Thursday, October 11, 2012

IX. The Juggernaut

To flee into the normal, the everyday, is a prime fantasy.  Lew felt it, the desire to be back in his quiet inn which was never quiet.  The past lived on in silence, without echo or song, as memory, idealized and frozen under the ice of Winter.  The past was a ruin, a tourist destination for those with the leniency of wealth and ignorance.
              Yet the past he now confronted blinked at him unwanted and obscene, a creature of flesh transplanted and reformed in blasphemous recollection.  His mind went towards the religious.  He remembered prayers.  If only the holy fire still burned.  With it he could scorch this horror from his mind and absolve him of the uncomfortable intimacy he once shared with a being in whose image this thing shared in many parts.  The gods were gone and there was no relief.
            He had met her on his travels with his Alabaster Glint in a form she wore when it suited.  That was such a grace, to be included in her secrets.  She had so many.  In her time she was many persons, a masked menagerie, all for the sake of her true Art.  In this instance she was a white witch in service to the Incariate.
            Lew watched in shock as the monolith compilation of stone and amazons thundered to a stop.  Vaguely he knew his companions tugged at his sleeve, but he couldn’t shake what he was seeing.  In those myriad forms hints of Etha shuddered and twitched.  He saw her leg, an eye, the curve of her side in profile, like a violin.  Together these things created a jarring constellation where the individual elements were beautiful but the totality seethed like nightmare.  Once it had been a dream.
            The juggernaut stood half as tall as the amazonian pyramid behind which the others pulled the heart-struck innkeep.  Each grimaced at the sight.  The legs looks like mincing pegs dancing below the great slab body, itself overrun with colorful eyes, the final apotheosis of the tattoos with which the women adorned themselves.  Yet most troubling of all were the torsos growing from the top.  When not flopping about from the force of the beast’s stride each employed themselves in varied expression, with some pontificating love or affection, others clashing weapons, or hiding their faces in their hands, or crying.  Tears overran the thing.  These outsiders were not the pure flesh sought by the Bright and so the beast thrashed in search.
            The group had scarce seconds to gather themselves before the noise of many feet approached.  Scathra hurriedly led them around another dwelling.
            From this vantage they spied the monstrosity slowly turn around the corner of their previous hiding spot.  The Fencer pulled them away from sight, yet it was too late.  Seeing curiosity it now moved with eager purpose towards their new location.  Though they had no notion of its intent the fear was enough to avoid the thing.  Ducking into the waiting darkness of one building they felt the heavy weight follow after with a crunch of ice. 
            Inside it was cold and dark, but hazy light trickled in.  The amazons lived in spaces cut according to a delicate aesthetic reinforced by stone, a testament to their sensibilities.  This pyramid had two floors linked by a narrow, winding stair.  The ground level held a central fire pit and from the ceiling various herbs and plants hung.  Cushions stuffed with swan feathers lay about, describing a sprawling social habitat.  All the stone surfaces bore detailed carvings, pleasing shapes marking everything with the touch of pink patterns, abstract and meshed.  Long, narrow slits in the walls let in the light and the eyes.
            Only a moment went before a groaning sound came from the portal they had just entered.  Lew glanced back and saw a ream of eyes watching him.  The thing had crouched low to investigate to investigate the door.
            They barely made it out the opposite entrance when the juggernaut smashed through the building.  It pranced about the collapsing structure, kicking up pink dust.  Even amongst this confusion they weren’t safe.
            Those damned eyes followed everything in their search.  Clever pupils blinked past the chaos to watch for prey.  Perhaps they could observe that ultimate form to which desire strove with all the brilliance of a lightning bolt.  Excited at the prospect that others might share the vision it galloped after, sending up a spray of ice shards into the hazy light.
            What followed was a losing game of cat and mouse.  The mortals fled from building to building, seeing glimpses of the amazon city as they sought refuge while the juggernaut followed, stalking and playing.  Other things of watching flesh wandered the city, some fused, becoming more statues, others still moving carefully, looking for that one true love. 
