Thursday, March 13, 2014

XI. The Hunted Night

White snows crept down inky mountains towards the great sound, fusing with the covering cap of blue ice.  It was below this surface, deceptively thin in places and prone to shifting, that the albino narwhals played during the season of blood.  It was a simpler time.
            The Fencer remembered the old hunts as he stalked through the shadow nothing of the White Jungle.  Back home the men tested the ice before them with long lances made from whale tusk.  If they found song they’d set up a breathing break in the sheet and there wait.  When the pale flesh rose above the waters they’d use the harpoons, sticking the bulls as deeply as they could, holding on as the ice went red.  Sometimes the ice shattered beneath their feet and those who fell had the shivering death.  On the whole more pleasant than their current hunt.
            In the dark they stalked a fellow hunter, perhaps a man or something which had given up that title for one of more culinary diversity.  Every noise was a deadly clue and in this jungle there was an overload of information.  Each chirp and grunt roused a paranoid worry but they couldn’t help but continue on, blind, ears open, noses expecting to smell their own blood at any moment.
            Man in the dark has much to fear.  Such is sight that its absence is itself a trap.  Perhaps it was the Riddle’s work that most other creatures managed in the gloom on superior senses while the human being was lost, mad, easy prey. 
            The Fencer drew his weapon and most of the insects troubling him scuttled away from the unnatural chill.  In the dark Dhala’s crimson eyes glowered and he hoped it wouldn’t give them away.  Part also hoped it did.  That would resolve this game of shadows quickly.  This was not his sort of hunt.
            The jungle’s song was heavily layered and constant, a sea of living noise which would drive anyone mad in time.  The trees and vegetation sang with their pollens and saps, even their rot was an attractive melody for the rubbish eaters.  Flying fox barks and the demoniac trill of the lak-lak bird.  Choruses of cicada merged with crickets and chirping frogs.  Beneath it all was a beating layer of grunts and knocks which neither man could place.
            At bad moments the song would stop around them and they froze, unwilling to break the silence.  A strange scent often accompanied these breaks, full of biological musk and the faint traces of blossom. 
            Time was as lost as they.  It had been ten minutes or all night, each breath taken was its own day.  They chased the faint memory of their prey as the way out of the jungle was confused and hidden by the utter black beneath the thriving canopy.
            “I wish those glowing insects were back,” grumbled the Trumpeter.
            The Fencer quickly hushed him, as did several unknown things in the dark.  Then, thinking better of it, he responded.
            “How did you hunt on the Wondering Mountains?” he asked, taking several tactical steps away from the musician.
            “I’ve already told you that.”  The Trumpeter’s annoyance lived in people who did not listen, and it was strange, the Fencer was usually a good listener.
            “Tell me again,” said his friend from farther off.
            “We’d make a bunch of frightening noise and chase goats and other things off the cliffs,” he said.
            “Keep going.”
            “I can’t, there’s something tugging at me.  It’s wrapping around me like a vine, only it’s hairy and I feel hot air from above.  Fencer.  Fencer?!”
            The swordsman raced back, unsure of the exact location of his friend.  In the shadows he stumbled into a tangle of hairy tentacles, flesh the consistency of pudding but capable of flexing with terrible strength.  Ropy limbs began creeping over him as well.
            The thing wiggled around their bodies, snaking through their clothes, then, with a sudden lunge, the upper portion pulled down and a drooling maw clamped down on half the Trumpeter’s head.  He screamed and so did the creature, from one of its other mouths.
            Soon each man realized the hideous thing wasn’t hairy, but that its primary tentacles were covered in extremely fine wires or cilia.  Caught up in these stringy masses each movement was difficult, like pulling out hair at the scalp.  The Fencer tried to wrench his sword arm free and with as sickening tear he felt cold liquid bleed from the torn out roots.  Then the creature howled.
            Its scream was a pure, shrill vowel sound, a high whine which rang the ears.  Another body crashed into the Fencer and he wrestled with what turned out to be the Trumpeter.  Their predator’s grip weakened enough that they stumbled free.
            “You used me as bait!” blubbered the musician as he took out a match and lit a taper.  Nothing was revealed in the flickering light.
            The foliage stood out pale as bone, still and windless.  Around them flocked dark, furtive things, the heavy drone of black bees, the whispers of unseen birds.  But at the place where the thing attacked them there was nothing. 
            “I stabbed it!” he argued, brandishing a dagger.  His scalp was bloodied with deep pock marks where the thing’s teeth had bit him and his clothes showed sign of violence.  “I can feel its tepid blood all over me!”
