There were lines on his face he couldn’t account for. These scars described a map of sorts, the violent contours of a forgotten journey. Cold wind blew in from the open window but he barely felt it as he tried to remember.
The sun was far up by the time he awoke in the massive dusty bed. His room was grand, yet spare, as if it had been stripped at some point. There was an attached bath, a big extravagance with a marble basin and a sink which spat out cold, clean water. Above the sink there was a mirror, and it was before this mirror that he stood, probing a face he could only barely recall.
In reflection he proved to be on the small side, gnarled and cut from past trials, skin worn and weathered. As he shaved his stubble the razor traced the sharp turns of his jaw line. The eyes which stared back at him were a cold grey. Absently he began trimming his coarse cobalt hair with some bit of automatic memory, keeping its length at an ideal now lost to consciousness.
This ritual done he went out on the balcony. Late morning seeped through a thin film of clouds, yet darker plumes drifted over the ridgeline. Up, past the easy slope of an old, snow covered mountain, smoke tumbled down over the landscape. Where there was no smoke ice and snow covered everything, occasionally broken by a dark bit of rock or frozen earth.
Immediately below stretched a courtyard, an outer wall, baileys, a few towers. He was in some sort of castle.
“Aren’t you cold out there?”
He hadn’t heard her come in. She leaned in the doorway, pale, clothed in grey. Instinctively he went for something at his side, which wasn’t there.
“Should I be?” He wore only a pair of loose trousers. This was the truth; the air felt merely crisp.
“I don’t know,” she smiled. “You’ve only just arrived. Took a nasty fall too, out on the ice. Bumped the sense out of you.”
He smirked bitterly and went to explore more of the balcony which wrapped around the castle.
“What was that for?” she asked, following.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said as he rounded the turn and beheld a glittering grove out past the wall. Even in this light their leaves cast prismatic shadows. “It all seems so perfectly wrapped up, contrived as a mystery.”
“But it’s true,” she said emphatically and approached. He was busy gauging those strange trees. Cold hands touched something tender on the back of his head. “There, she said.”
“Do you know much about riddles?”
Even he couldn’t say where this question came from. Puzzled, the woman didn’t answer, only searched him, as if his words were a trap.
At last she convinced him to come downstairs and take a late breakfast in the dining room, a large, glass-shrouded hall. It jutted beyond the southwest corner of the castle, forming a space from which both the roiling smoke and the crystalline trees could be seen. The man shifted uneasily in the fine coat and breeches his host had convinced him to wear.
“You don’t remember. Do you?” she said, as he looked warily over a spread of chilled soups, cold meats, and pale fruits. A formless servant served a dry wine.
“I was thinking you could do the talking,” he said strategically, picking out some lamb and setting it on his plate with his hands.
“Well,” she began, savoring not the meal but the company, “I am Bles, and you arrived on my estate with a caravan of chaos. A train of lemur-men chased you and your entourage down the old road. There was an accident; the glacier is treacherous. Only you survived. You haven’t had a chance to give me a name yet.”
Possessed by a sudden hunger he had begun to eat with relish. It was as if he was used to an empty stomach and would take any opportunity to fill his belly. When he at last looked up he realized she had stopped speaking.
From the end of a long table, angled to point into the corner of the room, she faced him with chill grey eyes, glass opening up on either side of her, displaying her domain. On the western play of windows the long sinews of smoke continued to spill from further up, the ridgeline he had seen before descending down past the castle to disappear into the great white flats he took to be the glacier. The southern façade displayed more light, as this was where the grove of glass trees stood. Another, gentler rise began past them, leading northward to the same mountain. The castle lay cradled amongst foothill roots of ancient stone.
“It may be my addled ignorance speaking but I’ve never seen trees like those before,” he said, gesturing to the strange grove.
“Those,” began Bles but was cut off by an echo as a voice cried out from the lower halls. In burst a similar woman, pale, grey-clad.
“Bles! The creature is loose in the smoke again!”
“And this is my sister, Eral,” said the host, evenly.
The woman was in a beautiful panic. She didn’t pay much heed to the man, focusing her attentions on her sister.
“I have my servants combing the glacier but I thought it best that you know the cause of any possible disruptions. It has stolen a treasure from my stores and might make grand trouble for both of us.”
It was obvious that Bles wanted to ask something of her sibling but restrained herself for some reason, buckling with dissatisfaction.
“I think I’ll have a look,” said the man as he stood up.
“Do you think it wise?” said the sister, at last addressing him. There was a kind of contempt in her words.
“Better than sitting here trying to remember.”
He didn’t stay to watch the two, he was already finding his way down through the castle. The place was full of cobwebs and empty rooms. It felt abandoned, cleaned out, sterilized by the bright daylight entering in through numerous windows and apertures. No servants greeted him on his descent and he found no weapons other than the silver knife he had slipped into his coat at dinner.
