Two wizards, neighbours and now and then collaborators, enjoyed the peace and freedom of their land in the heart of the Purple Highlands. Between their two towers lay wildflowered hills burrowed full of holes by cottontail rabbits and woodchucks. The hills were treeless save for a few lone plum trees that blossomed pink in spring. On fogless nights, those in the village nearby watched as the two wizards debated: their words shot like fireworks between the towers and met in the middle with starry explosions as vowels and consonants loosened from the logic of language fell to the ground. And on some of those nights, unbeknownst to the villagers, after the firewords ceased the two wizards shared a bottle of dry red wine and a game of Fox & Goose. They took turns hosting.
One day a strange creature appeared in the hills between their towers. The Red Wizard saw it first and described it to the White Wizard, who had yet to descry it from his high window, as being like a ram with dual horns swept back and a banded snake for a tail. The White Wizard, spotting the creature the following morning, thought surely the Red Wizard had been exaggerating. For the horns hardly swept back, but curled, and the tail was not a snake at all, only prehensile and snakelike. But they both agreed that it was a strange creature indeed, and that they should approach it with all caution, if indeed they wanted to approach it at all.
But wizards are as curious as the cats they keep, and the next day the Red Wizard ventured into the village to inquire. No one had lost an animal and neither had anyone heard of such a beast before. A few of the men were frightened by the news and suggested variously hunting the beast down, driving it from the highlands, killing it for food, plundering its horns, and so on. The children wanted to keep it as a pet or let it wander free forever. The Red Wizard, generally opposed to violence and torment, decided to invoke the law of that province, claiming ownership of the beast because it was on his land, terms the villagers understood and honoured.
That night, the villagers watched the wizards talk about the creature, their firewords painting the hills below in flashes of red, white, and rose where the two converged.
The following morning, the White Wizard woke the Red Wizard with a powerful Shout. Now two strange creatures stood in the hills between their towers. They were as near to one another in appearance and behaviour as any two animals of the same species. And now the wizards noticed their hairless faces, not at all like a ram’s, but somehow more human. Their fur was blue-grey, thick and coarse, picking up some of the plum blossoms and dead grass that blew their way. The wizards conferred and decided to approach warily.
Arming themselves with a few protective wards and a Globe of Non-Harm, they approached from the same side so as not to frighten the beasts with a flank attack. They walked slowly, arms outstretched, silent and steady. The beasts did not appear to smell or taste them on the breeze, and they stood their ground, barely glancing at the wizards or at one another. The White Wizard was suddenly afraid. What fearlessness, he thought, and what strength must stand behind it! Like a mountain! But the Red Wizard took this as a sign of gentleness and docility. He had a soft spot for the meek of heart.
As the Red Wizard leaned out to put his hand on the nearest beast’s back, the White Wizard cried out in fear of his neighbour’s life. That finally disturbed them, and the beasts began to fade slowly out of sight, as if into the very air, leaving behind only their tails. Tiny eyes blinked open on those tails, the same eyes the Red Wizard had seen on the beasts’ faces moments before. The Red Wizard turned and admonished the White Wizard for frightening them when he had been so close to contact, but the White Wizard was sure the Red Wizard would have been attacked or poisoned or cursed by that touch. They exchanged a few more observations and then hurried back to their separate towers, their minds slightly clouded with bitter thoughts.
Thus began a period of research and lore seeking and observation. The following morning, the beasts appeared in full again and now numbered three. Neither wizard could catch them doing anything at all, not grazing, nor hunting, nor sleeping, nor mating. They vanished at night, even their tails, and reappeared the following morning in precisely the same locations, slowly resolving into sight. They added to their numbers irregularly, though they never touched or communicated with one another. The cottontails and woodchucks ignored them, as did the villagers, though rarely did they venture into the hills anyway. They remarked only upon the recent absence of firewords displays.
The wizards had been busy at their work, a solitary task, for even wizards on good terms are secretive and covetous of new knowledge and discoveries. At least in the beginning when budding theories and precious alchemical eggs are vulnerable to theft and scandal. On the seventh night, when the beasts numbered five, the wizards shared their findings.
The Red Wizard believed the beasts were a new species from another plane of reality, one long prophesied and hidden from view. When they vanish at night, they return to their home plane to do all the things beasts do. But the White Wizard, growing slightly annoyed at this, wondered how his neighbour could be such a fool. For surely these beasts were of indomitable will and constitution and had been sent to undermine the peace and freedom of their lands. Perhaps a rival wizard (would the mythic Grey Wizard finally appear?) had created them in his dreadful tower and sent them to multiply and ultimately crowd out his enemies. The Red Wizard, hiding his irritation, laughed and told the White Wizard to get some sleep, for surely he had been awake so long he could no longer read straight. They agreed to disagree until they could gather further information. I could be wrong after all, the Red Wizard said, just as you might be, and that night they dreamed of foxed and dog-eared books full of answers they would not remember come dawn.
