by Connor Ahluwalia
As the fishing junk cut through the misty water, gently knocking chunks of ice to one side or the other, Grey Scar cast an eye about for prey. The shallows were usually teeming with snakefish, writhing beneath the ice sheets and ripe for harvest. This season they had been few and far between, and today they had found nothing. Sometimes that meant that a mawshark had cleared through the area. Grey Scar had readied his spear gun in anticipation of hunting such a beast, but they had seen no sign of one at all.
He gestured to one of the other fishermen, Long Ear, to ask if he could see any movement on the other side. The reply was negative, and one of the oarsmen shook his head in frustration as well. The entire party was in a sour mood, their hopes having drained with each passing day out on the water. The harvest had been pathetic–they had netted only a few hundred mud crabs from scraping the bottom of the shallows, and had seen no fish at all. They had even debated taking the junk out into the deeps. Grey Scar had advocated strongly in favour, arguing that they could avoid the leviathans if they did not venture too far out, and that they stood a better chance of catching mawsharks if they left the shallows. The rest of the party had voted in favour of a more cautious route. Four days later they were approaching the shoreline, and were on the verge of returning home with scarcely enough to last until the next full moon.
An excited clap from Long Ear startled them, and they followed his pointing finger to look at the approaching shore. The ice beach loomed in front of them, but Long Ear had spied something else. A strange grey heap, spattered with what looked like frozen blood, was crumpled up near the water. Brown boots were jutting out from one end, and a ghostly hand was reaching out to grasp a handful of snow.
With a sudden flurry of activity they guided the junk onto the beach and leaped off, rushing towards the prostrate form. It took almost a minute of groping and feeling the body until they could detect the faintest hint of a pulse, deep inside a blue and frostbitten neck. As they attempted to lift him a dark object slipped out of the folds of the man’s thick grey robes, and Grey Scar picked it up. Turning it over in his hand, he realized it could only be some kind of weapon. It looked like a hand cannon or launcher, although it lacked any kind of grip or trigger that he could discern. Casting his eyes back to the unconscious man, he observed a broken steel gauntlet, complete with aggressive claws, hanging limply from his other hand, and noted a dagger tucked into his belt. The blood seemed to originate from a hole in his side, but there was enough of it that Grey Scar doubted it was all his.
After a brief round of gesticulation over what exactly to do, they agreed unanimously to take him back with them. Even though he would be another mouth to feed, it was certain that Ice Heart would be interested in him, and that was all the reason they needed.
They had been loath to return with only the crabs and the mysterious stranger, but they had run out of time. They guided the junk into the inlet that led to the village. The ice cliffs that flanked the waterway, standing at least two miles high, seemed to close in on them. It occurred to Grey Scar that it was obviously getting even colder than normal. For a moment he doubted the craft would fit when they arrived at the mouth of the lake, but they slipped in and were soon drawing up to the white shore of the village.
As Long Ear helped unload the meagre bounty they had taken from the ocean floor, Grey Scar and a few others carried the stranger and his belongings into Ice Heart’s hut. The silver-haired mystic appeared intrigued as they pushed past the loose flaps of fur and over his threshold. His expression changed to serious interest as he beheld what they had brought him. He helped them place the body on a table, and pressed his ear to the stranger’s chest. After confirming the presence of a heartbeat, he produced a small light crystal, tapping it to produce a radiant glow. He shone it in the frozen man’s eyes and down his parched throat before putting it away. He examined the man’s ears and noted two deep puncture wounds, indicating probable deafness. He turned to Grey Scar and the others, and his hands moved rapidly as he asked his questions.
Grey Scar described the location until it was clear Ice Heart understood.
Grey Scar produced the tube and handed it over. Ice Heart examined it and nodded.
Weapon, he confirmed, his fingers flexing with fascination. He turned and placed the object gently on a smaller table near his hearth, and grabbed a box from underneath his cot. Opening it, he withdrew a black crystalline cube. Grey Scar and the others nodded in understanding–the shaman’s soul sifter would surely tell them all they needed to know. Ice Heart produced a thin length of twine and threaded it through a small hole in the cube, before tying one end around the stranger’s wrist and the other around his own.
