Men toiled in the shadows, turned into ghosts by the pale, luminous moss which was their only light. They exited and reemerged from the same darkness, their only constant were the sounds.
Inhuman shrieks and mortal yells pierced the gloom. Occasionally a clatter of spears told of battle or the marching of their feet through the dark, in search of prey, in search of safety. In quiet moments they sang the soft hope notes taught by their elders and breathed carefully lest even that small noise bring horrors out of the abyss.
The shadowed boughs held the dual perils of profit and death. The profit was death, it lured them with the raw treasure for their civilization and made them pay with the blood of the individual. Here were the silks and lumber, the strange remedies and chemical jewels which made for warm hearths and their choice of wives. And here were the anawke, death with eight eyes.
Seyo’an watched this theatre from the canopy, still with absolute fear. To his large, nocturnal eyes there was no gloom. He could see the wooly arachnids and terribly human beings tear into each other, the smell of fear and blood rich to his sensitive nose. He didn’t like the spider things and he didn’t like the walking men, nor the shadow creatures in this dark corner of the jungle. It was only his love for Eley which made him brave. He was a quiet creature and watchful.
The hunting band moved on from their latest kill and Seyo’s little heart beat faster as he followed. Each step might arouse an anawke so the monkey was careful not to disturb leaf or twig. In this he was capable and scurried as a whisper.
The hunters made camp against a huge tree well illuminated by glowing moss scrawled along its northern side. There they spooled their silks, drenched in the foul ichor of the spiders to keep them from sticking. The smell curled the monkey’s nose. Men were the most disgusting sort of predators.
In time he grew bored and dozed. In his dreams he ate fruit in the sunlit tops with his mistress. She moved like him so he wouldn’t have to wait and nothing hunted them. A man yelled and she grew concerned.
Awaking, the man’s voice continued. In the camp below an argument raged, soft by human standards, but clear as grubs burrowing beneath tree bark to Seyo’an.
One older man was against the group. He was large with importance and his hunting cloak was little stained by hard work. The next important man thought the first wrong, and though at first the hunters agreed the elder elder bent them with his words. Having learned some human noises Seyo knew his plan.
His eyes grew large as yui blossoms as the man pointed into the depths beyond the glowing moss. This was beyond the hunt, beyond where the outside men were allowed at the whim of the mistress. There waited her power, her home. Even as the band readied to move Seyo’an fled, his nose twitching, on a hunt of his own. Eley would want to know that the Jomoth had changed their quarry.
The Fencer and the Trumpeter had already found her. Eley stood before them in the darkness, her face in shadow, the rest of her a silhouette garbed in bright, interlocking blossoms of various size.
“Like the tree?” asked the Trumpeter, a shadow amongst shadows, only his instrument glinting slightly.
“What?” she asked. She was prepared for them to be angry, suspicious, maybe even violent. This wasn’t a natural question.
“Your name,” continued the Trumpeter, over the voice of his companion. “Eley, like the jungle tree.”
Her silence was total. They shivered in the cold.
“Like the tree,” she replied, venom on her words.
“Damned musician, we have no time,” seethed the Fencer, finally heard. “We stand with our goal and you ask her this?”
“See, that is a natural reaction.” Said Eley, the smile in her voice unseen. “You are always in danger, always hunted. A predator is also prey to others. You can’t think in such situations, can’t philosophize or consider, you can only react. I like you, Fencer, you are natural. Your friend is one I cannot like.”
Under this praise the Fencer withered. His words stopped and he considered the barbs in such a complement.
“Who named you?” The Trumpeter was set with his questions, making the most of his time before the Fencer awoke and took them all under his reason.
“You aren’t safe here,” she said at last and plucked a flower from her garment. Immediately it began to glow, the blossom unfolding into a rosy torch. “Come close and I’ll bring you to the jungle’s edge.”
“But we’re being hunted,” replied the Trumpeter, casting his eyes about. “We brought a cannibal with us and he’s gone rogue, if that’s possible. He’s mad with very particular hunger. Worst of all he intends on eating me. Did you hear that Fencer? Me, I get some special attention this time.”
Eley laughed off the man’s foolishness and turned to lead the way. Nothing followed.
“Stop,” said the Fencer, his composure regained.
“Won’t you come with me?” she asked without turning around. Consider the poisons she wore, the chemical inducements.
“Not until we have what we came for.”
“Riches are all around, you only have to pluck them from the trees,” she said.
“There is a thing which is said to reside in these lands, a concept, a plot,” the Fencer said, struggling to describe. “It’s a process, this system, the results of which I cannot fathom, but I believe it to be a conspiracy of seeds. All I do know is a name.”
“What name?” she demanded.
“Monath’s Method,” he said.
Eley’s mind raced. They were sorcerers after all, come to steal her secret. They had caused Paos to be born, to steal her love, and then to kill it. A wicked plan meant to weaken her, and she the fool who didn’t realize it.
