Friday, December 27, 2013

Two Winters.

It's a time of pale shadows, when the world resembles Winter and is equally troublesome.  No updates this week or the next, but be ready for more updates coming next year.  I may even have some good news to share.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

II. The Offering

Sacrifice is the catalyst.  It is year zero, the creation, a birth pang and the worship of entropy.  At the moment of loss everything which has come before narrows to a point and from that point the future opens up, growing.
            Any kind of flesh will do.  Bones, blood, meat, rotten or fresh, willing or not, all are fitting deposits.  Apply the seed, bath it in the offering, and plant it in the snow.  From this act great things are born.
            Don’t let nostalgia stay your hand or allow sentiment to reduce the flow of blood.  Such is the path of starvation.  It is natural for those being given over to new life to combat this enchantment, but not everything natural is correct.  Such protests promise a vigorous offering.

Amongst the pale gold of afternoon slanting in from the dying storm the strangers—nomads by their look--approached.  Together they were a rainbow, each silk-wrapped figure part of a colorful phase started by the lead creature.  The taller beings—it was difficult to determine gender under all the scarves, coats and robes—took up their narrow spears and fanned out.
            The Fencer unfolded from his snowy tomb, drawing his enchanted blade in one smooth gesture.  The black icicle caught the sunlight and dropped the temperature to a bone-chilling level.
            Through all this action the lead man moved not at all, his face shrouded by an azure hood and scarf of vermillion.  From atop his staff the little frog gave another deep chirp, to which the Trumpeter responded, having not moved from the snow caked upon him by the storm. 
            At the sound the braves moved to attack, the Fencer responding in kind, but their leader held up a hand and said “Stop.”
            There was no tone of urgency, only the surety of leadership.  His voice was gravely and dry, but it was enough to still the violence the many seemed so eager to make.
            One of the braves, his eyes glimmering beyond his silks, hissed some words in a strange language to the leader, who nodded.
            “He says you should kill us,” translated the Fencer.
            “You speak the words of the silken nomads?” asked the man with the frog, tilting his head a bit but not revealing any of his features. 
            “The language of violence is my common tongue,” smirked the swordsman, eager to prove his fluency.
            The lead nomad spoke a word to his band and stroked his frog as if to calm it.  Spears dropped and the braves were silent in their disapproval. 
            “We only wish to trade,” sighed the chief.
            “With us?” asked the Trumpeter as he stood, attempting to dust the frozen snow from his coat without success.
            “No,” said the elder.  “We make for the town to the west.  Your song coaxed us off the trail, so now we are robbed of time.  Night will come before we make Jomoth’orr.”
            He then tilted his head up, so that a lone, green eye gleamed from beneath his hood.
            “What sort of business do you two have here?”
            “Green business,” explained the Trumpeter while the Fencer stared down one of the braves. 
            “Green?” asked the nomad.
            “Of living things,” continued the musician, who distracted himself with the sun. 
            “The only living things here are white.”
            “This is a color of the mind.  Take your frog, for instance.  She’s got a tone of white, but there are shades of color haunting this whiteness.”
            “So,” began the chief, letting the word draw out, “you’re wise men?  After the secret of the jungle, perhaps?”
            The Trumpeter shrugged and nodded, wondering if there would be a fight now or later.  He had little interest in burying more bodies.  It would be dark soon enough and then the Fencer’s cold reason would be both of theirs.
            “Then we’re after the same thing, after a fashion.  Come with to Jomoth’orr, there life, of any color you wish, is for trade.  The people there make many forays into the White Jungle.  Their town is built from that bounty.  We can each make whatever fortune it is that we dare not speak to each other.”
            The afternoon turned the icy valley metallic as together they progressed to the mountain town.  Steel ravines ran eastwards, to the distant and legendary ocean, while the hills became pale silver on one side and dull lead on the other.  Alchemy came with the transit of day, as base metals phased into gold at noon, only to grow common again with the setting sun.