His gestures told the others he would attempt to learn everything he could about the stranger, but he required isolation. Reluctantly, Grey Scar and the others exited the hut and returned to the cold.
The cube began to glow, and Ice Heart was plunged into a twisted blackness. As his vision cleared, he felt himself melting into the ethos of the other man’s mind, and resolved to observe whatever he saw. The narrative of the stranger’s consciousness began to consume him, and he fought to concentrate on whatever details he could glean from the morass of sound and light.
When the necessary focus came, it was in a sickening haze of shadow.
Ice Heart found himself in a cold, dark hole, and there was no sound. The soul sifter afforded him a partial view of the stranger’s memories, with details made more vivid by the emotions the man attached to them. He instinctively understood that he was witnessing the man’s confinement in some sort of cell, and that he had been there for some time.
For weeks, the routine had been the same–a small chute in the corner of each cell would open twice a day. It would deposit a cube of artificial nutritional supplement into the waiting hands of the prisoners. When mixed with water from the spigot on the other side of the room it formed an edible, if unappetizing, paste, which the prisoners wolfed down to stay alive. Then they returned to their paper-thin mattresses and contemplated the darkness.
Each prisoner was vaguely aware of the others. There were small grilles in the walls and in the doors to each cell, and Ice Heart could see movement. He could see the man in in cell 218, the unit next to the one the stranger occupied, attempting several times to communicate with his neighbor, all to no avail. He would press his face against the grille, pushing his spiky blonde hair out of his eyes, and squint into the inky black, mouthing words that Ice Heart, because of the stranger’s deafness, could not hear. The stranger offered no response, and the blonde man returned to his mattress and sulked. His neighbor remained motionless, trying to concentrate on his fading memory. Ice Heart realized that the stranger could not quite remember how he had arrived.
Then, one day the food stopped coming, and everyone knew they were in trouble.
In truth, it had been brewing for a while. Some prisoners, like the blonde man, were too weak to try to mount an escape. Others, like his neighbor in 217, did not try. But most had been making an earnest effort since their arrival, scratching at doors, ramming their fists against the grills, and shaking the pipes above their heads. Slowly they had been assembling a small arsenal of makeshift tools chipped from their surroundings. Tiny knives and lock picks were traded through the cells until someone could break out. Those instruments were the foundation of a strange sense of camaraderie that their shared captivity seemed to nourish and nurture. When the food stopped coming, the team spirit turned into a frenzy. Spurred on by the prospect of starvation, the prisoners worked frantically in defiance of their surroundings.
The breakthrough came when the man in 313 was able to break off a section of pipe from the wall of his cell. After some false starts he figured out how to use it as a fulcrum against the sliding door of his cell, pulling it back far enough to expose the bolt that held it in place. From there the sawing began as he slowly wore it down. Others followed his example, relying on whispered descriptions of how to do it in the darkness.
Eventually, the first bolt broke, followed closely by several others. As Ice Heart watched, the man with the pipe was able to shove the door to his cell aside, and was soon joined by his neighbors. They began meandering throughout the complex along the walkways outside their cells, smashing the locks and freeing their compatriots, until everyone streamed out into the hall. They felt their way through the shadows until somebody happened upon a switch embedded in the wall. A few small lights flickered to life above their heads, and afforded them a view of their prison.
There were four levels of cells, stacked on top of one another in a large circle, with twenty to a level and each floor connected by ladders. The lowest one opened up onto a smooth iron floor that stretched across to the other side. Someone climbed up one of the ladders to peer at the darkness above the lights, and reported that the ceiling was the same as the floor.
They were all the worse for wear, covered head to toe in dirt and dust, with sores scattered across their emaciated bodies. No one had seen light in a while, so they all looked like they had been born in a cave, and their hair clung to their scalps from all the grease and sweat. There appeared to be a relatively equal number of men and women, although some of them were in such poor shape that it was difficult to distinguish gender.
Ice Heart could still hear nothing, but he observed that the man with the pipe had decided to take charge. His lips moved, and Ice Heart understood that he had ordered the group to find the source of the offerings that had ceased to emerge from the chutes. They enthusiastically went about their task, and the man with the pipe served as the overseer.
