The Dark Queen | Chapter 2 of 4

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DRAGONLANCE®

Villains Series Volume Six

THE DARK QUEEN

"1994 TSR, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

All characters in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork contained herein is prohibited without the express written permission of TSR, Inc.

AH TSR characters, character names, and the distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks owned by TSR, Inc.

Random House and its affiliate companies have worldwide distribution rights in the book trade for English language products of TSR, Inc.

Distributed to the book and hobby trade in the United Kingdom by TSR Ltd. Distributed to the toy and hobby trade by regional distributors.

Cover art by Jeff Easley. Interior art by Karl Waller.

DRAGONLANCE is a registered trademark owned by TSR, Inc. The TSR logo is a trademark owned by TSR, Inc.

First Printing: December 1994

Printed in the United States of America.

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 94-60110

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

ISBN: 1-56076-925-4

For all those who bring their visions to us through music, and most especially the singers of hope, faith, and love.

Many people have helped enrich the making of this book:

We would like to thank Mort Morss and David Kirchoff for valuable information regarding opals, and for their even more valuable friendships.

John and Annette Rice provided a wealth of horticultural knowledge, especially regarding desert and mountain foliage. We thank them for their expertise, and for Sunday afternoons in their home and greenhouse.

Sam and Debbie Vaughn shared their extensive knowledge of hawks and other birds of prey. Debbie's red-tailed hawk, Lucas, is the real-life character upon which Larken's hawk is based. Debbie is a Licensed General Falconer, skilled in an art that has adhered to rigorously defined rules and regulations since medieval times. Falconry is highly dangerous for the uninstructed: we strongly urge interested parties to consult the North American Falconers Association.

We thank our friend Carla V for her artisf s skill and eye, and her wonderful photos. Finally, we'd like to thank Jim DeLong for his support, prayers, and perspective during the long months of writing and revising. Jim, you're a happenin' guy, and it's a blessing to know you.

Prologue

Thunder rumbled through the tower's polished opal windows and rattled their thin frames like a Namer's medicine stick.

An answer of lightning flickered over the dry white plains north of the city. Already, sweeping rain fell upon the far port of Karthay and on the bay-side forests toward the harbors of Istar. Here in the city, above the Kingpriest's Tower, the afternoon sky grew sullen and tense, and the brilliant gemstone windowpanes darkened to a deep blue.

From his tower window, opened to the fresh and rising wind, the white-robed man could tell by the sharp scent and expectancy of moisture in the air and the racing, tumbling black clouds that the storm was moving swiftly. He turned to his lectern, to the frail ancient volume that lay open beneath an unlit, solitary green candle, and the new volume, half copied, beside it. The room dimmed suddenly, and a strong breeze threatened the lacy pages as they lifted violently under its force. Furtively, he closed the window and lit the candle. His moss-green eyes sought the tilt of the door, and he assured himself that it was still bolted. The book was volatile: a collection of druidic prophecies that had been hidden by the most capable of the Lucanesti elves for over a millennium. It had been brought to Istar secretly during the collapse of northern Silvanesti, kept in the recesses of a vintner's private library for years.

The Kingpriest forbade possession of this old, crumbling book and others like it. Copying it promised certain imprisonment, or even worse, for these were the most forbidding of times. The second year in the Edict of Thought Control. Outside, the air crackled, and brown pigeons took sudden wing from the garden's pavement. The rainstorm drew closer. It soon would hover and crash over the city, washing the dusty stone streets and the brick alleys, drenching cart and pedestrian, awning and booth/from the sentries on the northern walls to the longshoremen at the southern piers. Moving south, the man thought. To hover for some time over the lake, before the mountains would catch and stifle it. The plains and the desert beyond them would again be cheated of the soothing touch of water. No rain for them this time. Perhaps not for months, or years. Lightning flickered again over the northern sky, tracing a final, ragged white line between the gray-blue clouds, like a deep flaw in a dark gem. The man shuddered and returned to the old book. In the shadowy room, he began to copy, translating the weblike, interlacing lines of the ancient elven alphabet into a more legible common text, re-forming the prophecy he had copied through the night, a text that had come down to alarming events, to an alarming passage.

He dipped his quill into the ink and cocked his hand. "In that time of the world," he wrote, "when the dark gods are still imprisoned in the vast emptiness of the Abyss, the legends of Istar will claim that all evil is banished forever—that a universal tide of goodness and light has swept across the continent at the coronation of the Kingpriest. All civilized Krynn, the legends will say, stands at the threshold of a silver age, an age of celebration and song, and the softer music of law and ritual.

"It will be the Age of Istar, they say, which a thousand years of histories will praise and exalt.

"The legends, of course, are wrong.

"Wrong about the law, the celebration, the ritual and song. Wrong about the age itself, which historians will remember as the Age of Darkness...."

The man looked up from the book and massaged his temples. Half of the next page lay crumbled into bits, fallen away because of ill-treatment and the book's antiquity. Though he had reconstructed these very pages with care and skill and druidic magic, some passages were irretrievable, the pages on which they had been written either missing or deteriorated into glittering dust. Dust. Like most of the Lucanesti themselves. The book was as mysterious as the elves who had penned it.

Holding his breath, he turned the fragmented page. Even so, scraps of vellum, light as dust motes, shook loose and hovered above the book, rising in the heat of the candle.

So as not to further disturb the fragile, precious pages, he raised his thick sleeve very slowly and exhaled into it, then read on: "... were wrong about the gods. True, the great lance of the hero Huma will strike a near-mortal blow against the Dark

Queen..."

Silently, the reader marveled. Huma's heroism, a thousand years in the past, lay in the future for the ancient writer. This book was over a millennium old. And yet it now read like news of tomorrow.

"This queen, Takhisis of the Many Names, he will banish to the Abyss, where she and her barbarous minions will wait and brood in a sunless chasm, far from the warm and living world they desire to influence and rule.

"To reclaim her power, it would take ..." The man swore a mild, silent oath. The text broke off again, the sides of the ancient page lost forever, and words of the prophecy with them. But perhaps a more powerful spell, he mused. Perhaps I can still reconstruct... But that would have to wait until the others left for the service. Too noisy for now. With a shrug, he picked up where the text continued.

"... that forms her body from the dust of the planet, restores her entry into the disheartened world. But until that time there will be other ways— faceted, more regular—to enter for a moment, for an hour, though the stay is brief and tantalizing in its

brevity.

"Lightning is one way, and the powerful surge of flowing water another. For a time—sometimes a minute, sometimes an hour—the goddess will be able to channel her spark and spirit into a blinding flash in the western sky or the tumble of waters in the dark Thon-Thalas. For that brief and glorious breath, the world will spread before her, green and vulnerable in all its prospect...

"And then it will vanish, and what remains for her is Abthalom, her prison in the dark, shrieking swirls of the Abyss.

"Then, on one desert night, well into the reign of the last Kingpriest, the change will begin unexpectedly.

"Will begin like this.

"Reveling in a thunderstorm, riding the jagged lightning over the red mesa south of Istar, Takhisis will watch and exult as the black desert lies exposed to fire and power, and sudden torrential rains—the first in three years, the last ever in the Istarian desert—batter the desolate salt flats at the foot of the Red Plateau. When the lightning strikes the stand of black crystals she will scarcely notice, until the storm subsides and she finds herself hovering, a tiny spark in the heart of a glittering shard.

"How she will remain there, how she can linger, is a mystery unknown to druid or priest. And yet, by this peculiar accident, she will find a way back to the world.

"Oh, yes, the form she takes will be brittle. When she molds her new body into the shape of a snake, of a jackal—finally a woman—it will be a full year before she learns the art, before she can take shape without breaking or crumbling. Even after that, her stays will be short-lived, for without notice her crystalline flesh will crumble to salt, to sand, to dust, and she will be forced back to Abthalom again—back to the swirling darkness.

"To await a housing more amorphous. A home borne of water and slow time and the incantation of a powerful priest."

The man lifted his eyes from the book. Water and slow time? Incantations? Not enough to piece together the puzzle of this prophecy.

But the crystals. He could learn more of the crystals. He bent over the book, reading again.

"But after a dozen years, Takhisis will achieve a foothold of sorts in her old, accustomed haunts. She will dwell in the crystals for days, sometimes for weeks, a malign, animate spark that shapes the glittering stones to whatever form or guise takes her

fancy.

"As a woman, as a warrior, as a viper or dragon, she can be all but indistinguishable from flesh and scale and blood. Beware her footprints. The massive weight of a waterless body will make them too deep for her size. And so, in those regions of Ansalon where sand and salt and crystal abound, the Dark Queen will begin to thrive and flourish.

"She will stop revolts and start them, depose a king and set a duke of her liking in his place. She will misdirect caravans across the Istarian desert so that all who travel with them die of exposure and thirst.

"She cannot remain, cannot establish herself, but her new presence will be stronger and remain longer than it ever has in lightning and dreams. Slowly she will regain her influence in Ergoth, in Thoradin, in the court of the Kingpriest at Istar."

The man's eyebrow raised. She would be coming here.

Why not? He had secretly expected it. Quickly he mined his memory—of rain, of the Istarian desert, of the last downpour by the Red Plateau.

Could it really have been twenty years?

She might already be here. With a rising apprehension, he turned the page.

"Takhisis will guard her newfound power jealously, but there will be other gods in the Abyss, just as eager to enter the world arid turn the tide of history to their liking." A sharp rap on the door startled the man. With a desperate, reflexive lurch he slammed the fragile book shut and hid it beneath his austere, blanketed cot.

"I am surprised," he marveled bleakly. "How remarkable." Inwardly he cringed at the damage he had surely done to the delicate volume. The lad at the door stood stooped and deferential, apologetic. After a barrage of the boy's tedious and lengthy explanations and many obeisant hand gestures, the man longed for the other servant—the voiceless one.

"The Kingpriest," the boy finally said, steepling his hands, his eyes cast to the floor, "requests the pleasure of your company."

The man nodded, snuffed the green candle, and followed the lad from the room. As they walked down the cool torchlit corridor, toward the Council Hall and the great and ever-pressing business of state, another roll of thunder sounded high above the city, the smell of ozone pressed into the man's nostrils, and the first wave of rain washed over the harbor.

Chapter 1

The Lady shrieked—a shriek that would echo for a century in the Abyss where she hovered on the dark airless currents of chaos. Takhisis furiously snapped her wings and shut her eyes against the vision unfolding before her.

Where had this warrior come from? How had he escaped her notice?

She had to know. And so, raging, she looked again at the man certain to thwart her plans to enter the world in a shape that was her own and would hold its boundaries amid the physics of Krynn. He was a tall Plainsman, with unusual sky-blue, no, sea-blue eyes that stared past the flaming walls of her coveted Istar. His face was windburnt and ruddy, with a thick stubble of red beard unusual among his people. He wore a massive golden tore, inlaid with black glain opals, its ends knobbed and twisted at his throat. The opals. So he was protected.

Takhisis guessed him to be about thirty by the faint lines on his handsome, tanned face, by the fine lacing of silver in his auburn hair.

He stood at the gates of a city in flames.

The Kingpriest's Tower burned gloriously, its sovereign dead, its swarm of clergy defeated and scattered like pigs . . .

Except for one. One white-robed figure held his hands aloft in exultation. She could not see the lone cleric's face, but for a moment a hot wind billowed back his sleeves and exposed the red oak leaf tattoo on his left wrist.

Druid. They were always there to vex her.

Then the vision wavered, brushed by the dark wings of another god.

Takhisis whirled in the blackness of the Abyss, her enemy a faint glimmer at the edge of sight. Already too far away to follow, to punish.

Speed of a god.

But now all of them—the druid, the warrior, the Plainsmen army—faded from view as black fire washed over her vision.

Takhisis shook with another angry scream, but continued to watch as the Plainsman moved into her sight again, his eyes still cool and distant. Now he walked through the burning portals of Istar, to seize possession of all that lay before him. And beyond him. From the way he moved, the sweep of his massive hand, Takhisis knew this man had never seen a defeat, never cried one tear in the humiliation of surrender.

And then, in the Dark Lady's vision, the shifting blue of those confident eyes turned and fastened on her, and for the first time since the Dragon Wars, since the Great Lance had banished her to this swirling nothingness, she felt the claws of fear rake her heart. Locked in his stare as the scene dissolved, Takhisis spun in a slow circle, realizing that if she could not destroy him in time his rebel armies would lift her hard-wrought chains from all of Ansalon. This Plainsman would destroy her long and tedious work with the Kingpriest of Istar: her quiet, narcotic presence in the cleric's dreams, the controlled feeding of her plans into his sleeping mind. The Kingpriest was more powerful than Takhisis had imagined. More learned in lore and godcraft than any mortal in the history of this world. He had barred all the gods from the face of Krynn—all of them, from high Paladine to low Hiddukel, from Zeboim of the seas to the three lunar children. They could return only fitfully, briefly—faint flickerings in rock crystal, in spindrift, at the blazing edge of meteors, or in the latticework of ice.

Then, when the light faded, the meteor cooled or the snow melted, their worldly stay was over, and they returned to Concordant Opposition, to the Ethereal Plane.

To Abthalom, the Abyss, where they shrieked and glided and waited to return. But the Kingpriest was mortal. He could not last for long beneath the weight of his own momentous spellcraft.

To bind a god is exhausting work, Takhisis thought with a chuckle. They would find him, sooner or later, gibbering in his tower.

Then it would rain fire, and the gods would return.

But if Takhisis had her way, they would return to find her already in power. They would find her fully enthroned amid her darkest minions, and even the gods would bow to her magnificence. Already, through her insinuations, the Kingpriest had banished the magic-users, the elves, all bards, and every unorthodox scholar. Philanthropists and intellectuals had been stripped of power and riches, then sold into slavery to the mob of priests who swarmed through the Kingpriest's Tower, seeking favors, preferment, and bribes.

The Lucanesti elves, or what was left of them, the Kingpriest had imprisoned in the opal mines beneath the city, where they slaved to gather more of the fabled glain amid the rising rubble and dust of thirty years' labor.

Next to the Kingpriest, theirs was the most important service to her. For the black glain opals were the key to the goddess's intricate plot.

She had tried to enter the glain opal once.

The gem was filled with moisture, a stony blood that would nourish and sustain her indefinitely in hostile Krynn. Godsblood, the Lucanesti miners called it. She could only imagine the power, the havoc. She would be loose upon Krynn, were there a way to inhabit the stone ...

So in a thunderstorm Takhisis had tried to enter the gem, but the flat black opacity blocked and scattered her energy and light. Shrieking in pain and anger, spread to the eight corners of the air in an explosion of fragmented light, the goddess regath-ered, tried again.

Was shattered again.

The stone was impermeable, proof against her priest-bound energies.

But if the smooth, flawless stone were broken . . .

The moisture within it would house her a thousand years.

Godsblood indeed.

That, too, she would put into the hands of the pliable Kingpriest.

Thirty years in the forming had been Takhisis's plans. Three decades as she drew closer and painfully closer to the moment when disastrous, irretrievable events—Cataclysmic events, she thought, with a sinister smile—would rise amazingly out of the Kingpriest's droning, everyday policy. It had taken that long to push the city, the continent, the very matter of the world to the edge of a precipice lovely and sheer.

Now she was only five years away, six at most, from that moment when some regular rite or ceremony—a few words changed, along with a powerful magic, and most of all, a fostered, vaunting pride—would collapse the city, the government, the empire, and rend asunder the face of Krynn. It would be a summoning ritual that would seem harmless and ordinary, perhaps even beneficent to all the clergy by then. But in it, the Kingpriest would chant words that, ten years earlier, he would have found blasphemous, abominable.

He would breathe into the dust of a thousand stones, seeking his dream, his shadow. So that her spirit might move freely in the world long denied her, he would shape her a body from the watery glain dust. And she would be home—on the throne of Krynn, as Istar fell and the world was renewed in chaos. But all of this would fail, be grievously delayed at best, if the rebels prospered. There Would be no compliant Kingpriest if this bearded Plainsman ever saw his campaign through. Perhaps no Cataclysm.

How could she have missed him!

Her dark wings fanned the liquid void of the Abyss. Light rushed at her suddenly, as great gaps in the fabric of her prison plane opened briefly, tanta-lizingly on the bright world that Huma and the gods had denied her, and mountains, seas, and deserts rolled under her cold eye.

"There is great power in knowledge, great freedom," Takhisis whispered to herself. Her dark heart yet full of fear, she composed her vast mind to call forth the broken pieces of the Plainsman's history, for in his past, she thought, lay her best weapons against this horrifying future. The black wind congealed and wavered, and Takhisis spread her wings and rested on its thrumming current. Scanning the past, searching for the key to this mystery, she saw ... . Nothing. His past had been erased.

Sargonnas again.

Oh, she knew the power behind such veil and vanishment.

Quickly the goddess glanced around, her brilliant black eyes flickering over the gloom, the void. Scavenging wings circled at the edge of sight, and a mocking laughter rose from the darkness. Sargonnas. He wanted to be first as well. But he was a buzzing insect to her, insidious vermin in the barren night.

Takhisis would treat with him later. This red-bearded rebel was more immediate, perhaps more dangerous.

The Plainsman was a hunter, no doubt. They all were. And a fighter—«lse why the great threat to her plans? But there was more. There had to be more.

The past denied her, Takhisis rummaged the present of her new adversary. Scenes of a bright and relentless desert rushed at her. Twice more she brushed away the obscuring wings of Sargonnas. When she bellowed, the rebellious god drew back, tucked into the safety of the void. She had not even discovered his name. Not yet.

