Long adapted to the icy wastes the Duhg had tufty fur which held the semblance of snow. Where their coat dwindled—on their hands and feet and face—the skin showed rough and pale grey. Properly concealed they were invisible on Winter and would often sleep in communal piles which seemed no different than the snowy dunes which surrounded them. They were, as a rule, gentle, declining creatures, rarely seen as they hunted for scrub and klee berries on the Sakram plains.
The leader shambled a few steps before hurling himself at the Fencer, who curled his mouth into an unpleasant grimace, or maybe, a smile. Clearing over five meters with one powerful bound it stretched its long arms in an overhand strike while the swordsman stood, readied but unexcited.
The beast landed just as a plane of black glass flickered through its arms, neatly severing them near the elbow. The Fencer did this with a single swing as he sidestepped the avalanche of force. Worry came when it was clear that the creature had no intention of dying.
Howling with pain the Duhg wheeled on the Fencer, who took in the eyes, seeing. A ton of angered muscle fell on the stunned man and then a note broke the spell.
From the tapered mouth of the silver trumpet the musician blared an otherworldly noise. Taking this opportunity the Fencer brought up his inky blade, eviscerating the ape-thing with but a touch of its atom edge. Steaming blood spilled across the ice, exciting the others of the clan which shook and screamed.
A blizzard of bared teeth, white fur and noise, the maddened Duhg swarmed the three men. Where they met the Fencer gouts of red blood erupted and Lew was almost deafened as the Trumpeter defended his perch atop a small embankment with his instrument. But these glimpsed moments were soon overwhelmed by his own enemies which hungered to tear him limb-from-limb, gauging their joyous violence with ensorcelled eyes.
The old instincts kicked in. Loosing his weapon from its scabbard he brought the blade up while taking a defensive step back. The first creature took the strike under the chin without flinching. The sword point split through its jaw but the edge was old and dull and became lodged, where the creature’s momentum pushed the sword through its brainpan. Lew pulled his weapon free from the twitching thing as fast as he could, but already the others were on him.
A hulking force barreled into his side, catching him off balance and sending shocking pain through his spine and innards. His breath shortened, puffing out fog into the chill air. The smell of the creature tackling him was overwhelming, that very reek of carcass and damp fur they had thought came from Elac.
Landing with such force that he lost all the air in his lungs Lew gasped his fear as his two opponents howled and began rending his left arm. Pain rose from dull to sharp in an instant and with a pop he felt ripping agony where his arm should’ve been.
Another voice arrived. Through the pain and light, the blue, the yellow, the white spilling from the eyes of the savage Duhg, a shadow loomed. Something crunched and wet, hot liquid fell on Lew’s face. Tears, he thought. Noise, screaming joined the light as he lay in the soft cold of a snow drift. Darkness danced around his vision and he laughed through the pain, making conversation with the madness to which he had been introduced.
It was all like the beginning, out on the wastes there shot through with the black vein of the Sakram trail, a line of plastic sorcery wrought by a lost magician. Around him the entourage burned, some men shrieking with a fire which consumed not a gram of flesh, but used the soul as kindling. This was holy fire wrought by their master, the high priest of Yem, and now they suffered from its blessed touch as he fought against an implacable demon.
The fire had fallen on Lew as well, but strangely didn’t take. Myth and legend surrounded the white, blazing stuff, useful as a weapon against the unrighteous and a test for the believing. Holy were those who thrived under the heat.
He was searching for something amongst the wrecks of gold and silver, the opulent finery to which the high priest was accustomed and entitled through his connection with the divine. His harem and zealots traveled on perfumed cushions, in rooms warmed by constantly fed heaters, while outside the guards and laborers fought off bandits and the elements, clearing the way for the elect. Dazed, his arm hurting for some reason, he wandered.
At the edge of the caravan he found an oddity. It was perhaps what Lew had been looking for, ceremonial and divine, a figure crowned in red, clothed in red. It stood and looked at him from amongst the wrecks of godhood. Yet, even this wasn’t what he searched for. Elac! That name took him by surprised from delirium out into the sounds of combat once more.
There was blood on his face. Lew’s mind had maybe lapsed for a second, enough time for his loyal retainer to split open the head of one Duhg and become entangled with another. The two simians thrashed across the ice, shrieking, growling, while more chaos danced at the edges. Ape-things howled and men cursed while fresh blood stained the ice in red glass.
Trying to leverage himself up Lew almost passed out again. Looking over at his left side he realized he still had an arm, but by the dull pain and uselessness knew it was dislocated. It was a good enough thing that he had learned to fight with either hand.
