The cold sea pushed us ever nearer to the Icy Lands.
Late afternoon on the 10th day of our sea voyage, we pulled into the city of Tyrvkj, on the southwestern coast of the Icy Lands.
High, densely cragged cliffs rose far above the sea, and it was inside these cliffs where the city lay. The immense wall of rock was littered with round, room size windows looking out onto the waves, many of which glowed with candlelight and charms as dusk descended quickly. Caverns lined the base of the cliff side, openings for incoming ships, and into one of the secaverns we sailed, the crew scurrying about in preparation for docking.
We made port inside one of the caves, huge and exploding with lights and activity. The Captain stood at the ramp leading off the ship in order to bid his few passengers goodbye. We exchanged a warm handshake and a mischievous smile. Stepping foot onto the cavern floor, I thought Deacon would kiss the ground, but he simply smiled wide, relieved, his tongue hanging out slightly. The steward hurried down to guide us through the labyrinth of passageways up to the area of the city where we could obtain lodging, and also find a good tavern to inquire about transportation across the tundra.
A tunnel led to a lift, which carried us up to a visitor’s area a few floors above. The entire city was inside the cliffs. From the visitor’s area, well marked tunnels branched out to different cavern districts. It took less than a half hour to arrive at a hotel and procure two rooms with large, oval windows looking out onto the last remains of the sun setting onto the sea. I bathed and stood for a long time in front of the window.
Deacon and I reconvened, and found our way to one of the taverns recommended by the steward. We had a light dinner, enough to appease our hunger and absorb some of the alcohol we were about to buy and be bought, but not enough to slow us down. Then I got down to the business of hiring guide and transport.
According to the Map, Old Henry’s place lay more or less between here and a city to the northeast called Stzrgv, provided you were willing to go about 200 miles out of your way in snow and ice. We put word out, and even talked to a few tentatively interested coachmen and traders, but it came to nothing until a tall, stern woman approached us. She had jet black hair meticulously and tightly pulled back, pasty pale skin, and intense black eyes. She stood and sat primly upright, never relaxing.
“Miss…” her voice was deep.
“Just Amber is fine.”
She looked down at me over the bridge of her nose. “Ah. Yes. I see.”
“And you are…”
“Nn. Gorster, Nanny and Tutor.”
“Nanny and tutor to…”
“Miss Lorelai Ansle, daughter of M & R Ansle of the Southern Ansle Industrialists.”
“Right.” Her expression was stoic and impossible to read. “How can I help you Nn. Gorster?”
“I believe I can help you.” She sat down on the stool next to me, posture stiff and upright. I couldn’t help but be aware of what a hunched over slob I was, despite having taken a good bit of time choosing appropriate clothing for wheeling and dealing at night in a tavern with foreign strangers. It’s is trickier than it looks. She continued.
“I understand you seek travel accommodations. A coach bound for Stzrgv with a long detour into the Nrstc Tundra.
That’s right. You drive?”
A count passed. “Hardly.”
“My wardess and I have our own, privately procured coach which is headed in this very direction, and which is not closed to the potential addition of an extra, paying passenger.”
“Where is you wardess?”
She let out a light snort. “Miss Ansle, at the tender age of 9, is hardly fit to frequent such an establishment as this.”
“Ah, right. Sorry.”
“And you tutor her in….”
“Amongst other things, restraint.”
“No, Miss…. Amber I’m afraid you don’t, but this is another matter that can be discussed at a later date. The subject at hand is paid transportation to your destination.”
I sighed. “Right. Me and my companion here,” I nodded towards Deacon, “will pay 100 for a one-way ride. What does your coachman use to drive?”
“A team of wereines.
I looked at her in puzzlement.
“A species of small, white furred lycanthropic beasts native to this region. In sunlight they are docile and lazy, but by moonlight they are fierce, wild, and indefatigable. You may or may not have been lodged here long enough to notice that at this time of year there are three days of night for every day of sunlight. Thus we shall make excellent time. The harnesses binding the creatures are perfectly safe and secure, and we have a rich store of bloodspells with which to feed them. I trust this will be satisfactory.”
