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.