            Upon its perch the frog, the Onutut, stayed quiet.  She was of a snow-loving species, only singing for a mate during storms and as such was useful for keeping the nomads together during whiteouts.  Feeling bad for his false courtship the Trumpeter spent the trip catching snow flies to feed the creature.
            For the Fencer there was less pleasant company.  One of the braves repeatedly walked at his side in order to hem the swordsman in with the band.  The man would pull down his scarf to reveal a slim, youthful face full of mischief.  With a derisive giggle he’d then sprint off ahead, leading the way, laughing his dominance.
            Amongst themselves the nomads spoke their own, soft language, punctuated with staccato consonant leaps and starts.  When the Fencer and the Trumpeter attempted to converse with them in Baranti the braves would only shake their heads before returning to their own discourse.  Only the chieftain seemed to know the trade tongue, but he wasn’t the sort of person who made easy conversation.  The band murmured amongst themselves, a world away.
            In the aftermath of the storm the valley went cold.  Despite the sun the nomads shivered and wrapped their silks close.  If the Trumpeter noticed he made no complaints and the Fencer considered this the first pleasing development of the whole expedition.  He breathed easier in the dry air.
            Then something caught his legs.  Down in a tumble he went, rolling up snow like a boulder only to spring up with mad anger in his eyes. 
            Laughing above him was the eager brave from before, brandishing his narrow spear, ready to prove himself.  The nomads continued on, battling for daylight.
            The Fencer sneered and with a calm grace wiped the snow from his seal skins as he rejoined the band.  More laughter followed him, like the obnoxious wild dogs which prowled the wilderness.
            “You’ll be short a man soon,” he informed the chieftain.
            “Coyat’oc has the smiling disease,” replied the nomad as he strode tirelessly on.  The closer they came to the town the less they saw, for a wall surrounded the place at a great distance.
            Too fatigued to argue over such ignorance the Fencer lost himself in the surroundings.  The sun was nearly gone over the western cubes, sending the day to an early grave.  He almost relished the thought of more cold.
            He strode out from the party to the north, watching the far jungle.  Despite its name and color he couldn’t help feeling Clea’s presence there.  Maybe it was the fragrance of all the wildflowers or the way the storm left green clouds edging the eastern horizon.  In fact, he thought he saw something at the border of the jungle.
            His thoughts vanished as pain shot through his thigh, a bright prick followed by warm, wet blood.  Stumbling, he looked up into the face of laughter.
            Coyat’oc held his spear point down and that point was red.  He meant to prove himself against the outsider.  The wound was shallow, just a needle jab of disrespect escalating towards the presumed conclusion.  Here he made his name.
            Now the Fencer drew his blade and the nomad flinched.  All the heat from his giddy head was soaked up by the nightmare sword.  As the sun vanished he saw the weapon known as Dhala, a faceted jewel of dark ice, flickering with indigo and midnight hues and set with red gems easily mistaken for eyes.  Laughter faded, taking the smile with it.
            And then the Fencer walked on by him, doing his best not to limp.  It wouldn’t do to kill a guide on the way to a destination, not with night falling.  No, he’d save that luxury for their arrival.
            Coyat’oc’s peace was short lived.  Indeed he did have the smiling disease and it regrew on his face.  He spoke loudly with his fellows. 
            The Fencer could tell bragging by the tone and his temper flared.  Focusing on the cold, he managed to keep his eyes on the town.  Houses stared back with glass windows full of firelight.
            It was just past sunset when they spotted the sphere.  It lay across a slight gully of old ice to the south.  The band stopped and their speech became animated.
            “What’s the delay?” asked the Trumpeter.
            “We are deciding,” was the head nomad’s response as he fielded a barrage of questions from his men.
            An old brave was chosen from the group and with his spear began making his approach towards the orb.  The reasoning was simple: there could be profit in the unknown but it wouldn’t do to lose a younger, stronger member of the tribe to a foolish errand.  Realizing this, the Fencer was quick to follow.
