Thursday, September 27, 2012

VII. The All Consuming Eye

None witnessed the night bright as a dawn, the false, oddly colored sun lying against the eastern ice having gained intensity since the previous night.  Whatever distortion in the air which diffused its glaring rays had diminished and now the bleary color, a white shifting to cerulean and topaz, looked on.  It found bodies, blood, signs of struggle between those who wore its ever-evolving dream and those who blinked.  It was an opulent eye, alien in its desires.
              If he moved the Fencer would gain a gasping and bloody second mouth in his neck, courtesy of the amazon’s spear which lay against this throat.  He seemed calm in the face of this inconvenience.  Dhala, however, glowered and the man’s cold eyes betrayed his interest as he looked past the veiled woman holding him at bay to the naked, tattooed figure racing off across the plains of frozen snow.  That single mad survivor of the combat took to the northeast in great strides despite the cold.
            Now that things had calmed the Trumpeter shambled to the summit of a low hill.
            “Don’t move!” demanded the woman with a voice made harsh by the cold.  “Or I’ll end this man’s pale imitation of a life.”
            “I just wanted to get a better view of the mad thing you’re letting loose,” explained the musician.
            “She has nothing to do with you,” replied the woman.  All this time her eyes were glued to the Fencer, who stood waiting for his moment of death or escape.  He carried no fear.  If anything amusement played subtly across his rough features, giving him the look of an insufferable martyr.
            “There she goes,” said the Trumpeter wistfully.
            Here the dialogue died and as always Lew felt an irresistible need to balance the silence with words, where before he was content to let others make such noise.
            “Which one of the Sacred are you?” he said respectfully.
            At first she didn’t respond, but the silence wore on her.
            “Scathra to you,” she said at last, uncomfortable with even this small nicety.  “You shouldn’t be here innkeeper.  This is a place for my kind and no other.”
            “Is it friendly play for your kind to murder each other?” asked the Trumpeter who now reclined on the icy hill.  “Obviously some malady has overtaken your tribe, though you alone have somehow survived.  Yet you misuse your freedom on the effort of curing the others through the most ultimate of procedures.”
            “I can’t understand a word that madman says,” she growled.
            “Why do you hunt the other amazons?” clarified the Fencer.
            “For the same reasons you do, they have attacked my kind and I am paying them in return for blood.”
            “That’s not it at all,” said the swordsman.
            “How would you know my motives?”
            “I’m speaking of ours,” he sighed.  “Butcher who you like but don’t tell me my heart as a rustic blood-feud imbibed by the dullest savages and nobles.  There is something we need from the Sacred, something entrusted to you until the return of a certain green-haired witch.  She is dead and we now come to reclaim what is promised.”
            Lew started at the cause which had not been brought up so clearly before.  Duress made the Fencer an honest man, though there was still some things left unsaid. 
            “This is all pointless,” said Scathra.
            “Then why do you care?” asked the Trumpeter.
            “I wished to die amongst my sisters today but you have robbed me even of that.  Worse, I can’t begin to hate you, to make good my spear or club.  It seems I can hunt what they have become but will never free them, even as they mutate into forms more potent and horrible.”
            She lowered her weapon and in an act of uncharacteristic tact the Fencer made no move to violence. 
            “We must be after your sister,” he explained.  “She might find others and there is some hope that our prize lies with whatever band she is a part of.”
            “What does it matter?” said Scathra, hiding her sorrow behind her veil.  “There will be no more Sacred.  The swans die, the sisters are driven mad, the Goddess is gone.”
            “Goddess?” piped the Trumpeter, his interest suddenly diverted from the horizon.
            “If there’s no meaning to anything, if nothing matters, then it costs you nothing to aid us tracking down our treasure,” reasoned the Fencer.  His appraising eyes were trying to pierce the veil, curiosity spurred by the faint glimmers the woman hid.
            Scathra didn’t respond immediately and though it was impossible to see her features all present got the sense that she smiled, a hidden, dark fragment of humor.

When dawn did come after what seemed an eternity of dreams it was much doused by the eastern light.  The true sun rose first through the glowing eye near the lake, doubling its rays, then lifting higher, muting the strange glory below but not entirely banishing it as it had the day before.  This lack of contrast took its toll on the travelers, who shuffled along after the mad escapee across icy plains which made tracking difficult.  They worked from ice hill to ice hill, seeking what vantage they could in order to scan the glaring expanse.
            “What is that light?” Lew asked in an attempt to fight off exhaustion. 
            “It is a problem for the Sacred,” Scathra replied curtly, trying to bury her thoughts in the horizon.
            “It is most certainly a problem for us all,” snapped Lew.  “They come into my establishment, capture or kill my guests, damage my wares, and in their eyes that damned light.”
            He gestured to the south and the luminous haze lingering like a mirage.
