Ring seed and sacrifice with tightly packed ice. By morning a frozen shell will surround the endeavor. What cradles the seed becomes part of the seed. These are keys. The world is made of them.
A key opens the future lock. The sacrifice is a kind of key as is sunlight, and ice, and tears. Dream near the seed, if you wish to give it your dreams, and perform unspeakable torments if that is your waking dream. Know that the environment affects the developing kernel in a far more extreme way than it does you. You are dead matter talking.
These aspects, the sacrifice and keys, are catalysts and the secret of the Method is that all things are fuel for new growth. Ice provides the way. It must be pure. Thank the Riddle, for its medium is clear and plentiful, conducive to a magic which runs as true as the ground beneath your feet. To understand this is to grow great things.
Under a black sky the travelers were forced to wait at the wall. The gatekeeper’s face appeared once in the sliding window which opened upon their arrival. For a moment they saw his pale skin, freckles, and eyes of the same ghost blue which seemed common in the valley. Then he vanished and they didn’t know when they’d be let into Jomoth’orr.
The night cried out in a thousand voices, distant voices from the jungle to the north. Lost languages flew upon the air like the pale insects which flitted in the moonlight. One of the moons crept over the eastern horizon revealing the wrinkled skin of the valley. Life teemed and with it, fear.
At last word came from within and the large gate clanged open. Within they saw a huge parcel of snowy ground, the town itself still some distance off against the flat side of a mountain. Exhausted, they shuffled across the last meters of ice.
Jomoth’orr’s houses each had a single, slanted roof, with the greater side facing east so that snow and ice might slough off into specially prepared ditches. A large chimney clung to each home, affording warmth all the way up to the third or fourth floors. Windows, real glass windows, stared out at the travelers, as did a few locals about their business along streets illuminated by iron lampposts. Strangely, they ignored the two obvious strangers and focused their attentions on the nomads.
In came the locals, a pale people, like the doorman. The women wore dresses and elaborate coats spun from a thick, sleek material which was nearly translucent. This caught the eye of the men, who wore drab suits of mammoth wool, their only curiosity being a sort of long walking stick reminiscent of the narrow spears carried by the nomads.
The locals spoke the same tongue and the two peoples exchanged words which had the feel of old troubles. Then the nomads produced the spider parts and mammoth tusks and sent up a great whoop of laughter. In response the townsfolk frowned and went back to their business.
Night sulked beyond the lamplight. The town felt sheltered, half suffocated by the mountain rising thousands of meters above.
“What was that all about?” asked the Trumpeter, stopping the nomad chief before he could make for the edge of the town.
“Family business,” he explained. “We’ve come to trade for the spider silks and with some fortune have part of what we desire, thanks to your warrior.”
When the Trumpeter seemed not to understand the elder added, “It’s a matter of pride.”
Before he could ask more questions the Fencer pulled his musical companion away from the nomad, who followed his kin to the edge of the lighted city. A camp was already being set and a low fire burned.
“Take a look,” said the swordsman.
The town was fine, the buildings impressive, and for once they weren’t the source of tension in the air. Homes rose like waves of civilization, all the same, except one, down a westward lane.
It was built much like the others, with four floors under a slanting roof, but unlike the rest it showed peculiar character. From a distance it seemed to be covered in some kind of growth, but up close this was revealed to be a curious mesh of artwork. There were words, pictograms and hieroglyphs, shells and bones and skulls. Here an eye, there a coat of arms, and more and more. From inside a number of voices could be heard, equally diverse.
Stepping past the threshold the two men entered a warm common room. Inside, the walls wore even more colors and notes, graffiti in a thousand tongues. Faces from all across Barant turned to greet them.
Clan agents from Ruin, refugees from Nock, weathered traders from Aghren and beyond populated the mishmash tables and chairs. After a few greetings they paid little care to the men entering, though a few bodyguards took stock of the Fencer’s weapon and a pair of highwaymen appraised the Trumpeter’s silver instrument. A haze filled the air, thick with tobacco and opiate smoke, accented with the promise of civilized food.
