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 outré 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.