The sun sank redly behind the western mountains and the light peeled away from the desert floor, clinging stickily here and there to a towering dune or projecting rock. The travelers made steadily for a great pool of honey-colored sandstone. In the fading light a fuzz of green at its base looked black and forbidding.
Daian dropped off her acquired mount with an unmusical shink, her linked-metal tunic twisting around to pinch her uncomfortably. She blinked slowly and tried to remember which buckle would let her remove it. Jemith paused in whatever he was doing and grabbed the strap across her chest; Daian yelped as sword, armor, cloak, several strands of her hair and possibly one of her ears was torn off and tossed aside. She glanced forlornly at the snarled mess befoer turning to get her horse out of its trappings. It snorted dubiously at her inexpert fumbling, sidling away until it stepped on Jemid. He swore, making the exhausted animal twitch and shiver.
“If you can’t do anything useful, then get out of the way.”
Daian nodded and edged away through the underbrush. Her body trembled with painful weariness but she couldn’t quite bring herself to lie down and sleep. She brushed up against a low wall, the foundation of a ruined building, and leaned on it gratefully, peering into the dense foliage that crowded around them, gradually swallowing the remnants of civilization.
The neat lines of irrigation ditches had become avenues for the encroaching growth, carrying living verdigris where once they had carried water. From there the plants had undermined the streets, sprouting in every crack and flaw until the old paving stones were almost invisible. The buildings still retained the hint of their former shape, but they were fading into time even as they faded into the dusk. Daian shook her head sadly.
“Men lived here, once,” she remarked to Jemith.
“Men lived everywhere once. You can’t escape them. Just be glad they’re gone now, otherwise we’d have a hard time finding a place to sleep for the night.”
She shook her head. “Where did they go? This is a good place. There’s a subterranean river here, rain that fell long ago and sank beneath the layers of sand. The men who lived here knew that river; they dug wells, laid pipes, dammed and channeled the water. They forced it to the surface. It made them rich.”
“It made them vulnerable.” Jemith paused for a moment and looked around. “This place is indefensible. When war came, all their riches couldn’t save them. It’s better to be secure than rich.”
“You’ve been here before?”
“Many times. The old fountain is the only water for miles. You could go get some, if you wanted to be helpful,” he added with some asperity.
Daian dug through the gear looking for water skins and climbed the steps of the crumbling avenue, winding her way through the ruins until she heard the liquid chuckle of water. Turning towards it, she broke through the weeds so abruptly that she stumbled into the fountain with a noisy splash. Across a broad, deep pool the worn statue of a beautiful woman looked down on her with an expression of bland acceptance.
“Nimerone, are you still here?” She called over the water. Hearing no reply, she bent and began filling the waterskins. Dust and grime washed from her hands and she began to itch as she remembered how filthy she was. Suddenly she could no longer stand it and, putting the filled containers aside, she stripped out of her clothes and dove into the water.
It was pleasantly cool, carrying exhaustion away with the dirt, and she struck out towards the statue, climbing out on its warm stone base and lying back to look up at the stars. They were far away and dim, but they did not change or die. The thought brought her comfort. It was a relief to rest; in the morning there was so much to do, and she had so little to do it with.
Slick hands lifted from the surface of the water and seized her leg, pulling her under.
Jemith watched the swordswoman set off into the brush warily. He continued to walk around and jingle harness for a few seconds in case she turned back, then when he was certain she was gone he leaped for his backpack. His belongings rolled over the stones as he dug out a shallow stone bowl and set it on the ground, dumping water into it from his canteen. Slowly, the clear water turned murky and opaque, faintly mirroring his face when he bent over to check on its progress.
He grimaced wryly, as he always did, at the sight of his own reflection. Ehmammin was fond of saying that Jemith was really too pretty to be a magician. Sometimes the old man said it with a hint of smug satisfaction, pleased that his apprentice was so ornamental, but most often his voice carried cutting exasperation. He believed that good looks stunted the brain.
It never failed to draw an angry denial from Jemith, at least, which Ehmammin considered to demonstrate a lack of discipline and thus as further proof of Jemith’s unsuitability for his chosen career. It was probably the reason why the younger man remained an apprentice at twenty-eight.
The bowl of water rippled faintly and Jemith’s face was replaced with the wrinkled, squinty, bearded visage of his master Ehmammin.
“Where have you been?” the old man snapped without greeting.
“I met with some delays on the road.”
The old magician scowled; he didn’t like excuses. “What about Aglar?”
Jemith shook his head grimly. “It’s worse than you thought.” He struggled to keep his voice calm and dispassionate, remembering the sight of wreckage and corpses. “The prophet’s soldiers found them, and he decided to make a stand of it. There’s nothing left of his operations.”
Ehmammin grunted. “Damn! He was the last source for those mineral salts!”
“I salvaged what I could, but it wasn’t much. Oh . . . I used a cloud on the road.”
Ehmammin’s eyes narrowed. “Your ‘delay?’”
“Where are you? Were you injured?”
“No, Master. I’m at the Peridai oasis.”
“How long until you get here? This experiment won’t wait much longer.”
“Three days, if nothing else happens.”
“Good. I can’t afford any more waste of time. Do you need anything else?”
“No, Master.” Ehmammin’s image vanished instantly. Jemith turned the bowl on its side and the water slopped out, trying not to think about what Ehmammin had not considered interesting enough to ask.
Daian gasped and choked, trying to get her breath. “You nearly drowned me, Nimerone.”
“Not my fault if you try to breathe underwater. Now how do you know my name?”
“We’ve met before,” Daian said. The Watcher hissed through her sharp teeth. Although she was shaped roughly like a human woman, Nimerone was closer to being a fish, with her scaly skin, long webbed fingers, and round unblinking eyes. Not to mention the teeth, which would have looked better on a shark.
“I would have remembered it.”
Daian hesitated. “It may have been a long while,” she hedged.
“Well, there was a city here . . .”
Nimerone poked Daian roughly in her exposed ribs. “You’re human. Human’s don’t live so long.”
“I’m not entirely certain what’s happened. I was relaxing at Farsis during my off time and then boom.”
“The lights went out and the fortress was transformed into a crumbling ruin. Just like here.” The fish-woman hissed again.
“What’s your name, human?”
“Aya!” Nimerone cried, thrusting her face forwards and considering Daian with her fish-eyes from only a few inches away. “You do somewhat resemble her. I remember . . . ayach! It has been long. Long and long.”
“I wasn’t sure you’d still be here.”
The fish-woman chuckled, a fierce rattling sound. “I stay while there is water. There is nowhere else I could go.”
“There has to be another city near here. I ran into a traveler on foot in the desert. He can’t have come far.”
“Ayach! The humans here have grown strange in the long years. They would not welcome me. They are concerned with their wars and their gods and call me abomination now.”
Daian sighed. “I’m not certain what to do, Nimerone. When I arrived, there were tracks, and I found a strange mechanical demon that attacked me. The tracks continued off over the desert in this direction, and I thought that anyone with any sense would come here looking for water . . .”
Nimerone snarled and Daian recoiled, although after a second she realized that the fish-woman was not snarling at her. “Demon they call me! Abomination! What do they know of it? I know the real demon, and they let the vermin walk among them!”
“Look! See for yourself!” Nimerone pointed over the water at something hidden in the gloom. Without another word the fish-woman dove into the water and was gone. Daian reached after her, but she knew it was useless. The fish-woman did as she pleased and answered only what she wanted. Sighing, Daian peered into the darkness. She thought she could make out tents, pitched near the edge of the water.
Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.
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