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.