There are two common subjects of society’s folklore. The first is the city, an ancient method of civilization that humanity has rightly disavowed. The second is the Nomad, a traveler in ornate red robes who uses magic and roams the world toward a mountain only she can see.

While cites are a thing of the distant past, the Nomad is very much a present being. Sometimes she wanders through a village or crosses the path of a caravan but is often far over the horizon before anyone can approach her.

However, there are the occasional stories you hear of lone travelers who encounter the Nomad, and she begins to tell about her journey. Most people see her as nothing more than a popular legend. Besides, they argue, the world is too big for one person to cross your path by accident, and if she does tell about her journey, why don’t the people she tells it to ever remember what she said?

Valid arguments, in my opinion. I believed the Nomad existing had about as much credibility as oceans or dragons.

So, you can imagine why I thought I was dreaming when she showed up in my camp and asked if she could join me.

I didn’t deny her. I was too stunned to do anything but nod and say “uh-huh” to what she asked. In fairness, she didn’t ask for much, just to sit for a while.

Once I’d picked myself off the sand I offered her a drink, but she waved it away. I sat and sipped at my own cup while trying not to make my staring too obvious.

She was beautiful. Not in a usual way, but more like one admires a sunset. You don’t expect a sunset to admire you back, you can’t touch it or give it a drink, or hardly even fathom how far away the sun is. It’s the beauty in awe, in being unable to fathom what you’re looking at.

She was covered head to foot in a long red robe. Gold patterns lined its hem. A featureless clay mask the color of tar covered all but her eyes yet didn’t impede her voice. I couldn’t see a seam in the robe, yet there were no sleeves. For all I could tell, she was just the robe and mask.

“May I tell you a story to pass the time?” she asked. Her voice was soft and regal.

I nodded. She began.


A long time ago, there was a traveler known only as the Nomad. He wandered salt-crusted valleys and the sandy plateaus of former empires. He found solace in the ruins and used his magic of Song to comprehend the dead languages. Every ruin he found deepened his understanding of what was before.

But he wasn’t trusted by humanity. He sought after the cities. He wanted to know why they had fallen and why only deserts remained. But his primary mission was to reach a distant mountain with a star at its summit. It sang to him, but his Song could not comprehend it. The mountain was his greatest mystery to solve, and so he journeyed.

Deep within an antique land, he found an old statue. Only the legs remained upright, and its face was half buried at its feet. On the pedestal was an old inscription so worn by sands and time the Nomad’s Song could not fully decipher it. What he understood was the statue depicted a man named O’ma’dius who called himself a king of kings and boasted that his works instilled fear in the mighty.

Nothing remained but the lonesome and level sands, the Nomad observed. Such is the might of mortals.

At night the desert was treacherous, even to the Nomad. Flying beasts and crawling creatures hounded him. Even his fellow men were not without danger. The Nomad sought a vile taboo, and while some determined to leave him to a fate they thought would destroy him, others were not so patient.

A group on horseback pursued the Nomad. His Song could only translate their language, not appeal to their compassion. However, it was not the only magic he could use.

With a kick of his feet, his robes shone with starlight, and he flew through the air with the grace of a cloud. He landed at the summit of a large sand dune. Vast ruins lay sprawled in the ravine beneath him, broken apart by the shifting sands into an unpredictable maze of walls, pillars, and bridges.

Behind him, his pursuers still chased. He turned to face them. Once the leader got close enough to swing his sword, the Nomad turned and gave a great leap.

The soft sand gave way, and he slid atop it with the greatest of ease while his would-be attackers floundered in its loose grains.

The Nomad turned his face into the wind as he sailed down the ravine like a leaf on a river. One might say he enjoyed the thrill.

But the fun was not to last. He did not see the depths these ruins reached. A cliff’s edge brought his escape into a sudden and terrifying darkness.

His starlight robes saved him from lasting injury, but he could not reach the sky now far above him. He had no option but to continue into the darkness before him.

The Nomad found himself in a grand carved cave that he believed used to be on the surface. Smooth, straight walls rose around him. Pillars stood firm despite visible cracks and encroaching sand.

There was one structure that intrigued him. It was large, smooth, and metal. From above, it looked like a strange sort of bird, with a straight body and stiff wings, though no feathers or beak to speak of. His Song could not reveal any language to indicate what the artifact was, but he did know of a word used to describe such things. Machine. He learned it from the humans, who only spoke of machines in the same undertones as they did cities.

The cave led him to a set of doors which, while broken, seemed largely undisturbed. He went inside and found another carved cave, but this one held a vast trove of knowledge. Murals covered the walls.

Excited, the Nomad sang his Song, and the lines came to life. There were no words, so he had to rely on interpretation from himself alone.

Long, long ago, when there were oceans and fewer stars, there were cities, and there were machines. Humanity sat itself together in massive groups and built structures that touched the sky. The machines were prevalent and kept the cities connected. It seemed that the machines did nearly everything in the cities.

But, over time, the machines became too powerful. Or perhaps the people thought they weren’t powerful enough. City turned to city and brought their machines against each other. When no one could decide which machine was more powerful, they sent their machines to the stars. These star machines looked like the one in the cave except without the wings and rode on pillars of smoke.

It seemed the stars were not impressed by the humans’ machines and sent them back. The machines, having been touched by starlight, struck the cities and ignited supernovas. The cities turned to sand, and the humans could not survive the lingering starlight.

As the Nomad understood, the stars had observed self-proclaimed kings of kings like O’ma’dius and wished to show what truly lasting power looked like. But, in their eagerness, the stars crippled their would-be disciples.

Mutually destructive hubris, the Nomad concluded. He reached an ascending staircase with more carvings and began climbing, observing what the symbols might reveal. Curiously, his Song could not translate them. They responded to his Song by glowing with starlight and making the patterns on his robe shine in response.

The Nomad was astonished. These symbols were about him? If not about, then in reference to. He climbed and sang his Song, lighting the dimness with glowing etchings as he went. Finally, at the top, he found a set of murals.

The mountain was depicted front and center, its summit star casting a grain of light into the desert. From this grain rose a figure in a red cloak. The Nomad peered closely at the small figure. Was it he? Did this mural depict his own origin?

He followed the mural onward. The painted Nomad journeyed across green plains, populated villages, and a vast desert, all to come to the foot of the mountain. There, the murals ended.

Pleased that his future was clear, the Nomad continued upward, climbing and climbing until he emerged into the fading sunlight that lit his robes with fiery scarlet.

There was no more sand beneath him. Instead, it was rough stone. He looked up. The mountain loomed tall and brilliant, the light at its summit quietly ushering him onward. Setting his sights on the things above, the Nomad began what would be the final leg of his journey.


I blinked at the robed figure seated across from me.  “Well? What was at the top?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t gotten to the mountain yet.”

“What? But you’re the Nomad.”

“Yes. I told you of a Nomad. Not me. All Nomads must journey to the mountain, learning more about history and magic and why cities are no more. Perhaps I will find more than what my predecessors did—perhaps I must only affirm what is known already so the Nomad after me will find an even greater truth.” The Nomad stood, and sand fell from her robes. She bowed to me. “Thank you for your hospitality. I must continue on my journey.”

I raised my cup, still full even after hours of listening to her story. “Travel safe. And I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

She nodded once, then her robes glowed and she took to the air, becoming another distant gleam amidst the starry background.