"There is a bother in my brain," said the boy suddenly after they had been in the tunnels for some minutes.
"Do go on. I'm an avid ponderer of such things," replied the Trumpeter glibly. The tall musician was all tangled shadows in the dim light swinging from the Fencer's lantern.
"I've had dreams," began Rel, mustering all his words, "and I see things. Something, a power, enters through my eyes and I feel it in my chest. What is this?"
The Trumpeter let out a low sigh of effort. The Fencer crept ahead of them, tensed and ready for trouble. The Keeper had gotten away, to one of the other guard outposts ringing the Slavemaster's lands. Soon the slavers would be alerted and it was best if they were prepared to face full measure of the hospitalities for which the degenerate flesh trader had become infamous.
"Describe to me some of these bothers," the tall man said at last.
"I feel it most in dreams, though it often carries over into waking life where it clashes irresolutely with my normal experience. Yet, sometimes even the waking world evokes a similar sensation, like when a blue sky stretches over the Glacier of Lamm, sun sparking off the ice. And sometimes it's just the sound the world makes when the wind dies down, the Gurfulging is quiet, and nothing at all moves. Up, above, I can hear faint traces of music, as if the points of light up there are singing."
"Ah," responded the Trumpeter thoughtfully. "That is beauty."
Rel considered this a moment but shook his head. "I know of beauty; it is the Slavemaster's great obsession. The reason he takes knives to his chattel, carving them into more pleasing shapes through his arts. It is the reason for the separation of Winter and Summer, and the entirety of his role as a trader of human beings. At the very least his notion of beauty, and mine, are two very different things."
The Trumpeter was about to reply, walking almost backwards to face the youth, when he bumped into the Fencer. The swordsman hushed his companion.
"Tell me," began the Fencer, leveling his piercing eyes directly on the boy, "of the Slavemaster's trophies have you ever seen something called the Fairxi?"
"No, but there are many things I've witnessed in the Winter estate which defy my words. Can you describe this thing?"
"Clea's book notes that the Fairxi has the image of a person, can move of its own accord and is formed of an elegant twisting of metal cords or fibers."
A bit of eagerness came into the swordsman’s eyes.
"Not to offend the dead but your lady's script is byzantine and in cipher. Clues we puzzle out may be more formed from our own interpretation, or wishful thinking, rather than textual facts. We know Clea found the Fairxi frozen in a lake, beneath a ruined city, behind three sealed blocks of granite, trapped in a cage, and worshipped by a band of lemur-men. She sold the thing to the Slavemaster, who had hired her in the first place. Presumably she intended to keep the treasure for herself but was forced to leave it here for reasons of which we have no knowledge."
"Clea?" asked Rel, confused.
"A deceased acquaintance," explained the Trumpeter while looking at the silent Fencer. "She was an avid collector of things from before the Uplifting and in her memory we strive to recover the treasures she's hidden away on the face of Winter. In doing so we may discover the great secret."
"We had better get to it," said the Fencer tersely before turning and once again leading the way into the frigid dark.
Smooth and triangular, the tunnels they crept through had been cut through the rock by the work of slaves. As they approached what Rel termed the estate of Winter these workings took on increasingly extravagant tones. At the same time the stink of thousands of bodies, and their products, grew and grew. Their noses watered partly from this stench and partially from the cold, which seeped in from the stone walls.
As they went Rel explained to them the design of the Slavemaster's holdings. In hushed tones he told of how the guard outposts outside were not meant to dissuade all visitors, but to corral them towards the large, northern opening, away from the crags. It was imperative that all travelers enter through the underground rather than overland. All who wished to ascend to the Slavemaster's Summer phase had to first pass through his Winter, and few managed that feat uninvited.
When they at last exited the tunnels and entered the estate proper the passage had grown. Countless fastidious hands had etched strange wonder into the walls. Tessellated depictions spread across the surface like the hieroglyphs of some lost language, hinting at what lay beyond.
