Ice and fire. Something burned upon an infinite plain of ice, hoping to melt, yet fearing the dousing touch of the world which surrounded it. The amnesiac felt this struggle as he touched the cold knot on the back of his skull and heard the distant polyphonic echo of the cry in the smoke. The sound entered his ears and dove for his heart, and a fire sprang up. This was a blaze of passionate understanding. In response the knot felt even colder now, and this numbness spread in a drowsy wave through his being.
Shaking this lethargy from his limbs he left his spacious apartments. The castle was in full activity; he spotted at least a half dozen people, all fretting about the noises in the dark as they sealed the keep.
“Is that the smoke monster,” he asked a maid in somber garb entering each room. She didn’t respond, only went about her duties mechanically, checking the shutters to see that they were secure against intrusion. There was little glass in the castle and most windows whistled with the sound of cold wind blowing through empty stone sockets.
“If you’re not too busy then you might hack down some of these cobwebs as well,” he said, swiping at a tangled mass in a corner. Still she gave no response and the fire in his heart grew.
She turned a corner and suddenly he was alone in the pale-lit fortress. Darkened doorways gaped. Around everything strands of spider silk twisted in a draft, like pennants in a strong breeze.
Down he went through the arching passages and wide open stairways. These were spaces meant for many but now were deserted by all save this one forgetful man and the strange cries which continued energetically. Arriving in the main hall, he discovered a lone guard bracing the main door.
“What kind of trouble will you make if I take my leave of your hospitality?” he shouted after the man, but there was no response. The fellow, a young man, garbed in white enameled breastplate, greaves and sword, disappeared into a side passage.
With his blood boiling the amnesiac threw open the door and dove out into the night. Beyond the walls a thick darkness obscured the stars and suffused the normally reflective ice. This was the smoke’s doing and from within its unfelt embrace he could look up and see the moon as a disk of red. Again and closer the creature cried out.
Now he knew it, or at least recognized the nature of the noise. It was from an instrument, a horn of some kind, a special one indeed if it could produce such an enchanting sound.
The first thing he did was look for tracks out on the glacier. Though the smoke dimmed the moonlight, a diffused glow made it easy enough to watch for dark patches on the otherwise milky surface ice. He started by following his own left earlier that day.
Soon he met those of another man’s, taller, wearing clothes long enough to disturb the most recent dusting of snow. This target didn’t move like a swordsman and this disturbed the amnesiac with its violent specificity.
Quickly he realized that the new tracks carefully stalked his own and together led back up into the thicker smoke on the ridge. Facing the creature there, in the dark, was not something the man relished. While the cry was unearthly the tracks were something tactile and concrete and for some reason he tied these markings with the sound and not the smoke monster.
A gambit entered his mind. He moved laterally against the slope, keeping the castle wall to his back, creeping quietly, approaching the last spot from which he heard the horn’s call. This strategy paid off.
Fresher tracks rewarded his effort. His quarry wore boots of well-used goat skin. The image of a massive mountain goat, horns resplendent, eyes mad as it fell through the air, bubbled up in his mind. This inexplicable vision was echoed by another blast from the horn.
This one was closer and the man raced after the noisy mystery. They led further up the slope, towards the low mountain. Rocky teeth regularly broke the snow cover, patches of darkness tearing away at the white. Then the tracks vanished.
Furiously the forgetful man looked about. His noisy pursuit must’ve given him away. He could only guess that the musician now moved among the rocks, where his tracks would be less evident. A triumphant blast sounded further up, confirming such suspicions.
Trying to follow proved difficult. How the larger man had moved so quickly and quietly through the stones was a mystery. It would take an experienced mountaineer, someone who had lived their whole life amongst the crags, to work such a feat. In his mind the ice took on a colored quality, tints of blue shifting upwards, becoming darker. And a cold ache arrived, driving the vision off as he struggled loudly to the top of a cliff.
From this vantage he was clear of the smoke. Down below he could see the valley and glacier swathed in the misty stuff. Pale moonlight glowed off the blanketing cloud, broken only by the crescent range of mountains and the uppermost towers of the sister castles. There was no sign of the horn player, but his call went out again. Now much below, it seemed to mock him.
Inner fire burned. He boiled. He couldn’t outrun his quarry in this terrain and he couldn’t see because of the smoke. With a grunt of dissatisfaction he descended once more, with the notion of giving up galling him every step of the way. Several more times the horn played again, jibing him, growing petulantly closer only to retreat cravenly at any sign of discovery. Near the fortress once more the amnesiac waited for an encore.
