In Which a Remedy Is Pursued
D azed and drained, Kit waited for the dawn to lighten the sky to return to the Bone House. If the remedy for his bewildered state could be found, he imagined it might be there. When the first faint traces of daylight gave texture to the winter landscape below the rock shelter, Kit rose, stepped carefully over the sleeping bodies around him, and stole down the narrow trail leading into the valley and, ultimately, up to the high woodland above.
Fresh snow had fallen in the night, and he ploughed through the drifts, moving with an urgency born of a dream-troubled night. He reached the woodland on the plateau above the valley and, alert to lurking predators, hurried through the frigid, winter-bound forest to the clearing. It was farther than he remembered; impatience drove him to greater haste until he burst into the circle of standing trees to see the tangled mound of chalky, snow-covered bones standing in the centre of the clearing, pale and spectral in the dead winter light. The renewed sight of that singular structure, woven of ivory, horn, and bone, brought Kit up short. He halted, then approached more slowly, circling the Bone House to reach the low entrance, now almost hidden by snow.
Kit dropped to his knees and crawled inside. En-Ul was there, and in much the same position as Kit had left him the previous day: so still and silent he might have been dead. Kit held his breath until he heard the long, low sigh of the sleeper, then relaxed and settled into his place. In the thin light filtering through the latticework of interwoven bones, he saw that some of the food had been eaten and two of the little piles of snow were gone. En-Ul had taken nourishment at least once, then. Kit took comfort from that. Whatever the old chieftain was doing, it did not involve starving to death. Thinking of this, he wished he had brought along something for himself to eat; he considered helping himself to some of the sleeper’s cache, but immediately decided against it, restrained by the potent feeling that doing so would violate some taboo.
He pulled some of the furs around him and made himself comfortable. Now that he was here, he wondered why he had rushed so; it had seemed important, but now he could not think why. He settled back to wait. Some while later-it might have been a few hours, it might have been only a moment-he could no longer be certain how to measure time’s elapse. In the presence of En-Ul and his dreaming, time took on an elastic quality and seemed not to behave properly. Then again, since coming to the valley Kit’s internal clock had ceased to function in the usual way. However it was, Kit had the sensation of having sat in the Bone House for hours if not days, and was beginning to feel light-headed from hunger. He reached out for a handful of snow and filled his mouth, letting the frosty crystals melt and run down his throat. It felt good, and it was as he stretched for another handful that he felt a warmth begin to pulse near his heart.
Placing a hand to his chest, he traced the smooth bulk of the ley lamp, then dug into the inner pocket of his rough-made robe and brought out the brass device, immediately dropping it in the snow where it shone a bright incandescent blue.
Scooping it up, he brushed off the snow and gazed at the glowing instrument. The little row of lights on its face filled the dim interior of the Bone House with a brilliant indigo radiance brighter than ever before, and which pulsed slowly, rhythmically, steadily-like a long, slow heartbeat.
His skin tingled with the telltale sign of a nearby ley. The small hairs on the back of his neck stood up. The air inside the house of bone crackled with pent energy, as if building to a lightning strike. Holding the ley lamp before him, Kit rose.
He made to step over El-Ul in his dreaming trance, but as his raised foot touched down, he plunged through the floor of the Bone House. The snow-packed floor simply gave way, and Kit was suddenly tumbling through space. Down and down and down he plunged. Instinctively he curled himself into a ball and leaned sideways to take the force of the fall on his hip. But the expected impact did not come, and he continued to fall.
The shadowy light of the Bone House swiftly faded to a pale point far above, and darkness closed over and around him. The light of the ley lamp was all that he could see, and then that, too, slowly faded, leaving him in a darkness that was so close and pervasive it was more like a cloak or second skin than the emptiness of the void. The air condensed, becoming so thick and close it could be taken only in gulps. Oddly, Kit was not afraid. Or, if he had been, the fear shrivelled away so swiftly it left no impression. He did not seem to be falling anymore, but flying.
Without any orienting markers, Kit could not tell where he was going, nor how fast, yet the sensation of moving at extreme speed over inexhaustible distances persisted. Again time shrank away to insignificance; Kit imagined he could actually feel it peeling away from him, layer by layer.
How long this lasted he could not say. A moment? The length of time it took for the thought to enter his consciousness and leave again? An entire lifetime? More? An age? An eon? An eternity?
Nothing seemed adequate to explain his current state. Past and future melted together, mingled, mixed, became one until there was only the unchanging present moment. So far as he could tell, he might exist like this forever, living in a timeless void-a never-ending now.
Kit perceived that though this void might be empty of time, it was nevertheless full of possibility. Anything could happen, might happen, might have already happened-anything he could think might suddenly take form, might gain existence from his thought alone. This insight, if that is what it was, brought a sobering realisation that the merest whim might bring a whole world into existence, a world replete with living creatures whose lives were suddenly called into being by a single careless thought. Kit shrank from the horrific responsibility and instead turned his attention to his journey.
The sensation of travelling remained strong. Kit knew he was covering heroic distances, and while it seemed likely this could go on without end, he did have the feeling that a destination awaited. Again, the thought had no sooner formed than Kit sensed he was arriving. Between one heartbeat and the next, the all-pervading darkness began to thin, becoming ever more transparent. Spots appeared before his eyes, tiny pinpricks of light. Suddenly, they were everywhere-shimmering, glittering, winking in and out of existence like sparks from exploding fireworks. They rippled through the void in waves, all around him, some passing through him. Faster and faster they came.
