The smoke was thicker now, describing a burning city or the mist over the great sound where the village of the narwhal hunters once lay. It had a familiar smell, burnt whalebone perfume, faint and heady, but there was also a cloying element, an oily, greasy taste of bad flesh.
He knew the smoke lived, or hungered at least, and at any moment it would swallow him into its vaporous organs where he would join the cloud in ambient communion. But he now remembered the icy bay of his childhood and his flight from the village and knew he was never one who got along with the group. He’d drive Dhala’s nightmare blade through himself before that could ever happen.
A grim smile worked its way across his face. No evidence of his attackers remained; no white clad swordsmen, no Trumpeter, no trumpet. Some stretch of reason made him consider that they had been lost in the smoke, but he knew better.
The moon disk glowed dim red beyond the cloud. Cold fire danced across the shattered crystal of the trees. He stood where the grove once was and in the reflected light he felt he was being watched.
Heedless, he went out in search of answers. Leaving the Altherines wasn’t an option anymore, his demon demanded satisfaction, and if only he could find his way back to the source of the smoke, amongst those strange ruins on the slopes of that tired northern mountain, he might clear the air enough to find his reason for coming to this valley of illusions.
Through curtains of vapor he wandered, marking the incline of the ground as best he could, laterally following the sheets of ice and broken granite marking the ascent. Keeping the slope to his right he was certain to head northwards, to the source of the billowing stuff. Then a shuffling of the rock sounded softly downhill and he leaped upon this noise knowing he had no more allies in this place.
The blade rang off silver and he tumbled unbalanced by this unexpected resistance. Only one kind of metal could ward off his sword’s atom edge. With the smoke so thick and heavy he couldn’t see the other man as he scrambled towards him. His hands took a hold of a long scarf which he pulled, bringing forth a choking Trumpeter.
“You’re dead,” said the swordsman with sad finality. The musician could only sputter as the Fencer waited for the man to turn blue.
“How do I know you’re not just another manifestation of the smoke,” he said calmly after loosening his grip.
“It’s a classic conceit that you don’t,” responded the Trumpeter as he massaged his neck. “I’d imagine the witches know this trope well as it seems to haunt their whole land. Did you see their castles fade away? Their men?”
“There must be a source,” reasoned the swordsman, looking about. “The smoke. Something burns ups there, producing it. I saw ruins on those slopes when I first went out to challenge the smoke monster. The creature seemed so intangible then, so weak. Now, it’s a potent spirit, the very air itself is its body.”
“Oh,” said the Trumpeter as he recovered his instrument from where it had fallen. He pointed at the device and the Fencer understood his meaning.
Sensing violence, the smoke rushed in with sudden frenzy, but with a single breath the trumpet let out a hollow, gusting sound more air than note. The cloud-flesh of the thing gave way, tearing apart to show the conical passage of the Trumpeter’s expression. Above, night sky showed clearly, pinpoint stars gleaming with cold precision. Just as quickly the smoke heaved back into place, piling down like a crumbling tower.
Instinctively the two men ran. A damned shriek followed.
Thick curtains of smoke parted before them, touching the men with gauzy folds like those of a woman’s gown, fine and soft. Instinctively they would reach out to part these seemingly tangible veils, but like dreams they fell apart with but a touch. They couldn’t see each other but stayed close by sound, each relying on the noise of boot on stone or the crunch of ice. Cries followed them through such obscurity.
At last there was a curtain that was a curtain. Shifting it aside revealed a cleared dome-like space within the smoke lit by a pale blue witchfire. On the strangely flat slate ground rested a play of objects.
These were the trophies once held in Bles’s palace vault. Various primitive devices, iron swords, flint hatchets, obsidian arrows, whale bones etched with boxed-in characters, lay scattered about in a confusion.
Then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, whatever grace left this area. The witchfire doused and the smoke came pouring in and the crying thing behind them sounded louder than ever before. Tired of running the Fencer whirled to face it but found the Trumpeter, who tugged incessantly for the man to continue on up the slope.