            The Fencer took the taper from his hysterical companion and investigated the direction both of them were sure the creature lay.  There had been no further noise after the scream, not sound of the branches creaking under its weight.  Yet nothing showed, no blood, no body, like a ghost.
            Unwilling to take the risk, the Fencer tossed the flame at the spot.  It hit something unseen and ignited like lamp oil.  The scream began again and they fled into the welcome darkness.
            Fire and blade were their salvation.  This fact wasn’t lost on the swordsman.  Even his name implied a tool, a sword and a method.  Fire was the first invention, the first instrument by which the thoughtful mortals of the past altered their world.  Even now it was the primary answer against the Riddle. 
            Thoughts like these filled the darkness of their journey.  They no longer had sign of their quarry and there was no way back to the witch and Inoke.  Perhaps it was cruel to leave him at her mercy but the jungle poured blood over the Fencer’s mind, making empathy difficult.  They could only move forward, following their ears and noses towards whatever hints the witch left.  Her strange garb produced a distinctive perfume and if they had hope it rested in those unique blossoms she wore.
            In time something crashed behind, followed by a laugh sounding through the jungle, a ghostly thing, neither in front nor behind.  They chased it and it chased them. 
            Moonlight greeted them in a clearing made by a short ripple in the ice.  A ridgeline jutted up a few meters, unfit for trees, crenelated with lunar flowers that only showed their otherworldly colors in such light.  From that elevation the jungle continued upon that faint plateau, thick with stacks of snow.  There were shadows there.
            Eyes lit up the dark, a thousand gleaming hungers.  Not snow but webbing.  Bundled prey marked an anawke colony.  Perhaps this was the edge of the shadowed boughs where their companions in the larger hunting party waited, only arrived at by chance and at a completely different angle.
            They were two against a horde of wooly spiders.  Forelimbs raised, the things scuttled and jumped most alarmingly for the men.  The wind set the hair covering their bodies crawling with motion, like slick, white oil.
            Into these the Fencer went laughing, eyes full of violence.  Against the tangled mass of fat, pale death he stretched a smile across his face and launched his tired body amongst the fangs and poison.  His head was full of vorpal dreams, calculation and fever.  There was no option except blood, no freedom except death.
            The Trumpeter was robbed of his audience.  The madman he traveled with took up the glory and he was left wondering what to do.  For the moment all the spiders were after that tiny speck of muscle, rage and enchanted ice.  Abandoning his friend was out of the question, but even now he wasn’t allowed his own amusement.
            Through the commotion he heard cautious movement behind him.  Turning, he beheld an entity, half man and half phantom.  The musclebound creature was painted with foul ichor, blood and sap, powdered with pollen and flower petals.  Partially invisible, he wasn’t all there, with holes cut out from the surrounding jungle so that eyes, small and hungry, watched with intensity.
            “Oh, it’s you.” 
            “You think you know me?” asked the camouflaged man.
            “It’s only a fact; you can’t be anyone but yourself.”
            “You have a choice,” said the familiar voice.  “Myself or the spiders.”
            He gestured and the Trumpeter saw his companion half tangled in silk, blade up to the arm in the body of one anawke while another clambered around to plunge its fangs into the soft man’s flesh.
            “Hoxu, I thought you were a civilized cannibal.”
            “Civilization is a tool which serves a purpose.  For me it provides warm beds and stocked larders so that in time I can go afield and engage my mouth and tongue in more acquired tastes.  I needed to learn of the jungle before I could hunt my fill, and you two are interesting enough that you should be a part of me.  Fear not, your spirits won’t go to waste in the Lattice.”
            They’d been tricked, flushed out into this hive of eight-legged monsters by design.  Hoxu had gone native, spattered with the blood of the things he hunted, wearing the jungle as a disguise with to steal the fruits he dared not reach for openly.  Just like the mountain goats, the Trumpeter felt that if he ran he’d plunge into a trap laid by this hunter.
            The cannibal’s strategy was total.  Using the Jomoth was no more an issue for Hoxu than using a spoon to eat his gore.  Revealed, he was a monster, liberated from the weakness of man by ingesting the power of things more potent than any mortal.  Wearing their blood, eating their hearts, through this practice he gained the strength of those he consumed.  To the anawke he smelled as one of their own, as he did to all the creatures of the jungle. 
            Slowly the demon of a man approached.  A blur, bloody-lipped, eager to take his kill before the anawke could take it from him. 
            “You’d make a good companion to the witch,” mentioned the Trumpeter as behind him the spiders hissed and chittered.
