Li-Ming was using an enchantment she favored, a thin layer of frost that circled around her. The ice in the air melted as fast as she created it, and so to the eye it appeared as though Li-Ming was surrounded by a light mist. When she dismounted from her camel, she ignored the stirrup, instead drifting down on unseen currents until she landed softly upon the ground. That drew looks from the few people who were on the street.

"Must you use your magic so carelessly?" I asked, vexed.

"This heat is unbearable, Master. I do not see how you can stand it," she said.

"I endure it because I must," I said as I climbed down from my camel. "You will win us no friends with your behavior."

"You only concern yourself with my behavior when it is convenient to reprimand me," Li-Ming said.

"Can I be held to blame when it is such a frequent occurrence?"

Despite her protests, Li-Ming let the spell dissipate as she walked over to me. The faint moisture that surrounded her faded into nothingness, drunk by the desert air.

"We are here to observe and ask questions, nothing more," I reminded Li-Ming.

"Observe and ask questions. Nothing more," Li-Ming echoed.

"See to the camels," I said, not rising to the bait.

"I thought I was observing."

"After you see to the camels," I said. "I will go find Isendra."

"Isendra is here?" Li-Ming brightened.

"She is. Now, stay here," I said. "And Li-Ming?"

"Yes, Master?" she asked solicitously.

"Try to stay out of trouble."

Li-Ming grinned.

Sheltered against the side of a canyon, the town was protected from the scalding wind when it blew from west to east, but when it blew from another direction, Lut Bahadur was exposed. There was evidence that the townsfolk had tried to build a windbreak, but it had long since been toppled. On that day the wind was blowing from the east, but it was not so fierce that it was dangerous to be out of doors. Li-Ming tethered the camels near the well, and then she peered over the edge. I did not need to look to know that it was empty. Any water would be stored in jars, though there was little chance they had much left. I went to one of the men sitting in the unhelpful shadow of a tattered awning, light leaking through the holes and tears, to ask where I might find the sorceress.

Suddenly the earth heaved, rolling like waves beneath us, and then with a violent lurch I was knocked to the hard-packed dirt. As I looked up, I saw Li-Ming with her arms raised to her shoulders, her fingers moving as though she pulled the strings of puppets in a play.

This was her work.

"Li-Ming! What have you done?" I shouted as the shaking continued.

"Come here and see for yourself," she said proudly, pointing to the well. I stood and walked to the lip while the ground still shuddered. When I leaned over the edge, I saw the faint shimmer of water seeping over the dry crust at the well's base. Li-Ming had brought water to the town, water it would need to survive.

"I found water deep below, perhaps an underground river that feeds into the Dahlgur Oasis. I diverted its flow to fill the well. This town—"

"Enough," I said sternly. "I told you that we are here to observe and ask questions. Nothing more."

"We could do more, Master. We could build a new windbreak or repair what has been destroyed by the sandstorms. You always say we should do nothing. Why else were we given these abilities but to help people?" she said. "I have been thinking, Master, that perhaps with our magic, we could reverse the heat and bring an end to this summer."

"We will do nothing. It is not our place, and you better than most should understand what could happen if we attempt to alter the weather to such a large scale," I chided her. "Have you already forgotten your failure?"

"I am not the girl I once was. I have learned. And I will never leave people to suffer!" Li-Ming said. "Tell me why we cannot help them. Tell me why it is so wrong."

I pointed to the well that now gurgled with water. "Where does this water come from? Where did it go? Will the water that flowed to the oasis flow here without cost? You cannot create from nothing. You solve one problem and make ten more." Li-Ming was young, and she did not concern herself with details. She acted on impulse, seeing only what happened in the moment.

"The water was there, Master. The people could have dug the well deeper themselves. I made it easier."

"Your altruism is a credit to you, Li-Ming, but we mages cannot do this. Yes, there are times when we can use our magic to aid people, but it cannot be every time, and we must weigh the costs carefully before we act. This is not a matter of argument. You will listen to me."

"But Li-Ming is right," came a woman's voice in response.

"Isendra!" exclaimed Li-Ming as she ran over to the sorceress, who embraced her fondly.

"This is not our concern, nor is it yours," I said. "Li-Ming, let me talk with Isendra. Alone."

Li-Ming frowned and opened her mouth to speak, but she acquiesced and left us, joining the men and women who were fetching jars and other vessels to fill with the newfound water. I watched as she went among them.

"If these people's troubles are not our concern, why are we here?" asked Isendra.

"Sometimes you and she are too much alike," I grumbled. "She said the same."

"And how has she been?"

"The years change little. She is as impetuous as she was the first day we met her. I wonder if we made the wrong decision by teaching her anything."

"She is not content to leave matters as they are. She wants to give people a better life."

"Li-Ming has no thought of the price. She lives in the here and now, while those like you and me must look further. That is our burden, to lead the mage clans."

"Li-Ming may be right. We three are the most powerful mages who live today. Between us, why should we not be able to end this summer and restore the seasons to their normal order?"

"That is a thought moved by emotion, not reason," I said. "We cannot change the weather. It will not work."

"Li-Ming would not say that," said Isendra.

"You are not Li-Ming. She is a foolish girl."

"You see a girl. I see a woman who might save this world."

"Prophecy. Destiny." I shrugged. "Who is to say what the next day will bring? If all that comes to pass, you and I will face it, and perhaps Li-Ming will fight with us. But she is not the only one who can. And how are we to know that those prophecies are true? The Lords of Hell should have struck twenty years ago. Our greatest fear must be of ourselves."

"You have become a timid man in your old age," said Isendra.

"And you have become reckless in yours," I said. "You will not interfere."

"I will do what I must," Isendra said as she made to go. "As will you."

After Isendra had left, I watched Li-Ming. She was tending to a child who had collapsed from the heat. He was feverish. His cheeks were red, and sweat beaded upon his skin. Li-Ming cast a spell, and the air around her hands grew cold. When she held them above the boy's face, he sighed peacefully as the faintest of breezes whispered against the strands of hair matted to his forehead.

"Thank you," said the boy's mother. "I hear the others talk, but you have restored our well, and you have saved my son. That does not seem so wrong to me."

Li-Ming smiled as she stood, but her expression was grim by the time she reached me.

"These people will die," Li-Ming said.

"They might. But our interference might not prevent that."

"We will never know, will we?" Li-Ming said, her brown eyes searching mine. "Will you see their faces in your dreams?"

"Theirs and more. It is our curse, Li-Ming, and you will come to know this pain greatly." I placed my hand gently upon her shoulder. "Let us go."



Download the story in PDF format