            “I’ve been silent long enough while you sorted out your troubles with these two treasure hunters but I want a bit of candor now.”  He glared as he spoke, but he couldn’t see past the metal discs of her veil, each shimmering with the morning sun.  “What is this baleful luminescence?  Where did it come from?  When will it go?”
            The energy of this assault surprised even him.  Such was the way with a storm front blast of emotion, especially when it served to hide something else.
            “It is the Bright,” she said, haltingly, trying to avoid his gaze.  “At least that’s the name my sisters gave it upon the opening, before it became all they saw.  It gets in the eyes.  It is an image which becomes the soul.  They have wants, those things which were once my sisters, and whatever illuminates them laughs at the prospect of satisfaction.  A dream animates their steps.”
            “That’s no good,” said the Fencer.
            “I don’t know the whole of it,” grumbled Scathra.  “If I did then I would be like them.  I haven’t seen as much.”
            “You know no more than the rest of us,” declared the Trumpeter.  Disappointed, he began to move on after their quarry and muttered, “We’re never going to find that box.”
            “Why weren’t you with your tribe?” asked the Fencer.
            “I was hunting the frost elk which are currently migrating through the steppes to the east of the lake.  When I returned I only saw part of what fills their eyes.  One of my sisters set fire to a grain silo and the resulting cloud of smoke diffused the brilliance.  It was too late for those who had seen the pure light.  At first they walked about in a daze, confusing dream and reality, as if sleepwalking, but soon, after the second day, they gained the true color of their madness and something else awoke in their place.”
            Lew had gone after the Trumpeter, the voices of Scathra and the Fencer faded behind.  His thoughts were heavy, sunken down from even the fearful place they occupied when screaming word of the amazon affliction had kicked down his door.  Desperately he tried to think of a means to ask the question consuming him without giving away the great secret, the reason he had chosen to guide the two miscreants himself.
            “What of that box you mentioned?” he asked, finally catching up to the Trumpeter and a worthy distraction from his troubles.
            “Oh, what box?”  With this the Trumpeter picked up his pace a bit, making the middle-aged innkeeper trot behind.
            “Under your breath you muttered about some box, is that the treasure you and your friend are after?”
            “Oh, well, say, isn’t that something just past that hill?  It glimmers and shines and is interesting and…” the Trumpeter’s voice drifted off as he continued to increase his pace, running from the conversation.
            Mountains grew close and the land became pocked with jutting bits of stone, spines of the mythical dragon which made up the Cloaked Mountains.  Climbing these, the Trumpeter spied far in his search for the missing amazon.  By midday Lew was exhausted and hungry, jealous of his youthful companions and their energy.  He missed his warm inn, the crackling fire, the interior world full of life against the outrĂ© chill of Winter.
            “I see something!” shouted the Trumpeter from atop his latest perch.  Surely this man was a bird in a past life.
            The Fencer stopped and waited, having long grown accustomed to the musician’s flights of imagination.
            “Probably just a bit of rock which looks like a lemur-man,” he grumbled to Scathra.
            “It’s looking at me!” continued the Trumpeter with some alarm, using his instrument as an ineffective spyglass.
            Upon discovery he was vindicated.  They broke over a low rise into a sort of basin from which a giant eye stared intently.  At the center of the pupil their quarry lay, curled up, encased and frozen in a capsule of tears generated by the many clustered eyes which covered her entire body.
            The amazon girl had carved the whole design with her sword from the ice, framing the organ, then adding iris and pupil.  Great detail was taken with the project, which had a feverish quality to it.  The Trumpeter looked up to the heavens to try and spot what the eye sought up in the sun-bleached clouds.
            “Did you ever notice how much sunnier is has been lately?” he asked to silence.
            The Fencer crouched down next to the girl and put out his hand.  Scathra stopped him before he could touch the icy shroud and for once he didn’t glare at this affront to his personal space. 
            “Why all the eyes?” asked the savage.
            “They are a sign of the Goddess,” explained the veiled woman.  To mark oneself with the eye is a sign of devotion, also there is little to do when not hunting or tending the affairs of the settlement.”
            “Enlightenment,” said Lew, who still stood at the edge of the great eye, not wishing to break the perimeter.  “As a symbol it carries with it the opening of understanding, understanding of great things, secrets and mysteries, both of the self and the world.”
            “Fancy fables and daydreams,” smirked the Fencer.
            “No, I’ve seen it,” said Lew, who worked up the bravery to enter.  “I’ve seen a holy man rise off the ground by making himself light as a feather.  Another had trained his body to find the hidden value in the snow and ate nothing else, living as he had for thousands of years on the stuff.  I witnessed miracles of fire and thunder, men able to all upon beings which fell down from the sky in burning geometries, wondrous materials forged through meditation.  Many were those who wore the sign of the eye about their person.  Through the image of the lens they could open up to the unseen energies of the Lattice.”
            “Now I know you are lying,” said the Fencer.  “How could you have been privy to so much magic?”
