Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Saframish


The last place I visited in the Golden Desert was Saframish, a town built around a giant fish temple. The caravan stopped there to exchange passengers with other caravans and refill its supplies of water.

To be more precise, it's one of the Temples of Gilliva, Lady of the Waters, a deity much appreciated in the Golden Desert. The Temple of Gilliva in Saframish is built in the fossil skull of a giant fish. Its jaws rise up from the ground like twin steeples, dwarfing the houses and shops that have sprouted like barnacles around it. The mouth is open; from inside the main sanctuary of the temple, you can look up past the crooked stone teeth into open sky. This is a common feature of all Gillivan buildings. The followers of the Lady of the Waters don't keep rain out of her temples.

Below the open mouth is a long, oval pool, in which swims a single great catfish as large as a bull. Its whiskers have grown long enough to brush its tail as it swims, like the gray mustaches of an old, old man. The townspeople call the fish the Lasra, which means "tongue." They say it speaks for the Lady of the Waters in times of trouble. This century has been good to Saframish, though, and no one I spoke to could recall the fish speaking in their lifetimes.

According to the people of Saframish, there are catacombs beneath the skull, excavated in the spaces between the ribs and vertebrae. I would have liked to go see them, but they don't let just anyone down into the heart of the fish. Some of the passages are flooded, inhabited with shrimp and blind cave fish. The Gillivans consider them sacred, like all fish. (As I've mentioned before, this religion has never really caught on in coastal areas.)

The founders of the town cut the mountain away from the skull a century or two ago. At that time, a giant fish in the Desert was seen as sufficient evidence of a miracle - or at least a place with interesting geology - so they carved the inside into a temple to the Lady. It's the reason that Saframish has grown from a tiny village to the bustling town it is now.

It does bustle, too. Pilgrims journey to the Great Fish from all over the Golden Desert; there are always people grateful for the water with which their homes have been blessed, just as there are always people in desperate need of more. Most of them, being pragmatic as well as devout, bring things from their home towns to trade while they're here. Nearly every kind of nut and fruit in the Desert can be found in the markets of Saframish - even if only in the amounts that can fit in a single backpack. The cries of vendors and crafters and a whole menagerie of Desert animals fill the streets. One herder I saw had a group of lookout giraffes, wearing lightweight viewing platforms like wicker collars around their necks. Another was selling blind hounds, like a hybrid of dog and earthworm. She said they could sniff out water in the Desert.

There was little chance for them to prove their skill in Saframish; water was everywhere. In all my time in the Golden Desert, I have never seen a town with so many fountains. Several of them were full of lily pads, and I'm sure I caught the golden gaze of a bullfrog in one of them. Floater-merchants paraded their way through the streets, pulling billowing globes of water through the air behind them with oil-coated hands. No one but the floater-merchants is sure how they can make such vast quantities of water hang in the air, as weightless as soap bubbles; they have kept the secret carefully guarded for centuries.

This abundance of water was actually why I ended up leaving the caravan. But more on that later.

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Monday, June 17, 2013

The Painted Ones


It was lucky that we found the caravan when we did. By that point, after a month or two of traveling through the wild, trackless wastes of the Golden Desert, I had almost forgotten what Tirakhai had hired me to do when we'd started.

I had been unable to get much information about the "Painted Ones," those mysterious beings that apparently required caravans to travel with artists as a precaution of some sort. The people I asked were as ignorant as myself, responding with shrugs and vague rumors they'd heard; or they were strangely reluctant to discuss the topic, giving small shudders and quickly changing the subject. Eventually, I stopped asking. I assumed I would find out if, or when, we actually encountered the Painted Ones. I was slightly less sure by then that I actually wanted to do so.

Less than a week after we rejoined the caravan, the Painted Ones showed up in person and answered all my questions - and as I'd suspected, I almost immediately wished they hadn't.

We never saw or heard them coming. Even Garnet, whose ears and nose were several degrees sharper than average, had no warning. We came around a high dune and they were simply there.



Judging by their appearance, I would guess that the Painted Ones' ancestors included Deinonychus, or one of the other great hunting lizards. They were tall and muscular, with scaly brown hides and sharp, bony faces. They had wide, flat feet - perfect for running on sand - tipped with dagger-like claws as large as my hand. My head barely came up to their breastbones. Even Garnet, I think, would have had difficulty facing one of these. Against a whole pack, the caravan would not have stood a chance.

We had plenty of time to look. The entire caravan froze at the sight of them. The gafl immediately burped out their alarm stink, a reeking cloud that caused several passengers and even one of the gafl handlers to pass out. No one else moved. The Painted Ones didn't seem to mind the smell at all; they just stood there and waited.

There was an aura of casual and utterly terrifying confidence about them. Somehow, standing there with all their sharp edges glinting in the sun, they managed to convey that they would not hesitate to kill and eat every last one of us. It probably wouldn't even take them very long. They looked at the people in the caravan the way you look at fruit in a market stall, considering which ones are the plumpest and ripest and how many pieces you would slice them into before eating them. We would have had about as much chance of fighting back as a fruit would. The only reason the Painted Ones weren't getting started, right now, was that we - I - had something they wanted more than meat.

Then again, maybe they just weren't hungry at the moment. I prefer not to think too hard about that possibility.

Tirakhai had made his way over to me at some point, moving surprisingly quietly for such a large man. I had been somewhat distracted, and I jumped when he whispered to me.

"Well, artist. They have come to meet you." He gave me a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. "Good luck."

I would rather have pulled the tails of a thousand flying hyenas than walk out to meet that pack of fangs and claws. Tirakhai had to give me a rather firm shove before I could make my feet start moving. Still, they hadn't eaten us yet - and nothing focuses the mind quite like the awareness that a creature who would like to eat you might be willing to bargain for something else instead.

I have met plenty of saurian people in my life; most of them are not all that different from any other person, aside from a somewhat higher quota of claws and scales and a habit to tread very carefully on thin floors. The Painted Ones were not like any of them. I am glad to say, in fact, that I have never met anyone like the Painted Ones - with the possible exception of the Cathomar I once riddled for my life. Still, there was only one of him. There were at least a dozen of these tall saurians. (Somehow, I never took the time to count.) Their teeth and claws were wickedly sharp, except where they'd been broken off in jagged stumps. They seemed to have plenty to spare. The bases were crusted here and there with dark substances I didn't attempt to identify. Slit-pupiled eyes, in all shades of gold and copper and blood-red, inspected me with a hungry intelligence that made me feel distinctly uncomfortable. I have heard people speak of "undressing someone with their eyes," but I believe most people would stop at the skin.

Their breath had the faint, metallic tang of old blood.

In my mind, I gave my nose the rest of the day off, to calm its nerves, and gave my full desperate attention to my eyes. The Painted Ones apparently wanted an artist. I swallowed and tried to think like one.

Many of the Painted Ones were marked with what turned out, on closer inspection, to be elaborate tattoos. The pigment had been expertly worked in between the scales to form complex patterns - bold stripes and rings and spots that turned into lacy designs when seen up close. Others of the pack were unmarked. I wondered what the difference was, until I caught a glimpse of what seemed to be a shred of cloth at the base of one hunter's horns. I was still less than comfortable around these tall and exceedingly pointy people, so I was slow and careful in working my way closer. Close up, the shred turned out to be a piece of old, half-detached skin - still marked with the traces of a tattoo.

That was the difference, then. The Painted Ones, like many scaly people, shed their skins periodically - and far more thoroughly than most; tattoos, permanent on most skin, were hardly more lasting than paint for them. They had come to us because they wanted them replaced.

Several of them had pouches hung on strings around their necks, hanging next to brightly colored stones and the occasional clinking bone. (None of them bothered to carry knives.) From these pouches, several of the unmarked took yellowed and much-folded scraps of paper and presented them to me. They were sketches. Done in a wide variety of different pigments and styles, each showed one of the Painted Ones decorated with a unique pattern. The owners of the sketches gestured to the faded designs, then to themselves. These ones, apparently, had their own personal designs and wanted them re-inked.

Others, rather than giving me a sketch, pointed to my sketchbook and made empty-handed gestures. I assumed that these had not yet found a pattern that they liked and wanted me to design one for them to try.

I'd never done tattoos before, but I knew at least the basic theory. Karlishek silently loaned me a few sewing needles - not ideal, but the best tools anyone had on hand - and I got started.

It was almost more than I could manage to drive the needle into the skin of the first hunter's arm. The impatient tapping of its left-hand dagger-claw on the sand was what finally got me moving. The needle didn't even make it flinch.

Once I'd started, the work itself was enough to keep me going; painting and drawing is usually like that, though this was probably the most unusual canvas I'd ever done it on. The Painted Ones' skin was tough and pebbled with scales, hot from the sun, crisscrossed with a hundred small scars. The powerful muscles and tendons beneath it barely twitched with the jabs of my needle. The smells of hot leather and old blood filled my nose. The skin was various shades of brown, from the pale tan of parchment to a deep, rich chestnut color. It looked as if it had originally been meant for camouflage in the Desert. Their culture had clearly left that idea behind, though, favoring bold designs that could probably be recognized from miles away.

That didn't seem to be the only purpose of the patterns, though. Several of the adolescent hunters, for example, seemed to have deliberately chosen their designs to be as painful as possible - lots of dark, intricate work in the relatively soft skin around their nostrils, under their arms, in the bends of their knees and elbows. I could see them grinning at each other as I inked the patterns in. I can handle this much pain, they seemed to be saying to each other. Can you?