            Quickly the travelers ran out of buildings, only the open plains of the Sakram lay beyond, where they would soon be overtaken and trampled.  Hefting up a piece of fallen ice the Trumpeter tossed the fragment against a far pyramid.  This distraction failed.  Instantly the eyes triangulated upon the object, the trajectory and charged their last hiding place.
            The Fencer flourished his weapon and caught its eye.  Dashing off, he led the thing away from the group, pieces of stone still crumbling from its form.  At Scathra’s urging the band found another pyramid, this one of pale blue stone.  Against the debris thrown up by the thing’s passing they lost sight of the swordsman.    
            A gust of wind arrived with a few dusting snows.  Storm hints flitted through the eternal bloom of Ropahd’s shroud of light.  The result was a mixing of the particles in the air, bringing ribbons of dust and smoke, as well as breaks of sky, showing dark night and the roiling threat of the ice storm.
            “Now’s our chance,” noted Lew.
            “Yes, to hide well and forever,” nodded the Trumpeter.
            “The thing is interested in him.  If we are smart about it then we may gain the advantage.  It sees well, but it doesn’t turn quickly.”
            “What reason is there in helping that bloodthirsty sellsword?” asked Scathra with a tilt of her head.
            “My own, that’s all,” he said and ventured out.
            Stinging fragments from the storm met him outside.  The ground trembled, breaking loose ice which scattered down the pyramids’ sides.  Chaos raged all around, making it difficult to tell where the noise of battle was coming from.
            “Allow me,” shouted the Trumpeter who appeared beside the innkeep. 
            Raising his instrument to the sky he let out a note which broke the sky wide open.  Lew’s ears rang as all the ice on all the structures came clattering down.  The many-eyed beast took no notice as it had no ears.
            Chasing this mystery the innkeep went towards the center of the city, as best he could determine in the glare and gloom.  At times he was blinded by light, at others shrouded in aromatic smoke.  The wind drove harder now, bringing with it stinging ice. 
            Shattered dwellings rose up like broken teeth and on the ground they found blood and severed limbs showing still-living eyes, evidence of the Fencer’s work. 
            Following this trail they met Scathra, who knew her home better than they, and since their last meeting had scrounged up a bow and arrows.  Before they could speak the Fencer joined them, followed close by the blinking juggernaut.
            “You idiots!” he shouted as he limped along.  The others scattered as the monster rose up high and then brought its great flat front down on the man.
            The strike broke the ground, making each piece of ice dance.  Not content with the miss it continued to follow the swordsman, though some of the women on top leaned towards the other travelers in hope of catching whatever it was that they saw in those not part of the Bright.
            Scathra sent out flights of swan-fletched arrows, each bearing a prayer.  Eyes popped and wept.  A good shot took one of the poor fused creatures in the head and she collapsed to rest, blinking.  Yet the missiles did little to the main form, that block of granite cut from the northern mountains.  The juggernaut’s attentions were fully on the swordsman.
            The Fencer retreated until his back was against another pyramid, then continued retreating, on and up the marble slope.  Part of a woman wielding a long axe spun and gyrated, striking out as the man ascended.  He only barely ducked beneath the attack.  Sparks scattered where the blade glanced off the marble, each mote watched by an eye.  With a flick of Dhala the attacker lost her head, but inside there were only more eyes, swollen with topaz and sapphire. 
            Lew watched the swordsman fight his way up the pyramid.  Each lunge was met with the peerless blade and every strike from the amazon forms was answered in blood.  At last he climbed out of reach but the thing just followed, placing its weight upon the slope, which instantly buckled, collapsing the whole structure.
            Leaping from the structure The Fencer flew through the air, sword raised as he landed on the beast.  The indigo blade bit deep into the juggernaut’s core, which thrashed him easily away.  