            The old nomad found this shadow man tough to discourage.  No matter how he hissed or shooed the swordsman was right there with him.  Resigned to this partnership they jumped the gully and approached the sphere with weapons drawn.
            Eyes straining in the waning light, the two men thought it might be a snow oddity formed by chance winds during the storm.  It stood about three meters tall and was irregular now that they saw it.  Snow had formed on the windward face but the rest was white as well.  A different kind of white.
            Testing the object with the blunt end of his spear the old brave found the globe to be frozen in place by snow, much older than from that last storm.  Turning his weapon around he prodded the matter with the point, which sunk in.  Red trickled for a moment, then the hill they were next to rose up into the air.
            The Fence moved faster than the thing, that which seemed of snow but wasn’t, a mimic set in a key of white.  It was all hairy legs and the glint of dark eyes as he leapt to the old brave’s aid, his sword making a great inky arc through the sky.  The blade sheared a front limb off the monster and all three tumbled together, the brave, the Fencer and the shaggy abomination. 
            Without a second thought the nomad had dropped his spear and seized up a knotted club hanging from his belt.  The Fencer struggled to bring his long weapon to bear on the horror which cradled them all in its fastidious limbs. 
            Each of its legs ended in a kind of hook.  With its rear limbs it pulled out a mess of sticky fluid which it wound around the two men even as it drew them closer to its drooling fangs.  With a sudden spasm it sought to pin them.  The Fencer flinched as he struggled with his blade.
            The white hunter split apart with a subsonic scream, foul innards freezing at the touch of the icicle sword.  Legs writhed in its nervous death throes, tearing into them.  Then the thing was still and they clung to it, bleeding in the silk.
            Noise drifted in.  Anawke!  Anawke!  The name was repeated over and over by excited voices.  With some difficulty the Fencer was freed from the hideous mass where he caught as much clean air as he could.
            Next the old brave was freed.  He was clutched in its mouth but came out alive and yelling, his club covered in venom.  Apparently he had braced the thing against its fangs, saving him.
            “It’s an Anawke!” exclaimed the Trumpeter as he patted the furry carapace.
            “White hunters from the jungle,” said the head man, nodding approvingly.  “They sometimes come out from there if their numbers grow too great.”
            This was the most alarming thing the two men had heard in some time.  The beast was as large as a hut when fully splayed out, with a bulbous abdomen, small thorax and a head full of eyes and poison.  When they cut at the giant ball of silk, the sphere which had attracted them in the first place, a dead mammoth stared back with dead blue eyes.
            The nomads set to work.  Under growing stars they cut through the abdomen for the spinnerets and related organs.  Theses they spooled up in a practiced manner, joking and laughing amongst the gore.  Even the mammoth, a youth, didn’t go to waste.  They had its tusks out and over their shoulders before the western sky lost color.  Thus laden with treasures the band started off into the cold night, warmed by victory.
            The Fencer’s new friend offered him a present before they left.  There, in his hands, was one of the spider’s fangs, long as a short sword and wickedly curved.  Smiling, the Fencer accepted the gift graciously.
            Through all this Coyat’oc was sullen and quiet, but as they moved he regrew his smile.  They began their final moonlit approach to the walled town.  The houses within were distant and invisible, showing only their glowing windows like the eyes of a vast company of beasts.

Many eyes wondered after the travelers from the jungle.   Some were hungry for flesh, others simply noted shapes passing in the distance.  Yet one pair watched on with a frown.
            Eley stood a hundred feet in the air, feet perfectly balanced upon the mighty bough of a great jungle tree.  Warning calls brought her to the jungle’s edge but it was worry which kept the woman’s attention.  A band of color, with two drab additions. 
            She thought of the wolf, that last unwelcome visitor.  In the future more care must be taken that her trail might not be followed.  But the storm had been come, wiping away her tracks.  There was only a small chance that anyone might’ve happened across her presence.