Her fingers parsed her gown’s many weapons. She’d dreamt of magical war many times but wondered if her spells were ripe enough. The swordsman she could predict but not the musician.
“By that reaction you know what we seek,” continued the man with the stars at his side.
His hand hovered near the sword while the musician polished his instrument with a spare handkerchief. Wind creaked through the trees. They were only outlines, barely seen in the dark.
Then a fourth figure darted in. Racing past, the men drew their weapons by instinct but the thing’s target was the girl. It crawled up and perched upon her shoulder. When it turned, two discs of pale green flickered in the dark.
Seyo’an chittered in her ear. The creature had a simple language of fear and need.
“Something the matter?” asked the Fencer.
Eley wondered if they caught her smile in the dark.
“Nothing,” she explained. “I know the Method and Monath but this is no place for conversation.”
“As I’ve said,” grumbled the swordsman.
“Follow me,” she said and without much choice they did, into the far jungle.
They went north under the claustrophobic arms of impossible trees. Without seeing the procession of stars night was eternal. Instead, they had only the wayward fireflies to break the monotony of leaf and branch. In time they grew sensitive to the jungle’s texture, a sea of white bark, smooth trunks, serrated leaves, cutting creepers, sticky blossoms, bulbous fruit, the smell of living green and deadfall rot. Burrs and seeds caught in their clothes, some moving, not seeds at all. In time their skin became a feast for insects, bumps welling where the little tongue lances drank upon their skin. Their Jomoth cloaks warded off the majority of such attention but what remained was maddening.
At times the stars did peek from short-lived breaks in the canopy, revealing another world. Increasingly it was difficult to believe that Winter existed. This clammy prison, cold insects, haze vision, darkling path, that was all there was. They burrowed through the jungle, following the witch’s scent.
Every noise made them start and the Fencer refused to put down his blade. They were hunted still and it meant keeping his edge about him.
“Aren’t you worried about that cannibal we spoke of?” asked the Trumpeter in the general direction of the girl.
“No,” said the darkness.
“What have I to fear from the icebound?”
“I guess every mage has a weakness,” he pondered.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Oh, we’ve seen magicians before, blue hair, mad spells, leveled a mountain at a whim, and burned our past to fading silver. I’ve watched one rise from the dead, like she’d just been asleep and decided it was time to get up. Another enslaved a mountain since the warm days, and, well, there you go, big things, legends come true, all true.”
The girl drank up the stories quietly, lest they notice her gluttony.
“What more?” she demanded eagerly when it seemed he’d trailed off into whatever place the madman went with his thoughts.
“Well,” he began, as if trying to choose his words carefully. “Well, we’ve seen them be small too, smaller than their magic, like a child with a great sword they can barely lift. The Fencer’s slain one himself, that obsessive who murdered his…friend.”
The last word changed in the fellow’s mouth.
“It’s true,” said the grim fellow with the stars. “They die strange, but they die, just not always. Terribly inconsistent.”
“I won’t die,” whispered Eley as she led them on, now even more aware of the cold death in the Fencer’s hands. She spoke up then. “All things die. I see it every day.”
She didn’t notice how strange the statement was, but then again witches were supposed to be strange, strange and terrible, strange and beautiful, a sort of feminine, near-human other occupying a niche in the greater scheme which at least allowed for eccentricity, as well as violence and unwholesome tastes. The notion that the Fencer man had killed a magician troubled her despite how much she distrusted the words and their teller and they traveled on in a new and anxious sort of silence.
The way grew strange like her heart. Light issued from the fluted bells of certain plants, allowing the moths to dance their way to a meal, while mimicking jar plants swallowed them up, their shadows struggling uselessly to escape the digestive seas within. Eleys still towered overhead, but they were joined with a whole new community below the leaves. There were moving fronds and green ants with blossoms for heads, the canopy flickered with moss-winged bat things which fed off bleeding bushes. Animal and plant life merged in a hungry dance.
“What is this place?” asked the Fencer.
“The Creaverd Garden,” she said, turning around to display the place with proud arms.
“Your handiwork?” he said, shooing away a foot-long praying mantis which had alighted on his shoulder.
“Yes.” The girl strode with power here, her magic writhing and feasting.
“What dangers should we know?”
“Only that you must follow me exactly,” came the cryptic reply. It was the classic mystic challenge and not being mystics the two men had to improvise.
“What’s that?” hushed the Trumpeter.
Turning the girl saw nothing and was about to continue, ignoring this ruse, if not for the strong arm which took hers. Armored blossoms compressed against her skin.
The Fencer had taken hold of her. Her face grew hot but she then noticed he was pointing past her, down to the underbrush.
“See the cord?” he asked and then walked past.
A nearly invisible line of sinew, recently plucked from some beast, ran taught between the ground and a coiled sapling above. Taking his sword he cut the line, whipping the tree back up with a whistle. Upon the ground the remaining portion of sinew lay in a loop, carefully set so that anyone stepping within would be pulled up and hung by their leg.
