The problem was their clothes. Everything else was just downright freaky, but wearing the thin cashmere and cotton of the desert, while four feet of ice covered the dunes? Blackened appendages were only the beginning. Horrible things happened to people who strayed too far from the fires, which had begun to tax the endurance of the man who was supposed to maintain them. Coleman eyed him with more than a trace of concern, up there at the head of the marching order. From beside him came a nudge.
"How much longer, do you think?"
"Days. Maybe weeks," said Coleman. He'd walked this trail before. Beside him, the first man cursed under his breath.
"He's a wizard, inne? Cann'e, I d'know, speed us up?"
Coleman took another look at the robes, which were flapping dramatically despite the lack of wind. he sighed. "One can never guess at the motives of those who wield the power of gods."
There was a silence filled with shivering. Above, the first bright stars of the desert appeared between patches of fleeting cloud. There was no slowing in the wizard's pace.
"That were that irony you told me about?"
"You're learning." They'd started with half a dozen camels. Now they had none. The wagons were being pulled with what, for lack of a better explanation, Coleman had been forced to concede was magic. He'd never liked wizards. You couldn't trust people who wore boots that came that far up their thighs.
"Reckon we stop soon?"
"Who's to say?" Coleman sighed, and this was enough. Both he and the merchant walking alongside well remembered the last few nights, full of more walking and terror than any sort of rest. The worms had been new. He'd never seen worms like that in the desert before, or anywhere else in the world. Beside him, Plub was watching him closely.
After a while, he said, softly, "swallowed that camel right up, didn'ee? 'Member up in the Galetops? Those dragons? Reckon those things could eat a dragon, no problem. Right shrimpy, really, those dragons."
The worst of the snow had subsided. Now, only a few lazy eddies spun through the night. It looked almost peaceful, Coleman thought. Then Plub nudged him.
"Would ye look at that," he murmured, and pointed at something behind them.
Coleman took a cold, sudden breath. Then he hurried to the front of the marching line. No one paid him much notice. They were focused on their feet, which were invariably clad in frozen sandals.
At the head, the wizard slowed his pace. Amber eyes, glowing with the reflection of the fire, stared impassively into Coleman's soul.
"Here! Wait! Is this . . . this is you, isn't it? Your magic?" He dreaded the alternative enough to repeat the question, in more or less the same degree of eloquence. "That's not how this is supposed to work," he added. After a moment, he became aware that Plub had followed him, and was slinking a little behind.
"You mean the snow," said the wizard. "The answer is no. But if it reassures you, I have already noted it."
"But what is it?" Coleman was whispering, for the desert silence made his voice seem very loud. "We were leaving a trail yesterday, I'm sure."
"That is true."
"Is it magic?"
"It is beyond your power to change, suffice it at that. It poses no immediate danger. In fact, I'm sure you can imagine, it is also very good for us at this juncture of the desert."
"No tracks," muttered Plub.
"I thought the worms used tremors, isn't that what you said?"
"It is," said the wizard. He had resumed his previous speed, and now Coleman found it difficult to keep up with him. "But there are more things to fear in this desert, than just worms."
A howl split the air, full of power and teeth. As it faded, Coleman noticed that their movement had also stopped. The wizard turned around, eyes on the dunes.
"Wolves?" Coleman shouted in a whisper. "Here? It's the middle of the desert! What do they eat?"
"Presumably," said the wizard, "us."
"This is devil work, friend. No doubt of it. Me mother told me about the devils. They spoil water in the wells, turn it into mud and drag children in to die."
"Bringing snow to Prythenia, though?"
"Perhaps you'd prefer the Veilmen?" said the wizard innocently. "They seemed very happy to have us, didn't they?" And he walked on.
"Keep formation," he shouted back to the line. "Any man who strays is unlikely to see the sun."