The older ones, having apparently moved on to other methods of competition, seemed to choose their designs more aesthetically. Some seemed to be simply abstract; others emphasized physical features, such as unusually muscular arms or protruding brow-ridges. One particularly precise drawing featured a long, jagged line twisting down the left thigh. When I began to paint it, I found myself tracing the path of an old scar, faded nearly out of existence. Apparently, even scars are impermanent for the Painted Ones. They commemorate the best ones in ink instead.

Knowing that gave me a somewhat different view of some of the other patterns.

Karlishek eventually worked up the courage to stand and watch while I worked. He'd been talking to some of the older caravan passengers - apparently, they were less reluctant to discuss the Painted Ones when the real things were standing in front of them - and had found out a little of the history behind this odd arrangement.

Apparently, the Painted Ones used to attack caravans in this region. Unpainted then, they weren't interested in trade; they only wanted the plump, tasty merchant passengers and draft animals. As a result, many caravans started traveling with armed guards. Those that couldn't afford an escort simply set out and hoped. An occasional survivor would return from one of these, parched and delirious from the heat, raving about traveling companions devoured and precious cargo dumped out like inedible garbage onto the sand.

This inspired groups of adventurers to set out from nearby cities (relatively speaking; this is not a densely inhabited region of the Golden Desert).  Drawn by the irresistible combination of riches and danger, they would arm themselves with steel and arrogance and venture into the dunes in search of these lost treasures. Many of them were also eaten. Others, failing to find the treasures they sought, turned to banditry instead - which only made matters worse.

Trade in the region was just short of drying up altogether when one group of the Painted (then the Unpainted) Ones happened to attack a caravan with a tattoo artist aboard. Like many artists, she was rather stubborn, and she continued to work on the tattoo she was in the middle of even as chaos erupted all around her wagon. (Her client, squeamish about pain, had fortified himself with large quantities of Desert ale and didn't notice a thing.) When one of the attackers slashed open the side of the wagon where she was working, she broke his leg with a nearby sledgehammer and went back to work - in plain sight of the astonished predators outside.

This was the turning point in the Painted Ones' career. They crowded around, fascinated by these marvelous paintings beneath the skin. (Until this point, their encounters with the art of the Golden Desert's other cultures had mostly consisted of taking the jewelry off of their supper.) The fighting stopped. Someone, somehow, managed to figure out enough of their language - or perhaps they had learned enough of their prey's language - to negotiate an agreement: the Painted Ones would leave the caravan alone if the artist tattooed each of them. They had found, like many before them, that they preferred art to food.

Word spread quickly. For the next few years, caravans would hire the most spectacularly tattooed people they could find to walk out in front, as advertisements of a sort, hoping that the predators would stop and see what they had to offer before simply taking what they wanted. In nearly every case, it worked. Soon, the display became unnecessary; word had traveled between the packs, and even those who had never been painted knew what to ask for when they found a caravan. No one wanted to be the last Unpainted Ones left in the Golden Desert.

No one is sure how there can be so many of the Painted Ones. There are not enough animals in the Golden Desert to sustain a population of carnivores this large. The most popular theory is that they have some hidden desert paradise - an oasis, a plateau, a secret river valley - that they return to between their voyages across the sand. If it's true, no one has ever found this hidden paradise and returned to tell about it. The Painted Ones themselves certainly aren't telling anyone.

Their language, on the rare occasion that they spoke, sounded to me like a distant relative of Halsi - one that had been put through a meat grinder. They hissed the vowels and chewed the consonants with great relish.

"Mashrakh," they kept saying to me. "Mashrakh farrakesh. Hechram rrkh." I eventually came to suspect that this meant something like "stab harder, weakling. You're barely scratching me." It was easier to work out the signals they used: a wave for "bigger," a slashing motion for "darker," a twiddling of the claws for "more complex." I tried to oblige them as quickly as possible.

Complexity seemed to be reserved for the oldest among the pack. I was surprised when I first noticed that there were children among them, though I shouldn't have been. The smallest ones had only a stripe or two each and tried to chew on my bag of tools when their parents weren't looking. I didn't try to stop them; it could just as easily have been my leg.

Most of the patterns were in black, with touches of red on some of the larger and more dangerous-looking adults. Luckily, I had a good supply of black and red pigments; these colors are easy enough to come by in nearly any area. When I pulled out the small bottle of blue paint, though - the last remains of the cockleworm dye I picked up on the Gray Coast - one of the Painted Ones laid its elegant handful of daggers on my arm and shook its head. (Her head, as I found out later.) The common colors were all very well for the rest of the band; blue was reserved for the leader. She wanted only a few touches of the color at the tips of her horns and tail, possibly to match the tattered blue feathers tied to her horns.

It had been morning when we'd encountered the Painted Ones. The sun was setting by the time I finished. No one complained about the loss of time; in fact, very few people even came out of their wagons all afternoon. A few of the brave but unassuming passengers - usually Karlishek and Garnet - kept me supplied with water and reassuringly non-predatory company, but that was all.

The Painted Ones took several minutes to admire themselves when I finally finished the last one, turning in circles on the sand and making pleased little churring noises. (I hoped they were pleased, anyway.) One of them even gave me a friendly nudge with its muzzle before leaving, making me feel as if a rack of kitchen knives had suddenly decided to get affectionate. By then, though, I was a little more able to take the gesture as a compliment; I was, if not actually comfortable around the hunters, at least not actively terrified. It is always a pleasure to have one's work appreciated, and even more so when the mark of that appreciation is that one is still alive.

The Painted Ones left nothing behind when they glided off over the dunes, running with such a silent, effortless grace that they barely seemed to touch the sand. It was startling to see after being so close to them for so long. I had felt the tough muscle and bone beneath their thick skin; the adults must have weighed at least twice what I did, yet they appeared to weigh nothing at all. They paused at the top of a high dune, a line of boldly patterned shapes against the burning sky, and then were gone with a whisper of sand.

I spent the following day or two inside the wagons. After that day of relentless heat and terror, I needed the rest. The aquatic passenger (more about him later) actually let me share his water-filled vehicle until the shakes went away.

Painting the Painted Ones might be the most difficult project I have ever undertaken. It is certainly the most difficult one I have done without being paid. It was thoroughly unique, though - and in exchange for doing it, I was allowed to remain alive. I consider that an excellent trade.

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Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Game of Cards


The man was seated in the back of one of the wagons. I met him during one of the caravan's many stops. We were passing through an area of the Desert where we frequently came across massive shards of pottery littering the sand - a wagon-sized hand here, half a gargantuan nose there, jagged spikes of ceramic sticking out of the sand all around. It was as if a giant terra cotta army had shattered where it stood.

The gafl could have climbed over these areas, but they were strangely reluctant to go into them, and the wagons were somewhat less maneuverable. We didn't try to cross the shards. When we came across a patch of them, Tirakhai simply stopped the caravan and had everyone look the other direction until it went away.

It was during one of these interludes, with everyone facing resolutely toward the back of the caravan, that I got out to stretch my legs and came across the man in the back of the wagon. He was seated on a rickety wooden chair, leaning his shirtsleeved arms on a large trunk as if it was a table. Another chair stood, unoccupied, on the other side of the trunk. He tipped his hat to me as I walked by.

"Good day to you."



He spoke perfect English, with a rough, inward-turned accent that I couldn't quite identify. When he found that I spoke the same language, he beamed from ear to pointed ear and set a small wooden box on the table.

"Would you care for a game of cards?"

As a rule, I avoid gambling; I am not a professional, and if I have a desperate need to rid myself of money, I know more rewarding ways of doing so. The man was quick to assure me that he felt much the same way. He simply wanted someone to play with. The game he had was a complex one, and it was rare to find someone who knew the rules or was willing to learn them.

That was enough to catch my interest. I took the other chair, and he dealt the cards.

The deck had eight suits: hearts, diamonds, moons, spoons, arrows, horseshoes, gears, and frogs. Each suit had numbers up to 12, plus a few face cards - which were different in each suit. Hearts was the only one with the Jack-Queen-King arrangement with which I'm familiar. Spoons had Chef, Scullery, and Dog; Moons had Comet, Deer, and Flute; Gears had Golem, Gremlin, and Grapplemouse, whatever that is. Overall, there were slightly more than twice as many cards as in the deck I'm used to.

We started with only four spots on the table where we could put cards - House, Yard, Oubliette, and Forecastle - but these grew steadily more complex as we started using pairs and quartets of cards, flipping cards upside-down to reverse their effects, adding little satellite clusters and linking them together with more cards still. The table soon grew to look like some sort of strange mechanical diagram.

Some cards we left face-down and never revealed. These were called Turnips - possibly based on the Desert legend that one turnip in a million is filled with gemstones - and they gained effects of their own based on the very uncertainty of what they were.

The man kept introducing more rules. Every time I thought I understood the entire game, something new would show up. Many of the rules seemed to be based on songs and rhymes and obscure poetry.

"Five threes." He laid down a handful of threes and turned them sideways, so that the numbers looked - if you were generous - like birds in flight. "Five ravens. Five is for silver, or sickness if you use the other rhyme, so if I have the Physician" - he did; it was one of the face cards for the Horseshoes suit - "I can rescue a card from my Oubliette."

I have no idea whether he was telling me existing rules or simply making them up as he went. I didn't particularly care. The reasoning behind them was fascinating and poetic - and as I've said before, regardless of whether I win or lose, I always enjoy a well-played game.

