Tired as she was—and half-drowned, thanks to Nimerone—Daian still almost decided to begin exploring the mystery campsite at the edge of the pool. Then she remembered an important fact that gave her a moment’s pause.
It was dark. Whatever waited was either big enough to be dangerous or complex enough to require close examination: in either event Daian would need to be able to see in order to make anything of it. It was tempting to approach the tents; the fish-woman’s strange actions had created a knot of confusion that Daian craved to unravel. She pursed her lips tensely and swam for the far side of the water. She would go see what Jemith was doing. That was the sensible thing.
At least one of his activities was immediately obvious; he had started a fire. It was even possible, she mused, that he had cooked some food and could be persuaded to share it. She slithered out of the water, donned her shirt, and shouldered the heavy water bags.
Jemith started guiltily when she returned, twisting his body into an unnatural position to turn around and look at her, his eyes widening in alarm. Daian watched as he heaved a bowl of water onto the fire, raising a cloud of smoke but not otherwise accomplishing anything. She frowned, puzzled by his reaction.
“If you truly don’t wish to share whatever you are cooking I won’t be upset,” she offered, fishing for an explanation.
“I’m not cooking; there’s dry bread and meat in the bandits’ saddlebags and not a thing else worth eating, so why should I bother?”
She considered pressing the issue but she’d already imposed upon their all-too-recent acquaintance by presuming that his activities were her business.
“You were an awfully long time getting that water,” Jemith probed, apparently not aware of any such considerations.
“I decided to take a bath.”
“Ah.” He frowned sourly, apparently disappointed that he couldn’t dispute the value of a bath.
Daian rummaged through the saddlebags, but she only managed to eat a few bites of food before she slumped down and fell deeply asleep. Jemith watched her warily for a while, then threw sand on the fire to quench it and followed her example.
The magician awoke with a jerk, a loud clattering sound translated by his drowsing mind into an imminent threat. He whipped his head from side to side, heart pounding, while he tried to discern the source of the noise. After a moment it was repeated and he realized that someone—namely, Daian—was throwing rocks. He could not imagine a more stupefyingly pointless activity, not leastwise because she didn’t seem in any hurry to stop.
Finally, infuriated, he shot to his feet and stalked into the brush. Idiot! He cursed himself. You should have realized when she appeared out of the desert that she was insane. Nothing good comes out of that oversized cat box. The undergrowth caught at his clothing and snagged on loose threads, adding more wear to them than days of walking in the relatively unobstructed desert. He flailed his way through the plants and with a final vile oath burst into another clear space; a wide plaza paved with large enough stones to hold back the growth for a couple of centuries, at least. Some other travelers had taken advantage of the space to pitch tents.
And there was Daian, in the middle of their camp, heaping stones into a pile.
“What are you doing?!” Jemith demanded angrily. She paused, leaning over to put her hands on her knees, and turned her head to look at him. Dark grime clung to the trickles of sweat on her face, making her repulsive.
“Building a cairn,” she explained.
She took a few more gasping breaths and nodded to the pile of stones, inviting him to look for himself. He scowled, drawing himself up stiffly. He wanted to look, but he hated to give her the satisfaction of ordering him around. After waiting long enough to make it clear that he was only humoring her, he approached the irregular mound of stones and peered down at it. He frowned, then, realizing what he was seeing he sprang backwards an awkward step, turning to look again at Daian.
“Skeletons?” he demanded, then flushed, irritated anew at his own reaction. She nodded.
“While I realize this is not exactly the most pleasant discovery, why did it incite you to cover them in rocks?”
“I don’t have a shovel to bury them.”
Jemith snorted. “They’ve been exposed to the elements this long, it won’t hurt them to stay that way. Only the credulous fear the angry dead.”
Daian shook her head. “Take a closer look at them.”
Jemith squelched his distaste and edged closer. There were no obvious signs of what killed them, not a shred of meat or even a drop of blood. In fact, it almost looked like they’d simply discarded their flesh of their own free will.
“Can you tell how long they’ve been dead?” Daian asked pleasantly.
“How? They’re bones.”
“They’re still fresh.”
He gaped at her. “Fresh? You mean . . . ?”
“I mean I think they’ve been dead less than two days.” She picked up an ulna casually and held it out to him; he waved it away. Taking the slender, curved bone between her hands, she applied pressure. It flexed slightly but didn’t break; it was springy, not brittle.
“That is vile.”
“In more ways than one,” she remarked, returning the bone to the pile.
Jemith frowned slightly, staring into the distance while he thought. It was an odd thing, no doubt, but he wondered whether it Ehmammin would think it was an interesting one. There could be any number of explanations for the condition of these corpses. With relief, he decided it was not worth further delay to stay and investigate them.
“I’m off,” he informed Daian decisively. “Be wise and do not attempt to follow me.”
“I wasn’t intending to follow you.”
“No? Then where are you going?” he demanded.
“Beserrib. I can get supplies there, yes?”
Jemith was taken aback. “Well, yes, I suppose you could.” It was a strange thought, but she wasn’t a magician, so theoretically she could indeed enter the city and conduct her business.
“Perhaps we’ll meet again,” she said diplomatically.
“Only if fortune has no particular love for me,” he replied, and walked away.
Daian finished building her cairn, more for the release of the physical effort than from any serious sentimental regret. She couldn’t really say that she had grasped the puzzle yet, but she was beginning to believe she could see its shape and she didn’t like it at all. Weak and sweaty, she climbed back to the fountain and called for the fish-woman again.
“Come on, Nimerone, I’ve seen your dead, now explain what happened.”
The water stirred. “I’ve explained too much already!”
“You haven’t explained anything. Hundreds of years have passed in the space between one breath and the next. In the ruins of Farsis I encountered a made thing, a machine that seemed almost alive, wrapped in a shroud of lightning. Now here, at the ruins of Peridai, I find you and your strange dead and your cry of demon. No more games. Tell me what happened.”
Nimerone bared shark teeth. “What do you know of it? I too am a ‘made’ thing and I have lived those hundreds of years! Find your own answers.”
“We are all a little changed, Nimerone . . .”
“Spare me your condescension! There is and always will be a gap between us that cannot be bridged. You can choose what you will do with what you’ve been given. I cannot. You are human and I am vermin and that is the end of it!”
“You are not vermin.”
“I am! They died and I could do nothing. Nothing! This has been my home for an age and I was powerless.”
Daian sighed heavily. “Can’t you tell me anything useful?”
“CAN’T?!” The fish-woman shrieked. “No, say won’t. I won’t. That I can still say!”
“All right, Nimerone. I’m going to Beserrib. So that I can find a magician to unravel this mess.”
“That man was a magician.”
“Jemith. Why didn’t you ask him?”
“He didn’t seem inclined to be helpful.”
The fish-woman chuckled, a harsh, threatening sound. “Be careful, Titan-killer. It is not the world that you knew any longer. Things will not seem what they are to your eyes.”
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