In the blistering, windblown desert of the F’kari, Brother Brine was making tracks of his own. They were slow and ponderous tracks, tracks that seemed to take forever as they weaved through the brutal and incessant wind, but tracks none the less. What was more, considering this was his second day on the trail, and that he’d been delayed yesterday by his woman-friend, Miriana—not to mention the hoard of disciples who’d spied him leaving the Rock and couldn’t help but notice his pack—he was happy to be making any tracks at all.
     But Miriana and the grand inquisition aside, the natural elements of the desert hadn’t done him any favors, and neither had his traditional Amian garb. Designed for concealment and modesty, his heavy beige robes did a magnificent job of hiding him from the sun and a rather miserable job of radiating his heat and slicing through the wind. At times, it felt like he was wearing the equivalent of a fabric oven, one with the aerodynamic principals of a man-sized windsock.
     The sand, however, was the worst. For the other two obstacles, he’d learned to drink plenty of fluids and simply lean into the wind, but there was no compromising with the sand. It was all or nothing. Either walk with a forearm across the mouth and eyes, or prepare to inhale sand and go blind from the grit.
     Eventually, he discovered that he could see, but only if he kept the sleeve of his robe over his lips at all time and only if he peeked at the landscape. He could do this by lowering his arm very quickly and squinting through his lashes, keeping the grit at bay and navigating in glimpses.
     This meant that he spent the majority of his time with his sleeve across his face and his feet trudging along blindly, but it wasn’t as though the desert travelers needed to worry about leaving the arrow-straight path or tripping over the flat and sun-baked trail.
     No, there were only two reasons for anyone to subject their eyes to the flying detritus of the desert and they had nothing to do with losing one’s way or falling on one’s face. They had to do with the two landmarks in the F’kari referred to, tenderly, as the Butcher’s Gultch and the Grand Cut, the two massive canyons that rutted the land somewhere between the Valley of the Rock and the Kingdom of Lathia.
      Thinking of these chasms, Brine lowered his arm and surveyed the horizon once more, giving it another squinty-eyed look and seeing a vacant gold smudge below an empty blue smear. But clear or blurry, he could tell there were no sudden drops over the next quarter of a league and that was all he needed to know. 
     He put his arm back and kept trudging, trying to remember where the first gorge was located and finding that the answer eluded him. It was like trying to remember a particularly frightening dream from the night before and finding that all he could come up with was the awareness that there had been a dream. By the same token, Brine knew the chasms were there—sprawling and deadly—but he could not recall what they looked like or when he would reach them.
     He experienced the same wealth of obscurity when trying to remember the details of his destination, the land that had birthed him and housed him for the first eight ages of his life. It was up there, he knew—and he could recall the names of its regions and the general outline of its borders—but the landscape itself had faded to the point of oblivion, as had the details of its subjects.
     For example, he could see the outline of a woman—the swell of her body, the shape of her head—and he could see she made a living by imparting knowledge to others and that in the evenings she tended to her garden, and he knew her name as surely as he knew his own, knew as well that she enjoyed a steaming cup of brew like nothing in the world, but as for her face, everything from her chin to her forehead, he saw nothing but shadows and a hazy brown blob.
     It’s been a long time, he mused, lowering his arm and squinting at the angry old man standing in the path.
     Brine screamed and threw himself back, scrambling away from the scowling stranger in a spray of blowing sand, expecting to feel, at any moment, the bite of sharpened steel or the weight of his attacker’s body. When neither of those sensations came, he slowed his mad dash and shot a glance at the path.
     The glaring geezer was still there, but he hadn’t moved a muscle, his icy stare matched only by his icier stance, the look of a man who’d had his heels sharpened and his legs driven into the sand, his back as straight as time and his hands clawed around his cane.
     There was something else wrong about this man, something other than his austere disposition, but Brine couldn’t see what it was, not without his lens. He knew only that it had something to do with old man’s wrinkled skin and ivory hair, but as for the specifics of the oddity he couldn’t put—
     “Are you finished?” the stranger snapped.
     Brine jumped, startled by the cutting tone in the old man’s voice. He waited for his shock to pass, not trusting himself to speak until it did, and said, “I’m sorry?
     “You’re theatrics,” the old man said, motioning at him with the head of his cane, “are you finished with them?”
     Brine glanced down at himself, noticed his hand clasped at his chest, and released it. “Oh. Yes,” he said, brushing at the sand on his lap. “I’m terribly sorry about that. I was just a little startled. I didn’t see you there.”
     There was silence as Brine cleaned the debris from his robes, then the old man said, “Didn’t you?” And the petulance in that voice made the disciple look up.
     Brine studied the stranger, searching for something he’d missed. “No,” he said, his voice a whisper. “I didn’t.”
     “Are you certain?
     Brine shrugged. “Well, sort of,” he said, picking himself off the ground and surveying the desert, searching it for a clue that might explain how this brightly-dressed man had appeared from out of nowhere. The longer he stared, though, the stronger his original suspicion grew. The old crone’s slippery blue robes were twinkling in the sun like chips of shattered glass, gleaming so brightly that just one look made Brine think of cascading waterfalls and sunsets on the ocean.
