Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Smoke Monster V.

            A low red moon watched the man’s movements across the rocky slopes, below tired mountains.  Beneath lay a glacier, somewhere under the roiling smoke.  Behind, a dead cobweb castle kept its precious dead all to itself, and ahead, alive in the night, Bles’s castle awaited, warm with light.  It was becoming increasingly clear that his senses couldn’t be trusted.
            He wasn’t alone at the edge of the great, obscured basin.  A massive body reclined besides him, just out of reach, which was for the best.  Regained in strength, the smoke monster roiled about in the lowlands framed by the mountain crescent.  Its blind tendrils searched hundreds of meters up the mountainsides after the man, blasphemous tons of choking pitch and ash frothing with an insane intelligence. 
            Growing frustrated, it turned its attentions on the southern castle.  Boiling up the supporting cliff, it spilled over the ancient stones.  Soon there was nothing left to see but a violently convulsing cloud.  Obviously this was designed to disturb the man’s already aching mind, he could think of no other reason to invade those abandoned, cobwebbed halls.  Terrible cold filled his head, but still he went on.
            Company arrived in the form of yellow, ring-like eyes watching from the higher slopes.  Memories of the evil spirit in the cave haunted flickered back, but his more reasonable faculties knew the truth.  These were Lemur-men.  An occasional hoot came down through the still air in confirmation. 
            Now surrounded on all sides by adversity he had no other path but through whatever bright future awaited in the castle to the north.  Closer still stood the crystalline grove, self-illuminated, the light from one tree bouncing to the next in prismatic synergy.  Behind him the hoots grew closer and he realized significance to the smoke thing’s assault on Eral’s castle; it meant it could also invade Bles’s.
            Quickening his pace, he placed his worries behind him.  Gusts of Winter drove him on, past the rocks broken by the glacier’s eons old decline.  Then, giving up the advantage of the high ground, he moved down to where more recent snows had accumulated over the numb centuries.  Curiosity made him pass through the grove.
            The second he entered amongst the bright glass there was a sound.  It filled him, a resonance absolute and bright, like staring into the sun.  If he opened his mouth to scream there would be only radiance.  If he breathed then glory would fill his lungs.  Somehow he knew there was a noise to this; he could hear the light.  A complex tune, it held that strange quality called magic, which overwhelmed.
            Awakening amongst the trees he knew that little time had passed.  An echo lingered along the far mountains, unsettling the night air.  In response the lemur-men hooted excitedly.  Then the smoke shrieked, that same terrible cry heard down in the cave.
            Knowing that the liquid thing could be upon him at any moment he sprinted for the castle.  The crunch of ice and snow mingled with the pounding of his heart.  He didn’t hear the party until he was at the gates.
            Bles’s castle was alive with people and light.  Through the open doors he stepped into some sort ball.  Outside, the courtyard was full of lacquered carriages and powerful draft horses steaming their breath, stable boys leading them to the vast pens which just that morning housed only drifts of snow.
            Inside, pale people in finery muttered like a bleak dawn.  The men wore uniforms of charcoal and jet, with a few white coats thrown in for contrast.  Reserved accents of gold and silver adorned them, and they bore signs of achievement and rank like smug plumage.  At their sides hung ornamental swords, blades polished and unused.
            The women were more elaborate creatures.  Garbed in dresses of periwinkle, ivory and rose, they’d blend in well with the icy wastes, like animals adapted to the ancient ice.  Yet these were copious garments, unsuited to anything but social pomp.  Theirs was a beauty which seemed wholly unreal, a powdered daydream. 
            The guests didn’t pay much mind to the bloodied swordsman who stumbled gasping into the front door.  They might look his way or remark to their escorts, but on the whole they treated him like an invisible man, like a servant about some necessary, yet unenviable, task.  In seconds the entry hall was clear of everyone but Bles as she descended the stairs.
            “I thought something might’ve happened to you,” she smiled a knowing smile.
            “Is this your cabal?” asked the forgetful man, craning his neck to catch glimpses of the frilled nobles in the social rooms above. 
            “Social engagement.  Eral and I planned this months ago.”
            “She’s really been letting her house go,” he said, leaping up the stairs to make sure the revelers were still there.  He had a suspicion that they were demons.
            “I know,” crooned Bles happily.  “That petrified wood makes me think of a tomb every time I sit in those couches.”
            “I mean, it is a place haunted by spiders and drowning in cobwebs.” 
            The nobles were at their play in the upper rooms.   Funny, he hadn’t noticed the ballroom or the reflecting pool before.  A great laugh came out in response to some unseen joy.
            “You could always clear the place out with that sword of yours.”  Bles gestured to the forgetful man’s weapon hanging at his side.  “May I see it?”
            The man slowly made his way back down the grand stair.  Upstairs, one of the rooms went black for a moment.
            “You’re having fun with me.”
            “Of course,” smiled Bles.  “There’s not much else to do around here.”