With their improvised tools they set about breaking into the tubes, searching for a mechanism or a point of origin for the lost food. For hours they scraped metal on metal and tore through everything around them. It was only after they began to collapse from exhaustion that they began to gaze upon their handiwork, and it was bitterly disappointing. Aside from destroying small sections of the pipes that had fed them, they had made barely a dent in their surroundings. They were no closer to sustenance.
A few them had collapsed on the hard floor, unable to lift their arms above their heads. The blonde man was faring slightly better, but weakness was seeping through his flesh. There were angry lesions on his chest and legs, and they had been aggravated by the physical effort. His tongue snaked out of his mouth, and Ice Heart saw that he was parched.
We’re running outta time, he mouthed. The stranger was reading his lips, allowing Ice Hart to understand. The man with the pipe, who was also beginning to fade, was impassive as he leaned against one of the walls and swallowed hard. His sullen gaze served to abdicate any mantle of leadership that might have been thrust his way.
Silence and motionlessness reigned again for what seemed like an eternity, and the blonde man began to drift in and out of consciousness.
The prisoners started, as if at a loud noise. One of them, a man with an angry scar cutting across his chin, was standing in his cell and almost dancing with excitement.
There’s food coming down the chutes! he mouthed madly, holding up a handful for all to see. A new buzz of energy shot through the group. There was a collective rush to the food pipes. When no one else discovered new sustenance, they converged on the cell of the man with the scar, demanding to see proof of his claim. He showed them the pile in his hand, only to have the man with the pipe swat it away in disgust.
Through the stranger’s eyes, Ice Heart observed that the “food” was actually gritty soil. A small clump of earth fell out of the nearby chute, punctuating the revelation with a note of wet defeat. Almost immediately the furious prisoners began piling on the scarred man in a futile expression of rage and desperation. The man crumbled under their assault and threw his arms up in a feeble attempt to protect himself, shrinking from the blows until he disappeared under the throng.
The blonde man sagged against the wall of his cell, observing the assault. The fatigue appeared to be returning, and Ice Heart watched him resign himself to slipping into the void.
A vibration tickled the walls, and the blonde man shifted in annoyance. The sensation returned, stronger, and after a moment he realized that the wall had begun to shake. Around him, the other prisoners had begun to notice. It didn’t take long for the beating to end as the mob paused to contemplate the tremors that were emanating through the complex. More earth tumbled onto the floor from the food chute.
We’re underground, the blonde man mouthed, trying and failing to divine some extra meaning from that fact.
The place’ll come down around us, the man with the pipe observed, We need a way out.
The group flinched, and, through the stranger, Ice Heart understood that a harsh, dry sound had screamed through the silence. The stranger, despite his deafness, knew the sound was being repeated, with increasing ferocity. The prisoners began exchanging curious looks as they slowly figured out what they were listening to.
Something was scratching above their heads.
The man with the pipe, invigorated with fresh optimism, cast about for a suitable object. He settled upon a broken lock that someone had dropped as they had escaped. He hefted it once before angling his body upwards to point to the unseen ceiling.
There’s people up there, he explained, if we can let ‘em know we’re here, maybe they can help us get out. Ice Heart felt a sudden sense of urgency from the stranger in his cell.
The man with the pipe drew his arm back, steadying himself by spreading out his legs, and pushed the piece of metal upwards. It had almost left his palm when a shard of iron whipped through the air and struck his hand, disrupting his throw and sending the lock tumbling into one of the cells. The man let out a yelp and whirled around frantically, his eyes blazing. In answer to his unspoken question, the deaf man stepped out of his cell and into the half-light. He blinked against the mild glare but did not take his eyes off the man with the pipe, daring him to do or say something.
Watching as he was from outside the stranger’s body, Ice Heart could finally look at him in the light. His skin was tanned and leathery, and his hair was dark even without the grime that covered all of them. His chapped lips were drawn tight, and he appeared to be in no hurry to speak.
The man with the pipe, taken aback by the other man’s defiant look, remained motionless even as his face strained with anger.