“What is it?” asked the Trumpeter.
“A trap,” she replied, remembering. “The hunters of generations past used them to catch game and settle scores. The jungle was once full of the things. I’ve convinced the Jomoth that such aren’t necessary.”
The two outlanders weren’t used to these traps. There was no context for these devices in the world of Winter, where the trees were petrified, the forests deathly quiet with attending evergreens, and the prey within too sparse to warrant the effort. Surely there were traps—ice falls, frozen lakes, poisoned snow—but they operated according to a different kind of reason. Both men looked on, calculating the danger as a new experience. It was their particular edge to never take nature for granted.
“So it’s old then?” asked the Fencer, closely examining the craftsmanship.
“No,” she said at last. “The sinew is too new and the tree would have died long ago.”
“How long since the Jomoth played with traps in your jungle?” wondered the Trumpeter.
“I’ve given them no reason to rely on such,” she said, standing up and observing the shadows ahead for sign of more. “Such works have been discouraged.”
Continuing on they found more hidden dangers. Not just snares but also deadfalls and spring traps, using the lush foliage against them. There was no end to the resources available for nasty schemes. For blades and spikes their hunter used the grisly remains of his feasts: quills, spines, broken bones still red with wasted marrow, fangs, claws. The beasts of the jungle were repurposed for this hunt and they knew the hunter, hearing the cannibal just out of sight at times. Amongst the distracting blossoms and creatures it was difficult to stay on guard.
The Trumpeter was the first to succumb. While parsing a copse of tall, straight spear trees he sprung a falling creeper lined with piercing spines. It took half an hour to disentangle them from his coat and he was left with a line of puckered wounds running from his neck down his chest to his left thigh. Another time the Fencer simply broke a cunningly set twig which agitated a tree laden with bulbous fruit and from above a rain of dark, pods fell like stones, turning his face and shoulder blue with bruises.
In all the traps wore them down without aiming for the kill. Their lacked an interest in the kill, merely pricking them for blood and letting the clogging insects continue the misery.
“He’s not willing to share,” said the Fencer as he pulled a bony spike out from his foot. Above him Seyo’an squawked at every sign of trouble he managed to spot from the canopy above. “He won’t kill us with these toys.”
“He’s afraid of you, Fencer,” noted the Trumpeter who couldn’t help but itch every bug bite red and raw.
“It is because you are sorcerers,” sighed Eley. Though not the kind she had hoped for, she thought to herself.
“You take those words,” began the Fencer, cold death in his words. “And you bury them with the other liars I’ve slain.”
“If we were magicians,” reasoned the Trumpeter, “why then we’d be in Summer.”
“Like I am?” she grinned. “Fables aside, there is plenty of magic here. The whole world might freeze and let me work my spells in comfort. You’ve got your star blade and your bright noise, and I have this.”
“We aren’t simply our devices,” replied the Fencer.
“But, your names?”
“Titles for new lives,” he explained, without clarity. “Are the Jomoth trappers if they use traps?”
“But you chose your names.”
“I don’t deny the word but the interpretation.”
“For instance,” began the Trumpeter, hobbling along, “We don’t call ourselves ‘the magician’ and ‘the sorcerer.’”
“I remain unconvinced.”
“Tell me,” he continued, “would you prefer the Witch or Eley.”
“The Witch,” she said without caution.
The strike landed in her mind and even the Fencer was jealous of this rhetoric. What remained was the conviction that they were magicians, no matter what they said, and that she was more than just a term. She knew the break of things and magic came in many forms, like the endless variation of the jungle. These men were part of the Lattice and they had their spells, whether they chose to admit it or not.
Persevering on their course became automatic. All around hung the pregnant night, accented occasionally by a luminous guest, a firefly, vivid moss structure run up against an angle of tree shade. There were eyes in the night, many of them, some following, others still. Then the noises of hidden things suddenly silenced by their hungry pursuer who seemed to live in the future, always at the next step, waiting with his barbs and teeth.
Then Eley was alone in her movements. Seyo’an, feeling a change, ceased scouting and alighted upon her shoulder so they could backtrack together. It wasn’t long before she found the men holed up in a patch of starlight, their faces wan and pale in the light from distance spaces.
“See, we aren’t magicians,” complained the Trumpeter.
“Been a day without rest and the violence has caught up with me,” explained the exhausted Fencer. “You may continue, Witch, but if you do so you do so alone.”
The pain of waiting. Eley was impatient and full of young energy. Perhaps this was another aspect of her magic, another true component of her spellcraft, and she smiled at their frowns.
There were cures for mortal concerns, they grew from her magic. From her wondrous gown she produced a pair of strange seeds. Seyo’an grew excited and his eyes glowed like twin ghosts in the weak light.
“I can grant you strength,” she told the men at the edge of the sleeping abyss. “Here, take them. If you’d know the Method you might as well taste a portion of it.”
Both men looked at the things with distrust, but also hunger.