“We’re close!” he shouted, even though it was quiet. For some reason it seemed necessary in the smoke, as if the stuff would soak up the sound.
Hesitating, on the thoughtful verge of violence and reason, the smoke behind them twisted like sinew into a tree, green and verdant. A patch of likewise grass erupted up as well, shooting from the stones with energetic life. Somewhere a careless bird sang. These were his stranger dreams and he ran from them.
Growth followed the men. Gardens and flowerbeds ran alongside their steps, brooks and streams, unfrozen and fast, laughed after them. But always the screams behind, as the birds and insects chirped on without consideration.
More than just natural life sprang up. Arches, freestanding windows, latticed stone screens, imagined architectures and scattered ruins. Stained glass windows streamed sunlight from other days. Here might be a couch or desk, there a pool full of golden fish, fragments of places and histories bobbed up out of the smoke only to be lost again as the men fled toward some nebulous goal always further up, unseen.
The Fencer slowed and came to a stop.
“Don’t you dare,” threatened the Trumpeter after trotting back to join his companion. “You can’t fall for this trick.”
“Is there a trick?” asked the swordsman, looking about for the spirit’s yellow eyes. “This feels more chaotic, like a madman’s day dream or a musician’s expression.”
“And you wish me to drown out the colorful noise?” offered the musician.
Just then another scream pierced the fog.
“Please,” said the Fencer and the Trumpeter played.
He took in two full lungs of air and shouted out with his instrument. This single peal flensed away illusionary foliage and fragmentary structures, returning them to the smoke from which they were formed, leaving only bare rock and pulverized snow for a hundred meters or so. The air cleared enough to see the mountain’s encore; untold tons of loose shale, granite, and slate spilling down in an avalanche.
If the men had been wise, in that same way a book is wise or a lost magician knowledgeable, they might’ve realized the glacial past of the mountains. At one time great sheets of ice clung to the slopes, remnants of even larger deposits. Over the endless years they ground down the sides to come to rest in the central bowl of the place, forming the basin where the smoke pooled. The slopes were loose collections of mountain skin just waiting to tumble.
A grim clarity framed their race against the tide. It seemed so slow at first, distant, objective, but this wave grew faster, louder, more immediate, deadly. The Fencer broke out running as fast as he could, the Trumpeter not far behind. Ahead was the shoulder slope from which smoke billowed eagerly into the night. If only they could make it there, they would be safe.
As sure as Winter’s cold the rocks came, flowing like liquid. They dodged the larger boulders and skidding pieces of shale, but each one avoided slowed their movement, exposing them to the full force of the rockfall. The boulders, some tumbling, some skidding like a carriage wreck, bore down. A particularly large one careened their way but the Fencer’s blade cut through the ancient stone, dividing the halves to either side. He fought the wave but his blade could not best a mountain.
The last thing he saw was the Trumpeter swept away and down, off the edge of the cliff leading to the lower basin and the road. Then the stones came and he lost sight of everything but the crushing weight of indifferent years.
Awakening to a powerfully radiant morning the Fencer was terrified to realize he couldn’t move his arms and legs. A terrible ache permeated his body. He felt betrayed; there should be no more hells and he had no other word to describe the place he inhabited at that moment.
He was buried up to his neck in a flow of rock. Cold Dhala lay flat against his chest and he shivered with this intimacy. There was cause for thanks though, for this terrible weapon had saved his life.
Though his memory was a crash of noise and debris he remembered reaching the base of the smoke-bearing slope. Caught up in the avalanche, he had braced the unbreakable weapon flat against this torso and used it as a shield to ward off the crushing stones. Fortune played a part as well, as this was the only thing which could account for the way the blade had caught just right against the behemoth rock crushing his front or the fact that his legs screamed out in constant, though unbroken, pain.
In the frame of grey mountains and cloud-scattered sky a bit of smoke curled into a gauzy human form in the air before him. Immediately he struggled, trying to free himself before this apparition full manifested.
