I was familiar with singing. Every week, on the day of convocation, the city gathered together in meeting places and sang praises to the Great Maker and songs to remember parts of the Codex, under the guidance of clerics. These songs were slow, methodical, and repetitive in tone and structure. The song the traders were singing was completely unlike anything I'd heard before. Yes, there were human voices singing, and there was something that could be called a tune, but beyond that, it was an entirely new experience. I was not even sure if they were using words that I ought to understand.
The songs I knew were sombre, sedate and almost sleep-inducing given how easily they could be repeated from memory with no thought required. The song I was hearing felt almost frantic, irregular, changing directions in a manner which was unpredictable yet still made sense on some primal level. It was endlessly fascinating, and completely put an end to any thoughts of sleep.
I remained in my hammock, kept comfortably warm by a layer of blankets. With no responsibilities, I was free to listen and enjoy the eerie otherworldliness of the traders' song. If we had sung like this during convocation, it would be a much more memorable event. Our songs were mere words set to a meaningless tune. The traders' song contained layers of emotion and meaning in the rhythm and patterns of interacting tunes sung by separate groups. I did not have the words to adequately describe what I was hearing. At convocation, we simply sung and that was that. Our songs were so bland that even from the beginning it was obvious how they would end. This song, I never wanted to end.
To my immeasurable disappointment, the song did end after a few short, life-changing minutes. I was left in a stunningly empty silence. I had momentarily forgotten what life was beyond the song. Life was the place where I was stuck existing, lying curled up in a hammock in the cold darkness. My inescapable companions were bruises and burns on the outside, joined by guilt and grief on the inside. The song had made me feel like there was much more beyond my present experiences, but now the song was gone and my situation was all the more stark. With every moment, the memory of the song and the sublime greatness it had evoked drifted further out of reach, like dandelion seeds wafted by a breeze.
Misery sprung up within me. Every concept that passed through my mind felt crueler than before. The wind felt chillier, the night looked darker, my home seemed more distant, and even the Great Mak...
A new song began.
The second song was as complex and unusual as the first. However, it differed entirely in the feelings it evoked. The first song had an undercurrent of excitement and possibility. It gave me a sense of boundless potential, creativity and energy. The new song was equally as incomprehensible to me, but the progression of tones innately spoke of loss and sadness. Happy times were fondly remembered but had slipped out of reach, possibilities had been cut short and potential was barred. Not in a cruel or imposed way, but in a natural way. It spoke of how growth and maturity meant leaving things behind. Moving through life meant moving on. I had no idea what the singers were thinking, but those were the thoughts that the song put in my head.
The song's tune had multiple interwoven strands, some haunting and some hopeful. Childhood was part of the past which could never be reclaimed, but the future held the possibility of children. I might never again have good times with my sisters — certainly not with Chalice — but that did not mean I could never have good times. Right now, casual enjoyment seemed a distant possibility, but I should not discount it just because my present circumstances were bad. I had fallen many times in my life, and had stood back up again. This was not the end for me, and I owed it to those who were gone to really live and not cower in hopeless fear. Although the song was wistful, I concluded that the past could guide me forward without weighing me down.
Perhaps my thoughts were entirely my own, and had little to do with the meaning of the music, if the music even had any specific meaning. Regardless of that, listening to the music was helping me work through some of my issues. The results spoke for themselves. The likely lack of intent did not make me any less grateful.
The song wound up to a satisfying conclusion. I found myself smiling, thankful for the coziness of my borrowed blankets. The world had not changed, but I was feeling better about my place in it.
The traders returned to speaking softly in scattered groups. I imagined they might be discussing what song to perform next.
My thoughts continued to move in no particular direction. I thought of happy times with sisters and brothers, of learning to sing, of memorable meals and community celebrations. I did not doze off, but I did lose track of time.
A change brought me back to full awareness. A hush had fallen over the traders. I spotted a bright light moving towards me. Though I could not see who was holding it, I knew it had to be Skids' magelight. The relic was probably ready for... whatever a relic might do.
Once the light source was fairly close, I called down, "Skids?"
"Good, you're awake," Skids called back. "Interesting singing. Right, Charity?"
"Right," I agreed. "More than interesting. Amazing. I like it a lot more than... than what I am familiar with. Do the mages sing like that?"
"A little. I'm more familiar with sports chants. And a lot of the complexity of ours is in the music. Which is magically produced, of course. Some of the hexmages are into that as a hobby, I've heard."
"Interesting," I said, planning to find out more about that some other time. "But I really want to know about the relic now."
"And so you shall," said Sente, who had been standing in the shadows beside Skids all this time. "Feast your eyes upon this," he said, carefully holding up the rectangular relic, which was wired to the larger rectangle which was Skids' scryer.
I peered down at the illuminated, glassy surface. It was similar to the scryer, except that it bore multiple colours and presented more intricate details. While it lacked the infinitesimal variance of a painting, the tiny dots of colour were too small to pick out individually. "What does it do? What does that mean?" I wondered aloud. I knew the relic's surface bore words in an unfamiliar script, but that was the limit of my understanding.
