Anna bolts up from her bedroll with a gasp. Eyes wide and heart pounding, she stares at the inside of her canvas tent with a certainty that all is coming to an end. Wilder is trampling through the campsite in a frothing rage, stampeding in her direction with head down and horns ready. His mighty hooves churn the snow in a powerful charge. Her breath catches in her lungs as she waits for the massive creature to crash through the tent and—
“Everything alright, Ms. Holt?” Wynn asks.
Wynn’s voice breaks her delusion. She blinks with shock, and reality tumbles into place as wakefulness displaces subconscious fear. An unknown dream fades from her mind like the shallow breath falling from her mouth.
“As you can see,” says Wynn, his voice mingling with gentle cracks and pops from the fire, “Wilder’s wake-up call isn’t the most pleasant.”
Hearing a brief slurp of coffee, Anna lowers her tense body until she’s resting on her elbows. Muscles relax. Her breathing steadies. “I thought he was coming straight through,” she says, shaking her head while attempting to remember the vanished dream. “For some reason I thought he’d gone rabid and was destroying the camp.” She collapses onto her back and covers her face in relief.
“Hmm,” Wynn says. “He’s been stomping around a bit this morning, but nothing too unusual. The sound may have mixed into your dreams. That happens sometimes.”
“The two of you sure talk a lot,” says a voice sour with sleepiness.
“And a fine good morning to you, Mr. Hemmett,” says Wynn.
Hemmett grunts from inside his tent. Cloth shuffles. “How’s our wolf-cloaked friend?”
Wynn takes another sip of coffee. “Just as we left him, though I dare say he’s performed yet another trick during the night. He’s wolf no longer. Only a snowbank remains.”
Anna pulls on gloves and a jacket and peeks through the flap of her tent. Wynn stands alone beside a small fire with his tin cup in hand, staring at a white lump with patient interest. Around him, the world is buried in what looks to be another foot of fresh snow. Small flakes still flutter down from a gray sky. He glances at Anna and gives her a quick nod.
“I made an opening near his face for air,” Wynn says, shaking his head with disbelief. “He’s still breathing as far as I can tell. The damnedest thing. This is no trick. If it were, his performance is exemplary.”
Hemmett lumbers from his tent with a grumble. His black coat drags in the fresh snow. “He hasn’t moved at all?”
Wynn shakes his head while taking another drink of coffee. “Not an inch.”
Hemmett turns to Anna. “Same for you? He stayed put during your shift?”
Anna tightens her jacket around her waist and pulls her fur cap snug around her ears, tucking chestnut curls inside. “He didn’t budge,” she says while stepping from her tent. “He didn’t even snore, him nor Hutch.”
Anna nods at a larger lump outside of camp. The night’s snowfall has all but buried the muskox.
“Oh,” says Hemmett. “Right.” Giving the large pile of snow a piercing look, his hardened stare is interrupted by a yawn. Stretching wide, his pale forearms extend from beneath his coat as his arms spread open. After a grunt and a scratch, he reaches into his tent and puts on his gun belt. Seeing the coffee, he fetches his cup. “Is it strong?”
“Not particularly,” Wynn says as he pours. He fills a cup for Anna as well.
“He never makes strong coffee when he has the last watch,” Hemmett says to Anna with a sigh.
“Nor do I cook his eggs sunny-side up and bring them to his tent with a carnation and a smile,” says Wynn. “No, Ms. Holt, it’s only the most trying of challenges here in the north.”
Anna smiles and takes a drink. The coffee is warm on its way to her stomach, and the smell helps chase off the lingering anxiety brought on by her forgotten dream.
Hemmett glares at the curious lump of snow not far from the fire. He takes a long draw from his coffee cup and shakes his head. “It’s just so bizarre. It isn’t human.”
Anna laughs, thinking his phrase to be a joke, but cuts her laugh short when she sees the seriousness in Hemmett’s eyes. She points her coffee cup at the obviousness of the statement. “Of course it isn’t human. It’s a gnome.”
Wynn smirks, and the smirk morphs into a sincere laugh. “Indeed, Ms. Holt. Indeed.”
Hemmett ignores the joke and doubles his efforts on being concerned. “I don’t find this funny. Look at this!” He kicks at the snow where the gnome sits motionless. A clump falls away, revealing wolf-fur covering a small shoulder. “What the hell kind of potion does that? And what kind of creature intentionally makes itself go comatose when surrounded by strangers? It’s freakish. There’s no way we can trust this guy.” Hemmett steps back, tucks his jacket behind his revolver, and hooks a hand onto his belt. “I don’t believe him when he says he’s up here for alchemy. I don’t buy it for a second. Something else is going on.”
