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The night-gale had abated with the touch of the sun. Gregor stirred, slid a hand to his eyes and teased his cloak away from his face. Day was returning to the Great Waste.

He shielded his eyes from blown grit as he uncurled and stretched his cramped limbs. If Aral was correct and the wind spoke true, he would reach the next oasis that day. He fished a jerky strip from his pack and chewed it without pleasure as he set off, head bent against the wind and the sun at his back.

The sun was just clear of the horizon when he planted his staff upon the western ridge and peered down at a verdant plain.

The green expanse stretched toward the horizon. Hovels and huts dotted the land, from the foothills of the mountain he bestrode as far west as he could see. Smoke rose from chimneys and cooking fires. In the distance, beneath a belt of low-hanging clouds, lay a hint of an obstruction, perhaps another range to girdle the tranquil vale that beckoned from below.

It was a bastion against the wastes, a protected space where life yet sustained itself.

The etheric aroma of plentiful mana rose from the greensward, curled around his brain and teased at his powers, making him momentarily dizzy. He reeled with a hunger not of the body, yet as commanding as any physical humor could be.

At the center of the plain was a large structure, perhaps sixty feet square and forty feet high, apparently all of stone: a noble's castle, small but definite. Men moved along its ramparts. Around it, a broad brown area had been trodden smooth.

Gregor's last brush with nobles and subjects and civilization lay thirty leagues behind him, in the charnel-festooned ruins of Beluz where no living thing remained. Where he had left the greater part of his soul.

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