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.