Scathra knew she couldn’t sleep because in the place of dreams there would only be light. Mere consciousness kept her from joining her sisters in their games, dancing to madness, a thing possessed. Her head was heavy, but she had to cleanse the sacred lands before folding herself in the blanketing snows of the Sakram to sleep one last time.This east was a smear of light. Zaffa’s gambit had staunched the flow but after one good storm the dust and smoke would be blown clear, setting free the illumination to course and glare into the rest of Winter. The Bright had an instinct to be seen. Wherever she looked Scathra saw glimmers of the stuff, so she drove the Sgol on, following the trail of a sister as it wound its way through increasingly heavy snows.
The tracks stopped at a palace. Hidden by the folded hills a structure loomed out from the drifts. Grand spires split the sky with their white marble. Rooms beyond counting looked down with open windows and balconies girded with statuary. The front of the primary structure was carven as a giant face, enrapt, eyes-wide doorways permitting all who wished to share the vision.
Scathra grimaced and blinked away this sight, tearing up. She dismounted and let the beast wander so she should rub snow into her eyes. Her veil jingled as she did so. She scratched until she felt her eyes grow hot.
Looking up again she saw a snow lodge, recently cut by an uneven hand. It had no top and could provide no shelter. The snow was too soft, left to crumble in places.
Entering, her eyes throbbing patches of light onto this reality, Scathra ventured into this place both real and illusion. The foyer contained several weapons and torn garments, blood on both. A darkened hall wound deeper into the structure. From this a chilled copper reek emanated.
There were attempts at several other rooms, but each showed a point where the builder had lost interest. Walls were left unfinished, letting the strange rays from the east spill in. Carven eyes were the only detail, peering out from the snow. There was nothing for them to see.
Drawing her club the amazon worked her way to the place where the smell was strongest.
In the last room there was a party. There were goblets and furnishings of ice. Treats of snow, frosted and unspoiled, sparkled in the twilit scene. On the host’s long table guests were arrayed and frozen in place, drenched in water to keep them fresh and interesting. Here were sisters, captured lemur-men from the Cloaks, and something with the head of a bird and the body of a man. All grimaced happily from within their glassy tombs of ice, yet none were as striking as the host.
She sat naked at the head of the table, the reddened ice saw used to build this dwelling held in one hand. Her body was covered in eyes, which was fortunate because she had lost her primary two. On the serving platter before her was set her own head which she had sawn off. Those two eyes continued to see, the livid brilliance spilling from her irises, in unison with those on her body. Her tattoos had become true. Possessed of a metallic, luminous luster, peeking out from the gore which was now frozen in crimson streams running down her form, they fell on this new visitor. Scathra froze.
The light shone in its fullness along the western shores of Lake Ithie, a place of austere beauty made evident by the unnatural illumination. Spires of light spilled into the sky, fighting through the hazy nebula at the source.
Wisdom would turn the other way, as it was unnatural for the night to be so bright, but the Fencer and the Trumpeter seemed to be counterwise fellows and it took some doing to get them to bed down on the gentle plains of the Sakram. Even Lew, exhausted by their ordeal, felt this.
They all were enchanted by the splendor, part sapphire, part topaz, mostly diamond, the sort of brightness to which the sun aspired at cloudless noon. It wasn’t the intensity, but the quality of the enchantment. It seemed as if one communed with excitement as the stuff came into the eye, transmitting a sense both startling and sublime. The light itself was a dream and in it all made sense, a building storm, rumbling cumulous excited by lightning and words caught up by gusts of wind. It was the unexpected guest, welcome, brining gifts. You could almost reach out and touch and become a part.
The travelers decided to sleep with a hill between them and the tempting light. After downing some pemmican and a loaf of fresh bread baked that morning they took turns at a bottle of wine provided by Lew’s cellar. The Trumpeter nursed the avorgine beyond his fair share. None argued as they were still half-entranced by the light.
“They’ve been here since the beginning of time,” Lew explained all of a sudden, the silence compelling him to speak.
“I find that to be impossible,” replied the Fencer.
“I’m talking about the amazons.”
“I know,” said the swordsman, staring off into the western dark. “It is unreasonable that they could be here this long without the attentions of men. The machinery of our existence demands such.”
“There was magic,” Lew said. This quieted the Fencer who wore a moody halo.
“What flavor?” hiccupped the Trumpeter now that his companion was silent.
“They served a deity who was said to reflect her presence off the burnished frozen surface of Lake Ithie,” said the innkeep, whose mind for some reason though of poor dead Elac. “This goddess brought them children without husbands and taught them the ways of survival on Winter’s frozen edge. Any woman could join their ranks, should she pass the initiation, all others were turned away. In this place they were refined in cunning and mystery, all serving some secret guarded jealously. Rumors of treasure brought many adventurers in hopes of preying upon easy pickings. Not even bones mark their failure. It is because of them, the Sacred, that the Sakram is so uncivilized.”
“Then what are you doing out here?” asked the Trumpeter suddenly. He earned no reply. Looking over he could see that Lew had lain down, head turned away, apparently asleep.
“Just making conversation,” frowned the musician who now, with little to stop him, turned and crawled up the hill, there peeking out eastward into the light. He blinked a bit, having tasted the trouble waiting for them, then slid down and went to sleep. All this time the Fencer sat and watched his own heart unfold into the dark chill of space and night.
It stood above the plain and basked in its own glory. Close up the light was something like a membrane of skin pulled taught across a liquid. Patches of varying brightness swam over this surface, clusters of white echoing out into facets of cerulean and gold. A monolith deity, it watched the Sakram and gave of itself freely.