And that was that. The crackle of feet breaking ice continued, and now that he was listening, Coleman could also hear little pops as their footsteps disappeared. It was actually wonderful to watch. It wasn't so much that the snow filled the imprint, as it was that Time, in a microcosm, reversed to a point where the boot had never made it. First, little cracks appeared as the treads faded away, and then the condensed matter bounced up into its plane. He watched the process for maybe half a minute, before Plub pulled again on his arm.
"The wagon's goin' by," he said, and they trudged back to walk along it.
The ash or the snow . . . what kind of choice was that? Coleman looked up at the stars, brighter than they were in the city, and wondered if the Veilmen had brought the ice to the desert. But why would they? Why snow, instead of ash that could burn the flesh and kill cities where it fell? Why worms and wolves, when they had black wyverns with eyes that smelled of the void?
Coleman had always been a practical man, and the basis of his philosophy was that there was quite enough magic and nonsense in the world, without him joining in, too. He'd never had time for spells and verses and incantations, for in his travels he had learned that there were very few things magic could do, that a clever understanding of levers, gears, and pulleys couldn't replicate. It was a good life. It kept him out of trouble. The issue being, in this situation, the trouble had come to him.
"I wish we were back in Ans," he moaned. Plub looked at him, with a face more sympathetic than pitying.
"Good beer in Ans," was all he said.
The line had stopped. Again. A shout, presumably an order, was given down the line, but Coleman failed to pick it up. "What'd he say?"
Plub shrugged. "Maybe wolves?"
Coleman felt a chill run down his spine. Against his better judgement, a part of him moved his legs back up towards the front, next to the wizard.
"Coleman! What are you doing?"
"I . . . what's going on?"
The wizard only pointed. Up ahead, cresting a dune and looking down upon them, was a man larger than any Coleman had ever seen.
"He's been there for nearly two minutes, now. Watching us."
"What is it? It's . . . too tall for a man, isn't it?"
"Too far south for giants," said Plub, matter-of-factly. The wizard gave him a nod.
"Get the tents set up, get a fire going."
"What, here? Now?"
"I see no better time for it. And hurry. We will soon have guests among us."
"Just like a wizard."
"What's that you said?"
"Never gets his pretty hands dirty, does he? You'll never see a wizard, Plub, you'll never see a wizard doing a day's honest work."
"I'm going to go see what they're talking about."
"Is that smart? Hey, wait!"
They'd built the fires in a small ring, with the women and the older folk in the center, with the wagons. A little apart from the group, under an overhang of rock, the wizard was talking to the giant. Beside them, visible only as a dramatic silhouette in the wizard's own blue flames, was another figure, that looked to Coleman like a small bear. It was wearing spectacles.
". . . people out here, are pilgrims or lunatics. So tell me, Flavius, which one are you?"
The voices carried easily on the light winds. From his expression, Coleman could guess at the wizard's opinion of his "guests."
"Running from the Veils, I presume?"
"Looking for a Prophet. Never heard of any 'Veils.' "
The bear roused itself from its position by the fire. Now, Coleman saw that it was actually a small man, bundled in an exorbitant number of hefty furs.
"Now, hold on . . . you don't mean that portal in Dyrz, do you? I was reading a few reports from down south . . . has anything gone wrong?"
"You could say that. They've burned the library. Moved north."
"What are you two going on about?" asked the larger man. His face was turned away from Coleman, who had slunk behind one of the nearby dunes, but his voice was loud, and carried well. He wore only a light cloak, fitted for his broad shoulders and not quite concealing the massive sword strapped across his back.
"Danger, Bugn. Things you can't hit with a sword."
"Where you're wrong, wizard. You can hit anything with a sword. Sometimes it just doesn't do much."
"Charming," said Flavius. He turned back to the shorter man. "We're not quite sure how far they've gone. The tyragaeth chased us into the desert, but no further."
Leslie gave a bitter laugh. "Oh, I think we can answer for that much. Snow in a desert . . ."
"Their work, is it?"
