Howling fit to shudder the stars they burst into Lew’s Inn as a frenzy of painted arms and legs, steel and wide eyes glimmering at the prospect of violence. They impaled frostbitten travelers on their long spears, dragged others off in chains and generally made a bother of smashing tankards, spilling blood, laughing as avatars of pain set to fill the role of dead demons and lost, pain-crowned gods. With them came cold wind, screaming through the broken door.
Intricate tattoos were the only clothes on the crazed warrior women, remnant scraps of gear speaking of their fury. Colorful, inky eyes stared out from their bodies, wreathed in patterns, tessellations struggling across their ice-pale skin.
Most of the customers froze in terror. Even the lemur-man bouncer failed to hoot or snarl.
Lew narrowed his eyes at these unwelcome guests and called for Harl to come up front and be ready for trouble. Time slowed in these cases, but this was an illusion. The woman with tangled hair dashing up might reach him before he was able to pull his club from behind the counter. Like in certain dreams the moment stretched. It was more like a nightmare, he realized, and then a song woke him up.
All eyes turned, living and painted, to one small corner away from the fire, where a pair of troublemakers had taken up residence a few hours before, complaining about hospitality and marking themselves as prime candidates for the kind of robbery common on the Sakram Trail. The one with a trumpet had made the noise.
Instantly the amazons showered their attentions on the two men. One woman leapt upon their table like an animal, from which the musician shrank, saying nonsense. The other sat still, a look of absolute annoyance on his face. A flicker changed everything.
She had a slight face, like a dolls, her porcelain skin split open by a wide, smile, curled by whatever force gripped her mind and filled her eyes with the light of madness. The sword cut clean down the middle, but she never stopped smiling, even as the two halves slipped apart. Even as she died the amazon made a sort of laugh.
The room went to chaos, the unwelcome mob spilling after the deadly man in the corner. He tipped his table into them and with a fluid motion followed with his sword, which licked effortlessly through the dense timber like a black tongue, severing limbs, cutting through torsos, and spilling blood like it couldn’t get enough of the taste.
Inked murderesses fell upon him in droves, uncaring of their own lives, fanatics for the blood, muscle commanded on by their eyes. Lew had seen it in his attacker. A strange light glimmered, one which was unsettlingly familiar.
With a half-dozen lying bloody on the floor the outland swordsman advanced with the surety of the glacier, his cold countenance brittle, hiding an avalanche. The weapon he held was like a piece of nightmare frozen into the shape of a jagged sword. Both metal and crystalline, red gems looked out from its indigo depths, seeming of intelligence, like the weird marks on a moth, or a snowfly.
Beside the swordsman the musician, having regained his bravery, swung his trumpet like a bludgeon and howled at the attackers, trying to match their noise. Now the other patrons, those surviving, joined the fray. At the sight of this turn the women shrieked new tones and went off into the Winter night carrying what prizes they could. Soon their sounds merged with the wind, vanishing like the cloud-trapped stars.
The chaos continued. Patrons demanded restitution for drinks spilled and friends dead. Travelers complained about safety and room rates. All this while Lew’s sons swept and mopped, stripped the bodies and carried them out into the snow. The smell of blood mingled with that of lye soap and sweaty, unkempt icebound humanity.
Faced with such disarray the proprietor responded with utter clam. His argument was sound: where else would they stay out on the Sakram? Grumbling quiet the detractors settled into their cups. Winter left them with little else to do but be thankful for the walls of the inn and the warmth of the central fire pit. At last Lew freed himself from such business and he cleared his mind so his mood wouldn’t bounce in opposition, as was his nature.
The man with the unnerving sword crouched next to the first corpse he had made. The amazon rested on the floor seeping blood, staring down the ancient flagstones with eyes seemingly cut from amber. He leaned low, as if he was trying to see what she saw. Leaning back he noted Lew’s presence.
“All women?” he asked plainly.
