Memories tumbled back to the Fencer and he found himself again amongst the ruined world. Scattered about were dead narwhals and dark icicles, green-haired witches and a Stranger of blue. So much blood and death that he could smell it again, frozen solid upon the vast plains of Winter, permanent and forever like statues. In this mind’s eye view he knew the buzzard future watched from up high, blue-white, the color of sky, waiting for the lone outcast to join the corpses.
Spread out like the contents looted from some abandoned palace his past revealed itself in a confused mess. Various rooms radiated from his current vantage point, places of memories, islands of being jumbled by the Riddle of Winter. These rooms displayed hunters frozen with the blood of their kills, cold laboratories, violence and ice, all seen in the light of lost days.
Bright sky and dull clouds had framed their journey to this place, this moment, among the Altherines, old, tired mountains circling a dead glacier known to be inhabited by a sorceress in the days before the Uplifting. Clea’s journal told of a mysterious client who paid in coin so ancient that they were just bald discs of metal, divorced from history. This client tasked her to find a seed of crystal, like the one which the Fencer held in his hands as terrible screams played down into the dungeon, resonating with the bones of the earth.
“I can’t decide if I’m safer in this cell than out of it,” shivered the Trumpeter through a mask of abject terror.
“No place to run in there,” reasoned the Fencer as he turned the cold bit of prism in his hands.
The thing had been the cause of his amnesia—more accurately described as a block. It had done its job of transmuting his memory energies into cold and distracting him subtly when old companions and artifacts presented themselves. It was almost certainly placed there by Bles, or maybe Eral, but any motive for this escaped his reason. Maybe it was the scream, but he couldn’t make all the pieces fit, and for him that was an aggravating situation.
“That was in your head?!” exclaimed the musician who had calmed enough from one hysteric that he could leap to the next. “All this time the thing we were looking for was right there. This is all your fault for making us climb that cliff near the southern castle.”
“That was your idea, I remember now.”
Both of them were avoiding the prospect of going up the stone steps leading to the source of the screams. Hungry spirits evoked a cultural dread for the two men, and though they knew that the old beings of power had been banished or abjured by the red demon Sol in the Uplifting, they also knew that some things had fallen through the cracks and yet remained.
“Let me out, there’s something I need,” said the Trumpeter.
Freedom was easy to arrange. With just a few swings Dhala cut the iron braces fixing the grate to the stone frame, causing the whole thing to fall outwards with a jarring clang.
“I’m going up,” said the Fencer.
“But why?” asked the Trumpeter. “We found what we came for and there are certainly tunnels down here which lead out to the glacier and freedom and away from our paired witches.”
“It’s fine and well that we have the Prism Seed in hand but it was only an excuse.”
“You can’t believe how thoroughly annoyed I am at being imprisoned over an ‘excuse.’” The Trumpeter had that look in his eye which told of a less humorous kind of madness. “Do you have any idea how much it galls me not to have my trumpet in hand and to be caged like a lunatic.”
Drawing his sword punctuated the Fencer’s side of things. Many times he had been on the verge of murdering the Trumpeter out on the wastes. Once, when they had managed to slip through the various wandering bandits on the Gelsym plains, the musician had suddenly cried out with his instrument, just because he felt they were being unfair to the brigands. This sort of thing happened quite often. Yet this time it was he who was provoking trouble.
They found the trumpet behind another vault, a thing of brass and old, almost melted iron. Collected within were old swords with blades of bronze, rat-eaten hides which served as armor or warmth, bone needles, ivory combs, uncut gems, and old coins.
There was a difference to these spider web spoils. Where Eral’s keepsakes were ornate, cultured, objects of fine make and precise quality, these trophies were coarser, primitive, rough, like the worn down mountains. The trumpet’s sleek design stood out from the uncultured stuff.
“Ah, there it is,” said the Trumpeter, reclaiming his namesake and giving it a good polish. “We’re whole again.”
They went up. The Trumpeter decided that it was best to see what lay above, his instincts swinging wildly from cowardice to fanaticism. It remained to be seen what mysteries the sisters had laid out for them. Setting his face, making his eyes cold, the Fencer prepared to find out.
Murder greeted them.
They didn’t see a soul until they were in the grand hall, with its sweeping staircase and overlooking balconies. From above various partygoers looked down. Eral was there, Bles too. Everyone’s eyes were on the body at the base of the stair.
By the look of her clothes she had been another guest. Decapitated, a splay of rich blood soaked the neck of a once-white dress and pooled on the rug. In a cobweb nest in the corner her head waited.
The crowd acted as if they had just now seen the thing. A general gasp, hands over mouths, averted eyes, the drama all done its fullest. These were rituals the Fencer couldn’t understand from his world where terrible death was common.
“Who did this,” he asked calmly as the servants came in, laid a sheet over the body and fetched the head.
“You should know,” said Eral from her vantage at the top of the stair. She didn’t seem frightened as the others did. She bit her lip with obvious excitement.
“Eral!” The look Bles gave her sister silenced nothing.
The Fencer wanted an answer which didn’t play this game of theirs. Blood was a serious thing.
“Fencer, you know more than you wish.”
The Trumpeter had shooed away the servant and now displayed the head. Green hair spilled from between his fingers like liquid silk, bloodied, spattered. The Fencer remembered the face.
“Clea,” he murmured, hand going to Dhala’s cold surety.
“So you know her?” asked Bles with interest.
“Perhaps you are from her lands?” added Eral, searching.
