Alli clambered up the mountain, placing one foot after another. The blessing of a wanderer god, a great tortoise she’d met in a forest, guided her. It promised great experiences—perhaps great sights, this time—at the top.
She paused to catch her breath, a smile on her face. Surely whatever awaited at the peak would be wondrous. The setting sun cast the surroundings in shades of gold, shining down from behind her.
A chill wind swept through the thin air.
The Sun King’s blood surged within her, lighting her skin in a latticework of gold, and banished the cold.
Alli turned and uttered a prayer to the setting sun, a thank you for the power that guarded and nourished her and for the beauty he brought to the world.
Just another ten minutes and she would crest the peak. The turtle’s blessing told her to head straight to the peak without, well, peeking around the side. The turtle was usually right, and she’d probably miss, or spoil, something if she didn’t listen. That wouldn’t do.
So up the mountain it was, muscles burning with exertion and sustaining sunfire alike. If she pushed, she’d make it just before the sun set.
And she did. The sun’s rays were almost level, but from the top of the mountain, the incandescent disk just barely kissed the horizon.
It cast the forest behind her in long shadows, but from above the view held no terror, just a cascade of almost shining leaves and deep shadows, flowing like waves.
The peak plateaued. No, not plateaued, it was almost perfectly flat, a roughly circular area a hundred paces across as if someone had taken a colossal sword to it a century ago and allowed it to weather.
A large boulder rested at the far end, jarringly out of place with its dark hue on the light mountain stone. Somebody sat atop it, too far to make out any detail except a dark robe, hunched posture, and long grey hair.
The wanderer’s guidance faded the moment she laid eyes upon the figure.
Alli approached, strained legs thankful for the level surface. The figure was a woman, an old one, who turned to face her as she approached. A staff rested on the stone beside her.
The wizard smiled and beckoned.
“Take a seat, child,” she said in fluent Sverli, a language Alli hadn’t heard spoken since she’d left home. Except, her lips moved wrong.
Some sort of translation magic?
She’d ask, but being polite came first. Most certainly when it came to dealing with enigmatic old wizards. Wizardry could devour its wielder, but those who lived a long life despite it were fearsome beings, due the same respect as many gods.
The wizard radiated an almost palpable aura of solemnity. It settled over her.
She nodded, answering in Sverli, the long unspoken words simultaneously foreign and familiar. “Thank you, Elder.”
The mage tilted her head, a curious expression in her eyes, and patted the spot beside her.
Alli grabbed the edge of the rock, almost at her head level, and hoisted herself up. As she grunted in exertion, she noted that the old lady had somehow climbed up, despite seeming too short to even reach the edge. More likely than not, magic had aided her.
The sun dipped a quarter below the horizon.
She gazed out from the mountain top. The view was awing.
Beneath the mountain was a massive field of unnatural land, jagged crags merged sharply with lush jungle and desert with swamp.
A minuscule cloud shredded a savanna with bolts of lightning by the second, inaudible from what had to be a dozen leagues away.
A tornado formed above a small volcano, whisked up a gout of flames, and scoured a section of grassland before dissipating. The flames spread at impossible speed, devouring a league of prairie before her eyes.
Never before had she seen such violence and activity from a landscape itself.
In the center, on a sharply raised plinth of black rock, stood a city of spires, obsidian and silver and gold and crystal, wreathed in an almost-clear bubble, barely visible from their mountain.
A fantastical place that stood in defiance of nature and its gods.
The wizard let her look for a few minutes before she finally spoke again.
“Beautiful, isn’t it? I have not heard your language before. You come from a distant land, traveler child?”
That confirmed some kind of translation magic.
“I have wandered for a few years,” she answered.
The wizard hummed. “I wonder if the distinction between our choice of words translated correctly. A ‘wanderer’ is a ‘traveler’ without a goal, yes?”
The wanderer nodded.
“Did you know where you were going when you came here?”
Alli shook her head and said, “I didn’t.”
“You have fortuitous timing.”
“I am guided by the gift of a wanderer god. It takes me to wonderful places at interesting times,” she admitted, eyes sweeping over the scene again and again, cataloging the evershifting details. “I’ll remember this view forever.”
Half the sun hid itself now.
“Interesting times, you say? Indeed, you’re right on time. So, you don’t know what we’re looking at, or what’s about to happen?” Her tone lightened, a smile playing over aged lips. Worn lines creased on the wizard’s face, like a kindly grandmother. A mischievous twinkle gleamed in her eyes.
Alli cautiously nodded her agreement.
“I am Veriyana,” the wizard stated, abandoning her thread.
“I’m Alli. Honored to meet you.”
The last of the solemn aura faded. Alli smiled at the breathtaking view.