            At this Lew straightened up and took on fierce mien, the mask he had been trained to wear since childhood.  He hoped it would lend veracity to his claims.
            “Once I was a paladin in service to his Alabaster Glint, the high priest of Yem.  With my own eyes I saw the power of the gods and the things done by their holy men and anchorites, their priestess-queens and divine emissaries.”
            “I guess you are a whole different person that I thought,” said the Fencer, not at all impressed.  Lew deflated a little. 
            “Was,” said the dusky man, coming up to look at the frozen creature.  She had been crying at the end, all of her.
            “All this doesn’t explain the eyes,” noted the swordsman.  He wanted there to be some concrete malady to the mad light gripping the virago of the Sakram but he couldn’t see past the mystery.
            The Trumpeter came back, huffing and pointing to the north.
            “More tracks that way,” he wheezed.  “Another band from the south came through here less than a day ago, skipping and racing by the look of it.  They carried tools with them, stuff which dragged across the ice.”
            “Sounds like a stonecutting band, but they must surely be too lost to work the quarry,” said Scathra, who jingled as she shook her head in an attempt to understand.  “This is all so much more confusing than just killing them all.”
            “Always is,” said the Fencer, who got up and without explanation examined the tracks for himself.  When he was satisfied he turned not towards the distant mountains but south, towards the dream-stealing light glowing on the shores of Lake Ithie. 
            Lew concealed his increasingly tired and desperate circumstance beneath a layer of introspection.  The Fencer loathed secrets, especially those of magic, yet it was these very mysteries which kept the Fencer going.  No, it was his conflict with these things, the ancient mad notes sung from the past, which granted the southern swordsman the stamina to keep moving kilometer after kilometer, out into Winter’s moody expanse, even in light of certain death.
            The Trumpeter and Scathra chased after, shouting and arguing.  Might’ve well been against the ice.  Faster the madman raced towards the epicenter of the Bright.  A mood had him and he was possessed.
            There were moments where Lew questioned his own sanity in following after the seal-skin savage.  Bright sun, gleaming ice, strange light and shimmering lake, these things swam together in his mind.  He ran on, half asleep, knowing whom he sought.  He hoped he became blind so he wouldn’t see her blood.   

Thursday, September 20, 2012

VI. Sisters of the Eye

Scathra watched her sgol die in the dwindling light.  Thin, folded clouds bunched up at the horizon and burned with last of the sun.  Beside her, built of smokeless dry driftwood, a fire burned low and stray feathers gusted about like snowflakes. 
              She followed each steaming breath labored out by her steed’s powerful lungs.  The creature was hers now by right of the experiences they had shared.  Though a pampered thing it had shown its prowess in the task.  Both the beast and the amazon were caked in the blood of mad sisters, arrows and broken spears protruded from the sgol’s powerful chest and there were gnaw marks where those with insanity in their eyes had tried to feast on its still-living flesh.  None of these wounds were serious enough on their own.  No, the beast lay dying of exhaustion, its life burned out by the task of redemption.
            She would watch it breath out its life and feel it go cold in the descending temperatures of a Winter night.  Then she would be back at her task until an end came.  Death waited for her, and it was possible, quite possible, that she would not cleanse the icy plains of her illuminated sisters before succumbing.  At least her spirit would know she had tried.
            That was why she watched the sgol’s last moments.  The creature began to shudder, softly at first, then with growing dysfunction spasmed and contorted.  It released a whimper and one last gasp of steam, this dwindling to a trickle as its spirit fled back to the Lattice.
            With her reverie complete she feasted upon the flesh of a sacred swan which had attacked her just as the sgol collapsed.  To harm such a bird was a taboo which made her tear up, but one she gladly committed in order to fuel her crusade.  The bird flesh tasted rich and fatty, as befit their lifestyle.
            An amazon was given the task of tending the sacred swans at the age of seven.  In caring for the creatures they learned of the struggle against Winter.  The swans were vicious creatures, but unable to survive without care.  Thus was wisdom shown through the nature of things.
            Scathra could remember trekking beneath the silver sea and harvesting greens.  Then marching over to a square a water and feeding the creatures where they frolicked.  If they realized that the growing squares all around them held their food then they would gorge themselves and there would be none left for later, so it fell to the Sacred to meter the balance. 
            Now that the amazons were consumed by the Bright the swans were no longer cared for, no longer sacred.  By now the creatures had discovered the growing squares and had gone out looking for the caretakers who had abandoned them.  They flew about as a fleet, pecking to death those who weren’t tending their needs.  It was a benefit that they had no eyes and couldn’t carry the strange light.
            Tears fell beneath Scathra’s veil and down her clothes.  Little gemstone fragments glimmered against her bloodstained cloak, their colors topaz and sapphire and diamond.  She snorted with rage, trying to wipe them away.  Jewels hit the ice.  This wealth brought her nothing but agony and she left her camp to seek death amongst sisters who had seen far more than she.

