Chapter One – Sulfur and Sun

This is the first chapter in the series starring Mederei, a wizard from the Forty Isles. 

A train's lonely whistle echoed across a dusty, decrepit and otherwise mundane desert landscape. The heat which had been pleasant after the cold winter vestiges of the north, now was unbearable. It had baked away all color save for the palest pinks, yellow, peaches and the faintest lavenders and sages. There was no blue save the ceaseless cyan sky, stretching ever onward, unchanging, unrelenting.
Inside the magically cooled compartment of the train, four travelers in their late teens watched the landscape's changing dimensions: the rise of the lonely villages and the fall of the hills.
"Are you certain this man's supposed to be here?" the red-headed and ruddy woman asked, pulling her hair off her neck. "I thought summer in the capital was bad, but this is terrible."
"It's not summer yet, Mederei," an equally red and ruddy male beside her answered. He fanned his face with a book, The Rarity of Cards by Percival Gentry. "Isn't the coolant working?"
The dark-haired and olivey woman beside the man rolled her eyes as she pulled the book away from him. "You're a dragon, Hugh, shouldn't the heat be the least of your worries? You're already a furnace so what's a little more heat?"
"Luna, Luna, Luna," Hugh said as he arched an eyebrow. "You do realize I've spent my entire life in the north, right? There's a reason fire dragons such as myself like cold icy places."
"I never did understand why they put ice dragons in the ice, and fire dragons in the desert when you demidrakes are walking anomalies," the remaining male, also dark-haired and olivey answered. He rested his head on the back of his seat, and kept his eyes closed. "This is even hotter than what I'm used to."
Mederei elbowed him. "Either way, the next stop is where we're supposed to get off."
Ramses rolled his shoulders and neck.
Luna moaned. "It's hot. I don't care what you tell me. Hotter than hot, and I don't like it. My toes are sweating." She took her wand out and flicked a spell to her hair, shortening it into a pixie cut. "Ah, that feels better."
Hugh pulled out the paper Luna had stuffed into the back of the book. The inside revealed the request for mages to help find the man (photo attached) who had destroyed a town. "The information we had from the last town suggested he would be on his way through. Apparently he knows one of the women in this town."
Across from him, Mederei shifted. "Hopefully it's family. No woman would be dumb enough to love an ugly man like that." She pointed to the photo of the man on the wanted poster. The man sneered into the camera, and his dark eyes shifted one way to the other in the short magical loop. "Men who look like that are always trouble."
Luna rolled her eyes. "Medi. Seriously. Not everyone is born into a family of freaky art models."
Hugh took the book from Luna as he leaned forward and tapped it on Mederei's head. "She's right, and I wouldn't say anything, considering you are by far the least best-looking of the bunch."
"Which isn't necessarily a bad thing," Luna grumbled. "It's like saying someone is the least beautiful of the fae." She ran a hand through her hair. "What I wouldn't give for a fae ancestor."
"Only some of us are born so lucky," Hugh rejoined glaring at Mederei who only smiled.
The train whistled again, signaling their stop.
As the train chugged away, the four teens stood in front of the solitary building forming the train station. It consisted of four dirty windows, each with a pane missing, but not the same one; a falling down sign, hanging on by a nail, and some stray tumbleweeds and old newspapers. Not even a station manager greeted the travelers who stepped off the train.
A lonely cat sunned itself in a window. It opened one eye to see who disturbed its nap before closing the eye again.
"You know, this could be one of those last towns in Caergwlân places and no one would know since it's so far away." Luna pushed back her wide-brimmed straw hat. She set her bag on the dirty wood floor and took a deep breath before coughing. "Do I smell sulfur?"
None of the other three answered as they surveyed the area. Finally, Mederei spoke in response to the first comment. "Are you certain this is the place he was last seen?" She shifted the bag she carried on her back and glanced around the empty train station. "Appears to be no one lives here."
"That would be because no one does." Hugh stood a head taller than the two girls and wore only a pair of black knee-length shorts and heavy black boots. On his back he had a tattoo of a black and red dragon crawling up his back with the word, hunter, beneath the image. On his right shoulder he had their guild's flame tattoo in blue.
Ramses pushed back the wide-brimmed hat he wore. Like Hugh, he wore only shorts, but unlike Hugh, he wore no footwear. His guild tattoo was black and on his left shoulder. "We could just be in the wrong part of town, though."
"Maybe," Luna drawled. "Seems like there simply isn't anyone around here."
"Well, we should go find some people." Mederei held out her hand to Ramses who put a piece of paper into it. "Four teenage mages should be more than enough to handle the man considering one is a wizard masquerading as a mage, one is a word mage masquerading as a wizard, one's an earth mage and the last a demidrake."