            Down the Fencer fell, into ruin.  Instantly a blast came from beside the innkeep.  Something beyond sound dove through the air, a brightness of tone, an echo of souls being forged.  The noise mulched the first row of limbs and torsos, scattering a bloody mist which went up with the wind.  Turning, he saw the Trumpeter, eyes glaring sharp as swords into the beast.
            This gained its attention.  Charging, it came at them, spraying blood and looking on.  The Trumpeter braced himself with his weapon and slid back under the oncoming force.  With a lift of its front the musician was tossed by the juggernaut.  Scathra attempted to hobble its legs, but it spun about, knocking her sideways across an avenue.  Now it looked on Lew alone.
            Despite all his training the former paladin had frozen, barely able to step aside from the abomination’s initial rush.  He stood still in the face of this carven avalanche, hands lost in his pockets.  Something clinked in one.
            Without thinking he threw the object at the beast just as it began to move towards him.  The vial he had taken from the Trumpeter’s room broke.  Lew swallowed hard, lost between dodging right or left.  Then a liquescence overtook the juggernaut.  A lick of iron flame erupted.  Molten steel splashed over the beast, growing, eager, overtaking the many-eyed monster from the point where the vial had struck.
            Released from its extreme compression the air screamed as the metal took shape at thousands of degrees.  Waves of heat rolled out, evaporating ice and melting the ancient ground beneath its many feet.  Slowly it sunk and as it did flesh and stone, eyes frantic with pain, was smelt and cast forever. 
            By the time the action of the magic mixture cooled the juggernaut was coated in steel, the warping effects of which took the matter of the abomination and reformed it into a twisting sculpture born from heat and cold, magic and madness.  Eyes still looked out from its detailed surface, forever stilled.
            All were shaken by the ordeal, so that the ice storm seemed a distant distraction even as shards began whizzing about.  This was a violent one, with gusts capable of stripping flesh from bone. 
            They found the Fencer amongst stones fallen like toy blocks, half covered in lush silks and scented cushions.  His head was bloodied and he was senseless, with troubled breathing.  Still, he lived.
            Breaking bright and cloudy, filled with light and gleaming ice, a Sakram ice storm hit with all the rage of a lost god.  The clouds flashed but this light was nothing compared to the brilliant eye opening on the shore where winds took the last of the smoke away.  That strange Bright, topaz and sapphire and unspeakable white, seemed to blink as the last veils were shred.  It was more in fear of this sight than the flensing storm which forced the travelers to take shelter in a remaining pyramid.
            Scathra was quick with the shutters while the Trumpeter made a fire and placed the Fencer nearby.
            “It’ll be too hot for him,” explained the lunatic.  “He’ll have to wake up.”
            “He has a concussion or worse,” said Lew.
            “It’s not so bad as that. It is the dreams I worry about.”
            “Then we kill him,” said Scathra, keeping an ear on their conversation as she hurtled from window to window, pulling sheets of heavy stone into place over each. 
            Lew investigated for himself.  Yes, there was more blood than damage, that being the way of head wounds.  The man knew how to take a fall.  But his breathing was strange, fast, excited.  Cold eyes fluttered and he mumbled dream-words to invisible entities.
            “Where’s Dhala?” asked the Trumpeter.  When none knew that name he asked again.  “His sword, where is it?”
            In their haste it had been left behind.  Subconsciously both Scathra and Lew were relieved.  There was a horror to the blade, something worse than Winter.
            Just as the amazon finished bolting the door she turned and found the Trumpeter’s face up against hers. 
            “You may be mad but I won’t have it kill us, not while there is still that light out there,” she said.
            He made to move past her but she took him and threw him back, being much stronger than he.  Yet in this same motion his hands grasped her veil and it came off.  Both men saw her eyes, gleaming with the light of damned desire.  The Trumpeter didn’t care.
            Dancing to his feet he flourished his instrument.  Outside the wind howled its own music.
            “If you don’t let me to that door I’ll be making my own,” he said, pursing his lips. 
            Already the woman had her red-stained club in her hands but was unsure if she could reach him before the song left his lungs.  Her luminous eyes, like foiled metal, glanced over to where Lew crouched beside the Fencer.  Her intent was obvious.
