Thursday, August 30, 2012

III. The Veiled Amazon

A shared madness gleamed from each simian eye.  Even the midday brightness failed to dilute the bright stare of the apish Duhg, glaring white with hints of pale yellow and clear blue.  Something disturbed those observing, something beyond the bleary evidence.
            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. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

II. Shamblers in Light

Night’s dark did little to calm the dancing visions she shared with her sisters.  Scathra clung low to the hill on the far side of their exploits, listening as the shouts and cries of their prizes rang for mercy but wavered in the despair of cold, uncaring Winter.  No stars, no moon, but still the unwanted things came to her vision.
            She was a thousand towers stretching across a membrane of plastic resin, springing up, prickling like albino hairs in the wind. 
            She awoke the dragon of the Cloaked Mountains and rode the beast on towards the seventh and invisible moon wearing another’s dreams.
            She was a thousand million tons of screaming rock, a descendent of the stars, falling mindlessly to the azure plains where grass the color of the sea rose and fell with the zephyr tides.
            Scathra shook the glaring visions from her eyes, muttering to her Goddess for blindness while moving laterally around the crown of the hill.  Her sisters fanned out, most too far gone to survive the bone-chilling night, laughing out their heat in great gouts of steam.  Yet their eyes held too much light and there was a danger that they might share this vision.
            She ambushed the last giggling straggler.  The woman held what was left of her arm, blood freezing into a garment on her bare skin.  Scathra’s bludgeon left the madwoman’s head a red mess but the light keep shining in her eyes.  The others heard nothing over their own amusement.
            Hunting them one-by-one the rogue searched the dead for provisions; she had been on the ice for days and had little luck finding prey that had not also succumbed.  Though there was some pemmican in a few forgotten pouches these amazons were increasingly less inclined to consider preservation.  The travelers they had taken were almost all dead, toys scattered as each little clique wandered away from each other, towards whatever it was that they saw that instant.  She left the men shouting for help.  It would take days to find all her sisters.
            Turning back she ventured to the place they had come from, the lonesome road and the single structure atop a low hill.  In her eyes it seemed carved out from the still-living body of a beached leviathan, its flesh partially petrified, the home of scavengers and viper-tongued humanoids.