            “Other than invite a horde of brightly painted birds over for a warble,” he said, watching the rooms above suspiciously.  “I thought you said this was an isolated place.”
            “Oh, I’ll have visitors for a game, or to introduce the new company.”  Her eyes chased after him.  “Did you find your wreck?  Is your curiosity satisfied?”
            “No, I mean, yes I found the wreck, but of satisfaction, well, I have none.”
            “I know the feeling,” said Bles darkly, but soon brightened.  “Everyone, this is a most special guest.  Now, his head is bothering him so try not to be too tiring.  He is a noble, like yourselves, as is evidenced by his bearing, and until he comes to find his own path may be part of the peerage.”
            The others were suddenly behind him, looking down from the balconies.  He hadn’t heard them move out. 
            These men and women cooed and muttered with genteel tones concerning Bles’s guest.  Eral was there too, making some joke at his expense.  A woman dropped a handkerchief down.  It floated like a snowflake and came to rest near the amnesiac’s feet.
            “My, your clothes are a mess,” chided his host.  “You’ll find new garments in your apartments.  Then you can feast with us.”
            “I like these, they fit,” he said defensively, yet weakened by the troubles of the day. 
            “Not here they don’t.  Now go change.”
            He picked up the handkerchief slowly, just like the woman above wanted him to, eyes glimmering.  Slowly, he made his way up, past the cool-toned revelers and their words which hung just below the horizon, hinting at stories and conspiracies and plots in a strange language.  Once he fit these words would be his as well and the damned cold pain in the back of his head would stop.
            Turning around, he looked across the perfect people, down to dark Bles, where she stood, hunting in the light. 
            “Just once,” he began, letting those first words draw out to their fullest invitation, “I’d like to have a good conversation with you.”
            He left them at that.  Their mutters subdued.  He’d like to keep that look of slight shock Bles wore with him forever.  It seemed to appease an inner demon.
            Up here the rooms were often in darkness.  Some were full of smoke, full boxes and cubes of the stuff.  Party voices chuckled and clucked. 
            Sure enough, on the bed, laid out for a prince or dignitary, was a grander, sharper outfit for him to wear.  There was even a cord of woven gold from which to hang his weapon.  He felt the white fabric, and wondered what it would be like to belong to the group down there, to be part of their games and laughter.
            Once again the mirror showed his face, already gone coarse and unkempt with the adventures of the day.  The map of scars, trails of journeys lost, stood out like hieroglyphs.  His side still hurt from the carriage wreck and the descent into the crevasse.  He went to shave, but thought better about it.  Instead he sought some music.
            Outside, the smoke thing lay in perfect stillness.  If a traveler was transplanted to that place, at that moment, he might remark on the pane of ashen glass laid out between the two castles.  From the balcony a bit of the high mountain wind trickled down. 
            He tried the door at first, thinking he could just bluster his way past, but there was smoke in the hall and obviously he wasn’t dressed for the occasion.  The only other way was down the wall.
            Heaving over the balcony, he walked along its outside lip to where it met the course stones of the main structure.  These were all of moody grey, some kind of granite with a bit of glimmer in its quartz structures.  Thankfully they were set roughly, providing lots of hand holds.
            Howls followed him through the dark.  The hungry cries of yellow-eyed things, lemur-man and hungry spirit, urged him onwards.  Something rattled loose stones down on him from the roof above.
            Reaching the bottom, he thought better of entering from the main way and stalked about for another entrance.  There were no others.  Strange, he thought, considering the size of the place.  It was like a castle out of story, lacking any parts unnecessary to the ideal. 
            When he was convinced that he had found the wall housing the passage leading to the dungeon the forgetful man drew his sword and made his own door.  A few clean cuts opened a jagged portal, the stones falling back to reveal warm halls smelling of a certain perfume.
            Quickly dashing down the stairs before any curious servants could arrive he was lucky enough to find the wine cellar empty.  So he took a cask and continued, past the grated, metal doors, down to the cold stones where Bles kept the mad musician.  In this strange mirror place he hoped he wouldn’t find as many skeletons.  
            Stepping quietly he made for the Trumpeter’s cell.  Maybe there was a noise, a gust of breath, or the rustle of clothing just outside conscious realization.  I in any event he knew that there was a guard just around the corner.  Frustrated by a long day of troubles, the swordsman charged around the bend in hopes of gaining surprise, only to find a saber waiting for him.
            He didn’t look worried or startled in the least, this pale, white-armored man.  There was a familiar calm look to him, like a bland statue. 
            The attacker managed to twist around the waiting blade, bring his own up and under the man’s reach.  In response the man stepped up against the amnesiac, too close for the swing and with a dancer’s grace sent both black blade and attacker into a tumble down the hall. 