The Fencer didn’t respond. He had witnessed her death once before and thought, with that barest of reliefs, that he’d never have to see it again. But here it was: the headless body, the pooling blood, plots and conspiracies. A repetition of the world’s madness, of Winter’s Riddling hand writing in red.
“No,” he said. Much to their disappointment, he didn’t elaborate.
“I don’t think he ever knew her, really,” said the Trumpeter with a shrug as he passed off the grizzly memory to the waiting servant.
Now the guests murmured general disapproval. The fun was over and violence had found them even here, within the symbolic security of a castle. Like a slowly moving wave of cool colors the guests made for the exit, giving wide berth to the tragedy on the floor. With a single gesture Bles had the palace sealed.
“I can’t let anyone leave,” she said, some small amusement in her voice. “We have a murderer amongst us and I intend to find out who.”
This excited the crowd. It felt like a party again.
“I have my suspicions,” grinned Eral, eyeing the Fencer’s sword. There seemed to be no doubt who killed the woman, who remained nameless. Much was left unsaid.
“Bles, I want some truth out of you,” said the Fencer, finally freeing his mind from those green eyes, that green hair.
The woman above drifted back from the balcony, off into the sprawling quarters of the upper levels. Obviously she wished him to follow. Soon most did, the crowd returning to clucking and hemming over the night’s excitement. Under a sheet of white a red stain bloomed like a flower.
The Fencer took a step after her, a need to know, to demand knowledge, burned up within, but an arm caught him. He had forgotten how strong the Trumpeter actually was.
“No, no, no, no,” said the musician. “It’s exactly what they want. An old trick my mother used to play on my father; get mad and storm off, make him follow.”
“Now that does make me angry,” said the Fencer, glaring down his friend who let go of his arm. “For once you’re being sensible.”
“No need to be mean,” said the Trumpeter, seriously offended.
Growing thoughtful, the swordsman knew he hadn’t long to deliberate. Those sisters above would be back if he didn’t follow soon, their reasons unimaginable, their methods too. They could conjure up the past, perhaps in relation to the Prism Seed, that mnemonic glass which could sublimate certain mental energies. And then it was so much more clear; he was halfway up the stairs by the time the Trumpeter noticed.
The musician followed in a protest. They went by floors of smoke and gatherings of venal guests humming with civility. Only once they passed the door which Bles had entered did the Trumpeter realize that other plans were being enacted. At least, he hoped it was a plan.
The door below, that one strange, single door leading to the outside, was guarded by six white-liveried men with a look of the blade about them. Up here, however, there were only guests and a few pale servants. They were too busy socializing to care about the two coarse men walking into a wall.
They stopped and the Fencer brought out his weapon.
“What are you doing?” asked the musician.
“There’s a jutting band of stone about five meters off the ground, right on the other side of this wall,” he replied, and then hesitated. “It’s strange. All the things we do, the destruction we cause, it doesn’t seem to matter to them, the sisters. I have my sword, you your trumpet, you’re freed, a guard is dead, yet none of it leaves much of an impression in this place.”
“I’m probably not the one to ask to put things together for you,” laughed the musician.
Nodding, the Fencer swung Dhala in an arc and the stones tore like paper. Four swings and they had a hole big enough for both to squeeze out onto the ledge and then leap down into the soft snow.
Shouts of excitement followed them into the night. Murderer! Barbarian! The mystery was solved, for the crowd. The Fencer paid no attention to the drama behind them as he chased the light.
The smoke was up now, languid piles of the stuff drifting aimlessly. Through this the ghostly copse of crystalline trees stood out like the moon in a rich fog. It was a short run but the guards proved faster. The pair found blades waiting for them.
The first man lunged out of the smoke and at the Fencer’s heart. With an upward parry the Fencer sheered the blade near the hilt and carried through the neck. A second figure howled with his attack, heedless of Dhala he impaled himself on the weapon just so he could pin the swordsman with his saber. He was dead before he hit the ground, but his work lasted, blood seeping from where he’s pricked the Fencer’s shoulder.
More attackers loomed into existence, entities unreal and expedient. The Trumpeter vanished in the haze and so alone the Fencer would soon be overwhelmed. The smoke grew anxious and trembled.
Keeping the lighted trees in sight he continued the uphill struggle as he fought off strings of attackers, wary of the smoke, which at any time might strike. The guards never wavered, never gave a hint of humanity. They died only to bring the Fencer down, but seeing this tactic he changed his, avoiding as many as he could and slaying only those who insisted.
There was a terrible whine in the air by the time he reached the grove, owing to the Prism Seed in his boot sounding against the trees. This resonance confirmed his guess; the lemur-men were had the right of things. He brought up his icicle blade and then something moved behind him.
He struck, turning with one fluid motion to face the Trumpeter’s shock-wide eyes. The weapon passed neatly through the man, separating upper and lower, the trumpet clattered onto the ground and out of sight.
It was almost enough to stop him but his demon rose up hot and angry. The first tree didn’t so much shatter as fracture and slide apart, panes of glass biting into the hard-packed snow. In a fugue, the Fencer methodically destroyed each tree, each resounding tower of crystal, and he didn’t stop until all were broken. Along the ground the jagged stuff hummed, cutting into the soles of his boots, but he showed no signs of care.
Instead, he let out a yell with all his frustration. It cut through the fog. A terrible scream joined him, as well as a chorus of hoots from the upper mountains. Then, inexplicably, the sound of the trumpet sounded too, bouncing off the mountains in growing, burnished wonder.
The castle vanished, the dead men joined the smoke, and where the Trumpeter’s split body lay there was no blood, no body, only the illusion of knowledge.