Ventus – Day 53 of 135

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They made camp near the etched outlines of vanished buildings and streets. Jordan sized up the place in spare glances while he got the fire going and tended to the horses. Tamsin sat listlessly on the back step of the wagon, watching the men work.

Jordan knew that in his country, a small town might contain a handful of buildings made of stone, and dozens of wooden houses. The wooden structures would make no permanent impression on the land after they were torn down or burned. Stone buildings left a kind of scar, and it was these that patterned a rise near the end of the lake. If there were ten wooden houses to every stone, and every house held eight people, then half a thousand people had lived here once.

Suneil confirmed it. “It was a border town once. They traded with Memnonis. But the Winds razed it to the ground, four hundred years ago.”

“Why?”

“They use this place.” Suneil gestured to the lake. “It’s a transfer point, or something. Don’t really know. Anyway, they won’t let people build here.”

The thought made Jordan uneasy. Since the clouds and their threat of rain had vanished, after dinner he walked down to the edge of the lake. Using his new talent, he listened for the presence of the Winds.

The water was perfectly clear, the bottom covered in a fine yellow sand with red streaks in it. He remembered someone telling him once that clear water was unhealthy for any lake or river outside mountain country. Dark waters held life, that was the rule. He dipped his hand in it, marvelling. This was only the second lake he had seen up close. The water laughed quietly along the shore, and the flat vista glittered hypnotically in late daylight. It was surprisingly peaceful.

He could hear the song of the lake. It was deep and powerful, belying the tranquility of the surface. Thin grass grew here, but the soil beneath his feet was shallow, quickly giving way to sand. Below that… rock? He couldn’t quite make it out, though it felt like there was something else down there, a unique presence deep below the earth.

There was no indication that anything supernatural dwelt here.

He sat down, mind empty for the first time in days, and watched the water for a while. Gradually, without really trying, he began hearing the voices of the waves.

They trilled like little birds as they approached the shore. Each had its own name, but otherwise they were impossible to tell apart. They rolled humming towards Jordan, then fell silent without fanfare as they licked the sand. It was like solid music converging on him where he sat. He had never heard anything so beautiful or delicately fragile.

He didn’t even notice the failing light or the cold as he sat transfixed. His mind could not remain focussed forever, though, and after a while he made up a little game, trying to follow individual waves with both his eyes and his inner sense.

He tried to follow the eddies of a particular wave as it broke around a nearby rock, and in doing so discovered something new. It seemed like such an innocent detail at first: as the wave split, so did its voice. From one, it became many, then each tinier individuality vanished in turbulence. As they did, they cried out, not it seemed in fright, but in tones almost of… delight. Urgent delight–as if at the last second they had discovered something important they needed to tell the world.

If he closed his eyes, now, he could see the waves and the lake, finely outlined as in an etching, grey on black. Many words and numbers hovered over the ghost-landscape, joined by lines or what looked like arrows to faintly sketched features of the shoreline or lake surface. If he focussed on one of those, it instantly expanded, and he was surrounded by a swirl of numbers: charts, mathematical figures, geometric shapes. It was beautiful, and nonsensical.

The most important part of it, he decided, was that this ghostly vision apparently let him see with his eyes closed. Was this how Calandria May had seen the forest when she lured him away from the path, so many nights ago?

He stared at the wavelets, listening down the chain of nested identities: lake, swell, wave, crest and ripple. Each sang its identity only for so long as it existed. In water, consciousness arose and vanished, merged and split as freely as the medium itself.

Jordan had been raised to think of himself and other people as having souls. Souls were indivisible. What he heard happening out in the lake were voices that could not possibly be attached to souls, because the very identities behind those voices freely changed, merged, and nested inside one another. Even the word beings couldn’t be applied to them, because it implied a stability impossible for them.

“What are you?” he whispered, staring out at the lake of voices.

I am water.

Over the next hour Jordan asked a few halting questions of the lake, the sand and the stones. Few of the answers made any sense. For the most part he sat with his head tilted, listening to voices only he could hear. If Tamsin or Suneil crept up to watch and sadly shake their heads, he didn’t care, because he had taken a great secret by the edge, and he wasn’t going to let anything stop him from grasping it entirely.

When he finally dragged himself back to camp, the others were asleep. Suneil had offered to let him sleep in the wagon tonight, but Jordan was too tired to make the effort, and saw no point in disturbing them. He rolled himself near the fire, and fell instantly asleep.

He dreamed about dolphins, which he had heard of but never seen. In the dream they swam in the earth itself, and leapt and splashed in it as though it were a liquid. He chased them across a rough, rocky landscape and at times he almost caught them, but they laughed as they danced just out of reach. Finally he made one last effort and dove after one as it entered the ground, and he followed it into dark liquid earth. He slid among the rocks and sinews of the solid world with perfect ease, knowing now where the dolphins were going: to find a secret buried deep in the earth.

He woke up. He lay on his back by the cold embers of the fire, and it seemed like some sound hovered above him. Someone had spoken.

Jordan rolled over. It was early morning, and fantastically misty. It looked like the camp had been put inside a pearl. Directly overhead, it was bright; at the horizons dark still reigned. There was no sound at all now. The mist absorbed everything, causing him to cough hesitantly to check that he could hear at all.

As Jordan sat stoking the fire, Tamsin emerged from the wagon. She was dressed in woolen trousers, several layered white shirts and something she had yesterday told him was called a poncho. She looked around once, and a big grin split her face. It was the first time he had seen her smile, and it utterly transformed her. She became at once ugly and electrically exuberant when she smiled.

“It’s great!” She waved at the mist. “I’ve never seen it so thick. I’m going to go see what the lake looks like.”

“Okay.”

She walked purposefully into the directionless grey, stopping when she had become a two-dimensional shape against it.

“Mr. Mason?” Her voice sounded timid; there were no echoes, and no other sound.

“Yes?”

“You can come too, if you want.” Jordan shook his head and followed. He was cold and achy, but he knew the walk would warm him faster than sitting by the fire.

“How are you feeling?” he asked Tamsin.

“Good.” She stopped and massaged her shin. “Still hurts, but it’s okay to walk on.” The wagon vanished behind them, but the fire remained a diffuse orange landmark.

As they walked on, he tried to think of something more to say. For some reason, his mind had gone blank. Tamsin seemed to be having the same problem. She walked with her hands behind her back, head down except at intervals when she made a show of peering through the fog.

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