Xeric scratched his short beard. The young man thought for a long time on how to word his wish. You had to be careful with djinn, he thought, and efreet were even more dangerous than them.
In the dark basement storeroom, a pair of fiery red eyes gazed impatiently through the smoke. What appeared to be a horned man had a grin on his face, trying to look trustworthy.
It worked surprisingly well.
Xeric was a delthran, one of the few magic users in Qafila-buldan, and certainty one of the fewer practitioners in Wahid, its capital city. He had spend years trying to master even a remote connection to the natural world. It was nearly impossible to make it rain in the desert, but controlling the winds and sand was something he had a knack for.
It’s that damned anti-magicite sand, he thought. In ancient times a few thousand years ago, the elemental’s Last Dynasty of the Genies fell as a new religion overtook the worship of spirits. Part of the fallout from the collapse was the calling down of a black meteor that slammed into the desert, spreading the odd mineral throughout the land. Anyone who tried to use magic while near it found it just wouldn’t work. Sorcerers, magi and delthrans were quite rare in Qafila-buldan as a result, ever since the mineral became part of the sands through erosion and wind.
“I think,” Xeric began, “that I might have something.” The spirit’s expression lightened in anticipation.
“Your wish?” it bellowed, a mix of poised offering and intimidating baritone inquiry. It is common knowledge that djinn (a kind of genie) will to grant three wishes to whoever captures them. Efreet are typically trapped in an object, in this case to a candlestick, but will only grant one wish.
If they feel like it.
What they do feel like, more commonly, is causing mischief and twisting words. You had to be extra careful.
“I wouldn’t be restricted to using magic in the city walls if that blasted anti-magicite went away. I’d like to fix that. Efreeti,” Xeric commanded, “I wish that the black mineral be removed from the sands of the deserts. All of it.”
The creature’s face straitened as he considered his options. “This is your wish?” it asked.
“Yes. That is my wish.”
In an instant the being’s red skin faded as the creature was released, disappearing. As the last of the smoke dissipated, Xeric saw smiling eyes answer, “As you wish”.
Xeric was alone in the underground basement, lit by the lone candle. It was one of the best places you could use magic in the city without any of the sand’s interference, not that genies or other transcendent spirits were bothered by the black mineral. He returned, running back past his office in the university, to get outside. A few minutes later, he reached the city walls, and went out towards the sand to see if his magic would work.
Before he got outside, though, he heard what sounded like an hourglass.
Of massive size. Pouring backwards.
Efreet love to twist words. Not in the “a guy wishes for a million gold coins, and so he drops the metal on his head” kind of twist. That’s a low-brow prank for someone who can manipulate the fundamental elements of reality by snapping his fingers. What this one had in mind would be clever, Xeric realized, but it would not violate the unspoken law of the desert.
The anti-magicite got put there for a reason, people assumed, because God wanted a desert somewhere on the landscape and He didn’t want people making magic rain to mess up His creation. That’s what the philosophers believed, and what the genies claimed to know. This efreeti apparently thought it was not a safe idea to grant wishes that ruined the plans of higher powers.
Ruining the lives of much lower powers, though… well now, that’s just having innocent fun.
The black mineral was rising out of the ground, flying upward in great streams. Dark sand climbed into the air at diagonal slopes. For several minutes, they seemed to evaporate. But as Xeric saw his wish take shape, he spotted an orb in the sky where the mineral was aggregating.
The sphere grew larger. Wind howled as the particles swirled around the pearl of anti-magicite, which hung in midair much like how boulders can’t. As the sand came from far and wide, Xeric beheld his creation.
The Black Sandstorm had arisen. A swirling, clearly supernatural squall of anti-magic, which defied all logic by staying together despite the absence of normal weather forces to support it.
Xeric could only stare in horror as his bane, the anti-magic desert itself, gained skyward mobility. Suddenly, he felt he was being watched.
The core of the storm, now a massive perfect black sphere over a meter across, stared at him.
The sandstorm stalked towards the city with conscious intent.
Xeric ran back underground. He did not emerge until the storm passed more than a day and a half later. When he emerged, the city was ravaged, and some of his friends, fellow magic-dabblers and prestigitators, had been exposed to the mineral and had lost their powers.