            “She’ll be joining me soon,” smiled the monster through too-white teeth.  “To devour her is to devour the jungle.”
            Then he stopped.  Behind the musician the noise changed.  Turning he saw the massacre.
            High up, the nightmare black blade fell.  The anawke split apart, seeping its essence upon the churned up snow. 
            The Fencer danced upon the dead.  Sometimes, when the magic was strong, Dhala’s touch froze its victims utterly.  There was no reason for it, though the Trumpeter suspected an emotional connection.  Shattered remains misted in the lunar brightness.  A pile was forming.
            Poison flowed over the lone swordsman.  The creatures were full of the stuff, popping like waterskins and disgorging their contents.  More in-tact bodies lay about, cooling in the Winter cold.  Moving like a meteorite, the Fencer took a flitted towards another, the inky sword whipping out like a frog’s tongue. 
            There were four left of this hunting band, perhaps this whole colony.  Then there was three.  At two the strange, patchwork smell abandoned the scene.  On one the Trumpeter saw Hoxu vanish into the jungle, his plan no longer of any use.
            The Fencer stooped, panting, while the life within his opponents bled the last of their heat into the Winter air.  In his mind the swordsman calculations echoed with deafening intensity and like a fever dream he couldn’t help but see the endless visions of lunge and parry, riposte and strike.  It was hard to come back from the abyss of the blade, that inky depth.
            “I said, Fencer, are you dying?” called the Trumpeter for the second time.
            The swordsman sent a sharp glance towards his companion.  So easy to strike out, so easy to send the blade to work.
            “Hoxu was here,” explained the musician.  Now the Fencer took note.  “He’s after us, and Eley, to eat.”
            They followed as quickly as they could, through many tiny violets, through the pale fungi growing across the ice.  A scent arrived for them and they readied their weapons.  Out she stepped form shadow, the witch, and she looked at them and was alone.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

X. Miracles Amongst the Blood

Her gown grew from dreams.  Alone and cold amongst the white leaves she collapsed and shivered her will into a circle of flowers.  Upon awaking she discovered they had swarmed over her, from seeds hidden within the snow and ice, into a mesh of stems and roots.  She could not move for several days but the growth sustained her and after a time released itself from the jagged ice to exist entirely upon her body.  Since then Eley had added much variety to the biome gown, so that it seemed she was armored in a tight suit of petal disks flowing from her bare feet, across the contours of her body, ending in a splay of blossoms at her neck and wrists.  From that first accident of will she learned the joy of further wonders as fruit of the Method.
            Now she was a fiend of splendor, black hair long and wild, face pale and freckled, eyes of faint emerald.  Around her pulsed an invisible aura, a fearsome perfume which struck the heart of any who breathed her in.  She danced magic.
            The survivors of Paos’s attack were all stained by their journey, the white of their hunting garb blotched with red gore and silver sap while incidental colors sprang up where they had brushed past this plant or that animal.  Against the girl’s pure nature their lives stood out messy and poisoned. 
            The Fencer went still with her kiss then started up, choking as she stood to look over her handiwork.  Already the broken man was mending, bone sprouting back into place, muscle taking root, the whole being undergoing a massive regrowth.  The man himself writhed with pain, his lips pulled back to reveal grinding teeth.
            “What have you done?” asked the Trumpeter, eyes wild and jealous.
            “Eley!” snapped the surviving brave, but he was ignored.
            “I’ve regrown him,” she said with pride.  “Only one such miracle blossom exists at any time.  He is fortunate.”
            The Trumpeter became distracted by this.
            “Only one?  But how do they pollenate and reproduce?”
            “I make more,” said the Witch as confusion spread across her face.  “Your friend should be perfect now.”
            But he was not.  Instead he continued to writhe under the throes of the miracle blossom.  Some other force fought this happy dream.
            “Damn!” spat the musician as he fell beside the man.  There the icicle weapon lay against the wounded side, a plug of frozen blood adhesed to the flesh.
            “You have to promise not to kill me this time,” he said before starting his efforts. 
            The Trumpeter wrapped part of his scarf around the hilt of the sword, careful not to let a single atom of his skin touch the icy thing.  With precautions steadied he produced a severed hand from inside his coat.
            “Careful,” said his grim patient who with great effort raised his head to watch the proceedings.
            The severed hand was from a shattered statue, broken off at such an angle as to leave a sharp edge.  Using this as a chisel, the tall man set to work on the icy clot, chipping as closely as he could to the skin.  Fearful ink played in the frozen blood.