Complex notes sounded out clear and close. How one simple instrument could play such a wide spectrum of sound was beyond the man. When it was over he began to clap. Somehow funneling his hunter’s heart into honest praise he encouraged the mystery player, who began an immediate encore.
With the noise as cover the man stalked towards the sound on feet fast and eager.
He took the figure in mid note, almost earning another bump on the head as the instrument flailed at him. Down they went in a tumble of expletives, shouts, clangs, bangs, fists and feet. The taller fellow smelled heavily of soap and screamed like all the lost devils were after him.
Devils, spirits, witches and demons, these things were gone. One stood out amongst the others with blue hair streaming, red eyes mad with a secret torment. This youth had a too-wide smile. A magician.
With this sudden realization he hesitated long enough that the musician was able to brain him with a flash of silver. Yet a finishing blow never came and when the forgetting man came back to his senses he found a tattered fellow regarding him with a wide smile.
“You still live Fencer!” exclaimed the man who attempted a violent hug. The bewildered amnesiac shoved him away.
With a clear head he took full stock of the person before him. The man was tall and gangly, though it was difficult to notice this through the many layered wool coats and the obscenely long scarf. His face was scruffy and yet he had a sort of manic geniality which shone through the gloom. The silver trumpet, one long tapering piece of sterling, shone as well.
“I thought you lost down that crevasse, and then the witches and their hospitality,” he continued, not the least bit put off. If there was an end to his sentences then the amnesiac was unable to find them.
“You aren’t a monster are you?” he said at last, making the smile fall from the tall man’s face.
“Fencer, it’s me, the Trumpeter,” he explained hopefully, but soon was lost in worry. “This is great, just crazy great.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Amnesia? You? Really?” The musician seemed incensed that he hadn’t been properly notified. While he was distracted the forgetting man quietly pulled out his silver knife. It was the first thing the musician saw after his little fit.
“Oh, you’re angry, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but for some reason not at you, as if there’s not much more to be felt in that regard. Now get up and we’ll make for the castle. It’s cold and I’m tired and my head feels like a rock tumbling downhill.”
“Alright,” whined the Trumpeter who took out a handkerchief, blew his nose, and then went into a higher state of alarm. “Dhala. Where is it?”
“Who is Dhala?”
“Oh no, oh no. Your sword, Fencer, your namesake. Where is it? What if someone finds it? That thing is trouble, big trouble.”
The musician kept up this litany all the way to the castle while the other man plumbed his mind for some recollection, but could only feel a cold pressure at the back of his skull, diminishing the fire of understanding.
The castle was alive when they returned. Where the many ivoried guards came from he couldn’t say. At the mistress’s behest they took the Trumpeter down to the dungeons. He went into hysterics when they separated him from his trumpet and even the uncertain amnesiac was glad to place several layers of stone between him and that voice.
Wearily he took the stairs leading to Bles. She was enamored of the silver instrument, turning it over and over while a satisfied look of pleasure dominated her countenance.
“Thank you,” she said, as he topped the stairs.
“For going out and finding trouble?” he asked cautiously.
“He was my sister’s guest, though I think he’ll find my hospitality more to his liking,” she mused.
“So, he was the monster she spoke of?” he said, suspiciously. Bles sensed this and turned her attentions fully towards her guest.
“My sister has a broad imagination and a way with words. There’s not much to do here but play these sorts of games.”
“But there is a thing which lives in the smoke?”
“It is the smoke,” she corrected coldly.
They both went silent for a bit, gauging the other.
“He called me ‘the Fencer,’” he said, moving towards his room.
“That’s not a name it’s a, a sort of occupation,” she said, following. “A kind of sword fighter, one who fights with skill and finesse according some sort of style. Must say it doesn’t really fit you, now does it?”
The man stopped at the door to his quarters and turned.
“I wouldn’t know,” he said soberly.
“How about we visit my sister tomorrow?” Bles seemed desperate to change the subject.
A heavy pall of words separated the two of them. The man couldn’t grasp her character. She seemed both innocent and conniving. Uncertainly he saw her through a haze of smoke, only flickers of her true being expressing a personality. It could be attributed to her aloof noble bearing, but he guessed at more complex motives.
