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, outré 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.
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.