Somehow Xeric knew it was permanent.
He could only think, What have I done?
+ + +
Years passed. Xeric was long out of his mid twenties, approaching early fifty. Continuing his government-funded work at the university consumed him, studying the nature of magic and its cancellation alongside fellow sorcerers and magic-users. He’d spent the last several decades working frantically to undo his one wish.
Now he was standing over a cliff in the desert, far out from any travelers’ supply station or oasis. Looking out on the lowlands before him, as a jackal watched in the distance, he saw the undying storm approach. He knew it would come. He called to it with the only language it knew. He had spent the last several decades studying its behaviors, prodding it, testing it, and discovered its mission. For whatever reason, the mineral dust stayed airborne, probably because the wish’s magic kept it from settling back into the desert. Now the anti-magicite could move about, and gravitated towards strong magical energy. He had activated and abandoned magic artifacts to its wrath, discovering that all their magic power was gone when he retrieved them. Polished down by the buffeting black sands, blue, green and violet supernatural auras got stripped away, leaving nothing but ruined junk.
A severe magic dust storm can strip unprotected flesh from bones, quite quickly in fact. Already a school of sand-fish was burrowing down into a large sand dune to avoid the weather. But this storm was unique. Magic was also stripped away, leaving nothing but the inert remains.
Facing this abomination was enough to make even the desert master Xeric sweat. But he had a plan.
With the gestures of a dancer, Xeric churned the winds and clouds to move. Straining from the concentration, he commanded the air as a conductor shapes music. At first the hot winds flanked the sandstorm, then surrounded it entirely. As they contracted, they went ablaze, and the fire pushed the dust in and down. Xeric’s limbs flailed in frantic but deliberate motions, keeping the spell controlled. He hoped he could heat the sand into solid glass; rendered immobile, it meant only one area of the desert would be a magic dead zone. He knew it was a long shot, but he had to try.
It’s my responsibility, the old master reasoned. My fault.
The tornado of desert fire roared in the distance. As the wind-shaped furnace collapsed from a funnel into a sphere, Xeric noticed the flames thin out. Finally, exhausted, Xeric relinquished concentration and let the flame’s momentum carry the spell out. It didn’t last three seconds before the power was gone and the Black Storm emerged, completely unchanged.
The main thing about anti-magicite is it cannot be harmed by magic. That’s the point. Even when indirectly attacked with tangential environmental effects, it seemed, the Curse of the Waste was unstoppable.
The spherical core, visible from inside the dust, glared at Xeric, and charged him.
Within moments, the cliff ledge was ravaged by the storm. Xeric managed to outpace the dead-zone field, but only barely; he felt it harder to concentrate as it barreled towards him, but got the spell off. He escaped with his ability to merge with the sand, disappear, and reappear elsewhere.
He was already home, in a sandpit in his underground office. Part of the tunnels beneath Wahid, it was his city lab from which to continue his craft, forbidden by the desert. More importantly, though, it was a safe place, even if the storm raged directly overhead.
Xeric’s crusade made him very good at escaping, at surviving. He was forced to be skilled at retreating.
Xeric had to admit defeat. For now.
+ + +
“I ought to come up with a name for this thing, shouldn’t I?”
“Yes, Lord Xeric,” said Hanna. The lady scholar was a tall dark-haired young woman, who stood beside Lord Xeric as he inspected the object. Arms at her sides, she too stared at the structure.
I suppose I shouldn’t call it, “the Sands of Time”, he thought. The hourglass, though it would be what determined his lifespan and vitality (once the ritual was finished), deserved a better name than that. “The Sands of Time” had been used by countless desert dwelling magicians before. It seemed unoriginal to the lord, who thought it was time for something new. It was masterfully crafted, a combination of gold-plated steel and fine glass, towering over 15 feet high. There was a definite scarab motif around the rims of the top and base, and the support columns resembled those put in and near the lavish pyramids.
“The architect was from Iteru, was he?” asked Lord Xeric.
“Yes, sir, a miny that was runner-up to work as a craftsman for the Iteru aristocracy.”
“Those pharaohs seem to really love dung beetles, don’t they Hanna?”
“The scarab represents the rising sun, they say, and thus rebirth, sir.”
