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.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

IX. A Brutish Symphony

The titan’s call shook through the White Jungle, an eerie echo of the Trumpeter’s blast.  At the sound the Jomoth became a prickle of spears, unsure of the strange crying horror.  Thronging anawke tensed, crumpling against the trees and ice, hunters hiding from one more powerful than they.  Again the sound rang out, closer and closer, thunder in the earth, metal in the air.  A trumpet blast monster answering a silver note.
            Turning on his companion the Fencer discovered half a smile on the Trumpeter’s face.  The other half was incomprehensible, some mixture of worry and wonder, the sort of emotion which had no name, existing only for fractions of time, collapsing under the tiniest weight of scrutiny. 
            Cursing his useless friend, the swordsman dashed off towards the sound, closely followed by the Trumpeter, Harx and the young man he saved from the silver langurs.  Angry shouts of “coward” and “lunatic” followed them beyond the shadowed boughs.  In the lighted portions the jungle buzzed with anxious life but the rest of the hunters didn’t follow.  Taking advantage of the moment they dived further into the dark trees, to where the anawke had less game and were found in fewer numbers.  This was their plan and only the foolish ignored prudence.
            Reason demanded they flee, regroup, using the others as distraction to save themselves.  But the Fencer made directly for the noise.  A larger reason drove him.
            They found a lighted clearing.  A dead tree had fallen, opening a small patch of sky to red evening clouds.  Here they stopped amongst equally crimson poppies.
            “No sense in this, outlander,” said Harx as he gasped for breath.  “It is customary for my people to run away from danger instead of towards it.”
            “You’re here, aren’t you?” replied the Fencer, his sword out and ready, tensing with each approaching footfall.
            “Nobody is abandoned on the hunt.”  This was the brave’s justification.
            “The Trumpeter awoke this thing and now I’ll have to quiet it down,” frowned the swordsman.
            “What if it only wants to sing?” 
            Nobody responded to the Trumpeter’s question.  It was absurd in this place of violence.  Life was the antagonist here, as if every flower and beast were turned against them.  This seeming narrative played more loudly than any song.
            Footsteps turned to rumbles, rumbles turned to thunder, and still they didn’t glimpse the oncoming monster.  Not a tree moved and no shadow could be seen to the east.  The Fencer waited in the middle, flanked by Harx and the other Jomoth.  The Trumpeter had no place, he was everywhere, hoping to be the first to welcome a fellow musician.
            The noise entered the clearing but there was no sight of the thing.  It was amongst them, crushing them under unseen limbs, trumpeting invisible frenzy.  The defenders flinched and scattered, except Harx.
            The Trumpeter saw his face go wild, eyes huge, mouth opening into a silent scream.  The man dropped his spear and put his hands to his ears as the scream stretched in pure horror until he suddenly collapsed forward and lay still upon the jungle floor.
            Then they saw it.   At the southern edge of the clearing stood a monolith beast, far away from the noise it mimicked to fool them.  The Fencer charged and it exhaled.  Humming bright the air distorted with a blasting gout of sound.  Where the Fencer stood there was only dirty powder, the debris of the jungle floor tossed up, clouding the air.
            Its audience subdued, the monstrous thing entered the clearing on clawed limbs more powerful than any mammoth, its pyramidal body snapping branches and ripping through growth without a care.  Only one defender remained, frozen with fear, watching his doom approach.
            The thing heard the music before it reached human ears.  Turning its great aperture, it found the Trumpeter in his silver.  Music rose like a tide, drowning the moment’s violence, notes as alive as the insects in the air, diving for the heart.
            Suddenly the music spiked.  Warm tones were replaced with cold, the melody straining towards cacophony.  The monster crouched back a second before launching into its own song and the two began a duet battle where noise could shatter flesh and madness rang in the air.

Eley smiled at the cries of fearful men.  Since they entered the jungle she had been there, watching from beyond the leaves, creeping silent as they followed their usual path. 
            Most years they drowned in plenty.  She planted the fruits they enjoyed and subtly turned them towards the trees most acceptable for cutting.  They braved the anawke with her blessing, both races keeping the other’s population manageable. 
            Eley liked watching.  It gave her a sense of power.  She liked it best when she was higher than they, up in the boughs, hidden amongst the shadows.  Sometimes the focus of her attention looked right at her and saw only what she wore, and when they did see her true self she would give that man a blossom and in its scent found oblivion. 
            This season was different.  A barrier had been crossed, an unspoken trust broken.  The Method was her magic now, a prize she had been given, persecuted for, driven to this place.  Now some agency outside used her means in her jungle.  She had only curses for such impertinence, only poison.