I made eye contact with Deacon. He seemed a bit hesitant. He’s probably related somewhere in the evolutionary chain to the wereines, but he gave a tentative nod.
“Additionally,” she added, “the coach is large, and adorned in soft, well cushioned, red-velvet lined seating. It fits 8 comfortably, although there will be only 4 of us. Sizable windows will allow you to view your surroundings as we proceed. Given the generous luxury, I will have to ask for 125, truly a bargain I’m sure you will be unable to find elsewhere in this….. establishment.”
She was right, 125 was an insane steal, but we all know how the game is played. “105,” I said.
“I’m afraid that 122 is the most I could possibly…”
“Right. Okay, let’s just cut past the next bit and agree on 115.”
She stood and adjusted herself. “Very good, then.”
I put out my hand. She looked at it warily. “It’s a deal,” I said, keeping my hand out. She didn’t so much shake it, as jut out her hand, grasp mine in a quick, cold and clammy grip, then pull it back behind her.
“Dusk, four days hence. Above ground, Gate 3.” She whirled around soldierly, and glided off.
Deacon and I shrugged at one another and ordered more food and several more drinks.
Four days later, after acquiring proper clothing and equipment for Artic living, as well as performance maintenance and sharpening of my Claws and other weapons I had concealed about my body, we found our way above the city to the barren icy lands stretching out into white nothingness.
The map was concealed on my thigh, tied by a thick, silk ribbon. The crystal containing the Lost Moment of Old Henry’s childhood was on a sturdy necklace around Deacon’s furry neck.
A lift took us up into a big cave on the surface where a number of vehicles were stored. A shimmering, transparent field covered the entrance, trapping in the warmth. I showed our papers to the guards lounging about, and he waved his hand in the shape of a sigil, opening up a small walkway to the outside.
After four days in warmth and comfort, the air hit my face harshly, and I recoiled slightly. The coach was standing before us, with Nn. Gorster directing the coachman, a large man-bear with white fur and black clothing, upon proper placement of the baggage.
“Very good,” she said upon our approach. “Your promptness is most appreciated.” The coachman shuffled up and took our bags, and Deacon and I climbed aboard.
The inside was very luxurious as promised, dark velvets, black silk, and well cushioned indeed. Sitting opposite us was a very attractive little girl with long black hair, large eyes, and somewhat of a serious expression gazing curiously at us.
“Hello,” I said. “You must be Lorelai. My name is Amber and this is my friend Deacon.”
There was a moment’s silence. “Hello,” she finally said back. “I am very pleased to meet you. Are you coming to school with me?”
The inside of the coach was warm, so I removed my outer coat and settled into the seat. “No, we’re getting out a bit before. What kind of school are you going to?”
“It’s a special school. Far, far away. For special little girls. Where no one will get hurt.” She looked out the window.
I tried to think of how to continue. “So… what do they teach at this school?”
“Oh, you know. The usual. Books and chants and numbers. They also teach control and restraint.” She looked me in the eye and her voice got very quiet. “I have restraint issues,” she whispered.
I leaned over slightly and whispered back. “What do you mean? I don’t understand.”
She glanced out the window then turned back. “They don’t like my friends very much.”
“What friends? Why don’t’ they like them?”
“They used to think they were imaginary but they’re not. They’re my three nightmares and they keep my company and look out for me.”
The door to the coach opened abruptly and we both jumped. Nn. Gorster climbed in and sat down next to the little girl.
“All set then. I hope she’s not bothering you with unnecessary phant’sies.” She shot the girl a quick, stern look. “She has quite an overactive imagination. And somewhat of a morbid one. Nothing a good school and some excellent therapists can’t sort out.” She put a hand on the little girl’s back. Lorelai straightened up. “You’ll have a wonderful time at your new school. And look about. The whiteness of angels all around. Clears out the soul, it does. Wouldn’t you say so Mi…. Amber?”
“Yes. Beautiful. Deceptively simple.” The coach lurched and pulled out. “The endlessness of whiteness and space can be so freeing as to be constrictive. An awing beauty, definitely.”