Why did you do that? he mouthed. The deaf man raised his head to look towards the source of the scratching, then lowered it again to continue staring down the man with the pipe. He said nothing, and his opponent grew exasperated, striding towards him with renewed ire. Speak! the man with the pipe roared. The deaf man licked his lips and then looked away, appearing resigned to an unpleasant fate. The man with the pipe advanced again and his opponent stopped him with an icy look. He extended his arm and pulled back his ragged sleeve, exposing flesh covered in angry welts.
He won’t talk, the blonde man said weakly, he never does. Maybe he can’t. The man from 217 nodded slowly.
By now, even the weakest among them had regained some life and were watching the showdown, fascinated by the man’s silence. They focused on the sores on his arm, which he was still displaying to them as if to send a message.
We’ve all got those, the man with the pipe said with a dismissive wave, what of it? Do you know what caused them? The other man threw another glance upwards. The scratching sound intensified. What’s out there? the man with the pipe asked. The other man simply shook his head. He brought one up hand up to the bridge of his nose and squinted, before clenching his fist and staring back up at the ceiling. This time, his expression was one of confused frustration. His hands opened as he pondered the sound above them, and Ice Heart realized he was trying to remember something critical. He raised a hand to his ear, touching it gingerly, and the pulling back his hair to show it to the group. They recoiled instinctively as they beheld a damaged orifice, red with crusted blood. The man’s eardrums had been pierced.
Who did that to you? the man with the pipe asked. The deaf man paused for a moment before squinting and touching his hand to his chest. Then he nodded.
Why? asked the blonde man, divining his meaning. The deaf man pointed upwards again.
What’s up there? the man with the pipe demanded again. The deaf man sighed in frustration. Then he crossed over to where the scarred man was still lying bleeding and grabbed a handful of the dirt in the food chute. He mixed it with some water until his hands were covered in mud. He cleared himself some well-lit space on the floor and slapped the mud onto the hard surface, spreading it artfully with his fingers. When he withdrew, Ice Heart saw that he had created a striking image of a city, with tall towers and walls, underneath a cloudy sky. Once he was sure they had all seen the image, the deaf man reached out both his hands. With a single fluid motion he spread them across the floor, turning the city into an explosive, muddy smear.
What destroyed it? the man with the pipe asked. The deaf man pointed upwards once more, and the scratching intensified.
The explosion gave us these, eh? the blonde man asked, pointing to one of the lesions on his arm. Poisoning, I guess. Same reason I don’t remember nothing’. The deaf man nodded. Then he turned and walked back towards his cell.
The scratching had reached fever pitch, and the ceiling began to crack. Dust drifted down through fissures in the metal, and the deaf man closed his eyes in preparation. He was imagining a low whine vibrating through the darkness, escalating quickly to a bitter scream. Everyone but the deaf man dropped to their knees in sudden agony, before being smothered as the ceiling caved in. A mound of dirt dropped onto them, followed by dozens of writhing blue specks that extricated themselves from the soil and rose into the air. Tiny wings sprouted from each of them, and they retracted the claws they had used to tunnel in. As the prisoners watched, the creatures unified into a swarm, forming a tight pillar of whirling intensity above them. As they circled tighter and tighter, Ice Heart knew the deaf man was imagining a low, hypnotic hum filling the air. The man gripped the bars of his open door and steadied himself.
The prisoners seemed entranced by the sound of the swarm, and their eyelids grew heavy until they all appeared asleep. The fluttering and humming from the insects dissipated as they rose back up from whence they had come, leaving behind a cold stillness.
Then the eyes of the man with the pipe snapped open.
He glowered wordlessly at the deaf man and snarled, brandishing the pipe and charging forward. As he approached the threshold of the cell, the deaf man swung the door out on him, catching him off guard and knocking him to the ground. Snatching up the pipe, the deaf man landed a hard blow before turning to face the onslaught of prisoners. Wielding their own makeshift weapons, they were suddenly dedicated to his destruction. Instincts he could barely remember surged back into his muscle memory, and he pushed himself into the throng, defending himself with controlled ferocity. Ice Heart was pulled along with him, drifting through the memory as the man’s emotions–fear, anger, and despair–clouded it further with each passing second.