To no one's surprise, the man eventually won. Laying down a final trio of aces (three houses, which formed a village and completed the road between his Yard and Forecastle), he demonstrated the line of numerically ordered cards he'd formed across his side of the table, stretching from the single two in his House to the Miser of Diamonds ensconced in his Forecastle. I was so surprised that I actually applauded. I had begun to doubt that either of us would be able to complete the Procession; of the six or seven possible ways of winning, it sounded like one of the most challenging.

I congratulated the man on his victory and, perhaps somewhat late, introduced myself. He said he couldn't tell me his name. The last time he'd let it out, it had bitten three people and stolen an entire set of silverware before he caught it again.

This was far from the most unusual introduction I've heard, and I assured him that I didn't mind. We thanked each other warmly for the game. The sun was setting by then, and we were surrounded by the creaks of wagons and the soft, thumping shuffle of the gafl. I hadn't noticed when the caravan had started moving again.

During all my time with the caravan, that was the only time I ever saw the man with the cards. I wish I had thought to ask him the name of the game. I'd like to look it up sometime and find out if it exists anywhere but in that little wooden box.

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Reunited


I wish I could say that we found the caravan again by skill, or perseverance, or some sort of poetic symmetry. One of my unfinished paintings could have called to me from the wagon where I left it, for example. Mirenza could have found ancient, long-untraveled paths, half-buried by Desert sand, with mystical abilities to take travelers where they desire to go. A prophetic story written and left behind by Karlishek could have told the caravan where to look for us. Garnet could have revealed some supernatural sense and led us, where before she had been content to follow.

None of these things happened. I wish I could even say that the caravan had been searching for us while we were away. In the Golden Desert, though, one's odds of finding any particular thing are so small as to be nearly nonexistent. There are many sayings about it. (Sadly, few of them translate well into English.) While the people in the caravan may have regretted losing us, they most likely gave up looking for us when they left the canyons, if not sooner. After all, we had done much the same.

No. To the best of my knowledge, it was simply dumb luck. *

After leaving the village of bright faces, our own faces were considerably more cheerful. We were rested, somewhat better fed, and relieved at the reminder that not every being we met in the Desert wanted to eat us. The next day of travel went by much faster than the one before. At sunset, we were climbing a ridge of rocky hills while listening to Karlishek telling the story of the jeweler and the orchard-worker. This is apparently something of a classic among the funny stories of his birthplace. Unfortunately, I suspect that it relies heavily on puns in Amrat, as Garnet and Mirenza laughed often at phrases that seemed perfectly ordinary to me. Asking them to explain the puns, of course, would have defeated the purpose. Perhaps I'll ask Karlishek to tell the story again when I've had more practice with the language.

When we reached the top, we realized that the hills were actually a line of gigantic fossilized vertebrae, stretching off toward the horizon. I can't even begin to imagine the size of the beast that must have left them. That surprise paled, though, in comparison to the sight of the familiar group of wagons and gafl on the other side.

When looking for a needle in a haystack, one has a very small chance of success - but still, always, a chance.

We ran, slid, and occasionally rolled our way down the other side of the backbone, waving our arms and shouting all the way instead of watching our feet. (This may have been the cause of some of the rolling.) Somehow, we managed to reach the bottom both intact and in time to catch the caravan.

They were delighted to see us. Mirenza's colleagues, in particular, seemed ready to throw a celebration on the spot, especially when she showed them her notes from the canyon town. The rest of us had no particular friends among the other passengers, but even so, there is a certain camaraderie that develops between fellow travelers in such an isolated place. They had been worried when we disappeared and had held little hope of ever seeing us again. Tirakhai greeted us with bone-grinding hugs and a flood of jubilant words, his voice too thick with emotion for me to understand a single one. Caravan leaders tend to feel responsible for their passengers and hate to lose them. Even a few of the gafl - looking much more slender after weeks in the open Desert - came up to affectionately knock us over with their blunt little snouts.

It was wonderful to see everyone again, and to sleep that night with a familiar ceiling overhead (even if it was made of canvas). Most of all, though, I was glad to be reunited with my familiar luggage, worn and reliable, my hodgepodge of tools and supplies and keepsakes picked up one piece at a time from all over Hamjamser. Becoming attached to objects is perhaps a bad habit for a wanderer, but it's one I've never been able to resist.

Besides, even if they hadn't called me back - and how can I be sure they didn't? - there were several paintings that I'd been dying to finish.



* There is actually a tribe of fisher-folk in the islands of Kennyrubin who claim to worship Luck, or the personification of it.** They consider gambling to be a form of prayer and delight in taking as many chances as they can. The most devout see all luck as a blessing, especially the extremely good - and the extremely bad. The way they see it, if a giant fish falls from the sky, it doesn't matter whether it lands in your stewpot and feeds you for a month or lands on you and breaks both your legs. Either way, it's a sign that Luck is paying attention to you.
I'm not entirely sure why they consider this a good thing.
Those who scoff at their faith are generally those who have not yet challenged them in any of the islands' myriad dice games. They always win. However, in this case, dismissing them as merely unusually lucky only seems to support their claims.



** They reserve judgement on whether Luck be a lady or not. Gender is, after all, just another of life's coin tosses - one with more sides than many people realize.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Different Kind of Voice


During our time in the face-speakers' village, we never did manage to even begin speaking the village's language, nor they ours. We lacked color-shifting abilities of any kind; they appeared to be completely mute. The only sound we ever heard them make was a soft pop of the lips - which was not so much a word as a signal for attention, asking those nearby to turn and read the speaker's face.

Nevertheless, my three companions and I managed to communicate well enough, by gesture and expression, to make do for a few days. We were all grateful for the chance to rest. To be honest, we also might have been somewhat reluctant to venture back into the wild after the circumstances under which we had left it. A brush with death, however brief, tends to make one more appreciative of safe places for a while.

At one point, we even got to help with the harvest. I'm not sure what the season was in the Golden Desert at that time, or even if that particular part of it has any seasons that I would recognize. For all I know, the rainbow-faced villagers might harvest constantly all year.

Most of the harvesting - like everything else they did - happened at night. Like many nocturnal people, they didn't appear to actually need light to see, other than that of the moon and stars. The fires in their houses were only for heat and cooking. I never saw them eat meat of any kind. Their main sources of food seemed to be drought-wheat, which they grew in vast, dry fields of sand around the village, and a sort of fruit-like green tuber - like a hybrid of potato and zucchini - that grew under the wet sand of the village's oasis. This was what we had eaten in the soup on the night of our arrival. The name of the vegetable was a green oval with a sort of golden twizzle inside, which was actually a fairly accurate representation of the way it tasted. The villagers harvested it with long, spoon-like implements. They would walk around, stamping on the wet sand until they found a spot that felt somehow different. I never was sure exactly how they knew one of the vegetables was below. Once they had found it, they would dig their spoon into the sand and pull back on its long handle, scooping the vegetable out of the sand and high into the air. The children, lacking the necessary weight and upper-body strength for this task, instead ran around with baskets and caught the vegetables as they fell from the sky.

Upon realizing that we wanted to help, the villagers found a few spare spoons somewhere and let us try. We achieved nothing like the same level of skill, but the villagers' silent laughter at our efforts was good-natured enough.

No ordinary settlement in the Golden Desert can exist without a water source. The village's oasis was relatively small - hence their reliance on drought-wheat, a crop which seems to be able to survive on nothing more than vague rumors that there might be water somewhere nearby.

The resident aquifrax was… unusual, to say the least.

The water spirit seemed to spend most of its time making ice sculptures. It was rather prolific, actually. I can't imagine how much energy it must have taken to freeze so much water in the middle of the Golden Desert. Perhaps that's why it had left its oasis so small - or perhaps it simply preferred it that way. The motivations of spirits are rarely easy for mortals to understand, especially the more eccentric ones.

Most of the ice sculptures seemed to be sea creatures - the fantastic variety, like those drawn by illustrators who have never visited the ocean and have to rely on verbal descriptions of beasts they've never seen. One of the sculptures might have been an octopus. Another resembled a dolphin, or perhaps one of the sleeker varieties of beetlebrow fish. It was difficult to tell, anyway; we could only see them clearly during the day, and they always started melting long before sunrise. By noon, nothing was left but sad little lumps of ice bobbing in the lukewarm water. The only exception was a particularly massive sculpture - possibly a whale or a dire manatee - that lasted a full day and a half, though it more closely resembled a horribly ill blowfish by the second day.

We never saw the aquifrax, of course. Most of the life in the Golden Desert could not exist without their work, but the spirits themselves - like most spirits - rarely show themselves in person.

Perhaps my favorite part of our time in the village, though, was the music. Most of what we heard at first was simple and percussive. Workers in the drought-wheat fields, for example, would keep up a steady rhythm by plucking their toenails with their neighboring toes. (I managed to duplicate the technique myself, though with far less volume.) A whole team of workers could achieve a fairly complex rhythm this way. Still, for several days, this appeared to be all the music the village had. There was certainly no kind of singing.

We were somewhat surprised, on the third night, when the villagers brought out a couple of string instruments and something like a stone xylophone and proceeded to play music in a circle around the oasis. There were only three or four instruments - like the hybrid offspring of a banjo and a harp, no two alike - which the villagers passed around between themselves. Nearly everyone seemed able to play them, though their skill varied. I didn't recognize any of the tunes they played. Many of them were accompanied by rhythmic light shows on the musicians' faces; these were songs with words, apparently, even if I couldn't hear them. The instruments made their slow way around the oasis. When Red-Streaks-On-Yellow had finished playing, he or she hesitated before passing the instrument to me, uncertain of whether or not I could play it.