She knew he had some kind of power with words. He spoke, and then the tribe moved, always finding the water they needed in their desert travels. She had watched him as he grew older and changed, his words taking on the colors of war, and his adoptive people gathering to make armies of men who respected him and women who not so secretly wanted him. His enemies—goblin and ogre, Solam-nic and Istarian—fell before him by the thousands. At the end of every battle, there was a new song sung about this hero. A small blond singer stood ever at his side, unkempt, her beauty masked by dry wind and miles of travel, a shallow flat drum in her hand and a hawk upon her thin arm. Her features were those of the Plainsmen—the high cheekbones, the deep brown eyes with their intelligent fire. Though she was lithe and long-limbed and gracefully formed, she was rough and awkward in movement, as though unaccustomed to the rule of her own body.

She was small, almost elven, and the white-blond hair was odd, freakish among the dark Que-Nara. She was the kind of child they would, during the Age of Dreams, have left exposed to the elements and fates. At their most merciful, they would have left a child such as she with sedentary villagers, where she would live life as a changeling, an oddity, in a humdrum farming hamlet where no one would ever look at her anyway.

But this one was different. Imilus, they called her kind—"gifted outlander." She traveled with the Que-Nara, singing the old songs of their legends, inventing new songs as the stories passed into myth. There was power in her voice; she could be formidable ...

Takhisis's laughter rumbled viciously in the dark void.

There was history between these two, the hero and the outlander, a subtle energy that surrounded them, creating a space, a distance. The Plainsman ignored the girl's worship and spoke to her sel-domly, foregoing a place beside her at the nightly fires to watch and patrol with his warriors. Occasionally, he even took other women, indifferent to her obvious heartbreak.

More often he spoke to and fought alongside another: a small Lucanesti male, with the dark braided hair and mottled, opalescent skin of his kind.

This elf was ropy and flexible, a sinewy specimen who would never tend toward extra weight. He wore the leggings and tunic of the Que-Nara, yet his overshirt spoke of his own people—dark blue to ' match the height of the sky, or brown to match the depth of the desert, depending on how you looked at the garment, which way the light caught it.

Another outsider, this elf. And more interesting.

Takhisis chuckled, and the darkness shivered and tilted.

The elf fought without spear or throwing knife or kala. Hands and feet alone were his weaponry—all the protection he thought he would ever need.

Takhisis sighed in relief as the images of these three continued to flicker and dance in the darkness of the Abyss. The opals protected them all, proof against her magic—the tore of the Plainsman, the skin of the elf.

Nonetheless, all of them were outlanders—all treading a very narrow path of acceptance and power in this tribe of clannish, superstitious people. An easy structure to alter, to invade, to break. The pieces of her plan were coming together.

Ah... my fragile, pretty singer, Takhisis cooed to the light-haired girl, your song of Istar's fall at your beloved's hand will never be sung. For he cannot outrun me, the little man cannot resist me, and you ... I will shatter your song like glass.

The elf would be easy. Revenge must be what he was after, revenge and freedom for his hostage people. So it always was for the Lucanesti. In the intricate world of elves, oppression had made them simple, binding them, freeborn and slave alike. She could not destroy them herself—the opalescence of their skin and blood saw to that.

But again and again, the Kingpriest was useful. His mines were filled with the Lucanesti, digging and dying.

Takhisis turned in the great void and laughed low and sweetly. A slight echo of her uncertainty still rang in her ears. She rode the warm, swirling nightwinds of the Abyss through darkness on darkness, darkness layering darkness until those places where light had fled entirely seemed hazy, almost pale compared to the kind of darkness that surrounded them—a gloom of the spirit.

Arcing outward in the perpetual blackness, fluttering her pennons, she dropped straight down ten thousand fathoms, plummeting, falling, dreaming, until at length she floated amid a wild, universal hubbub of stunning sounds, a cloud of confused, disembodied voices, drifting through the hollow dark. Through that negative plane of terror and chaos, borne on the nightwinds that whirled about her, buoying and buffeting her, indifferent to the continual whining and whirring of voices at the edge of nothingness, murmured the hysterical gnatsong of the damned.

She spread her wings and turned in a hot dry thermal, rising to the lip of the Abyss, to the glazed and dividing firmament beyond which she could not travel. It looked forbidding, mysterious, like thick ice on a bottomless pool.

Like the black face of the raw glain opal.

There, in the heart of nothing, Takhisis banked and glided, aloft on the current of her own dark strategies.

* * * * *

Behind her another shadow glided relentlessly at a safe distance, its own black wings extended like those of a giant scavenger, an enormous predatory bird.

Takhisis's consort, Sargonnas, banished into the Abyss along with his powerful mistress, had hidden in the deepest shadows to observe the same vision billowing out of the darkness. He saw the same burning city, the collapsing tower, and the elf and the girl and the blue-eyed man whom they followed. And the armies—the irresistible armies—at the outskirts of Istar.

Oh, what Takhisis would not give to destroy this Plainsman hero and his few hundred followers! The upstart rebel was little more than a gifted escape artist now—eluding and fighting the slavers in a desert that his advisors, his oracles, and his own

common sense told him not to leave.

But five years from now, when his strength and judgment had matured, when his numbers had increased by thousands and he stood at the gates of Istar, liberating the countless slaves and conquered peoples, his power would be grown so mighty that not even a goddess could stop him. The salt flats of the southern desert lay a mile from the boundaries of the Que-Nara's firelight. Called the Tears of Mishakal since the Age of Light, it was an alien landscape to Plainsmen, to barbarians, even to the nomadic desert bandits who skirted its edges with muttered prayers to Sargonnas or Shinare. Legends had it that those who strayed onto the salt flats rarely found their way back, but wandered the faceless landscape forever. Those same legends claimed that often the unwary traveler was drawn there by the song of the crystals, the contorted, glassy growths that rose from the heart of the flats, through which the desert wind chimed a faint, bizarre music.

None of the Plainsmen camped close to the salt flats, nor did the sentries patrol its borders. Its landscape extended to the blank horizon, as original and pure as it had lain during the Age of Dreams, and the eyes of the Que-Nara, turned north toward the grasslands and the distant Istarian threat, failed to notice a stirring in a nearby cluster of crystals, a twisted, sparkling tree of salt that began to sway and turn. In the blended light of the three moons—the white, the red, and the unseen black moon, Nuitari— the crystals boiled and blackened, as though an unbearable heat passed through them, welding facet to adjoining facet until the branching facets melded and slowly took on a new shape. As faceless as the salt flat, anonymous and half formed, it was nonetheless human ... Or humanlike.

For a moment it hovered between mineral and life, between salt and flesh, as though something in it warred between sleep and waking, stasis and movement. Then hands and fingers branched from the glossy arms, and the features of the face took sudden shape, as though an unseen sculptor had drawn them from the stone.

The woman moved, and the desert shuddered.

She was beautiful, dark and curiously angular, and naked in the black moonlight. The woman knelt and scooped up a handful of salt. It poured black through her fingers, shimmering thin like silk, and she wrapped herself in the new, cascading cloth. Magically, her features softened, her skin grew supple and pale, and her amber eyes glittered under heavy, sensuous lashes. But the hearts of those eyes were black, slitted vertically like a reptile's. For a moment the woman stood still and practiced breathing as though it were a new and odd sensation. Then she stretched lazily, the silk riding soft and translucent up her pale, perfect legs.

"Oh, too long away," she murmured, and there was a chiming echo trapped in the depths of her voice.

"Too long away from Ansalon and from the little world ...

"If I cannot be opal yet, I shall be salt."

She walked out of the Abyss, out of the dead valley and into the pathless desert, the massive weight of her delicate feet crushing the sunbaked mosaic and parting the winds in her passage.

Chapter 2

Six hundred and more of thc sack-robed rebels crossed the northern stretch of sand, the horizon shimmering purple and green in the midday heat.

Twice the scouts shouted forth a warning, sending a nervous flurry through their column. The miscalls were forgivable. After all, the lads were young, masterful on horseback but new to reconnaissance. Mirages they would have ignored a week ago boldly deceived them now.

Towers, they told Stormlight. Towers made of water at the northern edge of sight. The elf smiled at their rashness, their excitability.

On horseback, hooded against the desert winds, he shielded his eyes and looked to the horizon, where the scouts beckoned and pointed.

"Illusion," he told them. "False light."

He sent them back in the column for refreshment, for shade.

They complied unwillingly, insisting that they had seen the great colored spires of Istar. Stormlight knew better. The city was thirty miles away, across mountains and the expanse of Lake Istar. Furthermore, Fordus the Prophet had no plan to go there.

Not until he could walk through those gates in triumph.

That would be years and many followers in the future. For now, there was the Kingpriest's army to reckon with.

Stormlight stared across the tawny grassland, toward the north where the bright red star of Chislev rode low over the bunched backs of the mountains.

It was easy in the desert, where he and Fordus read the faceless terrain much like deep-sea navigators decoded the swell and tilt of the waves. It was Stormlight's nature to do so—the sympathy with water and rock that was his inheritance.

However, the fancy, soft generals of Istar had had little chance in the shifting sand and merciless heat. Remembering it gave Stormlight a savage pleasure.

In late autumn, the Kingpriest had sent an irritated legion south into the desert, with orders to uproot the bandit, Fordus. That expedition had lasted two weeks in the blowing sand, with never a clear sighting of the quarry. Led by a few old fire pits and wisps of hope, the Istarians trudged south to the borders of Balifor where, short of water and exhausted by a dozen nights of fruitless searching, they were easy prey for Fordus's rebel force, which was half their size.

Twenty-seven Istarian soldiers were still missing—their helmets, shields, and bones scattered for miles among the dried, branching riverbeds the Lucanesti knew as the Tine. The rest of the unit had returned to the city with tales of a wolfish, wraith-like commander who could be in three places at once, who moved over sand like the wind and carried a thousand throwing axes on a belt at his waist, all designed by a mage who had vowed that never would a cast miss its target.

Twenty-seven Istarians and a mythology. Small payment for a hundred elves enslaved in the dark undercity, Stormlight thought bitterly. At least Istar would think twice before venturing into the desert again.

This, however, was a new place—the yellow grasslands south of the city itself, as promising as they were dangerous. It would take a full day of riding across their open expanse to reach the foothills, the mountains, and finally the outskirts of Istar. It was unknown country, treacherous and vague, and Fordus had been forced to leave behind more than two hundred of the Que-Nara, devout and basically peaceful Plainsmen whose gods had forbidden them to leave the desert in any act of aggression. Still, close to four hundred Que-Nara remained with the rebels, proceeding against the warnings of their clerics, and the rest of the invading force was a ragged assembly of bandits and barbarians only lately come to the cause. Now, somewhere between these rebels and the dark foothills waited two proper legions—two thousand members of the crack Istarian Guard: crossbow, spear, and sword units, along with a cavalry famous throughout Ansalon. Enemy enough to strike fear in the most daring commander. Yet there was no fear, no hesitation in Fordus Fire-soul, the pale-eyed Plainsman, Water Prophet and Lord of the Rebels.

Stormlight set his face in approval.

No fear was good.

After all, had not the Prophet routed the Istarians four, five times in the past?

Easy in the saddle, his translucent skin mottling with glittering green and orange flashes of an early opalescence, Stormlight watched the first shadows or the peaceful blue evening stretch across the level grasslands.

No fear was very good.

He cast aside his darker speculations.

In a small advance party not fifty yards away, Fordus the Prophet, on foot as usual, dropped to the ground in midstride. Behind him, two lieutenants and the bard paused and did likewise, Larken muffling the variegated head of her drum with the flat of her callused hand.

"Istar approaches," the commander whispered to them, with no more drama and moment than if he were observing the color of a horse or a strange cast of light in the clouds. The tiny bard stared toward the foothills, straining to see what Fordus saw through the patch of knife-edged grass. Nothing.

But he knew. Fordus always knew about water and armies.

"If indeed it is two legions, we'll know it by nightfall/' Fordus continued. "We'll count the lights of their campfires, like they want us to. Then I'll send Stormlight and six men to scout them closely and part the flesh from the shadows. If they've set enough fires for four legions, they're even more afraid of us than I've reckoned."

And tomorrow? the bard signed with one hand. Fordus lifted his eyes, anticipating her gesture, her question.

"They'll want to meet us in the open fields, Larken, to use their numbers and horse to advantage." The Prophet rose to a crouch, drawing a line with his finger along the sandy ground. "When they see our ragtag troops, only Que-Nara and bandits and a handful of Balifor crossbowmen, they'll think those are all who stand with me."

The lieutenants nodded, oblivious to the softly plodding hooves of Stormlight's horse some distance behind. Long ago they had learned to give their entire attention to their commander, to wait before they spoke.

Stormlight dismounted silently, bade the horse to lie down, and slipped through the circle of squatting

..rebels.

He knew well his old friend's ways. The plan would be simple, direct, and clean. Fordus was the type who'd take a sword to a knot rather than suffer a second more to untie it. Yes, simple. And as always, successful. Fordus was no tactician, but in his hands, the most basic maneuvers blossomed to brilliance.

"The desert is with me, wherever I go," Fordus concluded quietly, his gaze focused on a distant place.

"And we will bring them the desert, bring them sand and wind and mirrors of air, the deception of birds in the high grass."

One of the lieutenants, a young archer from Bali-for, shifted his weight and stifled a cough. It was always this way when the Prophet spoke in riddles.

But that was where Stormlight's task began. The elf let the Prophet's words settle on the assembled officers, then hooded his eyes with the white, translucent underlids of his people and stepped slightly away from the circle surrounding the chieftain.

"Second eyes," the Plainsmen called them—the white lucerna of the mining elves. Through that milky film, legacy of their race, the Lucanesti could see gems in dark tunnels, long veins of water in the heart of the sand ...

Could see other things as well. The vein of truth in the subtle strata of words and images.

"The Prophet has spoken!" Stormlight proclaimed quietly, standing to survey the wave of mystified faces. The lucerna lifting, he raised hands that glittered purple with reflected light. It had come to him again, as it always did, in the midst of murmuring. Like lightning, the meaning of Fordus's cryptic poetry had struck his second in command.

"We'll hide half of you on the flanks," Stormlight continued, "and close around the Kingpriest's army when they charge. Gormion will command the southernmost troops, and when the Istarian lances contact her lines . . . the rest of us will spring out of the grass behind them. And may the axe of Jolith cleave through their ranks! There will be such a storm of sand and wind as never they have seen, and it will not touch us. The powers gather already." He pointed into the distance, where a rising cloud of dust marked the southern horizon. A hot breeze began to blow from the same direction. The sterim. The wild desert storm that raced up into the Istarian mountains, gathering speed as it coursed over the plains, blinding and fierce in its fury. The elf's eyes glazed over, the brilliant lucerna closing once more, this time protectively against the anticipated wind.

Fordus's lieutenants nodded. These words they understood. As always, the plan was simple and elegant and practical—the poetry of war translated by the strange, exotic Stormlight. It would work. They would "bring the desert to the Kingpriest," and his army would fall. It did not matter if they understood all of the words of the prophecy. They would win the battle. Excitedly, brandishing their weapons and murmuring boasts and promises, the lieutenants dispersed into the ranks of the rebels. Only three remained: Fordus, Stormlight, and the bard.

"Where is the enemy now?" Stormlight asked, crouching by the commander. "What does the hawk say, Larken?"

The bard held his odd gaze for a moment and then motioned with her hands. Three miles to the north, Stormlight. Lucas says they are three miles to the north. That's all you need to know. Stormlight and Fordus exchanged puzzled glances as the girl trotted away to join the receding column of troops.

"Larken hates me, doesn't she?" Stormlight asked, a crooked smile pleating his smooth and ageless face. The commander shrugged. "Of course not, Stormlight. She's just poetic and high-strung. And you know she can only sing. It is a frustrating and sad thing when your hands must speak for you." He looked off over the northern plains.

"Temper or temperament, it's all the same," Stormlight concluded, following the commander's gaze into level, grassy nothingness. "But the Kingpriest is at hand. There's no time. The wind is rising." The night passed in a haze of hot wind, and few of them found sleep in its discomfort. But they were ready. Shortly before dawn, Stormlight crouched in the high rustling grass, watching as the Istarian commander signaled to raise his battle standards—the white tower on the red banner—in the weak morning light. The elf slowed his heartbeat, his breath shallowing until he stood motionless, his skin collecting sand and ash from the passing wind, crusting and knotting. Serenely, he sank into a stony quietude, indistinguishable from a thousand stones that littered the rubble-strewn edge of the desert. When the Istarians had passed, he would slip from the stone disguise, appear in their midst with surprise and havoc.

The elf rises out of the ground ...

His company of followers, the Que-Nara, hid in the high grass behind him, their faces painted brown, black, and yellow to match their flowing robes, the hard shadows, and the first slanting rays of the sun. He was the rock amid the reeds. He was the stony heart of the army.

The left flank of the Istarian infantry passed not fifty feet from where Stormlight and his party lay hidden. The horsemen spread out before the advancing army, a dark-haired Solamnic Knight in the vanguard with three of his subordinates.

It was just as Fordus had predicted. The desert storm had gathered; a huge cloud of sand and hot blasting wind scoured the edge of the battlefield, seeming to await his command. The Kingpriest's army consisted of two thousand infantry, five hundred archers, and five hundred cavalry, among those a division of Solamnic Knights—the most formidable cavalry in the world. And yet the expected army looked curiously dwarfed, diminished, as though half its number had deserted in the night. Stormlight stood serenely in the howling storm as the horsemen passed and the legion followed, heads lowered against the harsh, corrosive wind.

