The tip of Al's marking-stick made soft scritching noises in the desert sand as he drew his array, and the newly scribed lines revealed a glimpse of gold beneath a thin, fragile crust of snow.
He finished the elaborate, swirling design, and then he unwrapped a packet of small copper markers and stuck five of them in the sand at various points in the array. Al stood and surveyed his work, and then he picked up his pack, drew his cloak closer about him, and began the long hike back to the start position of his test.
His breath puffed in tiny white clouds as he walked, and Al marveled at the crystalline beauty of the landscape before him. He had been in deserts before—he remembered long days of desperately trying to keep his then-armor body from sinking into the sand—and he'd always assumed that deserts were always hot, miserable places.
Until he'd come to Xing.
The desert here was different; instead of endless dunes and relentless heat, the barren landscape that Al now traversed with human feet was littered with rocks and boulders, which were currently covered with a dusting of white. The cold was different, too; it was sharper than when he had been in Rezembool, and when the wind whistled through the sparse shrubs that clung to the larger rocks, Al felt chilled to the bone.
When he got back to his spot Al checked the circle he'd drawn earlier. He pulled out his packet again and set five markers into the design, at points that complemented the secondary array that was now several miles away.
"It took you long enough to get back here."
Al yelped with surprise, and he turned to see Ling Yao sitting on a nearby rock, his carriage parked a handful of yards away. "Ling! What are you doing here?"
"I wanted to come watch your experiment," Ling said, and as he rose he pulled up the fur collar of his elaborately embroidered coat. "Although I don't understand why you couldn't wait until it was warmer."
"I've never seen snow in the desert," Al replied. "All the deserts I've been in are always hot."
"Xingese deserts are far more beautiful than those pitiful Amestrian sandboxes," Ling sniffed.
"Yeah, they are," Al agreed.
Ling pointed to the intricate design on the ground in front of Al. "So you truly believe that you can work your alchemy over several miles?"
Al nodded. "I think so," he said. "From what I've been studying about the Dragon's Pulse, it seems like the flow of energy is different depending on the terrain. If my theory is correct, it should flow quicker, and farther, in a place like this."
Ling closed his eyes for a moment. "Yes," he said, "the land is thinner here… the pulse moves very close to the surface." He opened his eyes and regarded Al with approval. "Mei Chang has taught you well."
"Alkehestry is amazing... I could study it for years," Al replied. He squatted down next to the circle in the sand, and he looked up at Ling. "Ready?"
"Yes. Where should I look?"
"That way," Al said, and he pointed at the tracks of his footprints in the snow. "Here we go," he said, and then he clapped his hands together and placed them on the circle.
The lines lit up in a blaze of blue-white light, casting eerie shadows on the planes of Al's face. Keeping his hands firmly on the array, he focused on the second array. The ground beneath them rumbled, and then they watched as a large sphere of snow-covered sand appeared in the distance.
"Alphonse," Ling said, "you did it."
Al grinned at him. "Keep watching," he said. He concentrated again, and two more spheres emerged, on top of the original.
Ling raised a hand to shield his eyes as he peered more closely at the object. "What is it?"
Al stood and brushed the sand from his hands. "I made you a snowman," he said.
Ling looked at him. "But it is made of sand."
Al rolled his eyes. "There's snow on it, it's a snowman."
Ling's mouth pursed mutinously. "It is not a man. It is three squashed balls of sand."
"That I made from two miles away."
Ling waved a hand dismissively. "Yes, yes, very impressive, but your artistic skills need some work. I shall have to hire some Xingese sculptors to instruct you." He clapped Al on the back. "But seriously, my friend, this is a tremendous achievement. Come back with me now, and we will celebrate."
"Thanks," Al said, and he watched as his experiment rapidly slumped back to the ground. "It'll be interesting to see just how far it can go in this terrain."
"And then you will need to see how this experiment works in the other parts of Xing as well," Ling suggested.
"Absolutely," Al said.
"Excellent," Ling said.
"Excellent?" Al looked at his friend.
"Yes, because this means that I get to show you more of my beautiful land," Ling said as he slid an arm across Al's shoulder. "It also means you will be staying longer. Here, with me."
"Xing is fascinating," Al said.
"I am fascinating, too," Ling whispered in his ear.
"Among other things," Al said with a laugh, and he picked up his pack and let Ling lead him back to the carriage.