By the time he agreed the castle was once again quiet, abandoned. There was no sign of the guards or maids or other staff. Only cobwebs populated the halls now, seemingly undisturbed by the bustle. He never saw any spiders but dreamed of their machinations in his sleep.
The next day dawned late and bleary, weak light filtering in from soap scum clouds illuminated the smoking glacier. Upon waking he found he had kicked off his covers and slipped to the floor. He couldn’t remember why though he had dreams of sinking into an ocean of soft snow.
At breakfast he watched as Bles’s footmen and guards chased off a band of spotted lemur-men. They arrived with crude implements, large mauls of chiseled stone. They weren’t after the castle but instead menaced the grove of crystalline trees to the south. Fearfully they scampered down the slopes and as soon as the first warning arrows were launched they fled back into the hidden caves and recesses high up and out of sight.
Bles watched the goings on with the countenance of a volcano waiting to erupt. When the last of the hooting things was gone this fire cooled to a smile.
“Worried?” he asked as she seated herself again.
“Those trees are fragile things.”
“What are they exactly?”
“They’re a bit of light to pierce the veils of smoke,” she murmured through her wine. “A gift from a passing acquaintance. The only reason I remain in this place, really.”
“And your sister?” he asked strategically.
“And my sister too.” He couldn’t see it but she smiled into her goblet.
“Those creatures have convinced me,” began the forgetful man as he pushed his plate away from him and stood up. “I should be armed for our journey.”
“My footmen are quite able to defend us in the unlikely event of violence.”
At this he produced the silver knife he had pilfered the night before and dropped it noisily on the table.
“Consider it a trade for this bit of cutlery.”
“Very well,” she sighed. “There’s an armory in the dungeon. Mind the cobwebs and be quick. I’d like to leave shortly.”
With this small victory tucked into his heart the man bounded down to the main floor and followed the stairs underground.
It was a terrible place of cold stone choked with cobwebs. The only light was a lantern he found at the entrance. Floor after floor opened up below but he kept to the first layer after the wine cellar as this was where the moaning was coming from.
“Who’s there?” demanded the prisoner as the visitor pried open the armory door. He gave no response.
Strange, he thought, all these weapons in an unlocked room. What if a prisoner should escape?
The wares were old but well kept. There were notched daggers, curved sabers, heavy falchions, tapering shamshirs, narrow rapiers and on and on. Other weapons adorned the walls but he seemed drawn to the blades. His mind didn’t know where to begin but his hands seemed to know the way.
“Whoever that is I should probably let you know something,” argued the man in the far off cell. “I’m a very important functionary of this world. I keep the sacred instrument of the lost seasons and should I fail in my stewardship we shall lose even Winter!”
Despite the spread of weapons the amnesiac couldn’t find one to his liking. At last he settled for an exotic longsword with an ivory handle, more out of novelty than any other reason. Then he went to see the Trumpeter.
“Is all that true?” he asked through the ironwork separating them.
“I’d guess you’d have to see for yourself,” smiled the musician.
“What do you mean by that?”
“You’re not the sort of fellow who mistakes words for truth.”
This felt right to the forgetful man but he was loath to express such.
“I haven’t the time now to test all my curiosities with you but when we return I’ll try to get you better accommodations. Then I’ll see about the veracity of your claims.” He turned but the prisoner grew excited.
“You’re off to the other castle, aren’t you?”
“What of it?”
"I hope you are met with the same entertainment as was I."
"There's something beyond those words," frowned the man with the sword.
"I want you to thank the guard who smuggled out my person and effects, see that he isn't strung up for his troubles," smirked the Trumpeter.
"What's his name?"
"Oh, I don't know that. All these guards look the same to me."
The musician seemed on the edge of adding to this thought but uncharacteristically kept his mouth shut.
"Out with it," said the amnesiac, turning his attentions down the hall where he thought he saw something move.
“Nothing, nothing. I expect that your host might dissuade you from exploring the various fissures at the base of the cliff which supports Eral’s fortress is all.”
Now he really did seem mad, but when the forgetful man turned he faced a sobered creature, thoughtful, as he sat down on his dusty mattress.
Fearing the lady’s wrath he made no more of this and returned topside. There he hopped into the waiting black-and-silver coach. Inside was Bles, also with a thoughtful look on her face. He tried to focus on that visage but found his eyes drawn out over the countryside, desperately seeking truth in the phantasms lurking in the smoke.