I couldn't, of course. Instead, I stood up and sang.

It was nothing particularly impressive - just a rendition of "Factory Fool" by Rango Tress. It's a song with a strong rhythm, which seemed to be a major part of the villagers' music, and its melody sounds good in my baritone range.

When I started, all the villagers froze and stared at me, motionless. I'm not actually sure if they had ever heard singing before. I began to be a little nervous when they hadn't moved by the end of the first verse.

Halfway through the second verse, they started to join in.

It was just a simple clap at first - one of our hosts' children, I believe, though I confess that I couldn't tell most of the children apart. A few others took it up as well. Someone started embroidering the rhythm a little. By the end of the third verse, I felt as if I was providing the melody for an entire Thiglian drum circle. It was amazing how many different sounds the villagers could achieve with just their palms and fingers (the rest of their bodies being far too fluffy for percussive purposes). I finished to wild applause.

My three companions received much the same response. Karlishek chose a skittering patter-song from Sham-Tarkazia, which gave the villagers all sorts of challenging rhythms to keep up with. Mirenza sang a thousand-year-old drinking song - evidently not at all worn out by age - which had everyone clapping and silently laughing, even though no one understood the words. Garnet surprised us all with a haunting song about coyotes (they're called feyul in the Golden Desert) that sent chills down my spine.

No one clapped through that one; it didn't need it. Instead, we were surprised again by the occasional clear, ringing note from the half-formed ice sculptures in the oasis. The aquifrax had decided to join in.

We left the village the night after that, feeling much more at peace than we had before our arrival. We said our goodbyes at sundown. The villagers - those who were up that early, at least - stopped what they were doing to give us a parting gift of dried tubers and drought-wheat crackers* and kiss us goodbye on our strangely wordless cheeks. We were sad to leave them; they had been the best possible hosts.

As we were walking away from the village, we heard a single stringed instrument taking up the melody of the song I had sung. It made good music for walking. I kept humming it long after the village was too far away to hear.



* The baker has yet to be born who can turn drought-wheat into anything as moist as, say, flatbread.

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Monday, June 10, 2013

A Digression on Language


The most commonly accepted theory, at present, is that languages develop with a certain type of mouth in mind.

This is obviously the case with languages such as English, with its many subtle uses of the lips and teeth; or Hmakk, which has an M in its very name. Languages such as these are difficult to speak with a beak or insectile mouthparts. Presumably, they developed in parts of the world where most people had lips, just as Kakaran originated in mountain clifftops inhabited solely by avians.

Over time, however, the various races of the world have wandered and mingled together. It is rare now to find even the smallest of villages inhabited exclusively by mammals, or avians, or reptiles. Even if they begin with different languages, those who share a common home usually come to share a common tongue. In many places, the speaking of English without lips, or Kakaran without a beak, has become only another kind of accent. Most avians cannot pronounce the lip-borne consonants so familiar to me - P, B, F, M, V - and I doubt I will ever manage the clacks and harsh demi-vowels of avian languages such as Hreet. However, despite our imperfect pronunciations, we rarely have difficulty understanding one another.

Those of the exoskeletal persuasion are somewhat more deeply separated. Many of them do not even breathe through their mouths. They have developed instead languages of chitinous clicks and hisses, or elaborate sign languages for multiple limbs. Many of these are more difficult for a person with only two soft-skinned arms to mimic. Still, we usually manage. Universal languages such as Sikelak help to fill in the most difficult gaps.

In addition, love is - and has always been - a great bridger of gaps. The marriages between vertebrates and invertebrates have created many surprising combinations. I have met many insects and arachnids who possessed, somewhere behind their scissoring mouthparts, the anatomy necessary to speak English clearer than my own. In the other direction are people such as the Hsshra tribe of the High Fields: silent, long-legged humans who breathe through elegant spiracles between their ribs.

Still, the villagers we met beyond the valley must have the most unusual language I've ever encountered.

We left the valley the night after the encounter with the saber-dingoes. We had no desire to sleep there; it would have surprised none of us if the pack had returned to attack us in our sleep. There was little we could do to keep them from tracking our scents, but we hoped that the cliffs would provide enough of an obstacle to dissuade them from following us. The climb was rather unnerving in the dark, but - largely thanks to Garnet's and Karlishek's night vision - we managed to fumble our way to the top with no more than a couple of scraped knees and elbows.

We were about to make camp at the top of the cliff when Garnet spotted a light on the horizon.

As exhausted as we were, the possibility of civilization - and of sleeping indoors, out of the chilly night wind, for the first time in weeks - was enough to get us walking again. No one said it, but I think we were all glad to put a little more distance between us and the saber-dingoes' valley as well.

As is so often the case in the Golden Desert, the light proved to be much farther away than it appeared. It must have been nearly midnight by the time we reached it. As we walked closer, we found that it was not a single light, but many - the glow of a small village full of dimly lit windows. The houses were low half-spheres of stone and clay. Only about half of them were lit, though, and we heard none of the chatter and bustle of an active village. We assumed the inhabitants were asleep for the night.

We walked into the middle of the village to find ourselves in the middle of market day - or, more correctly, market night.

The villagers were about Garnet's height, shorter than the rest of us. They were more or less humanoid. Their bodies were covered in downy white fur, except for their hands, feet, and faces; the overall effect faintly resembled mice or baboons, though their eyes were as wide as those of owls. They wore only simple skirts of pale brown cloth. If they were male and female, I never noticed any way to tell the difference.

Their most noticeable features by far, however, were the patterns on their faces. Streaks and blotches of bright colors shifted constantly across their skin, pinks and golds and emerald greens, like an endless fireworks display on every cheek and forehead. The colors glowed in the dark. There are many animals, such as angler-fish and torch-mice, that have luminescent patches on their bodies; most of them, however, can achieve only one or two colors each, like the repeated plucking of a single note. Each villager's face was a full symphony of light.

It was a silent one, though. In the entire marketplace, the only sounds were soft padding of feet in sand, the rattling of wagons, and the clinks and thumps of containers being moved. Not one of the people spoke. In the dark, with the rippling glow of all those silent faces, the effect was as eery as it was beautiful.

We had been staring for what I hope was only a few seconds when one of the villagers approached us. The body language was the same on both sides - smiling, non-threatening friendliness - but when we tried greetings in several languages, the uncomprehending smile on the villager's face didn't change. A few flashes of pink and blue passed over the smile and then went still.

It took us some time to realize that that had been the villager's greeting, or perhaps a question. The shifting colors were their language.

Eventually, we managed to convey by gesture that we had been walking in the Desert for a long time and were very tired. The villagers - we had drawn something of a crowd by then - gave us a sympathetic chorus of blue and lavender. The one who had first greeted us followed that with a flickering orange light in a green semicircle, like the cooking fires inside the dome-shaped houses, and led us to one of the larger ones. The ceiling was not quite high enough for us to stand up. Inside, we were greeted by another adult - the first one's spouse? - and a trio of tiny children as fluffy as owlets. Light flashed across their small faces as well, but they seemed to have difficulty doing more than two colors at once. Perhaps they were only just learning to speak. The whole family welcomed us in with many hugs and blue-pink greetings, and we soon found ourselves sitting on dusty cushions around a stone table, sharing slices of unfamiliar but tasty green vegetables. I looked in my bag and found a couple of slightly dusty candies from Thrass Kaffa; Mirenza rummaged through her pockets and found a motley assortment of nuts and dried fruit. All of these were enthusiastically received, especially by the children.

The name of the village, we were told, was an orange flash peppered with green spots. Our hosts' names were Expanding Blue Concentric Circles and Wavy Red Streaks On Yellow. They didn't introduce their children by name; perhaps, in a society where a person's name is an entire visual performance, children are given time to design their own. We introduced ourselves as well, but they had no more way to repeat our names than we had to repeat theirs.

The conversation around the table was quite lively. In fact, there were two conversations going on simultaneously, but since one was silent and the other was invisible, they didn't seem to interfere with each other.

Though nocturnal, the villagers must have been at least somewhat familiar with other sleep schedules - or perhaps they just accepted that we were tired, no matter the time of day. In any case, Blue Circles went out after dinner (for them, I suppose it was something like lunch) and returned with four extra blankets to spread across the sandy floor. We thanked our hosts profusely, hoping that our smiles and surreptitious yawns would convey the meaning our words couldn't. I dropped off to sleep quite quickly. All night, though, I had the strange feeling that the colored afterimages on my eyelids were trying to speak to me.

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Saturday, June 08, 2013

Unexpected Canines


A few days later, the desert had lowered into a slightly more fertile valley lined with rocky cliffs. It was probably too dry for agriculture - there was a sluggish trail of muddy water down the middle of the valley, no more - but the sand was sprinkled with grass and wiry little bushes. We even caught sight of the occasional goat, though they were always darting out of sight behind rocks by the time we noticed them. They were far warier than we were.

In hindsight, that probably should have told us something.

We walked downstream ("stream" being a generous term) for another day or two. Running water tends to lead to more running water, and enough running water will eventually have people living by it. This is true nearly anywhere in the world. The food - animal and vegetable - was far more plentiful in the valley, and there were occasional clear pools where we stopped to refill our water. Occasionally, there were even trees with enough shade to sit in. Rattlebirds and orange-furred marmlets stared at us from high in the rocks. They scuttled away when we looked at them.