            Butterfly flicker and a sudden urgency of movement and a blink.  Something possessed the amnesiac, something in the muscles.  In the end the guard’s weapon jutted from the guest’s shoulder, and in reply found a good foot of inky icicle sunk deep into his breastplate.  Both men seemed surprised. 
            Letting his blade drop with a harsh clang, the servant retreated like a somnambulist.  No pain or rage, not even surprise or fear played across his eyes.  He staggered free from the dark blade, blood already freezing on its icy surface.  Finding a shadow he vanished, his eyes still on his attacker.
            The amnesiac moved in a hurry, brandishing a torch he took off the wall in an effort to find the wounded man, yet he discovered only cobwebs in dead end.  He half expected to see yellow eyes or hear the wail of a dead soul.  Somehow the silence was worse.
            “Guard.  Guard!  I think I heard something.” 
            The voice was that of the Trumpeter.  It was gratifying to know that he was as unhelpful to his captors as he was to the friend he claimed.  When the forgetful man presented himself the musician showed a shocking lack of appreciation.
            “Oh,” he said, his smile flattening into an even line, “it’s you.  I heard there was a feast tonight and wanted to know when my finery would arrive for fitting.”
            “I could just leave you in there,” reasoned the amnesiac.
            “But you won’t.”
            “How do you know?”
            “Because I know you.  In fact, I know you better, now, than you do yourself.”  This overweening response set the swordsman on edge.
            “Then tell me,” was the best reply the man could muster as he unstopped the wine cask and took a drink.
            “I did, and look at that thing at your side.  Make you feel any different?”
            “Cold, terribly cold.” 
            “But you still don’t remember.” With this the Trumpeter’s mood fell.  “What have those witches done to you, I wonder.  I mean, this could be it, the end of our journey across this dumb iceball.  Who cares about the Riddle at this point, right?  This is all Clea’s fault, you know, for dying.”
            The cold grew worse as the man talked.  It swarmed like a blizzard, yet was secondary to the persistent nagging of a better world, a possible place, clear and bright, beyond the smoke, beyond forgetting. 
            The amnesiac’s face went hard as he looked for some reflecting response from the glassy blade.  It had promised memory, but now it just stared back, seeming to redouble the terrible icy pain in his skull, the same pain which followed him from the moment he had woken up from oblivion yesterday. 
            “Where are you going?” said the musician frantically as the other man got up.  “Let me out.  We have trouble to cause and trouble to find.  There’s a whole book back at Eral’s which will give us far more grief.  You can come with; who cares if you can’t remember?”
            But the man did and he brought up his sword with one final effort.  The Trumpeter cringed.
            He held the point carefully, but still blood seeped where he grazed the atom-edge.  Then he lifted it over his head, bringing the flat of the sword, those indigos and murky crimson eyes, to touch the back of his skull, where the cold was greatest. 
            Shrieking pain came with the touch and a chill, so far beyond any he had experienced, flooded his consciousness.  The pain was greatest at first, dousing all the fiery elements of his soul, but this was merely the road to clarity.  As he pulled the blade away he was allowed to remember once more.
            On Dhala’s faceted side a small prismatic seed lay frozen, pulled from his brain, the barest surface breeching his skull and scalp.  The old struggle was renewed and the Riddle rose up like a sun on the vast Wintery plain of his consciousness. 
            The past came, not all at once, but like frost vanishing from a sunrise.  He remembered why the Trumpeter and he had made the journey to this forlorn place, but so much remained a mystery.  There were the ladies in white, the smoke, and the spirits. 
            “Hey, where are you going Fencer?” shouted the Trumpeter, who was surprised when the man turned to free his friend from the cell.  “You remember now, I guess that’s something.”
            In his rush to find Bles and Eral and all their mysteries he had almost left the Trumpeter behind.
            “It’s more like someone else, something standing in the way between myself and my mind, is gone.  I never forgot; I just had company.”
            He handed the musician the wine and they would’ve talked more but a shriek cascaded through the dungeon from up above.  She screamed.  Lots of things screamed. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Kindle Edition Unthaws from the January Ice

Winter’s Riddle, a novella comprised of the first eight blog entries, is now for sale on the Kindle store.  This will be followed by Chambers of the Heart and The Ice Mummies of Haga Ephos, each appearing a month apart.  Beyond that each installment of A Gathering Beauty will find its way there too, as well as compilations and so on.  I have releases planned for at least the next six months.  This is my first experience with web publishing so feedback is, as always, welcome.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Smoke Monster IV.

            Some eyes look on without intelligence, simply expressing a mood or a hazy daydream.  These apertures take nothing in, no light, no memory, impressing instead upon other eyes an inner world, a strange magic. 
            The eyes of magicians were classically held to be of fantastic colors, both real and dreamed up, of hues not found in nature, idealized as glass, crystallized wonder.  This was as if to say that flesh and blood were passing, imperfect things, but stone and gems could be cut to last the far mountain of years.  Immortality was a rumored benefit of the magic gift and those bright and never tarnished souls were made of grander stuff than the Icebound, their rotting flesh and their melting snow.