The sterim had allied itself with the rebels. Whenever an army arrayed itself against Fordus, it seemed that even the weather plotted to shape the fortunes of the day.

Fordus stood on a rise, in waving knee-high yellow grass, and faced the advancing Istarians. Brandishing a vicious-looking short axe, he shouted to his troops, challenged the approaching Solamnic cavalry... Then he ducked and vanished.

The Solamnic outriders gaped and scanned the ranks, but Fordus was gone, true to his ghostly legend. Almost at once, a volley of arrows and stones rushed to meet them. Raising their shields against the onslaught, they forgot all about the rebel commander.

Meanwhile, Fordus slipped and dove through the high wind-driven grass. He moved swiftly, in a crouch, racing through the no-man's-land between the armies into the midst of the Solamnic horse. He weaved almost soundlessly amid churning legs and huge equine bodies, bound at unnatural speed for the western wing of his army—Larken's wing, waiting in hiding along the right Istarian flank, with the bard's hawk spiraling above like a solitary predator.

Running with uncanny, sure instinct, he sidestepped the first Istarian legionnaires, the blare of their trumpets canceling his soft footfalls on the dry ground. It was the moment of battle he loved, the first confusion in the enemy ranks, when he reveled in his fleetness of foot, his gift from the gods, his greatest deception, racing from one place on the field to another far-flung outpost with the speed of an antelope or the leopard that pursued it.

He ran so swiftly that survivors would claim that Fordus Firesoul was in two, three places at once. That he was not even human, but a phenomenon—a prince of the air and the shifting weather. Crouching even lower, nearly tunneling through the rustling waves of grass, Fordus raced by the last of the cavalry so closely that his shoulder brushed against the white flank of a Solamnic mare. Into the far field he rushed, and suddenly two shadowy forms emerged from the nodding undergrowth. Istarian infantry. Swordsmen.

In one immaculate movement, Fordus plucked a throwing axe from his belt and, scarcely rising from a crouch, launched it with a whirling sidearm motion at the head of the man on the right. The blade flashed neatly beneath the Istarian's chin, and, wheeling through the air in a bright red spray, embedded itself-in the other man's back. Both soldiers gaped and fell to their knees, their arms jerking grotesquely at their sides.

As their eyes glazed over, the rebel passed between them and recovered his axe with no further resistance.

Just as Fordus reached his troops, he heard the Solamnic war cry from behind, answered by a whoop from the Que-Nara, the shrill trumpets of the charging Istarian infantry, and finally the sudden clash of metal against metal as the armies closed and the first serious combat began. Rising to his full height, Fordus peered over the whipping grass as the rear guard of the Istarian army broke ranks and rushed to join the battle. He saw the enemy's battle standards dip and nod as the last of them breasted the tall grass, bound for the heart of the struggle. The cloud of wind-driven sand moved onto the field just as they reached it.

Fordus chuckled softly. It had all worked according to his plan. In five minutes, maybe less, the two flanks of his army would rise from hiding and attack the Istarian army from behind. Assaulted from all sides, blinded and coughing, the Istarian soldiers would battle surprise and chaos as well as his seasoned rebels.

The trap was baited, sprung, and closing. It was magnificent, clean and swift, like the tumble of a well-thrown axe through the air. And it was all too easy.

In a matter of minutes, the battle was decided, though the sandstorm raged through the whole afternoon. When the Twelfth Istarian Legion hit the center of the rebel lines, Stormlight sprang from the rock-cloak and signaled his troops. The Que-Nara forces struck the reserves viciously with a flanking attack. Armed with the traditional weapons of the plains— bow and bola and hook-bladed kala—they tore fiercely into the unexpecting ranks. Reeling from the sudden onslaught, the Istarians panicked. The legionnaires dropped pike and sword, shield and broadaxe, and fled before the reckless barbarians, the fleet Plainsmen.

Fighting with no more weaponry than his hands and feet, Stormlight cut his way to the midst of the Istarian ranks, the stony crust of his skin slashing arm and leg and throat like a fierce, serrated blade. Spinning around a grizzled lancer, he felled a swordsman with a crisp stroke of his hand. Two mercenaries rushed to meet him. He dove between the baffled pair, and as they turned to strike, the elf drove his heels into their faces with a quick, powerful handspring.

Bounding to his feet, Stormlight spun high in a circle, his right foot catching yet another Istarian lancer in the throat. The man's javelin broke as he fell, impaling him and finishing what Stormlight had begun. With a deep breath, the elf looked around. There, on horseback, vainly trying to rally his troops, General Josef Monoculus caught sight of the charging Stormlight and drew his ancient Solamnic sword to receive the rush of the enemy. With a cry and a cartwheeling leap, Stormlight hurtled through the air, his heel crashing against the side of the general's helmet.

With a soft groan and unfocused eyes, the Istarian commander fell heavily from the saddle. Stormlight bounded onto the horse's back and, raising a broken Solamnic standard, rallied the rebels to this spot in the center of the fight, laughing and singing an old Abanasinian war song. The men whooped when they saw Stormlight rise in the fallen commander's saddle. Descending from the grass-covered rise, they struck the leaderless Istarians from the other flank, dealing quick death as they slashed through the disorganized lines.

From the high ground, Fordus watched a little absentmindedly as the rebels and the storm closed like a vise around the floundering legions of Istar.

He saw the bird dive toward a distant cropping of high grass, an Istarian archer level his bow at the creature . . . And then, with a blinding magic that still bedazzled the rebel leader, no matter how many times he had seen it happen, Lucas vanished into a fireball, into a nova of red and amber as though the sun itself had opened and swallowed the bird.

The hawk would return later, from the high air. It would bear stories to Larken of how the Istarians had fled from the desert rout.

In the wake of the golden flame, a rider in Solam-nic armor burst free of the chaos, galloping north toward the foothills, toward safety.

Toward Istar and reinforcement, the bard's fingers snapped out inches in front of Fordus's face. There is only one man who can outrun horses, outrun wind and light and thought... Stirred by Larken, Fordus gathered himself again and loped down the rise, gaining speed as he reached the plain. He struck an angle to the path of the rider, then broke into an all-out run, blazing through the dry grass at astounding speed.

From the high ground, Larken watched and marveled and chanted, her song weaving through the drum's swift cadence until word and rhythm were indistinguishable, seeming to drive the heartbeat of the racing man as he closed with the rider.

When the Solamnic horse refused to hurdle the banks of a dry creek bed, its rider had to rein the animal down the hard, sloping incline, losing valuable time in the process.

Fordus raced to the bank and stopped. Standing only fifty feet from the Solamnic, he drew his axe and sent it whistling through the air at the struggling rider.

The axe drove home between helmet and breastplate. Without another breath, the man slumped forward in the saddle, and the heavy Solamnic helmet toppled from his head.

This was no knight. All of fifteen, he was, if that old.

Larken, on the high ground a thousand yards away, saw the boy drop from the saddle, a shiny streak of red spreading from his throat onto the sand.

The drum head felt cold and alien beneath her fingers, and her hands trailed off into soft, mournful sounds.

* * * * *

The flanking attack of the rebels demolished the hapless Istarian infantry. By early evening, when the air had cleared and the sand resettled, General Josef Monoculus, his right eye heavily bandaged, stood propped between wounded Istarian regulars as he handed his sword to Fordus Firesoul. No more than two hundred of the Istarians survived; the prisoners would be taken to the desert's edge and set free, forced to travel the thirty miles to Istar unarmed and on foot. The sand from the storm had already covered the dead. Stormlight thought of the harsh trek across the grasslands and looked toward the defeated soldiers. Some of the Istarians would not survive; hunger and thirst and exhaustion would dispatch a small number, and wild animals and bandits would seize a few more. But even a safe return to Istar did not mean that their ordeal was over. Many would fall prey to the grashaunts, the strange insanity that came from too long a stay in level and wide places. These wretches suffered from the delusion that the world around them was expanding, that if they strayed too long out of sight of home or friends, the distances would increase, and they might never find their way back. Such madmen would return to Istar, never again leaving the close confinements of barrack or cubicle or cell. They would waste away by their windows as they stared fearfully out into an uncertain world that was always receding. It was true: Fordus treated his prisoners sternly. The road ahead of the defeated legionnaires was the most perilous one.

But not unfair. Indeed, the plains might treat them better than would the comrades and leaders who awaited their return to the city.

Istar brooked no failure, no weakness, and what was defeat but failure and weakness?

Rubbing his arm, bruised in dispatching a rather large and thickly armored Solamnic, a concerned Stormlight watched his commander.

Fordus stared beyond the sullen Solamnic, beyond the assembled, defeated Istarians ... to a point on the horizon no man could see.

Stormlight shivered. Fordus had gone again to that place where none of them—not even the bard Larken with her voice and drum—could reach him. When the sea-blue eyes fixed pale in the distance, sometimes all life would seem to flee from them. They glittered, then, like ice, like cut glass, like the salt crystals rising from the desert flats, and there was no warmth in their light, no heart behind the eyes' brilliance. What Fordus wanted, what he looked toward, Stormlight did not know.

"I accept the surrender of General Josef Monocu-lus," Fordus intoned by habit, the eyes of all resting rapt upon his windburnt, impassive face. "And I accept the surrender of his legions." He waved his hand dramatically over the attendant rebels.

"And let those who lost dear friends," he pronounced, "console themselves that the losses were few and in my just and glorious cause."

For a moment his voice faded away, caught on a high northerly wind and carried into the mountains to lose itself in thin air and desolation.

Stormlight looked at his commander sharply. Console themselves with few losses?

His just and glorious cause?

Now Fordus rose to his full height above the wounded Josef Monoculus and his trembling Istar-ian supporters.

"And at this hour tomorrow," Fordus continued, "I shall grant these men unconditional freedom." The sea-blue eyes descended to the general, regarded him softly, warmly.

There! Stormlight thought with a strange and sudden relief. Fordus is back among us.

"Your arms will be ... confiscated, sir," Fordus explained, quietly and kindly. "You will be allowed to keep your armor and your provisions. Steer by Chislev and the sunrise."

"I know how to find my way across this damned wasteland!" the Solamnic growled.

"Then find it with my blessing," Fordus replied. He smiled absently, and Larken's drum began a slow, somber march. The Istarian troopers guided their commander back into the circle of his men, and mournfully, the defeated legion stacked its arms before the inconsolable general. It would be the Games for him back in Istar. The doomed gladiatorial struggle against barbarian, dwarf, and Irda. The fortunes of Josef Monoculus had risen, had fallen.

There was some moral here, some fable for the devout, the scholarly. But being neither bard nor cleric, Stormlight climbed to the top of the rise and merely watched the sun set, his thoughts lulled by the warm light on his face and by the steady report of Larken's drum.

Fordus sat in the shadows as the sun descended.

A barbarian youth, schooled for a year as the com-mander's orderly, untied his boots, and Fordus reclined broodingly, his big hands interlaced behind his head.

A song to cheer you? Larken signed. There was a verse she had saved for this day, this victory, and she wanted the last of the sun for its singing.

"No cheerful songs this evening, Larken," Fordus murmured.

The melancholy had come upon him after the armored rider had fallen. He had watched the dead boy for a moment, the blood-matted blond hair waving forlornly in the whistling, hot wind, the horse wandering lazily off down the dry creek bed.

As Lunitari rose over the grasslands, purpling the waving grain with a slanted, bizarre light, Fordus brought himself back to the present. "I am tired of too easy," he said aloud, and the bard cocked her head alertly, reaching for the drum.

"No songs about Fordus Firesoul tonight," he said.

Larken nodded.

"Sing of Huma," Fordus urged. "He had someone to fight. Someone to test him, heart and wit and hand. Sing of Huma."

Her small hands tapping the rim of her precious drum, the bard began: Out of the village, out of the thatched and clutching shires,

Out of the grave and furrow, furrow and grave,

Where his sword first tried the last cruel dances of childhood . . .

Larken's was a soaring voice, a firm and powerful instrument that erased time and space. Fordus closed his eyes and settled into the old story, which ran its course under the bard's skillful rendering.

"Those were the times," he said, the song ended and the drum silent after a last, fading roll. "The times and the great adventures. When the shape of the story was larger than the lives of men.

"We have fallen on meaner times, Larken. The great villains are gone, and the great heroes. Who will stand against me now?"

They both fell silent as the rising red moon streaked the tents of the Plainsmen. Overhead, in a last circling-flight before evening, Lucas called and banked in the light westering sun, amber rays still dancing over the tips of his wings like mastfire.

"Josef Monoculus was a fool," Fordus declared. "So are all the Istarian generals, all the fabled and fine Solamnic commanders. But perhaps the King-priest ..."

He propped himself on his elbows, stared eagerly at Larken.

"Perhaps the Kingpriest!" he said again. "For he is a mystery who stands at the head of a great army. He is not only a man—he is a great and wondrous idea.

"And he speaks with the gods, as do I. Or so the starians say." Fordus stroked his red beard thoughtfully.

"I pray that he is worthy of me. A man must have great enemies when his friends are small. If he has neither enemy nor friend to match his noble spirit, he is straitened, imprisoned. Forced to grow crooked in confinement.

"Without a worthy enemy, the world is a damnable wasteland." For a long time he scanned the darkening camp below, and the sun sank from view, and only the red moon rode in the desert sky.

Chapter 3

By day Fordus's world was barren, sun-beaten, a country of exotic colors—of red and black rock and ochre earth and of hazy white salt flats, their crystals rising over the lifeless landscape like frozen, abstract trees. It was a country of extremes and sharp edges, of large sufferings and small deaths. It was the desert night that Fordus loved most, especially when red Lunitari rode high overhead. In the darkness, the desert was transformed. The desolate landscape deepened with shadows, the salt flats glittered like discarded gems, and strange, nocturnal creatures ventured out of the dried arroyos. The air became temperate, almost cool, and sometimes a stray wind coursed over the dunes, bearing in its wake the faint whiff of cedar from Silvanesti or salt from the seas south of Balifor, snaking over the flats and the dry arroyos as though seeking water, or a body into which it could breathe its distant life. The night sands were Fordus's refuge and his school, his peace and his nourishment. And so, after every victory, he returned to them.

But this time he returned in doubt and double-mindedness. His long robe wrapped around him, he dreamed. This night it was the lava dream—vivid and long known to him—the same dream that had first come to him at the edge of the Tears of Mishakal a year ago.

This dream had exalted him, lifted him from a destiny of water prophecy, a station of more importance than he'd ever dreamed or sought, and made him king of the desert.

The dream came as it always did—every detail the same as it had been the first time. And his response, as well, was the same, as though he acted in an ancient ritual play, performing an eternal seasonal role: Lord Winter, perhaps, or Branchala in the intricate elf-dramas Stormlight had told him about. As always, the landscape grew red and took on a fiery quality. Molten, volcanic, it bubbled and boiled with a strange, unnatural vigor. In his dream, For-dus followed the narrow, arching bridge above the roiling lava flats, and at the other end of the bridge a dark cloud hovered, like an opening into the void. Then the dark cloud unfolded. Black wings took shape in the shadows, and the cloud rolled and kneaded like the hot lake below.

Now the enormous black bird perched on the narrow bridge, turning its dirty, featherless head to regard him curiously, eagerly.

I name you Firesoul, the creature pronounced, its words inaudible, yet strangely felt along the muscle and tendon of Fordus's arm. He did not hear the voice as much as touch it.

"But I am Fordus," he said. He always said that.

Fordus is a Water Prophet, murmured the shadowy bird, steam rising from its matted pinions. Fordus is a nomad, a vagrant.

But Fordus Firesoul...

Fordus smiled in his sleep. He loved this part of the dream.

Fordus Firesoul is the breaker of armies, the strong arm of the desert. The rightful heir to marbled Istar. The condor flapped its wings, and hot fetid air, heavy with the strong smell of creosote and sulfur and carrion, coursed over the bridge.

Claim your own, Fordus Firesoul, it murmured, and Fordus felt the words in the tips of his fingers. Claim your inheritance.

My inheritance?

Claim Istar, commanded the bird. There you will find the source of your being. You will find your origins. And you will discover who you really are.

In the dark of early morning, Fordus awoke reassured, satisfied. He lay amid the rubble atop the Red Plateau, the highest point in the Istarian desert, as the eastern stars swam over him. He was alone except for a solitary guard, a Que-Nara spearman who drowsed, in untroubled oblivion, at his post. Fordus let the man sleep in peace. The sentry had earned that much.

So had all the rebel army.

The short battle, despite the Istarian surrender, had exhausted them all, had claimed the lives of many. They had carried threescore from the fields, and for others, whose wounds were too great, they left blessings, full waterskins, and a death watch of loved ones.

Stormlight had come to him at sunset with the tidings. Two hundred and six rebels lay dead in the grasslands.

"Istar can lose three thousand," Stormlight warned him. "And three thousand again. What does the Kingpriest care for the wailing of widows? But two hundred is a grievous loss for us." Fordus sat up, draping his long, powerful arms over his knees. The distant planets of fiery Sirrion and blue Reorx slowly converged over the tipped cup of Solinari, the white moon. He wished he could read the augury of stars, but the sky was opaque to him, for all its beauty. Who knew the future from the shifting heavens? Not even Northstar, the tribe navigator. And the mysterious glyphs Fordus had found in the kanaji, the ancient symbols that resonated in his thoughts and stirred him to the strange poetry . . . that stirred the armies in turn?