            She followed along through glitter trees grown just yesterday, past the dead langurs made silver by fruit she had given them.  A warning, perhaps, one she knew wouldn’t be heeded, so she planted the garden, with its mix of honey and death.  Riches enticed them now.  They were new seeds.  She had more gardens of surprise waiting, insidious predators suckled on her spite, saved for when the men were laden with silk, perhaps a few short from the anawke.  Paos changed that plan.
            Consider the soundling monster as she hunted its song.  Perhaps it was luck which brought the unknown magician here to awaken such a beast.  Vengeance glimmered in her heart, but also curiosity.  Eley hungered for magic, for a magician, as she slipped through the jungle.
            From that first ear-shattering note she knew it had found the men, but all her sense told her that the hunters had followed their usual game and retreated into the shadows at the first sign of danger, like a reflex to pain.  Yet these battling sounds she now heard were some ways off from the shadowed boughs.  To divide the group wasn’t the Jomoth way, she smirked to herself.
            Two symphonies fought.  Deadly notes overlapped, wrestling for meter, striking in uncertain melody.  Each ambushed with more complicated rhythms meant to drown the other.  The result was a startling beauty, mad, insane, terrible like a rain of blood on a field of naked goddesses. 
            It was difficult to determine the nature of either player, or their number.  Perhaps a legion of musicians fought Paos, but no, she would know if such a company invaded her domain.  Another strange creature seemed likely, in search of a mate perhaps.  Yet there was no certainty to these peeling cries and Eley could only quicken her pace and wonder.
            Her ears were ringing before she caught sight of the scene.  Flowers trembled in applause and the usual Crea things fled, leaving the White Jungle an eerie, empty auditorium, buzzing with reverb, the high, strong limbs of the trees knocking together.
            Through this agitated chorus she crept.  A poppy clearing lay ahead, she glimpsed red blossoms through the undergrowth.  At the edge she hesitated, noting crashes and buzzing from beyond.  She tasted magic.
            Peering through a wall of broad leaves she saw the battlefield and its participants.  Some dozen meters away to her left stood grand Paos while opposite, in the shade, a man rose atop the massive stump of a fallen tree, a single man with a single trumpet.  Between them lay a still figure on a greatly disturbed patch of forest floor.  A Jomoth in a hunting cloak crouched over this form.  His back was to her, hands clutching his ears for protection from the song.
            What noise it was!  Each side played without ceasing, note after note, tones like sunrays.  The air visibly distorted with the onslaught, shimmering at the edges.  Many of the trees behind the trumpet player were blasted down, some reduced to sawdust, while the jungle behind Paos was less disturbed.  The mortal seemed to play a stalemate game with a smile on his face.  
            Neither faction noticed their new audience.  She crept amongst the leaves, one with the vegetable matter and bright blossoms.  Paos finished a high screaming sequence, the combined total of notes swarmed upon the man, but the musician’s counter tone scattered the volley, which howled through the far places of the jungle.  The trumpet followed the short silence with a stunning boom and the creature replied with a multi-tone shriek. 
            So ran the songs, one into the next, the musicians sculpting the notes, the notes sculpting the air, buffering against deadly blasts while finding openings for their own theme.  Their music went beyond sound, the air and light changed at their call.  Here a bright cry, there a chilling dirge, the effects transitioning from the poetic into the real, the sum greater than either of the players.
            The trumpet man sang fire and Paos cried ice, composed poison, blasting the stuff into the air as a great purple cloud.  A high antidote responded, followed close by a cure for conflict, the peace unheard by the monolith beast. 
            Eley heard the jungle in Paos’s voice, each bird cry, each monkey whoop, distorted to fit the duel’s needs, remastered for maximum devastation.  In the trumpet there was further strangeness.  An unnatural instrument, it played moments and feelings which she scarcely had words for, towards effects nuanced and sublime.  Lacking Paos’s massive power the man had to play carefully while defending the two fellows between them, with an eye towards the mad score running through his head.
            They continued in low notes, piling thunder booms, building a storm.  Out from this cloud flashed peels of brighter song: the man’s stump began to smolder, a kind of fire played along Paos’s contours, all while the canopy flashed with concealed energy.  Rising now, both players following upwards, seeking the pinnacle, casting side notes to distract and harry the other.  They both bled now.  Up, until the storm broke into chaos arpeggio and mad-eyed wails.  Each blare rattled the scene, forces scattered through the Verd, disintegrating swathes of trees, letting in the sun. 
