The gang labours under the crates’ weight. Glass bottles clink within.
No one has tasted a sip, beyond the coral substance that gave Fassn wings. The wings are already fading some — he can no longer hover at will. His skin is unnaturally pallid.
Shyan plots a route south and they follow it for fourteen days. She’s not certain the sun is the same one they knew before the portal in the throne, but she’s certain the climate is warming as they travel.
On the fifteenth day, they arrive at a massive palisade, built of grey and yellow bones. Most of the crates survive the journey.
The vibrant atoms’ hum resonates with Abia, attunes in an instant to her intradynamic transpolarities.
“Jiko magic strong,” she says hours later, when at last she can speak again.
Shyan cuts short her pacing. “What happened to just taking their treasure?”
“We’ve indeed yet to find much of value,” Cang says. He’s fashioning a new hole in his belt to suit his thinning frame.
“Jiko magic value,” Abia says. “Much value.”
Fassn’s beating his wings. He’s got a decent feel for it, hovering without much effort a half-metre over the rime.
“Then we ought to waste no time in gathering it.” Cang leaps to his feet, begins packing crates with hay, and laying bottles carefully inside. “I’ve no doubt we’ll soon find a buyer.”
The place is as cold as ever.
Abia and Shyan sit around the fire when Cang and Fassn stumble back. Fassn has sprouted a set of slender gull wings. They flap nervously.
Shyan shoots to her feet, stops them with her palm up and a hard look. “What have you done, Fassn?”
“I drank a thing,” he says, clutching his stomach. “Not feeling great, I’ll admit.”
“But I am,” Cang says, his breath wretched with alcohol. “I found a bottle of rye.”
Fassn flaps his meager wings. “Old Ajralan had his fill tonight!”
“Share it then,” Abia says to Cang.
He produces en empty bottle and shrugs, a grin on his face.
“Can you fly?” Shyan asks.
Fassn’s wings beat weakly. “I’m flying all right!” He throws his arms into the air, then stumbles to the ground.
Shyan gives Abia a look. She draws nearer the wobbly Fassn and extends her hands to graze the milky feathers. Her eyes roll back in her head.
In the morning, under the sun’s harsh glare, the cold remains. But now, the group has a colony’s worth of resources at its disposal.
Shyan and Abianarin butcher and tan a few of the Jiko, make four coats of their blue skin.
Fassn and Cang stalk through the few rough homes that went unburnt. Most are empty of anything but the barest essentials: a bit of grain, a sleeping pallet, the occasional ancient handmade chair. One, though, is full of bottles, and vials, and even phials, of liquids across the hue & viscosity spectra. They’re spread across the room, in racks and on tables, attached by curls, coils, connexions.
Fassn spots a particularly vivid coral shade in a beaker. Drops of green stuff are steadily falling into it. He picks the pink one up and sniffs it, as Cang inspects a row of identical red vials. Fassn raises the pink beaker, says, “Old Ajralan, may you have your fill,” and drinks it.
A meager sun rises over the ice. Its rays do little to warm the frozen ground. Wind roars through the camp.
Shyan blinks away the sleep gathering in her eyes. Her watch was uneventful. She spent it lost in thought, after her companions had gone to sleep.
Abianarin catches her eye, sees something there she hadn’t before. A new hardness — her mouth a grim line, her cheeks growing gaunt.
Abia, Cang, and Fassn strike camp. Without a word, they dismantle Shyan’s sleeping bag and tent, as well. She sits on a stone, sharpening their weapons.
Specks of fire burn in the Jiko colony below.
“It’s wrong to eat them, right?” Shyan asks.
Abia inclines her head, listens to the music of the twinkling snow.
“May we have our fill,” Fassn says.
“And there is of course,” Cang says, “the matter of our promised compensation.”
Shyan says, “They might know we’re lying about Grumalla. If we try to claim it.”
“Yet if we do not, then for what have we come to this awful and accursed place?”
Shyan shakes her head. “I blame that creepy throne.”
“Couldn’t hurt to warm this place up a bit,” Fassn says, shivering.
“Besides, Grumalla’s half-starved already.”
“So are we,” Shyan says.
“Perhaps we should sup on Jiko all the same,” Cang says. “After all, they are an invasive species.”
Fassn spits. “Invasive species. No such thing.”
“I’m afraid it’s all rather serious. They can destroy ecosystems.”
Shyan nods her head at the empty white waste below. “If what Grumalla says is true, they’ve certainly done a number on this place.” Her stomach rumbles.
They stare down at the Jiko colony.