            Eley watched with fascination, unable to hear the insistent Jomoth trying to gain her attention.  Both these foreign men were strange creatures, specimens from places different than even the most remote traders who came to Jomoth’orr.  The things they carried gnawed at her curiosity, especially the strange stars worn by the ashen man she saved.
            It was a curious weapon and not a constellation after all, with a long blade of tapering ice, the substance of which defied her ability to name.  Ink or blood, it was a faceted icicle of midnight, indigo and stygian tones, accented by crimson orbs suspended within the material.  This close, its cold was at the edge of unbearable, and her gown wore a touch of frost from the short duration of the kiss. 
            With one last crack weapon and man were free of each other.  Immediately the swordsman came to his feet, wincing with lingering pain.  He knocked at his side until the remaining ice fell away, leaving nothing but whole flesh, no sign of violence or poison.
            “Who are you?” he asked, regaining his weapon.
            “Of course you know,” she smirked, taking a few steps back, giving her the feel of power.
            “The Witch?” he continued.
            “What else could I be?”
            “It’s just foolish, you know,” said the Trumpeter, shaking his head.
            “What is?” she demanded.
            “That blossom,” he replied.  “Think of the hardship which could be alleviated.  The Riddle itself might have its Answer in that one little flower.”
            “It wouldn’t be special then,” she countered.  “It wouldn’t be magic.”
            “Enough,” said the Fencer, annoyed that this wasn’t his argument.  He drew his weapon and aimed it at her.  “Will you run?”
            Eley laughed at the atom-edged point, unwilling to accept its danger.  Here she was surrounded by her friends and servants, the size of the jungle making her giddy and saturated.  At times like this, where the power came washing into her brain, she clutched at her chest to keep her heart from escaping her body, fingers gracing over the petals she wore.  She didn’t hear what the swordsman said next as they gathered up their possessions.  Only when they found the dead body did she exit the magic.
            Harx was the name of the fellow slain by Paos, so she gathered as the survivors discovered his remains.  A pulsating sheet lay over him, a blur of ochre, obsidian and maroon bodies.  The insects washed the flesh from his skeleton and birds greedily took the bones, leaving nothing but the memory of the brave, a Jomoth youth come to make his fortune.  Paos was left alone to rot in his own way.
            “I guess the jungle cares for us too,” noted the Trumpeter to the diminishing man.  All was reclaimed.
            “Is that worth laughing over as well,” demanded the swordsman, making space for violence if she answered incorrectly. 
            Eley tilted her head as if trying to make the threat fit.  This man had a strange way of speaking, most unique.  Her eyes narrowed to a purpose.
            “What is that you want?” she asked.  “Are you devil, spirit, apparition or man?  If you are a man, when then should I care?”
            “They call themselves the Fencer and the Trumpeter,” explained Inoke, having recovered from the spectacle of seeing a cousin devoured by the jungle.  “They came with the hunt.”
            “Yes, but what do they hunt?”
            The sky above passed with clouds, turning the clearing grey and cool.  The Fencer didn’t respond.  Something grew within him, some needle-sharp question.
            “Warm skies of music and a word to turn back the Riddle,” said the Trumpeter after some silence.
            “The Method,” followed the Fencer.
            Eley had half a smile on before the second answer hit.  Color drained, leaving her face as stone.
            “Eley,” said Inoke, though again she didn’t hear.
            “Why do you keep saying that?” asked the Trumpeter but the guard didn’t answer.
            “Let us purchase some safety and then you’ll know,” she said with faint sorrow in her words. 
            They left as the day faded, the sun behind the mountains already, night things rousting from their dens.  Wind twisted through the great trees.  A hush and sway of shadows.  It made the boughs creak and the leaves set up a clamor like rushing water. 
            With Paos dead the jungle spoke its own language again.  Crickets chimed, nightflies hummed, and through the shadows came globes like floating, glowing eyes.  Startled, the two travelers backed away from this sorcery until Inoke revealed them to be a kind of luminous insect, the light a kind of language spoke amongst its kind.
            The Fencer became lost in their light.  Here was something seen before, at the edge of memories which weren’t his.  At last he was encouraged forward but he kept his eyes on the fireflies, their blue halos.
            Anawke watched them from the shadows, huge things, fattened off each other and hungry still, some larger than the wooly mammoths.  They were fearful of the witch and though the men hadn’t enough spears for all the eyes staring at them the shaggy spiders remained calm as statues for their empress.
            Other predators were at work.  Tangled amongst a number of hollow shoots they discovered a large beast, a quadruped herbivore with two long, tapering horns arching nearly to its rear legs, its body torn open and partially devoured.  The witch crouched low to feel its bloody fur, the red stuff feeding her thirsty garment.
