Dead light drifted in through the metal walls of his guard hut, along with snow and the rattling sound which told him that the wind was up. He crawled out from his smelly rags, worked the warmth back into his legs and discovered that the toothless girl, Xy, had frozen to death in the night. He nudged her several times hoping she would sputter back to life. Soon he too would perish in similar fashion and all he could do was blink stupidly at this realization; he had no language to describe the emotions he felt.
The boy went about his rounds. He took Xy’s half-frozen body and dragged it down the slope outside, down to where the Gurfulging waited in its metal shed. Rel banged on the loose sheeting to wake the creature and when he was sure that the cantankerous thing was roused he slipped open its feeding door with a long metal pole.
Instantly a meaty arm clawed for him, reaching a few meters in each direction, which happened to be the length of the pole. When the Gurfulging couldn't get the boy it groped about until it found the corpse, which it dragged inside the hatch rimmed in frozen blood.
Rich, smacking sounds emanated from within, in response to which the boy stood in a fugue. In the warped hollow of his mind he felt around the matter before him, unable to describe this act of feeding a companion to a hideous monster. There seemed to be no bottom to the world, only a starless void, hungry and perhaps mindless.
He turned. Something in him could only stand so much of it. His eyes blanked out the sounds with the sight of the morning glacier, drowned in a pale blue which was almost white, and a sky so high and fair that he swore he saw the bend of the world. Just like in his dream. If there was nothing but emptiness beyond the demense of the Slavemaster then it seemed the despot ruled infinity. This vision also stirred a nameless spirit in the boy but a disruption at the edges distracted his heart.
Specks dirtied the horizon. It hurt to take in the glacier's blinding white but soon two figures made their presence clear as they moved across the ice. Slowly they grew larger. This was why Rel was here.
The boy scrambled up the slope so that he stood next to the roof of the dwelling and with the long, hooked pole carefully unlatched the door to the Gurfulging's lair. The gnashing, snapping sounds continued; it hadn't noticed its freedom.
Glancing up, Rel noted that the strangers grew close. They made good time across the ice and bits of them tangled about in the wind. They must've seen the boy at his work, or the tumbled crags which marked the borders of the Slavemaster's flesh pits. In any event they made for him now and he began wildly banging on the metal structure.
Claws exploded from the door. What came forth seemed almost comical in comparison to its home. The little hut could barely contain this creature of patchy scales, twisted muscle and hulking form. It was a good thing it saw the two travelers before Rel; the Gurfulging was single-minded in its hungers.
The boy had watched the thing at its sport on many occasions. It seemed the whole of Winter existed merely to send poor souls, desperate for food and shelter, into those craggy teeth. The creature's chain sent up a terrible clanging as it unrolled. It could range far on its tether, but just as all the other slaves it had no chance of escape.
The Gurfulging charged out across the frozen wastes. Already Xy's blood froze into glassy frost on the thing's eager lips. It was then that Rel witnessed something absolutely surprising.
Unlike the score of wretches he had delivered to the beast on previous occasions the pair hesitated only a moment. Then the foremost one flourished something which caught the light. A spray of deep blues and rich purples scatted over the snow in momentary refraction. These polygons stretched across the cold canvas as rhombuses and pentagons, all flashing out from a dark prism. And then the figure charged headlong into the Gurfulging.
They met out on the icy plain. From Rel's vantage it seemed that the larger form balled up and consumed the smaller one. A glint of silver showed from the second traveler who continued ahead at a leisurely pace. Then a note came across the glacier, something indescribable, like a dream, like the wide open blue sky. Just as strangely the bulky Gurfulging, the monster the boy had been forced to mind at the edge of the Slavemaster's lands, recoiled and loped away, as if in fear. Dark stains followed on the ice with the first traveler as the cause.
At this point Rel knew not what to do. The two travelers, bound in heavy cloaks and scarves, regrouped and continued towards him. The monster heaved on the ice, wounded or dying. This was the end of his mind, like the end of the glacier, the world. He waited with eyes wide, unknowing.
The two reached the base of his little craggy hill. The one ahead held something icy and black in his hands. The one behind was taller and carried a silvery cone. This one mumbled loudly at the boy, but there were no words to be made out.
The shorter one, the one with the icicle, ascended the cliff. He had a nasty, triple-clawed gash on his shoulder but showed no sign of pain as he heaved great gouts of steam from his muffled face and stared through Rel with eyes made of Winter sky.
"I asked your name," said the taller figure as he unwound a terrifically long scarf from around his face.
"To the Keeper I'm Rel," was his response, "but I don't care for it much."
"It makes me feel funny." He didn't know why he bothered responding, it was something inclusive in the taller fellow's bright blue eyes.
The other one moved about. He eyed the boy chain and followed it back to the metal shack. His were appraising eyes, quickly discerning the lay of the glacier behind, the barrier of low, craggy hills heading off in either direction, and the realm beyond, the notorious estate of the Slavemaster. Some silent decision was made and he moved briskly to Rel's home.
The boy kept pace even as the taller fellow continued talking.
"What was that thing out there?"
"The Gurfulging." The boy watched the swordsman approach his little hut. The man was always on his toes, ready for anything. He pulled back the loose sheet of metal which served as a door.
"An evocative name to be sure," continued the tall fellow breathlessly, "but what of the particulars? Was it a thing of magic? An alchemical monstrosity? Or simply some fleshy avatar of Winter's rage?"
"It's a slave," said the man inside the shack. There he found Rel's home to be nothing but a few square feet of filthy, hard-packed ice covered in dirty rags with an ash pit in the middle. Vermin flourished amongst the smell of short lives. Another sheet of metal separated the room from some sort of tunnel leading underground. "You knew that, so why did you ask?"