“None of that formality, child, it’s a festival! You’ve truly arrived at a perfect time. We stand before Ar’Kyrthier, the City of Wizards on the eve of our founding holiday. Your ‘wanderer god’ guides you well, sit with me and watch.”
They sat. The mountain cast the spires in shadow. Only a sliver of the sun remained above the horizon.
“Every year, on this night, we celebrate the founding of our great city.”
The last of the golden disk slid from view, casting the world in twilight.
The tallest spire in the center of the city lit with white light, building in intensity, highlighting its towering form. Throughout the city, other spires, or just peaks, blazed with a rainbow of lights, blues and golds, vibrant crimsons and incandescent oranges, the violet of mysteries and the green of life.
The central tower pulsed and the light rushed upwards, a bolt of white piercing the sky, passing through the city’s bubble undeterred. It shattered in a flare that, for a brief instant, matched the brilliance of the noon. The Sun King’s blessing let her gaze undeterred.
The other towers followed, releasing their blasts and arcs and sprays and volleys which exploded into every shape and color, filling the sky even as the first towers prepared again.
Alli stared, her jaw slack at the spectacle.
“Every year, on this night, we set the sky on fire.”
“It’s… so beautiful,” she mumbled.
The lights lingered, some looked like actual flames, others formed dragons and great beasts, others still unfolded into mandalas and geometry. There was no rhyme or reason, only light. It went up, and out, it shrouded the city in a cloud of wonder leagues across.
It continued for almost half an hour and they simply watched in silence until it began to fade.
“Come back next year and watch from inside,” Veriyana’s voice pulled her from her revere, “I prefer it out here, easier to appreciate, but you must see it once from within.”
Alli rarely made her loops in her journey, but for this she could make an exception.
“Now, will you join me in celebration?” Essence coursed through the wizard and the age receded, wrinkles smoothed, grey hair turned silver, and she straightened as she stood, looking barely older than Alli herself as she wreathed herself in power second only to Alli’s patron god. The power filled the air, dense but gentle, and uplifted it.
The wanderer turtle had led her to this ancient wizard, not to the view.
“Surely you have some fire to add to our sky, sun-blooded child?”
Alli stood, and the golden veins creeping beneath her skin surged in brightness, like cracks of fire along her skin as she rose to the archmage’s challenge.
She raised her hand. The light flowed up it in an instant and a lance of sunlight hurtled forward from her, leaving her skin dull and igniting the sky with gold.
Veriyana clapped lightly, the sound quiet yet somehow shaking the world itself and almost sending Alli to her knees.
It seemed somewhat patronizing, but well, the archmage was practically a high god.
“Well, the kids down there have had their fun. I suppose it’s my turn now.”
She reached out a hand and a mandala bloomed in front of her, a beautiful work of wizardry. It collapsed into a spark of light. A spark that carried the full weight of the power around her, until the air was barren once more.
It shot forward, impossibly fast, the tiny spark somehow visible even as it streaked into the sky, high above the halo of light surrounding the city.
And then it bloomed, unfolding into an endlessly shifting, color-changing array that spanned the sky for a hundred leagues, stretching out even above them and far beyond. A million images and impossible, mind-bending geometries formed, shifted through their motions, and vanished, replaced by others.
Alli twirled, head craned to take in the whole sky.
On and on it went, abstract shapes coalescing and reforming into ever greater coherence.
A picture of a thousand battles, of a hundred gods slain.
And then it turned to fire.
The sky burned.
Even the archwizard was tired from that display, an old lady once more, her voice creaking and yet filled with a grin as Alli spun in wonder.
“I told you, we set the sky on fire.
“We set the sky on fire to celebrate the day we killed our gods, though truly the battle took us weeks. Countless wizards died as we challenged our tyrants. It was a bloody, gruesome thing, but we won and we remember the triumph.
“Each year, I try to do a little better, but after almost four hundred, it’s getting hard to keep one-upping myself,” the old lady chuckled.
The ancient archmage chuckled again, “There? Yes. The only one who remains here and still lives. And before you ask, wandering, wondering child, yes the wondrous hellscape surrounding the city is a consequence of that great battle.”
“That was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
“One of? I must hear, little sunchild, what compares?”
“The Sun King,” Alli answered without hesitation.
Somehow, Veriyana managed to make a snort sound somewhat dignified. “Fanatics.” She shook her head. “Your god’s the good sort though, not like ours. Benevolent, at least when he cares at all.”
Alli paused, torn between offense at the disrespectful behavior and avoiding offending the archmage.
“Good thing that,” the old lady added, “because a few wizards could hardly fight that ancient. Now come, I’m sure you want to at least spend the night before you wander on.”