As evening arrived the men hid from the strange, eastern light amongst the copse of trees the Trumpeter had found.  The mirror turned out to be a huge metallic square seemingly dropped from one of the lost heavens; they had no better reasoning as to its function or origin.  Beyond this strangeness lay another; it only reflected on one side, the other proved as clear as glass.  Some argument was had whether the Fencer should destroy it or not.
            Their wounds bandaged they rested amongst the pines, a great fire of shattered timber roaring beside them as they gnawed on hard tack, jerky and klee berries.  Despite avoiding the light dreams hovered at the edge of their exhaustion.  It seemed that twilight never ended for all the hazy radiance spilling in from the east.  
            “I wonder at times,” wondered the Trumpeter, looking into places beyond the flame.  He had divested himself of his feathers and was feeding them one by one to the fire.
            When the Fencer failed to take the bait Lew perfunctorily asked, “About what?”
            “Dreams, are they worth it.”  This wasn’t a question.
            “I have mine,” explained Lew.  “A place for myself and my boys, profit, security.”
            “A simple enough thing to manage without venturing into danger,” stated the Fencer.
            “No, no it’s not.”  The innkeep didn’t elaborate.  “But there is something you’re after that hasn’t been said yet either so I figure we’re even in terms of secret motives.”
            “The Answer,” explained the Fencer with a wry smile, as if saying the words out loud was a joke.
            “To the Riddle?” gasped the Trumpeter, who earned a sharp look from the swordsman.
            “‘Blessed are those with impossible goals,’ a purportedly wise man once said to me,” smirked Lew, “‘in their labors they will never lack.’”
            “Sounds a bit backhanded,” noted the Fencer.  “Still, I’ve had worse responses.”
            “Adventurers and scholars pass through all the time and bring with them rumor and conjecture of the Riddle, each one telling it differently.  Makes me think it’s all just superstition and funny talk between sorcerers.  You think the Answer lies with the Sacred and their mysteries?”
            The Fencer kept a silence at this point.
            “No,” he said at last.
            “There’s always more under the surface,” nodded the innkeep, who could read a man fairly well and knew when he was being sold only part of a sgol.
            The Fencer turned to watch the musician impassively, like viewing the tide roll in.  Shifting to see the other man Lew noted that the Trumpeter became increasingly agitated by some inward thought.  This notion grew within until it was too large to be pent up in the heart any longer.
            “We are after a box,” said the Trumpeter.
            “Omet’s Box,” explained the Fencer with a sigh.  “And though you still aren’t willing to tell me your true reason for coming, innkeep, I must allow you to keep your secret for now.  Help me build this fire up.”
            Lew’s stomach churned within but he roused himself enough to gather more kindling so that they might light up the world and ward off the cold. 

They found the light still blazing, their eyes matching the fire’s intensity.  Screeching, howling, bestial and luminous the amazons descended upon the camp, having followed the great blaze for kilometers.
            Thrusting blades into the sleepers each woman giggled, if they hadn’t cut off their lips yet.  Eyes were everywhere, looking out from the flesh, the graven tattoos becoming luminous organs.  Now bright were the dreams they held in their sights as they searched for the object of desire.
            Some cared not at all that the pallets were empty and the blood they spilled imaginary.  They laughed while the more sensible, the more animalistic, tore open the blankets in search of flesh.  Then there were the cunning, whose lighted eyes pierced the dark, seeking about for tracks.  Those they found were lost out on the hard-packed ice of the Sakram plain.  A few became enamored of the mirror, and stood before their reflections, suddenly quiet.  These the others left behind as they moved once more back to the south and east, the very direction from which they had come.  None questioned why the fire burned so well, its source or function.
            Across the pure night country hazy brilliance spilled from distant Ithie.  The shores of the lake bloomed the same colors which lingered in their eyes, though the source was still distorted and blurred.  The things following the amazons made no noise as they lurked from hill to hill.
            Lew knew they would be found out.  There was hardly any cover here and what hills they had were fading fast as they moved towards the lake and the fabled home of the Sacred, the amazons of the Sakram plain.  Still, he was impressed with the Fencer’s plan, it showed both cunning and elegance. 
            Following the mad women was a test of patience.  Many times one or more would stop, lost in a reality which only they could see, and so the group would fracture, individuals spinning off into their own hallucination.  Yet a shared notion bound them together and it wasn’t good sense.  It lay in the aspect they saw, and those dreams pulled the women inexorably back together.  This spoke of a controlling intelligence or enchantment.
            Being out on the plain, under the open sky, under the haze of color seeping from the east, produced strong worry in Lew.  The Trumpeter felt some of it, craning his neck behind them in case one of the mirror-bound ladies chanced up on them.  Only the Fencer remained cool, calmly moving low to the ground, using the Sacred as unwitting guides to the fabled amazon colony.