When the Red Wizard awoke the following morning he walked to the window and saw six beasts below, standing without a care, meek and amiable to all who might wander by. His gaze rose to the White Wizard’s tower, and his eyes narrowed. Old fool, he thought. He would kill the poor beasts if he weren’t so afraid of them. And from then on, the Red Wizard took them under his protection, to be safeguarded as the power given him would allow. That night, he tried to convince the White Wizard of their innocence, that they were perhaps even ambassadors from a new realm full of possibility and wonder. But the White Wizard demanded that he help destroy them instead, or at least drive them far from the highlands. And that night the villagers watched an eruption of lights that made even the moon blush red. Many saw the moon’s bloodied face as an ill omen, and they added another night watchman to every village gate.
The next morning the White Wizard looked out on eight beasts and wondered why he couldn’t crack the puzzle of their uncanny replication. They stood in silent conspiracy, concealing menace behind their harmless façade. The sooner he drove them away the easier it would be done. And that day, against the protests of the Red Wizard, he tried the Seven Spells of Vanishing and the Rod of Banishment as well as many lesser tricks of exile, but the creatures faded to tails and nothing seemed to prevent them from waving in the wind and watching with their tiny eyes.
That night the White Wizard accused the Red Wizard of protecting them with his power, and the Red Wizard confessed to having done so, though he was not at all sure they needed his help. But the White Wizard did not have a spell to cross dimensions, if the beasts truly were from another plane, and he once again pleaded for help. The Red Wizard explained how just that morning he had come a finger’s length from touching one and had felt a great levity, a certain lightness of spirit, when standing near them. They are here to help us, he said, and the wizards went to bed but could not sleep that night, so great was their frustration at the other’s pride and stubborn will.
Several days passed, and now some two dozen beasts stood on the hills between the towers. They stood and stared and did nothing beasts are meant to do, each one nearly but not quite identical to the others. All were of the same size as well, with no indication any were younger or older than the rest. The White Wizard had not yet touched them with his powers, and the Red Wizard had not yet touched them with his hand. The villagers were suspicious and cynical about the creatures, but they saw in the herd a potential boon, if only they could wrest them from the wizards’ land, though they dared not do so by force or by stealth. After all, the wizards could raze the village in the time it takes to tell a tale.
The Red Wizard demanded that the White Wizard come down from his tower and make peace with the beasts. The White Wizard demanded the Red Wizard come into his tower and assist with the creation of new weapons. When the 25th beast appeared, the Red Wizard threw a celebration, for he now believed that when the herd grew to 100, some momentous event would occur. They were making this realm safe for the arrival of their king or queen. They were emissaries, and as one old tome put it, they would usher in a new era of peace.
The White Wizard watched the Red Wizard’s celebrations with bitterness. He mocked him with a lavish feast of his own at which he toasted to Death Himself. He paced inside his tower and dreamed of transdimensional spells. That night he told the Red Wizard he was close to writing a new and superlative spell of banishment. The hideous beasts were surely the Dread Stampede of legend. They were increasing at an exponential rate and when they numbered 1,000, they would trample the land as far as the Farseeing Eye could see, destroying every hill, village, and tower around. They would end the peace and freedom of their land. The Red Wizard laughed and spit and called the White Wizard names, and that night the villagers watched the wizards’ firewords from behind closed doors.
The herd reached 30, then 35, then rather quickly 50. The Red Wizard declared that day forevermore a feast day, and he threw a decadent fête only he himself attended, for he could not attract any of the beasts into his tower, no matter how much food, drink, and gifts of gold he piled on his doorstep. He even set down a trail of intoxicating honey cakes from the hills to his open door, but the beasts did not budge. The White Wizard watched in fury from afar, angry at the Red Wizard’s debasing of himself at the feet of those tiresome beasts. That night, he practised Death spells on unsuspecting mice in the wine cellar and drank himself to sleep.
The herd increased, turning the green hills to blue-grey clouds. Summer was almost halfway over, and the plum blossoms had long ago blown to the wind’s twelve quarters. The Red Wizard called out to the beasts daily, bringing them ever more impressive gifts, singing to them, composing epic poems and plays. And he looked with malice upon the White Wizard, now locked in his tower beyond the many wards, traps, and defences he had erected. He called him coward and craven, pathetic and paranoid, and he even wrote him into his epics as a mad old king bent on world destruction. And the White Wizard watched the Red Wizard’s prancing and dancing and saw only a simple fool, naive and hypocritical, who would open the door for doom itself. And at night he could not get the Red Wizard’s capering stupid-happy figure out of his mind’s eye, and he hated him in the depths of his heart.