            Blank snow, that was the past, a vanished trail, an evaporated life.  There was no town or community, only the work and the splendor.  Hers was a magic that couldn’t be broken.  Unlike the magi of legends she demanded nothing from her Art, instead sacrificing everything so that each spell might live and thrive.  Others were less willing.
            Seyo’an the monkey trilled at Eley’s sudden motion.  In a flash she rode a creeper down to the jungle floor.  There she moved quickly lest she reconsider her actions.  Out on the white she flew south under night’s shadow, greeting the moons, watching the hills as a thousand fabulous beasts watched her in return, as the architect of the space beyond white.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Witch of the White Jungle I. Pale Blossom Opens

The tracks reached across white hills and the wolf, ever-interested, followed after this strange scent.  It was a polar wolf, common to the wilderness of Winter.  Its thick, curly coat made it invisible amongst the snows.  Only the bright blue eyes peering out from the covering mop of fur gave away its nature.
            A rogue from its pack, it was lean and hungry and it loped across the dunes eagerly until there, in the distance, it saw the jungle.  Set against a cubical mountain, a sudden expanse of tall trees erupted, thick with creepers and underbrush.
            For a moment the beast stopped, given pause by the strange biome stretching along the horizon.  It sniffed the air.  There, the scent of something interesting and alive.  A pair of prints continued on towards the jungle and with a leap the wolf continued after.
            Making up for lost time the scent came stronger, fresher.  The beast raced on.  Dunes roared by in the diffuse light of a cloudy day.  The wind picked up and beyond the mountains a storm gestated. 
            The jungle started slowly, a few plants at a time.  White grass at first, peeking up from the snow, speckled with pale liars and other wildflowers.  Then an explosion of trees, huge pillars with massive, outspread arms, leaves like boats, strung with vines. 
            Without hesitation the wolf entered this alien world.  Inside it grew dark, like sundown.  Weak light drifted from rare breaks in the canopy.  The wind ceased and a new sound arose.
            There was buzzing, and chirping and so much more.  Here a cry, here a crash, and then silence which gradually gave way to more sound.  Upon this a thousand new smells assaulted the wolf’s sensitive nose.  Used to dead snow, this was too much and the beast lost the trail.  The tracks became confused with many other animals, strange things, the reek of predators.
            It didn’t matter.  Suddenly something huge uncoiled.  There was a crash of underbrush and a deluge of snow as the canopy was disturbed.  A massive limb snatched the wolf and brought the victim in with a mighty snap. 
            Quiet for a while, then the sounds returned.  Two pale blue birds sang their song as the underthings crept out to lap up the blood.  Soon, the blooms would come.

Eley fled into the night which greeted her with arms of cold death.  Snow crumbled under her feet and her breath plumed.  It was that singular moment before the pain and shivers came, when the crisp air felt so thin that a body might tumble free of the ground.
            The doorway glowed behind the girl, one big pane of amber light.  Then a shadow crossed.  Standing at the threshold was her father.  His voice followed after, fighting the wind, but she couldn’t make out his words.  The wind made a riddle out of them.
            Fleeing from such nonsense, Eley continued to run out over the endless white.  She wore only a light shift and carried nothing but a single pot, its contents cradled by her meticulous hands.
            They would be out soon, the townsfolk.  Glancing back she saw houses flicker awake.  Shaggy wolf-hounds cried up suddenly, a great cacophony of yips and howls.  The menfolk would be after her.
            So the girl fled into the dark.  Her eyes became accustomed to the moonlight and saw that the whole plain shimmered.  The largest moon was low along the east, casting long shadows, when she came to the wall.
            Eley almost shrieked as it loomed from the dark.  Generations of ironstone blocks piled higher than she could reach. 
            Following it out of memory she raced to the northern entrance.  To her right a number of moving flames told of the folk giving chase.  They gave no cry; they were past communication.  Hers was a sin not to be forgiven.