Lew awoke to the light and it seemed as if no time had passed. The night lay beyond, pushed back by the bubble radiance, stars but faint freckles. He was alone on the wild, frozen plain.
Of the camp there was no sign. He stood upon ice unblemished by hills, only faint reminders of mountains to the north and the prickly forest to the south. The light absorbed his attention, humming in place of Lake Ithie. It seemed to be watching him with its illumination.
Hello, it seemed to state with welcome beams. The cold of Winter vanished, replaced with a neutral tone ringing through the world. The light spoke in music. A flash of silver. Image of the Trumpet. Her silhouette awaited him in the light and he moved his legs mechanically to reach her.
There! He saw the girl’s form in the bubble, suspended as if in the amber. He raced, but his movements were sluggish and numb. As he approached the ice gave way to pools which blinked open as eyes, some as small as snowflakes, other large as ponds. It became difficult to find a way through the watching ground because few were the patches of snow which would provide him space without vision.
Then a roaring sound reminded Lew of the westward horizon. Slowly he turned, agonizing the world, which faded to matte blue away from the lighted glow. The roar became a thundering echo, deep, staggered slightly and filling the low rolling hills of the true Sakram framing the far edge of his vision. His eyes latched onto these white dunes, terror pouring in from the unknown. This fear was far out of proportion, somehow amplified by Winter’s empty white and the azure horizon.
With a noise like a tumble of thunderbolts a creature lumbered over the far shore of creation. Despite being so far away Lew could see it clearly, the four broad-padded limbs, the long ringed tail, and those eyes, huge and yellow and insane. Elac raced on, sending up great gouts of ice and snow with each step. Usually lemur-men hop, but this one lunged through the air in a sort of gallop.
The sound his dead companion made was far greater than the creature’s form would imply. Elac was no larger than before. Instead, it seemed louder by intent, the volume heightened by the urgency and rage in the creature’s steps. Like the light there was a power to the lemur-man’s presence.
Lew had no choice but to watch Elac approach. The creature’s movements were as slow as his own but somehow he couldn’t look away. Glory at his shoulder reminded of the bright goal, but against the thunder it was cast behind. The approaching tumult drowned out even the atonal voice of the light.
Closer and closer still the lemur-man’s face showed clearly. His eyes were almost all yellow, pupils driven to points in the bright, unnatural luminescence. These orbs stared out from a face twisted into a grimace. Fur rippling, Elac glared through Lew and curled his mouth, showing a bright red tongue lapping after violence.
Realization hit like a cold wind. The lemur-man’s fury wasn’t directed at Lew at all, but past him, to the light, to the orb and maybe the shadow girl within. His movements had an urgency along with the thunder.
Elac reached the field of eyes and carried on without a care. His feet hit the organs, sending up great gouts of blood as each eye popped. Spatters of red stained the pristine ice and showed strangely in the light. He galloped up to Lew, but stopped short some meters away, pounding into a great blue eye which splashed up crimson.
Tiny motes of these colors caught Lew attention. He was drawn into the smallest of things, his interest reduced to atoms, to grains of color. There was scarlet and diamond, periwinkle, canary and cerulean. Each square part of a mosaic without edge, the canvas infinite. His eye became lost.
A sound broke this second spell. It sounded again. A hoot echoing through the chiming light. With the thunder gone he had become entranced once more. Even in reflection the light was a sorcerer.
Looking up he saw Elac glaring at him with those great eyes. Strange how they weren’t iridescent white tinged with yellow and blue. Those golden eyes stared deeply into Lew’s. The creature bristled violently, muscles taught in the pose which males would strike in order to convey power and authority, tail up, body leaned forward, eager for violence. But there was something to the pose which meant to lend strength.
Lew stood on the ice and morning was under way. The dream, if that was what it was, left without fanfare or even the bleary melding from sleep to day. It simply ceased and bright cold Winter ruled once more. Looking about he could find no trace of Elac and this absence filled him sorrow. Tears threatened the corner of his eyes.
Cursing to himself he set to finding his way. By the look of things he had sleepwalked to the north, towards the Cloaked Mountains. Those grey, glacier-capped peaks stood slightly closer, while the forest to the south seemed more distant. Of the light in the east there was very little sign except a dusty haze and perhaps faint shimmer telling of the frozen waves of Lake Ithie. Daylight hid the strange radiance.
Scanning the western hills he could see no sign of their camp, nor shadows or dead friends. These were the ice plains which gently sloped towards the lake. The ground was mostly hard-packed snow revealing no tracks by which to set his course. Dead was the man who became lost here without friends or supplies.
A far more worrying thought concerned him. Lew was not in the habit of sleepwalking and he suspected sorcery. To what ends, he couldn’t say.
“Which way Lew?” he asked himself, making some noise in the silence. But this was the world and not a dream and the words were torn apart by the incessant Winter wind spilling over the mountains.
Contemplating his lost companions he set course to the east, aiming for Lake Ithie and the village of the amazons. His guess was that the Fencer and the Trumpeter would continue their trek despite his absence. If not then they were probably as dead as he soon would be.
For a while he and the sun stared at each other before they crossed paths and went their separate ways. At noon he meditated on his rumbling stomach.
“You’ve enough fat old man,” he growled to himself. His belly continued to argue otherwise.
Shortly there came a great flapping sound. Looking about he could see nothing at first, then a darting shadow caught the corner of his eye. With a hiss a mass of huge alabaster feathers descended upon Lew, the noise piercing his heart.