The summer ought to have given way to the cooler days of fall and winter, as summer always had, but after a year had passed, the sweltering heat remained, from the empire's southern reaches to the Dry Steppes in the north. It was still early in the reign of Emperor Hakan II, and the superstitious whispered about what they perceived to be an ill omen for his rule. Even for the desert, the weather was like nothing that had come before. Unrelenting heat covered everything, while sandstorms and dune twisters scythed across the face of the burning wastes. The vast sand seas were true to their name. The dunes moved, creating an ever-shifting landscape, unearthing massive rock outcroppings with edges sharp enough to tear flesh and bone like monstrous teeth rising from the sand, which had turned from yellow to red as though tinged by blood. The desert swallowed villages whole, leaving bare stone foundations or a handful of mud bricks where homes had once stood.
Another year passed, and summer showed no sign of ending. The empire withered. I sent a message to Isendra, asking her to investigate possible causes for the weather while I took Li-Ming and set out from Caldeum, plunging into the heart of the desert to see what we could discover for ourselves.
But several months after we began our journey, we were returning home with more questions than answers. Li-Ming and I rode upon camels as Lut Bahadur slowly came into view over the horizon, one of the largest towns in the Borderlands, where desert habitation was possible though not easy. The heat was something alive. It burrowed into you, seeped beneath your skin, and eliminated all memory of cold. I wore a light cotton robe with a hood pulled up over my head, and had a cloth wound across my face to protect myself from the howling sandstorms, leaving my eyes uncovered. Li-Ming had grown to a young woman by then. The traces of girlish innocence had faded away, and she was now often possessed of a serious expression that gave way at times to a well-practiced smirk. She wore her finest robes despite the heat, drawing upon a trickle of magic to sustain herself.
"The end of our search approaches, Li-Ming, and yet it seems we are no closer to puzzling out the mystery of this unending summer," I said as we rode.
"I cannot explain it, Master. I believe that something is consuming the desert. It feels as though the edges of reality weaken, like when you look into the distance in a dream," she said.
"Perhaps you perceive the ocean of fire and molten rock that lies beneath us."
"Or the sun that looms above us?" she asked testily. "You make light of what I say, but I am certain this weather has no natural cause. When I searched the archives in the city—"
"Quite a feat when you are forbidden to leave the Yshari Sanctum."
She gave me a withering look. "I examined the records of the weather. We have never known a period of such interminable heat. The Dahlgur Oasis might go dry if it does not end soon."
"On this I do not disagree."
"But it is more than that," Li-Ming said. "There is something in the air that is unlike anything I have ever felt before. It should be cool, and yet it is not. The winds should be calm, and yet they are not."
"Is it possible that you grasp for an explanation where there is none to be found? Despite all we know of this world and of the stars beyond, it may be that this is as natural as an age of snow and ice. You have not lived as long as I, and the mysteries of the universe must seem new to you."
"If you believe that, then why are we here, Master?" she asked.
I laughed. "You have me there."
Li-Ming looked toward the town that crept up before us. "Ours is a world of great magic. Consider the Dreadlands. An entire land destroyed, and who is to say it did not start like this? It has been near twenty years since the Lords of Hell walked this earth. Isendra told me of the invasion that never was. Perhaps now it is coming."
"Sometimes I wonder if you are so eager to make your destiny that you would welcome ruin upon our world," I said.
"It is my destiny. And it will come sooner than later," she said.
This was Li-Ming's notion, and one that Isendra shared. Li-Ming believed that she would protect the world against an invasion of Hell as Isendra had done before her. It came from a book Li-Ming had read, a prophecy hidden in one of the library's tomes, detailing the signs portending the return of the Lords of Hell. Isendra had often tried to convince me that the prophecy was true, and though I was not blind to the danger that might await, I remained skeptical.
Li-Ming had many talents, but her greatest was in the reading of magic. She was a perceptive girl, and finding the hidden structures of spells came to her with ease. I once asked Li-Ming what it was like to see as she did. She described the invisible threads of magic and how auras of arcane power swirled around mages as they cast their spells, and how there was an afterimage, like the green and red spots burned upon your vision after you gaze into the sun. She could smell, taste, see, and feel magic. So if Li-Ming told me the endless summer was guided by some mortal hand or other great power, I was inclined to believe her, for that was my own opinion as well. But I held it to myself, for if it was true, I worried about what it could mean.
Caldeum was situated atop a long, flat plain that rose above the rest of the desert. The plain ended in sheer cliffs, and at their base was Lut Bahadur. Above the town's walls, windmills turned placidly in normal times, but many of them had been ripped and torn by the fierce winds. Bleached and tattered canvas awnings had been pulled across wooden beams that stuck out of the mud roofs to offer some protection against the sun. But it mattered not, for in the shade there was little respite. Almost all of the people had taken to wrapping their faces as I had, so I could see nothing other than the expressions of their eyes, eyes filled with fear, or without hope when they were not.
The town was dying.