            As a group the women stopped.  The Fencer fell into a shadow while the Trumpeter buried his head in the ice like an ignorant bird.  Lew crouched low and wrapped his cloak about him but feared his bulk made him obvious.  The travelers seemed to vanish into Winter’s face, leaving their guide stranded in his finery.
            None of the dozen mad creatures turned around for on their lithe forms a coating of eyes blinked out searching.  They watched and the men were still, still enough to hear the soft wind whisper down off the Cloaks.  The wind brought with it snowflakes which caught the strange light and glowed.
            Sensing something the women began to search.  As they approached their forms showed more clearly, naked flesh clothed only in eyes and a few trailing remnants of traditional garb.  Each carried an eager weapon, many bearing the frozen blood of their victims.  Even their bodies wore smeared red, matting their hair and setting off their eyes.
            The Fencer’s hand moved slowly to his side and began to untie Dhala.  Crimson orbs seethed along that blade as an amazon noticed the men hiding on the ice. 
            The night shrieked into violence.  A tattered mass leaped amongst the band from an overlooking hill.  From the far horizon horrid light watched on like a bleary eye.
            Lew went for his weapon but clutched only a memory.  His sword was still lost at their abandoned camp.  As it turned out the Fencer was more than eager to take his share of the violence.
            The first woman laughed as her head left her body, split off by a precision swing of atom-edged Dhala.  Her eyes watched from her corpse as the swordsman race into the massed amazons.  This proved unwise. 
            Feinting past the first Sacred he met her blade a second time. With an expert turn he saved his heart but the dagger opened up his shoulder.  His answering sweep pushed the massed amazons back, but none were touched by the black ice.  Their laughter cut through him as surely as their weapons would.  Now they attacked.  
            Under the withering assault he found each of his moves noticed.  Dodging aside did nothing as their many eyes watched closely.  Instinctively he moved to flank and dart past defenses but this lead him into a nest of pointed steel.  Their eyes were in conspiracy and the plot was death.
            It was fortunate that there were other actors at work in this of play of blood.  The Trumpeter tossed something at Lew and the innkeeper soon found he had a piece of statuary in his hand, the object itself a hand, broken off at such an angle that the forearm tapered to a nasty edge.  He grimaced and dropped it; he had never seen a statue with perfectly articulated internal bones and muscles, these too made from dark granite. 
            The Trumpeter raced around the melee and in the musician’s noisome wake Lew took up the notched axe left by the Fencer’s first opponent.  He tried to avoid making eye contact with her corpse.  Weapon in hand he lifted his head just as the melee spilled over him.
            Retreating bloody and battered the Fencer was a whirl of rage, his two, cold eyes calculating a thousand violent strategies.  He was forced back by the precise dance of the amazons, their eyes knowing his every move by the faintest muscle twitch.  Swordplay was a code and they could read his cypher.  They laughed their pleasure while the swordsman set his jaw in a humorless grimace.
            Caught up in this death march Lew fared even less well.  His skills were rusty, long out of practice, except for the occasional tavern brawl or madman loose on the ice.  He tried his best to remember what the master-at-arms taught him of the axe, but all he could remember was that it was a poor weapon for defense. 
            An all-seeing lady snaked her knife past his guard and pricked his chest.  She smiled at the blood and in her look he knew she wanted more.  This wasn’t just an animalistic savagery at work in their mad eyes, it was a desire.  She toyed with him a bit, making him exhaust himself chasing after feints, until she grew bored of the sport.  Now she was ready for murder, with a special attention given to his eyes.
            “You look familiar,” muttered her mouth automatically through frost-blackened lips.  Then her attention went elsewhere and he followed the eyes.
            Frozen amidst a chaos of blades the Fencer stretched upwards, holding a black vial in his hands.  This darkness cloyed at the eyes and the women hissed at its sight, swarming him even as he threw the object down at his feet.
            Instantly a billowing cloud plumed up and covered them all.  Lew felt folds of gas lapping against him with heavy, sea foam arms.  The stuff smelled of sandalwood and cardamom. 
            Blind movement flew about and the innkeep fell to the ice and covered his head.  Screams, rage, inhuman, wanting and wailing filled his ears.  Metal provided chorus, ringing out only to go quiet, one piece at a time.  Something heavy hit his form, but he dared not look to see what.
            A firm gust of wind came and brushed against him.  Things had grown quiet.  At last he opened his eyes from the dark to find he was alive.
            Dark feathers of cloud spilled eastward with the breeze.  Now that it was gone the steaming bodies showed themselves in bits and pieces, living eyes watching from the dead amazons.  A severed arm glared at Lew from where it had bounced after hitting him.  At the epicenter of blood the wounded Fencer sagged, exhausted by victory. 
