White snows crept down inky mountains towards the great sound, fusing with the covering cap of blue ice. It was below this surface, deceptively thin in places and prone to shifting, that the albino narwhals played during the season of blood. It was a simpler time.
The Fencer remembered the old hunts as he stalked through the shadow nothing of the White Jungle. Back home the men tested the ice before them with long lances made from whale tusk. If they found song they’d set up a breathing break in the sheet and there wait. When the pale flesh rose above the waters they’d use the harpoons, sticking the bulls as deeply as they could, holding on as the ice went red. Sometimes the ice shattered beneath their feet and those who fell had the shivering death. On the whole more pleasant than their current hunt.
In the dark they stalked a fellow hunter, perhaps a man or something which had given up that title for one of more culinary diversity. Every noise was a deadly clue and in this jungle there was an overload of information. Each chirp and grunt roused a paranoid worry but they couldn’t help but continue on, blind, ears open, noses expecting to smell their own blood at any moment.
Man in the dark has much to fear. Such is sight that its absence is itself a trap. Perhaps it was the Riddle’s work that most other creatures managed in the gloom on superior senses while the human being was lost, mad, easy prey.
The Fencer drew his weapon and most of the insects troubling him scuttled away from the unnatural chill. In the dark Dhala’s crimson eyes glowered and he hoped it wouldn’t give them away. Part also hoped it did. That would resolve this game of shadows quickly. This was not his sort of hunt.
The jungle’s song was heavily layered and constant, a sea of living noise which would drive anyone mad in time. The trees and vegetation sang with their pollens and saps, even their rot was an attractive melody for the rubbish eaters. Flying fox barks and the demoniac trill of the lak-lak bird. Choruses of cicada merged with crickets and chirping frogs. Beneath it all was a beating layer of grunts and knocks which neither man could place.
At bad moments the song would stop around them and they froze, unwilling to break the silence. A strange scent often accompanied these breaks, full of biological musk and the faint traces of blossom.
Time was as lost as they. It had been ten minutes or all night, each breath taken was its own day. They chased the faint memory of their prey as the way out of the jungle was confused and hidden by the utter black beneath the thriving canopy.
“I wish those glowing insects were back,” grumbled the Trumpeter.
The Fencer quickly hushed him, as did several unknown things in the dark. Then, thinking better of it, he responded.
“How did you hunt on the Wondering Mountains?” he asked, taking several tactical steps away from the musician.
“I’ve already told you that.” The Trumpeter’s annoyance lived in people who did not listen, and it was strange, the Fencer was usually a good listener.
“Tell me again,” said his friend from farther off.
“We’d make a bunch of frightening noise and chase goats and other things off the cliffs,” he said.
“I can’t, there’s something tugging at me. It’s wrapping around me like a vine, only it’s hairy and I feel hot air from above. Fencer. Fencer?!”
The swordsman raced back, unsure of the exact location of his friend. In the shadows he stumbled into a tangle of hairy tentacles, flesh the consistency of pudding but capable of flexing with terrible strength. Ropy limbs began creeping over him as well.
The thing wiggled around their bodies, snaking through their clothes, then, with a sudden lunge, the upper portion pulled down and a drooling maw clamped down on half the Trumpeter’s head. He screamed and so did the creature, from one of its other mouths.
Soon each man realized the hideous thing wasn’t hairy, but that its primary tentacles were covered in extremely fine wires or cilia. Caught up in these stringy masses each movement was difficult, like pulling out hair at the scalp. The Fencer tried to wrench his sword arm free and with as sickening tear he felt cold liquid bleed from the torn out roots. Then the creature howled.
Its scream was a pure, shrill vowel sound, a high whine which rang the ears. Another body crashed into the Fencer and he wrestled with what turned out to be the Trumpeter. Their predator’s grip weakened enough that they stumbled free.
“You used me as bait!” blubbered the musician as he took out a match and lit a taper. Nothing was revealed in the flickering light.
The foliage stood out pale as bone, still and windless. Around them flocked dark, furtive things, the heavy drone of black bees, the whispers of unseen birds. But at the place where the thing attacked them there was nothing.
“I stabbed it!” he argued, brandishing a dagger. His scalp was bloodied with deep pock marks where the thing’s teeth had bit him and his clothes showed sign of violence. “I can feel its tepid blood all over me!”
The Fencer took the taper from his hysterical companion and investigated the direction both of them were sure the creature lay. There had been no further noise after the scream, not sound of the branches creaking under its weight. Yet nothing showed, no blood, no body, like a ghost.
Unwilling to take the risk, the Fencer tossed the flame at the spot. It hit something unseen and ignited like lamp oil. The scream began again and they fled into the welcome darkness.
Fire and blade were their salvation. This fact wasn’t lost on the swordsman. Even his name implied a tool, a sword and a method. Fire was the first invention, the first instrument by which the thoughtful mortals of the past altered their world. Even now it was the primary answer against the Riddle.
Thoughts like these filled the darkness of their journey. They no longer had sign of their quarry and there was no way back to the witch and Inoke. Perhaps it was cruel to leave him at her mercy but the jungle poured blood over the Fencer’s mind, making empathy difficult. They could only move forward, following their ears and noses towards whatever hints the witch left. Her strange garb produced a distinctive perfume and if they had hope it rested in those unique blossoms she wore.
