Ari awoke to the harsh sound of a horn blast and stiffly stretched. While the inside of the prison was warmer than the outside, the cold that had seeped into her bones shortly after her arrival never truly left, not in the six months since she had literally been thrown onto the ice shelf by a passing Theos ship with nothing but the furs that still clung to her body, not even a memory to tell her who she was or why she was there.
It had not taken long to get the gist of what was expected of her here. She was only one of three women in the prison and the group was responsible for catching and preparing the food for the prison. This arrangement had the advantage of offering them protection in an environment that was decidedly skewed against them. The men spent all day out on the shards of ice they called boats with their nets with their spears. Six days a week they scouted for petrols to hunt, both anticipating and dreading the event. Catching and killing petrols were both what kept them alive and more often than not killed them.
Around her the two other women were doing the same, stretching and getting their wits about them before they began their chores. Marta who was the oldest of them by two dozen years or more was the first to blow on her lantern beside her cot and lumber off to begin the cooking once the glow had increased to a useful level. She was the first to leave their small room, the only privacy they were allowed in the prison. They had been afforded the entire level of the prison, the men bunked on the floors below. The facility had been made to house a much larger number than it did, and space was not a premium.
Altogether there were a full thirty men in the prison and preparing enough food for their waking and resting meals took quite a bit of work from all three women. Between catching, preparing, and cooking their days were fully occupied with the motivation that this service was the only thing that kept them alive and unmolested. The last man that had tried had been thrown screaming into the sea, the blood from his newly being made a eunuch attracting every icefang in the area. Or so the other women said. The men here understood that without the three of them, the few pleasantries that had in life would disappear.
She stood up, lifting her own lantern to her face and blowing against the faintly glowing globules held inside of it. Immediately the glow increased and she continued blowing until it was bright enough that she could see her way around, carrying the lantern in one hand and a short skinning blade in the other.
She stepped out into the hallway and made her way to the stairs. The walls gave off a faint glow, they always did so that one could see their way around without a lantern. She passed several empty sleeping cells. If she had wanted, she could have had one all to herself. However, the women had decided that company, even occasional unwelcome company, was better than isolation. Even with the strict protection they received from the others, there was always safety in numbers.
Each floor of the facility, at least the ones below the main level, were identical to one another. She had no idea how such precision had been carved into the ice, but she assumed it had something to do with the ethos and their ability to “pray.” That had been part of her lessons during the voyage to the prison. She had had the disgrace of being taught what others knew just from being connected to Dyon. She was taught of Dyon’s representative, the Avatar and of the twelve zodiacs of prayer. There was much she still didn’t know and much she hated to ask for appearing as an invalid without the most basic of knowledge.
The kitchen, or what was referred to as such, was a long narrow room, empty save for a metal trough that ran the length of the room with a closely spaced grill on top. When she arrived Marta was already at one end of the trough, working the small bellows that were attached to each end. As she pumped the whooshing sound of air whisked through the trough and the petrol blubber inside brightened to a fierce glow. On the grill sat the filleted strips of icefang they had prepared the day before. The strips were slowly cooked throughout the night and they took turns waking to pump the bellows. The result was a tough but edible meat, the main staple of their diet. It could be eaten immediately but lasted for days. Interspersed with the fish were square cuts from the furry hide of the petrol. On these hides they ground the seaweeds that churned around the glaciers into a powder. This powder over the course of days rose until it rose into a flat unleavened bread to compliment the strips of fish. Catching, gathering, preparing, and cooking were the sacraments of her existence in an unending procession that she feared would continue until the day she was too old or sick to do her job. Then she would be left to die if not thrown over the side in cool mercy. Those who did not work did not eat.
She reached for the handle of the bellows opposite Marta as the woman gave her a curt nod and began pumping the long bone handle. The greenish glow lit the area around her in response and she felt the welcoming heat radiating up into the metal of the grill. This was one of the few blessings of her station. The blubber so was valuable that it was not concentrated in this amount anywhere but the cooking grill. Pumping the bellows and feeling that glow on her face was the only true warmth she could remember, not that her memory counted for much.