Well, the glyphs had not returned. The wind had passed over the fine, soft sand, and the kanaji's floor had remained faceless, unreadable once more.

Four hundred Que-Nara awaited his return from battle, pitching camp beneath the Red Plateau at the edge of the Tears of Mishakal. Though their gods had told them not to follow him out of the desert, that invasions and wars of aggression were iniquitous and wicked, they waited nonetheless. No one deserted Fordus Firesoul.

They would stand beside him in the sands when the time came, braving Istar, Solamnia ...

... the gods themselves ...

... only if he, Fordus Firesoul, asked them to.

He thought of ungainly Larken, lovely beneath the grit and rawness, of her mute, unquestioning devotion. Then there was Stormlight, to whom he had given a measure of importance, and Northstar, whose confusion he had calmed.

He felt a strange emptiness as he stood above the rebel watchfires—the barbarian blazes interspersed amid the muted, efficient glow from the Plainsman camps like diffracted light on the face of a polished gemstone.

They would follow him, bandit and Plainsman both. But where would he lead, if the sands told him nothing?

* * * * *

Throughout her childhood, Larken had scavenged at the edge of the camps, companion to the dogs and birds of the Que-Nara hunters, able to imitate any sound she heard, outcast because of her freakish coloration and her constant vocal disturbances. Again and again the Namers awoke to the sounds of dogs outside the tent, the dry hiss of the spring-jaw and the underground rumblings of the spirit naga. Arming themselves hastily and blearily with warding spells and the hook-bladed kala, they would emerge from the tents . . . And find the little girl, singing all of these sounds uncannily into the night air, her matted, tangled hair an eerie white in the glow of the campfires.

Sending her away seemed the best thing to do, so that she could be among her own kind. As her unusual looks marked her as threateningly gifted, normal life in the tribe was an impossibility. Her parents could hardly contain their relief at her departure. It was, of course, for her own good. Her gifts blossomed in a foreign country. She had come to Silvanesti natively superior to most of her instructors, intent and tireless at her songcraft. She rose through the great Bardic College of Silvanost too fast for everyone, until she was above them all.

Larken readily learned the first eight bardic modes, the traditional arrangements of note and rhythm that carried the bardic songs. She studied diligently and alone, as was her way, far from the flarings of temper and temperament displayed by her fellow students. As the bardic initiates, the high Silvanesti and the noble Solamnics, the Istarians and the western elves from Qualinesti, bickered and plotted in the tall towers of Silvanost, the girl sat by the waters of the Thon-Thalas, her knobby, callused feet submerged in the dark current, practicing the songs in her harsh, flexible soprano. They had laughed at her, elf and highborn human alike. Called her "churl" and "guttersnipe." She ignored them serenely, mimicking the sound of floodwaters in the quarters of discomfited masters, the chitter of black squirrels in the vaults of the tower, which sent apprentice and novice alike up ladders with brooms. All the while, despite her echoes and pranks, Larken's thoughts remained serious, intent on the intricate bardic music.

By her second winter she had mastered all eight of the modes, mastered the drum and the nillean pipes, and most of all developed and strengthened a soprano voice that, though never melodious, never beautiful, left her teachers breathless, admiring its power and range. Admiring, and fiercely resentful.

In the groves along the Thon-Thalas, where elf and human still mingled in green and quiet, the subject of her voice produced a jarring note of controversy. No student, the masters maintained from their green solitudes, especially no gritty slip of a girl from the plains, had ever learned the modes in only six seasons. There was foul play, no doubt— some hidden magic. It was not right. Yet Larken learned all the modes, swiftly and readily and gracefully. Soon she tired of the traditional modes and began on the veiled ones, the intricate magical music that dwelt in the gap between audible notes. She learned the first four—the Kijon-ian for happiness, the Branchalan for growth, the Matherian for serenity, and then, alarmingly, the Solinian mode of visions and changes. At a recital, when her mighty voice changed table water into snow, her teachers took the threat in hand. In a ceremony usually saved for the seventh year, five green-robed bards—representing earth, air, fire, water, and memory—ended her brief apprenticeship. They all said it was for her own good, so that she could sooner return to her own kind.

She received the lorebook and her chosen companion, a young hawk she named Lucas—an outlandish bird whose bright green eyes, strikingly unusual for his species, promised that he could be schooled to magic.

The next decision rested with the college: the instrument, to be presented to the graduate by the resident bards of high Silvanost.

Larken had fully expected a drum, since that was the perfect musical complement for her voice, rough and rhythmical, the instrument of her people when they summoned the water or prepared for a distant battle. Yes, the drum would be most fitting.

But they gave her the lyre instead.

How appropriately taunting, they mused. A chamber musician's pretty little harp. A stringed dainty to be used to soothe some lord from his day's troubles. An instrument of peace, a fine thing if in the hand of one who cared not for battle and the rising of the blood and the clash of war. They had chosen her trophy with a last, biting meanness in mind, and the message was clear: Be quiet, and be gone. To ensure this, they consulted a dark mage near Waylorn's Tower, a Master Calotte, who, with a curious smile, gave them the harp, and then loaned them his preoccupied apprentice to burden the young bard with a binding curse.

Larken could never compose an original melody, said the curse. A talented mimic, she was sentenced to mine her memory for songs recalled and half heard in a marginal childhood and in as marginal a stay at the bardic college.

But the apprentice botched the complicated spell. Nodding over the components, he mixed one moss with another, then reversed two words in the long incantation, so that although Larken was cursed to compose no original music, only her spoken words were affected, discredited. That seemed bad enough, for whenever Larken spoke, she spoke discordantly. Those around her thought they heard only the wind, or they forgot instantly what she said.

So her masters had promoted her and abused her at the same time. They set her on the road, far from Silvanost and the haunts of the Thon-Thalas, bound in a last tutelage to Arion Corvus, a master among traveling bards. When that was done, Larken was sent home, far more angry than when she'd left. But old Corvus was wise, and knowing in the way that a bard is knowing. At Larken's departure, he gave her the drum she carried now—a light, sturdy instrument with a head of sheer glain opal. The drum was stone, and the sound from it was muffled, even ungainly. But Corvus insisted that it was the drum for her.

Muffled. Ungainly.

And useful, he added, a strange gleam in his ancient eyes. The drum is your companion. It will protect you.

Since that time Larken had wandered with the Que-Nara. Now she was Fordus's bard. She had come to sing the cause of the downtrodden, come to stand with him against the cold white rigors of Istar and its adamant righteousness, to free the thousands of Plainsmen who wore the collars of Istarian slavery. She believed Fordus could eventually break any curse, even her misplaced one. She was the muse of sand and plateau and arroyo, taking the deeds of a rebel commander and breathing them full of poetry and legend and light. Through her song and the thousand cadences of her odd glain drum, Fordus the Water Prophet had become Fordus the Storm, Lord of the Rebels ... Fordus the hero. Still, the curse of Calotte's apprentice stayed with her, and when Larken spoke, her words fell into a great void. The result of this ludicrous situation was that she never spoke at all anymore, except to Lucas. The hawk seemed to understand her words, no matter how jumbled they sounded to human ears. Over the years she had invented a form of sign language nearly everyone could understand, and she had learned how to write in glyphs, runes, and common letters.

All the while, the magic of her music grew ever more powerful. Her song remained loud and clear and perpetually true, and sometimes it seemed to border on prophecy when the marveling Plainsmen heard it at the start of a hunt or a battle.

When her song rose to prophecy, it was as though the desert blossomed, the arroyos filled with the waters of the sung rivers, and the stars shifted in the winter sky, Branchala's harp brilliant on the northern horizon. It was as though all prophecy resounded in its ancient strings. They could not but choose to listen, then, from the most wretched tone-deaf bandit to Stormlight himself. Even Fordus would turn to her and stare, with those sea-blue desert eyes, and believe completely everything that she sang about him. And wonder if he could ever afford to set her free.

At the campsite the men were gathered—bandit and barbarian and Plainsman, bound by wounds and dirt and exhaustion, their eyes fixed restlessly on the heights of the Red Plateau where the Lord of the Rebels kept lonely vigil.

Larken slipped into the firelight, seating herself between Stormlight and her cousin Northstar, the slender young Plainsman who steered the Que-Nara across the broad, featureless expanses of the Istarian desert, guided by stars and prayers. Northstar regarded her defiantly. At first he had refused to accompany Fordus into the grasslands and had matched words unsuccessfully against Larken's battle song. Larken liked almost everything about her cousin, from his quiet intelligence and resourcefulness to the hawk tattoo on his shoulder. And she loved him in spite of his irritating piety, as strict and somber as any Istarian's.

She shot him back a crooked smile. Northstar turned proudly away, and Stormlight's greeting, as usual, was little more than an uneasy nod. With a shrug, Larken settled in between the men and drew forth her drum. Lucas alit drowsily on her gloved arm, and she settled him on his ring perch, where he fluffed and fell quickly asleep, lulled by the warmth of the fire.

Across the circle, one of the bandit leaders, her long black hair glinting red from the firelight, was speaking loudly. Larken searched for memory. The woman's name was something harsh, unpleasant... Gormion.

Yes. It fit her. The jumbled Tarsian name, taken when the woman had left the Que-Nara seven years ago. She was back now, at the head of a company of Thoradin bandits, momentarily allied with the rebels.

"He should never have been made Water Prophet, Stormlight," Gormion hissed. "You were there ten years ago. You know it's true."

"He prophesied," Stormlight declared, "and his words drew a map to the water. I would call that water prophecy. I would call that true."

"My grandfather should have been . . ." Gormion began. It was the same old story of strife and complaint. Old Racer had considered himself passed over by Fordus's father, and had voiced his complaints until his dying day. His sons, the oldest of whom was Gormion's father, had left the Que-Nara in anger, seeking residence among bandits in the Thoradin foothills.

Only in this discord did Gormion, granddaughter of Old Racer, acknowledge her Plainsman blood.

"Nor is he a better general," she spat, dark hands waving in the glow of the firelight, a dozen stolen silver bracelets spangling her wrists. The bandits on either side of her, two rough men named Rann and Aeleth, could only nod in agreement since their mouths were stuffed with the bread Fordus had provided.

"Retreat. What else do you call it," she continued, "when an army goes forward, fights, and falls back?"

"Repentance," Northstar replied, staring long into the fire.

"We obviously did not win," Gormion concluded with a sneer. "For we have retreated, and our commander repents." The other bandits laughed and poked at one another.

"You're a fair-weather warrior, Gormion," Storm-light remarked. "Fordus feeds you, arms you. He provides your water in this dry and desolate place. You came to him when you were all nearly dead from the drought. He took you in. And today he gave you a victory. What else do you ask of him?"

"Gold," the bandit captain replied, flashing her bracelets in the firelight. "Gold and silver and the jewelry of Istar. I provide my followers, and he provides the gold. Victory? There is no victory without spoil. We retreated today because Fordus lost heart!"

"No fighter remembers all of the battle," Storm-light put forward. "How can we judge these things when we remember only in shards and slivers: the face of the man in front, a glint of light on a far hill, the brush of an arrow past our ear. Fragments. You can never claim full memory from them. So we must not speak of retreat, and who could know if or what Fordus repents? As for gold, other things are worth more. Every battle brings us closer to Istar. The last one will set my people free, and bring your gold as well. Be patient, Gormion."

Gormion acted as though she had not heard him. Her eyes shifted across the circle to Larken. "Let us ask the bard about the battle. Perhaps she remembers it all, since she fought none of it." Larken returned the look with an icy stare. No matter the fragment you remember, she signed, there was a full battle we won against the pride of Istar. This I will show you. She rattled the drumhammer across the stony head of the drum. Suddenly, Lucas fluttered awake on his perch, green-golden eyes wide and attentive. At a second drumroll, the hawk cried out in a long shriek that trailed away into a high, plaintive whistle.

It was all the bard needed to hear. Compressed in the cry was Lucas's full account of the entire battle, seen from the high vantage of his flight above the bloody plains. In a matter of seconds, Larken absorbed a vision of what had come to pass on the battlefield that day, and though the vision was barely formed and scarcely definable, she began to pick up its rhythm, and to hum around it, knowing she would discover the truth as she sang it, that it would surprise her as much as it did those who crouched around the fire, listening to their deeds take wing into history.

The hammer of Istar, the anvil of armies Failed in the forge ofFordus's desert, Failed on the plains when the sun passed over, And the smoke rose up from a smithy of blood While lost in the city the women lament,

Ash their companion,

Fire is their father

And the long war falls

As the ravens gather.

Gormion laughed wickedly and dismissed the song with a flick of her hand. But Larken was only beginning. The drumbeat surged and galloped, and she found full voice. Aeleth of Ergoth, harper of arrows, Yours the first music the army remembers, The arrow a bolt to the battle's thunder, The string of the bow a song for Ilenus Spearman oflstar struck in the vanguard: The towers oflstar

Mourn through the night,

Bolt and harp

And the arrow's flight.

The drum beats faded to a long silence. Aeleth, somber and shaken, lifted his hands to the firelight. In the midst of Larken's singing, the entire experience had returned to him: the feel of the sunlight burning through the cloth sleeve pinned up on his right shoulder as he stood atop the rise in the grasslands, the army of Istar approaching, his arrow nocked and the bowstring taut. He remembered the thrum of the string, how it brushed against his cheek lightly, quivering as he brought down the bow ... How the spearman fell to his knees, dropping his weapon, his hands groping stupidly over the half-buried shaft of the arrow.

"Ilenus," Aeleth murmured. "The boy's name was Ilenus." Then silently, as though all this knowledge struggled for a place in his mind and heart, Aeleth frowned and flexed his long, callused fingers.

Without prompting, Larken resumed the song. With crisp raps on the drum, she sang out other verses. Rann of Balifor, Sword of the Bandits, Rock of the army at Istar's coming, The scar on your shoulder a glyph of the moon As it shines on the dead in the damaged fields As the night passes over the nation oflstar:

The long spear remembers

The assembled flight

The lodge of the arm

In returning moonlight.

This was obscure verse for a Baliforian thug. Rann shook his head in puzzlement, in disgust, but then, slowly, his attentions drifted to his shoulder, and a fresh wound throbbed with discovered pain. He remembered it all, now: sidestepping the charging mercenary, the sharp tug at his shoulder as he drove the hooked kala knife into a wide-eyed captain. He remembered wheeling about to face another assailant, a mist of blood encircling him.

His shoulder throbbed as each blow and parry rushed back to his blossoming memory.

"I remember it. . ." Rann breathed in wonder. "I remember it all." Gormion rose and stalked from the firelight.

But the bard was not finished. As Larken continued, into the Song of Passing that named and heralded each of the fallen, the Plainsmen fell silent, remembering the battle in its swift and brutal entirety. Stormlight, listening, recalled the fluttering high grass, the Istarian infantry passing so closely that he could smell the sweaty leather, read the elaborate gold insignia of the Istarian Guard. He recollected his troops, their painted faces and robes swathed with browns, blacks, and yellows, lying still until the sunlight and shadow and grass seemed to swallow them ...

Northstar alone summoned to mind no earthly army, no array of spears or line of soldiers. Only the darkness of the sandstorm returned to him, abiding and deep, broken only by the unnatural movement of stars. Within that darkness dwelt the sound of inhuman voices, a clash of energy and movement he could not find the words to describe, and even the songs of Larken could not approach its menace and danger. When the last note of the Passing sounded and the dead receded into their long, forgetful rest, something dark passed over and through the young scout.

He thought he saw a constellation, high in the vault of heaven, scatter and tumble onto the darkened plain.

The dark woman crouched in the valley of crystal bones. Overhead the red moon reeled crazily into the desert sky, but even that subdued light hurt her eyes.

She must learn to master this body. Learn its heaviness and inelegance in the short time before it dried and crumbled, in order to do the tasks she had set for herself. Already the blank, airless chaos of the Abyss seemed like a nightmare, like a harsh season in another age. Takhisis pushed that time to the back of her memory, breathing the night air, the faint smell of sage, the salt of the surrounding crystals.

Chapter 4

Now was the time to scheme and countermine. Now, while the rebels divided and scattered, uncertain. There is great power in knowledge, she told herself again.

Great freedom.

She groaned and practiced again the casual lifting of her incongruously heavy arm, the blinking of her eyes at proper intervals. The red-lit landscape glittered eerily, as though she watched the world from the heart of a gem. These eyes of crystal reflected an angular moonlight. Nearby, the salt flats, the pillars, seemed massive, disproportionately large. The plateau and arroyo, not a league away, seemed diminished, mysterious, as though glimpsed at the end of a thousand-mile tunnel. The strange triad of Plainsman, bard, and elf seemed mysterious and distant as well, their thoughts and passions and motives still veiled to her.

Takhisis glanced up at the riding moon. Red Luni-tari passed slowly over the eastern sky, over a gap in the heavens where the black moon rested, still unknown to the worldly astronomers. A mask for Nuitari. A bright veil over the dark moon.

The girl would be the place to start, the goddess thought.

Slowly, the crystals that housed her spirit began to change, to restructure. To a passerby it would appear that one of the columns of salt—a large one, out in the middle of the flats—was melting, dissolving, reforming at the same time.