Sente touched a finger to the surface, gently poking part of the image above one of the words. The entire image changed immediately. "Touch control," he said, and I could see enough of his face to recognise a proud grin. "Convenient, isn't it?"
"Some of the better scryers can do that, though drones tend not to be deemed worthy of them," Skids said sourly.
Sente tapped again, and the image changed again. The primary visible feature was now a list of words. He swiped a finger up the screen and the words moved too, shooting by at a dizzying pace. "Can they do this?" He tapped on a line of words, which briefly lit up. Before I could respond to that change, it was rapidly outdone. For a split second I thought I was seeing a photograph of a man's head, but it quickly became obvious that it was not a still image. Or perhaps simply not a single image. The image changed as the man moved his head, changed again to show more of his body from further away, then just a shoe on his foot, then changed again. The entire time, he was moving in a bizarre fashion.
There was more than just the image to think about. The relic was also producing sounds. There was a rolling, rhythmic, banging sound unlike any machine I had heard, and quite different from anyone tapping on a table or wall. This was followed by musical tones, and they too were quite unlike a music box, a harp, or a fiddle. While I was musing on the sound of the music, the images continued to change dramatically, showing a man moving in front of a wall with arches, and a pale woman with unnaturally white hair and no sleeves on her black dress. This was so baffling that I hardly took note of a more familiar looking wire fence, but I forgot about all of that when the man in the image began to sing.
As before, the words were either unfamiliar or unrecognisable. The traders around us seemed to recognise them though, as they started to join in, drawing closer around us to better see the relic's images. I simply stared down at the spectacle, uncomprehending as men and women jumped and spun. One man even flipped over a bench, rolling on his hands with his feet in the air. I had never seen a grown man attempt such a thing.
The singer appeared to be a fairly young man, with distinctive flamelike hair and very pale skin. Whoever he was, he had a remarkably rich voice and seemed to greatly care about something or someone. Beyond those basics, I could not even begin to guess. I dared not interrupt the unique experience to ask questions.
"What under the Great Maker's golden rays was that?" I non-calmly asked as soon as the song and accompanying moving picture was complete.
"Some pretty weird dancing," Skids said, looking half perplexed and half confounded.
That did not help me at all. "Weird dancing? What is normal dancing?"
"Really? Wow you day-walkers are missing out. Dancing is when you move to music."
"Oh." In retrospect, that was an obvious answer. "So... that was a representation of a past performance of music, singing and dancing. Like a recording in resin. And there were a lot of disjointed pieces put together. Like an edited resin recording." I was quite familiar with the details of that process, thanks to having a friend with a popular resin-recorded show.
"Something like that," Sente said. "In terms you understand, yes."
"When and where did that occur?" Skids asked.
"That is definitely not Pure architecture or clothing," I said, quite certain of that fact. "But some of it was clearly outdoors and it did not seem like mage structures or styles either."
"Yeah," Skids agreed. "This is something entirely different."
"Exactly," Sente said. "This is from the before-time. Beyond that, I do not actually know, and even if I did know the details would mean nothing to you."
"Great," Skids said, sounding unimpressed. "What else does it do? Anything useful?"
"Yes, a lot," Sente said, rapidly tapping at the screen. "For instance, it has far better mapping than your 'scryer'. You can actually see what the land looks like from above, rather than mere symbols and lines to represent places and routes. Here, this is what this region looks like during the day. And... this is what it looked like a year ago."
The difference between the images was stark, as the relic now showed a bird's eye view of Nearton's Bend, as the city had once been. I could see the streets, the houses, the shops, and even some little picnic shelters by the river. I could imagine people walking about in the grass on a rest day, wearing no socks and shoes, with nothing to do but feed the bounders. So much had been lost.
"And it can show current information too. Not that there's anything to see now, but it can connect to... well, it can show the locations of the, er, 'demons'. Let's see if there are any... oh dear."
I peered down at the screen in concern at Sente's tone. 'Oh dear' was not a phrase anyone wanted to hear in relation to demons. If the red circles on the map were demons, there were a lot of them, as if the landscape had the pox. "Uh, where are they in relation to us?"
Sente made some careful pokes at various words and symbols, causing the map's scale and position to adjust. A green dot appeared at the centre, while the red dots were nearer to the right-hand side. "East of here. Something like fifty kilometers from our position, though they are spread over a wide area. Many hundreds of them. Very unusual."
"Are they moving?" I asked breathlessly. "Are there any near any of the cities?"
After a few more pokes, Sente had an answer. "There are none near any of the safe zones. It looks like a typical distribution, apart from this extra group. But they are definitely moving quite quickly."
"Where?" I snapped, annoyed that he had dragged out revealing that.
"Not towards us, don't worry." Evidently he did not have a specific answer yet, as he resumed tapping the surface of the relic. "Given that trajectory, and estimating from the past twenty minutes at two minute intervals..." he muttered to himself. "There, so we can project that forward and account for terrain and obstacles... Yes, they're clearly headed directly for that city," he said, pointing at a yellow marker on the map. It was near the top of the relic's displayed image, and a little to the left.
I saw Skids frowning. "Is that...?" dro asked, not wanting to accept the evidence.
"It is," I had to admit. "Deepbloom."