“There was a man in my dreams last night.” Marta said matter of factly. It wasn’t the statement that startled Ari so much as the woman speaking at all. While Sara and she often had conversations while they worked, for her first week there she had thought Marta to be a mute. The woman had obviously experienced some trauma before being sent to the prison. Her face was always a mask of coldness that did not betray emotion anymore then her voice. But now in that statement Ari could hear the beginnings of fear cracking into the facade.
“A man?” she asked, not sure how to take the statement.
“A man.” she answered matter-of-factly, a barely audible tremor in her voice.
“He… attacked me.” she sputtered. He… Her bravado cracking open with tears forming in her eyes. She really saw the woman for the first time through her drowsiness. Marta was usually a force unto her own, prim and strict as she was silent. Today she appeared, disheveled. Her eyes were sunken and her hair was frizzled. Whatever dreams she had had had affected her greatly.
“Did you recognize him?” Sara asked. “Could have have been this dreamtaker?”
“I’m still alive aren’t I?” Marta answered curtly.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Ari asked. Marta looked at her like she had asked her to go swimming, then her eyes lowered and she returned to her work at the bellows. Ari sighed and returned to the task as well.
She pumped and enjoyed the heat, the whooshing of the forced air only broken up by the occasional drops as moisture from the fish newer to the grill met the red hot fatty embers with a hiss. The fish was best served hot and a hot fast breaking meant that they would be met with fewer leers and sharp comments from the men.
When the meat had reached an acceptable heat she and the other two women, Sara had joined them arms weighed down with plates, portioned the meat and bread out to be placed in the adjoining dining area. The room was a twin to the kitchen, save for the trough being replaced with a just as long waist-high table made of the same metal. These were among the only things she knew of in the prison that must have been brought when it was originally created. Everything else they needed from plates to cups to clothing were made by shaping the dried out hides of petrols. She supposed that when the prison was made, some said hundreds of years in the past, there must have been other things. But, over the years the prisoners had learned to be resourceful and the Theos had hardly deemed it necessary to send supplies out to the prisoners as long as the tithes of blubber continued.
After the plates were arranged along the table the women returned and placed shaped hide cups on the grill, letting the hide warm up before pouring water into each from a shaped hide pitcher. They then took some of the left over seaweed powder and poured it into the water, mixing the concoction with carved bone spoons. The resulting mix became a weak bitter tea which provided them with the only opportunity to mix up the monotony of drinking straight cold sea water.
The second blast of the horn echoed through the ice chambers and shortly after men began to file in mumbling, sometimes intelligibly and other times with words she wished she didn’t understand. The procession continued, men wincing as their callused fingers adjusted to the sharp change in temperature. Men downing tea once it would no longer scald and tearing at strips of meat with their teeth before shoving whatever was left in a pocket and heading out into the cold.
A short slender man, she hadn’t bothered to learn his name, dropped his cup while adjusting to the heat, giving a yelp as the liquid poured over his hands. He suckled burn fingers in his mouth and gave Ari an accusing look as if she had had something to do with his clumsiness. She met him stare for stare, the bone knife appearing in one hand from the pocket that had held it. She had never used the thing outside of skinning fish and the other men wouldn’t allow the source of their meals to come to harm, but it didn’t help to appear that she was ready to stick the thing into the slender man’s gut.
The man gave a shrug and moved on once again sucking at the burns on his fingers. He would not have an easy time today, especially if his boat came across a petrol to hunt. When the last man had shoved the remains of his fast breaking into greasy pockets and left for his days work, the women collected the plates and carried them out onto the ice shelves. They waited as the men set out on their ice boats, paddling out into the currents to hunt for petrols and Dyon knew what else. The misshapen vessels, themselves the leavings of glaciers that were big enough to hold a few men but small enough to manage, slowly lurched away to the rhythmic strokes of the paddles.
Once they were gone the women set to carefully dipping the plates over the side of one section of the ice sheet. The frigid water did a poor job of cleaning, but the scraps and juices primed the water for the next task. Above them the clouds were gone and the starfield shone such that their lanterns were hardly needed. In the East horizon Fenrir was rising, blocking out a swatch of stars as it followed its eternal path. Fenrir the faithful hound that circled the heavens searching for its master Dyon who had shattered the light and abandoned the world for man’s sin. Fenrir who would somehow be the harbinger of Dyson’s return when that sin had been atoned for.