            Shivering now, she reached the gate before the mob, which was close enough that human shapes could be discerned as well as the hunting spears they carried.  The watchman saw it too.
            “Open the gate,” gasped Eley between breaths.  “There’s a thing which managed the wall.  It’s taken Marhe’s child back to the jungle.”
            Young and freckled, the guard eyed the girl warily.
            “You’ve not gear or sense,” he said.
            “Damn Sebet, open up the way for the hunting party.  I ran ahead just to help while they gathered their gear.”
            Sebet froze a second but then melted to a nod.  With a grinding clang he pulled the chain which raised the lesser door, just big enough for a single person.  Not the greater, which would’ve made way for a whole band.
            Pausing with realization, Eley thanked the youth who caught her before she made it through the portal.  Now there were shouts from behind, still indistinct in word but certain in tone.  The hounds let loose a chorus of replies. 
            She didn’t even turn around.  This, she thought, was the end of things.  She pressed her hands tightly around the little pot, then something warm descended on her.  The boy had given her his cloak, made from thick mammoth hair.
            Then she was free, gone, off into the outer night.  The realm beyond was full of danger, jungle things which occasionally loped out from the canopy in search of men.  She went where the searchers dared not; they would not find her or the precious secret she carried.

The strangers were near to it, but what, exactly, escaped their knowledge.  They were strangers wherever they went, both from dead cultures blasted out of existence or devoured by the many horrors which hunted the icebound world.  Yet, they had a way of adapting, of making everywhere their kind of place, and that, in a word, was chaos.
            The eastern reaches of Barant were home to a geologic oddity, a range of cubical mountains, their upper surfaces swathed in clouds while below similarly square foothills budded off, eventually leading to the great lowland and, to the east, the ocean.  A massive glacier flowed south, turned away by the range, and curved around from the west to create a southern boundary, an ice blue cliff which rose nearly a hundred meters.  On this the tall one stood.
            He observed a map written in a battered green journal by a familiar hand.  The lowlands and mountains were listed with the quaint and apostrophized names of the locals, their town set against the western cubes and defended by a long wall. 
            He lost himself in the writing again while below a speck of a man scouted about, eager to continue their journey.  He could see their goal, off in the distance.  It wasn’t a feature he recognized, so that would be it.  Anxious to get moving, he decided it was time for a disruption.
            “Trumpeter!” he called from below and coughed.  He wasn’t used to the humidity, even though the temperature hovered just below freezing.  “I don’t much like the shadows over to the northwest.  Think we have a storm welcoming us.”
            The response was an unsatisfactory, “Sssshshhhhhh!”
            When he was finished the taller fellow sighed and put the book away.   Quickly he managed to climb down the cliff, something which had taken his smaller companion more than half an hour.  In fact that was why he had studied the journal again, out of boredom.
            “No good to yell here, Fencer,” he rasped.  “Your voice might’ve called down the whole ice wall.”
            “Is this it?” the Fencer asked, ignoring the warning and looking out towards the strange feature swarming over the northern region.
            “It’s the only thing not named like the others,” nodded the musician as he polished his instrument, a horn of gleaming silver. 
            “So that’s a jungle then,” mused the Fencer. 
            It stretched from the western crux of the mountain range to a distant haze in the east.  Trees, taller things than either man had seen growing on the dead face of Winter, stretched their broad leaves out as a shield.  Gaps in the canopy showed creepers and vines, while tumbling from the base was a gown of saplings, bushes and shrubs, of kinds and varieties heard of nowhere else.  All were white, the only telling sign were the shadows, deep and mysterious.  Pale flowers rounded out the slope, eventually merging with rolling dunes of snow which marked the lowlands. 
            This was the White Jungle, as written on the page much studied by the Trumpeter.  Rumors and legends attended the place, telling of witches and fell beasts.  Many sought its secrets in the endless hunger the ice caused in men, but it was a particular mystery which brought these two and it lay upon the page, sketched with the map.  Besides fine drawings of strange plants and stranger activities were two words: Monath’s Method.