The lower halls of the estate of Winter were no place for the human mind. Countless tunnels, all carved to perfection, shaped into various geometric schema, clustered up the walls and ceilings of the great vaulted rooms as tubes and shafts. There were empty halls entered only by sheer drops, existing for the sake of expression or whim. The place was honeycombed with such workings, most of which were unlit, looming voids, dark gateways into the master’s psyche. This was all by the Slavemaster's design and created by the endless hands of slaves.
The Fencer pulled the shutter down on their lamp. Here there was light, of a cold, chemical blue sort. It burned from various censors hung in peculiar places. The Slavemaster's aesthetic was dubious but it provided numerous shadows in which they could hide from the sudden bustle of humanity they found.
There were numerous guards; strangely armored beings of either gender, clothed in molded steel and bearing serrated weapons. They each wore helmets with conical face plates, giving them the impression of cruel and predatory birds.
Yet, dwarfing the guards in terms of numbers were the slaves themselves. These were the lowest and most desperate of the icebound. Men and women and children in various states of ragged undress huddled together in pits or worked the endless stones. The guards watched them with only passing interest; these were worn down people with no fire left. The estate of Winter went on like this for vault after vault, a treasure house of life being worn away like diamonds to dust.
Even the shadows were populated. Here the dead lay stacked and sprawled in a frozen orgy. Some were obviously escapees who went off into the dark cold to find ultimate freedom from their captors.
The Fencer and the Trumpeter were increasingly unnerved by the estate. With a quiet hiss the swordsman confronted the boy.
"You mentioned the Art before," he began feverishly, "is this Slavemaster a mage?"
"No, but he has a way with flesh. Through his drugs and his knife, his acids, chemicals and regimens he can sculpt bodies into shapes more fitting to his desires."
The Fencer let the boy go but it was clear he didn't entirely accept this explanation. This was a man who needed to see things for himself.
Rel led them on, towards the ascent of Summer. Curious thoughts plagued his mind. For so long he had been in the accepting absolute of cold death that now, with his freedom won, his mind wandered, his feet too. A savage hand dragged him back.
It was just in time too, as a sleek thing of radiant flesh strolled past with a train of guards. In his musings Rel had carelessly left the shadows.
The others were taken in by the creature's uncanny beauty, another testament to the Slavemaster's work. It was ostensibly female, ethereal, with long hair of white gold and fair features gilt with precious metals. She wore a gauzy drape which evoked the imagination. Surely this was a Summer being.
"As the streets of many cities have taught me, I'd wager that is a man," whispered the Trumpeter appraisingly. "Fifty bits of silver says so."
"I'll have your money then," smirked the Fencer. "Though she has a bit of the androgyne's grace I say it is a woman." Then he turned to Rel, "who is that?"
"She's a Summer thing, but I can't say why she is down here."
"A Summer thing…," mused the Fencer, though the place he thought of was considerably different than the boy’s.
Resolved to this mystery they followed the gilded woman through the vaults. For a time they passed along endless tunnels, all worked in that same alienist fashion. The full breadth of the Slavemaster's holdings staggered the mind, even more so considering he was but a man, or at least lacked those powers which differentiated those of the floating world from the icebound.
The air took on a savor, and despite the cold light a bit of warmth drifted in. The luminous creature they stalked entered a misty hall and when they followed they knew the source of the smell.
Here the kitchens of the Slavemaster bubbled and burbled. There was but one meal for those in the forlorn depths of the estate; a heady stew which the travelers had tasted earlier that morning. In the fog bodies moved with the frenetic effort of stirring. Great vats opened in the floor, heated from below by massive furnaces. Hypnotized by the atmosphere and the dangerous cauldrons the travelers almost stumbled into the train of guards who had stopped at the center of all the activity.
Despite the danger the Fencer crept forward and hid under a table used in the butchering of whatever meat went into the broth. Here he could spy the woman, who glowed as an eerie specter in the mist.
"Alright dame Iyali, have you seen enough?" sniggered a strangely muscled guard from behind his face cone. The woman swept her sapphire eyes about, coldly appraising the grisly workspace.
"I see liter after liter of stew here," she began but was cut off by the guard's loud sigh.
"You see, my lady, our stocks vary so. At times we are rich in cattle, at others poor. This is not a matter of feeding all to top off their bellies; we need to meter our output in regards to input."