“Rebirth? You don’t say…” replied the lord, his voice trailing off. His frail old hands twirled his long pointy beard. He stepped forward to further inspect the work. His liver spots were bold enough to appear in his reflection on the glass.
Attendants and sorcerers, fellow scholars and also others hired for this purpose, worked on preparing the lines, circles and symbols required for the spell ritual to work. They worked skillfully, like architects for a supernatural structure of force rather than stone. Xeric and Hanna merely stared at the hourglass while they worked.
“After all these years, I’ve tried to solve this one problem I’ve fought since my youth. But there just wasn’t enough time. Time, time… time…”
“Sir?” asked Hanna. The elderly lord was prone to lapses of thought.
“But now!” he exclaimed, “now, I can buy the time, and make it right. Another chance to start fresh. No task is too great for anyone, if only they can live long enough to see it through.”
“Still, what shall we call it?” asked Hanna, returning to the original matter.
“How about the Sands of Time?” Hanna ventured, smiling.
“The Hourglass of Life,” Lord Xeric declared.
“Descriptive. And quite to the point, sir.” She glanced away, her idea rejected.
The two and their assistants made their final preparations for the ritual. He intended to infuse his life force with the white sands of the hourglass, which would run for two hundred years, making him age more slowly. The trouble was, there were just certain things you had to factor in. Aside from such ritual components as blood, expensive treasures and intricate runes, the magic would reset his clock.
The spell made you start back at age zero.
The incantation took several hours. When it built to a crescendo, the hourglass glowed a faint cyan, before bursting bright in shining blue light. It rose, defying gravity, and turned over slowly in the air to reset. In those moments Xeric’s life rewound before his de-aging eyes: pleading for and securing funds from the satrap for their research, lengthy experiments that ruined valuable artifacts, long weeks and months pouring through old texts of history and arcane lore. For an instant, he saw himself, a young man, talking with smoke from a candlestick, realizing something new about that encounter, and then a moment later he was young again. As young as you could be. The spell was complete.
As the hourglass reached vertical, it landed and the white sand began to fall. Xeric let out an infantile cry, eyes tightly shut.
The scholars and assistants, payment secured in advance, retired for the night, later following orders and putting various plans into motion to pass the time. Hanna, all of eighteen and who knew Xeric for only nine months, picked him up and took him home. She was his aspiring apprentice, but they’d have lots of time to get to know each other more.
From the window of their new home in central Wahid, she could see out over the desert. A dark cloud stalked in the far distance, wandering the waste. Someday, Hanna thought to herself, and hoped.
+ + +
The young Xeric tapped at the glass vial. It contained a small handful of the black sand, an expensive sample, which held itself in midair. It seemed to swirl slowly inside the jar.
“That’s what this is all about,” a now older Hanna remarked. The teenager looked up. Xeric had been studying for years under her guidance, and this was part of his training. He cast a practice spell, magically filling a nearby drinking horn with clean water. The sand in the hourglass was suddenly and sharply pulled towards Xeric, as if metal to a lodestone, up against the edge of the glass. Among the sorcerers and scholars who had examined it beforehand, this predatory behavior in the sand caused quite a stir, unsettling them with its apparent sentience, but Xeric did not flinch.
He nodded, then blinked.
“I take it you remember that,” Hanna said. The woman was arranging some scrolls for him, that he might select from, as part of the day’s studies. She laid them on the table next to the lunch she had cooked for Xeric: rice, vegetables and a poached sand-fish he had picked at, but had little appetite for.
“I do,” he replied. “I remember encountering this from my past. Not in a jar, I don’t think, but the rest I can’t remember. In the desert, at least once, I suppose.”
Hanna said nothing. She had raised him like a son, and though she was his apprentice, she was now teaching him, bringing him back up to speed to a point where he could continue his research from before. She was helping the other scholars in whatever way she could. Helpfully he was able to remember glimpses from his past life, but the flashes of memory were usually incomplete.
He looked out towards the collection of scrolls. Hanna had piled them up in no particular order, and Xeric held his hand above them, moving it over them as his eyes scanned the frayed, old edges and partly-familiar features. He reached down into the stack, past several scrolls to one at the bottom, and pulled it out, unrolling it to a section. He gave it a cursory glance, and nodded.
