Wednesday, February 29, 2012

More Ice

Remember that promise I made about publishing a Winter's Riddle story each month?  I sure do. 

This is an official notice that the next novella, "Chambers of the Heart," will be on sale in a few short hours, though perhaps as late as tomorrow.  I'm still learning the tricks of ebooks so, as always, feedback is welcome.  

There!  See?  It's still February.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Pale Blank Skin I.

            Lumnos the Wordseller hated customers.  Occasionally some vague noble from would come looking for a history to claim as their own genealogy, or an agent of Summer would send a dream informing him of a sale, but on the whole he loathed the entire caste of casual browsers.
            Icy Winter did not encourage readers and that morning had proven this further with violence.  He had been woken up at three bells by the sound of breaking glass.  By the time he down the narrow stairs, weighted cane in hand, the invader was gone, leaving behind only the faint smell of lye.  He preferred his more common unwelcome guests; members of the city-tribes looking for pages with which to clean their backsides. 
            By midmorning his biblio was the center attraction for his little neighborhood in the city of Ruin.  Gawkers, wrapped up against the incessant cold wind which blew up from the south, huddled together and pointed at the open-centered spider web marring his shop’s smooth glass facade.  At times like this, when saddled with intractable difficulties, he nearly levitated with nervous energy.
            "Please go away, the shop is closed," he huffed at the sound of the opening door while trying to inventory the collection of bestiaries unsettled by last night's visitor.
            Two men had entered; a tall fellow in a long coat and longer scarf, carrying something lewd and silver, took up most of his vision, while the other examined the place with a predatory attention to detail.  He treated the books like trophies, dangerous prey. 
            "I can offer no more explicit a closed sign than this," said Lumnos, dramatically displaying the glass at the front, as if they hadn't seen it.
            "That's very nice.  Did you just have it put in?"  At no point was the tall man being facetious.  "Looks something like a net."
            "What is it that you two want so I can tell you I don't have it and be done with this aggravation?"
            In response the taller fellow produced a pouch of poorly cured leather and handed it over.  Inside was a jumble of silver and gold bits, quite a sum.  There was even a few coins, remnants of more civilized times.
            "It's usually customary to inquire about a purchase first," he said, handing the pouch back.
            "No, you see, it's a gift," explained the tall fellow.  By now Lumnos realized the silver thing in his hands was an instrument of sorts, a trumpet.  "Amongst my people, and his, it's customary, in certain cases."
            "By the smell I knew you to be more knuckle-dragging barbarians.  Tell me, are you from the snow steppes of Hyras or maybe you're refugees from the lands around Nock after their troubles?"  Lumnos knew what they were after, soft paper junk texts or maybe lusty etchings.
            The man in seal skins laughed.
            Lumnos began watching this other, quieter man as he moved about the shop, checking for what had been taken.  Now his alarm grew great; the fellow in seal skins had some awful looking sword at his side, a piece of black obsidian.  No, it was metallic, a perplexing substance.  If he wasn't a sensible person he would venture to say it was enchanted, but such things were lost to Winter these days.
            "Further south than Nock," said the musician, watching.
            "You don't look like wolf hunters from the Bright Expanse..."
            "Warm weather savages, to be sure," smiled the tall fellow.
            "Snow-eating madmen from the icicle forests?"
            "You certainly know your geography, but no, they ply lands northwards from where we hail."
            "Then please do name this made-up place," snapped the wordseller bitterly.  He had never been a keen reader of the wild places, civilization held his heart.
            "Have you heard of the Wondering Mountains?"
            "I seem to recall some place described as 'the Painted Peakes' in the journal of the cryotropolist Domos, but there is no word of him surviving his trek south and most experts discredit his text as a work of creative fiction in his name."
            "Then I suppose we are from such a fiction," joked the taller fellow.  It was difficult not to like the man, even though he invaded the books he came across.  He went over each that Lumnos did, seeming to check their first pages with an appraising eye, as if he could read the characters within.
            Then realization came to the wordseller.  There was a common con which involved two actors, each dividing the attentions of the proprietor in order to pocket or swindle goods.  He had read about such a plot but none bothered in his place; books held little attention on barbaric Winter.
            "That's just enough," he broke, gesturing over to the swordsman.  "I can't have this!  This won’t do at all.  Go stand by your friend."
