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.
"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.
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?"
"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.