Here’s where I left off on this, he thought, and set to work again.
+ + +
The scholars and Hanna had left him behind, riding back to Wahid on the sand-sailer, skidding over the dunes, winds at their backs. The wind was picking up, and the Black Storm was emerging over the horizon through the shimmering morning air. Xeric had no smile, his bearded face a serious visage, his eyes inspecting the scene. He could see, at a safe distance, a magical lamp, set to flare and burn at a precise moment, one of four he and the sorcerers had arranged around the bait. The storm was headed for the middle of the array where a flying carpet, a masterpiece of rug craftsmanship and enchantment-weaving, hovered in magical defiance of gravity above the burning sands.
Xeric adjusted his shawl, his mouth covered from the blowing sand as the storm approached. In the distance, a jackal watched.
The storm descended on the carpet. As its magic unraveled, so too did its physical threads, tugging on supernatural fetters that had stayed the lamps. As the last tatters of the once wondrous rug where shredded by the sandstorm, Xeric could see the lamps burst into light, releasing fierce eruptions of flame, colorful sparks, and smoke simultaneously. The carpet had baited the storm to the direct center of the lamp arrangements, with four lamps now equidistant to the heart of the storm. It might simply shift from one to another, taking turns, in which case Xeric would learn something about its behavior; it might stay stationary in the desert, unable to decide which to target like the allegorical Buridan’s ass, which would also be useful information, as a possible permanent trap for the future.
The storm hesitated, momentarily spinning in place like a twister. Xeric too paused. He mused that perhaps the storm, which he knew was simply airborne minerals (though magical and anti-magical), appeared to him to perhaps be thinking. Contemplating. Xeric did not smile, only watching from the safe distance away.
He saw, then, the storm had chosen a different option: it split into four equal parts, each division flying off to pursue a different lamp stationed around the open desert. One part was coming towards the lamp Xeric had a view of, and he was ready for this possibility as well.
He began his dance of fire, and in a fraction of the time practiced in his past life, whirled the air into a blaze that surrounded and trapped the smaller storm. He was a more powerful spell-master now, and fighting only one-fourth of the anti-magicite this time. It collapsed quickly under the swirl of the wind, buffeted by his indirect magic and began to glow into a molten orb of fire, like a tiny sun blasting inward over the sands. He kept this going for as long as he dared spend his stamina.
He blinked, and though he had some strength left, released his effect on the sands, the flames barely lasting seconds, the miniature Black Storm emerging, again, totally unharmed.
The storm turned sharply away from the ruined once-magical lamp, barreling strait towards him. With its smaller size it gained speed quickly, and Xeric felt the strain of concentration trying to cast the spell in the field of the anti-magicite’s effect, as he merged with the sand and reemerged safely home. Hanna and the others arrived some hours later to hear news of their collective findings and failures.
Xeric was alive, but frustrated still.
+ + +
The old man’s too damn hard to keep up with, Heddelah thought. He was chasing after Xeric with crates of things to pile onto the sand-sailer: drinks, oil lamps, sweet meats and other fine items. The old man was inspecting things under the morning sun, twirling his beard with a finger. He glanced over at Heddelah, wishing he still had Hannah, rest her soul, but she had grown old before him and died, leaving him to find a new apprentice. The boy, though already becoming a man and the son of an accomplished colleague, had a lot to learn about the Black Storm. About my enemy, Xeric thought.
“After this crate, there should only be one more,” Heddelah told him. Xeric had lapsed in thought.
“Hm? Ah, yes. Thank you. It’s, um, quite a help. Hopefully with this, I can fix this problem, and at least restore things.”
Heddelah looked at the old man, standing with his gnarled walking stick. He remembered seeing him use it for the first time when he was being shown the Hourglass of Life. “Xeric, is it not possible this problem is too great for one lifetime?”
“Two,” Xeric corrected, holding up his fingers.
“Yes, but, still…”
Xeric sighed as the other assistants put the things on the sand-sailer. “You should not concern yourself with that worry,” he said reassuringly. “You’ll be free to research the spiritual beings of the desert and old Al’Arabi and Menurabi, free and clear with all the magic you desire, once my task is done.”
