Everything, Ayden had come to understand, had its price. Sometimes that price was harsh and other times it was gentle, but everything had its price.

That was certainly no less true in magic. And for the greatest and most complex works, many prices might be needed.

He took samples from many plants in many places, and even some animal sources as well. All of these he set to dry. Then, one by one, he crumbled leaves and stems and roots and seed pods into small pieces, or chopped thicker stalks – or organs. One by one, he put those coarse things into his mortar and worked the pestle with careful vigour, grinding each thing in turn to a fine powder before tipping them into bowls, cleaning his tools, and moving on to the next.

A simple preparation from a sabretooth’s signature fang could have easily fetched a price that would keep him fed for a year. He ground it to powder and set it aside. The same with fine spices that could have graced a lord’s kitchen, or the jagged-edged leaf that could end any of a dozen lethal plagues. Great works demanded great sacrifices, and all was reduced to powder.

And when the last sample had been ground, then it was time to turn to the crucible. Some of his samples were added to the mix; others fed the fire.

Measure by measure, his stocks of carefully-gathered, laboriously-prepared reagents were consumed, until all that remained rested in one glass vial the size of his finger. Perfectly clear, it might have been a simple light oil.

Years of work had gone into this little thing, and he packed it in soft cloth. Then it was time for his journey.

Out he went, into lands ravaged by years of hostile magic, shaped by the pounding of the feet of countless soldiers. Dust swirled in the wind that tugged at his cloak. Nothing grew here; there weren’t even insects to bite at him. His shadow, cast by a harsh and unforgiving sun, was his only companion.

To the centre of that devastation he went, to the place where the greatest battles had been fought, where the magics that rent the land had been cast. There on the scorched rock, he knelt, finding a tiny depression on the hard surface. Into that depression he laid soil from a pouch at his belt, and in that soil he planted a single seed.

Then he unwound the cloth that shielded that vial, and held it up in the light of the setting sun, contemplating his life’s work, this single swallow of clear fluid.

The land had sacrificed enough. It was time and past time for men to sacrifice in turn, and Ayden’s sacrifices in obtaining this, while not particularly profound in any one of them, summed to quite a portion for any one man to bear.

He wiggled the stopper free, and then, with exquisite care, tipped the vial over that little patch of soil.

From the moment the first drop touched the soil, a spot of green rose into view. By the time he stood upright, he had to shuffle his feet to keep vines from clutching at his boots. And by the time he reached what had been the border of the desolation, there was no longer a boundary to be seen.