“Believe him or not,” Wynn says, “his papers are in order. I admit I’m a little uneasy myself, but we’ve no grounds to accuse him of anything. Whether he’s here for components or not is irrelevant. He’s done nothing wrong.”
“That we know of,” Hemmett adds.
“Have you ever seen potions like these?” Anna asks. “I visited an alchemist once in the Capital, but what he had was nothing compared to this. His potions were more medicinal, headaches and drinks to help you concentrate. Stuff like that. He didn’t mention anything like turning into a statue, or… whatever this is.”
Wynn tugs at his mustache. “Gnomes have a mastery of alchemy, Ms. Holt.”
“A lot of good it does them,” Hemmett growls. “Their obsession over magic has left them in the dark ages.”
Wynn shrugs again. “Either way, there’s no denying this one’s knowledge. Peculiar that he’d weave them into that poor creature’s fur though rather than store them away.”
“Maybe it’s a way of advertising?” Anna guesses. “He did say alchemy covers his expenses. If he’s traveling to look for materials, he must be selling as he goes to cover the costs.”
From behind, the sound of a large beast sucking in air breaks the conversation. Wynn and Anna turn while Hemmett draws his revolver. Just outside of camp, Hutch lurches up from the snow like a zombie from a grave. Shelves of white break away from his fur as he rises. Standing on unstable legs, he tosses his head, flinging snow around him, and snorts. Glass vials clink against one another. Wilder pauses from his foraging at the sound, then continues his breakfast without further observation.
“Death of man,” Hemmett says.
Wynn gives a long stare, his eyes bouncing between Hutch and Wilder. “It’s interesting that Wilder seems comfortable enough around these two.”
“Maybe I should scratch behind Hemmett’s ears,” suggests Anna. “Help calm him down?”
Wynn looks at Hemmett just in time to see the man rolls his eyes with sincerity. He bursts into laughter as Hemmett holsters his pistol, tosses his coffee cup in frustration, and marches away from camp to relieve himself.
“Ms. Holt, you’re rather spry this morning.”
Anna takes a long drink of coffee, relishing the warmth it brings along with the sight of Hemmett storming off, and gives a nonchalant shrug. “Aside from Wilder’s wake-up call and some sore muscles, I feel pretty good.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Wynn says. “Today will be especially interesting for you as—what’s this? Oh.”
A wheezing sound comes from the small bank of snow in front of them. The lump shifts, small gaps opening and closing like soil during a gaping earthquake, and then slowly erupts into a small, standing figure. Vials clutches his wolf fur close to his body and shivers. Chunks of snow fall around his feet in soft plops, the new depth reaching his thighs. He peers out through a small opening in his hood. Thick glasses still hang from his nose, and his beady eyes are pink with strain. “Humans,” he croaks in a voice thick with sleep.
“Good morning, Vials,” says Wynn. “I trust you slept well.”
“I always sleep well.” He knocks his furs from inside, and more snow falls away. Slowly, he slides the wolf skin open. Dull light reflects from the potions hanging inside his coat. The gnome scans the camp. “Where’s the tall, white one? The one that wants to shoot me.”
“No one wants to shoot you,” Wynn says. “Mr. Hemmett needed to speak to a man about a horse. He’ll be back shortly.”
Vials twists his face in confusion. “A horse? In this territory?”
Wynn smiles and gives Anna a wink. “You’d be surprised how often it happens.”
With the joke lost on him, Vials glares at the smirk exchanged between Wynn and Anna. “I suppose I’ll take your word for it.” His tired eyes land on Anna. “Young lady, are we joined in a staring contest I’m currently unaware of?”
“I’m just trying to understand what’s happening,” she says.
“I imagine so,” Vials grumbles. He stretches his short arms and legs while approaching the fire.
“She isn’t the only one,” Wynn says. “You’ll have to forgive our surprise. None of us have seen anyone do… that before.”
“What?” Vials asks.
Wynn waves his coffee cup at the hole in the snow. “What you apparently call sleeping.”
Vials raises his hands to the flames. His fingers curl like claws, and his old knuckles look swollen. “Not exactly sleeping, though close. Just not as pleasant.”
“What is it then?” Anna asks.
Vials leers at her. In the daylight she can see red splotches of irritated skin on his face. “It’s a bit like being in a coma,” he says, “if you understand such things. Or passed out drunk if the concept suits you better, though there’s little hangover to deal with.”