            “These marks…” she began, but let the sentence trail off. 
            “Spear wounds,” noted the Trumpeter, “and here, bite marks, but the teeth aren’t like a cat or spider.  These are human.”
            Something cried then, out in the foliage, and a laugh, a man’s laugh, answered.  Blade out, the Fencer watched that point of the wood where unknown horrors lurked.
            “Wait here,” he said and vanished into the brush, followed closely by the Trumpeter who made not a whisper.
            “Wai-,” began Inoke but was silenced by a flowered hand.
            Moving into the gloom the two hunters avoided each twig snap and branch rustle.  Something disturbed them about the kill, not a beast but a man.  Perhaps wild men lived here, Jomoth apostates hungry for the blood of more primitive times.  If it was one of their company it wouldn’t do to have the witch along.  Her strange thoughts were for the asking, both men knew it, but there seemed hardly any time for careful conversation as long as the predatory jungle provided her with entertainment.
            They put some space between themselves and the witch, unsure and afraid of what she might do to them.  The path they now took was decorated in fear.  Blood greeted them after a few minutes, a thick trail of the stuff winding to their left.  They split to either side as they tracked the gore, not thinking of the sort of things which must be tracking them right now.  Without the witch they were as much beasts as that dead kill a while back.
            After a hundred meters or so a shadow came into view beyond the narrow trunks of new growth eley.  An elongated thing, it seemed to drag its back half along the forest floor, murmuring.  The Fencer barely touched a leaf before the thing whipped its upper portion around and then seemed to split, leaving a portion of its body behind, laughing as it vanished into the further darkness.
            All was near black as they approached the remains.  A large, flightless bird lay there, headless, feathers made to mimic the broad eley leaves folded against its plump body. 
            Darkness ate the last of the blue twilight gloom.  Huge things sang, small ones bit and crawled amongst their clothes.  The smell of blood and flowers stood close by.
            “What are you doing?” whispered the Fencer as his companion seemed to struggle with himself.
            “I’ve lost the trail and need some light,” replied the Trumpeter as he produced a taper.
            “We’ll be seen.”
            “Then let us stay here until we are hunted, yeah?”
            The Fencer’s answer was to grapple with his friend.  Hands fought hands.  All the weird objects picked up by the Trumpeter in their travels jumbled and clacked against each other. 
            “We must move in quiet, in dark,” argued the Fencer. 
            “You’re mad because you were nearly killed without enough blood on your hands,” realized the Trumpeter.
            “If she can move about the dark so can we.  Follow the blood and we’ll find this hunter.”
            “And lose her, as we already have done,” sighed the musician.
            “We never had her,” was the reply, as they stalked off in the most likely direction.  Leaves and vines brushed past them.  Amongst the cold garden smell was a faint reek.  Their noses tuned themselves towards that copper pang, the markings of a strange hunter.
            In other shadows Inoke followed his childhood friend.  Eley held his hand as she led him through the invisible brush towards an invisible end.  A lone thought, hungry, starved, lay in his head waiting to die or be sated.  Such were things built in secret places.
            “Why leave them?” he asked, feeling neutral to the two men who’d come this far.  Like most Jomoth he thought them alien, and being incurious this was of no concern to him.  Yet, at the same time, he felt certain troubles at abandoning them to the night.
            “They will either survive or not and I can satisfy my curiosity either way.”
            She was only a scent now, and a touch, in the darkness of the jungle falling as sudden as a nightmare.  The hunters would stay for several days in this place and managed to often survive without casualties.  This seemed impossible at the moment.
            “Where are you taking me?” he asked, noticing scarce lights in the dark, one he couldn’t place, either close and tiny or large and distant, occasionally flickering as trees passed between them.
            “Out of here.  Once you set me free, now I’ll return the favor,” she said.
            He stopped and her with him.  Though strong, she couldn’t make him budge.
            “I won’t be free out there,” began Inoke, thinking back to all the times he imagined this moment, of the ways it could go wrong.  “Come with me.”
            He couldn’t see her in the dark but her breathing increased.  Imagine this full lady of strange beauty, locked away in a prison of flowers.  Back at home he had a small fortune saved up, awaiting escape.  Together they would fly from this binary valley, off into the other lands he’d heard so much of from the merchants and brigands. 
            He didn’t know if she smiled or nodded, but soon she pulled him on again.  In the confusion he didn’t know which direction they went but it could only lead them away from this place, into the future.