Beauty stirred across the relentless cold of Winter. The planet was an icy jewel, facetted with contradictions, each reflecting differently at different times and in different ways according to light and the angle of the eye. There were no passive observers on the endless snow plains, no gawking tourists. And now the travelers and their acquaintances experienced the sublime, expressed as either a metal woman or a nightmare engine of death clicking faster and faster on milk-colored claws.
Iyali stared at her bright mirror twin, lost in wonder stretching towards horror. The creature was exactly like her, with flesh of platinum, woven bands of the stuff when seen up close, pulling and flexing with a mechanic much like living muscle. Her hair didn’t seem like gold, it was gold, her eyes, each cut from sapphire set into frosty quartz and inlaid with jet pupils, stared out with cold precision. These were far more perfect attributes than even the gilded woman’s own. In comparison she was a pale imitation.
“Describe yourself,” demanded the Fairxi again. The automaton seemed distracted, unfocused, an empty vessel.
“I’m something like you,” rasped Iyali, half-unconsciously. That seemed to quiet the Fairxi who now simply watched whoever moved with detached understanding.
“What are you?” demanded the gilded woman.
There was no response. The Fencer sighed.
A terror rose up in Iyali’s soul, it clicked down the halls of her soul like the strange servitor after Rel and the Trumpeter. Both were props of the mad mind of the Slavemaster.
Rel gaped at the creature as it whisked towards him. Its body a whipcord of ashen muscle, narrow, tall enough that it bent in order to fit under the carven marble. Several arms hung like chimes, each ending in six-taloned digits. Of legs it had many, perhaps these were also arms. It was difficult to tell as it raced towards the trespassers in a blur of motion.
Eyes were placed in seemingly random assortments across its body, five here, eight there. These watched the tall man pick up his cone of silver, lift it to its lips and puff out his cheeks. All of the creature’s sound organs took in what came next.
The music was so loud it seemed to brighten up the air. A single sense couldn’t describe the noise. The blast caught the servitor and tore its flesh from its bones which clattered to rest on the stone floor. The sopping remnants leaked blood all over the Slavemaster’s sumptuous quarters.
“I think I put a bit too much into it,” said the shocked trumpeter.
“What was that?” asked Rel loudly, partially deafened.
“This?” The Trumpeter flourished his instrument.
“No, the thing which extended out from the silver aperture.”
“Oh, that is music,” smiled the musician.
“I think I can safely call that beautiful,” considered the boy.
“Any appreciation should be done as we take our leave,” said the Trumpeter as he began stuffing potions and other junk into his pockets. “Critics will be along any moment to prove that beauty is subjective.”
Rel took whatever the musician didn’t, tucking rations and keepsakes into his coat pockets. At last he also took the Fencer’s fell weapon, bundled in a sheet, and together the two raced off into the sculpted halls.
The thing on the floor wasn’t dead, just changed in form. The Slavemaster had taken death away from it. Instead it flowed and changed, adapting like the course of a river through uneven geography. It was an ever growing bad idea, something indisputable and hideous, much like that which grew inside Iyali’s mind.
“She won’t talk to you,” the Fencer said at last. “Not because she doesn’t like you but because you aren’t responding with the proper phrase. Her mind is locked.”
The Fencer approached the object of this whole endeavor. At first he was cautions, such was her beauty, but he quickly remembered himself. To Iyali it seemed that he invaded the creature’s personal space, that invisible barrier all persons keep between themselves and others, but the Fairxi showed no care. She took in his attentions with a clever grace. At last he remembered what he was supposed to say.
“Bones dream towards a flesh and muscle wonders after skin, minds quest towards souls in a war which bodies win.” The prose was out of character for the Fencer who coughed out the words clumsily. It didn’t mean anything to Iyali but to the Fairxi it was everything.
The metal woman shifted upon hearing this, blinking into life. Now she was more than a mannequin or doll, a spirit possessed the body.
“Where is Narenaree?” she asked.
“Your master is long lost,” responded the Fencer, “along with a great many other magicians and monsters. Much has happened.”