"I want you to double the rations for the slaves," she said imperiously.
"A fine joke, if ever there was one."
"I could always bring it up in passing with the Slavemaster himself," she said, conspicuously busying herself with the various baubles and charms woven into her hair. This instantly quieted the guard, who nodded at one of the dull-eyed kitchen slaves who receded out of sight.
"We had best return to Summer," he said, "they have need of the killing floor if we are to follow your wishes."
The kitchen slave returned with a wiry man in tow. He wore remnants of traveler's clothes and had a desperate look on his face. His shackled feet shuffled along obediently. When he saw the blood stained table before him, under which the Fencer hid, he began to feebly fight. It was no use. He was long exhausted by his imprisonment.
At the edge of the scene the woman hesitated. She had no great love of vile spectacle, but some responsibility made her watch. Cold, filthy hands slammed the man's head against the butcher block and a cleaver rose to strike.
With two legs gone the table suddenly collapsed and the knife hit only filthy wood. The man slid to safety and in the gloom the Fencer stood up from where he had rolled. The guards cried out and went after him, the swordsman was glad to meet their charge. He had seen enough of Winter for one day and knowledge of his breakfast had given him a sour stomach.
Rel had never seen anyone fight the slavers before. None ever escaped the Gurfulging's clutches. Everything in his mind said it was impossible to face so many and live, but his mind proved a liar.
The strength and grace of the attackers confounded the Fencer at first. These bodies were tailored for violence; muscles lean and dense, lightning quick and resilient. The first guard leaped across a good ten meters of frothing stew. Another lifted up a mighty circular cutting blade and threw it like a discus. Still more drew their weapons, tasting the air with lewd tongues and battle-eager eyes. These acts unnerved the Fencer, but not the memories of another he kept in his mind.
His wicked blade split the flying guard in half, both parts continuing on their inertial journey. With a delicate grace the Fencer then caught the flying blade and sent it back, cleanly splitting the offending mutant's head from his body. But there were more, still more.
The Fencer fell back under the mass of strangely sculpted flesh. At first he had trouble gauging their inhuman, frenetic movements, which lashed out with wickedly curved steel. He took a few nasty cuts to go along with the gash he received from the Gurfulging earlier that morning, but in doing so he managed to gain some measure of their skills.
With a sudden shift he went on the offensive. He spit the first surprised guard while another was pushed into one of the great bubbling vats of stew, screaming as he cooked in his armor. He darted past the remaining opponents, who gladly reeled from the black crystal in his hand.
Rel was entranced by the battle. The swinging steel, the misty forms leaping about in a sort of play, this contest of moments driving against the absolute future of a life of slavery. The Fencer carved his own path and it meant that every moment was a conflict, the future being split into as many possibilities as there were facets to the jeweled sword. The boy turned to ask the Trumpeter concerning these strange new thoughts but found the shadows empty.
Instead, the musician was out in the open, with some sort of weapon at the gilded woman's throat, standing atop an unconscious guard. The boy caught up about the same time as the Fencer.
"Always a step ahead Trumpeter," said the swordsman dryly. He pushed their little group ahead, away from the quickly gaining guards.
"Who are you?" said the woman creature, eyes casting about for some means of escape.
"I am the Trumpeter," said the musician, "and my companion is the Fencer, and my other companion is newly freed Rel, former keeper of the Gurfulging. We come for a thing of beauty and since like attracts like I believe you can lead us to it. I would ask of the 'Fairxi,' but first there is a little matter of some wagered silver to which you can lend some aid."
The slavers were upon them again, though the Fencer had them stopped at a narrow tunnel where only a few could face him at a time. Rel knew it was only a short matter before the guards wormed their way through side passages in order to cut them off. Growing frustrated, the Fencer disarmed one attacker with the flick of the wrist and caught the man's dropped sword in his off hand.
"Here," he said, as he pressed the blade into Rel's only good hand. "Keep those fellows busy in there for a moment. Just fight the air."
Stunned, Rel could offer no protest. His mind narrowed, a focus came over his whole being. He leaned against one stone wall, using it to block off his open left side and as the guards attempted to round a corner he plucked at their flesh with the scimitar he held in jittering hands.