"I'm not going to presume that those rumors which lead us to this place held much in the way of truth," laughed the tall fellow. "Besides, I'm interested in what he knows of it."
"There's obviously space enough for a second in here," reasoned the swordsman, turning to face the boy and pulling down his scarf to reveal a sharp, hard face full of angles. "Where is the other person?"
"I fed her to the Gurfulging just before you arrived," said the boy without hint of guile. "She had enough of Winter."
The two travelers took to the boy's meaning immediately. The grisly facts of existence on the icebound world were plain enough. Life was a tenuous thing, easily snuffed by the relentless cold. Still, there were limits.
"Was death prior or incidental to her being fed to the Gurfulging?" asked the Trumpeter, who had shut his eyes for some reason.
"Obviously it was due to cold," stated the swordsman. "Also, the beast still lives."
Rel saw that this was true. The Gurfulging crawled weakly back along its chain, blood steaming off the ice. The strange thing which bloomed up in his heart when he found Xy again spoke up.
"If only there was something larger we could feed the Gurfulging to," he muttered. It was the only way he could contextualize the event before him. That such a creature had been brought low by a man was incomprehensible. "Make it stop moving, please."
The two travelers exchanged a glance and then the swordsman strode out to the wounded creature. He knew to stay just out of reach; the thing feebly swiped at him until he stilled it with a precise jab from his crystalline sword.
"Would you have your freedom?" asked the somber warrior when he returned.
Framed by the endless sky, the alabaster snow, and the bloody corpse cooling out on the glacier, Rel said nothing. The swordsman cut the boy free of his chain.
"Why wasn't your companion chained as well?"
"They only chain those who ask," said the boy, still mulling over the alien question presented to him before. "I thought to use the steel to keep the beast at bay in case it escaped."
"What of yourself? Did you ever dream of escape?"
"There are no such dreams out on the perimeter." At this the boy swept his hand over the horizon. "There's nowhere to go."
"What do you do for food, or warmth?" asked the man with the silver cone. The swordsman was lost in thought. Something the boy said troubled him deeply. This scrutiny was so harsh that Rel ducked into his hut with the other, more amiable man.
"The Keeper brings us stew and flame twice a day, sees to our chains, and checks on the Gurfulging."
"Who is this Keeper?" asked the Fencer, who started at the sound of someone throwing open the metal door.
There stood a powerfully built man of indeterminate age. He wore all leathers and carried on his person numerous implements of pain and death. A heavily made lantern composed of coal compartments hung from his left hand. In his right he held a chipped enamel tureen which he dropped almost immediately upon seeing the two strangers.
In these close quarters neither the swordsman nor the Keeper could draw their longer weapons. The slaver went for a dagger but the outland warrior jumped him first and pulled him out of the door.
The Keeper proved surprisingly heavy and the two fell against the far wall with a dull clang. The Trumpeter hid in a corner as the boy scrambled to salvage what he could of his breakfast.
With his weight advantage the Keeper rained his fists down on his attacker. Eye's blackened, nose bloody, the outsider defended as best he could, at last using his legs to shove the man away. In a flash there was a dagger in the Keeper's hand and an evil glint in his eye.
"More chattels for the master's stocks I see," said the slaver. "Come a bit more quietly and I'll give you a kiss."
The swordsman's answer was to draw his weapon. Huddled in the corner next to the Keeper Rel saw the blade clearly now. It was some sort of black ice. No, it was stranger, with varied colors, indigo, midnight blue, and eyes of crimson staring out from the metallic whorls and boles of the weapon's form. Just seeing the thing made him go cold.
The weapon lunged for the Keeper's heart, but he sidestepped and grinned. Effortlessly the crystal plunged through metal wall and the rock beyond with ease. The slaver's smile fell as the sword swung towards him, cleaving through whatever matter stood between it and his flesh.
He escaped out onto the crags and the swordsman followed. Now the Keeper drew his own sword, a curved thing full of notches.
"Better put those away," recommended the outsider. "There are things I would know from you."
The Keeper knew he was bested. His gnarled mind knew the limits of his terms of service and the master he served. He threw his dagger just long enough to make his opponent flinch and then took off over the broken rocks and ice, following the ridgeline. The swordsman raced after but soon lost the fellow, who knew the place better.
"Do you know of a Fairxi?" as the taller man when he was through hiding.
The sudden and incongruous question clashed with Rel's thoughts. He was shocked to see anyone confront the Keeper, let along best him. The boy hugged the tureen for warmth.
"So many words I've never heard before," was his only response.
"Where has he gone?" huffed the swordsman when he tromped back indignantly.
"There are guard outposts all along the outer ring," said Rel. "Much like this one here."
"Then we had best eat a little stew, stoke those coals he dropped and see whence he came," said the swordsman as he hung the weapon back on the series of cords which bound its erratic edge. He then went for the hut again but the boy stopped him.
"Who are you two and what are those things you carry?"
The man with the sword stopped to consider this, as if a thousand choices presented themselves.
"I am the Fencer and this is the Trumpeter; a maker of loud noises with his eponymous instrument. And this," he said, tapping the weapon at his side, "is a bad dream."
"Are you sure you don’t know of a Fairxi?" asked the Trumpeter again.
The boy still didn't. All he did know was that these two had freed him, for all that was worth. Together they downed the stew from the Slavemaster's kitchens. It was heady stuff and the two strangers wondered out loud if it was poisoned or drugged. When at last they were warm, and had the coal lantern glowing brightly, they descended into the earth. A human reek greeted them. Below the Slavemaster kept his treasures.