Nn. Gorster eyed me. “A strange way to put it. Potentially intriguing. The openness is constrictive you say?”
I nodded. “It can be. Within walls we have a space for ourselves we can define. We have safety and we can decorate our surroundings to our liking. Here is such an expanse of whiteness, the endlessness of it can almost make one claustrophobic. The freedom is harsh and illusive. Freedom to fly endlessly into nothing. Endlessly into more endless white. It’s almost stifling. Or can be. It’s just a thought.”
She nodded. “Mm. Rather intriguing.”
Lorelai met my eye and smiled slightly. “It’s dark out now,” she said. “I like it better in the dark, too.”
“Now child,” said Nn. Gorster, “that’s enough of that.”
The little girl turned back to the window and lightly hummed to herself while drawing patterns on the window’s condensation.
The next two days passed without incident. We stopped to stretch our legs every few hours while the coachman threw huge chunks of steaming, bloody meat from out of a big trunk in the back to the team of snarling lycanthropes pulling us.
As we stood outside, Nn. Gorster would cast an oval sanctuary spell, which we would one by one step inside in order to relieve ourselves. Once, when Nn. Gorster was within it herself, Lorelai tugged my on my sleeve.
“My friends like you,” she said. “They wanted me to tell you. You don’t have to worry. I won’t hurt you.”
“Thank you,” I said back. “That’s very kind.”
Another time, Nn. Gorster chided the little girl on a social faux pas. As the Nanny climbed out of the coach to urinate she remarked that school would enlighten the young student on such matters.
Alone in the coach, Lorelai turned to me and said firmly “I’m not going to school. I like it here,” and she looked back out the window into the Artic night.
It became difficult to keep track of time, as the sun never rose. We just rode on and on through the cold, icy darkness. I drifted in and out of sleep every few hours.
It was probably somewhere late into the third day. I fell asleep, Lorelai watching me as my eyes closed. Nn. Gorster reached over and patted the girl’s hand.
“Soon,” she said.
I dreamt I lay upon the snow in the dark, and three large, monstrous, black shapes stood over me.
“Looks tasty” said the first.
“They all look tasty,” said the second.
“Don’t worry Miss,” said the third leaning towards me, “You’re protected. That charm’s a good one. And besides, I wouldn’t hurt you anyway. I like you.”
“The Nanny brought her here for us, “said the first. “And I’m hungry.”
“The Nanny wants to do away with us,” said the third.
“The Nanny’s very, very badly protected,” said the second. “Never been this very badly protected before.”
“Reckon she’s hoping this one’ll keep us satiated,” said the third.
“It’d be nice to stretch out,” said the first. “Let loose for once.”
“I think we’ve got the go ahead from the little Mistress,” said the second.
“Hang on, Miss,” said the third.
I awoke. The world was tumbling all around me. The coach was spinning end over end. I went under again.
Awake. Outside. Dawn.
Teeth. Fierce growls. Roars.
A wereine biting at me. Deacon coming at its neck from the side. The wereine is fiercer. Much fiercer, but Deacon’s smarter. Behind them I see a giant monstrous shadow with three wereines biting into it, hangin off of it. The shadow is throwing them, clawing them, ripping them apart brutally.
From somewhere behind me blood comes splattering.
Roars. Shrieks. Clawed things leap past. Blood flies onto the white ground.
Lorelai stands still, calmly amidst it all, smiling.
I go under.
I awake sharply. This time I am fully alert.
It is daylight.
Deacon stands on top of me, defensively, the crystal dangling from his neck.
Around us the snow is stained in patches of blood, a circumference of crimson extending out for several yards. Guts and bones litter the ground.
The coach is capsized and ripped apart. The remains of the wereines lay strewn about. The coachman is nowhere to be seen.
Nn. Gorster too is gone, although tattered pieces of her clothing lay in a particularly messy pile of red snow with clumps of bloody meat and bone.
On the horizon is a ridge. Atop the ridge is a small figure, and behind her stand three much larger dark, monstrous shapes.
They turn and shuffle off, a little girl and her three nightmares, to live wild in the endless winter’s night of the Icy Lands.