Not relishing the thought of destroying the people he had been imprisoned with, the deaf man fought his way towards the edge of the bottom level. He jumped, grabbing the lip of one of the upper walkways, and pulled himself up. As the horde pursued him he leaped again, and again, eventually clambering close enough to see out the hole in the ceiling. A jagged length of iron, twisted from the abuse of the swarm, hung down from the edge of the opening a few meters in front of him. He tucked his pipe into his rags before leaping with his hand outstretched. His fingers wrapped around the piece of iron and he screamed in pain as it bit into his skin, but he held on, slowly pulling himself upwards until he emerged into the open air.
The prison had been deep underground. Hundreds of meters of meticulously-tunneled sinkhole rose up around him. Gritting his teeth, he set about climbing the walls, and began his ascent, knowing he would soon look upon the ruined wasteland of the city he had failed to save.
Ice Heart’s eyes opened slowly, and he removed the twine from his wrist after regaining his composure. He wiped the sweat from his face and packed up the soul sifter. Reaching out out to steady himself as he got up, he made his way over to the now-cold cup of tea he had poured hours ago, and drank deeply to quench his sudden thirst.
His intrusion into the stranger’s memories had affected him as much as he had expected. He had not taken out the soul sifter lightly, but it had been necessary to assure him that the man was not a threat. He was now left with more questions, and resolved to determine the truth about the swarm and how the stranger had known about their hypnotic song despite his deafness. He had seemed to be remembering, almost by instinct, a previous attack, but the poison in the air had damaged his older memories. Ice Heart would have to extract more information from him in a different way.
He set about making a poultice from his medicines to help the man heal. As he prepared it, he realized upon reflection that their guest had come a long way. Ice Heart knew of no settlements anywhere near their quiet inlet. He wondered if perhaps the creatures that had destroyed the stranger’s home haunted him still. He resolved to send out scouts to search for signs of trouble.
He spent the next few hours tending to the man’s injuries until he felt confident that he was in stable condition. As he listened to the stranger’s steady breathing he examined the tubular weapon with renewed interest. It appeared to be partly full of some kind of powder, but there was no projectile inside. Ice Heart remained puzzled by it, and set it back down.
Feeling fatigued, and confident his guest would remain insensate, he eventually closed his eyes, welcoming the warm blanket of sleep.
Over the following week the stranger’s condition improved. His wounds began to close due to Ice Heart’s ministrations. The frostbite on his extremities receded quickly, and Ice Heart became confident that he would soon be fully conscious and recovered.
The scouts that Ice Heart had sent out returned, reporting nothing except empty, frozen tundra in every direction. Just as the water was almost empty of creatures, the plains were quiet, devoid of the usual sign of life. This was more bad news as the villagers sought reassurance that they would be able to eat in the coming season. Ice Heart, however, was grateful to know that the swarm had not followed their guest.
The stranger finally awoke on the eighth day, at mid-morning, while Ice Heart was outside. He stumbled into the open air in his robe and bare feet. Curious villagers flocked to him instantly, gesticulating as they examined him. Ice Heart had to gently shove them aside as he led the man back into the hut. He closed the flap behind them and guided his guest to a seat. Sitting opposite him, he stoked the fire until it felt warm enough and met his gaze.
They realized as the same time that neither was quite sure how to communicate with the other. The stranger’s people spoke from their mouths, but he himself was deaf and could not hear his own words. Ice Heart would not have understood them anyway, but he also knew that the stranger had no way of understanding him when he spoke with his hands. He sighed and tried to open with a welcoming gesture, extending his palms outward and bowing his head slightly.
The stranger’s eyes narrowed but he seemed to comprehend. He gestured to his own ears and then to his mouth, and when Ice Heart frowned he repeated the sequence. Eventually Ice Heart concluded that he had yet to understand the full extent of their predicament–he was assuring his host that he could read lips, not realizing that Ice Heart’s language was one of motions rather that sounds.
Ice Heart retrieved a sheaf of stretched hide and a lump of charcoal, placing them in front of him. The man understood immediately, and quickly sketched an image. Ice Heart recognized it as a crude drawing of the tube weapon, and he produced it, handing it over with some trepidation. To his relief, the stranger simply tucked it into his belt. He then sketched what Ice Heart could only assume was some sort of food. He retrieved some of the crab meat from the most recent fishing expedition and watched as the man devoured it.