Bles emerged, standing on air a few meters away, eyes like old stars, face shadowed by the northward sun. Now he knew why his mind drifted when he contemplated her form; she was smoke, a ghost, holding more weight in the mind’s realm than on the cold Winter ground.
“It all comes tumbling down,” she said with a voice like a drifting stream. “For you and for me.”
“Witch!” he said with such force that he grimaced with the pain of the effort.
“Not anymore,” she said sadly, her whole body like a tear on glass. “Once, this whole basin was my domain. I kept a house on that hill up there and entertained certain energies with my dance of mystery. Then a red thing arrived, hair trailing like bright spilled blood, he wore a garment, a puzzled tapestry, torn from the halls of some other peer of the Art.”
“Sol,” said the Fencer, knowing this story.
“Sol and his Uplifting,” she said and flickered, becoming several beings in short succession. There was no transition between them and in the stark light this ghost of faces was even more terrible. There was Eral and there was the thing in the smoke, the white-themed servants, even the Trumpeter and the Fencer, before giving way to unnamed others whose tokens surely lay under the mountain’s fallen side.
“And you wouldn’t go with him?”
“Why be a peer up there when I could be a goddess here?” smirked Eral. “Have you ever been in a magic duel? No? Well, let me say it is a thing which lies at the very horizon of our possible existences. A thousand million thoughts tangling together into a braided sequence of action and reaction. I lost, as I imagine anyone would against him.”
“I’d have a better time of this if you’d help me out,” said the Fencer, thinking she had grown comfortable with the conversation, but he was ignored. Like all ghosts she lived the past.
“Then things grew hazy,” she mused. “I drifted, dead, bound by the resounding echo of our conflict resonating amongst the peaks, part of me here, part of me there. For some reason he left me like this, unable to play my games, split apart into the three aspects of being. Part of me burned, and some parts played and other parts, the best, preyed. Why would he leave me like this?”
“Never expect reason from a sorcerer,” stated the Fencer as he stared into the sunlight sky. Something in him smoldered at her words, his heart prime kindling for her aimless caprice.
“Your girl came to me then,” she said, suddenly returned to the man she had at her mercy. “Tales of my riches brought her here. She was sorely disappointed. Sol had redoubled my magics, transmuting all my art to fire, a terrible blasting fire. So little is left, only my memories. She came anyway, that little charlatan with her dyed green hair.”
“Get out of my mind,” said the Fencer.
“I can’t help it,” said the apparition sadly. “I bleed this way and that, which is why I hired her to bring me the Prism Seed, promising those few treasures which survived. A fine thing for capturing thoughts or focusing minds, that artifact. It grew a whole forest, but that too is gone, though it is possible that some seeds may have survived.”
The air went cold and the smoke, unseen from his current vantage, misted in from behind. It awaited her command just behind him, an expression of her will made manifest by whatever magic was left to her wandering soul. An old fear of ghosts and spirits returned to the Fencer, ancient culture memories of a time before the Uplifting and the vanishing of such things, mostly, from the icy planet’s face.
“Stay away, you don’t know what’s in my mind.”
“I do,” she said, for the first time turning her attentions fully on the trapped man. She drifted down. Her curious touch was a numbing poison, faint traces of pain running along her caress. He bit down on the finger, but this resulted in him coughing through a lung full of perfumed smoke.
“You carry mysteries within, dancing stranger thoughts,” she whispered, her eyes points of light. “Dreams and things which your experience, but cannot grasp.”
“What do you know of it?” he asked, desperate, but also curious.
“I know because I am the intellect unbound.”
Just then a terrible noise sounded. The air, which had grown ever more smoky, cleared. The Fencer’s neck twisted this way and that, blasted by the force of the trumpet’s voice. The woman of smoke, so wispy, so fair, tore apart with a half-imagined scream, the shriek echoing more fully in his mind than against the encircling mountains.
The Trumpeter arrived, smiling, gleeful in having saved his companion. This was why his face fell so low when the Fencer cursed him. The conversation was over and the swordsman pondered what potential had been lost in that dead and dismembered spirit.