They took a table and set their backs against the wall in the formal sign of distrust. Instantly a young man with pale features appeared.
“Elk?” he asked and the Fencer nodded.
The youth disappeared into the haze and a girl appeared in his place, as if they had simply changed shape and garb like some kind of doppelganger.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” she began. The Fencer went still, as if he had been spotted by some predator, while the Trumpeter smiled warmly. “There’s roast boar and pale greens, if that’s too your liking, and mulled wine alongside.”
Before the Fencer could stop him the Trumpeter nodded the girl off. A man at a nearby table let out a wheezing laugh. Then there was a third.
The child couldn’t have been more than ten seasons old and from a long way off. His bronze skin was that of someone from the Sulun and he spoke not a word of Baranti, though he more than made up for this in the quantity of his words.
After a short speech, in which he never looked directly at the two men, he waited. The travelers waited. Then the youth’s shy eyes crept up, taking in their strange garb and stranger tools. His eyes met the Fencer’s. Taking that as a sign the child leapt off.
In very little time the travelers had three meals heaped upon their table, much to the amusement of the other patrons. Elk and boar, pale vegetables grown on the snows and rare fruits stolen from the jungle, attended by various wines and ales and a strange tentacle stew which the boy carried out at the end. There was too much so they shared with their fellow travelers.
Suddenly they were popular and drowned in welcome. The varied inhabitants of the room dived in, drank and laughed, as if the Riddle never existed and the snows never fell.
A massive fellow without a shirt, painted up like a demon and set with bones in his ears and nose, thanked them in a soft voice before devouring the whole octopus which writhed in the bubbling cauldron provided them.
“What is this place?” asked the Fencer, his mood temporarily thawed. “I know it’s an inn, but where are the Jomoth? Tell me.”
“The blue house,” replied the man.
“Well it was once. Tradition, the Jomoth are happiest when living in the past. Once they needed a place for all the travelers and merchants they attract and so they built a blue house so there’d be no mistake.”
“Mistake of what?”
“No mistake that we’re the outlanders and they, the Jomoth, are the true people. So they painted the house blue. No blue houses you can see. Time changes traditions and so it’s changed the house, just not the name.”
The fellow introduced himself as Hoxu, a cannibal, before continuing his explanation, relishing his words as much as he did the sea creature he gnawed upon.
“You see, the Jomoth don’t care to keep an inn, as they have rules of community which cease to work outside the context of family and town. So they just built a building, painted it blue, and let the travelers keep their own place.”
“So the tavern owner…,” wondered the Trumpeter, growing concerned.
“No such thing,” nodded Hoxu. “Just enterprising souls who come here to sell wares to the other travelers. Once their stocks are out they move on, lest the competition butcher them for a meal.”
The Fencer let out a groan.
“That means we’ve purchased three feasts then,” said the Trumpeter, shaking his head.
“Even highwaymen need a decent paying job on occasion,” mused Hoxu. “A few of us are here to make sure that every account gets paid for, despite any issues of translation.”
A quick accounting was in order. Together the Fencer and the Trumpeter had a few bits of silver in their pouches. Neither was used to money and the broken coinage and damage metal which passed as currency held little weight in either their minds or their pockets. This, they decided, without saying the words, would never be enough.
“Who wants a song?” declared the Trumpeter as he shot to his feet, nearly tipping the table over and disturbing their newly bought friends. Several fellows bristled at the thought of competition. One drew a knife.
As the Trumpeter began to play the Fencer slipped out of the blue house. Cold, honest air greeted him. Civilization vexed the man, whose teeth were fused together with grinding rage. Footsteps followed him into the night.
Glancing back, his shadow contained a massive cannibal. Despite his great size the beast stalked like a hunting cat, following footsteps already placed into the compacted snow. Though he had no weapon the Fencer’s delicate martial sensibilities sensed danger in Hoxu’s controlled grace.