As he stood Elac’s battle turned against him. The Duhg had superior strength while the lemur-man was more nimble, drunk and insane. These attributes could only take him so far. Finally one of the ape creature’s wild swings found purchase on Elac’s skull, sending the beast flying.
Lew’s feet rebelled and like in a dream he followed events slowly. Each time he tried to shake more sense into his head the image before him worsened. The Duhg shambled upon Elac and, giggling, lifted the moaning lemur-man up by an arm, shaking its victim like a rag doll. He tried to work his mouth but all Lew could manage was a mumble. Stumbling, blade in hand, he made every effort to reach his friendly beast.
Deciding its course the Duhg laughed to the sky and bit down on Elac’s shoulder. Red stained the banded white of his fur and he shrieked with terror and fury. This only excited the Duhg, who clasped the lanky lemur-man’s neck and twisted. The shrieking stopped with a crack and the murderer let the body fall, turning about, almost crying, searching for more diversion from the light in its eyes.
Lew had gone numb, all his energy fleeing into the cold air. He raised his blade weekly in the face of two meters of feverish muscle. The Duhg curled a smile, Elac’s blood still staining its lips. Such was the taste that joy didn’t last. The creature loped into a charge, scattering red ice as it went.
The lance took the brute in the heart, momentum pitching the whole massive body to the side and pinning it to the ground. It died instantly without rage, its eyes blazing, blood pumping out rich and dark. She rode by, this cavalier, expertly letting her long weapon leave her grasp as she took up another. Lew saw she was an amazon and rode the very Sgol which had been stolen the night before. Where her face should be there was a mass of stars.
She galloped past, looking to fell the other beasts but finding little need. The Fencer had made the creatures pay in blood, turning the largest number into a crimson snow bank of stained fur. Even the Trumpeter had his few, stabbed in the jugular with one of his unorthodox knives. An old part of Lew felt some shame at his failures, but he was more struck by Elac’s death than he was willing to admit.
The poor beast lay crumpled, broken, but there was some small relief. Elac’s huge eyes were closed, as if asleep on a sea of inebriate dreams. Unlike the mad things of the Sakram he was left in peace by the strange light. Lew wondered if there was something in lemur-men which returned to the Lattice; this was said to happen with men. He had no time to consider an answer.
“What do you mean, ‘your mistake?’” demanded the Fencer.
“I thought I heard the cry of a fantastical beast,” explained the amazon. “Instead I found some dumb apes and a man who should know better.”
“Better the Duhg show us the hospitality of the Sakram, eh?” said the Trumpeter.
“I believe that problems should be worked out amongst one’s own kind,” she said.
Now Lew saw her face more clearly. She wore a veil of metallic discs, each burnished circle like a sun in the noon light.
“Who are you?” asked Lew, the act of speaking agitating his arm.
“I am Scathra of the Sacred,” she explained, reigning in her steed. The light quadruped frothed and twitched with excitement. “And these are our lands.”
Scathra wore proper garb. A long cloak of dark grey fastened at the left shoulder and draped over her frame, the edges fluttering a bit with the breeze. The hood was up, framing the veil. Glimpses of corded trousers and tunic, colored like the sky, showed beneath. She wore the high boots of a runner, those who performed errands, sought goods, and scouted trouble. Apart from the long spear she balanced on one shoulder a war club, fresh-used, hung at her belt.
“And your business?” demanded the innkeep, grimacing.
“My own, not for strangers,” she said coolly.
“Take us to Ropahd.”
The Fencer’s request left no options. He had named their legendary settlement near the lake. Lew and Scathra turned on this presumptuous swordsman. He left his weapon bare in his hand, no doubt as to the implication. The Trumpeter tried to hide a smile behind his hands as he stepped back, out of the immediate triangle of conflict.
“I will not be bullied,” she replied, after a pause.
“Then what are you doing here?” continued the Fencer.
She answered with a clicking of her tongue and a sigh which let the man know that his barb had caught. Tugging at the Sgol’s reigns she set off towards the east on whatever nameless quest she chased. The Fencer slowly set his blade back in its hanger.
“Now that didn’t have quite the effect I was after,” he sighed.
“Unlucky to offend an amazon,” quipped the Trumpeter, who had been tending to Elac while the others fought.
“Tell me why this is.” said the Fencer.
“Oh it is simple enough to figure out,” laughed the musician. His voice trailed to silence.
Against the noise and humor Lew was stone again. Elac was dead, and it had hit him a bit harder than he thought possible. Sold to him by a mercenary for a steed which would outrun his pursuers, the lemur-man had at first been a drunken tyrant and then a key member of the family as it served its time as bouncer for Lew’s Inn. Always the rough elder brother for the boys, it had toughened them up with its wild antics, temper and pride. What would he say when he got home?
