim a day before we arrived?" The Fencer played a dangerous game. He couldn't afford to provoke the youth. There was no profit in dying, but he had everything to gain if provided reason. If the top of the mountain could be explained then everything below would fall into understanding. There was no higher peak than this castle made of memories.
"You don't understand," said the boy who seemed to twist and grow demonic in the light-bound room. His emotions swelled visibly. "Memories swarm from what has passed and what is to come and even what might be. It was a green hill, open in all directions. Cool winds tossed about, like spring or other myths. At the horizon mountains ringed in infinite succession. I could move in all directions but I chose not to. Yet still I was taken."
"The garden?" asked the Fencer.
"No," frowned the youth, who didn't elaborate.
There were tears in the boy's eyes now. Then his pain became everyone’s. An excruciating mote impressed itself on all those present. Down the mountain Hue felt the pangs too and those in Phos and even the superstitious villagers far off were suddenly waylaid by reasonless despair.
The Fencer knew nothing of which the youth spoke. It seemed his stolen memories only touched upon so much, the martial and the destructive. But the boy shared all, in that raw, unfiltered format of knowing. It was as if the creature they saw now, a form he wore at a whim, was only a sort of permeable bubble, through which strange emotions and energies bled across space and time. He had some innate alchemy which let him transfer knowing to others, even without thinking. The D'gpha, the Golden Order, both were fictions cast upon Winter’s face. And now he was set free and trouble rose in echo.
"I cannot speak of much," he began, calming a bit through the act of trauma shared. "But I wish to accuse you. You've undone me. This is true knowledge and understanding; despair, rage, frothing emotion. I wished to give something better to a world which assaulted me at every turn and a creation that wishes nothing but my absolute destruction. So I donned the persona of a D'gpha, wearing another life like a shroud. Here I sought discipline and reflection."
"You failed," stated the Trumpeter with such bluntness even the Fencer was surprised. "You bleed out the edges, down the mountain. The waters took on your radiations and those downstream gained aspects of your drama. I see now. You recognize Hue because he bears some likeness to some entity in your past. You fled from yourself into another, sealed yourself behind impossible doors and fictions, yet even then you leaked out the edges."
This was another intuitive leap by the musician, quite lengthy at that. It felt right though. In light of what they had seen on the icy tropics it make sense. The Fencer went with it.
"You gave the world something more than the knowledge disseminated by the Jhem; you gave out colors of your being." Now the Fencer pushed further. "This is Winter, you must understand. There is no peace, no green hills of infinite possibility, no places to hide, just the cold terminus of death and isolation while high Summer glides on fantasy and dream. The pain we experience forces us to deal with the stark realities of Winter's Riddle. Memory must be equally stark and clear and grounded."
"I don't agree," said the Trumpeter before even the Stranger could answer. "Memories are constructed things, stark and clear and grounded as much as we wish them to be. It's a choice to remember the Answer to the Riddle. It's a choice to conjure up the corpses seen on the road from each settlement, or to endure the violence of your fellows with a smile and a laugh. Memory is a tool which can be used in many ways."
Silence reigned. The Fencer looked at the Trumpeter as a man betrayed, yet hushed within, considering this rhetoric. He didn't know which man to attack first.
"You are both wrong," decided the Stranger, whose eyes glimmered with unspent tears, but there was also strength in his voice. "There is no reason behind memory. I understand the Jhem now. Whatever you decide, whatever reality holds as absolute, both are simply masks upon the endless cycle. I didn't realize it until now. I should've, or maybe I have and only now remember. A dance and play, of day to day, of life to life and dream to dream and nothing but the shadow beneath. Cold nothing lies under the snows Fencer, there is your Answer."
Too late the Trumpeter tried to stop his friend. Demon hate filled the man’s eyes and pulled at the swordsman’s mouth as he leaped upon the youth who had turned his colorful back on his two icebound guests. Dhala's point hit a globe of force surrounding the Stranger and made the sound of glass clinking against glass. Where the weapon struck feathers grew.
"What are you doing Fencer?" demanded the Trumpeter. "Answer simply before I decide to leave you to your demon."
Ignoring this, the man struck again, an overhand blow which came down hard on the young man's azure head. Blood and bone and pale skin separated cleanly down the middle. The Stranger smiled a split smile.
The palace began to change. Rooms grew and divided, linked by halls and stairs which swelled accordingly or broke and fell away.
The boy healed and said, "I suppose this a fair rebuttal, though I am destroyed by being myself again. Now, how can I return this favor?"
"What do you mean?" seethed the Fencer. Something about the youth elicited such rage.
"A punishment is in order."
"Why?" asked the Trumpeter.
"Is reason needed? An answer? As you have shown, it is far more cathartic to act."
The room split into a wide gallery as the boy considered death and rebirth. Up they went with the rising floor, transitioning towards the highest balcony. The terminus loomed. Around them luminous masonry grew and fell away.
"Go now," hissed the Fencer. The Trumpeter realized he was being spoken to. "If I can't survive the Riddle then someone else will need to find the Answer."
"But I don't want to find the Answer!" protested the Trumpeter.
"You always said that the inhabitants of the village of the narwhal hunters were sorcerers and devil worshipers. If you don't fulfill my final wish then you’ll receive the fullness of my death curse."
Before the Trumpeter could respond his companion was off charging through the tumult. Nimbly the man sprang from tile to tile, scrambling off a bit of floor as it collapsed and landing on a rising dais.
The Stranger smiled, as if to an old friend. He held out his hand in greeting and the Fencer lopped it off. The limb flared up and his wound healed, another arm flickering into place. So the struggle went; the Stranger barely understanding the nature of violence and the Fencer unable to educate his opponent more fully on this matter.
The Trumpeter ran, slid and tumbled down. It was a struggle; the whole place evolved upwards, in opposition to Haga Ephos, which spread its energies down as disseminated knowledge and flowing radiation. Fear was an old guide though, and the musician had much practice in fleeing. His only hesitation came from thoughts of his friend, the Fencer, and whatever mad plan the swordsman had, if any. It might become important to remember the man, as it could be all that remained.
In a jumble of tangled scarf and flashing trumpet he found his way to the bottom of the luminous palace. It was a place haunted by a veiled past, created by a creature of whimsy and dream. Whatever the case only the Stranger knew the truth of the matter.
At the base dozens of meters separated the lowest floor of the palace and the upmost roof of the monastery. Looking at his scarf, he sighed, and tied it to a jutting fragment of ornate stairway, hoping it wouldn't change soon. The Trumpeter slid down and left his ancient vestment hanging. It represented a vain hope.
Silence dominated the monastery. Only dust and lost memories drifted along the halls. He sped downwards as fast he could in search of Hue. When he did there was little hope.
Out past the grand entrance, along the cliff which led to those buildings closest the monastery proper, a form lay in the snow. The Stranger's conjuration lit up the night and the Trumpeter could see clearly the wrappings and tunic and long scarlet hair. Hue had dragged something with him to the spot he lay and from that point a pair of familiar prints wandered away.