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.