            Grand cold bored into the back of the amnesiac’s head as he remembered eyes of green and emerald, smolder ruby and sapphire, and their stares.  These settled past him like the last rays of day, leaving him just as forgetful and alone in the cave’s near total darkness.  Before him the dreaming crimson orbs looked on with balmy countenance and an even greater chill.
            Absolute cold seemed to exude from the eyes in the dark.  It was a certain frozen quality, a name just at the edge of his forgotten vocabulary.  Unnatural and terrible, it had a strange effect on the man; he began walking towards it.
            Though its aura was the first chill to make him shiver since awakening, this merely provoked his curiosity.  He discovered he had an oppositional heart. 
            The constellation of eyes described a space about a meter and a half long with wildly varying width.  He reached down to examine this swatch of gems but reared back with a fine gash in his hand.  Again and more carefully he felt around the matter of the object and after several more small cuts found his way around a handle or grip of some sort.
            It seemed to be a sword or an icicle.  Like a sword it had a flat plane which described a jagged, sweeping blade.  Yet it was cold as ice, so cold that he could feel the skin of his calloused hands sticking to the handle.  Holding it, he felt himself alone in a vast darkness, a slowly dwindling mote of heat.  He shook the thought from his mind and brought his reason to bear on the situation.     
            So this was the thing the Trumpeter intended him to find, he realized.  The cause was beyond him and he doubted there was any, considering the mode of the fellow who had sent him this way.  Yet, now that he had the object in his hand, he contemplated disappointment.  No great revelation cut through his walled off past, no memory sparked, just an uptick in the painful cold at the back of his head.  Dhala.  Suddenly, there was no more time for contemplation.
            The smell of burnt perfume made him turn his head.  Two silent yellow eyes descended down from the fissure above like a nightmare.  Just as it arrived he ran. 
            Crashing through a narrow fissure he happened down, cutting himself on unseen protrusions of stone, fear fueled his movements.  It was a strange sensation, as if poured directly into him.  It could be that the thing was most certainly not of flesh and blood, despite the eyes.  An evil spirit haunted his mind and his steps, bringing a certain superstitious fervor to his actions. 
            A more immediate danger was that it could see him, presumably, while he was blind in the dark.  Those two eyes were the only illumination he had, and if he saw them then he too was seen.  He continued the dangerous flight through narrow corridors burned through the rock by the action of long dead volcanism.  Each glassy passage he slid through and every unseen drop down a ravine to lower courts took him further from the thing.  Only when he thought he was safe did he remember the weapon in his hands.
            The crimson eyes looked on, perhaps commenting on his cowardice, or maybe that was just his own judgment.  Another moan, like the one he heard during the initial descent, drifted through the halls.  With neither source nor direction this sound spurred him into action again, feeling his way through darkness.
            Cold infused his mind.  It had been creeping in slowly during the mad flight but now he could feel it congregating around the back of his skull like a yawn which never came.  It doused his fear and brought back his thoughts; certain plans began to form in his mind.  If he kept running he would only find his way to the dead hells.  So he decided on a more violent course of action.
            He squeezed his way through a few more narrow fissures until a room of some sort opened up.  His first step kicked a stone which sent up a shattering racket.  The floor was littered with some sort of brittle crystal.  Feeling the glassy surface an idea arrived.
            First he stowed the black sword away around a corner from the entrance.  There were other ways into the room, he had felt them by hand, but it seemed reasonable that the yellow-eyed creature was after him specifically and would follow his path.  After making sure the covering of broken crystals was sufficient he cleared a narrow path towards the center of the room, and waited.
            It felt like a tomb down here, the whole glacier valley did.  The women above lived interred in their cobweb castles with no company but each other and their silent servants.  Like a coffin lid the smoke lay over everything, sucking the life from whatever dared reside in this stately valley.  Eral and Bles were so proper, so caught up in their social games and dramas, that they didn’t understand their cold tomb.  Perhaps that was why both were so interested in the Trumpeter and the forgetful man. 
            These loose thoughts went quiet as another moan, powerful, aching, sounded close.  Otherworldly echoes of shrill treble cascaded through the broken glass, making the pieces resonate.  He stopped breathing.
            It was so tempting to peak around the corner, to see if the thing had entered or approached, but to do so would be death.  From where he hid against a jagged wall he could only see the center of the room where his path led.  At last a glimmer rewarded his patience.
            Licks of faint yellow emerged and grew across the scattered glassy screen.  He watched and waited, gauging the position of the thing by this reflection.  It moved silently despite the bits he had placed at the threshold.  Then a rough silhouette broke across the gleaming crystals and he moved quickly and quietly across the path he had carefully laid out.  At last he took a breath.
            Two quick steps and a leap brought him crashing down on the thing, strange sword first.  It mewled out a hungry cry and that smell of burnt perfume assaulted his nose again.  Those terrible eyes spun to watch.
