Ventus – Day 82 of 135


Jordan would not have known he was on a plateau had Tamsin not told him. The ground became less sandy as they went, and now and then they took little climbs up tumbled rock slopes. Eventually they had to dismount and lead the horses, because the beasts both breathed laboriously, their mouths foaming. The belly of Jordan’s horse seemed swollen, and it trembled when he touched it. Jordan and Tamsin finally had to carry most of the supplies they had scrounged, while the horses walked painfully beside them.

“What’s wrong with them?” Tamsin tried to soothe her mare; it nuzzled her hand and shivered.

“I don’t know,” said Jordan. His voice had a whining tone to it, he realized. “Ka?”

The little Wind could not diagnose the horses’ ailment. Ka was a spy, not a doctor.

“Is there water at the desal?”

Tamsin shook her head. They could see it now, a small collection of upthrust spikes on the horizon. Between it and them lay a blasted russet landscape of sand and scattered plates of stone. Nothing grew here; the wind blew fitfully, raising an intermittent hiss from sand sliding over rock. Over it all brooded clouds that threatened rain but never seemed to deliver it. Jordan felt exposed here, more than anywhere he had yet been. Maybe it was because the horizon seemed so impossibly far away; the eyes of Hooks or Swans might easily pick him out against the ruined ground, and he would have nowhere to run to when they came.

Nothing moved, no force for good or ill appeared to interrupt their slow progress across the plateau. Now and then dust devils swept past, and he could see the inevitable mecha swept up in them, busy gnats in a garden of dust. The desal must see them coming, but he could not bring himself to imagine it as a living, aware thing. It looked like nothing more than an abandoned, half-built tower.

Tamsin fretted over her horse; it seemed a good distraction from her own grief. Her tears had brought back memories of home to Jordan, and brooding on whether he would ever reconcile, or even see his family again had him depressed. He didn’t know what he was doing here, in the middle of nowhere, about to expose himself to the very forces that had pursued him all these months. He was out of ideas, he had to admit. If this didn’t work, he saw no future.

The prospect of losing the horses didn’t bother him all that much. He didn’t think it likely they would need them.

Finally they reached a flat table of rock about two kilometers across. The desal rose in the center of it. This desal had five sentinel spires set in an even star around the middle spike. This spike was possibly the highest spire Jordan had ever seen; it was at least sixty meters tall. All the spires tapered to very sharp points, and as the travellers approached Jordan could see that the stone around their bases was buckled and cracked, as though the desal had grown up through the bedrock itself. Jordan expected that was true, and it actually made the thing easier to comprehend, since he knew mecha ate rock. The desal seemed like the visible irruption of an underground body, a sort of mechal mushroom.

When they were equidistant to the two nearest sentinel spires, Jordan closed his eyes and cast out his Wind senses to the thing. He could see abundant mecha thriving in the dust. It made the spires visible in outline, like any structure. He could not see into them, however, nor could he hear anything other than the whisper of the rocks telling themselves their names.

“I don’t think this is such a good idea,” said Tamsin. She looked startled, as though she had just come to her senses after a dream-filled night. “Let’s go back.”

“The horses… I don’t know if they can go any further.”

“What are we going to do?” she asked.

He looked at the panting horses. “Let’s make camp. Then we’ll see.”

They made a circuit of the area around the desal, and discovered that at some time in the past, someone or something had gathered some of the plates of rock that had tumbled loose when the desal grew, and leaned them on one another to make several crude shelters. Jordan would have preferred to camp outside the desal’s perimeter, but these lean-tos were actually fairly far up the slope of the main spire. It made him uncomfortable since he remembered Galas’ tales of poison gases and other subtle deaths coming from these things… but he was going to confront it anyway. What was one small reckless act against that larger one?

There was nothing to burn, but he found a hollow in front of their lean-to and filled it with sand, which he commanded to produce heat. He had discovered that he could do this trick with anything that had mecha in it; after a few minutes to an hour, depending on the concentration of mecha in the substance, it would cool down and have to be replaced. The act constituted suicide for the microscopic creatures, but they happily did it for someone they considered to be a Wind.

He half-expected the desal to rouse when he began ordering the mecha about, but it didn’t happen. Indeed, he got no sense of life from it at all.

While Tamsin hunkered disconsolately in front of the hot mound of dirt, he watered the horses with the last of their supply. His mare’s face seemed puffy, her eyes red and fevered. She could barely drink, and refused the oats he offered her. Tamsin’s horse was no better. Both had swollen bellies; their legs were bowing as though they could no longer carry their own weight.

Jordan slid his hand along the belly of his mare. He felt a faint trembling under the stiff hair, then a movement, like a kick from inside. He snatched his hand back.

“Tamsin, I think my horse is pregnant?” He backed away. The mare stared at him, and he could see death in its eyes. Whatever was happening to it, it was not pregnancy.

Upset, he walked up the slope of the desal. The sun was setting, red and exhausted. Its light outlined faint octagons and squares on the side of the spire. Kneeling, he touched its surface, which was like worn ceramic, and white with a faintly pink tinge.

He closed his eyes and focussed his concentration. I am here. Speak to me.

The wind sighed, and the stones sang their nonsense tunes: feldspar, gypsum, igneous granite, feldspar, sandstone, I am lichen, gypsum gypsum… He imagined the desal would have filled the sky with its voice. It said nothing.

He kicked at pebbles as he walked back to the lean-to. He couldn’t see Tamsin’s face in the dimness, only her hunched figure. She had wrapped her arms around her knees and was gazing out at the failing light along the horizon. He sat down next to her, grateful for the warmth from his “fire”.

They said nothing for a long time, and gradually it became dark. The clouds had moved on, and the stars began to come out one by one. This was not a good sign: it would be a cold night. The chill padded in along the ground, inexorable and silent. Still, Jordan lay for a while watching the emerging stars. Now and then small flashes of light appeared, as if the sun were glittering off bright things way up there in the heavens. Doubtless it was, but he had no idea what they might be, and was past all wondering by now.

“Are you all right?” whispered Tamsin. He rolled on his side. She leaned forward to put more dirt in the dust bowl, which had cooled. “Could you make some more heat for us?”

“All right.” He moved next to her, and she brought her blanket up to cover both of them. With a silent command, he made the new soil in the bowl blossom with heat. It wasn’t lasting long tonight; they would sleep in bitter cold.

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