“There is no time for that,” said the Fencer, harshly breaking Lew’s silence. Without noticing Lew had begun to look for ways to bury the beast.
“I won’t leave him to the pale wolves.”
“Look around,” gestured the swordsman to the assorted dead. “Some awful sorcery has been loosed on the Sakram.”
As with the amazons strange brilliance lived on in the dead eyes of the ape-things. The effect was eerie, as if their foes still lived and watched. Shimmering white, tinged with blue and yellow, there was a strange emotion to the ray and they all kept from looking too closely lest it travel into their eyes as well.
Nodding dazed and with a heavy heart Lew pulled himself up. No stranger to injury the two travelers correctly surmised that their guide had a dislocated shoulder and with a few belts of drink he waited for them to count to five before popping the offending joint back into place. The Trumpeter acted on one.
The cry of pain seemed to echo through the whole expanse, bouncing off the northern Cloaks and vanishing into the forests to the south. Lew found his own voice disconcerting as he worked his muscles again, pushing through the pain as the paladin captain had taught him in his training, so long ago.
Continuing their journey, it wasn’t long before more bodies revealed themselves in the high sun. Naked amazons and abducted clientele lay thawing in the light. The smell of blood and death rose up cold. The women showed sign of violence, most with skulls bashed in, a few impaled on spears in a fashion similar to that Duhg behind them. The weapons of one fallen warrior woman had been used on the next in a bloody cycle. What was left of their corded garb was torn, ripped clean off by some, revealing bright tattoos. The dominant subject were eyes, clusters of hundreds of them, cut into the skin by feverish hands. Mad light danced in their eyes, quite unlike the men who had merely been left to die of exposure, many previously wounded by their captors. Whoever had killed the amazons had gone about the task not the least concerned for their victims.
Beyond this tableaux the eastern expanse showed more of these scenes. Scattered bodies, lying red on the ice, described the splintering of the group which had attacked the inn last night. There was no design to their movements, as if they were acting on impulses which only they saw.
There was little to say about this insanity and so silence reigned. Lew wished to bury the dead, but the urgency brought on by the two adventurers was enough to carry him along. It all felt so barbaric.
Following tracks left by the war band they made nearly due east, the sun warming their backs while a strange haze occupied the horizon they faced. Glitter told of Lake Ithie’s frozen waters many kilometers distant, this glare strong enough to hit the northern range of mountains, making the glaciers there shimmer as jewels. Yet it was a cold splendor, austere and inhuman, a place given to the silence of Winter.
“They’re said to be a dragon,” Lew started up, breaking the quiet. His need for opposition proved irresistible. Gesturing to the mountains he continued. “The Cloaks. Long ago the creature grew to such size that the weight of life was too much and so it lay down on the Sakram and fell to slumber. Treasures are said to lie beneath. Had a few adventurers come through on their way to the place, though I’m guessing the amazons sent them back, in part if not in whole.”
“What kind of dragon?” asked the Trumpeter, who nodded sagely.
Lew wasn’t prepared for this response and hesitated, not knowing what sound to make with his mouth.
“This could be very important as there are different kinds,” explained the musician. The Fencer tried to pick up the pace, well used to his friend’s dialectical method.
“I suppose it is stone and snow…” This explanation was insufficient.
“You are greatly disappointing,” huffed the Trumpeter. “Those are merely the elements laid on top of the beast. Stone or snow? Choose one! Dragons have a purity to their composition, a raw focus on a single material. There are those of iron, those of ice, those cut from ruby, and others built of nightmare.”
“You have seen such things?” wondered Lew but the musician was already shaking his head.
“I have heard tales,” he replied.
“Lies and secrets,” laughed the Fencer.
“So what if that is a dragon?” asked Lew, thinking he was revealing the little story for the myth it was.
At this the Trumpeter’s eyes grew large with fear, as if the words themselves became the thing in his mind. Suddenly faced with the proximity of his imagination there was no room for doubt. With this they picked up the pace until nightfall.
Elsewhere, exhausted from her hunt but driven on by the things she had seen, Scathra allowed her Sgol to rest and eat snow. The sound it made as it greedily broke through the covering ice in search of spare patches of frozen grass framed the silent plain. She concentrated on this natural noise, anything not to stare to the eastern horizon.
Both parties saw the shores of Lake Ithie lit up by a pale radiance. Neither moon could be seen above the clouds, but still something like double full moonlight sprang up from that place as night came. The light, white, pale yellow and pale blue at the edges, clung to the air and disturbed. All knew their travels led to illumination.