            He seemed to strike, dreamlike and slow.  The eyes bobbed away and with a hiss unseen claws batted aside the sword and leaped for his throat.  Without thinking he was already in retreat, scattered more chiming stones. 
            It followed with another attack and this time met the blade.  There!  He felt the resistance of some sort of flesh.  It made a scream like that of a quickly cooling gas.  The perfumed stench grew unbearably and the swordsman recoiled.  That was its chance.
            Like an animal it swam along the ground and clawed its way up his body with many scythe-tipped appendages.  Perched upon him, its eyes stared deeply into his and drank. 
            The rage and fire of combat drained from him, these psychic energies being greedily gobbled up by the horrid thing.  His weapon arm sagged and by chance it nicked the creature.  It spat an unheard shriek into his mind, providing a momentary respite from its hunger.  That moment was all he needed.
            Possessed by a perfect grace the swordsman dropped the weapon into a reverse grip and pulled the blade across the clutching thing.  There was a fluid pop and a warm billow of burnt whalebone perfume.  He pulled the weapon back, severing whatever claws still gripped into his chest. 
            The creature didn’t so much die as dissolve, judging by the fast liquefaction of those yellow eyes.  The man desperately tried to keep a hold of this enemy of flesh and blood, scrabbling over jagged bits of crystal and trying to pin it with his sword.  Yet it turned to mist in his grasp and the blade only pinned his hopes. 
            The fading eyes twisted off as yellow smoke through an opening on the far side of the room.  Frantically the man followed the only light he might have down here.  He cursed himself for listening to the mad Trumpeter’s recommendation; for his pains he had gained only cuts and a foul weapon, useful though it seemed. 
            Soon he lost sight of the smoke.  Yet the smell, that reek of burnt perfume, remained and he followed his nose wherever that was strongest. 
            The caverns transformed.  Through a loose metal grate he found some sort of dungeon complex.  There was still no light but the walls and floor were flat, cut stones and he didn’t have to worry about bumping his head on some low overhang or stalactite.  Searching around he found an unlit torch and with his belt buckle managed to produce a spark which finally brought light back into his world.
            Cobwebs greeted him, choking the passages and glowing like bone in the yellow flame.  He was covered in the stuff and spent some minutes tearing off thick strands of dusty silk.  White spiders with grey banded legs fled from the light.  His skin itched at the sight them.
            These were surely Eral’s lower dungeons.  Here the Trumpeter must’ve been kept captive, though part of him wondered that the musician might’ve first been given fairer lodgings and smiled at the imagined antics which probably sent the fellow down to a holding cell.  He wouldn’t have been the first.
            Revealed through the flickering torchlight, many cells still held remnants of guests past.  Exotic armors and strange silks clung to the bones, embalmed with cobwebs, entombing them like saints in an abandoned monastery.  Enameled warriors resided next to script-laden poets.  There were tribesmen of the distant tundra bearing the fangs of the wolves they slew and piecemeal adventurers whose luck ran out. 
            A half dozen men were interred here, in the land of the smoke sisters.  The varied nature of these guests made it clear that these were travelers, vagabonds, explorers and the like, men given to searching out the forlorn corners of the world for whatever madness or virtue drove them.  Here they lay at the end of all endeavor.  The back of the amnesiac’s head began to ache intolerably with this realization.
            For a bit he wandered the halls without much energy to proceed upwards into the castle, where two clucking hosts smiled deadly smiles.  Behind lay the dark underworld where light gave up.  There he might lose himself physically, just as his amnesia had lost him mentally.  This consideration brought the weapon to mind.
            It spoke in dark shades from where he had laid against the wall outside the first cell.  It was a long strip of a nearly crystalline metal, black at first glance but with shades of indigo and midnight when seen at the proper angles.  It had an accidental quality to it, like an icicle or a smear of molten material suddenly cooled.  This left the blade somewhat uneven, protrusions reminiscent of ink dropped in water.  Its eyes smoldered in the torchlight.
            All his senses told him to abandon the thing and its terrible cold but that same whim which sent him out to face the smoke monster and which propelled him down the fissure had him take the blade up once more.  Its cold fought with that aching at the back of his head and his vision gained clarity.
            After a careful search he found a sealed vault door.  It had the same alabaster motif common to both castles.  Locked and a good half-foot thick, he frowned at the secrets it might hold.  Out of rage he brought the black blade down on the thing. 
            The sword slid through the metal with a terrible screech.  After a few minutes work he had carved the thing open and found Eral’s treasures.
            A scattering of gold and jewels framed the real prizes; keepsakes from past visitors.  Here there were notched blades forged from poor-quality iron and insignia rings belonging to noble houses from far off lands.  More intimate were the locks of hair and the letters written in several different scripts.  The forgetful man could make no sense of the words.  For all the splendor, only one prize which stood out.