When he finished, they began exchanging the hide. They drew whatever they could to facilitate a rudimentary dialogue. Ice Heart sketched him the village and sought to explain where they were, hoping to get a sense of where their guest had come from. His answer indicated that he had crossed water–one of his images depicted what could only be a leviathan attacking a raft. He filled the hide with small drawings of places and creatures that Ice Heart had never seen, and the healer wondered just how long his guest had been on the move.
Eventually the stranger’s hands stopped moving and trembled slightly, and he bit his lip in silence. Ice Heart looked at the full canvas and noticed that he had yet to sketch out the city he had depicted in the mud back in the prison. He reached out to take the charcoal and found an empty space on the page. He drew a rough approximation of the image from the memory, capturing the essence of the high towers and the walls. The stranger appeared taken aback, and Ice Heart produced the black box as an explanation. He held up one of the wires and tapped it against his temple, and gestured to his own eyes and the stranger’s head in quick succession. The other man seemed to understand, but offered nothing. Undeterred, Ice Heart deftly outlined one of the insectoid creatures from the swarm and pointed to it.
The stranger recoiled slightly, and gritted his teeth. He looked like he would lose control for a brief moment, but he seemed to catch himself and took a breath. He held one hand up and circled the air with it, moving faster and faster before placing his hands against his ears. Ice Heart nodded to tell him he understood. The stranger took the charcoal back and drew new shapes over Ice Heart’s depiction of the city. Black flames now licked at the towers, and the whole metropolis seemed to be sinking into a crater.
Then he drew lines reaching down into the space below the city, depicting a warren of tunnels and underground bunkers. A few extended far deeper than the others, and appeared connected by a few wispy lines.
The food pipes, Ice Heart realized.
The stranger pulled back his sleeve, and Ice Heart could see the scars from the old lesions, long healed but still casting shadows on his skin. The man gestured towards the destroyed city, and then to the marks. A look of silent understanding passed between them, and Ice Heart leaned back as he absorbed the full horror of the memory. Then his guest put the charcoal down and lay down on the bed of furs Ice Heart had provided him, closing his eyes in pursuit of sleep.
Days past, with the stranger–Ice Heart had taken to calling him Silent Ears, on account of his deafness–appearing to grow more comfortable with his surroundings. He was more than happy to help unload the fishing junks as they returned from their expeditions, and even helped scout for game to hunt on the plains. At night he would sit quietly at one of the open fires while the villagers told their stories and the children amused themselves. He would observe passively and try to appear relaxed. Despite this, Ice Heart could see that he remained ill at ease. One night, after the fires were out and most of the villagers had gone to sleep, he sought answers.
Retrieving the hide with the drawings on it, he tapped the image of the burning city and gently touched Silent Ears’ forehead, cocking his head to one side as a show of curiosity. Silent Ears shook his head and instead pointed to the image of the creatures from the swarm. Unnerved, Ice Heart pointed out into the distance, only for the other man to shrug before heading back to the hut they had given him.
Grey Scar was removing the shell of one of the last of the mud crabs when Long Ear drew his attention to movement on the horizon. The hill that overlooked the village seemed to be flickering most unnaturally in the moonlight, as if a school of fish were floating in the air above them. Mystified, the men agreed to investigate, with Grey Scar grabbing his spear gun in case they found something worth eating.
They crossed the breadth of the village and began ascending the hill, slowly clambering up the white slope until they had reached the top. The flickering mass seemed to have disappeared. They cast around wildly for any trace of it, hoping to catch a glimpse of their quarry in the midnight darkness. A low whooshing sound startled them and they looked up to see a gleaming, teeming mass of tiny shapes. The things began arranging themselves into a spinning column over their heads. A hum vibrated through the air, and warbled out across the village.
The sound roused Ice Heart, who leaped up with a sense of urgent dread and raced out of his hut. Though he had not actually heard the sound in Silent Ears’ memory, he somehow knew it now that it had arrived in the village. He burst into Silent Ears’ hut and shook him awake, pulling him outside and gesturing frantically. They soon sighted the shining shapes on the hill and ran towards them. The hum intensified, waking more villagers and sending them spilling out into the center of the village.