So hunted, the Fencer jogged to the main circle where they had first met the Jomoth. Nobody was about, though house lights still glowed and the lamps were obviously tended. As he searched the cannibal waited in the shade between two lamps. It was a wonder that the man could still be hungry.
Half-guessing the way, the Fencer went off, not towards the gate, but over the snows beyond the town. A puzzled Hoxu followed.
Outside town the stars opened up. Only bright ones at first, then more and more revealed themselves. Four moons showed in various phases. The only other light, a campfire, lay out on the ice.
The Fencer saw guards waiting for him at the nomad’s camp. How wise these nomads were to not bed down in the town proper.
Now he broke into a full run, forcing the creature behind to keep up. The larger man made quite a bit of noise and the nomads were ready, spears braced, by the time the Fencer reached them.
Stopping amidst an array of points he caught his breath. The cynical part of him figured Coyat’oc would take this opportunity to advance their personal and completely artificial vendetta, but a quick glance showed no sign of the man. There was not a smile to be found.
The Fencer had caught the silken nomads with much less silk, each wearing only a single sleeveless wrap. A tall, willowy people, they had pale, slightly ashen skin, and long straight hair of pale colors which they kept tied back in a number of contrivances. Women dressed similarly to the men. Perhaps there was some subtlety of fashion which differentiated the two. Something curious about the whole scene, a hint of the familiar.
“I need,” he began after catching his breath. “The chieftain, headman, or whatever else you call the fellow who knows Baranti.”
They looked at him, their eyes trying to puzzle out what he meant. With a sign the Fencer realized that none of them spoke the trade tongue.
Then a somber old fellow appeared behind the ring of spears. His body was a knotted tree, wound tight with lean muscle. Seeing the Fencer, he gave a command and the spears relaxed.
“Had’on?” he asked the Fencer, then repeated himself again.
This was the man whom he had saved from the spider. The Fencer nodded and was led through the camp to a tent. Silks of a familiar pattern leaned like the houses in town, with a single angled roof and an opening which faced southeast.
Inside, a low oil flame cast the interior in saffron shades. Before the Fencer could make out what lay within a voice tested the air. After his companion replied a figure leaned out of the shadows.
“Had’on?” asked the Fencer.
“Now you know one of our words,” smiled the head nomad.
“I am remiss, I don’t know your name,” said the swordsman.
“Nor I yours,” was the reply.
“I am the Fencer, which means more than it sounds. My companion is the Trumpeter, you will hear his introduction sooner rather than later and he is much enraged at not being able to make his own noise.”
“Those aren’t your names,” said the Had’on as he labored out of his sleeping pallet. Chest bare, he wore only a brightly colored sarong tied around his waist.
“I’ve asked no favors for saving your man,” began the Fencer.
“But now you will,” grumbled the Had’on.
He was looking around for something. As his eyes alighted on his spear, lying next to the entrance flap, the Fencer realized the worry the nomad felt.
“One of the tusks.”
To punctuate the request the Fencer moved his hand away from Dhala’s hilt, where it always rested. Immediately there was a pang of vulnerability.
“A tusk like that would bring us all the silk we could wear,” said the nomad, glancing up to take stock of the Fencer’s cold grey eyes. “We could weigh ourselves down with gold from foreign merchants, purchase exotic weapons for our more foolish braves and wild tonics that are the closest thing we have to magic since the Uplifting. Just a tusk.”
The Had’on rasped out a laugh before continuing.
“Fortune is always lost, it bleeds away. Watch the ice. See how it drinks in the sun. That’s theft, that’s what it is. None of us are our own man. Souls bleed out, we each taste it, and the poisons of our world, the medicine of others too, these things we share as easily as the air or the Riddle. Of course you can take a tusk. How should I stop you?”