He made his way past the gloriously bridled horse in the otherwise abandoned courtyard and out onto the icy plains, away from the safety of the walls. Part of him wished to inspect the glittering trees more closely but the smoke proved more seductive.
No tracks of recent activity, or life of any sort, could be found. The snow was ancient, frozen into a kind of concrete from the action of many days and nights.
Where the slope met the same plane as the castle, tipping down into the shrouded glacier below, he at last dived into the smoke, upwards against the grade.
It was heavy stuff, like ink dropped in water, yet it only smelled faintly, like burnt perfume. In this haze he wandered according to a need in his soul.
The outside world flickered in as dark and light patches, growing clear whenever a gust of wind boiled off some of the cover to reveal the afternoon sky, only to be obscured again by more incessant clouds. When he stood still he heard nothing but the wind falling down from the mountain, pressing the smoke onward, across the glacier.
Being lost in the stuff held no fear for him; he seemed used to wandering. Maybe his mind was out here, some truth of his being, if there was any. He felt incomplete, blank, and at that moment he heard something move in the smoke.
The ice groaned under some tremendous weight. He couldn’t tell if it was something which stood on two legs, or four, or many more, or any at all. Unnerved, he fought his way towards a break in the cloying billows. He was accompanied by a heavy breathing presence.
Suddenly he realized how lost he was. All directions seemed equally haunted. He tried to gauge the slope but each rise broke away into a decline and each way down twisted upwards. Around him shapes reached up like the skeleton of some enormous beast. Through the smoke, which had grown thicker and more oppressive, he noted that the ground was now blasted stone, free of ice and mostly level.
The thing didn’t follow him; it was everywhere. He drew his knife and prepared to sell his life dearly. Whirling, lost in a cloud, he saw the smoke bunch together, gaining substance. It was a massive thing, towering, arching, like a twisted tree or a cancerous anemone. Something uncanny took hold of his soul and without a thought he dove at it. The phantom gave only slight resistance as the blade sunk through its form and the man went tumbling down the hidden slope.
When he came to rest he was out in the light once more. There was confusion. Either the incline on which he now stood was on the far side of the ridge from the castle or he was mad.
Smoke pervaded the whole valley in a layer. Across the glacier more low mountains rose up, massive, sleepy, and far off, on top of a cliff overlooking the ice another castle stood. Though he had lost his way in the smoke it was impossible that he could end up so far away from Bles’s keep.
Slowly, he made his way down, only turning east when he was sure to not be lost in the black clouds once more. Shortly his assumption proved correct as first the grove of crystalline trees emerged, followed by the stark visage of Bles’s castle. His own tracks lead back to that empty place once more.
“Is your curiosity satisfied?” She waited on the crumbling balcony in the entry hall.
“It never will be,” he said with the grim happy countenance of one enmeshed in mystery. “There is something in the smoke, a presence, if not a life.”
Without a word she receded form the balcony and disappeared amongst the upper apartments. He followed as fast as he could, finding her reclining on a white couch in a room full of bleak afternoon.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I feel a poor host,” she said, absently playing with her dark hair. “I can offer only a cold house and a land full of troubles. We are far out on Winter here and have little contact with the larger cities. Nock lies months away, as does Ruin and Plis. No society or culture but the snow and mountains.”
“Winter,” he said, feeling his mind around the word, so familiar and yet far off. His head ached a bit and he sat down on a plush, alabaster seat.
“She’s jealous, you know,” said Bles, stoking a bit of conspiracy. He wouldn’t have it.
“What is the source of the smoke?” he asked, leveling his icy eyes at his host.
“We think a star fell there.” She began to twist her rings with the effort of recall. “It was before our time, before anyone. The heart of the star rests in a cradle of rock, forever burning away, filling the whole valley with its smoke at times.”
“And there is something in the star’s emanations?” he said, not entirely trusting any word she spoke but also sensing a vulnerability and a sadness from the wispy creature sitting opposite him. “Something alive?”
“We think. At least my sister and I do. I mean, we’ve seen it, as have our servants. We can claim as much knowledge as anyone. Its body is the smoke, you see, or more precisely the physical expression of its presence. You must be careful out there; it can kill.”
“How does smoke kill?” he responded incredulously.
“We find empty skins. The flesh is intact but the bones and organs are gone. They say these it turns to smoke, to join with it in unholy marriage.”
Silence filled the room. The man turned the facts over and over. A drive to understand, to reason out the various elements presented to him since his awakening overtook his mind. He became lost in those crystalline trees and wandered the ancients stones of twin castles. Outside there was nothing but stark ice and obscuring smoke.
“Let’s speak about other things,” said Bles finally.
“About your sister, I take it?” he said, jolted from the path his brain was taking.
“Eral, what a thing she did today,” mused Bles. “What do you think of her?”
In an unguarded moment he replied with, “I think you both are much alike.”