As they ran, Ice Heart wondered what Silent Ears would do if the swarm was able to drive them mad as it had done in the city. Would he fight them? Would it preferable to be struck down by their guest than live as one of the bloodthirsty creatures the swarm created?
They finished their ascent before he could decide, and the hum reached fever pitch. Grey Scar and Long Ear were staring up at the swarm, listening, but did not appear to have lost their senses. Silent Ears paused, assessing the situation, and Ice Heart realized he was confused. He soon understood why: the column of spinning insects began to disperse, and the hum quickly died, with no apparent effect on the villagers. The swarm regrouped into a cluster, and hovered above them as if it had no idea what to do next.
A wan smile broke across Ice Heart’s face. The creatures had no influence over them. Sound was not part of their language–the swarm had no voice here.
Almost as soon as he realized this, the creatures seemed to realize it too. The swarm shifted, restructuring itself into a new, more complex arrangement. It began mimicking shapes and patterns with the insects’ movements, forming a massive optical arrangement that flashed a curious sequence. Fascinated, he stepped closer, hoping to discern all the details of the strange dance the creatures were doing.
A sudden tug in his stomach told him something was wrong, but he continued to watch. His fist clenched unconsciously and confusion welled up inside of him, but he could not move. Even as he realized what was happening he knew it was too late–the swarm had figured out a new way to trap them.
Their message rang clear through their motions, and he struggled to argue. Silent Ears, before all else, was the threat they faced. They had come upon him at a time when they struggled to find food, and allowed him to share in it, only for him to reward them with mysteries and ingratitude. They would tear him limb from limb, even if it meant the death of them, and then they would set upon each other for sustenance, since the world had gone fallow for them.
He felt their will subsuming his own, and he slowly lost any grip he had left. An animalistic rage overtook him, and he felt absurdly powerful, as though he stood a mile tall and could crush the village with his heel.
Through the haze of his perception he saw Silent Ears advance, drawing the tube weapon from his belt and pointing it into the air. As he did so, he put a hand across his eyes and pulled the trigger.
The world exploded in white, and as he went blind Ice Heart felt his ears pop from an almighty blast. He fell into a world of numbness, unable to see or hear, and he writhed in the snow to give himself proof that he was not dead. Slowly he began to breathe normally again, and he felt himself relaxing. The swarm’s influence was gone.
It was several minutes before the ringing in his ears disappeared, and several more before the dark spots in his vision had faded. When he fully came to, he saw Silent Ears standing over him, a flaming torch in one hand and the tube–still smoking from the explosion–in the other. He rose from the ground and saw that the swarm had gone. The flash had reflected off the ice around them and blinded not just Grey Scar and Long Ear, but many of the villagers as well. The sonic blast had distracted the rest, leaving them unable to watch the entrancing dance of the creatures.
As his people began to pick themselves up, he turned to his guest, nodding appreciatively. Silent Ears merely appeared dour, as if he was disappointed by the knowledge that the swarm had followed him. He picked up a handful of snow from the ground and held it out to Ice Heart, before casting it into the wind, where it drifted away. Divining the man’s meaning, Ice Heart handed him a light crystal, so that he could find his way in the wintery dark. He then reached out and gently touched the other man’s face before drawing back to touch his own. He doubted Silent Ears would understand the full meaning of the gesture, but hoped he could glean enough.
Their guest drew his hood around him and turned away, slowly trudging into the night, hoping to find a place where the swarm that pursued him could do no harm.
Ice Heart spent the rest of the night seeing to the villagers and making sure they were all right. Once he was convinced that no one had suffered permanent damage he returned to his hut, making a mental note to discuss plans with the village warriors in case the swarm returned. Before he went to sleep he noticed the charcoaled hide lying in a corner underneath his soul sifter, and took the time to roll it up and place it somewhere out of the way. Silent Ears’ message would stay safe, and his story–told not in anyone’s language, but told nonetheless–would stay with them.
Outside, the quiet man continued his progress across the tundra, gritting his teeth against the wind and checking his empty weapon. He would keep moving, as long as the swarm forced his hand. He would find a tongue that its evil could not corrupt, and cripple it like it had crippled his world.
Until then, he was alone in the night.