            A trumpet’s blast woke both men from introspection.  Racing over the low hills they found the Trumpeter fretting at the edges while the cloaked assailant recoiled from the sudden skill of her attackers.  With her hood back they recognized the veiled woman and sgol thief.
            “We must flee!” said Lew even as the Fencer charged.  Unless he had another vial of smoke then he would be seen and even his magic sword wouldn’t be enough to rend their wall of eyes.
            Sure enough the women were ready , half their number turning spears to meet his charge.  But the Fencer struck early, sweeping through the hard-packed ground in a wide arc. 
            With this motion a splash of ice hit the air and glowed in the strange light just as the snowflakes before.  For an instant all their eyes went blind from the glare.  Dhala followed close.
            The nightmare blade cut through three of the dazed creatures at once, then lunged through a fourth while the veiled woman impaled another with her spear.  None screamed, but gasped and murmured insanely. 
            A sixth Sacred fled out over the hills, yelling words in a made-up tongue.  Making to give chase the Fencer discovered a spear point at his throat.  The amazon’s breath misted out from the metal discs composing her veil, and behind this certain lights glimmered.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

V. A Blind Wasteland Strewn with Dreams

A soft white dome held the wind at bay and for a moment he welcomed those crystalline folds.  Then the thing hissed and he struggled back into the cold of Winter, fumbling for a sword left behind when he went on his sleepwalking tour.  The feathered beast spread its wings and ducked its head low and eager, welcoming him back while whipping its pointed beak about eagerly.
              Lew had heard stories of great white birds, of swans frozen solid in flight which spoke of the sudden coming of Winter.  Old stories those, while this was here and now and all too real. 
            From tip to tip the wings measured some eight meters, with the length of the long, sinuous body something less.  It was all of white except a band of black where the beak joined the face.  This vicious pecking device tapered to a narrow point and looked something like a diamond head-on.  This it clacked together several times as it lunged for him once more, the long snaky neck darting in for the kill.  As the mass of hissing fury attacked Lew realized it had no eyes.  He wished he was still dreaming.
            With those massive wings it sent up a buffeting tempest of loosened ice and concussive air.  He was lifted up and thrown several meters back.  Barely had he time to gain his senses before a large talon descended on his prostrate form.
            Rolling aside he heard the crunch of aged ice but could see nothing as the world wheeled above him in flaps and tatters.  Only when he could see sunlight did he scramble to his feet.  The bird pressed its attentions.
            Again it charged and he braced for another thunderclap of air but now the wings folded back and the creature gained speed.  It raced up with head coiled.  It flicked and warm liquid pain screamed along Lew's arm.  Now the pristine beak was speckled with red and it loomed over him.
            There was something delicate about the swan, pure, as if it was a thing cared for and nurtured, a rarity on harsh Winter.  Only through dedication and attention did nuance and art live on through the cold.  The ice bent all creatures towards survival in a natural progression of barbarism, the outcome of which was a reducing of the all into a final absolute zero. 
            Lew thought of his boys back at the inn and beyond, to the fires of faith burning on the high road those years ago.  There were ruins built of good intentions and frail peoples left to change or die.
            The beak stove downwards as a thunderbolt but Lew wasn’t to be taken by the same trick twice.  Falling aside at just the right moment the swan’s beak met with the hard-packed ice.  A shower of crystal rose up into the air sparkling. 
            Taking no time to admire the glitter Lew scrambled after the impact point.  Searching through the ice he closed his hands around what he was after.  Above the creature shook the pain from its head, obviously unused to the sensation. 
            Lew split its breast open, marring the virgin white with hot, steaming blood.  Leaning his weight against the blade he cut downward, eviscerating the creature.  He had only a second of victory before one last mighty sweep of wing sent him hurtling.  In the tumult he lost his grip on the bloody ice shard which served as his weapon. 
            He landed on his bad shoulder and pain danced in his eyes.  The universe was suddenly far away, his sight darkened.  Distantly something huge rumbled.  Focusing on it took every ounce of energy he had, the sensation that of fighting through a hundred layers of water-soaked blankets.
            Through vision clearing he watched the swan sway about, as if it was unsure if it should die.  Then it tensed and he was certain it would attack once more.  But the motion which came next instead made him wonder if he had passed on into dream once more. 
            The swan reared up and spread its wings while more red gore pulsed from its chest.  Raising a head to the heavens it let out an eerie call, a tone which pierced the wind and rang through Winter.  The cry went out and with the song finished the beast collapsed, steaming with blood.
            Lew realized the blood on his hands, the murderous swan a rare thing of beauty.  With a sigh he got to his feet, failing once on account of his shoulder, first dislocated and now this.  Tying a piece of his cloak about the wound was the best he could do to staunch the bleeding. 
            He left to wander east again and feel guilty.  Afternoon wore on and the sky changed its blue demeanor in gradual tones.  Thoughts brought with them an unwelcome education.  It wasn’t long before he saw more.