Takhisis's body hardened, became more angular. The shoulders broadened and the legs, once long and smooth and tapering, knotted as though an ancient wind had twisted and gnarled them. It was a man now who walked the cooling sands of the desert. A man handsome and muscular and cold. As he moved through the moonlight, his skin slowly grew translucent, then transparent. He was a ripple of darkness rising out of the desert night, no more visible than heat wavering over the cooling sands. Silently, he slipped by the outermost circle of Fordus's sentries.

Safe behind rebel lines, the warrior paused and listened, sinking slowly back into view, his skin darker, more opaque. Now the distant sound of a lyre chimed over his brittle hand, as the crystals in his fingers vibrated to the soft sound.

Good. The bard was playing. The music was uncomfortable, even disturbing, but it signaled her whereabouts.

Somewhere in the dry gulch, Takhisis—or rather the dark man who called himself Tamex—would find Larken. And the winnowing would begin.

* * * * *

Larken, too, had spent a sleepless night.

Alone in a weathered arroyo, at any time a place of danger, she waited for the inspiration of song and insight, she touched the three strings of the elven lyre, and she thought of Fordus.

"To the north he went," she began, her low, mellifluous voice unsteady as she searched for the melody in the darkness.

Lucas turned on his ring perch, head cocked alertly at the sound of the lyre.

"To the north came Fordus in the face of Istar ..."

Larken fumbled with the lyre strings, striking a quiet but dissonant chord. Lucas shrieked, raising the feathers on his head into a menacing crest.

"What? I know it was bad. Sorry," she replied to him, and his feathers smoothed over again. For an instant, a chill passed over her. Had she heard human words in the hawk's cry? Forgetting the moment, she dropped the lyre indifferently onto her lap.

Larken was glad her bardic instructors could not see her grope for words and flounder with strings. It would confirm what they had told her all along, about Plainsmen and the bardic calling, about her especially.

About this instrument they had hung upon her, useless and discordant in her hands. Lucas cocked his head and stood very still on the round perch. His green eyes flashed with unearthly fire. Larken looked at Lucas questioningly. "What?" she asked, this time wanting an answer. Suddenly, a coldness overwhelmed her, as though the dry riverbed breathed the memory of violent water, of ice. A shadow passed between her and the moonlight—a cloud, a night bird ... The shadow paused above her.

Lucas covered his head with his wing and made a low, painful cry.

Slowly, Larken turned.

The dark man smiled handsomely, his face framed in moonlight. His tight-lidded amber eyes moved over her, and the black silk tunic rose rhythmically on his shoulders and chest. His legs were long and powerful, and he wore black leather boots—an odd choice for the desert, Larken thought somewhere at the edge of her mind.

He was a strange combination of beauty and eeriness, like a distorted reflection of the moon in water. Larken regarded him suspiciously, her hand drifting slowly and surely to the knife at her belt. The dark man held her gaze, nodded.

"You are Larken the bard," he said, as though he named her for the first time with his words. With a movement lithe and graceful, he stepped toward her, wrested her hand from her knife . . . and kissed her fingers elegantly, his eyes never leaving hers.

Lucas shrieked from his perch, swelled with copper light, and tried to fly at the man, but his jesses tangled.

Larken swallowed hard and nodded, recovering her hand and soothing the hawk. "Hush, Lucas. It's all right."

The bird fluttered and hopped, but obediently kept to the perch.

"I am Tamex," the man said. "I come from the south, from the shining foothills." Larken composed her face into neutrality. The man's hand had been very cold and hard. She started to sign a greeting, but something baffled her hands.

"While your army fought in the grasslands, I... crossed the desert. I searched for the Que-Nara camp, and awaited your return. Will you speak with me?"

I speak to no one but Lucas. I only sing, she motioned.

"I don't understand," said Tamex. "I know you can talk. I can hear what you say. Will you try?"

"You can hear me speak?" Larken's voice was husky, uncertain. Tamex nodded. "I have come to serve your leader. I have come to undo the bondage of Istar. And I have come to listen to you."

Larken shook her head, deflecting his last offer. " 'Tis a tall order, to undo that city. Istar is the heart of the world." And then, after a moment, "How is it you hear my speech? It has been cursed."

"Does it matter?" Tamex dissembled, his reptilian eyes at last flickering away from hers. "Does any of that matter?"

He let his eyes play lazily across Larken's kneeling form, over her blond hair, her bronzed shoulders, and her slim thighs, bared to the evening's coolness.

His gaze flickered over the lyre and paused. The black diamonds in the heart of his eyes shuddered, narrowed, and vanished. Then, almost casually, his glance rested on the drum at Larken's side and the bone drumhammer.

"I have heard you play," he said. "Not the lyre. The drum. Your songs and words are worthy of heroes." Flustered, the bard set down the lyre and reached for the drumhammer. It slipped from her hand and rattled noisily against the drum.

Tamex continued. "You are the one who exalts the Lord of the Rebels."

" 'Exalts'?"

"You magnify him beyond his deeds."

For a moment, brief as the gap between lightning and thunder, the bard's eyes widened. She felt exposed, uncovered by a sudden, surprising welling in her heart, as if she swirled in dark airlessness. Then the world tilted back into focus—the arroyo, the twining moonlight, the tall handsome warrior standing above her.

"Tell me about him," the dark man whispered.

She rose unsteadily and took a deep breath. Again she was Larken; the words stumbled back to her.

"About his gifts? His prophecies?" She turned the drumhammer in her hand.

"Tell me."

"Twenty-five years ago," Larken began, "the Que-Nara found a child nestled against a dune.

"We never knew who left him there, who had abandoned him to the harsh desert elements. It was great fortune, almost a miracle, that anyone noticed the baby. Fordus had not cried or called out, not even then, and the man who found him, a Plainsman chief named Kestrel, feared that the child was damaged, addled ...

" 'Touched by Sirrion,' the Namer had said, as Kestrel held the silent infant before him on the Naming Night. 'The Firemaster is in his eyes.'

"It was the call of the poet, the madman."

"Then he was touched ... by the gods?" Tamex asked, a brief, enigmatic smile passing over his pale face.

"So the Namer said," Larken replied, her eyes downcast, looking at the lyre on the ground. "But none of the Plainsmen understood or even wanted to.

"In each generation, only a few are touched by the fire god. Sirrion's mark comes double-edged: For each child who is blessed with inspiration, with insight and poetry, a thousand others become babblers, lunatics who dance at the red moon's rising, the responsibility for their complete care falling to their families, their people."

" 'Tis a hard life for those bearing the gods' touch," Tamex observed dryly. "But how did the Plainsmen ... receive him?"

"The chief took the news ... well, like a chieftain," Larken began. "After all, he had found the child and chosen to rescue it. Kestrel was a widower; no woman's hand graced his tents. He tended the child himself, awkwardly but well enough. He handed Fordus over to an attentive wet nurse, carried him in a pouch sewn into his shirt lining.

"The blue-eyed baby was hale enough, and grew tough, thin, and sinewy—like any Plainsman child. But always the tribe watched for the sign of Sirrion's touch, for vision or madness. "It was fifteen years before they knew for sure." Tamex started to speak, to interrupt, to ask a question, but Larken had begun the first great story, the one she had sung a hundred times around the rebel campfires when morale was low, when faith in For-dus ebbed or wavered.

It felt strange to say the words again. It felt strange not to sign or sing them.

"To the eye of the warrior and the eye of the outrunner, young Fordus seemed normal enough— hunting with the other children, helping with the fire, and the catching of lizards for the cook pot. He sat watch when he was old enough to hold a spear and wait out the night.

"Yet when he first began to speak, at the late age of five or six, his talk was veiled and bizarre, a peculiar poetry of riddle and paradox.

"He spoke of moons and of black sand, of crystal and hawk, and sailing, ominous planets. Kestrel was afraid of no man, but the touch of the gods unnerved him. He continued to feed and shelter the boy, but he could not bring himself to love him.

"The other boys welcomed Fordus on the hunt; after all, he was the chief's adopted son, fleetest of foot and stronger than any. His was the axe that felled boar and leopard, goblin and giant scorpion. But in the Telling Time, when the hunt was relived around fire and tent, when the smallest deed staggered beneath the largest boasts, he spoke not at all. Stormlight spoke for him, telling his stories to the listening tribe.

"Fordus they called him on his naming night— when he took on his name and passed from boyhood. Fordus. The old Kharolian word for the desert storm, the high wind racing out of nowhere and the blinding deluge of rain. The force that fills the arroyos, that drowns the entire world in its hour."

"What about before the naming?" Tamex asked, leaning toward the girl intently, almost hungrily.

"Before?" It was as though the idea was alien to her.

"Nothing of ... opals, then?" he asked.

"Opals?" Larken frowned. "Nothing more than the tore found beside him as a child—the necklace that grew in size as Fordus grew to maturity."

"How intriguing," Tamex observed, lightly, almost casually. "What else do you know of this ... tore?" Larken knew nothing. And something within her told her it was dangerous to guess.

"I know what I am telling you," she said, her eyes fixed on the dark interloper. "Nothing more." Tamex's eyes fell suddenly flat and cold.

"Tell me of the prophecy, then," he whispered. "Tell me." Larken shifted, wiped her hands on the front of her tunic as she met the dark man's odd stare. Had one eye blinked more slowly than the other?

"At fifteen," she continued, "Fordus was faster than the tribal outrunners, faster than the leopards and able to pace the gazelle at the desert's edge. Nor would he use that speed in cowardice or caution; he was brave to the borders of recklessness, and yet he calmed and sustained the boys who followed him.

"Then the rains failed, for the first time after the death of the old Water Prophet.

"And the chieftain called council.

"The Namers had searched the sky for months. They tried the old methods of insight and augury— what the old Prophet had done to serve the tribe for fifty years. They augured by star, by stone, by the twining moons, but no rain was promised and no

rain came.

"It was a dark time, they tell me, and soon augury passed into grumbling, and grumbling into the silence of growing despair. Then Kestrel called them all together—boy and man, warrior and outrunner, and sentry and firekeeper.

"He told them he was sending them for water."

Larken paused, tilted her head as though she listened to the air.

"The desert abounds with hidden springs," she said. "Sometimes there are oases, unexpected or suddenly, mysteriously newborn from the desert's lack and dry-ness. Sometimes there are springs under rocks, a thin brown trickle in a muddy arroyo. But without a Prophet, the chances of finding water are thin.

"When the chief ordered the water search, he ordered it in desperation. And after a week, even the oldest and wisest of the Namers had given up.

"Racer pressed to be named the tribe's Water Prophet; the title was his by right arid age. He pleaded for the ceremony—the vow to be said before his blood kin, acknowledged on sacred ground, and beneath the shining north star. Then he would fast, and meditate, and perhaps find water, perhaps not. It was a hard and thankless task, water prophecy, and yet Old Racer desired it with all his might. But while Racer sued and cajoled and threatened, the water-skins dried and the youngest children took on the parched, haunted eyes of the drought-stricken.

"At fifteen, for the first time, Fordus spoke for himself at the Telling.

"In the midst of the boasts and dreary bravado he stood, as the firelight mocked the false cheer of the thirsty men around him. He stood, and at his standing, the camp fell silent.

"With the kala, Kestrel pointed to his adopted son.

All eyes turned to the lean, muscular youth, who stood resolutely, confidently, flanked by his friends Stormlight the elf and Northstar, almost still a child.

" 'What do I care of your little hunts,' Fordus asked, 'of your spears and your bola, your journey of leagues and nights?'

"He took the old language of the hunter's boast and returned it to them, scalding and unforgiving.

"Racer spat, and his company of Namers nodded their beaded locks in support.

"A murmur rushed through the assembled hunters, but Fordus only smiled. 'Save your water, Racer,' he cautioned. 'With your prophecies, you will need it. Boast and brood and despair of water. As for me, I shall find the water we need.'

"Then Fordus turned and stalked from the camp, with two of his friends at his side. The older men talked of it all night, but by morning they had forgotten, departing on their own search for the legendary god-given spot from which the water would rise.

"Meanwhile, the three young men hunted on their own."

"A rebel even then," Tamex observed, his voice cold and insinuating.

"But a rebel then for the good of all," Larken replied. She reddened and avoided the dark man's stare.

"Then? And not now?" This Tamex was no fool. He had heard the wound in her voice, the regret and resentment.

"Judge for yourself," Larken answered blandly, and resumed the story.

"The lads combed the desert within sight of the camp, keeping the low fires of the Que-Nara constantly to their left as they circled the settlement. Fordus loped ahead of them, not even winded, as I have seen him do many times since in the vanguard of armies. And I am sure he paid no more attention to his two companions than to the missing red moon or the slow clouds straddling the western sky.

"When he reached the rise," she continued, absently stroking the glowing drumhead, "Fordus stopped and leaned against a smooth, upright stone. Stormlight and Northstar were a step behind him, as always.

"Overhead the white moon sailed serenely out of the clouds, and suddenly the entire desert stretched before them, desolate and featureless as the face of that moon. Salt crystals dotted the arid landscape, catching the moonlight like blades, like slivers of glass.

"Salt and stone, but no water.

"This was south of here, in old country indeed. The ground they stood on once formed the northernmost borders of Silvanesti, back in the Age of Light. 'Twas woodland until the Second Dragon War, when Lady Chaos laid waste to the Elflands. Now it is rubble and salt, salt and rubble." Tamex said nothing. The two of them sat in silence, there in the bed of the dried-up river.

"Elf country," Larken continued, her thoughts haunted by the prospect of such devastation. "Druid's country. And then .. ."

Tamex stirred restlessly. "I know. I know. The Dragon Wars. But what of Fordus?"

"Fordus? Oh, yes. That was the night he found the kanaji."

"Kanaji?"

"A druidic oracle pit. I first saw them near Silvan-ost, on the banks of the Thon-Thalas. Wide declivities, covered with netting and leaves. The druids descend into them to meditate, to ... find enlightenment."

"How? How do they work, these ..."

"Kanaji? Druidic magic," the bard answered elu-sively. Something in her shrank from the ardent questioning. "Fordus found the pit that evening. He stood upon it, as though it had summoned him there.

"Dig they did, hoping beyond their wildest hopes for water. Then the three of them knelt together, pulling the heavy stone away.

"They found a hollow chamber, round, of limestone block, just large enough for two good-sized people to sit in. The floor was nothing but fine white sand, which looked as if it had gone undisturbed by wind and water for a thousand years.

"Fordus hopped into the circular chamber, Storm-light close behind. They examined the gray, gritty walls, the shadowed circumference, while the youngest, little Northstar, stood above them in an impatient watch.

"Fordus and Stormlight sat in the fine sand. They joked—the nervous, blustering jests of young men in holy places. But the ancientness and reverence of the place soon stilled their laughter, and they sat in silence as, over the dry expanse of the desert, the chanting of the elders drifted to the rise and down into the kanaji pit.

"The lads went still. In the reverence they had been taught since infancy, Stormlight and Northstar looked up toward the heavens, toward the mobius of Mishakal and the harp of Branchala.

"Fordus, on the other hand, looked toward the floor of the kanaji. Then, suddenly, as the sand began to ripple and eddy beneath him, he glanced up at Stormlight, motioned his friend's gaze to the changing sand, to the strange glyphs forming in the pristine whiteness.

" 'Druidic' my cousin Northstar told them. 'The picture language of a thousand years past.'

"With a whoop, Fordus raced across the level expanse toward the fires of the men, leaving his companions agape at the emerging symbols.

"Curious, not a little irritated at being disturbed at their ritual, the elders were led to the kanaji. Staring down into the pit, all of them noticed the change in Fordus—the sea-blue eyes suddenly bright and focused, as though his earlier addling had been lifted, the pupils dilated until a core of fathomless dark seemed to rise out of that blue sea.

"His lips moved slowly. With great effort, as though he were translating the hidden language of the gods, he breathed a single syllable, then another."

"Crouched by the lip of the kanaji, Racer made the warding sign, protection against the Lady, "and the destruction that follows her."

"A foolish sign," Tamex observed. "A foolish superstition."

"Whatever its wisdom, he did not complete it. With a firm grip Kestrel grasped the old conniver's wrist.

'There will be no warding of my son,' he decreed. 'Let him speak, Racer. Unless you can read glyph and symbol.'

"Silenced, Racer glared at Fordus, who knelt now above the signs fully formed.

" 'Axe,' Fordus muttered. 'Tower and Lightning. The rain is hewn of light and memory.'

"The elders glanced at each other uncertainly. Surely some of them thought of Sirrion's touch, of the flame of poetry or madness.

"Then Stormlight, his white eyes staring into the whirling depths of Fordus's blue, translated for them all.

" 'Halfway between the Red Plateau and the Tears of Mishakal,' he pronounced. 'Seven feet below the surface. Water enough for a month of travel.'

"They had to confirm Fordus's prophecy. Later that night they would dig to the water and their thirst would end. But now, in a starlit cluster, Kestrel set his hands on the head of his adopted son and began the chieftain's chant that would name the lad Water Prophet.

" 'It cannot be!' Racer shouted, bargaining for time, for delay, for anything that would keep the title out of the grasp of the upstart. 'The gods honor only the Prophet who stands beneath the North Star. It has not yet risen! You know this, Kestrel, and yet you wrest the robes from me and confer them on your firestruck son. It is not according to tradition, not fitting, not permitted, not... not...'

"Silently, triumphantly, Kestrel pointed at the lad who stood over his son. 'Who stands above Fordus, Racer?' he asked. 'What is the name of that lad?'

"Northstar, in his place by design or accident, knelt by the lip of the kanaji and, reaching down into the pit, gently and reverently touched the top of Fordus's head."

Larken smiled and stretched, rising from the bed of the old river and dusting the sand from her tunic.