            “I won’t be adding to the violence,” said the innkeep.  This was his way, to balance situations and diffuse them through opposition. 
            Like a child let loose in a festival the Trumpeter was at the door in a flash.  Scathra boiled with anger, but was defeated and exhausted.
            The door howled open, almost knocking the musician over.  He donned his instrument like a helmet and ventured into the streaming, ice-glittered light.  The same colors danced in the amazon’s eyes.  She didn’t bother shutting the door.  Lew didn’t move either.  Between Winter’s rage and the curse of magic they were but icebound. 
            “Gobeithia,” muttered the Fencer in the early stages of dream.
            Both of them knew that name, though it occupied different spaces.
            “He dreams of the Goddess,” noted Scathra.
            “That is not what I would call her,” replied Lew in an unguarded moment.  He wanted to let the secret out a bit but feared harming their doomed guide.
            “What do you know of the Beauty Beyond Sight?”
            “I know that what I may say could be far worse than what you have seen,” began Lew with a balancing sigh.  “I simply wish to know Zaffa’s fate.”
            “She saw the most,” Scathra said from a world away.
            The wind continued to howl from the open door with neither of them had the energy to close.  Light poured in, bits of ice striking bright as they entered the pyramid.  Burning warm the fire danced with the chill breeze.
            “What happened here?” asked Lew, knowing this to be the proper moment.
            “A trust was failed,” she said simply.  “Some years ago a green-haired witch came to us, not wishing to join our ranks, but searching for honest folk on old, liar Winter.  After staying with us for a time and studying the great power which resides on the island beyond the still waters she entrusted us with a device holding a dangerous energy.  She relied on our purity, so resolute and apart.  Despite all that it was opened and now you see.”
            The Fencer thrashed and wept glimmering tears.  Parts of him struggled in dream-pain. 
            “What do you hope to find with Zaffa?  Even if she hasn’t died then she will be just another eye-bound victim of the Bright.”
            “She is my daughter and even as I say it the words seem false and dramatic.  There are so many dead and I only want what’s mine?  Curiosity accounts for some of my selfishness, and also devotion, yet I can look back and see only the empty ice of the horizon.  I know my inn is there, my boys, but I have left them to chase a dream, a remnant of desire clad in yesterday’s gold.  So I can say I’m after my daughter, but she is really just the visible tip of an invisible treasure.  It’s all like a riddle.”
            At this the Fencer thrashed.  Even his inner ways were violent.  He too bore an inchoate reason.  Never had Lew seen his like in his travels, a true exotic from the fringes of Winter wearing the face of a common thug. 
            “Why are you telling me these secrets?” asked Scathra, eyes gleaming.
            “Because we are going to die out here.”
            Silence arrived.   Though there was all the wind and clattering ice the inner pyramid was a null space without echo or other.  Through this void the Fencer was given to mutter and would not wake, no matter the heat of the fire, or how much he was shaken, slapped, poked, or generally annoyed.  He spat up conspiracies of light, of red demons, blue strangers, and a woman all lovely and elusive.
            After an hour of torment he began to animate.  Soon they would have no choice but to cure him of the Bright with sword or club.  Then a thundering clamor hit the still-open door.
            An ice-encrusted Trumpeter entered and shook himself free of the storm.  Blood streamed from numerous shallow wounds caused by the whirling frost.  Bundled up in his scarf he held the offending weapon, Dhala, as the thing was called in no language Lew had ever heard. 
            “Your friend struggles more than most on the second day,” said Scathra.
            “That is because he already carries another’s dream around in his head.”
            The musician carefully unwrapped the sword out of fear of doing damage to his scarf while making sure his flesh never touched the weapon.  It seemed black in the firelight, with the sheen of metal but the form of crystal. 
