The three wayfarers reached the base of the Cloudy Mountains early the next evening, just as the sun was dipping below the horizon. Their jagged peaks, usually snow-covered but now barren, cut angrily into the sky.
“What say you, old sage?” Karl-Anthony asked Kevin. “Which path shall we take? The one that lies ahead of us or another one elsewhere at the base of the range?”
Kevin closed his eyes and seemed to center his concentration on whatever his powers would allow him to sense. Karl-Anthony and Ricky watched patiently until Kevin finally opened his eyes. He lifted his arm and pointed one crooked finger at the path ahead of them, which was nothing more than a flat section of rock ascending into the mountains. “There is evil wizardry in that direction. I fear that we may soon learn that his curse extends far beyond the simple banishment of winter.”
Karl-Anthony ignored Ricky’s worried glance. “If that is indeed the case, there is nothing to be done for it,” he said stoutly. “We will continue at once. The mountains extend a hundred miles or more to the west; we cannot allow any delay when there is such a great distance to be covered.”
“The sensations are strong,” Kevin whispered shakily, so quietly that his two companions had to lean in to hear him. “The wizard may be closer than we think. He may even want to be found.”
Wearing a concerned expression, Karl-Anthony asked sharply, “Do you think he anticipates our arrival?”
“I must rephrase: I don’t think he wants to be found,” Kevin corrected. “He wants us to attempt to find him. He is confident that the attempt will be unsuccessful.”
This revelation filled Karl-Anthony’s heart with not a small amount of dread, but he spoke as if he was still possessed by hearty confidence. “If he truly believes such a thing, he is in for an unwelcome surprise.”
“The air seems to get hotter with each change in altitude,” Ricky panted, having already removed every layer of clothing he could possibly remove. They were on the fourth day of their journey.
Karl-Anthony had been noticing the odd deviations of the temperature for some time now. Normally, the path they were on would have been made impassible by interminable blizzards some weeks ago; now, there was no sign of snow, just dry, unseasonably warm air. “There is a gorge ahead. We will cool ourselves in the rushing mountain stream and replenish our stores of water before going on.”
Kevin, coming up slowly from behind, subtly shook his head at Karl-Anthony’s words. Karl-Anthony narrowed his eyes at the old man but did not question him further, for Kevin was struggling mightily with the rocky, uneven path.
“That sounds heavenly,” Ricky said, his mood lifted by the promise of a cold bath. “There is no doubt now that there is sorcery at work here. Nowhere in the kingdom of Minnesota is the land beset with such oppressive aridity.”
“The river is just on the other side of that outcropping, if I remember correctly,” Karl-Anthony said, pointing to the landmark that lay a few hundred yards ahead. He made for it as quickly as he could without leaving Kevin behind; finally, he reached the jutting-out rock and looked over its other side.
His spirits dropped. The riverbed was dry.
Ricky appeared at his shoulder, staring with similar disbelief at the parched river valley. “The old soothsayer was correct,” he mumbled. “The wizard’s magic is stronger than we dared to believe.”
“Kevin suspected,” Karl-Anthony replied, realizing the meaning of the man’s earlier actions. He looked away from the disappointingly dry river and saw what appeared to be a dark cloud approaching rapidly from the west.
“I did indeed suspect, but even I did not expect this next unpleasant surprise.”
Karl-Anthony turned to Kevin. “What do you mean? What is that cloud?”
“Your question will soon be answered for you,” Kevin answered.
Suddenly, the three travellers were trapped in the midst of a furious sandstorm. Howling winds whipped particles of sand into their eyes and mouths, and covering their heads with improvised headscarves only slightly lessened the storm’s effect.
“How is this possible? There is no sand to be found on these mountains, nor anywhere in the kingdom!” Karl-Anthony yelled over the chaos as they huddled near a rock that provided a meager shelter.
“The wizard’s skill in climatomancy is unrivaled, I see now,” Kevin replied. “He is using everything in his power to deter us…or worse, kill us.”
Karl-Anthony felt despair overtake him. He looked at Ricky and saw a defeated expression that was undoubtedly mirrored on his own face. “We cannot go back. We do not have sufficient water for the journey.” He coughed violently as sand entered his mouth, then went on, “We will press forward as long as we are able. If we fail to locate the wizard in that time, not only will it be the end for the three of us, it will be the end of wintertime in Minnesota.”