"That is the story, Tamex. That is the way it is told at the Telling."

"But never so splendidly," Tamex soothed. "Never by the fabled bard, the Breath of the Gods herself." Suddenly, as though she were awakening from a trance, an enchantment, Larken looked at her solitary audience in a new, harsh light.

He seemed much shorter than when he had first appeared, scarcely an hour ago.

Chapter 5

Every morning, despite several floors of stone under his room, Vaananen awoke to the sound of rending rock beneath the city. Sometimes it infiltrated his dawn dreams and he thought he, too, labored in the dank, musty tunnels to blast and hammer and drag forth the glain opals for the Kingpriest. This morning, the dreams had become especially vivid, and the constant pounding of the city's secret heart lingered in his ears even now as he strode rapidly down a higher passage to keep a regular appointment with his sparring partner.

Down the spiral staircase he ran, his high-necked practice shirt already damp from the rising heat of the day, his arms covered past the wrists in padded sleeves to turn the blows of long sword and dagger. When he reached the ground floor, he drew forth a bronze key, wrought in the shape of a sidewinding serpent, inserted it into the elaborate lock on the heavy oaken door, and took the last easy breath he would get for the next two hours.

"You are almost late," said the Kingpriest, tossing a rough-hewn pole at the druid. Vaananen deftly caught both the weapon and the malice. He bowed in silent reply, his eyes never leaving the sea-blue stare of his opponent. This is the last time, he thought, stepping inside the walled garden. For eight years, Vaananen had fought the King-priest in these small battles, never winning, never telling, and always leaving the sovereign with the suspicion that Vaananen used magic rather than martial skill to survive.

It was all for Vincus, these weekly combats and humiliations. The lad could not help that his father had been an unfaithful weapons-master to an unfaithful ruler, that instead of teaching the King-priest the form of the broadsword prohibited to clerical orders, old Hannakus had tried to skip town, taking with him a hundred of the Kingpriest's treasured glain opals.

The Istarian Guard had caught Vincus's father before he reached the walls. They had arrested old Hannakus, tried him, and executed him. But they had never found the opals. The Kingpriest had maintained that the son, at the time a mere boy of twelve, should work off the father's debt in the opal mines beneath the city.

It was a death sentence. Vaananen intervened, promising his services in Hannakus's old role. And promising his silence as the Kingpriest, in a sacrilege older than the faith, took up the edged blade that was forbidden to all who served the gods in holy orders.

Now, that service, that silence, was almost over.

The Kingpriest turned his head at last and paced to the farthest point in the practice circle, examined the blade of his sword, and placed a booted foot against one of the smooth white shells that marked fair ground for the fight.

Vaananen dropped to a crouch and balanced in his right hand the light pole, which was actually a living tree, its roots bundled tightly and its branches pruned away. The Kingpriest never played by the rules; there would be no salutation. Vaananen drew a long breath, loosened his legs, and waited. The Kingpriest pretended to adjust his grip for a moment, then charged the druid on the right. Vaananen stood his ground until his attacker's blade whistled through the air in a long, deadly down-stroke, then pivoted exactly six inches aside to catch the Kingpriest lightly in the back of the head with the pole and knock him to his knees.

Before the Kingpriest could regain sight, breath, and footing, Vaananen threw himself to the ground and lay still. Long ago, he had learned that never a blow was dealt to this sovereign that was not repaid tenfold outside the arena; it was best to ungracefully sprawl in the appearance of one cut down by the mighty swipe of the monarch's blade.

The Kingpriest rose, furious and wild, only to find his fighting partner in seemingly worse condition after the clash. He laughed smugly and kicked the druid until he "regained consciousness." And so it went for an hour and more, Vaananen spinning, dodging, rolling, and feinting, always adjusting cooly to the attack, and only occasionally dealing the Kingpriest a gentle tap with the length of the bound tree. Vaananen kept it interesting, but never, to the Kingpriest's utter frustration, did he seem to become angry or lose control.

"You willow-heart!" the Kingpriest taunted. "It is our last round—have you no more spirit left than this? Did you leave your manhood in a grove of rotten oak?"

It is not my fight, Vaananen would say to himself. This is for Vincus's freedom, so that he will never inhabit the darkness of the mines. Then Vaananen would smile and think of another way to turn the Kingpriest's forbidden blade, never allowing it to touch him.

At last, just before the round was meant to be over, the Kingpriest, seething with anger, stopped the exchange.

"Come over here," he panted. "Stand exactly here." He pointed to the outside of the ring of shells. The sea-blue eyes shone with rage and cunning.

Vaananen knew if he left the sparring ground before the round was over that it would be a foul, and would give the Kingpriest an opportunity to deliver an undefended blow. The blade glistened in the noonday sun, its edge razor-sharp and lethal. The Kingpriest did not care for blunted weapons. Vaananen moved to the center of the ring and stood his ground. It was a show of truce—the most vulnerable place in the arena.

"Do you decline my order, noble Vaananen?" the Kingpriest said smoothly. "I think there is a penalty for that. ... I think you will do five more years of this game, this time with no padded shirt, eh?" For the first time, Vaananen spoke. "I have paid the debt of Vincus's blood. He will go free. And you cannot coerce me. You violate your Order by using this broadsword. The game is over." The Kingpriest smiled, his sea-blue eyes flickering coldly. "You will stay in my service," he said. "You are bound to me by oath. Many others who are unworthy serve me—from the thief's son to peasants ..." He eyed Vaananen cagily.

"Perhaps even druids. Cast out from their own Order for the gods know . . . what crimes?" Vaananen's face betrayed no emotion.

"Now, willow-heart, we will arrange to pay your debt," the Kingpriest said with a low chuckle. Slowly, he stirred the border of shells with his booted foot, walking around the ring, narrowing the circle around the silent druid.

Lazily the goddess walked through the Tears of Mishakal, the crystal structures rising in bizarre angles, catching the red moonlight until they seemed like blades dripping with blood. The crystals that housed her changed as well. No longer was she Tamex, the menacing, mysterious warrior that would trouble Larken's dreams for yet a dozen nights.

She was Tanila now—a lithe and lovely woman, a creature of darkness to be feared and desired by man and elf alike. Casting her black eyes toward the heavens, the goddess breathed a summoning word . And in the far sky, somewhere over Istar on the northern horizon, a star winked out and the long line of dune and mountain darkened ever so slightly.

Good. Her powers were growing. She could again subvert the deep heavens with an old spell or a quiet incantation. Somewhere in the far void of space, as dark and lifeless as her prison in the abyss, a black star cooled and died, collapsing on itself, and ten planets—ten worlds—felt the first glazing of a final ice. Who knew what civilizations now lay chilled and silent, abandoned by warmth and light and life?

Indeed, who cared? What was important was that she could do it—could leave the world desolate with a breath, a thought. Oh, her powers were mighty, and though Krynn was held against her, safe for now in the shelter of a bright wing, she would govern it soon. She knew it.

It was a matter of months—of a few years at the most—and this was the place to begin. Takhisis knew how the salt flats had received their name. Profane ground, where healing failed and revelation faded.

No wonder Mishakal wept.

But the goddess who now passed through the latticework of crystal thought little of healing, less of revelation. On her mind were the rebel leaders, the close-knit triad of bard, elf, and ... She had no word for Fordus. Not yet. She knew him only through repute and legend, through his victories and through the song of his bard.

The bard was easy. Larken did not know her own power—the hidden magic of the lyre she resented and discarded, the awesome potential of her voice if she could free it of her own fear and anger. Takhisis smiled. Fear and anger were her favorite lieutenants.

Fear and anger followed the elf as well.

Neither of them knew themselves, much less their commander.

The sand stirred, marking the wake of the goddess, a sinuous, twisting path like the trail left by a snake. The next time she would come to them as Tanila, and the elf would be probed and sounded. He was Lucanesti, friend to the opals.

And oh, the opals would be important soon.

But first, there was small business to attend to at the edge of the grasslands. The grasslands rose out of sleep to embrace him, the long grain swaying in the windless fields. Fordus knew he was dreaming because what he saw did not match what he felt. He did not like unexpected dreams. But so be it.

Would the battle come, or the light? One or the other always appeared in his dreams, and he learned from them both, from what the battle showed him or the light told him to say. A purple rise, dotted with fir trees and blasted vallenwoods, rushed to meet him. Above them, a dozen birds wheeled slowly.

Hawks? Was Larken's hawk Lucas among them? He called to the birds in his mind; they approached, descended.

Not hawks. Scavengers.

Then it is a battle dream, he thought. I shall feel my dreaming in the morning run, in new soreness and stretching. But I shall win this battle as I win them all. Larken will finally sing of how I defeated Istar in desert, in grasslands ...

Even in dreams.

He had no time to savor the prospects. Suddenly the rise fell away, as though the earth itself had collapsed beneath him. Fordus leapt over a spinning, white-hot void and landed stiffly and unsteadily at the crumbling edge of a bluff. A solitary Istarian

warrior instantly appeared before him—a golden man, hooded and helmed, his shield adorned with seven alabaster spires, his broad shoulders draped with a black tunic.

Well, then, Fordus thought. He reached for the axe at his belt.

It was not there.

For a moment, fear surged through him, dreamlike and obscure, then he brushed it aside with a laugh. After all, it is a dream. What is the worst that can happen?

Across the arid, level ground, in the wail of a hot wind, the warrior beckoned slowly, trumpeting a challenge in an inhuman tongue. His seven-spired shield glittered ever more brightly until the dream was swallowed by its light. Then shadow returned, and the man stood closer, alone and unarmed, as though he had cast aside his weaponry out of contempt. Now he assumed a wrestler's stance: a low, feline crouch, fingers spread like claws.

With long strides, moving so slowly it seemed that he waded through waist-high sand, Fordus closed with the warrior.

They collided to the sound of distant thunder. The arms of the enemy were cold and metallic, hard and heavy as bronze. The Istarian warrior spun about with a roar, hurling Fordus over his head. Whooping in delight, Fordus released his grip at the height of the violent arc, and somersaulting through the air, landed lightly on the sun-scorched ledge some distance away. Behind him, rocks and dust toppled into a bottomless crevasse.

It is my dream. I can master it.

The warrior now bristled with six waving arms like an angry burnished insect, like a living statue of some barbarian harvest god. The sunlight danced like flame on his helmet.

It is my dream ...

Fordus hurtled toward the warrior, who cried out and braced himself for the impact. This collision was totally silent, as though all sound had fled at the force of the impact. The golden warrior rocked on his heels but kept his balance, lifting the struggling Fordus off the ground, four of the arms drawing him closer . ..

Fordus heard the hissing, smelled the fetid breath of his adversary. Fascinated, distracted, he gazed into the warrior's eyes.

Lidless and lifeless. Reptilian, the vertical slits in the heart of the eyes opening like a parted curtain, to reveal a dark nothingness, a deep and abiding void ...

Fordus shook his head, wrestled the enemy's multiple grasp, his own sudden drowsiness and lack of resistance, the growing trust that it Would not be so bad, this defeat, that it would all go for the better if he gave up the struggling ... if he gave in ... and looked into the curtained eyes that opened to perpetual blackness.

Fordus bolted upright, stifling a cry. His head rang with pain, and his skin felt raw and tender. His arms ached, the muscles cramping like they'd been gripped in the jaws of some monstrous, relentless creature. But he was safe atop the Red Plateau. Not twenty yards away, the young sentry still snored at his post. Fordus leapt to his feet, intent on throttling the lad, but his legs shook with the dream's exertion, and a cold sweat rushed over him like a desert downpour.

Leave the lad alone. No sentry could protect him from his dreams.

Angrily, he looked up into the spacious desert sky, where the starry horns of Kiri-Jolith menaced the Dark Queen's constellation.

"Where were you in all of this, old bison? Old grandfather?" Fordus asked sullenly. He stood up slowly. The heavy gold tore at his neck felt tight. With a last look at the sleeping sentry, Fordus began to run. Since his early childhood, running had carried him away from deceptions, from confinement and complexities. When he sprinted over desert or plain, when the wind took him up and carried him over dune and moon-dappled rise, when in the power of his stride he seemed to become the wind—only then could Fordus think clearly. He could cleanse his mind of the mystery of glyph and sand, of the prophecies that passed through him. When he ran, his blood pounding in his ears, he was purely, completely free. Tonight Fordus outran the wind itself. Suddenly, with a dreamlike swiftness, he found himself crossing the dunes. The Red Plateau appeared on the far horizon, and from the rebel camp arose a faint array of lights.

He crowed with delight and ran even harder toward the widest expanse of the desert. The red moonlight bathed the landscape ahead, and soon he passed altogether from sight of the plateau, to a point in the desert where the hard red ground stretched in all directions, uninterrupted to the edge of the horizon. All the while, Fordus had the strangest sense that something was running beside him. From the corner of his eye, he saw it, a black spot coursing over the moonlit desert floor. It stayed at the margins of his vision like a specter, like the dark moon rumored by astronomers and mages.

No matter how quickly he moved, the darkness kept precise pace.

Something in Fordus's fears told him that it was his , dream in pursuit, that somehow the golden warrior on the sunbaked ledge had ridden his thoughts into the waking world to follow him, to run him down. He would not have that. His strides lengthened.

Across the desert they ranged, runner and shadow, their swift path turning toward the sunrise. Suddenly, as the full sun breasted the horizon, the shadow lurched toward Fordus. With a cry, he wheeled to meet it, throwing axe ready in his hand. The shadow loomed above him, transparent and faintly faceted, no more visible than heat wavering over the cooling sands. He saw, in its swirling depths, a pair of amber eyes.

Lidless and lifeless. Reptilian.

Never breaking stride, Fordus charged at the enemy. The shadow closed around him, blinding him, then suddenly it was sunlight and sand again, he was sailing in midair over a dune, the shadow was gone, and the ground had fallen away beneath him, just like in his dream.

Softer sand cushioned his fall, but it began to swirl beneath him as he tried to scramble to his feet. Clumsily, helplessly, he spiraled lower and lower into a funnel of slick sand, a whirlpool delivering him into a dark hole, a central pit.

In the heart of that pit, the morning sunlight glinted on a bulbous green eye, several sets of clicking antennae, and a huge set of widely opened mandibles.

Springjaw! Fordus thought frantically, groping for another axe as the creature scuttled toward him hungrily.

Chapter 6

From his vantage point in the lofty tower, the Kingpriest watched a meteor plummet through the distant sky above the Tower of High Sorcery, dropping out over Lake Istar, where it crumbled and collapsed into the water like dust sprinkled from the heavens.

Like dust.

The ruler of Istar turned from the window.

His private chambers were as spare as a novice monk's. So he insisted, despite the flattery of the attendant clergy and the growing temptation to surround himself with beautiful things. A single cot and a threadbare rug lay in the center of a vast and

vaulted room.

By day, the chamber was austere, but lovely in the subtle light that shone through the opalescent windows. But it was night now in Istar, and by night the Kingpriest saw shadows. At night, if he gazed too long into the graceful garden below the tower window, he saw the trees as things with daggers, and the streams and fountains blackened and thickened under the silent moons.

No. He would not look into darkness, would not think on his ... transgressions. Better to sit here by a cheery fire, to sift the dust—the opal dust—that would eventually bring his joy. The windows had told him about the opals long ago as he walked in private meditation along the outer passageway, the huge, encircling hall of the tower.

Alone, his white hood raised above immaculate white robes, the Kingpriest had been praying, but the prayer passed into a curious reverie in which he remembered his early days of priesthood, a candlelit chamber in the novices' quarters . . .

A girl. An auburn-haired chambermaid.

His hands trembled at the memory. So lost was he in a dream of ancient lust that he did not hear the windows speak at first. But the words intruded at last on his thoughts, and, startled, he looked toward the sun-struck clerestory, where the surface of the pink, opalescent windows whirled with unnatural light. Like calls to like, they told him, each window speaking in a voice of different pitch and timbre, until it seemed as though a choir sang the words into his baffled hearing.

"Like calls to like, indeed," he whispered in reply, when the corridor had settled into expectant silence.

"Water to water, and stone to stone."

He did not know why he had thought of water and stone.

Furtively, he glanced up and down the hall. Perhaps someone was weaving deceptive and illegal magic to make him seem the fool...

Seem unsuitable.

Two windows at the bend of the hall widened and darkened, as though the corridor itself were watching. Like calls to like, they repeated, strangely and absurdly, as the great scholar ransacked his memory of ancient scroll and codex for any mention of speaking windows, of omen and sign and portent. His memory returned to the girl, to the candlelight pale on her bare skin. In the corridor, the windows promised him that auburn-haired girl. Her, or another just like her.

It was time, they urged him, to take a bride.

She was approaching, the windows told him. The Kingpriest's bride. Soon the time would come, in ceremony and ritual, when he could call her forth, anchor her errant spirit in a new, lithe body. When the time was right, they would teach him the chant, the arcane somatic movements. But for now, he should gather the material components.

The dust of a thousand glain opals.

It seemed an obscure command, and yet, lulled by the prospects of the young girl, he vowed to comply, to gather. There in opalescent light he took a firm, unbreakable oath, and twenty years later, when he ascended the throne of the Kingpriest, he set about fulfilling his duty to the swirling, disembodied voices. The stones would house his approaching bride, some god had promised him, through the translu-cency of opals.

