It was months after when, in the deep hours of the night, my door creaked open and Li-Ming entered. It was not her habit to knock, a peculiarity of her character that I had come to live with, though she had visited little enough of late. Li-Ming looked as though she had been roused from sleep. Her normally impeccable robes had been thrown on in haste, and I could see in the furtiveness of her eyes that something troubled her.
"Did you feel it?" she asked.
"I felt nothing."
"A great spell was cast to the east. Not far from here. We need to go," Li-Ming said. "Something has happened."
"We can go in the morning," I said.
"Do you have such a great need for rest, old man?" she said irritably, then grew serious. "It was Isendra, Master."
I was silent, not trusting myself to speak, but I relented.
We left the Yshari Sanctum to head toward Lut Bahadur. It should have been winter, the third since the summer began, but the night air was as dry and hot as the middle of the day, with only the absence of the sun providing the smallest measure of comfort. I felt as though I were standing next to a glassblower's kiln. Sweat dripped down my body, and my robes clung to my skin.
Li-Ming said nothing as we rode.
Lut Bahadur was quiet when we arrived. Other than the wind, which even at this hour blew sand and dust across the desert, there was no sound but the faint flapping of hides and clothes that were hung on lines next to every hut. Not a soul walked the streets, though lanterns still burned. But something else seized at my thoughts.
The air was cold.
A shiver ran between my shoulders and along my arms as we entered the town. The chill wind brushed over me, and I had not felt it for so long that at first my body rejected it. But I could feel my muscles slowly relaxing as though the tension caused by the endless heat could now, by the soft caress of the gentle breeze, be undone.
Li-Ming summoned orbs of light that she sent across the town, and as they disappeared from sight, their flickering illumination lit the ground and the sides of the buildings that they passed. That was something new. I had not seen that spell before.
"What is that?" I asked her.
Li-Ming ignored my question. "Do you feel the air?"
"It is cold," I said.
"No, not that," Li-Ming said. "Electricity courses through it. I have never felt it so strongly, so I did not know if it was a spell that was the cause, or something else entirely." She fell silent, and I sensed nothing but the worry that emanated from my student.
I followed her as she made her way purposefully down the curving roads, turning every so often. Though it was late, it was too quiet for a sleeping town. The cloth awnings drifted soundlessly as the wind faded. There was no sound at all but that of our footsteps against the hard earth. In my ears, I could hear the beating of my anxious heart. Li-Ming and I walked along the abandoned streets until finally she approached the slatted door of a house and pushed it open.
"What are you doing?" I hissed as I ducked through the doorway after Li-Ming, all too conscious of the crunch of my boots on the dirt.
As I opened my mouth to lecture her and extended a hand to grab her shoulder, the words died with my breath, and my hand froze. Inside the house, it was as though time had stopped. A man, woman, and child were seated around a large table, but they did not acknowledge our sudden intrusion. Instead, they were as cold and unmoving as statues. The woman's lips were parted around a word that hung in the air half-spoken, never to be heard. At her side, the man had turned to regard the child, who was reaching an arm across the table. The food appeared to have been recently cooked and served, but there was no heat. It was as though the moonlight had leeched all color and life from the scene before me.
"What happened here?" I whispered.
"I do not know for sure," Li-Ming said as she paced through the room, her eyes seeing but not seeing as she traced the invisible weaving of arcane energies that I could not. "The shape of the spell fades with time. It is like trying to learn the size of a storm after it has passed, with only puddles upon the ground and the lingering clouds in the air to judge."
I stepped outside, not wishing to see any longer, and waited for Li-Ming to emerge. A few minutes later, she did.
"She tried to take the heat from the air to make it cool, but she lost control of her spell. The cold broke through and the air froze."
"She?" I asked, though of course I knew the answer.
"Isendra. I recognize the pattern of her magic, just as I know yours. And there are few mages who could have attempted to perform the spell that was cast here."
"How did it happen?"
"She was not strong enough. It may have worked in the beginning, but when it became too powerful for her, the structure of her spell grew weak and unraveled." Li-Ming's voice wavered. "This is my fault."
"Isendra may need us," I said. "We must look for her."
Li-Ming cast her floating spheres of light to aid us in our search, but in all the houses, the same sight greeted us: every soul frozen as though we had come across some strange statuary, some silent graveyard. And no sign of Isendra.
It was an hour later when we found her. The hut looked much the same as the others, but Li-Ming was sure. She stopped for a moment before she pushed open the door of wooden slats. I followed after her.
Inside, this house was different. Whereas the others sat in eerie stillness, it was clear that a violent struggle had unfolded here. There were large black scorch marks on the walls where the mud bricks had been burned by fire. The tables and chairs and other furniture had been burnt and toppled, and the smell of ashes was thick. Here I could feel something, but it was not the evidence of magic as Li-Ming felt. It was a primal, instinctual reaction that made the hairs on my arms stand. Then I saw what I had feared to see: Isendra, her body splayed out like a doll that had been carelessly cast aside. Blood pooled across the wooden floor from wounds on her arms and her stomach. Her skin was blackened in places, and her head was turned unnaturally to one side, her eyes looking vacantly at the floorboards.
Li-Ming rushed to Isendra and knelt next to her. She cradled the lifeless form of the sorceress in her arms while tears spilled from her eyes.
"What happened here, Master?" she asked.
I shook my head. We stayed there in silence and grief until Li-Ming delicately released Isendra's body and stood again.
"Not all of this fire was created with magic," Li-Ming said. "The magic from Isendra's spell is already fading, but some of this is newer. This happened after."
"When a mage loses control of a spell, the results can be chaotic," I said. "I have seen it many a time."
"She was not killed by magic, Master," Li-Ming said.
"Perhaps not, but her magic surely led to this. This town is destroyed, and she is dead. Whom has she protected? Whom has she saved? Answer me that!" My voice was loud in the unnatural silence.
"You are blind," Li-Ming said angrily. "Isendra tried to help them. That is better than anything you have ever done. I will not stand by and watch people suffer. Not any longer, and not when the time comes that the world needs me."
"Will people pay with their lives for your failure as this town has paid for Isendra's? Are you to sacrifice innocents for your own thoughts of heroism?" I asked.
"No," Li-Ming said softly.
For a moment my brilliant student seemed very much a girl still. I gazed sadly at the fallen shape of my friend, who looked like someone else in death, and said nothing more.
When it was time to go, Li-Ming set fire to the hut with her spell, Isendra, who was once her master, lying peacefully upon the floor. Isendra's eyes were closed, her duty done. As the fire grew and the flames rose higher, water beaded and dripped down her face like tears. I led Li-Ming away from the house by the arm.
Li-Ming's eyes met mine. The sorrow and anger were still there, but what I saw most of all was a grim determination. "But I will not fail."
We passed through the silent town, lost in our own thoughts. The knowledge of what each home contained within, hidden from view, unsettled me. I looked back upon Lut Bahadur as we rode away, the narrow hilly roads illuminated by the light of a thousand flickering lanterns that faded into the night like a swarm of fireflies.