            "This is whale skin, isn't it?"  The man with the sword ran his hand down the mottled blue spine of a leathery tome.  "Not a narwhal though, some other kind." 
            "You have a decent enough eye," said Lumnos, calming.  "The words are tattooed on thin sheets of orca hide making the whole thing waterproof."
            The savage took the book down and opened it, passing pages at random.  "What does it say?"
            "Books don't say anything, they don't tell, they don't give grand speeches in bombastic voices, they may inform, and they always express.  They are an opportunity, if you choose to take it." 
            Unmistakable illiteracy showed in the way the tribesman handled the book.
            "Then what does this one express?"
            "Annoyance," he replied.
            "We only wish to purchase a book," said a voice from behind.  The musician was noisily engaged out of sight, lost in the maze of shelves and stacks.  By the sound of shuffling papers he had breached the office.
            "You only had to say that from the start."  He wandered in search of the musician, following the scarf back to its owner.
            "That's what the bits were for," explained the swordsman, following.
            "You said they were a gift."
            "Reciprocation was assumed, but as I guessed correctly, you are too civilized."
            "Who are you two?"
            "I am the Trumpeter and the fellow herding you about is the Fencer, if we have any other sorts of names you shouldn't bother to ask for them."
            "That's ridiculous!"
            "Why?" asked the Fencer coolly.
            "You're no fencer."
            They were in a sort of backroom now, hidden beyond a blind of shelves.  Lumnos liked the secret nature of the place, how he could seem to vanish and appear like a magician.  Having this sanctum invaded was a doubled aggravation considering last night’s burglary. 
            "A fencer is a person of elegant violence," he began, rhapsodizing.  "They are students of either the Weqian or An'bi schools, though since the Uplifting who knows what sorts of sword games they play up in Summer.  Fencers also comport themselves in a fashion which describes balance and nimbleness.  While you are certainly a person of mean strength I don't see the proper cadence to your steps or hip placement."
            This proved to be the wrong thing to say as the Fencer's jaw set itself strangely and he drew his weapon.  Now Lumnos felt a chill in the room, a place usually warm and snug from the small coal furnace he kept stoked.  Perhaps, he thought, the notion arriving in his mind unbidden, it had something to do with that sword.
            Shoving a sorting table aside the Fencer slowly brought the sword low, at his side, point back, blade downwards, and went still.
            "An'bi.  At least, this is what my muscles tell me when the word is said," explained the swordsman.
            "And this," he continued, changing his stance completely, turning a narrow profile on the frightened wordseller and wielding his weapon with one hand, the other balancing the pommel as if praying.  "This is what I think of when I hear the term 'Weqian.'"
            Lumnos was speechless; those were both textbook-perfect examples.  This, juxtaposed with the general primitive nature of the swordsman, produced a level of dissonance which was nearly unbearable. 
            "Where do you keep your white books?" asked the Trumpeter, giving up on savaging the man's ledgers. 
            "What do you mean?" sighed Lumnos, hands covering his face in exasperation.  "No, wait, I think I understand.  You mean, color."
            "You really should do something about your organization," lectured the Trumpeter.  "Books by the same author are all lumped together."
            "Which white book are you looking for that I might finally exorcise you both from my life?"
            "The Alabaster Palimpsest," said the Trumpeter.
            The Fencer had stalked over to the furnace to warm his hands while his eyes focused intently on the man.  A moment hinged.
            "I have no such book," he replied, a bit too quickly.  "Now if you'll please remove yourselves I can get to the task of cleaning up my livelihood."
            "The sweetest apple hides the poison seed.  A frame, tongue at the bitter edge.  Let's have this be a blank sour page for our play of words."
            The prose sounded awkward coming from the Fencer, not poorly, he had obviously practiced their cadence, but incongruous all the same. 
            "She's dead you know," said the Trumpeter, bringing forth a familiar green journal from the inner reaches of his coat. 
            "I hadn't heard," whispered Lumnos, settling slowly down into the familiar comfort of his leather-backed desk chair.  They had the proper words, agreed upon a few years back.  "You are her killers, I take it?"
            "That's right," said the Fencer with a knife-edge to his words, "so you'd best hand it over."