The sounds of the city faded into the darkness and the approaching morning. Sleepless and eager, the Kingpriest sat on the edge of his cot, black dust sifting and tumbling through his pale, anticipatory fingers. The young man slipped through the dark Istarian alleys, his movements silent and veiled. Twice he lurched into shadowy doorways, standing breathlessly still until a squadron of soldiers rattled by on the moonlit street, Lunitari spangling their bronze armor with a blood-red light. Winding his way through the intricate streets of the city like a burglar, he passed the School of the Games. Silently, anonymously, he continued past the Banquet Hall and the Welcoming Tower, once festive buildings now muted with night and the recent news of an Istarian defeat. He stepped into the moonlight here, and the red glow tumbled onto his dark skin, his green-gold eyes, the short, well-kept beard. His hair was cut in the dark roach of Istarian servitude—the topknot extending from nape to widow's peak. His wide mouth fell into a secret mocking smile.

They said Fordus had put it to the Kingpriest. Put it to him well in the grasslands to the south. Whoever Fordus was.

Now those vaunted legions, decimated and lead-erless, camped by Istar's outer walls with their backs to the cold stone, their garbage piling up around them, had orders to defend the city at all costs. It was ludicrous. They heard the march of rebels in the wind and confused the low stars on the northern horizon with a thousand rebel campfires on the plains. They saw Fordus's face under every lackey's hood.

Still, Istar was far from beaten. The army that this Fordus had crushed, though formidable, was not a tenth of the Kingpriest's power. Already the city echoed with new tidings, with the rumor of military movement in high places, of counterattack and reprisal.

When the young man was halfway across the Central Court, a third patrol approached—slowly, with a clatter of gruff voices and new, ill-fitting armor. The young man crawled catlike beneath a broken wagon abandoned not a hundred feet from the main entrance to the Great Temple. He held his breath again until the last of the soldiers passed, muting his thoughts in case a cleric traveled with them. When the courtyard was once again clear, he peered through the cracked spokes of the wagon wheel at the dome of the Great Temple glittering in moonlight, red as the helmets and breastplates of the patrolling soldiers. As he watched, the bell in the lofty tower swayed and tolled the fourth hour since the turn of night— the last hour of darkness.

Vincus was somewhat early; the call to First Prayer was not for several minutes. He would have to wait until the clerics began their silent, ritual movement toward chamber and candlelit chapel. Then, when most of the residents' thoughts wool-gathered in peasant rite and pretty ceremony, he could cross the open courtyard undetected.

Vincus crawled up into the tilted bed of the wagon and, lying back in the sour straw, lifted and then settled his seamless silver collar so that it did not clank against the wood. The bright heavy circle was marked only by the common lettering of his name.

Vincus was a temple slave, and not a contented one.

For a year now, he had served as silent go-between in the usual tower intrigues, and in one case, he abetted the out.-and-out treason of an eccentric, superstitious priest from the west—a man strangely attuned to weather and seasons and growing things, more pleasant to him than any of those mush-faced, white-robed sycophants.

But in the end, all sides were the same to Vincus. All sides but his own. Daily, patiently, he awaited an opportunity either to steal enough to pay off his father's debts or somehow to break the silver collar, the sign of Temple slavery that neither smith nor armorer would dare loosen. If he were free of that collar, he could flee into the city shadows, let his hair grow back and lose himself among the narrow side streets and alleys and winding sewers he knew so well.

His chance would come. Not tonight, but soon, he knew.

Meanwhile, this hiding place was odorous, but at least it was comfortable. He had waited in far worse surroundings: in the dark rat-infested cellar of an ale-house, in the cobwebbed rafters of a foul-smelling tannery, once even neck-deep in oily harbor water, clinging for his life to the treacherously barnacled side of a moored ship.

The ship had been the worst, for Vincus was no swimmer, and the barnacles had cut and savaged his hands.

With that memory in mind, the wagon bed seemed suddenly more than sufficient. Scarcely an hour from now, while the clergy droned and murmured in the first foolish rite of the day and the hard-hatted soldiers drowsed at their assigned guard posts, he could cross the courtyard virtually unnoticed. Slipping from shadow to shadow, he could scale the outer wall, stroll through the garden to the braided green silk rope dangling from the high window that would be left open for him, and there, in the shadow of vallenwood branches, scramble up the tower wall like a burglar. For wasn't that what he was? A thief of secret thoughts?

Vincus laughed silently and closed his eyes, rustling into the soft, makeshift mattress. He could drowse now, for his days on the streets of Istar had taught him to sleep with a strange vigilance. Soft sounds three blocks away tumbled like dreams through the edge of his senses, and Vincus took note of each of them: the low chuckling of a pigeon stirring in sleep, the scuttling of a rat amid the offal in an alley. The sound of a dagger drawn from a gilded sheath.

Instantly, Vincus's golden eyes popped open. His right hand slowly reached to a fold in his tunic, where he kept his homemade leather sling and six stones. Once again motionless, assured his weapon was there, he turned his head with agonizing slowness to the slit in the wagon's side, where the boards had long ago shrunk and parted. From there he watched the mouths of the alleys, listening for metal on metal again, for a clue to the sound's direction in the directionless dark. He fought down his fearful imaginings. Perhaps it was another patrol, this time with dogs or Irda or minotaur. Or a ghost. After all, the city was said to be deep with the roving dead. Maybe an evil god, set on a cruel and arbitrary hunt. Hiddukel of the broken scales. Chemosh of the undead, his yellowed skull agleam in torchlight.

Vincus closed his eyes, banished all the fears. Had the kindly Vaananen not taught him that such gods could not prosper against him?

Kick them in the backside, I will, he thought. And send them packing to the Abyss. You are safe, Vincus, he reminded himself. You have not come this far to be abandoned. Your chance will come.

Finally, he heard the dagger replaced, the sound scarcely in range and nearly lost in the clatter of hoofbeats from a passing rider.

Traveling away, Vincus thought. Whoever it is. Traveling toward the School of the Games. He relaxed, staring past the foul straw up into the city sky. Faintly, through the ash and smoke and torchlight, he caught a glimmer of stars in the northern sky. Bright Sirrion floated through the constellated harp of Branchala, as though the old planet played accompaniment to this sly nocturnal business. It was curious tidings Vincus had gathered tonight for Vaananen at the Temple. Dissent in the ranks. First threat to the rebels. Try as he might—and Vincus was shrewd and inventive—he could not piece together a story out of the fragments he had heard. An Istarian mercenary captain, an augurer, and a seller of salt in the Marketplace—three conversations had spawned three versions of a rumor. Each story seemed somehow linked with the others, sharing a common substance like the facets of a crystal, but again like facets, each shed diverging and fractured truth.

But it was not Vincus's job to piece together the evidence. Calmly and silently he waited to deliver it, while the fiery old planet passed through the starry harp and the last hour of the night turned into the first of the morning.

The tower bells tolled that first hour, and the city of Istar wakened slowly in the early morning darkness. In the corridors of the great marble temple, dozens of white-robed figures filed down the shining steps from the Outer Tower toward the Sacred Chamber, the underground sanctuary in which the Kingpriest and the principal clerics of Istar greeted every new day with First Prayer. The torches that lined the stairwell and the corridors smoked and sputtered, and among the clergy were many who nodded or shuffled sleepily, wrested from hard sleep and comfortable beds by ritual demand. At other places in the temple and in the city, more clergy gathered in similar ceremony, but those in the Sacred Chamber were the chosen, the elite whose service to Istar had spanned years, decades—in some cases, even the reigns of several Kingpriests.

At an hour more daylit or in a place less secure, the guards might have counted the white robes that entered the chamber that morning. Had they done so, they would have found that four of the number were missing, and that the infirmaries of the temple accounted for only three of the absent clergy. But the hour was early, the guards as drowsy as the celebrants. The bronze-armored sentries nodded and blinked and closed the doors to the chamber at the appointed time, never knowing that one whose presence was expected—the cleric Vaananen of Near Qualinesti—had chosen not to attend the morning's ceremonies.

Instead, Brother Vaananen remained in his meditation chamber, stirring the fine white sand in his rena garden.

Vaananen was a westerner, and therefore seemed quite austere to some of the others in the brotherhood—mainly the Istarians who were spoiled by the city's soft ways and easy living. He was a tall, spare man, with long black-and-silver hair, which he kept clubbed neatly at his neck. His eyes were moss green and seemed to fill his entire face.

Vaananen smiled frequently, but always in secret, under his ample hood. He was a disguised druid working among the clerics, a man whose solitary pursuits made for few friends. All the better.

His druidic masters had set him in Istar with the purpose of salvaging any ancient texts from the Kingpriest's destructive edicts. Secretly, painstakingly, Vaananen copied what he could find, translating from rune and glyph into the common alphabet, and smuggling the new-made books out by silent courier and under other covers and titles.

Of late, he had found new things to do as well.

Vaananen's chamber was sparely and beautifully appointed: a small carved cot, a handmade teak table and copy desk, an exquisite stained glass lamp, and the rena garden—a simple, ten-foot-square recession in the floor, filled with sharp-grained white sand and punctuated with cacti and three large but movable stones, each of which represented one of the moons.

The secret of the garden was an old sylvan magic, perfected among the elves who, in the Age of Dreams, brought the sand into the forest to build the first of the renas. These elves had also known the true meaning of the stones: that the black stone was

augury, foretelling with the fractured, fitful light of divination, while the red stone told the past, its vision warped by the many versions of history. The white stone showed the present, showed what was happening someplace, usually unknown, a hundred feet or a thousand miles from the reader. Moving slowly, carefully over the bright sand, Vaananen stirred circles with one foot. He bent, hoisted the red stone, and set it beside the white. Then, seating himself on the black stone, he stared across the broken expanse of sand, reading the fresh geometry of dune and ripple, the violet shadows cast by the stones.

The rena garden was now only a relaxation tool among the human clergy of Qualinesti. Absorbed and tamed into the Istarian theocracy, it was little more than a sedative, its true ancient powers forgotten. Now the sand and the abstract positioning of the stones were supposed to calm the mind for contemplation, create a serenity in much the same way as, say, growing flowers or watching a waterfall. Vaananen stared intently at the red, lava-pocked stone.

Sedative, indeed. The Istarian brothers did not know the half of it.

He passed a hand over the large, squat cactus in the center of the sand, feeling its aura of moisture and expectancy.

Rain. Rain within the hour.

But still no rain in the desert.

Slowly he stood, pacing softly about the garden, his eyes on the center of the square, where the combed dunes spiraled tightly like a whirlpool around the three glyphs he had drawn in the sand. Rolling up the white sleeves of his robe, Vaananen rubbed off a patch of concealing potion on the inside of his left wrist and focused on the red oak leaf tattooed there. He had hidden this mark from his comrades for the six years he had served with the Kingpriest's clergy. The red oak leaf. The druid's hand.

Vaananen focused, and the glyphs glowed and shimmered and then disappeared. Now, miles away, they would rest in the floor of the kanaji.

The rebels would find water now. They would also learn of the Istarian withdrawals. Briskly, without ceremony, he crouched and raked over the smooth sand where the glyphs had been. The area once again matched the rest of the garden's surface.

From the rumors that swirled about the temple, through the corridors, towers, and the roseate Audience Hall of the Kingpriest, Vaananen was certain that all his meticulously drawn symbols had done their distant work.

So it had been for years.

His heart had gone out to the eccentric, alien Plainsman lad who had found the ancient kanaji, the boy who searched for water. And so, through the first years of Fordus's Water Prophecy, Vaananen had guided the young man, and with druidic augury located the underground sources of water for the Que-Nara, informing Fordus through glyph and kanaji.

When, after the inexplicable dream a year ago, the Water Prophet became the War Prophet, and the rebellion against Istar began, the druid had begun to shroud even more information in the ancient symbols: the location of Istarian troops and their movements. He also kept a constant warding spell upon the golden tore around Fordus's neck. This, too, was magic at a distance, and the druid's sleep was fitful and unsettled as his incantations protected the wandering Plainsman from the elements, the Istarians ...

And from something else, far more grim and dark and powerful. Vaananen was not sure exactly what this larger menace was, but he had his suspicions.

Zeboim, perhaps. Or Hiddukel. Or an evil god even more powerful. Of one thing Vaananen was certain. He was safe, and so were the rebels he protected, only as long as he was beneath Istarian notice. So he stayed obscure and low, and helped Fordus quietly.

Obviously, the lad had a gift. He could discover both weather and tactics in the shimmering lines on the sand. And then the elf would translate Fordus's reverie, and the Plainsmen would travel, and Istar would fall to another desert defeat.

So it had been, and so it was.

With his finger he traced the next of the spirals inward, then sat back on his heels. Slowly, the sand began to boil and turn about the white stone.

Good, the druid thought. A sign from the present.

Suddenly, the white stone dulled and grayed, its brilliance transformed to a sick, fish-belly white, and the whirling sand sent out ripple after ripple, the white stone sinking slowly into the garden until it rested at the bottom of a widening coil of sand.

Then the stone itself began to bristle and swell. Vaananen watched in horrified fascination as the thing sprouted eight white, rootlike legs, which suddenly began to twitch and wave ... Like the funnel trap of a springjaw, the druid thought, and felt the hair on his arms rise. Peace. Tis but a vision.

Yet despite himself, Vaananen shrank from the image. A human form appeared at the edge of the whirlpool, a wavering translucent shape like a mirage on the desert horizon. The apparition scrambled vainly.toward the top of the sandy whirlpool, the springjaw clambering after it, its smaller set of fangs clacking hungrily.

"Fordus!" Vaananen whispered, stepping forward in alarm. He knew that somewhere this was actually happening. The rebel was fighting with a monster. Here in his chamber, powerless to help, the druid could only watch and hope.

And breathe the warding over the distant tore.

At the edge of the eddying sand, the ghostly man clutched, grappled, slid back. The springjaw scrambled toward him, a dull light shining in its great green eye. Huge, sand-colored, and insectlike, it scrabbled at the bottom of a funneling pit, its ragged jaws opening like a crab's claw, like a Ner-akan mantrap. Fordus lurched toward the lip of the pit and safety as the creature reared and plunged, its huge mandibles encircling his ankle, widening, arching ...

"Watch the other eyes . . ." Vaananen muttered, staring at the dull black orbs resting behind the false, brilliant eyes of the springjaw. The black eyes, the true ones, would signal the attack. He breathed a prayer that Fordus would know this as well.

The great jaws hinged and wavered over the Plainsman's leg. Sliding down the sandy incline, Fordus snatched an axe from his belt, pivoted, and hurled the weapon solidly into the thorax of the attacking monster. The springjaw roared, staggered back, its black eyes rolling swiftly beneath the chiti-nous exoskeleton of the head.

"Now!" the druid cried, and thirty miles away, in the heart of the desert, the Prophet felt the tore at his neck quiver and draw him up. With a last burst of furious energy, Fordus set his other foot on the springjaw's head and pushed. Crying out as the swiftly closing jaw flayed the skin of his ankle, the Plainsman rolled clear of the trap, pulling himself onto level ground as the springjaw slid back into crumbling darkness. He sat on the edge of the sand funnel, thankful to be alive, clutching his wounded foot.

Which already was beginning to swell with the monster's poison.

Vaananen leaned forward, trying vainly to judge the severity of the wound. But the white sand whirled in the other direction, and slowly the stone rose to the surface of the garden. Innocent and mute, it lay where the druid had placed it, next to the red stone, where its shadow formed a soothing pattern on the manicured sand.

Vaananen exhaled. The vision was over. The sand was smooth, featureless again. He was alone and safe in his sparely appointed room, the shadows on the walls lengthening and deepening as the colored lamplight dwindled.

Vaananen raised his head at the soft sound on the windowsill. Vincus gracefully lowered himself into the room.

"What did you bring me?" the druid asked, smiling and turning to face his visitor. The young man's dark hands flashed quickly, racing through an array of ancient hand-signs.

"Of course you may sit," Vaananen said, chuckling as he detected the smell of sour hay. "And the pitcher of lemon-water on the table is for you."

Vincus drank eagerly, then seated himself on the druid's cot. Swiftly his hands moved from sign to sign, like a mage's gestures before some momentous conjury.

"So they all mention this dissent among the rebels," Vaananen mused. "Mercenary, augurer, salt seller—same story."

Vincus nodded.

Vaananen turned slowly back to the sand. "But no more than a passing word?" Vincus shook his head, then noticed the druid's back was to him. He shrugged and took another drink of the water.

"And what do you make of it, Vincus?" Vaananen asked, glancing over his shoulder. The young man flashed three quick, dramatic signs in the lamplit air, and the druid laughed softly.

"Nor do I. But you have done your job. Now I must do mine." Vincus gestured at the water pitcher.

"Of course," the druid replied. "Have all you like. Then you should leave quickly, the same way, I think. Prayers are short in these times, and your master will expect you in his quarters." A scowl passed over the open face of the young man. Balandar, Vincus's master, was not unkind, and his library boasted the best collections among the Istarian clergy. But servitude was servitude, and it went hard to trade the freedom of the streets and the night for confinement and the slave collar—even if the collar was made of shining silver.

Vaananen turned away uncomfortably. In a moment Vincus would climb back through the window and into the garden. He would reach Balan-dar's quarters in plenty of time to make the fire, pour wine from a rare and valuable stock for the ancient cleric, then set out his robes for the next morning. In an hour, old Balandar would be snoring, and Vincus would recover the time—for reading, for sleeping or eating. For anything but freedom. Vaananen did not like to think about it.

Vincus's father had died in servitude, and the Kingpriest had visited the man's punishment on the next generation, but unlike the elves miles below them, digging into rock and oblivion, Vincus could have his freedom eventually. Someday, he vowed silently, Vincus will go free.