Kit became aware of a sound-the rush and wash of the ocean surf crashing onto the shore. Suddenly, he was there. His arrival happened so fast, he had no time to brace himself. One moment he was sailing through space, and the next he was scrambling on hands and knees over an expanse of sand. There was water behind him and a bank of green rising before him. In fact, he comprehended now that his clothes were wet-had he emerged from the sea? If so, he could not remember. The sensation of swift downward movement was still so strong, it drove out all else; he closed his eyes and drew deep, calming breaths into his lungs until the unsettling sense of falling ceased.
He raised his head to look around. A vista of fine white sand stretched away on either side as far as he could see: a perfect beach washed by the cool waters of a turquoise ocean. The sun was warm on his back and the air balmy; a gentle seaward breeze wafted over him. Before him lay a land of shining green and gold-the deep, vivid emerald greens of the tropics and the bright yellows of exotic flowers in reckless profusion. Giant ferns and date palms poked above the verdure, spreading into a sky so blue it sent an ache through Kit to see it. This is heaven, he thought. Or, at least, someone’s idea of paradise.
Gathering his feet under him, Kit stood and, without any particular aim, began to walk up the sloping strand towards the forest. As he stepped from the sandy verge onto soft grass, he saw that his feet were on a well-trod path. It felt good to move under his own power again, so Kit followed the trail as it wound its way into the jungle. The farther he went, the more luxurious the foliage became-extravagant in the variety of colours and shapes, all different, all delightful to the eye. Trees with leaves shaped like pale lime-coloured stars, like rusty fans, like golden feathers; fronds like sawtooth blades, like delicate lace; flowers like drifts of jewels, like multicoloured clouds, like frieze works splashed with an exuberant painter’s brush, and more. Many of the trees, shrubs, and plants bore fruit-in globes, in clusters, in clutches and bunches and bundles-all in riotous abundance. Everything he saw was so intensely real, so manifestly present, it seemed to vibrate, to palpitate with the animating force of life, a force so strong it leaked, shimmering into the very air he breathed. The entire forest resonated to a sound Kit could not hear, a sound just beyond the threshold of hearing, like the final triumphant chord of a symphony-only he had entered the concert hall too late to hear the music. Still, the majestic waves of what must have been a glorious sound lingered, trembling in the air.
The farther he walked, the higher grew the trees. He passed through sun-dappled shade and cool shadow, content to follow the path wherever it led until the trees thinned abruptly and he found himself standing in a wide clearing before a lake of what looked like… glass? Crystal?
No, not glass-but not water either. Intrigued, Kit stepped closer and knelt down to examine it more closely. Translucent, glimmering, fluid, yet giving off a faint milky glow: a pool of liquid light. As impossible as that might have been anywhere else, here, in this place, it felt natural and right.
Kit reached out a hand to touch the gently gleaming substance and, just as his fingers were about to dip beneath the surface, he heard a rustling in the nearby leaves and branches. Pulling back his hand, he shrank away from the edge of the pool to watch. The foliage on the bank of the pond shuddered and thrashed; a moment later the fronds of the tree ferns parted and out stepped a man of middle height and compact frame, dark hair and eyes, the shadow of a beard on his jaw; he was dressed in a loose white shirt and dark trousers, boots and belt. All this Kit noticed as a sort of afterthought, because his attention was wholly absorbed in the burden the man carried: the limp and lifeless body of a young woman with long black hair and an oval face and almond eyes.
Kit’s first thought was that the woman was asleep. She was dressed in a long gown of thin white stuff, crushed and rumpled, and stained at the neck and under the arms as if sweat had dried there over time. Then Kit observed the ghastly tinge of the woman’s flesh: ashen and waxy, the sick pallor of the grave. No living human had flesh like that. At a glance, Kit knew that she was dead.
The man, his face set in a grimace of determination, tightened his grip on the body in his arms-as if gathering his strength for a superhuman effort-then, steadying himself, the man took a purposeful stride towards the pool of liquid light. His first step took him to the brink, his next step carried him into the pond and up to his shins; another stride and he was in to his knees. The opalescent liquid swirled around him, thick and glutinous as honey, radiance scattering in waves across the surface disturbed by the man’s measured plunge into the pool. The dark-haired fellow waded farther, sinking deeper into the strange liquid now lapping around his shoulders, swallowing the corpse he clutched so tightly in his arms.
Another step, and the man and dead woman sank beneath the surface without a sound. Kit watched the place where they had disappeared; it was marked by rings of shimmering light. These rings spread in waves across the pool and were soon lapping at Kit’s feet. But something else was happening: the place where the couple had sunk from view was now glowing with a rosy golden hue. This luminescence grew and spread until the entire pond was the colour of heated bronze glowing fresh from the crucible.
Kit watched, fascinated, as a dome of light appeared, a great bubble rising from the liquid light. In the centre of this dome emerged the head and shoulders of the man, rising once more. He still clutched the body of the woman close to his chest, but where before she had been a limp dead weight in his arms, now she clung to him, her arms clasped around his neck. Her face was buried in the hollow of his throat as he carried her alive from the pool; her skin, gleaming with the sheen of living light, no longer bore the taint of the grave.
Kit would have stayed to see the couple reunited, but the tenderness with which the man knelt to lay his lady down and cupped a hand to her face gave Kit to know that this moment was for the two of them alone. He backed away from the edge of the pool and, as he turned to leave, cast a last backwards glance across the pond to see that the man, standing once more, had removed his shirt to make a pillow for the young woman’s head. The man’s torso was tattooed with a spray of tiny blue symbols-dozens of them-symbols he had seen before.
“The Man Who Is Map,” breathed Kit. “At the Well of Souls.”