            Careening through the sky a fleet of swans swept across the plains.  Lew picked up his pace to follow them, uncaring if they brought their attentions his way.  It would be a solution to the guilt.  Some sort of luck left him unscathed and he soon discovered why.
            The sunlight made the horizon an uncertain thing, full of glare and bright imaginings.  A shadow pooled up like any other mirage but it was to this that the birds stretched their wings.  Lew stumbled after.
            A great flapping shadow battle ensued.  The large figures met the small in a conflagration of silhouettes.  Lew would’ve kept watching but just then the first corpse made itself known. 
            Half-frozen Duhg lay pecked to death, a good number of them too.  Their heads were split, their bones broken, yet still their eyes showed with the gleam of strange dreams.  Their rictus hands held obscene bouquets of feathers, huge, white and speckled with blood.  There were no dead swans about but Lew was sure he knew who had killed these ape-men.
            Quickening his pace he raced towards the shadow battle.  Dancing forms grew clear and the fluttering topography he had seen from afar became a tangle of feathered wings.  The smell of death blew about with the northern wind.
            The Fencer was the cause.  He stood amongst a fleet of dead feathers, blood frozen in strange sculptures by virtue of the nightmare blade’s chill.  Two more hissing birds circled around the man.  He had no care in his eyes.
            “Fencer!” called Lew the moment he grew close enough to be heard. 
            With a vicious arching swing the swordsman lopped off one swan’s neck, leaving the body to thrash and flap.  Then he turned and Lew knew his mistake.
            The eyes, they were different.  Faint glimmers of lustrous white, cold blue and crystalline yellow showed in the man’s gaze.  A madness too, like that of the amazons.
            “More assassins?” growled the Fencer. 
            This close Lew saw other differences in the way the man carried himself.  Each step had a floating, buoyant quality, uncertain on the ground.  There was also a hunger for violence in the way he flicked the sword around in search of blood.
            “Grey!” realized the Fencer.  “Now you betray my silence as well?  Can I not have an empire of dust to myself?”
            The other swan’s impatience allowed Lew no time to answer.  Seizing this moment of distraction the avian swooped down on the swordsman’s back.  In a blink he had turned, catching the whipcord neck with his right hand, the razor sharp beak mere centimeters away from his head.  With his left he plunged the icy blade into the thing’s heart and it died without even a gasp. 
            Here was harsh Winter’s avatar, the old word for the earthly form of a god coming back to Lew through the years.  The Fencer was mad and powerful, with a bit of cruel magic in one hand and a will to destroy infusing his being.  Whatever had brought him to join with this madman now escaped the innkeep.
            Fear drove the poetry from his mind.  The Fencer approached, blade held high.  Then, like a cloud vaulting over the sky, he bound upon the hapless man.
            Just before the blade fell Lew closed his eyes.  He had seen many die by the sword and feared such a fate.  Quickly was best, though infection was a far more common victor.  The world went into shadow, but the blow never came.
            He opened his eyes just as the Fencer finished rubbing his own.  The world was darker.  Looking up, he could see that a cloud had just passed in front of the sun.  Now the swordsman’s irises were cold and grey, normal for his people Lew presumed.
            “Where did the moon go?” asked the bewildered savage inspecting the ground beneath his feet.
            “I can’t be sure but I think both rest in their usual place in the sky,” said Lew once he had gained the courage to do so.
            “No, I was on the moon,” said the Fencer, not sure of which.  “I had gone there to be away, but my troubles followed me.  There were ruined cities built from crystal and a thousand billion people lying about as grains of dust.  The cold that should’ve been was replaced a numbness all over, as if the only reason I survived was some kind of sorcery...are these giant dead swans?”
            It was as if he only just now realized the things he had killed, a dozen of them lying in pieces.  He grew thoughtful.
            “They were things of shadow,” he murmured to himself, but became wary of Lew’s interest.
            “Whatever you say they are doesn’t take the feathers away,” noted the innkeep.  “I think something invaded our dreams last night, making us both into somnambulists.  I can only imagine that the Trumpeter has suffered the same fate.”
            “‘Suffered,’” smirked the Fencer.  “My friend would certainly enjoy this mad play.”
            “The light takes our minds,” continued Lew, disinterested in the private joke.
            The Fencer had no answer.  Instead he marched up a small rise to survey the land around them.  It seemed that one direction was the equal of the next. 
            “Have you heard any notes?” he asked at last, avoiding even thinking of the controlling light.
            “No sounds but wind and those vicious birds.”
            “Pampered things, too fair for Winter,” noted the Fencer, concerned about the lack of noise.  “We should continue east, that’s where trouble is and there we’ll find the Trumpeter.  Watch for distractions, as he is an eager fool for them.”
            Correcting the course bent by their waking dreams the two men went east and south, into an afternoon shimmering with light and obscure goals.  The flats extended in long sweeps of ice rarely interrupted by boulders or skeletons.  Then a structure broke the horizon.