            Lumnos read him.  He had this talent, when he bothered to use it, where he could lay his eyes on someone or something and through a process of tangents treat their attributes as words, and their wholes as texts.  Always afraid of the censure of witchcraft, he rarely brought this entirely mundane faculty to bear, though the true reason was that most things and people held little interest compared to the texture and complexity of books.
            The Fencer bristled under the attention and went for his weapon.  Lumnos was surprised to find that there was a depth to the man, unspoken, strange and driven, which crested the surface in brutish splendor, like the tip of an iceberg, and stretched down into fathoms of which the man himself was unaware.      
            "No, no you didn't," he stated and rubbed his eyes.  "But she is dead, that is true.  I must say I'm finding it difficult to think of one of the Icebound besting the green-haired alchemist."
            "It was an agent of Summer," said the Fencer, concentrating greatly against some unwanted emotion.
            "One of their internecine disputes most likely," nodded the wordseller.  "But you have her journal?"
            "We're trying to reclaim the past," explained the Trumpeter.  "This thing says that those words spoken by my aggressively minimalist companion represent a certain understanding between the late magician and yourself concerning this bundle of papers called the Alabaster Palimpsest. That, should these words be spoken, those speaking are to be given the thing."
            Lumnos almost replied, but then held back, reconsidering.  Here he was faced with an icy murderer and an obviously addled horn-player, their vices unknown, their pathologies on full display.  A simple dialogue would never convince them of the subtle nuance of the thing they sought, though they'd never admit to such.  What was needed was something more visual.
            "Let me find the thing," he said and then stalked off into the shop proper. 
            They walked through the maze of shelves and didn't notice that the crowd of neighbors had dispersed into a greying, cloud-covered sheet of sky, or that there was a large, blackened mass now slowly weeping blood beneath the a table in the main room.  Mechanics, lost to their perceptions, whirred towards strange futures.
            "Someone's been through here," mentioned the Trumpeter, glancing at the floor.
            "Of course," replied Lumnos.  "I have, several times a day."
            "No, a smaller person, a boy child most likely.  You can tell by their whorls left on the shards of glass up front and on your nicely polished wooden floors.  A scrawny one, long-limbed, with bad posture and exposure to lye."
            "Damn bloodhound savages," remarked Lumnos but he didn't bother to refute the man.  In fact, he picked up his pace, fearing what he would inevitably find at the end of the cul-de-sac.
            Many years of wrangling books had produced a man prone to byzantine caution.  From watching his few customers he had distilled certain principles of human motives, such as thievery and the general tendency to avoid confining spaces.  In making his shop as unpleasant for outsiders as possible he had maneuvered his book cases in such a way as to create spaces just a bit too tight, stacks of books dangerously tall, and spots where the light was just dark enough that no one would bother reading.  He kept his treasures at the end of one such hall, away from the office, which was the place where thieves would first come, if they bothered at all.
            Someone had. 
            There had been a shelf here, mostly containing family histories of clans long frozen in their icy cairns.  Behind these books one could just barely reach behind to a hidden catch which activated a cantilever pivot, exposing a small passage beyond filled with storage boxes.  If these boxes were removed it seemed one had discovered nothing more than a small dead end created by the natural progression of the shelving around it.  Only if you were perceptive did you pry up the loose floorboards and find the massive safe below.  Then there was the twenty tumbler lock to content with. 
            All of these were opened, cleared and exposed.  Lumnos felt a terrible sinking sensation, a violation.  The Fencer was far more emotional.
            The swordsman shoved the wordseller aside and stalked the open safe like it was wounded, yet dangerous, prey.  A spread of Lumnos's most prized tomes lay all around, incredibly valuable histories and treatises on knowledge all but lost to the cold world.  With a grimace the man demanded answers. 
            "I don't like plots or secrets," he grumbled, looking about for anything white.  "What a coincidence; we arrive the very day of a theft."
            He flicked aside the books, none of which were white. 
            "I'm not sure what's been taken," said the stunned wordseller as he rummaged through the leavings.  "It seems that they are all here."
            "Excepting the very thing we are after," predicted the Trumpeter.  "We're cursed Fencer, no other way to describe this.  I leave it to you to pick the cause; witch, demon or evil spirit."
            "You are correct," stammered Lumnos.  "It is missing.  The Alabaster Palimpsest.  Nothing else has been taken."