On the third day, we found out why all the animals were so skittish. The valley had gotten deeper, winding in sharp zigzags beneath the sandstone cliffs. There were occasional spots where the water actually trickled instead of oozed. We were in much higher spirits than before. We were walking beside the stream, debating whether marmlets were edible or poisonous like their cousin the nightshade gopher, when we came around a rock and found a pack of saber-dingoes staring at us.

Everyone froze.

Saber-dingoes have gained something of a bad reputation in the Golden Desert; unfortunately, they have earned most of it quite honestly. The most common theory is that they are descended from only the nastiest bits of wild dogs, lions, and wolverines. In most parts of the world, the wild canines - wolves, jackals, thylacines* - will leave people alone, correctly judging that these bizarre upright creatures with their fire and metal are much more dangerous than any wild predator. Saber-dingoes are different. They will not attack large groups of animals - hence the use of caravans for desert travel - but they will not hesitate to attack anything, no matter how large or well-armed, as long as they outnumber it.

There were four of us. There were eight dingoes. The smallest of them probably weighed more than Garnet. We had a few knives between us, ranging from bread knives to potato peelers; the dingoes had claws and teeth. They also had the fangs for which they are named, two each, serrated blades as long as my forearm that hung down to either side of their chins. If anyone had been placing bets, they would not have been on us.

We had been downwind of the dingoes, and they had been busy dividing up a dead goat, so they were as surprised as we were - but considerably more pleased. In moments, they had left the goat behind and were slinking toward us with the casual, eager grace of a predator who has just spotted much larger and better-fed prey.

We raised such pathetic excuses for weapons as bread knives and backpacks and tried not to panic. The goat did not look as if it had had a chance to run very far.

That was when Garnet came out from behind us. We tried to stop her - pointlessly, as a few feet more or less of distance was clearly not going to make much difference to the dingoes - but she shrugged us away and kept going.

She stopped, facing the ranks of saber-toothed grins, and began to grow.

Thick, black fur sprouted along her arms and neck, and her loose clothes rustled and shifted as muscles and limbs expanded beneath them. We could hear her bones creaking. In what seemed like an eternity but was probably less than twenty seconds, there was a nine-foot-tall black werewolf with claws like a velociraptor standing where the small woman had been. She was still wearing the same delicate pink sari she'd had since leaving the caravan. It looked positively tiny on her now.



Wordless, she pulled back her lips and growled at the pack, giving them (and us) a clear view of fangs that would have put a crocodile to shame.

The pack held very still for a second. Then, without the slightest twitch as a warning, the largest saber-dingo - a male with a ragged mane - sprang for her throat.

She met him halfway. There was a brief scuffle, full of flying sand and snarls like ripping cloth. The two of them paused just long enough for us to see that she had somehow gotten her teeth around his throat - he probably would have lost it if not for his mane - and then she flexed the muscles of her neck and shoulders and threw him fifteen feet into a sand dune. She was on him again before he could get back on his paws.

The other dingoes tried to leap at Garnet as soon as her back was turned. After all, the point of a pack is not to attack things alone. The rest of us shouted warnings, and she backhanded them across the sand before they could get near her. They gave up after only a few tries.

The largest one was far more stubborn. I won't go into detail about the rest of the fight, except to say that he was bleeding from a dozen wounds - none of them fatal; she seemed uninterested in killing him - and was missing most of his left ear by the time he finally gave up, crawling away with what remained of his tail between his legs. The rest of the pack followed him without a sound.

Garnet stood there, panting, and watched them go until they were out of sight behind the next bend in the valley. She turned and gave us an apologetic grin with too much red in it.

"Sorry if I frightened you," she said, and collapsed.

It took all three of us to drag her over to the stream. We had cleaned her wounds, as well as we could, and were just starting to bandage them when she shifted back to human. Every cut promptly healed on its own. This is fairly normal for shapeshifters; they never stay wounded for long. When you're reshaping your entire body, there's no reason to leave holes in it.

Garnet remained unconscious until after sundown. When she woke up, she emptied the nearest pool of water, ate our entire supply of dried meat, and followed it with everything that remained of the dingoes' goat. If she hadn't been so exhausted, I suspect she would have gone out into the dark to catch another one.

When she had finished, she apologized again for frightening us and for not telling us sooner. We assured her that no apologies were necessary. After all, if she hadn't been there, we would have been not only frightened, but rather unpleasantly dead as well.

We had to admit, though, that we were rather curious.

Garnet had come from a part of the Desert where werewolves were rumored to live, she said, but none of her relatives could remember there being one in the family before. Apparently, it's a trait that can skip many generations before it shows up again, like blue eyes in a dark-eyed family, or carnivorism in a family of herbivores. She confused her parents to no end as a teenager. She was always hungry - she could out-eat everyone in her family - but she never seemed to actually grow any larger. No one was sure where she was putting it all.

They found out when she changed for the first time, at age fifteen. She had been growing - but not in her normal body. Instead, it had all been going into that mysterious little side pocket of existence where werewolves keep their extra mass. The first time she changed, she destroyed her dress and half of the room she was in, mostly due to panicking and exiting through the nearest wall.

She's been careful to wear loose clothing ever since, just in case.

She stays human nearly all the time because it's easier, she said; she weighs less, eats less, hits her head on fewer doorways, and is far less hot without all that black fur. Also, walking around as a nine-foot pillar of muscle and sharp ends tends to frighten people.

"Actually," she said with a rueful laugh, "it frightens me a little too. It's too big, too strong, too pointy. Most of the time, I just try to forget the wolf is there." She paused for a moment, then smiled. "I guess it was good to have it today, though."

We all quite emphatically agreed.



* Yes, I know that thylacines are not technically canines, but they take much the same role in the parts of the world where they live. The same is true for houndworms, cerulean monitor lizards, and the feral candroids in a few of the wrecked floating cities.

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Thursday, June 06, 2013

Finhenge


We made camp the next day in a ring of standing stones.

In most parts of the world, standing stones fall into one of three different categories. Some mark safe places; these are usually surrounded by an aura of calm, reassuring silence. Travelers can dart between them for a sanctuary from predators, either the wild or the civilized variety. While it is impractical to stay within these rings for any length of time, unless one can live on grass and lichen,* they can save lives in emergencies.

Others mark dangerous places. These are usually placed to trap the rare malignant spirits that turn up occasionally, or to serve as locks on doorways to Other places, or to keep spots with particularly unpleasant histories from making the surrounding countryside depressed. Stones of this sort are usually marked with all sorts of written warnings. Unfortunately, these cease to warn anyone when the stones outlive the languages in which they're written. They often have a sense of foreboding to them, which many travelers also ignore.

The third kind of standing stones serve no apparent purpose and are simply weird.

The ones where we camped seemed to be of either the first or the third variety. They were carved in the shape of fish. Each one was easily twice my height. A few were stood head-down, their tails in the air, their faces hidden in the sand; the rest were head-up, with their stone mouths gaping at the sky. Many were filled with earth and had plants sprouting from them. The vines and saplings made it look as if the fish were speaking small trees.

Mirenza and Karlishek, both fairly knowledgeable in the stories and histories of the Golden Desert, were completely baffled by the fish. They had never heard of anything like them. The Golden Desert has far more history buried in its endless sand than anyone has ever bothered to write down, though; surprises of this sort are to be expected.

Plants in the Desert are usually a sign of a water source nearby. None was visible, but Karlishek - being cold-blooded and more sensitive to temperature than the rest of us - noticed that the sand around the facedown fish was cooler than usual. A little digging revealed that these fish had a steady trickle of water running from their gills. Their buried faces were cobwebbed with a pale network of roots. We tried not to disturb these as we filled our motley collection of containers with the cool water.

The water tasted faintly of fish. After a day of walking in the hot sun, it was delicious just the same.

We slept in the center of the ring of fish, surrounded by the peeping of tiny frogs. The air inside the ring was completely still for the first time in days. Our sleep was deep and peaceful, and all four of us dreamed of the ocean.



* This could explain why these types of standing stones so often have goats or sheep wandering around between them.

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Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Trick Tracks


Several days into our destinationless journey, Garnet surprised us by bringing a story back with dinner. She had said barely a dozen words altogether since we'd lost the caravan, so this was something of a shock.

It had started, she said, shortly after she'd set off hunting for the day. It hadn't taken her long to find something to track; we were passing through an area with dusty ground instead of sand, and the criss-crossing prints of many animals were quite clear. For most of an hour, she had been tracking a mikit, one of the little miniature antelope that live in the scrubbier areas of the Golden Desert. At least, that's what she thought it was. After a while, she realized that the tracks were bigger than she had thought at first. Not a mikit, perhaps, but some sort of full-sized deer or antelope.

A little while after that, the tracks sprouted toes and become the prints of a lion cub. These soon grew to the prints of a full-grown lion.

By then, it was obvious to Garnet that something strange was going on. She was expecting a shapeshifter of some kind, or perhaps an unusually clever trick - that is, until she heard the lion roar on the other side of a rocky outcropping. Carefully, barely so much as breathing, she peered over the top of the nearest rock.

On the other side was a little desert rabbit. It had stuck its head into a round hole in the rocks and was, somehow, using this to turn its high-pitched voice into a remarkably convincing roar. As Garnet watched, it turned away, making satisfied little chuckling noises, and hopped back to where the lion prints ended in the dust. It leaped into the air.

Its paws came down one, two, four at a time, over and over, tapping at the dust as precisely as the keys of a typewriter. In seconds, it had pounded out a perfect lion's paw print. A couple of tiptoe stabs even gave the print a set of claws. One long leap, and the rabbit had started another a little farther along.