            Heaped over an ebony chair was a set of sealskin leathers with a matching pair of boots.  While worn and repaired many times with sinew they looked serviceable.  Seeing that his fine garments given to him by Bles were tattered and bloody at this point he changed to the skins, which fit like old memories.  The cold at the back of his head ached but he didn’t care.
            Ascending the stairs he thought he might meet a score of alabaster guards or the lady of the castle herself, but instead found only darkness and cobwebs.  The fortress he entered was the same he had been in just hours before, but now it was dust-choked and abandoned, as if for many years.
            The cobwebs, persistent before, clogged the halls.  He had to burn them out with his torch, sending the eight-legged makers into temporary retreat.  They’d win in the end.
            He found no other life in the dead castle.  The rooms lay in a state of stark abandonment, with no furniture and no bodies, only dust, cobwebs and the starlight streaming in from outside.
            A bit of fear rose with each floor he checked.  It was obvious now that there was some sort of ruse at work between the sisters, that they were more than they seemed.  But without memory he had little to contrast with this experience.  That didn’t stop him from worrying.  Looking out across the misty glacier he saw lights blazing in Bles’s far castle. 
            A chance presented itself.  Escape beaconed to the south, away from the glacier and the spirits and the mad women or whatever they were.  Something made him stay.  Something made him head northward, following the lower slopes of the mountains towards the other keep.  The pain in the back of his head grew by the second, towering over his thoughts, still he kept on.  He wanted to do what he could for the captured musician and more than that he was driven by a molten force.  He’d call it a demon, boiling up from within, raging at the web in which Bles had snared him.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Smoke Monster III.

            An array of facets glimmered past as the coach descended onto the glacier.  For a few moments the crystalline grove burned high above them, then it was covered up by a low cliff, leaving them with only smoke and ice.
            “Does having that make you feel better?” said Bles, breaking the silence and pointing at the ornate sword the amnesiac had taken from her armory.
            “I’m not sure,” he responded.  “I feel a need to be able to change the world around me and this is the most intuitive instrument which comes to mind.  Perhaps I was a Fencer, as that madman expressed, however so erratically.”
            The pale woman grew distracted, restraining laughter while looking out over the glacier.
            “I’m glad to amuse,” he said with black bitterness.
            “Oh you have,” she said warmly, turning back to face him.  “And you will.”
            There is a quality to conversations which is like pitching over an abyss.  It happens at a turn in the mood, as if some membrane holding one up is broken.  It is an act of violation, of domination, by one party against another.  A subtle thing, it lives in the spaces between words, in the nuanced implications of power and personality, where the chosen are free to have their heart and where the damned find only the yawning abyss. 
            Here Bles wielded power, to which the Fencer could only contend with a thin strip of metal in his hand.  If he could just remember, then he might have the right of the mood, and beyond this wish lay a powerful sensation.  Out in the empty cold world was the solution to the chill dark dwelling within.  Unreasonable winds tore at his soul and he was left ambivalent and afraid he'd never have his past.
            They followed a road of worn and cobbled snow.  This glacier was dead, trapped in a basin formed between the encircling mountains and a slight prominence to the south, which kept it from spilling out onto the lands beyond.  From Bles's castle their path arched around the mountains, leading past Eral’s keep, on towards the outside world, if there was such a thing.  The Fencer couldn’t see that far due to the smoke.
            The stuff boiled in and Bles didn’t say anything.  The huge white beasts pulling the coach seemed unconcerned in their progress and if the coachman or the guards had reservations about the cloying banks of soot then they gave no indication.  Or perhaps they knew better than to converse with their lady and her wiles.
            “Is it supposed to be this thick,” he asked at last. 
            Startled, she seemed to notice the darkening air and said, “No, not usually.”
            A tendril, grey and dirty, hooked itself around the ornate lattice on the window and wrenched the whole panel free.  It moved in a snapshot slowness, pouring like liquid, solid as muscle, strong as nightmare. 
            With a violent lurch the coach careened off the road.  Inside, the two passengers jumbled, bounced and then were airborne.  The forgetful man had just enough time to pull Bles to him before they landed.  She was so light he could barely feel her in his arms.
            With a crash the coach broke open and the Fencer skidded across the ancient ice, face first.  Tumbled to a stop, he realized that he had lost Bles in the crash.  All around the smoke boiled and flexed, breathing as if alive and eager.  He picked up his sword from where it lay scattered amongst silver and black debris and ran towards the wreck.
            A peculiar smell came with the haze, a sort of burnt bone smell, faint, as if old and stale.  This was driven from his mind as he rounded the still rocking coach.
            Hanging in air, the white-bodied footman struggled in a confluence of smoke.  The stuff rolled into his body and ate it from the inside out.  A clean and empty skin fell to the ice and the smoke took on a reddish cast.  The amnesiac ran.
            More of the empty husks awaited him out in the fog.  Stumbling over these he sought to escape, but found Bles instead.