            After replacing the books they returned to the main area where cold wind blew in through the jagged shards, smelling of city-reek.  Today the wind came in from the Rot and so they didn't notice the corpse by its smell.
            "Someone's been in," noted the Trumpeter. 
            Indeed, there was a trail of rotten blood leading from the half-closed front door to the large circulation table in the middle.  Underneath was a blackened mass of putrid flesh, white where a dusting of lye showed.  As if in response to being discovered the blood pool beneath it began to expand violently.
            Time died and they all froze.  Outside the sky looked on blankly.  Three men stood locked in stasis, the corpse providing the only movement as it lifted itself on wormy muscles and floated upwards, dripping.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Smoke Monster VIII.

            The Fencer’s mind fled from the term but he couldn’t deny the haunted air of the smoke-bound valley.  This was a place of ghosts.  No longer entombed in the flow of avalanche debris he took full account of the lands beneath the Altherines and pondered the vast wisps of fleshy fog which clung to the ice like some sort of protoplasmic creature.  From here the stuff seemed solid, but his reason knew that if he went out there it would billow away according to its ephemeral whim.
            Pondering the smoke allowed him an indulgence; he didn't have to consider the ghost.  Bles, or Eral, or whatever they were, combined, faceted, together or separate, sparked that same distant superstition as the yellow-eyed spirit which had stalked him through the land.  Common wisdom said that all the apparitions and demons, specters, witches and ensorcelled monsters had been abjured by red-haired Sol those many years ago.  The Fencer kept an eye windward, searching for the distant hunger-cry as proof that a few horrors slipped through the cracks of the red demon legend and that he had the rare luck to face such a thing. 
            The further worry was that in some part Bles and the hungry spirit were joined or linked, and this proved far more fearsome than the failure of an old story.  She was both Bles and Eral, maybe both smoke and demon.  Perhaps every single servant and guardsman was her as well, sculpted from her hazy pool of flesh.  Always the smoke.
            "It's like her soul is resonating off the mountains," said the Trumpeter with wistful consideration, the sort which often spoke the heart of the strange things they witnessed.  "Her death-scream so loud it even now echoes as a kind of force, a certain magic.  Split apart and diverted many times she is a cacophony of characters."
            "Why?" asked the Fencer, considering their situation closely, looking for a way out from the clouded land.  The mountains were low but lead to unknown realms, places far from the southern cities from which they had set out, and the men had little in the way of provisions to survive such an adventure.  To return south, the way they came, would be to invite the full attentions of the deadly smoke out on the glacier and though his companion could dispel vast swaths of the stuff with his trumpet, even the Trumpeter didn't have enough hot air inside him to turn the course of a cloud.
            "Who are we to determine the tastes of those strange enough to wield magic?  Maybe she was bored?  Do you ever wish you were bored?"
            "I only have one wish," said the Fencer, focusing his most specific memory.
            "As do I, but there can be many embodiments, many words we must say and troubles to cause.  I think you have it," said the Trumpeter gleefully, "there, in your eye.  I see it."
            "Let's enjoy our clear skies while we can," said the Fencer, who prepared to ascend the slope where the smoke was born.
            Weak morning sun filtered down over them.  Their steaming breath soon had company as the wind turned unfavorably, bringing great storm heads of smoke, warm, smelling faintly of Bles's emblematic whalebone perfume, burnt, singed at the edges.  With the smoke came the presence.
            If the ladies of the land were the mind unbound then the hazy stuff was the body and the thing within, unseen mostly, yellow-eyed and frenzied, was the soul.  It stood forever at your back, just out of sight, always there, leaning over the shoulder to see what you saw and make your skin crawl.  The two men couldn't see it, but it was there. 
            How would it kill them?  The question posed itself inwardly, speaking fear to their more numinous selves, and they couldn't be sure if this was merely consequence of the danger they now faced or a notion seeded by the thing in the smoke, a sort of inception.  Their fear made them hold their artifacts tighter as a sort of reassurance.
            They met no howl, only a cathedral.
            Wide and clear, great spans of space opened up at the top of the rise.  A central tower laced with external arches and flying buttresses echoed into the sky, the masonry jagged, interlaced, built of baroque excess.  Various outlying devices framed the air all around with raised walkways and open galleries.  There could be no explanation other than the fantastic; these structures did not exist outside the smoke, but here, from within, it was certain that they dove out of the cloud into the red-tinged sky beyond.  Yet, like the garden from the night before, this was surely a thing of glamour, though, unlike the garden, it was wholly unknown to the Fencer.