            From the mirage-laden edge of their vision something glared back from atop a number of spires.  Quickly these resolved into tall, narrow evergreens, a copse set adrift on the sea of ice.  With the sun at their backs something amongst the boughs gleamed brightly and to this they approached.
            As they neared something moved furtively within the trees.  The Fencer drew his weapon.
            “Wait,” whispered Lew.  “How did you keep your weapon through sleep?”
            The Fencer gave a bitter smile.
            “Do you think I could rid myself of this thing so easily?”
            With this he left to stalk whatever moved about the little forest.  The island of trees was some hundred meters across and very regular, describing a circle.  The glaring thing of light dove down from the upper branches all the way to the ground where its glory was diminished but still bright.  Lew went for his weapon only to remember his was lost with their camp.
            By the time he entered the grove the Fencer was disappeared.  Alone with whatever haunted the trees he could feel his bravery wane, but there was nowhere else to go. 
            A tall figure bundled with all manner of scarf and feather stooped in the clearing.  The trees described a ring of sorts, with an open space sprawling across the middle.  This willowy figure seemed enrapt by the snowy ground, pawing through the ice for some buried treasure.  Its outfit was outlandish, like a woolen mummified bird.  Beside it lay a silver instrument.
            “Trumpeter?” asked Lew as he stepped out from the evergreen he hid behind.
            The figure whipped its head towards him.  He couldn’t see a face because of the overlapping bands of scarf.  A bit of yellow-blue light spilled from between two bands of wool.  It took up the trumpet and aimed his way.
            Something crashed into him a split second before the sound of a screaming sunset rushed overhead.  He fell with his back down and above he saw the rippling note slam into the tree which pulsed and shattered.  Every needle and branch was pulverized to dust. 
            Lew fell with the Fencer on top of him, down and out of sight from the Trumpeter.  Through ringing ears he thought he heard someone mutter loudly about, “damn glowing sky anemones.”
            “He’s dreaming?” whispered Lew as the Fencer untangled himself from the man he had just saved.
            “You messed up,” frowned the Fencer.  “I could’ve crept up on him if not for your friendly words.  You aren’t talking to a man there but a dream, and there is nothing so driven to violence than a dream.”
            He was right and Lew knew it.  Years of hospitality had made him soft, despite all the brawls and ice creatures.  He was too used to welcoming people in.  Suddenly he went cold with fear.
            “How can his trumpet make such noise?” realized Lew.  “Is that instrument enchanted?”
            “Ridiculous,” muttered the Fencer before turning on the man.  “So one bit of magic is acceptable but two is cause for worry?”
            “I just never thought I’d see such wonder again,” he stammered.
            “Except you have played host to the alchemist Clea on many occasions,” countered the Fencer, whose eyes were moving about forming a plan of attack.
            “She was different,” said Lew firmly.  “She was subtle.”
            The Fencer laughed, not at the notion, but at how true this was.  It was a bit too loud.
            “Fencer, is that you?” shouted the voice of the Trumpeter within the copse.
            “Let me handle this,” said the swordsman as he put his weapon away, a possibly unwise choice.  Lew crept up just enough to watch the goings on.
            “Fencer?” asked the musician.  “How is that you are underdressed?”
            “I’m not so cold,” replied the swordsman who craned his neck to see what it was that the Trumpeter was unearthing from the snow. 
            “Tough talk but this is the Pole!” declared the madman.  “You’ll be ice in just a moment, well, so will I, but not before I find the proper crypt.”
            “Is that what we’re looking for?”
            “What I’m looking for,” corrected the Trumpeter.
            The Fencer was as bewildered as Lew.  Even the dreams of the insane musician were a magnitude more incomprehensible than their own.  Did he mean the southern Pole? It would explain the elaborate bundling.  Then something caught the swordsman’s eye.
            “What is that?” he muttered automatically.  He was looking in the direction of the glaring bright shard plunged into the woodland.
            “What?” questioned the Trumpeter, who turned and dismissed the object.  “Oh, that’s just part of a ship which sails between the stars.”
            “I think I see something in that surface, some other place,” mused the swordsman, who approached the shard of heaven.
            The Trumpeter pushed the Fencer aside in order to be the first to molest this new discovery.  Even as the swordsman recovered with a nasty look in his eye his companion had stopped before the thing which dimmed as the sun at last disappeared over the western hills.
            Lew ventured closer.  Now he could see that the object was a single huge metal strip cut into a square.  Its surface was that of the mirror, reflecting whatever it faced.  For a brief moment he caught a yellow-blue glimmer.  The Fencer had his weapon drawn.
            “What do you see in the mirror?” he asked the Trumpeter.
            “I thought…,” began the madman.  “I thought I saw nothing.”
            The musician turned around, his eyes that normal blue of limitless sky.
            “Where did these feathers come from?”