Apparently, it had been forging the tracks the whole time, almost as quickly as Garnet had been following them.

She followed the rabbit for a while longer. (She can move in nearly complete silence when she wants to, which seems to be most of the time.) It didn't seem to have a particularly long attention span. From lion prints, it moved on to camel, then to the segmented claw-marks of a giant sand-mantis. It had just started making the parallel ripple tracks of a sidewinder when the wind changed direction. The rabbit found itself suddenly downwind of one of the most dangerous predators in the Golden Desert: a small, stealthy human. It whirled around, saw her, and vanished.

She would have missed it entirely if she hadn't been looking right at it. As it is, her eyesight must be incredibly sharp. She had only a fraction of a second to see the rabbit's coat ripple, exposing a different layer of fur to view, until it was dust-colored all over. Only a faint blur and a quick-moving shadow were visible as it darted into the rocks and disappeared.

Garnet said that she plans to leave the rabbits alone until we're well out of this part of the Desert. There's no telling how many of the ones in this area share this remarkable talent for footprint forgery. It's not something she wants to discourage.

Besides, what she brought back instead was a Desert iguana nearly her own weight, with sickle claws as long as my fingers. I think we can do without rabbit for a while.

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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Wings of Stone


There are many ways of navigating in the Golden Desert. By far the most reliable are the singing sand rats, who can hear the unique song of each town and city and follow it to its source.* Human Wayfinders, blessed with the rare gift of a sense of direction, are also quite popular here. Those unable to afford a Wayfinder travel by kilopede. The great arthropods are just as home in the Golden Desert as in the Mountainous Plains, though they have to drink a lot, and many order snowshoes - several hundred pairs each - so that they can more easily traverse the shifting sand. Other people prefer tree compasses, which forever point to the living sources of their wooden needles. For a prepared Desert traveler, there are almost as many ways of finding places as there are places to find.

We had none of them. For lack of a better method, we fell back on the oldest means of navigation: pick a direction and hope that it leads somewhere. Fortunately, we still had several days of food and water, and we were finding enough on the way to keep our supplies replenished. Death by deprivation was not an immediate worry. All we had to do was keep walking and try to keep ourselves amused.

We spent the first few days singing and telling stories. Karlishek turned out to have a pleasant tenor voice and a large repertoire of folk tales and songs, which made the hot days go by much faster than they might have. (We traveled in the mornings and evenings, resting when it grew too dark to see or too hot to move, but the air was uncomfortably hot by an hour after sunrise and only grew worse from there.) Mirenza's collection of ancient legends and songs, in the bent keys of traditional Desert music, was also fascinating. As the widest-ranging traveler of the group, my eclectic mix of songs and stories made an interesting contrast; the tale of Gan the Foolish Fence-Builder, from the lush and carelessly governed land of Mollogou, required as much explanation from me as the tales of the ancient and highly ritualized Miravi Empire did from Mirenza.

Garnet continued to speak little, murmuring something about her singing voice being out of shape, but she listened closely to everything.

The Miravi Empire was on our minds quite often during those days. Hardly an hour went by when we didn't pass some remnant of it. Broken pillars quivered on the horizon. Piles of stone blocks lay half-swamped by dunes, still retaining just enough right angles to tell that they had once been the foundations of houses. Markers for long-vanished oases gave names to dry depressions in the sand and invited travelers to drink their fill. At night, we slept in old, half-buried ruins, surrounded by ancient stone and illegible hieroglyphs. Statues looked down on us: the stone-faced gods of a thousand years ago. No one but archaeologists remembers their names.

Every single statue had wings, or stumps where wings had once been.

In the ancient Miravi Empire, according to Mirenza, the ability to fly was considered divine. The wingless were normal; the flying were gods, rulers, cloistered and extremely rare. The highest-born spent their entire lives in towers and hammocks, never once setting foot on the ground. The palaces of the Empire were fantasies of towers and balconies and open courtyards, with more doors opening to the air than to the ground. Many rooms were accessible by flight alone. Others had narrow stairs or ladders added as an afterthought, a vulgar necessity for the rulers' poor, earthbound servants.

Those with wings but not flight were considered cursed and cast out into the desert. Even now, the nomadic tribes that wander between cities have an unusually high occurrence of vestigial wings.

As odd as this method of choosing rulers seems to us now, they seem to have run the Empire quite well for a time. It was one of the most prosperous countries in Hamjamser for several centuries. Most of the cultures in the Golden Desert have Miravian roots; the ancient Miravian language is the basis for modern Amrat, the tongue I have been learning from Karlishek and Mirenza. Modern Desert cities are built with the same majestic, highly ornamented architectural flair that the Empire perfected. The ancient Miravian cities were centers of art and trade and science, each city keeping a friendly and respectful relationship with the aquifrax that provided its water. These generous, enigmatic Desert spirits have probably never been as well understood, before or since, as they were by the ancient Miravians.

Unfortunately, as so often happens, this understanding eventually became complacency. All of this prosperity ended when the Miravians finally did something to annoy the aquifraxi. Accounts vary as to exactly what it was. Some historians believe it was due to political or religious differences; aquifraxi consider themselves subjects of the Rain Dragon (and he humors them politely enough, though he's never shown any sign of actually wanting to rule anything but tides and storm clouds). Others theorize that the dispute was over pollution, or excessive irrigation, or an infestation of imported foreign frogs. Whatever the reason, one day, every aquifrax in the Empire simply picked up and left. They took the water with them.

They hadn't gone far, as it turned out; they'd merely relocated to the uninhabited areas of the Empire. Within a few months, what had been empty desert was lush and blooming, and what had been fertile farmland was too dry to grow anything but dust and heatstroke. The people of the Empire packed up their things and left everything they'd built. In some cases, they only had to walk for a few hours to reach fertile ground. Many could still see their old homes as they built their new ones. The division between farmland and wasteland is a sharp one in the Golden Desert, though; people have to follow the water, wherever it happens to be. Without an aquifrax, the old cities of the Empire might as well have been on the moons.

Many of the wealthiest citizens stayed behind anyway, hoping desperately that things would go back to the way they had been, until their grand houses filled up with sand.

Most of the winged nobility were among them. The new settlements had been thrown together quickly, to give the farmers and craftspeople somewhere to sleep while they figured out how to feed an entire displaced Empire. There was nowhere for sky-dwellers to perch.

The Miravi Empire never really recovered. It took a long time to rebuild even a fraction of what had been lost, and in the bustle, most of the Empire's less practical traditions - such as the winged rulers - were left behind and forgotten. The rough settlements grew into stable towns and eventually became the Golden Desert's modern cities, such as Karkafel and Thrass Kaffa. The people developed new, somewhat more cautious relationships with the aquifraxi. Life returned to normal. Like most places in Hamjamser, though, the cities remained separate this time. They continued to trade goods and citizens and ideas with each other, but somehow, they never quite reunited into a single country again. It's not that surprising, I suppose. In every part of Hamjamser, empires have always been the exception, not the rule.

These days, the ability to fly is considered as ordinary in the Golden Desert as it is anywhere else. The winged hold everyday jobs and mingle with the flightless without hesitation. Many even consider the winged nobility to have been a foolish idea. In these modern times, most places in Hamjamser consider it unhealthy for rulers to be always looking down on their subjects. It gives them strange ideas.

Still, I have often seen the people of the Golden Desert gazing silently at the clouds, or at the wings of their neighbors. Perhaps a part of them still remembers a time when wings could bring them closer to Heaven, and not merely to the empty sky.



* They can even find things as small as individual oases, though they say those songs are little more than brief jingles.

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Monday, June 03, 2013

Canyon Town, part three


In total, I believe we spent a day or two in the canyons. Perhaps three. Surrounded by so many centuries, it was easy to lose track of a few days.

We had grown accustomed to the sunlight coming only from above, filtering down through the narrow tops of the canyons to glisten on leaks from the raised aqueduct and cast shadows from the plants sprouting along its walls. When we finally turned a corner and found sunlight spilling through a doorway, it took us a moment to realize what it was.

We had reached an exit. Instead of another empty house, the arch before us was full of sunlit desert.

We approached the narrow opening slowly, half-disbelieving, like sleepers waking from a dream. We found ourselves strangely reluctant to leave - and not just because of the contrast between the cool canyon streets and the dry, sun-blasted dunes outside. The town had been home to many people once. Perhaps it was only my imagination, but I thought I felt a hint of sadness from the abandoned walls around us. The town couldn't have gotten guests often, and now we were preparing to leave.

Does a town grow lonely when no one lives in it? I don't know. If we had had a longer supply of food, though, I wonder if this one would have let us go so soon.

At the top of the arch was another statue, its features worn away by weather long ago. It might have been a bird of some sort. The words carved below the statue had lasted better, sheltered by its feet or talons, and Mirenza was able to read them.

"Is old poem of goodbye," she said, tracing the faded characters with one claw. "May wind stay at your back, water rise where you step, and such. Every place in Desert has same poem, little different."

It made sense for such a poem to be carved at the door to the desert, but it still felt eerily as if the town was saying goodbye to us.

When we walked out into the sun, Garnet fell behind for a moment. The small woman had barely said a dozen words since we'd become separated from the caravan. It took me a moment to notice she was gone. I looked back, worrying that we had lost her as well, and saw her whispering something to the stones of the archway. Perhaps she had felt that same sense of loneliness I had, and was giving the town a few comforting words. I don't know. I couldn't hear her, even if I had been rude enough to listen.