            “We have to make for higher ground, away from the smoke!” he exclaimed but she didn’t hear.  She was entranced by the smoke monster’s flesh.  It was thickest over the coach, a band of whirling ash and liquid cloud.
            He grabbed a hold of her and this broke some sort of spell.  She recoiled, and, as if seeing the smoke thing for the first time, turned and fled.  He watched her make for an incline; at least she was heading in the right direction.
            That was when it rushed him.  Larger than in that first encounter back on the mountain it flooded over the man.  While he could barely feel its touch, it certainly contained power, pushing him down and shoving him roughly across the jagged glass of the glacier’s frozen surface.
            Instinctively he lashed out with his blade, cutting through the airy tentacle and freeing him momentarily from its grasp.  Struggling to his feet, he faced down his boiling adversary.
            This close he could see the striations in the smoke, it looked like whale flesh, occasionally splaying out into clumps of anemone tendrils or clusters of frog eggs.  The egg-like structures burst and yawned forth a blast of cold ash. 
            With startling grace the amnesiac was already diving to the side.  The deluge fell like mercury but turned soft and impotent when it hit the ice.  Wasting no time, the monster’s other limbs were already bolting through the air towards the swordsman.
            Defensive steel met each cloying finger.  The trick was to temper each swing and leave time for the next of the endless tentacles.  His sword arm felt little resistance, as if he was simply fighting a figment of imagination, but he knew it would be all too real should he be touched.
            The smoke monster’s limbs quivered with a hunger which the forgetful man could neither understand, nor wanted to.  The barest touch of the ephemeral entity, as dispersed by a parry, yielded up tufts of intent when breathed in.  In proximity its alien thoughts impressed themselves on him and these were almost irresistible.
            Clearly more and more of the creature was focusing on the swordsman.  A mathematical difference in limbs made the outcome certain.  He tried for the higher slopes but couldn’t afford to break and run as the monster was surely faster than he.  The only consolation he could think of was that he had allowed Bles to escape, a woman for which he had only cold appreciation.  With a bitter turn his head grew cold.
            At last the entity, tired of losing feelers, fell upon the man.  A mountain of smoke flattened against him, forcing him down, pressing in like an unwanted dream.  He held his breath for as long as he could but the creature wouldn’t wait and filtered in on its own impetus.
            There were notions of an intelligence as well as a presence.  The thing felt, if not thought, and this sentience was all rage, bright and cold, as if unhappily doused from some past fire.  It threatened to become him and then an icy wind blew past.
            A freak gust wrapped around where he lay on the ice and when his vision cleared he saw unfiltered radiance pouring down from an early afternoon sun.  The smoke drifted in rout, regrouping on the far slope where it originated.  Remnants lay off at the edges of the glacier as tattered rags.  When he at last coughed his lungs clear he stumbled off towards Eral’s castle, trying to define the taste the smoke left on his tongue; something akin to both perfume and a funeral pyre.
            With the fortuitous wind gone the smoke monster wasted little time regaining its losses.  First the mist spilled in, gained in density, and then the lower basin was a cloud again, leaving the swordsman thankful that he was higher. 
            By the time he rapped the butt of his sword on the ancient wooden timbers of the gatehouse door the creature was fully returned, dominating the whole basin, lying relaxed, waiting. 
            He was led up through another cobweb castle by another white liveried attendant.  Eral’s palace differed only slightly from Bles’s.  Her rooms were more open, airy, showing lots of blue sky and high mountains, hinting that there might just be a world outside the glacier and its attendant rocks.
            The sisters were laughing amiably when he entered and the difference between the two dispelled a lingering superstition that they might be mirror spirits or doppelgangers.  Eral’s features were sharper, more incisive and predatory compared to Bles’s soft countenance and dreamy, diabolical air.
            “Is it a joke worth repeating?” he asked, framed by the sitting room’s carven entrance.  Inside, they reclined on furniture made from petrified wood.
            “Your face!” Bles exclaimed.  Their smiles melted and he was a little disappointed his dry comment had been upstaged.  In his haste to put distance between himself and the thing in the smoke he had forgotten the pains of the wreck.
            A nurse was summoned and the two sisters hovered around as balm was applied to the long scratch on his face and bits of coach were removed from his side. 
            “Those clothes are a loss,” said Eral dismissively, eliciting a glance from Bles. 
            “Sealskin would serve much better.”  The amnesiac spoke automatically and knew it to be true. 
            “We’re a long way from the ocean,” said Bles with a smile.  “You’ve had too much excitement in our lands.  One coach accident is more than enough for most people, and now a second one.”
            “I fought it, the smoke.”
            Neither sister replied immediately.  They were at pains to not take the next step in the conversation, so he did it for them.
            “And you’re not going to tell me anymore about it, are you?”
            “What is there to tell,” began Eral, “it obscures itself.”