            Eley was caught by the tension in the air like the victims of an anawke web.  She could sense and think but movement felt impossible and dangerous.  Still, she had no fear and watched Paos in its beauty.
            Themes clashed and ran over each other, melodies rising, up past the sky.  The symphony peaked beyond music, surfacing into alien magic.  Each player resounded into a final, heartbreaking noise, full spectrum, ears bloody. 
            It was what Paos was after.  He reversed into listener and drank in the trumpet man, his song, the whole score of battle.  Surprised by this turn and unready for an audience the tall man went quiet, despite how he blew into his horn.  Paos shook with joy at the feast.
            Somehow the girl was disappointed.  The magic was over, the silence deafening.  Eardrums buzzed like a swarm of insects.
            The trumpet player sagged and his instrument dipped to the ground.  With all his might he raised his head, attempting to fight off the quiet vampire, a look of absolute pain on his face.  Soon he would be dead and still, all noise taken from him.  Already he had lasted longer than the other meals.
            Against her heart, Eley plucked a blossom from her garment and blew it towards the Paos.  It struck against the creature’s stone white hide in a puff of orange pollen. 
            The beast twitched as the irritating dust made play with its nerves, tickling the sensitive apertures of its many ears.  It turned.  Just a distraction, just enough. 
            Up from defeat rose the trumpet man.  He placed his silver instrument to his lips and gave it all the air he had left.  Out flashed one note, which struck Paos like a thunderbolt and reported through the trees. 
            Broken and bloody, the soundling stumbled and fell on its side.  The great mouth split apart, buzzing uselessly as the creature attempted to speak through its broken voice. 
            Instantly Eley felt a wash of guilt and ran past its terrible.  She held it close, feeling its mighty pulse slow beneath her fingers. 
            “Paos, I am sorry.  It’s just the magic and the song, I didn’t want it to stop.”
            Huge tears fell like lost rain, condensing on the thing’s hide.  It was leaving, each heartbeat taking it slowly down the Lattice.  Whatever potential it had was lost and since it was but an infant she would never know what full growth might have revealed in its nature.  Heaving, struggling for a note, Paos died into the sort of quiet it gave others.  The jungle hushed.
            “Why did you do that?” demanded a voice from behind her.  “I wanted to know how the song would end.” 
            There stood the tall man, his long coat tattered like his ridiculous scarf.  His pockets bulged with nonsense, bits of statues, scraps of paper.  Bright yellow hair struggled from his head in a wild mass, with matching curls making up a sparse young beard upon the musician’s face.
               The girl had no response.  That was her thought on the matter.  Indignity faded to a flat wasteland of cold sorrow.  Empty winds howled.
            “You’re the Witch, are you not?” the musician asked, his previous displeasure gone.  Despite his bloodied ears, seeping nose and reddened eyes he wore an aura of joy.
            She wasn’t allowed to answer.  As she stood another voice called out.  It was the Jomoth, his terror gone, his face familiar to her.
            “Inoke,” she whispered, though none heard past the ringing in their ears.
            “Your friend,” frowned the Jomoth as he revealed the Fencer.
            Upon the ground he lay with the blasted jungle floor, poppy blossoms shredded to fine red dust by the same incredible force which had broken his body.  The man with stars laid there, his stars infesting his side.  He’d attempted to turn from Paos’s song and it struck him there and in the confusion his blade fell against the wound, where it froze his blood and his life near death.
            “Fencer!” declared the tall man with the attempt of a smile.  “You’ve no appreciation for the arts.  Never turn away from a performance!”
            The ashen man on the ground didn’t return the smile.  He labored to get up, but his body wouldn’t listen.  Neck lifted, his eyes burned with a cold, grey intensity.  Life seeped out through those eyes.
            “Trumpeter,” he rasped.  “Lean close so I can kill you.”
            Here was the thing she feared in town, the man of stars, the dread constellation.  In full light he was shorter than she remembered, not much taller than she.  All his spirit seemed far off and strange, the sort of man she hadn’t seen before, a rare specimen, perhaps unique.  While his companion struggled with his pockets, searching for something, she approached.
            Inoke tried to stop her but with a look he stepped back, afraid of what she had become.  From her garment she took another blossom, a pale green fan.  She took it and placed it in her mouth, chewing as she leaned over to the man.  Eyes like a raging beast followed as she drew close, her body covered in a mesh of vines, plastered with flowers grown flush along her contours.  She waited for him to speak and then moved, placing her lips to his, mouth open, giving a final kiss.