     He was pretty sure he’d have seen them the last time he peeked at the horizon, or even the time before that. The pinched-faced stranger could have been hiding from him—it was possible—but as he scanned the desert behind and beside the aged stranger, he found only a handful of dog-sized rocks, a solitary cactus, and a collection of knee-high sand dunes tha—
     From out of nowhere, a wave of nausea rolled straight through the disciple, the sensation of worms in his belly and warm fluid in his head. He felt his knees buckle, saw the ground sway, and had a moment to think, Where did that come from?
     He hadn’t eaten since this morning and it had been a piece of jerky and a handful of dried berries, none of which looked spoiled. But even if they were spoiled, they’d have affected him before now.
     Above him, as he came back from his faint, Brine heard the pinched-face stranger saying, “…understand is how you could overlook a man my size standing in the midst of a barren desert? A man of my height and stature, dressed in eye-catching robes such as these?” The old man paused, probably to gesture at his attire, then said, “Or do you believe I was hiding somewhere along the path?”
     Brine, of course, saw none of this. As soon as the dizziness passed and the heaviness abated, he was clawing at the seeing lens and prying it from its pouch, shoving it in his eye and directing it at the desert.
     Through the magic of the monocle, rocks exploded with pores and cacti sprouted needles. On the old man, his scowl developed wrinkles and his eyes turned hard. His cane appeared to be a springing cat, forepaws and head in the knob, hind legs and tail in the base.
     And it was blue—bright blue—the delicious blue of a thousand tropical seas. As Brine put the seeing lens back in its pouch, he saw that the blue lingered in the cane, saw it remain against the F’kari as the details faded.
     “I should have seen,” Brine said, shaking his head. “I know I looked and I would—”
     “Enough,” the codger snapped, clamping his hand back to the cane. “I care little for your lies, Dreamer,” he added. “I care only that you tell me why you’ve come.”
     Brine took another unconscious step back, the hairs on the nape of his neck rising in the air. What kind of question was that? he wondered. Where did this old man think he was?
     Resisting the urge to look around at the scalding vacuity of the F’kari—just in case he wasn’t standing in a desertBrine said, “I’m…traveling.”
     The old man’s eyelids drew together. “And your travels,” he said, “they lie north?”
     Brine leaned to one side, peaking around him. “Is that north?”
     “It is,” the old man said, his voice low and forbidding. “It’s Drugana.”
     Brine tried to look surprised.
     The old man said, “I hear they’re calling it something else these days…,” he rubbed the head of his cane with one long thumb, “…but it is still Drugana.”
     Mesmerized by the old man’s thumb, Brine said, “Really?”
     “Oh, yes,” the old man said, “it’s quite real, as is the evil that dwells there.”
     “Evil,” Brine mimed, slipping a sandal from the path.
     “Beyond comprehension,” the old man added.
     “Well, then,” Brine said, “I’ll, uh…I’ll be sure to be careful, then. Thanks—Thank you.” He was completely off the path now, working his way around the stranger. “Thank you for the, um…for the advice. I’ll watch my step. I promise. And may you be well,” he said. “May you be well in His eyes and may your—”
     The old man said, “Was it the letter?
     Brine stopped, the look on his face so full of disbelief that it seemed to bend the air around it. What the old man had just said was not possible—Absolutely not possible. He was willing to accept that the creepy old fellow had cornered Miriana at the Rock and badgered her into tell him about the trip, and he was even willing to accept that the old man had intercepted him along path—even though Brine had a head start on him and the stranger looked as old as death, and apparently traveling on foot—but Brine was not willing to accept that the old man knew about the letter.
     No one knew about that letter. Brine had opened it, read it, went to sit down before passing out, and then—once his nerves had settled—he’d fold it up and placed it in the bottom of his satchel. So if this stranger really knew about the letter…
     “Please,” Brine whispered, no longer angling back to the path, but pressing out into the desert.
     The stranger said, “What did the letter say, Dreamer?”
     “I…I’ll just go.”   
     “What did it say,” the old man pressed, and then he was pirouetting in the sand, not turning with his legs or spinning at his waist, but pivoting like a statue on a swivel.
     Brine’s face crinkled like dried leaves, withering in horror at the old man’s impossible movement. Then, as the geezer began gliding towards him, Brine spread his mouth wide and the wrinkles smoothed flat.
     “St-Stay back!” he cried, shoving forth his hand. “Back!
     The old man kept coming.
     “Back! Back, or I’ll—I know magic! I’ll use it! I swear to my God, I’ll turn you and this whole—” the second wave of nausea came much harder than the first. Not worms in the belly, but full-grown snakes, all of them writhing and squirming and pressing him down. There was something else, too, something long and sticky like the eye of a snail, something slithering up his robes.
     The old man’s pinched expression softened. “Ah,” he said, looking as though the mysteries of the universe were unfolding before him. “I see.”