“What are you,” asked Iyali, almost as a whisper.
“A curious thing,” explained the Fairxi.
“You are also a knowing thing, yes?” demanded the Fencer, interrupting.
“My curiosity often leads to knowledge, for what it’s worth.”
“Then tell me of Winter’s Riddle,” he said. His whole being leaned towards the answer.
“No!” demanded Iyali. “I want you tell which of us is real and which a copy. Were you built in my image or I in yours?”
Before the bewildered automaton could answer either query they were interrupted by a sliding curtain. There stood the smiling Slavemaster, holding some sort of quill in his hands dripping an amber fluid. An ornate scimitar hung from his waist alongside a hideous porcelain mask.
“I’m afraid,” he began wistfully, “some mysteries will remain just that.”
The Fencer drew his sword but the Slavemaster held up the quill’s point defensively.
“A reasonable man would stay where he was. This is celestis, one of my most deadly toxins. As one writhes from a mere drop applied to the skin their mind beholds the most perfect vision of paradise. It took over a hundred generations to create the glands capable of producing the stuff. Consider this a special occasion.”
“You let us get this far,” grimaced Iyali, falling deeper into despair.
“Idiot,” sighed the Fencer. “Even if that wasn’t true now he can claim as such.”
“You’ve given me so much,” laughed the Slavemaster. “Entertainment and toys and a book of green puzzles, rare magic in stopped-up little bottles and petrified memories. I cut up a dozen slaves with your weapon, Fencer, and it seems that those who survive the initial encounter are beset by some sort of dreaming disease shortly after, a terrible thing really. But greatest of all is that journal. While the cipher was troubling for a few hours it soon revealed the lady’s heart. To think she was a fraud. Hmmm, and those treasures of hers scattered across the ice, hidden away, like a thieving magpie.”
“Who is that?” asked the Fairxi and the Slavemaster slackened like he was about to faint.
“She…speaks?” He was in ecstasy. “For so long I have labored after the secrets of the Fairxi. I paid green Clea much gold for her only to find the machine’s thoughts locked, the key hidden. That witch knew it after all. Ah! I see now, that random poem!”
The Fencer readied to jump the madman now that he was distracted, but the gilded woman interrupted.
“What am I?” asked Iyali, approaching her master.
“You are a best attempt,” he said, appraising his work. “If I couldn’t posses the whole of the Fairxi then I would create a mimic which I could.”
“Why?” the Fencer asked, trying to buy more time.
“There is something called beauty, which the average icebound mind is incapable of understanding. Oh, they are sure to use the term, incorrectly, according to their lusts and desires. This is the body riddle to which they can only answer with blood and other fluids. They most often express the notion that beauty is subjective, obeying only the caprice of certain experiences with particular people at set times. I know differently.”
The Fairxi appraised this man whom she had just met and wondered after his words. Not since the passing of her old master had she witnessed such a curious mind.
“Yet there is the sublime,” continued the Slavemaster. “It stands taller than the mountains, higher than the clouds. Its presence is that of a thunderstorm or a volcanic eruption. This is true, indisputable beauty; this is what I wished you to be Iyali.”
“All those things occur naturally,” said the Fencer. “You thought you could cause the same through vulgar surgery and mutilation?”
“Magic is also sublime and it is a made thing,” smirked the Slavemaster who approached Iyali. She didn’t recoil from his hand which gauged the work his drugs and surgery had wrought. “You are my magic. The closest I’ve come to regaining what I lost that day Sol defeated my would-be tutor.”
He abandoned her and walked towards the Fairxi, who observed all with some agitation. Iyali seethed and tried to whip her creator around, he did, and in doing so the amber quill brushed her arm. She fell laughing and the Fencer leaped at the man.
The Slavemaster dodged most of the strike, only a glancing blow landing on his arm, sending the quill spattering into a curtain. With chemical grace his scimitar flickered into his hands that the same moment, just in time to deflect the Fencer’s next slash. He showed no sign of pain at the terrible gash in his arm.