Once the plates had been returned to the kitchen the women drug hide spun nets from a storage room within the prison. The nets were similar to the ones the men dredged with, but the rope attached to them were much shorter and the weblike netting itself much broader. When they reached the edge of the shelf there was motion in the water. The stirring of the plates and the leavings they released into the water had drawn the attention of a school of icefangs. She pulled her bone knife out and drove the point into the tip of one finger, cringing at the pain that was only only partially numbed by the chill. She squeezed the finger to encourage a couple of small crimson drops to fall into the water. Almost instantly the movement in the water exploded into a frothing chaos. An icefang could sense blood it seemed from miles away.
The women each took a handful of net. Marta had already tied one end of the robe to a bone spike driven deeply into the glacier. At the count of three given at Martas direction the women heaved the net into the water. Practice working as a team had perfected the motion and the net arced out, opening just before it plunged into the sea. After another few moments the women took their positions at the rope and began to haul the net in. As it returned the net was much heavier burdened now by thrashing fish and the friction of the water, but they labored heave after heave until they managed to pull it up onto the shelf.
The dripping net writhed with small forms. An icefang was not a big fish, only about the size of a man’s hand. It was in the swarms they were dangerous and it appeared they now had a decent size swarm in the net. The women, each being careful to give wide berth to the net pulled it across the shelf to a large depression that had been carved into the ice. There they each grabbed an assigned part of the net while Marta scolded the other two by waving her wrinkled hand that now only had 4 fingers in warning. An icefang had removed the fifth many years previous. The net pulled free and the fish were left flapping inside the walls of the basin, as effectively trapped as if they had still been in the net. They would futilely fight to make it out of that basin until their energy was spent and then they would be cold and dead.
The women covered the basin with a large section of hide, the petrol it came from must have been enormous, and drove more bone spikes through holes to hold it in place. Before the covering had been placed she counted forty new forms struggling among the stiff frozen ones that had been there for days. Altogether there were almost 100 icefang in the basin. The women would be busy for days thawing them, filleting them, and storing the strips in the snow where they could be kept for months. The stormy season was drawing near and they needed to be prepared if a blizzard kept them leaving the prison for several days. Ari had only been through one of those storms so far, and the cramped tense days filled with boredom and the howling of a driving wind were not an experience she was eager to repeat. It was an experience she knew she would repeat though, along with endless chores, glares, aches, pains, and cold light sleeps until the day she died.
Back inside the women worked cleaning fish and placing them on the grill to start the slow cooking process. They worked methodically filleting the icefangs, removing the innards and slicing the remaining meat into strips. The innards were collected in hide basins and used by the men to chum the waters in their search for petrol.
As they worked Ari and Sara chatted. Marta, as usual, worked in stoic silence though her eyes remained downcast.
“Did you hear that they found Herin dead in his cot this morning?” Sara asked. Ari was stunned for a minute. This would make six men who had died suddenly in their sleep in the past year. Almost an entire petrol hunting team gone and so far no replacements to boost their numbers.
“Was he sick?” she asked.
“Sometimes I forget that you’re still new here. If he had been sick he would have been left on one of the other glaciers with a hide tent and enough blubber and food to stay alive for a few days.”
“They kill each other just for being sick?” she asked, not really surprised but saddened a bit at the thought. There was very little room for weakness here.
“Well not outright.” she mused. “They’ll come back in a few days and see if the sick man is better. If he is he is brought back, but that doesn’t happen very often. Its better then the whole lot of us getting sick and dying of some illness. Still, its best not to sneeze or cough in hearing distance of any of the men.”
“I learn something new everyday I guess.” Ari laughed. “Not that thats hard considering.” The other woman from the first day had seemed to take Ari on as a personal project, spending hours with her teaching the things that she had no doubt once knew before she became soulless.
“So, was he murdered?” she asked. A murder would mean a trial when then next ministry ship arrived and certainly an execution thereafter. In this grim place, such an event would be rather festive as the convicted was thrown into the ocean after receiving a cut from each man there. That, one of the prisoners had been very willing to talk to her about. It was a rare occasion, but one that would involve betting and a kind of black excitement that could only be looked forward to by men waiting to slowly die in a frozen hell.
“Not a mark on him, just like the others.” Sara answered matter-of-factly It took a hard existence to speak of such things in the same way one might talk about the weather. “But, Jalin swears on his mother’s grave that he saw Hurin thrashing and gurgling in his sleep like he had had his throat cut.” she added in.
