The aloethar had been distilling for three hours . . . .
Generations of Aloethar's family had found, by trial and error, that kohol was improved by raising the temperature of the fire in stages, maintaining a steady heat at each stage. Now the trickiest part of the process was over there was nothing to do, so Aloethar stepped outside to take a walk. As Aloethar watched, a strange haze over the ridge of the furthest dune became a dust-storm, then a group of camel-riders, running as fast as the beasts would allow toward camp. The lead rider carried Thard Darwish's standard, flying in tatters.
The women, children, and men who had been left behind like Aloethar, came out to greet their returning clansmen; a reunion soon dampened by sorrowful news. A short man named Zakir, spoke for the group. He was wrapped, like the others, in white robes and a turban, revealing only his dark, pockmarked face. Still atop his camel, he raised the tattered standard.
“Thard Darwish is dead. Consumed by the Chaoswind, may it forever be damned.” His next proclamation silenced the crowd. “It is coming this way.”
Aloethar stepped forward. “Do you have the Stones?”
Zakir looked at Aloethar, but then addressed the crowd. “We have all of the Stones except for the one Thard Darwish had with him when he died.”
“Are they saturated?”
Zakir looked surprised, and this time spoke only to him. “How do you know this about the Stones, Master Brewer?” Aloethar explained about the visiting Derlanders. Zakir frowned, but turned to the crowd once more. “We haven't much time. All the Stones are full of the Binded energy of the Chaoswind from the many Storms we found, including the last Stone which is still out in the desert. We were tracking the signs of a Chaostorm two days ago. At first it seemed no different to the others.” The crowd was already enraptured. “We were concerned it was coming too close to the camp, but confident we could stop it reaching here because we had one Stone left. Normally we can capture many Storms within one Stone. But this Storm was different.”
Zakir paused for obvious effect, but one of the other soldiers blurted, “It was huge!” Zakir's frown ensured that the rest of his recounting of the clan-warriors' defeat before the Storm was uninterrupted, save for the occasional gasp from the crowd. Beside Aloethar, Sana'ah hugged her young daughter, Ibna, close to her skirts. At the end, Zakir bowed his head and concluded, softly, “We had no reason to believe it would not work, especially with a fresh Stone.”
Aloethar looked towards the crest of the furthest dune, but could not yet see sign of an approaching storm. “How long before the Storm gets here, Zakir?”
“At worst, a matter of hours.”
A white-haired old man spoke up. “Then what do you plan to do?” Others echoed the sentiment.
“We have but one choice.” Zakir took a deep breath. “We must break camp now and disband --” the crowd reacted with a multitude of protests so that Zakir had to raise his voice to a shout, “– and disband in all directions! The Storm cannot follow all of us. It is our only hope!”
After that Aloethar could not make himself heard over the cacophony of voices. Without their Thard to lead them the camp was in chaos, but Zakir soon took charge. Aloethar should be back at the still, but he and the others were ordered to break down their tents and bring any supplies to the centre of camp. Zakir wanted to make a quick inventory all possessions to see what they could take, and what they should leave behind.
Aloethar took a low, flat-bed cart back to his tent, and worked quickly, worried that someone might soon decide to dismantle his still. He wanted to talk to Pym again too. The Derlander knew things about the Chaoswind, and now Aloethar wished he had talked more with him before. Perhaps there was some other way to stop the Storm. It was the only way they would all survive, for even if the clan disbanded, the Storm would catch up with one of the groups. And it might not stop there.
Aloethar's brewing equipment was at the main tent, but it took time to pack the raw mescal bud into a crate. He wasn't about to leave this season's harvest behind, especially if he couldn't save the half-brewed aloethar at the still. A few other heavy items joined the crate on the cart including the burnished trivet over his cold camp-fire, and a new idea he had been working on: a copper alembic. He wondered now if he'd ever finish it. He folded his tent into a backpack, and set off.
The pile of belongings at centre of camp was already large, as was the throng of people milling around it. Aloethar parked his cart next to some others, and saw, nearby, that the small group of Derlander merchants were arguing with Zakir and two of his men in Derlandish. A concerned Pym hovered on the periphery, hopelessly trying to interject. Aloethar made his way to Pym, and took him to one side. “What's going on?”
“The merchants offered to buy whatever supplies your clan decides to leave behind, for a low price. They say it will all be destroyed anyway. Zakir and his men tried to convince them to flee, but the merchants accused them of being superstitious. They don't believe the Chaoswind is anything more than a strong dust-storm. They won't listen to me either.”
“Pym, is there anyway we can stop the Storm?”
“No. I saw the Stones when they packed them into a crate over there. Four of them, all glowing like the sun.”
“Is there any other way of Binding the Chaoswind? Any theory you know of at all? You said the Stones held more power if they were carved? Why is that?”
“No-one is sure, but we believe that the size of the container has little to do with how much Chaoswind it can contain. The Stones you have here are large for Star Sapphires, but you can close your fist around them easily. It has more to do with what attracts the Chaoswind. Purity of substance is one thing, another is rarity. Unfortunately for us it is also attracted to anything living, but luckily rarity comes into play there as well.”
“I don't understand. Your point, I mean, your language is good.”
Pym smiled. “The Chaoswind is more attracted to rare creatures than to us. That's why the Theander tribes left their valley and fled into the Derlander Forest. They may have been too late. No-one has seen any of the primitives for years. There are also many rare trees, as well as creatures, in the Forest to attract the Wind. It is a safe haven for humans at least, but out here in the desert we are exposed.”
Aloethar thought of the great field of mescal cactii he had just harvested. The plant was rare, but he hoped the Chaoswind would not flow towards it. He would rather find a way of stopping the Storm that wouldn't destroy his livelihood, but perhaps fleeing was their only option. “If I flee I must take my still. I cannot leave it here to be destroyed.”
“Your still! One of the merchants was asking about it, and the kohol. I think he went off to find it.”
Aloethar nearly knocked Pym over in his haste to get to the main tent, he soon came to the entrance and rushed inside. The Derlander merchant, a big, heavy man with a large bushy beard and a hoop-earring, peered at the still, too close for Aloethar's liking. Pym came running in behind Aloethar, out of breath. Aloethar called out in his Medebic tongue, and the merchant understood the tone, if not the words, and stepped back from the still, hands raised. He walked up to Aloethar. The man loomed over a head taller. He said something in Derlandish in an unpleasant tone, then brushed past Aloethar and outside. Aloethar turned to Pym. “What did he say?”
“That was Waldfrid. He said that there must be some kohol around somewhere, and he was going to find it. He said if the Storm's as bad as they say, there's no way he's going to die sober. He wanted the pure stuff from a bottle, not this stinking cactus juice.”
Aloethar looked from Pym to his still. “Pure stuff.”
Aloethar grabbed Pym by the arms, suddenly full of energy. “Come and help me get one of the Stones. I've got an idea.”