In time something crashed behind, followed by a laugh sounding through the jungle, a ghostly thing, neither in front nor behind. They chased it and it chased them.
Moonlight greeted them in a clearing made by a short ripple in the ice. A ridgeline jutted up a few meters, unfit for trees, crenelated with lunar flowers that only showed their otherworldly colors in such light. From that elevation the jungle continued upon that faint plateau, thick with stacks of snow. There were shadows there.
Eyes lit up the dark, a thousand gleaming hungers. Not snow but webbing. Bundled prey marked an anawke colony. Perhaps this was the edge of the shadowed boughs where their companions in the larger hunting party waited, only arrived at by chance and at a completely different angle.
They were two against a horde of wooly spiders. Forelimbs raised, the things scuttled and jumped most alarmingly for the men. The wind set the hair covering their bodies crawling with motion, like slick, white oil.
Into these the Fencer went laughing, eyes full of violence. Against the tangled mass of fat, pale death he stretched a smile across his face and launched his tired body amongst the fangs and poison. His head was full of vorpal dreams, calculation and fever. There was no option except blood, no freedom except death.
The Trumpeter was robbed of his audience. The madman he traveled with took up the glory and he was left wondering what to do. For the moment all the spiders were after that tiny speck of muscle, rage and enchanted ice. Abandoning his friend was out of the question, but even now he wasn’t allowed his own amusement.
Through the commotion he heard cautious movement behind him. Turning, he beheld an entity, half man and half phantom. The musclebound creature was painted with foul ichor, blood and sap, powdered with pollen and flower petals. Partially invisible, he wasn’t all there, with holes cut out from the surrounding jungle so that eyes, small and hungry, watched with intensity.
“Oh, it’s you.”
“You think you know me?” asked the camouflaged man.
“It’s only a fact; you can’t be anyone but yourself.”
“You have a choice,” said the familiar voice. “Myself or the spiders.”
He gestured and the Trumpeter saw his companion half tangled in silk, blade up to the arm in the body of one anawke while another clambered around to plunge its fangs into the soft man’s flesh.
“Hoxu, I thought you were a civilized cannibal.”
“Civilization is a tool which serves a purpose. For me it provides warm beds and stocked larders so that in time I can go afield and engage my mouth and tongue in more acquired tastes. I needed to learn of the jungle before I could hunt my fill, and you two are interesting enough that you should be a part of me. Fear not, your spirits won’t go to waste in the Lattice.”
They’d been tricked, flushed out into this hive of eight-legged monsters by design. Hoxu had gone native, spattered with the blood of the things he hunted, wearing the jungle as a disguise with to steal the fruits he dared not reach for openly. Just like the mountain goats, the Trumpeter felt that if he ran he’d plunge into a trap laid by this hunter.
The cannibal’s strategy was total. Using the Jomoth was no more an issue for Hoxu than using a spoon to eat his gore. Revealed, he was a monster, liberated from the weakness of man by ingesting the power of things more potent than any mortal. Wearing their blood, eating their hearts, through this practice he gained the strength of those he consumed. To the anawke he smelled as one of their own, as he did to all the creatures of the jungle.
Slowly the demon of a man approached. A blur, bloody-lipped, eager to take his kill before the anawke could take it from him.
“You’d make a good companion to the witch,” mentioned the Trumpeter as behind him the spiders hissed and chittered.
“She’ll be joining me soon,” smiled the monster through too-white teeth. “To devour her is to devour the jungle.”
Then he stopped. Behind the musician the noise changed. Turning he saw the massacre.
High up, the nightmare black blade fell. The anawke split apart, seeping its essence upon the churned up snow.
The Fencer danced upon the dead. Sometimes, when the magic was strong, Dhala’s touch froze its victims utterly. There was no reason for it, though the Trumpeter suspected an emotional connection. Shattered remains misted in the lunar brightness. A pile was forming.
Poison flowed over the lone swordsman. The creatures were full of the stuff, popping like waterskins and disgorging their contents. More in-tact bodies lay about, cooling in the Winter cold. Moving like a meteorite, the Fencer took a flitted towards another, the inky sword whipping out like a frog’s tongue.
There were four left of this hunting band, perhaps this whole colony. Then there was three. At two the strange, patchwork smell abandoned the scene. On one the Trumpeter saw Hoxu vanish into the jungle, his plan no longer of any use.
The Fencer stooped, panting, while the life within his opponents bled the last of their heat into the Winter air. In his mind the swordsman calculations echoed with deafening intensity and like a fever dream he couldn’t help but see the endless visions of lunge and parry, riposte and strike. It was hard to come back from the abyss of the blade, that inky depth.
“I said, Fencer, are you dying?” called the Trumpeter for the second time.
The swordsman sent a sharp glance towards his companion. So easy to strike out, so easy to send the blade to work.
“Hoxu was here,” explained the musician. Now the Fencer took note. “He’s after us, and Eley, to eat.”
They followed as quickly as they could, through many tiny violets, through the pale fungi growing across the ice. A scent arrived for them and they readied their weapons. Out she stepped form shadow, the witch, and she looked at them and was alone.