"No. Rather above their pay grade, really." He laughed again. "Your parents every tell you stories, Flavius? The old legends."
"There were books at the Academy."
"What are you saying, then?" A short smile curled the wizard's features. "That this is god work?"
There was a silence deeper than stars.
"Yvermoney's Tales, fifth chapter."
Flavius hesitated. "Ballad of Eduros, wasn't it?"
Leslie nodded, and said a word that was utterly foreign to Coleman's ears. The wizard, though, seemed to understand perfectly. He began to stroke his chin, a thoughtful expression spreading across the prominent forehead.
"Well," he said at last. "That changes things. So they're divine wolves now, yes?"
"It's not a laughing matter, I assure you."
"You're heading south."
"There's nothing but desert down there. You know that."
"I told you," said Bugn. "Looking for a Prophet. Name of . . ."
"Orogas," supplied Leslie. "Have you heard of him?"
The wizard seemed to be thinking. "I don't think so. No, most certainly not. Where did you hear of this Orogas?"
"We had a guide," said Leslie. "He only spoke the mountain dialects, though. I'm afraid Bugn threw him off a ravine."
"Stupid little creature," the giant grunted. "Couldn't speak proper language -- his own fault."
"I'm sure that's debatable." The wizard rose. "Well, you've certainly given me much to think about. You won't stay, by any chance? There's meat."
"No. We have much to walk. Now, if you have anything to drink . . ."
Flavius smiled. "I understand." He drew up a hand and, with a series of complicated motions, drew up a heavy flagon, which the giant took. He peered in, and took a draught.
"Good ale," he said. "You're improving."
This received a response, which Coleman was no longer there to hear. He crept back to his own ring of flames, his footsteps conveniently disappearing behind him. Now that he knew why, though, it seemed more terrifying than charming. Plub looked at him with concern. "Ever'thin alright, friend?"
Coleman hesitated. He was a practical man. There was no good that could come of terrifying the camp. No matter that his own heart seemed ready to sprint away screaming on the frozen sands -- he had to keep his nerve. "Just cold," he managed. "No fire on the dunes." He made a show of rubbing his hands in front of the orange glow.
Plub laughed. "Hear anyth'n int'restin'? I've been bored."
"The small talk of wizards is surprisingly dull," said Coleman, and laid out his sleeping bag. "Why else do you think I came back early?"
Plub shrugged as he settled into his own mat. "Good sleeping, friend. I'll see you at the dawn."
"If the wizard continues his pace, it'll be much earlier."
This earned a laugh, and for a while, all was peaceful. The fire crackled beside him, and the clouds had finally dispersed. The sky glowed with diamonds.
He remembered a time, when he was very young, when he had learned just how far away the stars really were. Unfathomable lengths of distance, filled with . . . nothing. He'd long ago given up trying to imagine. He was, after all, a practical man.
Life was like that, he thought, as his mind drifted away. You thought you had all the answers, or no, you thought the answers, when found, would at least be understandable, but it was, in the end, so alien, and so pointlessly intertwined. You couldn't write it in a story, he decided. It wasn't like that. You'd need at least a dozen before you got anywhere near the truth. And still.
You could never touch the stars. You'd never get close. But perhaps . . . and here the first of many dreams began to tug on his mind . . . perhaps that was for the best. After all, who knew what was hiding behind them?
The camp was sleeping. A little ways away, under an overhang of rock, the wizard watched them.
Almost unconsciously, he traced his hand in a familiar pattern, and a verse rode his breath and spread through the quiet air. The fires would burn all night, now. The wards were up. He'd done all he could do.
He sighed. Bugn and Leslie had passed on. No trace remained of their travel. And that was how it always was, he decided. The wake of man was nothing. Legacy, an illusion.
A hand was waved. The stone moved, into a ledge under which a small fire leaped to attention.
The wizard slept, and his dreams were full of gods.
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The last line of this story was my favorite.