That morning the Sgol was missing and so was its master.  As a bit of luck it turned out that the wealthy traveler who owned the beast had been abducted in last night’s raid.  Inwardly Lew was thankful.
            Almost all the remaining guests made ready to leave at first light, organizing into bands to better protect themselves from the vicious harridans menacing the Sakram Plain.  As if to accentuate this the few new arrivals spoke of shambling forms stalking them from the north, figures sensed but left unseen, just the smell of musk mingling with their own fear.
            “I don’t trust the outsiders,” stated Harl as he helped his father prepare for the journey to the east. 
            “That’s a way to be,” said Lew with growing frustration.  “We live weeks away from anywhere else and that makes all our guests and all our neighbors outsiders.  Not much trust to pass around at that point.”
            He looked like a pretender noble in his mismatched tunic, trousers, cloak, gloves and boots, all left by rich travelers in trade for lodging.  Lew was fit to start several civil wars and blood feuds should he ever wander into the civilized lands wearing such a thing. 
            “You’ll be fine here with your brothers,” he said with a sigh.
            “But I still don’t see the reason to it,” huffed his son, looking through the weapons to find one which was still sharp.  “They have their own business out on the ice, and all the better if they don’t come back.  You have yours here, at the inn.  What if you don’t come back?”
            “Wouldn’t you want me to come looking for you?” said Lew, growing shrewd as his eldest showed more tension. 
            “But we’re family,” said Harl, dark green eyes like shadow jade.  Those same eyes were his mother’s, long lost, a memory of other times.
            Opening his mouth Lew almost let out a strange beast of a notion, but closed it again in silence.
            “Do this out of respect for me,” he said at last, falling back on a useless idiom.
            Lew was a large, dusky-skinned man well over two meters in height.  His people were said to come from a continent far from Barant, brought here before the Uplifting.  To the old mages there was nothing unusual about whisking their vassals around as needed and from this diaspora a diverse mixture of ethnicity and culture arose in the southern lands.  He had seen many of these places and peoples, been changed by the experience, and though the cities brimmed with color there were still elements of the old ways, outrĂ© people, such as those of the Sakram.  The heavy broadsword at his side was the very one he had carried to this place some fifteen years ago, and it had tasted much and varied blood. 
            History and its foul, bloody smell edged up his nostrils, surely some remnant from last night’s slaughter.  The last thing he did before stepping out the twin doors was to call for his six sons, let them know what was expected of them one more time, with the added note that they were to scrub down the common room again.  The look on his boys’ faces was the blast of cold he received as he stepped outside.
            “It wasn’t us, this time!” shouted the Trumpeter with the wind.   
            The two miscreants had been waiting.  The trumpet gleamed with cloudless sun while the other man’s weapon gained shades of color in the light.  Last night it seemed all of black glass with red gems peeking from its metallic matter.  Now it looked more like crystal, shot through with plumes of midnight and indigo.  The wind whistled around its various razor edges giving off a disturbing song.
            “I know,” said Lew, speaking of the Sgol.  “We had a visitor in the night, one of those amazons most likely.”
            He let the words trail off into the wind.  Unfinished thoughts almost shared.  Instead he tossed both men a bundle.
            “Provisions,” explained.  “You two look a little underprepared for this journey.”
            “The Trumpeter has his pockets,” was the Fencer’s terse reply, though he took up his pack dutifully.  The swordsman gauged the innkeep with eyes of cold Winter sky.  “And these lands are warm enough that the going is easy.”
            “More madmen,” coughed Lew.  “We should be making our way as we talk at least.”
            But they didn’t.  Silence escorted them out onto the Sakram plain and it was a silence bathed in light.  They walked into the sun which hit the gently rolling hills, reflecting off the endless layers of partially melted snow refrozen into a glaze.  To the north a range of mountains began a gradual arc which stretched over and around to the east.  There the flat shimmer of Lake Ithie commanded the horizon.  Sparse trees eventually congregated to the south, a dense crowd clad in ice.
            “What are those things?” asked the Fencer. 
            “Hamazakaran trees,” explained Lew.  “Big money if you could ship all that south, but there’s not much will to do that.”
            “Why’s that?  These plains are about the easiest going I’ve had on Winter.”
            “Would rile the natives, the amazons.”
            This was enough for the Fencer but not his companion.
            “How about you?” demanded the Trumpeter.  “Why haven’t you gone rich with lumber instead of running that inn?”
            “The amazons have been good neighbors; were good neighbors,” Lew realized.  “And they are very particular about the lands here.  It is the space, you see, it is theirs.”
            He let the conversation die.  Something bothered him and he kept looking behind.  The inn was gone now, maybe only a speck amongst the white.  The two vagabonds kept a good pace, the Trumpeter tracking, the Fencer watching for violence.  Yet the menace Lew felt was greater than their simple precautions.  It was as if he was walking into a sort of dream or nightmare.  Here the light was a bit too bright and bleary storms awaited them in the glare.
            It was the light, he realized as they forded a small stream from rock to rock.  In the prismatic splay certain colors were prominent and others omitted, the ones left mingling in ways which were antagonistic to the natural laws of the spectrum.  Predominate were yellows and blues, topaz and sapphire, yet no green, only a middle ground of white at the nexus of glory. 
            “Do you smell that?” asked the Trumpeter, covering his ears so that his nose could work more efficiently.    
            “It’s that lemur friend of yours,” scowled the Fencer.  “Their stink gets everywhere.”
            “I’ll have you know he’s a valuable employee,” smiled Lew. 
            “All I’ve seen him do is drink,” said the Fencer.
            “That’s all he really needs to do,” explained the innkeep.  “By sitting in his corner floating on a sea of grog he banishes the thought of violence from most of the toughs and bullies which grace my establishment.  Elac loves a good fight.”
            They had entered a place where recent snows had piled up into easy dunes.  Should the sun stare long enough these would melt slightly and refreeze at night into more hills.
            “I don’t recall much help with those women,” said the Fencer.
            The Trumpeter, who hadn’t been listening, just smelling, jumped in at that moment. 
            “Something follows!”
            Now all the men knew a strong, simian reek, that of fouled meat and musty fur.  Looking behind them a hairy tangle of limbs struggled after like an excited hunting spider all dark fur and silhouette in the noon sun.  With a few hops it was on them, hooting, showing a mouth full of huge teeth.
            “It’s Elac!” declared Lew who believed they had summoned the thing with their conversation.  The creature was in a frenzy, perhaps out of fear or anger at being left behind by its master.  “Elac it’s me!”
            Indeed Lew was the lemur-man’s first target.  With a powerful swing he batted away his master, sending the towering man careening onto the ice.  He tasted blood in his mouth.  Now it hooted after the travelers, the Fencer baring his weapon with relish at the prospect of removing one more of these creatures from the world.
            In a panic the Trumpeter threw something at Elac, who caught it, considered and then tore with gusto.  Lew rolled over in time to see his employee break open a flask from which red streamed.  At first he thought it blood but then the vinegar smell of cheap wine hit his nostrils.  The Fencer let out a groan of disappointment.
            Another sound joined his.  All turned, even Elac, to see the snowy dune they had almost crossed rise up, furious, unraveling into powerful white limbs, pointed claws, and howls which rang through the hearts of all present.
            These were Duhg, shambling ape-things native to the Sakram.  The lead one, the largest, stood taller than Lew, tall enough that his shadow loomed over the Fencer.  The broad, flat face went through a transformation as it leaned into the attack, the wide mouth opening larger and larger to show protuberant teeth with huge incisors, red gums, the jaw distending outwards, long tongue curling forward to taste fear.  This smile pulled the flesh taught across its skull, making the dead white eyes into mask-like slits, shark-like, as powerful forelimbs threw the thing forward at the three men and their tagalong.