The phase of the conversation bewildered the Fencer. Like an avalanche the Had’on’s mood tumbled. Yet, the swordsman sensed wisdom in the words, as if the nomad kept such beauty bottled up inside of him and only rarely shared it in violent eruptions.
The nomads grumbled as they gave up one of their prizes, but it was a calculated response, intended to show just enough interest in the thing being given so as to make it a fitting gift. For a moment the Fencer hesitated. A churlish part of his soul would do without the payment and simply cut through the mercantile tricks of the blue house, but another remembered his old village by the great sound. The whales and seals were long lost to time and adventure but these peoples made him homesick.
Hoxu confronted him just outside the nomad’s camp. He lived in the shadows like a fish lived in water, a hungry leviathan.
“Which do you want?” The Fencer indicated both the tusk and his sword. “I can pay with either, though you’ll like one of these far less than the other.”
With that settled the Fencer made his way back into Jomoth’orr. By the time he returned to the blue house he strutted, the long mammoth tusk balanced on his shoulder, pondering what it would be like to hunt such a huge creature. Then the music hit.
Notes made from dream bled into his consciousness. The night took on a new color, that of the song, painted with broad, soft strokes. Peals, almost alien in their beauty, matched his victorious mood. Looking up he watched the sky, which showed no stars in the over lit town. In that mystery he saw the Answer, shaped like a new moon of such bizarre symmetry that it existed precisely because it was improbable. Then he shook the fantasy from his head and entered the blue house.
There were bodyguards at the doors and travelers all over the tables. The upper rooms had given up their populations, crowding the place with venturesome figures from across the continent. They sat alone but listened together to the freeform song.
The Trumpeter’s eyes were closed, lost to the music. He was a seed, the music the plant whose blossoms the company enjoyed. While playing he was nothing, but if he should stop, then the trouble would begin.
The Fencer tapped the trumpet aside. Unlike natural music the gauzy resonance faded slowly, lingering in the ears of those who heard it.
Knives and swords were drawn. The Fencer parried with the tusk, tossed onto the table in front of him.
“Payment,” he said, and then sat down.
While the merchants and bandits fought over the thing the swordsman noted his companion’s silence. The Trumpeter’s eyes were still closed.
“Something wrong?” asked the Fencer.
“Too much beauty,” was the reply.
“I’m afraid your audience doesn’t share your good taste, they’ve more interest in ivory.”
“They were listening?” The Trumpeter opened his eyes at last and grinned. “I was mostly playing for myself.”
The door opened to bright silks and a hideous laugh. Coyat’oc strutted to the bar, observing the money madness with a curled sneer and demanded a drink. The Fencer’s new shadow had arrived.
She knew the tracks would be gone, but without seeing it with her own two eyes Eley couldn’t rest knowing that another unwanted guest might wander into her domain. What a sad thing, that wolf. Best for both worlds to stay separate.
Striding over snowy hills and icy ravines she swept across the valley shimmering beneath the moons. Stars watched, a scrutiny that always made her nervous. The Jungle held her close and didn’t stare.
An hour passed until she was confident nothing was left of her previous journey. No tracks survived the storm. Good, her business was secret. Blowing winds would cover her new trail by morning. Another risk, but she had to know.
Looking north she witnessed the distant ghost fires of the town, their lower levels cut off by the wall. Such a ruin. There was a house, some people, a foreign culture. Ice surrounded her like insulation against cold civilization.
Eley smiled to the night. She was free of eyes and cold death and she wanted to laugh. Such purity bloomed. Her spirit sent her north to gaze over her environment.
Feet dancing over stretches of ice and snow, breath steaming into the zero night, she heard nothing but herself for several minutes. Then the music arrived.
Distant notes swelled. The unearthly clamor grew as she raced towards it and the town. The song possessed her to find the wall and there listen even as the music faded without conclusion. Eley embraced the wall, ear pressed to the ironstone, clutching at echoes.