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.