            Entering became the only path forward.  Bubble-limbed terrors frothed to either side, falling towards them like a volcano's pyroclastic flow.  With few seconds to spare they ran ahead, into the building.
            Inside it was light.  What seemed of granite or concrete without was now an entire architecture of glass, beaming with bright afternoon on an icy plain.  There were no mountains about, or smoke, just frozen waves of ancient snow echoing the sun.  A white hawk followed smaller white birds, the chase leading around the vaulted building and out over infinity. 
            The interior was empty, then populated.  Eral stood amongst a menagerie of adventurers lounging on strange furnishing seemingly built of single, matte colors.  Familiar in their garb, the men themselves wore generalized flesh on hidden bones.  These were her trophies.
            "There is a place for you here," she said, voice twinkling, eyes like pin-points. 
            "You've already offered," said the Trumpeter, "do you think our position changed?"
            "I'd hardly say I knew you without change," she replied.  "You were my difficult guest and though you are quite hard on hospitality I would still have your company.  Every day will be different, each moment a new revelation.  This is an excitement I can promise."
            Outside the land changed to one of strange geometric vistas dropping off into a limitless horizon.
            "If you think I can believe that then you're more insane than I am!" exclaimed the Trumpeter.
            The Fencer was moving before the words were fully out of his companion's mouth.  While he was no great studier of women he knew that they never took well to being called crazy.  He circled in an arc, avoiding her gaze.  
            Eral gleamed with anger, the ghostly power which framed her being as such flexing itself out as light, a frostbite, skin-blackening, ray of cold freezing the air with its brilliance.  This struck out at the musician who was only saved by his instrument, which he flung up in defense.  The ray glanced off the silver trumpet and stove through the air right next to the Fencer. 
            Terrible cold, like Dhala's but worse, shuddered through the man.  Death's chill, the spaces between stars, the curiosity between these two similar yet divergent qualities was lost as she now saw the swordsman.
            Closing the distance in a few short strides she seemed unconcerned as he prepared the strike.  With both hands he brought the blade across the formless creature.  Her head came off, tumbling lightly to the ground.  There was blood.  The men, warriors and explorers coming to their host's aid, vanished.  The cathedral dwelling glimpsed into air, the sunlight lost, the smoke returned.
            Her head spoke.  "At least you could leave us the Seed."
            Her body stood there, poised and proper.  Then a confusion of inky back roiled from the open neck.  These tentacles of condensed smoke caught the Fencer unprepared, his instincts brought Dhala up in defense but the stuff spilled past the blade without care. 
            He was lifted up and an overwhelming smell--like bitter burnt seeds--insinuated itself into his sinuses.  A vision of loss, of a woman, something like Eral and something like Bles, standing before a mirror in a luxurious apartment, became his mind.  She was both: Erablys.  With a noise this vision blasted into quiet.
            Great black enfolding arms rushed away, leaving only a barely understood grey outline beyond, and numb pain within.  The Trumpeter came into view, his mouth working unheard.  Eventually the ringing in the swordsman's ears told him that a song had been played and that he was deafened by a note.
            Of Eral there was no sign and he made sure that the Prism Seed remained hidden in his boot, despite her grasping tendrils.  More out of spite he was determined to keep it from them.  It served no other purpose except the symbolic, a gesture towards dead Clea, whose journal had been the blueprint of this expedition and whose memory acted as a wind, pushing them along.  There was maybe no greater foolishness than that of sentiment.
            Subsequently the Trumpeter's voice arrived buzzing, fizzing, popping, but still comprehensible. 
            "I saw a lizard and a man-ape in the smoke!" yelled the musician through the broken ear static. 
            "We've seen a lot of things," said the Fencer as evenly as he could without shouting.
            "Oh good, you can hear me," smiled the Trumpeter, then let his face fall and gestured to the smoke now forming a thick dome around them.  "It's waiting for us."
            The swordsman nodded and retrieved his weapon from where the force of his friend's playing had knocked it from his grasp.  He recognized this ground from his first foray into the smoke. 