“But if it shouldn’t?” the apprentice insisted.
“… I’m glad you’re looking out for my interests, and for the safety of the travelers of the wasteland. But I won’t keep you from your own chosen work. You should not have to inherit someone else’s problems. No one should…” he added, distractedly.
He looked at the elderly magi as he trailed off in distant thought on old memories. “I would have no objection to finishing your work.”
Xeric said nothing at first, before retorting, “It will work this time! Now get on,” and they boarded the sand-sailer and with a blast of wind skid off into the dunes.
After a full day of travel they came to an empty part of the desert, to a small and remote oasis. They set up their ritual at the pond’s banks. They laid out, under the clear open sky, a yazna ritual feast to attract the spirits of the desert, with fire and food and houma drink. As dusk came down with the setting sun, Xeric and Heddelah chanted rites into the wind.
“… Del, oh beneficent ahura, spirit of the desert, master of dust and drought. We beseech you: come to our bounty, sit with us, so we may share with each other what we may by the water’s edge, in the light of sacred fire…”
And it continued on thus for several hours, hoping to call a spirit that might help them fight the Black Storm. The moon shone a silver sliver on the black star-spangled backdrop of stars. The wind blew and the two fasted, leaving a feast yet for hospitality’s sake, waiting for the arrival of some ahura, genie, or older desert spirit that might aid them. After a while the wind died down.
But the sand shifted.
“Is it a spirit?” Heddelah asked in a whisper, pointing. Xeric stared at the shifting sands, trying to make out the shape in the dark from the fire-light. He sprang to his feet, or tried to, fumbling in enfeebled age, and as Heddelah helped him up with his walking stick, the ground burst forth in a violent eruption of sand. As it settled, they made out the great lumbering shape by the light of the fires, a brown, muscular, lizard-like thing bigger than a camel, dwarfing the sand-sailer, looking intently at the humans before it.
A sand dragon.
Xeric got down on his knees and prostrated. Unsure, Heddelah followed example, trying to keep from taking his eye off of the monster.
“Oh, great dragon, master of the desert,” Xeric began immediately. He knew to always present oneself to a sand dragon as at its mercy (because often-times, you were), and he was old now, and did not trust that he could defeat a creature of this size. “We have come only to enjoy the beauty of your domain, and to share our bounty with the wild spirits of the dunes.”
Heddelah said nothing, frozen in terror. He was sure the dragon could kill them both if it wanted to, but the creature seemed to have stopped, listening to what his master had said. It then turned to the feast they had laid out to attract a helpful spirit… the irony of their current danger not lost on any of them.
“How nice of you to offer a feast to this oasis’s mistress,” the pleased dragon remarked, apparently referring to itself. Though she was a powerful hulking brute, she spoke with a voice that sounded surprisingly feminine to human ears. She lumbered over to the array of foods, spiced meat and vegetables and aromatic rice and sorghum. She picked up the platters and emptied the delicacies down her greedy throat; in seconds the offering was gone, and she had taken to inspecting the dishes themselves, the brass platters shiny in the light of the fire. She then tossed the not-treasure aside, and knocked over one of the lamps with a swipe of her powerful tail, sending it flying and tumbling several feet across the open sand.
“Hardly filling, though,” the big dragon remarked, as she stalked closer to them, licking her lips. Xeric was muttering something while she approached, which Heddelah did not recognize. The dragon drew a breath into her chest, and Xeric suddenly rose, pushing his apprentice out of the way, just as the monster exhaled – not a stream of fire, but a powerful gale-breath of biting, cutting sand. Xeric’s body disappeared, falling apart in the blast, having become sand, a decoy Heddelah realized as the real Xeric, switched out unseen by some magic, emerged next to the dragon’s head, laying his hand on its face. With a brilliant flash of cyan light, the creature’s scales around her eyes desiccated and blistered, before becoming chunks of stinging salt that sloughed off of and painfully into the spreading wound.
The dragon roared in pain, reeling back temporarily, and the night then suddenly erupted with Xeric’s shouts as he burst forth a torrent of awful fire. The dragon reeled again, and staggering back, stared with her one good eye at the old man as he stood by Heddelah’s side. She hissed at them like an angry snake, and then slipped gracefully into the sand and swam away into the night.