“So he was murdered?” Ari asked. She hadn’t known the man anymore then she knew most of the other inmates but she couldn’t imagine having one’s throat cut was a pleasant end.
“As I said Ari there wasn’t a mark on him, nor a spot of blood to be found.”
“People die in their sleep.” Marta stated in a shaky voice that seemed as much an attempt to convince herself as make a statement. “It is the blessing of Dyon, he has been reborn to live his life free of his previous sins.”
Sara laughed. “You know as well as I do that Herin was about as despicable as they come. Why would Dyon bless him with removal from this world before his time? Besides, doesn’t the ministry teach that those whose names are removed from the Book of LIfe aren’t reborn?”
“Lots of atoning to be done out here.” Marta replied. “Maybe Dyon decided he had done enough of it to make an exception.”
“Maybe its like Marta said, people die in their sleep. Maybe his heart gave out.”
“Six hearts in as many months?” Sara shook her head. “I think we are dealing with a dreamtaker.”
Marta’s face went as white as a sheet and she returned her concentration to the bellows.
“What is a dreamtaker?” Ari asked. “Ebon told me I shouldn’t speak of them but wouldn’t tell me what they are.”
“A monster.” Sara stated in the same tone that she talked about men dying. “Its said that a dreamtaker is a monster that feeds off of dreams of humans.”
“I guess that means I’m safe.” Ari stated with a tinge of relief and regret.
“Aye.” Sara answered sympathetically. “One’s dreams are one’s connection to the almighty. Without that connection, there are no dreams.”
“Are they human?”
“Yes.” replied Sara. “All dreamtakers are human like any other heretic. They have abilities and chose to use them for darkness is all.”
“Why do you think this dreamtaker is killing people?” Ari asked. “I mean dreams are just dreams.”
“Like I said Ari.” she answered. “The dream is the window into the soul and our link with the almighty. When a dreamtaker steals that…”
“The ministry took mine and I’m still alive so that must not be what kills them.”
“So you are.” Sara agreed. “But, the way a dreamtaker works is by entering the dreams of others to syphon off their soul. What they do in a dream is just as real as what we are doing here. If a dreamtaker kills in a dream, that person is just as dead as if they had fallen in the water.”
“Why would a dreamtaker kill?” she asked.
“Why does anyone kill?” Sara asked back. “A dreamtaker is a monster but still a human being themselves. Half the men on this Dyon forsaken ice shelf are here for taking another’s life. The stories say that the world of dreams is a primal one. The urge to kill is a primal one. If one is already a killer in real life, how much stronger would the urge to kill be there?”
“Why were you sent here?” Ari asked, taking advantage of a chance to ask a question she had often wondered. “I mean you seem to know so much and you don’t seem to be the type to end up here.” Sara laughed and Ari knew she was about to return the compliment. The other member of their trio just grunted as she continued to pretend to ignore the conversation. The woman wore the fact that she had killed her husband with poison as a badge of honor. Sara on the other hand had never mentioned her crime.
“I knew too much about things the ministry did not approve of.” she answered cryptically.
“About what?” Ari asked.
“About dreamtakers and other things that don’t square well with ministry doctrine.” she smiled.
“Then why didn’t they take your soul so that you wouldn’t remember any of that knowledge?” she asked puzzled.
“What I knew Ari was enough to get me banished here, but not enough for them to bother taking my soul too. I can only imagine what once was in your head for them to do it to you. Its not exactly something they acknowledge happens when one is excommunicated.”
“What do you see when you sleep Ari?” Sara asked.
“Nothing.” she responded sadly. “I float in some place alone in a blackness darker than a cloudy sky. I float there aware of myself and aware of time passing by, then I wake up.
“So you truly do not have anything remaining of your soul to reflect into the world of dreams.” Sara stated sadly.
“So if a dreamtaker took all of one’s soul they’d end up like me?” Ari asked.
“I do not know Ari.” Sara admitted. “dreamtakers are rare and the souless rarer. What I have told you is the type of information that got me sent here.”
“Thanks Sara.” she walked over and hugged the woman. When she was done she looked over to Marta who had stopped pumping her bellows. There were tears running down her terror-stricken face.