Distantly, behind him, negotiations were being made. He heard loud voices and histrionics. This seemed to last a thousand years.
The Fencer returned, alone, and together they broke off combat and ran. There was no sign of the Trumpeter or the gilded woman, just the tenebrous halls of the Slavemaster's Winter estate stretching off into shadow and pale blue light. The swordsman led the way.
The air tumbled with guards and stranger forms. Things like the Gurfulging, expressions of the Slavemaster's art, danced towards them on numerous legs and watched with eyes upon eyes. The Fencer's strong legs were up to the task of running from this assorted madness, but Rel's weren't.
The boy tripped on one of the many stepped inclines embossing the floor. The rush of strange bodies grew closer, louder, a tide of leaping death. But the crash never came.
Suddenly the Fencer was over him, blade up to the hands in the body of the first flesh beast. A tearing swing brought the weapon clear and in the same motion cleaved through a guard from shoulder to hip.
"Get up you sorry thing!" huffed the Fencer. Rel scrambled up and went off limping towards the direction indicated, his way covered by the looming arcs of an indigo blade.
Together they made their way as best they could. Enemies vomited forth from every vent and portal, the alien apertures disgorging their shadowy contents into the pale blue chemical glow. Bodies piled up around the Fencer as he fought to keep the way clear before them. As their numbers grew so did their fervent assaults; the Slavemaster had a command of the mind almost as great as he did of the body.
Warm light signaled the end of their journey. Sunlight showered from above, not the weak stuff of Winter, but the balmy rays of true Summer. This they knew by some sort of instinct or memory lost but not forgotten by the icebound. They were in the greatest of vaults, one which stretched a hundred meters or so upwards. Above a portal loomed; the way to the higher of the Slavemaster's worlds. In the disc of light directly below the Trumpeter and Iyali waited with a look set to douse this brilliance. Just seeing this made Rel's heart sink.
"The way is closed!" shouted the Trumpeter over the din of the bodies.
"Damn," said the Fencer. "I guess our little ruse didn't work so well."
Rel gawked in wonder at the ceiling. The whole thing was made from discs of precious metals encircling the portal to Summer above. Each of these spread out like a halo, ring upon ring layered and placed around the solar aperture in such a fashion as to catch a bit of the glorious light radiating out.
"Can't you get us up there?" The Fencer grabbed the gilded woman by her arm for emphasis.
"One must earn their way into Summer," she said tersely. "The Slavemaster treats it as a game. A glib tongue or a delicate curve can open the way where hard work and dedication are given a leper’s welcome. Though, they should be more than willing to let me return."
The edges of the room were lost to the swarming guards and beasts now. Eyes, some catching motes of the Summer light above, glinted evilly. They had the trespassers circled and took their time. Rel watched the Fencer do a certain math in his head, as if he was gauging piling bodies up high enough to assault heaven above. At last he put down his arithmetic.
"Summer things and Slavemaster toadies," he shouted upwards, "we've bested your defenses, captured your idols, and soaked your halls with the blood of your defenders. We are vagabonds with enchanted swords, players of ensorcelled instruments, captives built of gold and silver, and slaves in current rebellion. By your own logic we have earned our way upwards."
The brash words clanged against the metal ceiling, giving it a tinny quality. Just as there seemed to be no response and just as the gathered horde prepared to swarm in, a terrible commotion sounded from above. A machine descended. It was an array of cycling gears and harnessed platforms. These reached down from the light as a skeletal hand.
When it landed, its upper workings lost beyond the portal above, Iyali stepped up to one of the cycling platforms and was quickly pulled to the top. Not wasting any time considering this dubious transport the others likewise joined the device's madness.
Above, warm light awaited. Chiming motes of music drifted down to them, and the air took on a perfumed nature. When they entered the light they were blinded and when they regained their sight they were in the upper realm, another world.
Before they were fully recovered they had a dozen gleaming swords at their throats. The Keeper they had ousted from the outpost earlier smiled beside a man in an open gown made from green scales. His smile was greatest and by this welcome knew they were now guests of the Slavemaster.