“So if there’s no hangover, that means you’re naturally this cranky in the morning,” Wynn adds. The two lock stares, Vials irritated and Wynn calm. After a moment, Wynn passes a coffee cup to the gnome. His small fingers seem to take the offering with regret.
“I am naturally cranky in the morning,” Vials says. “Even more so when beset with cold and snow and many miles still to travel.” He takes a sip, and his face twists as if drinking concentrated lemon juice. “However, forgive my rudeness. I do appreciate your hospitality. It’s… oh, what’s the word…”
“Nice?” Anna says.
“I was going to say surprising, but nice will do as well.” Vials shoves a hand under his glasses and rubs his eyes.
“Oh, good,” Hemmett says as he strolls back into camp. “Wolf-bait is up.”
The gnome ignores the jape and returns his hands to the fire.
“Vials,” Wynn asks, “Though I don’t share in the joke from my colleague, there is truth in what he says. Traveling on your own in these lands is a very risky venture. These territories are no place to be alone, especially considering your—”
“Size?” Vials asks.
“Noticeability,” Wynn says. He clears his throat. “If you’d be so kind, I’d like to extend a formal invitation to travel with us to Nil. I’d love the opportunity to talk with you further, and you’re far safer traveling with a group.”
Vials squirms in his feet, his little body visibly wanting to leave. His eyes dart from person to person before stopping at Wynn. “I appreciate the offer, human, but I’m in an awful hurry and—”
“I can guarantee you’ll see no further harassment,” Wynn says as he pours another cup of coffee. “I’ll escort you personally while Ms. Holt and Mr. Hemmett tend to their duties on the line. I apologize for being so insistent but try to understand how special this opportunity is for me. I find your kind intriguing, and the knowledge of your craft appears nothing more than exceptional. You could teach me much, and I could answer any questions you might have regarding the north.”
Beady eyes resting behind thick lenses squint and stare while Wynn takes a drink from his cup. Vials’ fingers fidget with one another as if he were tying together an invisible string. “Very well,” he says with a reluctant sigh. “I accept your escort, though I’ll have it known I have no desire to interact with that one,” he says, pointing a finger at Hemmett.
“My heart bleeds,” Hemmett says with thick sarcasm.
Wynn nods. “That one won’t be any trouble at all. Isn’t that right, Mr. Hemmett?”
Hemmett reaches into his tent, produces his cowboy hat, and settles it on his head. “Me? Trouble? No sir, I’ll be sweeter than a ray of sunshine.”
Vials mumbles to himself, settles his coffee cup onto a bare stone near the fire and waddles toward Hutch. Anna watches him go, the potions within his coat jingling, his small hands pulling the wolf pelt tight around his shoulders.
When the gnome disappears from camp, Hemmett cocks his head to the side. “Why in the hell did you do that?”
Wynn waves the two closer and lowers his voice as they join him beside the fire. “We’ll have a light breakfast and break down camp. I want to start early today. We’ll need the time to work the line and travel with Vials.”
“I can’t believe you’re—” Hemmett tries, but Wynn cuts him off.
“You know where we’re going, Mr. Hemmett. I highly doubt he’ll be received well in Nil.
“Of course he won’t,” says Hemmett. “Look at him. And his animal? They’ll never—”
“Keep your voice down,” Wynn says, motioning with a hand. “Look, we have to take him at face value for now. He obviously knows a thing or two about alchemy. He’s made it this far on his own. We’re traveling the same direction anyway. The more I can learn about who he is and what he’s doing here, the better off we all are. Especially when we get to Nil.”
“Why?” Anna asks. “What’s the big deal about him showing up in Nil?”
Hemmett answers up before Wynn can explain. “Nil is full of wackos.”
Wynn sighs. “They’re strange, sure. Mostly they’re superstitious.”
“They’re wackos,” Hemmett repeats.
Wynn shakes his head and lets out a soft laugh that ends in a sigh. “They’re a little odd, yes. But all of this is beside the point.” He turns to Anna. “This is an important day, the sort you and I strive for. The break in the line is out there, and we’re to do our part in helping our kind by finding it and making the needed repairs. If all goes well, communication is restored to Nil and we possibly gain a strange little friend in the process. That’s a lot of success waiting to be found, Ms. Holt.”
Smiling with understanding, she nods.
“What about me?” Hemmett asks. “Do I find any success?”
A sly smile creeps under Wynn’s beard. “Probably not. You get to train the rookie.”
Anna gives Wynn a quick thwap on the shoulder, and Wynn laughs at the attack.
“Come on,” Hemmett says to Anna. “We’ll let the gnome lover make breakfast. I’ll help you with the packing.”