“The Amazons of Sakram, also known as the Sacred,” explained Lew, sizing the man up. He didn’t seem much different than the other hardened thugs seeking fortune amongst the snows. The accent was difficult to place though, and his cobalt hair marked him as an exotic from far away. “But I am more concerned about the living, such as you and your traveling companion.”
“The Trumpeter,” explained the man with the sword. His thoughts delayed him a bit before continuing. “And I’m the Fencer.”
Before Lew could bring his own question the man uttered something. “It’s just so insane and stupid.”
“What is?” blinked Lew, not understanding the swordsman’s words. He was a man given to polarities in an effort to balance moods, driven by some sense of proportion. It was a bad habit which had earned his broad face many scars.
“Nothing. It doesn’t have an answer yet.” The Fencer shot Lew a look of suspicion but the mode of conversation was shifted, abruptly, from this strange area of existential concern.
“Where do they come from, these ladies?” asked a disembodied voice. The other man, the Trumpeter, arose from the far side of the wrecked table where he had been interred. He was both fatigued and quite possessed by a manic energy.
“The Amazons? East, from the shores of Lake Ithie.”
“That big hole in the middle of the map?” asked the musician, fumbling a folded parchment from his many pockets. It appeared to have been drawn by a fumbling, erratic hand.
“I have yet to see it for myself,” replied Lew, growing cold to the madman.
Both men triggered a general sense of unease in him, even more so than the usual set of troublemaking caravan guards and miscreants who traveled the Sakram Trail. These two had goals, big plans, ideas which they wore as surely as the two items they carried. It led them on like totems. Lew had seen enough of the divine for his liking.
The trumpet in particular caught his eye. Silver, long and fluted, it seemed not so much a thing of music than an object which may have belonged to a temple at one point and was used to blast prayers to the gods. Bearing this out the material was not plain silver, having survived contact with a number of amazon skulls and come out without even a ding marring the slender workmanship. The object triggered a deep superstition in the proprietor and he excused himself to help put the inn back to order.
Lew’s establishment was a large, rambling affair, built out of expedience and whatever was at hand. From the central brick hub a number of extensions grew out into the Winter air. There were wings of worked whale hide, whitewashed pine rooms, panes of snow and ice, sandstone cubes, and so forth. These were brightly painted and decorated with colored bits of fabric and strips of polished metal, advertisements for an establishment without any competition. All who travelled the Sakram knew of Lew’s Inn.
They would also know trouble now. It showed in the eyes of the crazed Sacred. Lew stopped one of his sons as he dragged a woman out on a litter. She couldn’t be any more than twenty, her hair wild, half torn out. The tattoos, those eyes, started off as neat, intricate works of art but progressed along her body in mutated, confusing wounds still bloody from recent application of the needle. Her actual eyes were far worse and he was quick to cover her back up after his curiosity had been satisfied and his worry stoked.
“Have you been taking them far enough out that the wolves won’t trouble us?” he demanded of this son Urse, a tall, gawky boy of fifteen.
“We have them just out back for now, while we get them together,” replied the youth. Now that it was calm Lew’s tension grew. Urse felt it. “The wind’s up,” he added.
“No excuses,” frowned the innkeeper, glaring into eyes just as dark as his own.
Urse made an effort to act flustered, almost dropping the body, as he doubled his efforts. Lew stalked the halls, making his will known in the kitchen and the family quarters. Before ten minutes were up the whole clan was busied, agitated as their patriarch’s heart. Still, the worry gnawed at him.
Lew marched into the common room where the lowest vagabonds and sell-swords were beginning to curl up for sleep. Those with more energy continued to drink and swagger and joke. The cold corner was now occupied by other men who glared as the innkeep disturbed their slumber.
Wandering over to the north wing the smell of treated whale hide hit his nostrils. Thick layers of the stuff served as the walls and ceiling, all built in the traditional Uloshian fashion, the work of a trading friend who owed Lew a good turn. The insides were white waves of blubber, held up by the sea beasts’ massive bones, creating tunnels and bubble rooms nested against each other for warmth. The stuff did a marvelous job keeping the heat in but the smell was oppressive and there were no windows, making these the cheapest of the paid apartments. Anyone who could keep their tongues and blades at peace was welcome to the common area for free.