            “It’s an alien thing,” said Bles more soberly.
            “From the stars?” asked the man.
            “Yes, from far, far away,” she responded, as if from such a distance.
            Outside, clouds slid across the sun and they all went ashen.  The room, so livid and white before, grew grey, as if dusty and abandoned.  They hadn’t asked about the footmen or any survivors.  They laughed.
            “I should find you some new garments,” began Eral but the amnesiac waved away her attentions.
            “Probably not wise.  I’d like to see the remains of the caravan which brought me to your lands.  I won’t be able to rest until I do.”
            Eral gave him a slight nod and the man left the sisters to their happy lies.  They’d get drunk on speculation while he was out, the two of them talking around the cold, the smoke, the death of others out on the ice.  Something thrashed inside the man but went quiet with a sudden chill at the back of his skull.  He remembered remembering something which wasn’t there anymore and this pushed him out of the castle and down the rocky cliff face.
            He was met at the gate by a willowy attendant.  How the ladies sent him down so fast the man would never know, but the fellow claimed familiarity with the cliffs and once he saw the rocks the wisdom of a guide became apparent.
            Heading southward from the castle the road plunged as the glacier feebly reached out of its mountainous cradle towards lands beyond.  They could take the long, safe path, heading back north and then around and down the easy slope leading from the castle, but the forgetful man would have none of it and his guide proved both docile and knowledgeable. 
            Looking back, just before beginning the descent, the swordsman could almost make out a figure staring out from the glass of a high room in the castle.
            The climb down was difficult but he took to it readily and the guide commented on this with cool observation.  The amnesiac’s focus was on the splays and pylons of ancient rock tinted green with copper traces and sparked here and there with gypsum crystals. 
            The air tasted faintly of the smoke but lacked some quality, that presence.  Shrouded, no ground presented itself until they were only a few meters away.
            The road ran near the base of the cliff, paved with smoothed stones set by the sister’s white servants.  Just below them it took a bend and there a great confusion of dead beasts, broken wood and dead men described a wreck not long forgotten.  The man hurried the rest of the way, heedless of his guide’s protests.
            Walking amongst the dead and splintered was a great disappointment.  No memories returned, not even a tingling cold. 
            The wagon showed paint of somber blues and silver, and a crest like a jousting whale with a single horn.  The men were attired in a mode tangential to the sister’s, as if from a neighboring glacier culture or forlorn mountain kingdom. There had been three riders, judging from the strange beasts scattered to either side, but only two corpses, apart from the wagoneers.   The wagon must’ve taken a turn too hard and fast to avoid the rock wall looming up out of the smoke and after throwing the outriders on either side hurtled against the cliff wall.  Ingots of a light and wondrous metal lay where they had erupted from the wagon, along with a quartet more dead beasts of burden. 
            “We found you over there,” said the servant, helpfully pointing out the riderless creature at the front of the entourage. 
            “What are these things?”  The amnesiac pointed to the beast.
            “Horses,” replied the man.
            This meant nothing.  He could’ve called it anything and it would’ve made little difference.  He wandered off, unsatisfied.
            He remembered the Trumpeter’s words as soon as he saw the dark fissure barely visible from the road.  Down below a gloomy world awaited through the long, narrow smile in the rock.  Cold mist drifted up, white against the ashen grey of the smoke. 
            “I wouldn’t go down there,” recommended the guide.  Worry animated him and his pale eyes gained color.  “It’s treacherous with gasses and lower things.”
            Following the jagged crawl of the cliff upwards this seemed a fine place to make an ascent to the castle above, if one was coming from the south along the glacier road and didn’t want to wait to go up and around.  In fact, it was odd that they didn't take this route coming down.   Upon closer inspection he found a bit of red around the edge, just a few drops, but it was enough to determine his course.
            “Tell the sisters I’ll be along shortly,” said the forgetful man as he checked his sword and made sure what was left of his coat was buttoned up for a hard climb.  His words proved unnecessary; the man was already gone.  Late afternoon leaned towards darkness, the sun already lost beyond the western mountain.
            Cold greeted his first step down into the fissure.  The way was almost shear and he had to brace himself against both walls to keep from falling.  Coarse and jagged minerals pierced his hands but he didn’t care to notice.  A numbing cold welled up from bellow, increasingly strong and definitely unnatural. 
            A moan came from above.  He looked up and saw two sickly yellow disks framed by twilight.  In those eyes fear was told and it entered the climber’s mind and a terrible cold pain shot through his skull.  He lost his grip. 
            A bit of quartz slicing through his arm woke the man from the numbing fear.  He managed to slow himself by thrusting his limbs to either side, at last coming to rest in an icy cave. 
            Shaking the sense back into his head he looked about in the dark and was greeted by orbs of crimson as the only light.  These cast a dim radiance and contrasted with the terrible cold in the small room.  There were maybe a score of the things, and they watched with a nightmare countenance.