Though Xeric collapsed with weary, Heddelah held him up, and being close heard him casting another spell. “You should rest, she’s gone now, we’re safe,” the apprentice told him. You saved us!”
“No,” the old master said. “It approaches: I have doomed us.” The winds were picking up, blowing back toward the city. “We must get to the sand-sailer. The Black Storm is coming. I know because the spells I used to repel the dragon were quite powerful, and it will be drawn here. If we stay out here, we will die. There is no reason to stay with the ritual ruined,” he said, pointing to the feast’s remains, flung into disarray.
Among the refuse left behind, there was a jackal. It had been watching them.
It smirked, and rose up on its back legs, and began to chuckle, then laugh loudly.
The two stared at the creature. If it was a spirit, it did not seem the kind they hoped to summon. “What is that?” Heddelah asked warily, entranced. The creature ceased its laughter, and turned to look directly at Xeric. It walked forward on its hind legs, upright, in an uncanny gait.
“You remember me, don’t you?” it asked. It grinned wide, dust sifting out from between its teeth, thin trails of smoke wafting up from its nostrils. Its smiling red eyes flared with flame for a moment.
Xeric’s eyes grew wide. “The efreeti!”
It paused, changing form, growing tall into that shape, the smoky, red-skinned muscular giant, but then grew thin, like some sickly thing, sprouting thinner horns and keeping its clawed legs on the sand. Its form was wicked, snaggletoothed, with spotted patchy fur and long limbs. It charged at them, knocking Heddelah back with one claw and then grabbing Xeric by the throat, throwing the old man across the sand.
“Div!” Xeric identified angrily. “Fiend of ruin, daeva spirit of deception and lies! Why did you bring this calamity upon us?!”
The evil spirit cackled. “It was your wish, all those decades ago!” He sent forth a stream of magic wind, filled with the biting sting of the desert night’s cold. Xeric managed to counter with his own spell, but he could feel his strength was fading.
“Heddelah!” he called out. “Get out of here! My winds of retreat won’t linger as the storm approaches. You have to go!”
The apprentice stood there, seeing his old master, just revealed to be the cause of the Black Storm, battling the obviously powerful div in a contest of magic. He snapped out of his awe, and bolted for the sand-sailer. As it was ready to depart, he called back to the battle, where each had shaped the sands into the forms of opposing serpents to fight for them.
“We can go together!” the apprentice called out.
“No! Leave now, before it’s too late!” the master called back. “Survive!”
Heddelah hesitated, and reluctantly took off over the sands, cursing his weakness and cowardice as he fled.
Xeric’s sand magic began to fade as the fight wore on and the Black Storm approached. It was draining his magic, making him have to concentrate harder, while the div’s magic, originating from a higher spiritual realm, was completely unaffected. Xeric’s sand-formed snake was destroyed in the battle, crumbling apart, and he was wrapped up in his enemy’s own magical creature as the sandstorm arrived.
The starlight went out as the sky blackened overhead. His opponent departed in a burst of smoke, laughing, and Xeric was released from its spell, falling to the ground, old and frail. Looking up, he could make out the shape of a pure black sphere in the sky.
Exposed, the magician was ground down by the sand. The anti-magic desert consumed him, body and spirit.
+ + +
Heddelah touched the amulet around his neck. It was a small container, not very heavy, carrying a little bit of the white sand from Lord Xeric’s hourglass, which had shattered upon his death in the wastes that night years ago.
“Do you pledge yourself to the study of the Black Storm?” he ritualistically asked the three initiates, two young men and a young woman, all bright scholars and sorcerers. “You would strive, to struggle, to find a way to undo the fault of those who came before? To eradicate the Black Storm? To spread the magic of water to the thirsty desert? To restore the waste, to improve our world?”
“Yes, Lord Heddelah,” they replied as one as they stood side by side.
He smiled. “Welcome to the Order of the White Hourglass,” he said, and gestured for them to don their own amulets, Xeric’s old life-sand sealed within.
“Even if we must inherit the problems of our forebears, we understand that some problems are too great for one lifetime. So,” he concluded, “let’s get to work.”
(Disclaimer: sand dragon artwork belongs to Todd Lockwood and not me).