The blade’s jagged teeth caught against the tyrant’s. The Fencer tried to force his opponent back but found his strength as nothing compared to the Slavemaster’s. With a laugh he was cast back next to the Fairxi. The scimitar rang down and he rolled away just before it clanged against the marble. The impact’s force dulled the blade.
Staring into his opponents eyes the Fencer saw that he didn’t just contest with flesh and blood but a possessing drug. The Slavemaster’s eyes were fully dilated by whatever he had taken to make him this fiend of the blade. His muscles twitched to the tune of his magic memories, ready and desperate. While he watched the tyrant straitened the sword with his bare hands.
Fatalism weighed the Fencer down, his deadened right arm putting him off balance. Inwardly he cursed his body, for its weakness and its vulnerability. If only he could act as he thought, then he would always be victorious.
The Slavemaster came at him in a whirl and the swordsman gave way, fighting defensively. No man knew how much self-experimentation the madman had undergone or how much of his being was enhanced through chemical and surgery.
The black-eyed attacker forced the Fencer into a corner but he slipped away underneath a curtain. Following, the Slavemaster found himself in a maze of his own design, bordered by luminous silks lit by heavy votive lamps. His breathing was quick and excited, a side effect of the combat drugs. He lashed his scimitar as he searched, hacking through the veils.
In this noise the Fencer attacked. With no time to bring up his weapon the Slavemaster smiled and caught the jagged sword with his bare off-hand. Laughter and blood welled out.
Iyali’s mind transmuted all these things into ever increasing light. As the celestis progressed to her brain and fired down her nervous system a sort of synthesia overtook her senses, the sounds of combat and the smell of incense becoming color clouds and fractal spirals. Here she flew, free of constraints and worries, clouds vanishing one by one as she ascended. This was her brain shutting off bit by bit, drowning in its own chemicals, revealing the unadorned spirit.
“Will I see Summer?” she asked her reflected self.
“What is Summer?” asked the Fairxi.
“It’s like here but real, not a copy,” giggled the gilded woman.
“How can you tell the difference?” reasoned the machine woman. “Any real Summer you happen across should be treated as a symptom of the highly aggressive toxin from which you are currently dying.”
The Fencer crashed back into the room and landed painfully next to Iyali. He was followed closely by the Slavemaster who held a bunch of needles in his left hand.
Indescribable pain etched itself through the Fencer’s body. With the locking needles gone the torture from before continued in tones of cold fire.
To the Fairxi this was all so interesting. The two being before her lay close, both dying, with one descending into unbearable pain and the other drifting into euphoric heaven. The third man, this Slavemaster, swaggered towards the scene laughing, eyes drinking up his latest work of art.
Through the darkening pain the Fencer heard something familiar clang next to him. His opponent was fast but he was faster, picking up the bit of ice and shredding the scimitar in a scream of metal. Dhala’s cold numbed the hurt, cooled his mind, and in this state of frozen grace he prepared to take the fight to the Slavemaster.
The Trumpeter was there, Rel too, skittish and worried now that he faced the strange lord of the Summer estate. They joined the Fencer in his bid to end the ordeal.
No such luck though. The tyrant laughed off this assault and retreated, taking up the porcelain mask at his side.
“While you exist,” he gestured to the demure Fairxi, “nothing will keep you from me. All this strife merely makes the conquest more cherished. To the rest of you I hope my hospitality will be to your liking.”
With that he donned the mask, a thing with a sort of meshed box in front of the nose and mouth, and dropped something which broke upon the ground. Instantly a cloud of red frothed up. To the mind it seemed that the earth pulled them down, their minds crushed under such gravity.
They staggered from the room and collapsed. The Fencer knew he had abandoned Iyali to her poisoned fate but was unable to move his legs any more. Exhaustion, fumes, torture and starvation were taking their toll. Looking over the others were in a similar state. Then something glimmered in the red cloud.
One twin carried another though the curtains. Once she was through the veiled clouds of crimson death her platinum face showed bright. Finally the Fairxi had acted.