Far above her head, a stray breeze plucked a single peach-colored flower from one of the aqueduct plants. It drifted slowly down to land in Garnet's hand. She gave the sandstone wall a kiss and turned to catch up with us.

None of us spoke for several hours. I was quite content to be left alone with my thoughts, and extended the same courtesy to the others. We didn't say a word until the sun set and we set up a rudimentary camp for the night. A rocky outcropping provided shelter, as well as some prehistoric graffiti for Mirenza to read, and Karlishek identified a nearby stand of fat cacti as edible. They were a little like cucumbers that had grown already pickled. I made myself useful by building a fire, a task with which I have some experience, though working with the handful of miserly twigs we were able to find took all of my skill and a good deal of luck. Garnet took out a knife that looked about large enough to peel carrots - potatoes might have been a stretch - and vanished into the darkness, returning a while later to surprise the rest of us with a stringy desert hare and some kind of edible lizard. We ate, for the most part, in silence.


The flower could, of course, have only been chance. 

Perhaps. 


In my dreams, I heard the whistling of wind through narrow windows and doors, the trickling of water, and the sound of laughter so faint it was only a dream of a memory. The stillness had a measure of sadness to it - but there was hope there, too. More than anything, there was patience. A town is meant for people. A town carved in stone can afford to wait until the day when they finally come back.

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Sunday, June 02, 2013

Canyon Town, part two


Mirenza's machine was little more than a small lens in a brass frame. Small buttons and levers protruded from it here and there, like a combination of a pocketwatch and a jeweler's compound eyepiece.

My Amrat and her English have improved since I first met her, so - with some help from Karlishek - she was able to explain a little more fully exactly what the device does.

As far as I could understand it, the lens shows the past. Sometimes. Other times it doesn't. The precise working of it is immensely complicated; the one Mirenza had was the simplified portable version, and even then, her explanations of the functions of all its knobs and switches quickly rose to heights of technicality beyond even Karlishek's ability to understand. Mirenza eventually gave up and just demonstrated for us.

The first subject she tried was a heap of green glass beads lying in an empty doorway. Garnet, Karlishek, and I had to crowd closely around the lens, as it was really only designed to fit a single eye. At first, the lens simply showed the heap, as if we were looking through ordinary - if somewhat dark and distorted - glass. Mirenza gave expert flicks to a couple of switches. The lens darkened, then cleared again to show a different image, grainy and flickering, like the pictures in an antique slide projector. When viewed through the lens, the beads were now on a string. A few more flicks of switches, and the view pulled back to show a dark-haired girl - perhaps fourteen or fifteen, with the stubs of an adolescent pair of antlers on her forehead - wearing the beads around her neck. She laughed, soundlessly, and vanished through the doorway where we had found the beads. In the lens, the opening had a wooden door in it, carved with symbols. "Health and protection," Mirenza identified them in a distracted mutter.

The girl closed the door, and the image blurred into darkness. Mirenza's claws flew over the switches. The darkness gave way to a burst of scratches, which cleared to reveal a priest. (Mirenza identified him by his robes and by the Amulet of Humility* around his neck.) Above the amulet, he was wearing the same necklace. His face bore little resemblance to the girl's, but he did have a magnificent set of antlers.

We watched for what seemed like hours as Mirenza flicked through image after image, following a dizzying array of people. Some had a family resemblance to the girl; many did not. All of them wore the beads around their necks. The lens was watching the beads, in their previous form as a necklace, and their wearers simply happened to be in the picture as well. One brief glimpse showed a glassworker actually making the necklace and giving it to her husband, whose eyes were an identical shade of brilliant green. Other images - much blurrier than the rest - showed only blowing sand, or an outcropping of greenish rock, which we assumed to be the sources of the beads' material and pigment. Apparently, anything further back than that no longer resembled the beads closely enough for the lens to observe it.

Most of the people showed up many times. One heartbreaking scene showed the first girl, a few years older, grieving for the death of her young husband. We had seen the two of them courting in many of the previous images. The next one showed the two of them, decades older, eating a quiet dinner with a small boy so similar that he had to have been their grandson. They were listening, clearly fascinated, while he described something to them with many soup-flinging gesticulations of his spoon.

This was when I started to be doubtful of the accuracy of what the lens was showing us. Mirenza switched it off a moment later, returning it to an ordinary glass lens, and explained.

The lens doesn't see the past; it sees all of the pasts. The pictures in it show both what was and what could have been. Mirenza had pointed it at the remains of the necklace, and we had seen where the necklace had been - and where it might have been, had things been different.

It is an archaeologist's dream. It is an archaeologist's nightmare.

Fittingly, Mirenza's group of archaeomechanogeolinguists calls these devices "arkmasith," which translates roughly to "historians' dreams." They've been working on them ever since Hashmax Bensathrack, their biometallovitrialchemist,** found that he could see strange things through a batch of glass he'd accidentally mixed with the powdered shells of oracular crabs. The creation of more lenses has progressed slowly, as oracular crabs are quite difficult to catch. They always seem to know where you're going to look for them.

The team has managed to improve the accuracy of the lenses somewhat, using the elaborate mechanical workings around them, plus an exhausting amount of testing with objects whose pasts are well-documented enough for comparison. The small one Mirenza had was an early model, with few adjustments for accuracy, considered by most of the team to be past its usefulness. She had kept it anyway. "We are look for beginnings," she explained, with a smile at the edges of her beak. "We never should forget beginnings of our own work. Also, is shiny thing."

We wandered through the canyons for the rest of the day, taking turns looking through the lens at whatever remains of the vanished community caught our eyes. We looked back to when that streak of rust was (probably) the wheel rim of a cart pulled by goats and miniature saurians, when this rock was (possibly) at the bottom of a swift-moving canyon river full of fish and freshwater nautilus, when that doorway was (perhaps) carved by a stubborn one-armed sculptor who clenched his chisel in his teeth, when this fossil was (dubiously) a small trilobite who spent its days tracing geometrical proofs into the silt of an ocean floor, when the hollow cave-houses were (most likely) inhabited by families who lived and died and danced and prayed beneath statues that had not yet lost their sandstone faces to centuries of wind and rain and neglect.

Not one view gave us any hint as to why they had left.



* The Amulet of Humility is commonly worn by the priests of Uncertainty, who teach that true knowledge comes only through sufficiently complete observation. "Sufficiently complete" observation, in the strictest division of the faith, is possible only by omnipotent beings. The most exceptionally adventurous and introspective of mortals might, by the end of their lifetimes, come to know all there is to know about themselves. To know everything about another person is usually considered impossible. To know everything about a place, or a society, or a species - much less the rest of the world - is utterly beyond hope. True knowledge is therefore restricted to the central deity or possibly deities of the Uncertain (His/Her/Its/Their followers don't presume to know anything at all about Him/Her/It/Them, including whether or not He/She/It/They actually exist). Mortals must learn to accept that the sum of their knowledge will forever be a microscopic grain of flawed and partial observations in the vast and incomprehensible universe. Followers of Uncertainty consider it a sin to be certain and a virtue to admit to being wrong. This perhaps explains why there have always been so few of them.


** All of the terms I'm using are broad approximations made up based on Mirenza's attempts to explain the scientists' work to me, and are probably laughably inaccurate. Language barrier aside, they simply do not seem to divide the sciences into the same categories with which I'm familiar.

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Saturday, June 01, 2013

Canyon Town, part one


We wandered in the canyons for several days.

There is, as yet, no reliable strategy for navigating a maze. Their constant shifting defeats any attempt to be methodical. Most people foolish enough to step into one simply wander around until they reach an exit - or, depending on the maze, perhaps something else of interest.

Wayfinders, being blessed with superhuman navigational abilities, can step into a maze and immediately find a perfectly straight path leading to their destination. As none of us were lucky enough to have this rare ability, we were confined to ordinary methods.

Nearly all of my supplies were, of course, in the wagons that had moved on without us. This could have been a serious problem. Fortunately, I have been a traveler long enough to have developed certain paranoid habits. I had with me a bag containing supplies (food, water, pens and paper; just the essentials) for several days. I try to keep this with me at all times, regardless of inconvenience, for just such situations as these. The supplies inside were meant for one, but could easily be stretched to three for a week or so.

Food, then, was not an urgent problem, as long as we rationed our supplies. Neither was water. The river that had carved the canyons was clearly long gone, but water still flowed through them in a sandstone aqueduct above the street.* Steps led up to it periodically. One of the first things we did was to climb the nearest staircase and fill our canteens.

After that… We wandered.



The city was carved right into the walls of the canyons, themselves carved by thousands of years of water erosion. The graceful, flowing lines of the striped stone dipped in here and there to reveal a window, a staircase, an arched doorway. Mirenza and I kept stopping to sketch particularly interesting pieces of stonework or take rubbings of the carvings on the walls. Mirenza was in her element - surrounded by stone and history and the elegant script of the canyon-dwellers' language. She pointed out glyphs, architectural styles, and geological strata with equal enthusiasm.

Most of the layers of stone were smooth - as smooth as sandstone ever gets, that is - but occasionally, we would find one with fossils embedded in it. The canyon-dwellers had added carvings to a few of these layers, so that the fossil ammonites and eurypterids had tiny stone riders or chariots hitched to them. One particularly large trilobite had an entire city built across its back, with hair-thin rope bridges crossing the gaps between segments.

