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.

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