Monyyak, the man they were to apprehend, wasn't especially distinguishable - more sneering and disreputable, but known as a card shark, using his cards to swindle people. Their information suggested he used a minimum of two decks - one for gambling, and the other to do his magic. If he was a mage, the gambling deck was most likely non-magical, and his playing made them magical, but if he was a wizard - which most suggested - both decks were magical.
While he probably had a list of towns trying to bring him back, only one had sent a request to the local mage guilds which alone in the Forty Isles could act on the behalf of everyday citizens for non-criminal problems. The royal constabulary rarely became involved with anything less than murder or armed robbery. Other crimes such as assault and the like were also under their jurisdiction, but when the constabulary stopped, often the mages could step in. Wizards, another group, rarely dirtied their hands on such mundane things.
"If it's anything like my hometown, there's a bar in town where the locals are," Ramses suggested. He came from the desert island of Eguzki, one of the many island kingdoms that made up the greater kingdom of the Forty Isles, but had lived on Caergwlân for the past six years.
“We’ll split up,” Luna decided and led the way out of the train station towards the center of town. Out of the four, she had the best sense of direction, almost beacon-like for finding people.
The girls started down the right side of the main street, while the men turned left.
The buildings, like the town and surrounding area, was unremarkable. Most were of one or two stories, with the occasional three story building. All had covered porches forming a series of covered walkways to keep the sun off people.
Most of the places were empty, opened and unlocked, as though everyone had suddenly disappeared.
Normally, when on a mission, the guild mages would meet with the local leadership or whomever handled the mage requests to report in. If there was no one present, then the town was treated as a ghost town.
"Maybe the boys are having better luck," Mederei mumbled as she pushed open another door. "Hello, I'm Mederei from Fire Shadow. We're ..."
The printer's shop was completely empty. Silently empty save for the pungent smell of ink and the stale stench of smoke. A window was opened to let in the air.
"Nobody?" Luna asked from the doorway. "Checked at the stationary store next door, and no one's there either. You don't think he did something to everyone, do you?"
"Like what? Shrink them? Send them to an alternate reality? Put them in a bag? I don't even know if the Gwion can do all that."
"But they can do some."
Mederei smirked. "There would have to be an alternate reality for them to be sent too."
"Scary. Hope to never see a truly angry Gwion."
Footsteps fell down from the back of the house.
Mederei and Luna tensed.
A girl, about age twelve, entered the room. "Hello? What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be over at the lunch line?"
"Lunch line?" Mederei repeated. "Where's that?"
"In the middle of town." The girl cocked her head. "You aren't from here, your accent is different."
"We're from up north," Luna answered. "We're members of a Mage Guild called Fire Shadow."
The girl shrugged her shoulders. "Never heard of them. As for me, I've been blind most of my life, but recently regained my sight, so I don't recognize faces yet."
"How did you regain your sight?"
"Magic. We're poor out here, if you can't tell, so my family couldn't afford to see one of the physicians, but this gentle soul came in ..."
"Mintuu," an older woman called as she entered the room. "Hello? Who are you?"
"Members of Fire Shadow Mage Guild," Luna introduced. "I'm Luna and this is Mederei. We're looking for whomever we register with."
"That would be the mayor, but he's at lunch right now," the woman explained. "If you come with me, I'll take you to him."
Outside, the sun baked, but now another smell drifted along beside the sulfur. "Do I smell cardamom?"
"Yes," Mother said, "it's grown here along with several other hot spices and peppers. We like our food spicy."
They walked down the empty, hollow sidewalk towards the center of town. Turning a corner, they came across a line of people - probably everyone in the town. "The mayor's up ahead," Mother said. "Keep walking, you'll find him."
"Thank you," Luna answered.
"Wonder what they're waiting for," Mederei observed the detested and disgruntled inhabitants. "Doesn't look like it's something good."
"The mother said it was the lunch line."
"One of the advantages of having a small town, I suppose - rotating lunch service."
Luna shrugged. "I don't think this is normal even for small towns, Medi."
"I don't want fried eggs," a boy wailed. "It's all we eat."
"If this is what we must endure for Mintuu's sight then it's all right," the boy's mother said. "Would you want to lose your sight and not be able to catch lightning bugs?"
The boy kicked the dirt, but continued to pout silently.
Luna caught Mederei's elbow. "I think the card shark had something to do with it."
Mederei turned. "How? I didn't think cards had that much magic in them." She pointed in front of them. "I think I see the end of the line up there. Hopefully someone can help us. Wonder if Hugh and Ramses have found anything."

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