            A thin tumble of pebbles rested atop the flat remnants of structure, once the lady's keep, her undivided castle, from before the time of violence and Uplifting brought Sol and his ultimatum.  Whatever there had been, little was left, not even a ruin.  Not much for the mind to remember or for a ghost to haunt.  The old hidden foundations now lay exposed, stripped, like a skeleton.
            "I don't like this, these things which can't be killed," shivered the Fencer.  "Our only hope lies in staunching the source of the smoke, should that even be possible.  Whatever our goal we are blind to it."
            "That is our common trouble, now isn’t it Fencer?" lamented the Trumpeter.  He didn’t realize that giving them what they wanted, the Prism Seed, was also a positive end to the struggle.  Maybe he did, maybe he was as stubborn as the Fencer.
            Then the clouds ceased.  Sunlight caught the race of smoke down the mountain at a speed which surpassed the steady wind coming off the heights.  The stuff pooled high into the glacial basin and from the top of this cauldron a great many limbs protruded like the topography of an orgy.  At first these were indistinct, like cloud formations which charged the imagination, but soon these gained contrast and color, becoming pale flesh and animate.  By the time the first yellow eye blinked into existence they were running at full speed away from this composite creature.
            This was the grand confluence of body, soul and mind, once driven apart by wild magics let loose on that slope years ago, now brought together to hunt the future.  The cry of the evil spirit, a deep dark wanting peal, resonated off the mountains.
            Noon sun drifted through high altitude clouds, illuminating the source.  Smoke, most inky and black, coiled up from a place some hundreds of meters away.  It leaped up like feather stuck into the ground. 
            The thing behind them became very real, its form that of a woman, stripped of humanity, majestic, on the scale of the giant Zerimot but far more agile.  She clawed across the landscape in naked hunger, yellow eyes in shadow.  She was a consumer of things, of personalities, of stories, in that way many people are, but here magnified to enchanted excess.  If the two men had any doubt as to the solidity of this creature then the first footfall dismissed such misgivings. 
            Each step the apparition took matched a hundred of theirs and sounded as a thunderclap.  They were some dozen meters off from the locus, the boiling source of smoke, when she caught them. 
            Curled drapes of her hair fell across the men and they choked from the smoky curtains, drenched in whalebone perfume.  She lifted a hand.  There were scores of bodies within it, protruding.  These were rough memories, all she had left now that the crystalline grove had been shattered.  Down came the hand and though they dodged the resulting shockwave sent the two men flying, the Fencer hurtling close to the source.
            He could see it now, a lumpy thing lying in a bowl of grey glass, testament to the fires from lost days.  Glancing back, he witnessed the lady herself.  There was a struggle within, large forms twisting like unborn snowflies within semi-translucent pupae.  Only her hunger kept her together.  She lunged for the Trumpeter who was only just now recovered.
            She sighed with expectation, her mouth wide and horrible, each tooth a tombstone of some other traveler, her tongue black, inky.  The Fencer watched with hopeless curiosity.
            Her face went to chaos before the sound arrived as distant buzzing thunder though his still-ringing ears.  First there was a dimple on her face, a tiny corruption, but this expanded into a cone of force ripping through her smoke-flesh, tearing loose teeth and eye and ghostly bone.  Through the mists the sliver of the trumpet glinted.
            Short lived peace followed.  Her damaged parts drifted back to smoke and the umbilical cloud swelled.  A new head grew from the old, partially unformed, droopy, uncaringly ugly.  The Fencer turned to his task; his friend wouldn't last long.
            Erablys cried in her many voices as the swordsman made the last climb to the smoking form he had seen before.  There it was, the corpse.
            It stood some three meters tall, as best he could tell from the wrapped up bundle of bones and blackened flesh.  The head was huge and bestial, the limbs lanky, taloned with yellow bone.  He only caught glimpses of it because the smoke poured off so thick and heavy, and its smell of burnt perfume made his eyes water.
            Another trumpet blast caught his attention.  Again the instrument tore through the smoking flesh but she fell all the same on the player, shrouding the man, devouring him.
            With no time left he fought out the Prism Seed, it was what she wanted after all, what she had used to grow her crystalline grove, and focus herself and play her games with travelers.  Within this trap of light she kept them all, her playthings, like toys in a box, content that she had them, always. 