Whoever the inhabitants had been, they seemed to have left in a hurry. The sand-drifted streets were littered with fallen jewelry, broken pots, wagon wheels rusted into arches of metallic lace.

This was when Mirenza brought out the machine she'd been carrying under her robe.

But I shall write more about that tomorrow.



* Anyone who has lived in a city will know that one never drinks anything that's been below street level.

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Thursday, August 09, 2012

On the Advisability of Obeying Signs


I suppose you must be wondering where I've been for the past few weeks.

I apologize for the prolonged silence. It's far from the first time, and I'm sure it won't be the last - but once again, I have been beyond the reach of postbirds.

The caravan had been traveling for a week or two when we first saw the stones. They were small enough at first - just the occasional spire and pillar of wind-sculpted sandstone, striped in layers of brown and gold, protruding from the sand. Desert gargoyles crouched on top of some of them. The stone-skinned beasts sat perfectly still, blending in so well that none of us noticed them at first. It wasn't until one of the vultures trailing the caravan stopped to rest on top of a rock, and the rock shot out a long, frog-like tongue and snapped it up with a squawk and a puff of black feathers, that we even realized the gargoyles were there.

We never saw any gargoyles that were even close to large enough to eat people. All the same, we watched the rocks much more carefully after that.

The farther we went, the larger the stones were. After a day or two of travel, they had become wider than the spaces between them, and we found ourselves wandering through a system of canyons. Like the spires, they were banded in layers of yellow and golden brown, with the occasional vein of deep black running through. Some stream or river - long gone now - must have taken centuries to carve the canyons, digging grain by grain through the layers of sandstone.

Among the group of scientists traveling with the caravan, the favored theory is that the canyons must have been home to an unusually active aquifrax, or some other type of water spirit. Perhaps more than one. The regular flow of water could never have produced anything as complex as this labyrinth of canyons.

I'm still not sure of the exact nature of the scientists' work. Are they geologists? Archaeologists? Historians? Experts in unusual vision? Some combination of all of these? I can only guess.



Mirenza, the avian in the group, has tried once or twice to explain their work to me, but we don't share quite enough words yet to convey something that complex. Geolarchaeolinguistic terminology is still beyond my ability to comprehend in English, much less in Amrat.

Still, I'm learning. Between Mirenza and Karlishek, I know enough Amrat by now to be, if not fluent, at least coherent.

Karlishek, as it happens, shares my love of comparative mythology. We've spent many hours discussing the myths and folk tales of various lands. We've talked about the daisy-chained strings of stories that form the Book of a Thousand Mirrors, which I've only read in translation; the Epic of Orbadon, which Karlishek has only read in translation; the tall tales of the Railway Regions, which seem to make a habit of pushing the boundaries of credibility, so that no matter how far-fetched they are, you can never be entirely certain that they're not true; the strange, unresolved half-stories of Mollogou, which seem to consider endings optional and questions best left unanswered…


Being an insect, Karlishek's face is not flexible in the same way a vertebrate's is, but I'm beginning to be able to read his expression in the way he holds his antennae. I'm not sure where his voice comes from. It's not from his mouth; unlike me, he's capable of speaking perfectly clearly with his mouth full.

On the day after I sent my last letter, Karlishek and I were sitting beneath the canopy of one of the wagons, comparing the English and the Amrat variations of the Tale of the Three Brothers. There are an almost endless number of these - stories in which the third brother succeeds where the older two fail, often due to their foolishness or arrogance. To the best of my knowledge, these stories show up in every culture and every language. In comparison, similar stories about sisters usually only have two. Quite often, they are stepsisters: one good or clever, the other wicked or foolish.

Karlishek sees this as an indication that there are twice as many foolish men as foolish women. He says that his experience has generally proved this to be correct. We were debating this when a woman peered around the frame of the wagon.


"Are you Mirenza's friends?" she asked, in a voice so soft it was barely audible. "She said to find a beetle and a reptile talking about stories."

That sounded like us. My current reptilian appearance has persisted for over a year now, which has been quite convenient in the Desert.

"She needs you," the woman continued, pointing back the way we'd come. "Back there. She says it's an emergency."

It was unclear, if it was an emergency, why Mirenza had sent for us in particular instead of simply shouting to whoever was nearby. We went anyway.

We arrived, somewhat out of breath, at the end of a small side canyon. Mirenza was standing in front of a circular slab of sandstone leaning against the wall, tracing a series of worn symbols carved in the center.

"Finally!" She gave us a quick, excited smile before turning back to the stone. "I thought you'd never get here. Look at this!"

"It's a rock." Karlishek's voice was flat.

"What's the emergency?" I panted. If there was one, it had yet to show itself.

"You see this?" Mirenza pointed to the glyphs on the stone. "It says, 'keep out.' Come on, help me open it."

This, I suppose, is the reasoning of an archaeologist. We've known Mirenza long enough by now to know that it was pointless to argue.

The base of the stone was covered in sand, which we had to dig out of the way before it would move at all. The woman who had fetched us - she hadn't mentioned her name - helped as well. Oddly, she wasn't out of breath at all. I didn't give this much thought at the time. With the sand out of the way, Karlishek and I put our shoulders to the stone and shoved, while Mirenza - light and agile with her hollow avian bones - leaped up onto a nearby ledge and pushed it from the top.

Fortunately, the sandstone was relatively light; if it had been a slab of granite, I doubt the four of us together could have budged it at all. As it was, we only managed to open a narrow gap before the stone ground to a halt and stubbornly refused to move any further.

Even that small gap was enough to get a glimpse of what was beyond. The stone had been covering a natural archway in the stone. Another canyon wall continued on the other side, smooth and banded with the same golden brown.

There was a window carved into it.

Distracted by this, we were foolish enough to take our eyes off of the wagons going by behind us, and it took us some time to notice that we could no longer hear the sound of the runners sliding over the sand. When we turned around, the caravan was gone. Not only that, but when we ventured down several of the nearby passages, they all led to dead ends. The canyons had shifted position, as mazes do.

There was nowhere to go but through the door we'd opened.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Icebox


The village of Frish is a small place, its houses slightly shorter than the sand dunes that surround it. In spite of its small size, though, we saw the village long before we arrived - one part of it, at least.



Frish is built in the shadow of an enormous Hill Builder machine, a complex - though unmoving - engine the size of a large hill. The base is half-buried in the sand. There's a long metal spire sticking at an angle from its top. I do mean long, too - the spire is easily fifty times as tall as any house in the village. It's not just the tallest thing nearby; it's the only tall thing nearby. According to the villagers, every thunderstorm that passes over the village strikes the spire with lightning at least once.

Its size is not the strangest thing about it, though, nor is its affinity for lightning. Even in the most blistering Summers of the Golden Desert, the engine is always cold. The villagers caution their children not to lick it. (Some even listen.) I walked over to it after we arrived in the village. In the hot afternoon air, I could feel the chill coming off of the metal in waves. Faint clouds of mist drifted from the spire above me. The cold was pleasant from a distance; close up, I actually started shivering.

After a year in the Golden Desert, I'd almost forgotten what it feels like to be cold in the daytime. Cold weather here tends to be strictly nocturnal.

I don't know what the engine is, or how it works, and neither does anyone else in the village. This is normal for Hill Builder relics. Whoever the Hill Builders were, wherever they vanished to, they left their tools and toys and other creations scattered about the world in astonishingly large numbers when they left. Many of their old machines are still running today. The Train of the Railway Regions is one of these machines; so are all of the floating cities. The original radios, the elegant and relentless Guardians, the little crystal brains used in clockwork pipe crawlers, the Omnipresent Typewriter, the infamous Answering Machine of Miggle-Meezel… The Hill Builders left a lot of useful things behind.

It's a shame they neglected to leave an instruction manual.

However it works, the engine is cold enough to pull moisture out of even the dry Desert air. Beads of water condense on its surface every morning - and with the entire height of the spire, that's a great deal of surface. The windward side of the machine's base is buried beneath a drift of sand, but the leeward side shelters a depression in the rock, where the water dripping down the spire forms a small pool. This is what allows the village to exist. We're days away from the river Lahra; all of Frish's water comes from this one frigid pool, as clear and cold as snowmelt.

Very little lives in the pool. The Golden Desert does have a few aquatic species - mostly amphibians and the occasional lungfish. Pebble-toads bake themselves golden brown in the sun and disguise themselves as rocks. Raindrop frogs spend months hibernating underground, sealed beneath the cracked surface of dry stream beds, only emerging for a few exuberant hours when the rain comes and frees them from the hard ground. Desert-dwellers who know where to look come out sometimes to find them dancing in the rain.

None of these species live in the engine pool. The water is clean enough, but it's cold - so cold that the children of Frish often dare each other to stand in it until their feet turn blue.* Frost forms on the stones around it at night. Anything that wanted to live in the pool would have to come from a mountaintop somewhere, or perhaps the arctic wastes of the Stone Ocean, and it's a long way from there to the Golden Desert. For now, the pool remains uninhabited.

The caravan will not stay here long, sadly, as the village grows only what it needs and has little to trade. Many places with Hill Builder relics take them apart and use the pieces for other things - Cormilack, for instance, exports hundreds of ancient gears every year from its huge and motionless Earthmover - but Frish is understandably reluctant to do so. They rely too much on their silent engine, their great metal icicle, to interfere with its mysterious workings.

Besides, all of its openings have been frozen shut for centuries.



* Their mothers try to discourage this, but so far, it hasn't worked. A few of the mothers have given up and taken to wading with their children instead. This seems to work better.

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