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.