A cold, gusty wind came from the river. To get away from its icy claws, the travellers decided to go through the forest. It didn’t look as wild up close as it did from the distance: a narrow, clean path was winding between the tall snowdrifts there. Vlada said that someone was skiing and had to explain to her desert-dweller apprentice what “skiing” was.
As they walked, Kangassk kept looking around, enjoying the view. He wasn’t particularly careful and paid for it: a pine branch he carelessly pushed out of his way made the tree it grew on drop all its impressive snowy crown down on the puny human…
Kangassk spat a mouthful of the snow out, shook a heap of it out of his hood, and wiped his face on a sleeve to get rid of the icy-cold meltwater but the stuff that had got behind his collar was just slowly melting there, out of Kan’s reach. He whispered a curse… only to realize how stupid his Kuldaganian, sand-related curses sounded here.
“Are you tired, Kan?” asked Vlada. “We’ve been walking for four hours straight.”
“Yes, master.” He bowed his head and allowed her to help him remove some of the snow from under his collar.
“We can get to the Tower by Transvolo if you wish.”
“No-no!” the Apprentice shook his hands. “I’m good. I like it here. Let’s keep walking. Really, when will I have another chance to look at the snowy forest?”
“Well, I think you'll get tired of it in the next half a year,” said Vlada with a gentle laugh as she replaced the hood on her apprentice’s head.
“Oh, sorry.” Kangassk sighed as he remembered about the Hora thief. “You are right that we should hurry up.”
“Eh,” Vlada waved her hand, “why are you always running somewhere… Believe me, sometimes, a simple walk in the forest gives you more ideas, strength, and hope than any sword-flashing adventure would. I say we keep walking, Kangassk. Let’s just stop for a lunch first. It will take us about half an hour; that’s enough time to eat, rest, and dry your clothes.”
Someone, Sereg probably, must have been listening to them talking. The next turn of the path opened into a clearing where a fireplace and a lunch awaited them. The fireplace was a simple ring of stones with a stack of dry firewood in the middle, there was no fire there yet. The lunch stood on a silver tray upon a stump of a fallen tree. The tree itself was cleaned of snow so they could use it for a bench.
Soon, Kangassk saw with his own eyes how hard it was to start a fire with magic so far in the North. He offered to use his dragonlighter instead, but Vlada said, “No. I want you to see this.”
So he watched. With bated breath he watched the tiny fire tremble, die, and rise over and over again. It took a mage of Vlada’s level to start a fire here, so close to Hora Lunaris. A simple magical animal like a dragonlighter wouldn’t even have noticed the difference but human magic was that limited! Why?
Kangassk asked his master about that, of course, but didn’t learn anything specific, only that the lack of ability to stabilize magic was a natural human flaw. Then he asked Vladislava about the lands beyond the Fumo Mountains. He had seen many maps but none showed what was there.
“Wildlands,” Vlada answered. “When humanity matures enough to get ready to leave its cradle, it will explore the uncharted lands beyond the mountains. For now, even we, the worldholders, don’t know what is there.”
“What? How can you not know? You created them!”
“Most of our creations are like involuntary thoughts, Kangassk. Don’t you have that kind of thoughts yourself: those you don’t understand, those that surprise you when they appear?”
The lunch lifted their spirits, wiped their weariness away, and moved all the neverending questions to the background of their minds. In an hour, Kan was laughing at himself being so tired recently and felt like running instead of slowly walking to the Grey Tower.
He got into the same trap as he did on his first day with Vlada, back in Kuldagan. When it’s a long way ahead of you, walking at a steady pace is the best solution and running is the worst. By the late evening, when they reached the tower, Kangassk was close to falling asleep right there, in the snow and kept going on his stubbornness alone.
The Grey Tower looked like an obsidian monolith, as smooth and shiny as a mirror. The starry sky, reflected in it, looked like a magnificent picture broken into thousands of pieces, like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle of colourful shards trapped inside the dark glass. The pinnacle of the Tower was invisible against the dark sky, so it seemed that the monstrous building joined the endless velvety void.
The lonely tower, not built by hand but created by magic, was standing alone there, at the edge of the charted world, without a wall or an army to protect it, impenetrable, unless you were invited and expected. Kan and Vlada were. The black doors opened for them without a single creak; a hooded figure, too short to be Sereg, walked forward to meet them.
The man barely reached Kangassk's chin but was of a much heavier build and moved with cat's grace. He greeted the guests heartily and invited them to come in. There was a deep, throaty rumble in his voice and a slight trace of a Southern accent. His face could have said more about his origins but it was hidden by the heavy warm hood for now.