It was midmorning when the men set off through the thick, heavy snow.  The surface was rippled and clumped, formed into serpentine hills by the wind which spilled over the mountains and pushed against their northward progress. 
            Bountiful lands unfolded before them.  In many places the staggered tracks of various beasts could be seen crossing each other, huge craters where the glass mammoths strode, careful lines noting a band cowardly white coyotes, as well as the broad-shoed marks of the local hunters.  Pale flowers grew on the sunward slopes facing brilliance with petals of lilac, periwinkle and canary. 
            Growing in tune with this biome the men noticed hidden things.  A covey of quail crouched and still amongst a swatch of ice wheat.  A vivid hart started up in surprise as they topped a snowy dune.  Hills to the east which seemed to move, becoming a line of mammoths. 
            “Easy Fencer,” said the Trumpeter, noting his companion’s interest in hunting such a behemoth.  “You know the deal, you only get to hunt them if I get to ride on one first.”
            With a frown the swordsman nodded.  “I forgot the storm as well,” he reasoned, then noted the ground.  “We seem to have a scout.”
            Gesturing down he directed the Trumpeter’s attention towards a line of narrow tracks.  Four toes, dimples for claws, a quadruped  which left a whisk to the snow caused by a bushy tail.
            “A wolf,” nodded the musician, looking about for more of the daring hunters.  “A rogue, like yourself.”
            Shrugging, the Fencer took after the tracks, which went off to the north.  There was another set, a woman’s, which the wolf’s followed. 
            North and west the sky grew darker and the wind took up a chill and humid tang.  Green tinted clouds raced above, the sign of dangerous weather, and they moved faster.
            The Fencer didn’t like this land.  Lush, yes, and full of game, but the air was too humid for his dry, polar lungs.  He began to cough again.
            The green clouds left them and for maybe an hour and a half a bright day descended upon the land.  Glittering facets showed across the dunes, like in a fabled desert, and made the air warm with light.  At the same time those animals which had been in plenty before vanished.
            With the jungle and town still far off they watched as the storm descended.  First there was the silent shadow, and then a growing howl.  Closer still the clouds tumbled brighter and brighter and close to the ground.  The air sparked with snow and then it hit them.
            Whipping winds brought the snow in sideways and they soon became caked with the thick, wet stuff.  It weighed down their movements, which became pointless as they were blind.  The world was all alabaster chaos and at last they crouched down on a seemingly endless plain in hopes of waiting out the storm.
            The Fencer lay curled up, his body covered in snow next to the Trumpeter, who had disappeared into his long woolen coat.  Through narrow lids the swordsman watched the storm.  It bloomed, layer upon layer of white wind unfolding in endless succession. 
            Through the howl a noise intruded, it may have been an hour or a day since the tempest began, they couldn’t be sure.  The storm kept its own time.  A low note, resonant, able to cut through the wind.  It sounded again, closer, a tone quite unlike any the men had heard before.
            The Trumpeter stirred from his ice tomb.  His coat parted and the Fencer sat up and watched his companion place his silver instrument to his lips.  Pointing the trumpet down to avoid wayward gusts he produced a copy of the sound. 
            A reply was almost immediate and closer.  Again the Trumpeter played and again the approaching noise responded.  The Fencer sought his blade and readied for whatever horror his friend had summoned to leap through the curtains of snow.
            Now the storm weakened, the wind becoming inconstant gusts.  The duet continued and the sun broke from the sky like a blossom unfolding.  Colors flashed in what the Fencer guessed was the east, streaks of crimson, saffron and cerulean mingling with the flying silver snow.
            Suddenly there was a break in the storm and they beheld the source of the music.  It was a frog, perched on a staff, held by a man swathed in multicolored silks.  A whole band of people, similarly dressed, stretched on behind him, following in the golden afternoon light.