     Brine went down on one knee. He felt the invisible tentacle slither further up his leg, moving passed the navel and around the ribs.
     Somewhere above, the old man was saying, “Dismal circumstances are never grounds for heroics, Dreamer. You are a student in a religion sect. What possible purpose could you have in the land of the old ones?”
     But this must have been a rhetorical question, because there was no chance of Brine answering, not with that horrible revulsion creeping up his armpit and around his throat, caressing his ear and teasing his hair. He could no more reply than he could sprint into the dunes.
     From above, he heard the old man groan in disgust, then say, “The visions in our sleep, Dreamer, are to be ignored, not acted upon. They are illusions and half-truths, the result of poorly digested food. And only a small child chooses to act upon them.” Another contemptuous groan, followed by, “Bhutaun, the one you call Father Boo, did you not consult him on this matter? Because I can assure you, Dreamer, he will offer you similar advice on the matter, the very same as…”
     The old man’s voice faded from Brine’s ears, fading beneath the pressure in his gut and the violation of his flesh, fading as he lay there for what felt like an eternity and waited for the nausea to pass. Eventually, though—by some miracle from on high—the nausea did pass and he was able to open his eyes.
     A dark blue blur was looming overhead. 
     “What say you?” the blur asked. “Shall we put this foolishness behind us?”
     For a moment, Brine contemplating telling the old man yes, telling him anything at all if it meant putting this episode behind him. But as he opened his mouth to speak, he finally realized what was wrong with this man and every muscle in his body went stiff.
     The stranger wasn’t sweating.
     He was dressed in breezeless silk and standing in the middle of the F’kari—heat vapors rising in the distance and not a sliver of shade to be found—and there was not so much as a trickle of perspiration on his cheek or a stain  of sweat on his robes, both as clean and desiccated at the sands about his feet, sands which, now that Brine considered the matter, were as wrong as the old man.
     The sands, like the insufferable heat, had vanished from the desert. Brine felt them beneath the palms of his hands, saw them all around him on the ground, but they no longer flitted and buzzed in the air. They had left with the heat. They had left Brine to lay here in the F’kari with this thing that could not possibly be an old man, this thing that controlled the sun and the wind in the same way that it controlled him, slithering through his mind and trespassing on his thoughts.
     From one eye, a tear rolled down Brine’s cheek and plunged to its death.
     Seeing this, the old man made an unflattering noise with his throat. “Bhutaun was right,” he said. “You are bent on destruction.” He drew a sharp, haughty breath and exhaled through his mouth. “Very well, he said. “Very well, then.” He reached into his robes, withdrawing a section of folded parchment. “If you will not listen to reason, then I’m afraid I must require of you a kindness.”
     Feeling a little better, Brine pushed himself up on his arms, his eyes locked on the creamy whiteness of the paper, on the fine wisps of ivory that had been folded into squares. 
     The stranger said, “Do you know a Mr. Dowel?
     Brine continued to stare, the purity of the paper absorbing his attention.
     “A mister Godfry Dowel?” the old man repeated. “Tall, spindly gentleman, avid reader…,” he rolled his eyes to the sky, “…probably sporting an enormous beard again.”
     The disciple said nothing.
     Undeterred by the slight, the old man said, “Yes, well, I know for a fact that he is there and that you will see him. So if you would be so kind…,” he held out the impossibly white parchment.
     Brine flinched.
     “If you would,” the old man said again, giving the note a little shake.
     Brine’s head trembled in the sun.
     The old man exhaled in disgust. “Nothing is ever easy,” he said, and then Brine watched the silky fabric of the stranger’s wardrobe as it began to twinkle like the stars. Not like before—like a fine silk gown glittering in the sun—but like actual stars sparkling in the sky, like a thousand points of light sparking and dying in the night.
     With them, Brine felt the nausea return, and with the nausea came the disorientation, and the old man changed into a sapphire blur against a yellow smear, then two blurs, then three, then more blurs than Brine could count. The landscape spun, the old man streaked, and slowly the man and the desert became one.
     Brine felt his right arm quaver, felt something warm move against it, and looked down. His arm was reaching out and his hand was taking hold of the note, withdrawing it to his chest.
    The old man nodded curtly. “Tell him,” he said, “that Olymun sends his best.”
     Brine moved his eyes to the old man who called himself Olymun, the shimmering stars had vanished from his robes and the sickening defilement had passed from Brine’s mind. The disciple felt the strength in his neck and head washing through his body, filling his arms and flooding his legs. With a lurch, he scrambled to his feet and staggered past the old man, making his way to the trail.
      Behind him, Olymun was speaking.
     “You don’t have to do this, Dreamer. You can always turn back.” His voice was fading now, losing volume with each word.
     Brine lifted his arm and tipped his head, marching into the wind and sand that was forming all around him. At his back, the old man’s voice became less and less substantial, like the sweat that once again formed and dried on Brine’s body.
     “…it is never too late…,” the old man called, “…never too late….”