He pulled aside a heavy sheet to reveal empty quarters, bedding strewn about with the effort of packing in a confined space. Amongst the confusion he found a curious vial, full of some sort of liquid steel. Yet it smelled of familiar perfume, something distant, years gone.
At last he found them in the cold courtyard, under the dark, clouded sky. Both men were fighting over a Sgol, a quick beast of transport belonging to a particularly wealthy guest. They froze as he shone the light of his lantern on them.
“It was trying to escape and we thought it best to work off some of the beast’s energy before putting him back to stable,” explained the Trumpeter over the sound of the wind. Lew would’ve smiled if not for the blade the Fencer bore.
“You forgot something,” he said, holding up the vial of metallic fluid. “If you don’t come back inside for a nice, civilized chat, then I’ll be the first to let my guests know that a pair of sorcerers have slipped amongst them unnoticed and now plan to perform awful rights. I know you have the strength to best many men, but even if you survive I doubt the inn will, and it is a long trek in either direction.”
Arguing, they replaced the creature in its pen and under Lew’s watchful eye re-entered the inn. Taking them up the stairs behind the bar he showed them into a sitting room, part of the private apartments he kept as escape from the transient customers and even his own sons. He smiled a bit as the lemur-man followed them up, much to the pair’s distaste.
“I owe you a kindness,” he said, pouring a few drinks from his private stock and making sure of the knife he kept hidden amongst the tumblers. “For that I’m willing to let your attempt at rustling go unpunished. I’ve already forgotten it.”
“What is this thing doing here?” demanded the Fencer. The lemur-man showed his teeth in response.
“That is Elac,” said Lew as he passed out the whisky, first to lemur-man who was a jealous drinker. “One of my employees.”
“How many patrons has he eaten?” frowned the Trumpeter.
“None, but I’m sure he’d be willing to start with you two.”
“What do you want?” growled the Fencer.
“You’re headed east,” stated Lew.
“What venture would compel us out onto that vast nothing?” said the swordsman, growing calm. “The road runs north and south with nothing but icy plains in either direction. I’ve heard tell of frost apes and flensing storms out in the Sakram wilds. You’d have to be mad to venture off the trail.”
“I’m afraid of snow,” added the Trumpeter
“You saw it, their eyes,” said Lew, brushing off their bluster. “The light, the color, it seemed alive, even in death. It is the light which compels the amazons into madness, and only recently. Now, you two being liars means I must guess as to your wants. They have something, some fabled treasure or device wanted by a collector in a big city like Ruin or Aghren. I’m willing overlook past differences if you’ll do me a favor.”
The Trumpeter became consumed by his own image reflected in his drink, but Lew could tell this was a ruse. Powerful thoughts played in the taller man’s head, set to a code of madness as protection from others. He was calculating the situation just as much as the Fencer. The swordsman was more deeply emotional and as the innkeep spoke a wry smile grew across his Winter-hardened face.
“You have us by rights,” was all he said, and waited.
“Take me with you,” asked Lew. “There is one amongst the Sacred I must see.”
The wind howled outside, whistling when it struck the collaged architecture just right. The smell of bodies, work, drink and lemur-man defined the warmth within against outer Winter. Here they stood, at the precipice of adventure and ordeal, when all seemed as an open plain but in truth hid a geography of trouble.
“You should know it’s not something they possess we are after,” said the Trumpeter suddenly. “Instead it is something which possesses them.”
In the dark the bodies lay stacked and freezing while Lew’s sons argued over who would do the task. It was a matter of bravery they argued, challenging each other so that they wouldn’t have to face the haunted things. At last Harl, being eldest, took the responsibility himself and bundled up.
Outside it wasn’t hard to spot them. In the dark strange light shimmered, not bright, but against the black horizon the color stood out stark and eerie, like those of a hunting cat’s. Each eye was the same strange color, a pale yellow with the heady tone of amber, like gold stoked in the furnace of an alien sun. This light still lived.