            The sneer he wore told of his next action.  The blade drove deep into the corpse and it twitched.  A hissing sound as the ancient fires snuffed.  The smoke stopped, and the wind did the rest.
            First her flesh grew more solid, more real, as she instinctively pulled her matter close, leaving behind the musician at rest on the slope.  Shrinking smaller, her features focused to clarity, the lady of the place, legendary Erablys, showed in majesty and then blew away with a whisper.
            The glacier cleared to a stark mirror of snow-polished Winter, reflecting cold brutish forces and silence.  Mute lightning flashed beneath the ice, the Lattice reclaiming the soul, a rare thing to witness.  In ages past a shaman would guide this end, but there were no more gods or shamans to tend such narrative.  The Fencer had only his eyes.
            Hope fled as he raced to the Trumpeter.  The man was still as death, uncharacteristically quiet.
            Noting the trumpet nearby, the Fencer picked it up and put it to his lips.  This had always been a curiosity for him, but only now was the jealous Trumpeter away from his charge.  He blew, producing a gasp which started weak but through some quality of the device gained a desperately searching finish as it explored the environs and resonated off the peaks.
            With a cough there were hands about the Fencer's throat.  They only loosened when he dropped the trumpet.  Taking his namesake up once more the Trumpeter staggered, heaving up smoke and taking in fresh air.
            Little was left to tell that Erablys had ever been ruler of the glacier, only a few bits of masonry on the northern mountain and keepsakes scattered where the twin castles once dreamed.  But these weren’t really hers, they were others’.  These trophies were the only real things in the land of smoke. 
            Picking through the leavings the Fencer realized this.  She had been impossible to grasp, physically, or with the simple eye, and maybe in life this was also the case with a sorceress, but it was certain in death.  Not content with singular existence she sought the best kind of company; herself.  What games mages play. 
            Bles, Eral, they had no voice in this.  There were no ghosts of ghosts to act as chorus to lives lived.  The travelers were alone with their understanding, as even Clea was dead.  In a way she haunted still, wherever they took her little green book.
            That night, as they camped one last time under the Altherines, the newly clear air revealing a wealth of stars, the Trumpeter read from Clea's journal.  For light they burned all the leathers and wooden artifacts left behind, the letters and journals and toy-box mementos.  No clouds insulated the night and with the warming smoke gone they wouldn't survive without destroying the past.  He read to take his mind off such destruction.
            At the same time the Fencer remembered this happening the eve before entering the haunted valley.  It was read to him then as now; he couldn't be bothered to learn the way of letters himself.  The green alchemist told of the entry, besetment and bargain done in this place.  She had no knowledge of what she was getting into, only the will to bluff her way through anything, with a few potions to aid the way.  These they had reclaimed from the lost vaults, not a one missing. 
            A prize of particular note was the Prism Seed, a thing which transmuted thoughts into captured light and vice versa.  Clea was no magician and couldn't predict the places Erablys took this technology, using what grace was left in her soul towards strange ends.  Instead of using the seed to regain her mind she cultivated it, producing the crystalline grove, becoming a greater kind of spirit.  The seed placed in his head wasn't the original, simply the fruit of such a garden.  Only the dead knew the fullness of this project.
            And that was the great mystery.  She could've taken the Fencer's memories from him through such an implant, but instead merely blocked his past.  To ascribe a single cause or goal would be a disservice to her genius, directed as it was towards byzantine games and schizophrenic identity plays.  She reveled in such drama.
            The two left at dawn, the fire burned low, producing a wide variety of smokes owing to the things fed it the night before.  Taking a few knives from the pile the Trumpeter scattered the remainder down the cliffs just to hear the noise they made.  Then, with nothing else to do, with the Prism Seed safely acquired, they left the nameless glacier on a weeklong trek towards the closest settlement.  Outside there would be hunting and with luck they would survive.
            If there was any reason to keep the Seed it was gone now.  The device was blank and they had not the Art to put it to any use.  Any wisdom it might've contained had been lost in the smoke, and now even the smoke was gone.    
            They met a woman with rugged dreams traveling north on the third day out.  After preventing the Fencer from killing her she said she was heading to plunder the ruins a witch left behind in a place of strange mists.  They told her not to bother; she went anyway.  For a moment the Fencer felt the pang of knowing a course but being unable to share such memory, and in his boot the Prism Seed reminded of lost magic and lost sense.