They are our saviours! the Red Wizard cried, and a red flower burst above the neighbouring tower.
They are doom and death! the White Wizard cried, and a white dragon descended on the hills.
And hearing this, the Red Wizard claimed to have been visited by their goddess in the night, a radiant oracle who foretold of an era of universal freedom.
And hearing that, the White Wizard said he had seen their tails inside his tower, spies that had infiltrated his many wards and measures.
When the herd reached 70, the Red Wizard left his door unwarded and wide open in invitation, even at night. Seeing this, the White Wizard crafted a golem from the very earth of the Purple Highlands to guard his door. The Red Wizard sent a winged homunculus to undo the word of command on the golem’s backside, but the golem swatted the imp from the air with his brawny fist and shattered it beneath his foot. That night, the Red Wizard said the beasts had entered his dreams to bring good tidings and to warn him that they would only save those who opened their doors to them. The White Wizard fumed and said dreams are only figments of the imagination and that anything within them is mere fantasy. In fact, he said, he had recently discovered a proof for the non-existence of other dimensions. Thus, the Red Wizard’s theory was false. The Red Wizard shook with fury and shouted to the skies that there are only other dimensions, and this world is in fact a dream world. The beasts had arrived to break them free from illusion and return them to the real world. Thus, the White Wizard’s theory was false, for who would bother to wreak havoc on an illusion?
They showered the earth with firewords, and the villagers shuttered their windows and comforted their children with heroic tales from a bygone era before the invention of wizards.
The herd numbered 80, and the Red Wizard was at work on an elaborate thesis for the non-existence of the world. And the White Wizard had just found in his library evidence that the world they saw before them was all that existed and ever would. The detailed proof, bolstered by his own logic, showed that the beasts were surely of this world and all the more dangerous because of it. The beasts numbered 85, and the wizards pounded the land with the firewords of their theories in red, white, and shades of rose.
When 90 beasts clouded the hills, the Red Wizard became crazed with excitement and delight. Death does not exist, he cried out across the space between the towers, and he provided a proof for the non-existence of death. The beasts would not harm them. But the White Wizard had prepared a step-by-step proof for the non-existence of life itself. All is death, he cried, life is an illusion, and death is the greatest part of life! The Red Wizard shrieked in abject frustration, and the White Wizard seethed in his tower, power crackling across the surface of his skin.
The beasts numbered 99. The White Wizard stepped out of his tower wearing globes of protection and wielding the Staff of his illustrious lineage. Seeing this challenge, the Red Wizard hurried out the open door of his tower in full raiment. He held the flame-red Staff of his order high above his head.
And the White Wizard spoke first, saying, these creatures bring death to us and there is ever only death. Death is life! They lead us to paradise! Our salvation!
And the Red Wizard shook with fury and cried, there is no such thing as death, only life and freedom on this beautiful earth. They are our doom to take us from this life! I will destroy them all!
Not while I stand, the White Wizard shouted, and the beasts stood still in the hills as the two wizards met for battle.
But their powers were equal, and the red cancelled out the white and the white annulled the red until both wizards were weary and spent. For peace, they cried, and freedom! And they fell to staff blows, beating one another until they were black and red with bruise and blood. Their insults crackled like sparks between them until finally the Red Wizard delivered a mortal blow, cracking open the White Wizard’s skull. He watched all his pale power leak into the dry autumn grass, but no sooner had he tasted this victory than he felt his own power seeping from a hole in his gut, delivered in the height of battle by the White Wizard’s secret athamé. The Red Wizard watched his own red power blow away in the damp autumn wind.
When the villagers had seen no lights in the hills for many days, the counsellors dispatched a band of warriors to investigate the wizards’ land, but they found only the two towers empty of all life. The tower doors were left open, and the warriors called into those dim vaults, but only their echoes answered them. They dared not enter for fear of haunts, curses, or some lingering word of fiery power. They wondered at the emptiness and the lost herd of strange beasts, of which they could find no sign or trace. The wind and rain had even erased their hoofprints. A few grizzled warriors feared dark powers at work among the hills while others believed it was merely some magician’s trick, but they all agreed that the place would be best left abandoned to the first snows of winter.
Story copyright © 2021 by Kyle E Miller
Artwork copyright © 2021 by Carrion House
Kyle E Miller is a naturalist and anthropologist living in Michigan. He can usually be found in the dunes or forests, turning up logs looking for life. His past incarnations include zookeeper, video game critic, retail manager, stablehand, and writing tutor. His fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, and Honey & Sulphur.
Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the south of England. Having graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.