            He placed the sword next to his sleeping friend and then set the Fencer’s hand upon the flat of the blade.  Immediately the man ceased his inner argument, but this quiet was anything but calm.  His brow furrowed and he grew tense, possessed by a potent and personal thought.  The storm continued in its rage but now they thought to close the door.

So they passed the storm in pyramidal Ropahd and tried not to sleep.  To this end they raided the dwelling and judged its tenants. 
            In the larder they found dried herbs, hard bread and smoked salmon.  In the lofted sleeping quarters above feather cushions, hide blankets, and unfinished clothes, tattoo implements, inks, mirrors and paint, little baubles and beads, niceties, tokens, shiny stones, old shells, objects to be pierced through flesh, small things which amused souls now screaming mad or dead on the ice. 
            The amazons lived a communal life in their marble bunkers.  They tangled with each other in these social palaces.  Protected from the outside world they had wide open rooms of peace.  The whole city was a cache of beauty, of memory, set according to myth, guarded by tradition and mystery.
            The Fencer took up a new round of mutters.  Watching, the swordsman grew ever wakeful, but there was no telling whether he would be of his own mind.  Scathra readied her club and by now Lew had taken up a curved scimitar from the armory, as well as a shield of dented steel.
            The Fencer shot up all of a sudden, hunching forward.  He let out a single weep and rubbed his eyes.  Diamonds fell.  Looking up, his cold, grey irises showed no sign of the flux possessing the others.
            “How?” frowned Scathra, the fight going out of her.
            “I do not know,” shrugged the Trumpeter as he stole the precious gems.  “The sword has a certain effect on the mind, and while it seems to make my companion an icy murderer on many occasions it has the quality of keeping his thoughts sharp for this purpose.”
            “I saw your vision,” gasped the Fencer.  He seemed energized by his success, renewed.  For now his usual brutish and recalcitrant behavior was banished.  “I was a ray of desire, lancing across unknown vaults of space, towards a singular and obscure object of affection.”
            “Did you see it?” asked Lew.
            “No, my old dream returned to me.”  At this the swordsman’s enthusiasm waned as he realized their situation and the nasty bump on his skull. 
            The Trumpeter stopped stuffing his pockets to ask, “Was he there?”
            “Yes,” frowned the Fencer.
            “The Stranger,” noted the musician.
            “Who is this?” asked Scathra.
            “His other dream,” said the Trumpeter before his companion would give his response.
            The two men immediately prepared to journey out.  They filled their waterskins, stuffed themselves and their pockets with smoked fish and bread, and skimmed a few tokens off the dead, who wouldn’t be needing such things anymore.  Such was their bluster that Lew didn’t notice until Scathra objected.
            “What are you packing for?” she demanded.  “There will be nothing out there but more horror and light.  The storm is almost gone and with it the Bright will be boundless.”
            “We had best not sleep then,” reasoned the Fencer.  “Not until we’ve found what we’re after.”
            “I think it’s on the shore,” noted the Trumpeter.  “It seemed the light is greatest just to the east.”
            “And just what are you after?”  Scathra’s eyes burned intently.
            “Omet’s Box,” said the musician. 
            Nothing was satisfied.  The storm left the fleshy sculptures, eyes and all, a ruined mess.  Blood stained the snow and speckled the ruins where the juggernaut had given chase.  Everything was shown in stark relief without sun or day or night.  The cycle of time was lost in the streams of topaz, sapphire and diamond and the only darkness was the shadows cast by the Bright.  Once it had been a city but now it was a necropolis.
            This eternal day wasn’t so potent that it blinded, instead it allowed the eyes to consider its texture.  Filaments and ripples hung in the air, waving like sea water, sheens and layers and transparencies, textured with soft diamond patterns.  All shifted, all flowed. 
            The Fencer led the way to the frozen seashore.  Here a vast bubble, many hundreds of meters in diameter, hung in the air.  Its surface was some kind of luminous membrane.  Moving closer this skin trembled.  He drew his weapon and it became a screaming cluster of insane motes and trailing rays, arcing through the cold, still air at the man with the nightmare blade.  

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