Carefully, the druid traced the glyphs once more in the pristine sand. Fordus would live. He had to. And he would need water and tactics at once.

The Tine. The sign that would take him to the ancient dried fork of the river. There was water underground. Easy enough.

Third day of Solinari was more complex. The compressed, multiple meaning of the glyph. Water three feet below the surface, Istarian forces three days away...

Blanking his mind, Vaananen looked at the third symbol.

No Wind. Favorable weather, favorable strategy. The principal Istarian force lay miles and miles away, regrouped in defensive positions.

Good news on all fronts—news to be sent to Fordus over the miles.

But there was also this unsettling news Vincus had brought to him.

Rocking back on his heels, the druid inspected his handiwork. He needed a fourth glyph, to show warning.

He drew the chitinous exoskeleton, the antennae, the wide, hinged mandibles. Springjaw. It would be fresh in Fordus's mind.

Beware. The ground is unsteady.

Chapter 7

Three days into Fordus's absence, the rebel camp grew more and more uneasy. They were nomads, and three days in one place was too long. The livestock had grazed the scrub completely to the cracked and stony ground, and the last water was nearly gone. All the while, the camp was abuzz with new arrivals, as Plainsmen from all over the region came and went in Fordus's itinerant quarters. It was not unusual for Fordus to be gone a day, perhaps even overnight. The rebels were accustomed to their commander's retreats into the desert fastness: Fordus leaving Stormlight in charge and departing for the kanaji, to the level lands beyond, in search of water or, sometimes, enlightenment. Frequently, after a night alone in the wasteland, fasting and meditating, he returned to the encampment exhausted but strangely alert, speaking cryptically of his desert visions.

The elf would give them words of direction, settle poetry into policy, oracle into tactics. Then the battles would follow, and the victories. It had been that way since Fordus became the War Prophet. It was the way things worked when they needed water. But this time they were three nights waiting, in the wake of their most costly victory.

Even Larken began to watch the horizons with more than a little fear. Apprehension spread like poison through the rebel camp, and Stormlight gathered scouts and outrunners to search for the missing commander. However, a different sort of gathering took place where the plains tumbled down into desert, not a mile from the site of the recent bloody battle. Just north of the grassy rise where Fordus had watched the battle unfold, scarcely an hour before sunrise on the second day of his absence, two Istar-ian cavalrymen rode south toward the Tine, cloaked in black against the fitful white moonlight. They were lean veterans of a dozen campaigns, hard and cynical and almost impossible to fool, borne by a mysterious summons to a moonlit council with the enemy. They had come to this spot in the boulder-strewn rubble, awaiting the man who approached them now on foot and alone, trudging across a wide expanse of packed sand and sawgrass.

"No place for 'em to hide an escort, sir," the older of the cavalrymen observed. Absently, he stroked the sergeant's bar on the shoulder of his breastplate. "There's a mile between him and the cover of shadow." The younger man nodded. He was the officer, the one in charge. By reflex, he rested a gloved hand on the hilt of his sword and traced the cold carving on it.

There was something very odd about this walking stranger. He moved heavily through the uneven terrain, never once dodging briar or gully. He did not break stride—not until he was within hailing distance. Then, in a low, conversational voice, he greeted the Istarians.

"The time is now, gentlemen," he declared. His amber, slitted eyes narrowed, and he drew the black silk tunic close around him as cover against the desert night. "The time is now, if you're men enough to seize it."

"Come with us," the officer demanded curtly. "Tell me what you know." The man stood his ground and turned stiffly to his left, his black hair cascading over his face, and pointed to a mesa low and dark on the horizon.

"The rebels are there," he announced, ignoring the circling horses. "Camped at the base of Red Plateau. It's been three days since they've seen For-dus Firesoul, and in his absence a dozen warring factions have sprung up in the camp. The old guard, the ones with Fordus since he became the Prophet, they all follow Stormlight and Larken. But some of the Que-Nara and many of the barbarians are looking to Northstar, while the bandits go with Gormion. And then . . ." the informer concluded, pausing meaningfully, "there are those of us ... secretly loyal to Istar. Those whose future is tied intimately to the fortunes of the Kingpriest." • The Istarians exchanged a skeptical glance and a curled smile.

"I tell you, their commander is missing," the informer insisted. " 'Tis now, or 'tis a long and bloody war, I tell you. I offer you a great gift!"

The officer considered this ultimatum. A dozen miles to the north, the defeated Istarian army huddled against the outer walls of the city, awaiting reinforcements recalled posthaste from their stations along the Thoradin border. Until relief arrived, the decimated remnants of Istar's pride crouched nervously at their campsites, imagining rebels in the shadows of rocks, in the moonlit tilt of the grass. No. Though something about the informer's words edged on the truth, the time to attack was not now. And yet. ..

Accustomed to quick, uncompromised decision, the young Istarian officer resolved the issue at once. He would send this veiled informer packing, then follow at a distance.

"What you advise is impossible," he said.

The man scowled. "And why?"

"I owe you no explanation."

"You already regret your decision," the informer growled, pointing a pale, almost translucent finger at the two men on horseback.

The officer did not reply, his gaze on the distant plateau. Out there, if the informer spoke the truth, hundreds of rebels camped by fires carefully banked and concealed so that their collected light would not lift the purple shadows on the horizon. "After all," he finally said, "how do we know that you are not sent to lure us into even greater troubles? Perhaps you are Fordus himself!" He laughed mockingly. Angrily, the informer turned away, casting a last venomous glance over his shoulder. He moved quickly and silently back into the desert, a dark shape passing over the moonlit sands. The cavalrymen sat silently atop their horses until, on a dune at the farthest reaches of sight, the informer stopped and lifted his arms to the cloudy heavens.

"Dramatic sort, ain't he, sir?" the sergeant asked with a chuckle. There was no answer.

For a long, idle moment, the sergeant watched the horizon. "Shall we follow him, sir?" he asked, turning slowly toward the younger man.

Who had vanished entirely.

The officer's mare stood wide-eyed and trembling, black powder tumbling from her saddle, pooling on the ground in a murky pyramid, rising with a horrifying symmetry as though it lay in the bottom of a bewitched hourglass.

A bronze Istarian breastplate rocked pitifully on the hard ground, a helmet and a pair of white gloves not a dozen feet away.

Inanely, the sergeant reached for his sword.

A lone nightbird wheeled above, the moonlight silver on its extended wings. Poison. Delicious poison.

The venom of ten thousand years flowed through the Dark Queen as, in her faceted, crystalline body, she stalked across the desert's edge toward the distant fires of the Plainsmen. She thought of the dead cavalryman with glee and relish.

Such to all, Plainsman or Istarian, who crossed her purposes. Especially the one who escaped her springjaw minion.

Such to the gods themselves who stood in her way.

In the starlit dome of the desert sky, the son of the goddess tilted into view, still invisible to the mundane eye—to human and elf, to dwarf and kender. Even the most powerful sorceries would strain to locate the black moon, for Nuitari awaited his time, eluding eye and glass and augury, the deluded forecasts of Istarian astrologers.

But Takhisis could see him, of course, as he glided high overhead, obscuring bright Sirrion and Shinare in his passage.

Her son. Her dark pride.

From his birth, Nuitari had been the wedge between her and her consort, the black incident in the Age of Starbirth that drove apart Takhisis and Sargonnas before the world began. Oh, I won that battle at the waking of time, Takhisis thought. And I shall win all battles hence. The dark moon had been her oath, her promise to the other gods. To seal their agreement to never again make war on the face of the planet, each family of gods had agreed to create a child who would become blood-brother to the children created by the other families. Bound in kinship and in covenant, they would bless the world of Krynn with magic.

The silver child of Paladine and Mishakal, bright Solinari, was the first to ascend into the heavens. This eldest child showered forth a warm, beneficent magic, and the people of Paladine, the highborn elves, had lifted their arms to the descending moonlight. And the humans, the Youngest Born, had lifted their arms as well to the red light of Lunitari, the child born of Gilean the Book, chief god of the neutral pantheon.

Both of them sailed through the heavens now, aloft in an egg of silver and an egg of scarlet. When they hatched, the moons—husks of the gods, the ancient philosophers would call them—sailed through the skies of Krynn as refuge and home for the godlings ...

And, in the binding age of the Kingpriest, their prisons.

But this was long before Istar, long before the Age of Might.

In the void above the whirling planet, Takhisis and Sargonnas had created the child. Their coupling was joyless, loveless, for already both gods had fallen away from one another into the dark abyss of themselves. In a dark cloud above the swelling Courrain, the goddess had overwhelmed her consort with a powerful magic, and forced Sargonnas to bear the child.

For a day and a night, the great scavenging god had lingered in the cloud of steam and volcanic ash, the miasma hovering sullenly over the ocean surface. Takhisis, watchful in her strange motherhood, circled the cloud and waited, as deafening cries of labor and rage burst forth from the eddying darkness. For a day and a night and another day, she circled and waited, her hidden consort bellowing and vowing vengeance.

"Let it come," Takhisis taunted. "Oh, let your worst return to me, Sargonnas. I shall forego the pain and the labor, and when you have fulfilled your part...

"The spirit of the child will be mine alone."

At sunset on the second day, as the ocean waters flamed with the setting sun, the golden egg of the Condor sailed from the cloud.

The third moon. Nuitari the gold.

She remembered it well. How the great Condor, steaming and reeking with volcanic fire, had circled over the golden egg, menacing and boding.

"No, Takhisis!" Sargonnas had challenged, for the first time defying her, setting his contemptible, smoldering form against her will and desire. "I have borne this thing through magic and darkness and searing pain! I shall foster it, and it will be my emissary in the night sky of Krynn." She had not expected the rage that rose up and nearly choked her. The eastern sands of the Ansalon coastline, those rocky beaches that would in time become Mithas and Kothas, islands of minotaurs, blackened in the heat of her passing wings as she swooped and circled the despicable rebel, the traitorous god and his bright, golden trophy.

"Nuitari is mine!" she shrieked in reply, and the Worldscap Mountains erupted with the first volcanoes.

"Mine, do you hear?" Lightning riddled the evening sky, and for the first time the forest crackled, struck by the kindling heat from the heavens. "Or I shall destroy the thing. Shell and godling and all!" The two gods circled the golden oval, the black batwings of Takhisis whirling in narrowing circles about the matted, smoking feathers of the scavenger, who fanned the ocean air with the stench of carrion.

"You would not destroy the godling," Sargonnas croaked, fire and sunlight brindling over his mottled apterium. "Not when you could master him!"

"You contemptible parasite!" spat the goddess. "You gem-hoarding adjunct] You sniveling, emulous, dunghill fowl\"

Fire raced through the salty air and scattered, and Sargonnas perched atop the sailing golden egg, mantling his wings above the bright treasure.

" 'Would not destroy the godling,' you say?" Takhisis rumbled. "I will show you all my compassion, Sargonnas. I will show you the abundance of my heart."

Arching in the sky, her black wings shadowing the older moons, Takhisis drew the ocean wind into her lungs and belched forth a column of black fire. For a moment the condor and his glittering prize vanished in the dark blaze, and the heavens fluttered and extinguished. Deprived of sunlight and star, the planet cooled and frosted, and the deepest winter settled on Ansalon, unnatural in the month of Summer Run. But slowly, because the goddess was not the only force on Krynn, the stars returned one by one, the first ones rising in the constellation of the Dragon, then the surrounding luminaries and, finally, the planets and the moons.

A dark shape hung in the heavens, its burnt wings still brooding above the egg, above the blackened shell and the seared godling within.

Nuitari was never the same after that. Dark-haired and sickly, suffering a fiery malady in the depths of his lungs and throat, he spoke in hoarse whispers from the first days, from his hatching time. So Takhisis remembered as she passed over the unsettled sands. Above her the dark moon drifted furtively between the stars, and she looked up approvingly at the twisted path of her son. Sargonnas had been right.

Why destroy the child you can bend to your will completely?

She thought of the Kingpriest in his high tower, counting the opals that would bring her to the surface of Krynn.

She glided toward the lights of campfires, and a solitary bird, circling over her cautiously, called softly and sped away.

The same bird shrieked again as it sailed over For-dus, who knelt on the floor of the kanaji. Exhausted and much the worse for his struggle with the springjaw, his grazed ankle swelling with a trace of the creature's poison, Fordus had struggled to the edge of the Tears of Mishakal. There he found the kanaji, and there he waited for the glyphs amid the strange, chiming music of the wind over the salt crystals, the lights of the camp a mile away glowing on the other side of the Tears. Fordus closed his eyes. Clutching his ankle, he stared at the windswept sand in the open, circular chamber. For a terrifying moment, he confused it with the springjaw's lair and then remembered where he was. But his ankle had been touched by a plume of the acid that was the clumsy springjaw's other defense.

"Come forth," he muttered finally, teeth clenched.

And then, the new glyphs formed in the eddying sand.

The Tine. The sign for water. Of that he was sure.

Third day of Solinari.

That was more puzzling. But when he gave it voice in the midst of his people, when Stormlight heard the prophecy and interpreted it in the common language, his mind would know what his heart now sensed here in the kanaji.

No Wind.

It was a mystery to him, an obscure arrangement of shape and line and half-resemblance. And then, emerging from the pristine, level sand, came a fourth, extraordinary glyph. Springjaw.

Fordus blinked in confusion. But it had already happened! The funnel, the ground giving way beneath him

...

This fiery sting in his ankle and the rising fever.

Slowly he set his thoughts aside—this time with more difficulty, as the pain in his foot and his leg thrust him again and again into the labyrinth of his mind, into doubts and fears that the words would not come, that Stormlight and Larken would not find him, that the gods themselves had turned away. Instead, he stared at the symbols, closed his eyes. There. He had it. The four glyphs were committed to memory, and then as always, they vanished immediately, leaving the floor of the pit clean and unruffled. Fordus tightened the neck of his robe, his opal collar hot and constricting. He could not remove the tore. Long ago the glyphs had warned of dire consequence if he did so. But he was pained and uncomfortable. His fever made the desert chill almost unbearable.

Fordus tried to stand, and suddenly the kanaji rocked with a red light, throwing him back to his knees. He closed his eyes and saw the acid spurt again, eating relentlessly into the flesh of his booted ankle. Leaning against the limestone wall, he pulled himself up on his feet again. Have to get out of here, he thought. Into the light. Into the air.

Get home. Get warm.

Painfully, his skin hurting with every touch of his robe, he crawled out of the pit and rested—for a minute, ten minutes, an hour?—on the baked earth at its rim. Dimly his fevered mind registered the faint music of the salt crystals, and for a while, he slept or tried to sleep.

Again the dream came to him. The lake of fire. The spindle bridge. The dark, winged form, the flattery and coaxing . . . the promise of finding out who he was.

Briefly, in the flitting fashion of delirium, it seemed like Racer stepped into his dream. Grizzled and venomous, his wrinkled face a sinkhole of malice, Racer shuffled onto the narrow bridge and into the winged shadow, his spindly ancient form commingling with the strange, birdlike cloud until Racer became the condor, the condor Racer.

No. No unexpected dreams.

Fordus woke and stood, drunkenly lurching toward the shimmering stones and the camp and safety. Not a hundred yards into his desperate effort, the cracked earth seemed to rise, to trip him, and he fell to his hands and knees, clambering over the ground like a scorpion, like a monstrous crab. He reached the level top of the small rise. Ahead, the Tears of Mishakal seemed hazy, even more distant, as though in trying to run toward them he had in fact run in the opposite direction. Fordus looked back, toward the kanaji.

A wide expanse of desert land lay between him and the standing rock and baked, cracked earth, its red-brown surface scored with an intricate webbing of lines.

For a moment, on the horizon, Fordus thought he saw Kestrel. He raised his hand, shouted or thought he shouted ...

Then he remembered that his foster father was two years dead, buried at the ancient dry fork of the Tine. Then who . . . ?

Kestrel's form wavered at the edge of his sight, like a rain cloud. Slowly another form took shape inside it—another man, dressed in brilliant white, his robes dispelling the shadow like smoke in the wind. Fordus stared at the man until his eyes hurt. A midsized man, balding, with sky-blue . . . No, sea-blue eyes . . .

Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the image was gone, leaving the bare desert bathed in the eerie moonlight, a desolate flatland that stretched for as far as Fordus could see. His fever still torrid, the Water Prophet stared absently at the cracked earth until the cracks themselves began to take shape.

A glyph. Then another.

The whole desert has become my kanaji, Fordus thought incoherently, triumphantly. He began to read the wavering lines on the earth.

One resembled a tower. The other a chair.

In swift hallucinatory fashion, Fordus put a meaning together.

"I shall sit on the throne of Istar," he breathed. "I have waited for this summons.

"The rule of empire awaits me. The world has become my kanaji, my ground of visions. I shall lift the tyranny of the Kingpriest...

"And I shall rule in his stead. I know who I am. I am the Kingpriest." All messages of water forgotten, Fordus rolled exultantly onto his back, staring up at the reeling heavens. The earth had spoken, naming him rightful Kingpriest of Istar.

It was glorious news.

What he had found was better than water.

He was the Prophet and he was the prophecy.

Above him, the hawk banked and rushed on a high wind back to the rebel camp. At his mistress's orders, Lucas was searching for the commander, guided by faint, barely comprehensible voices on the edge of the wind. The hawk heard a dozen languages breathed into the air: the sleepy muttering of an elf-child somewhere in the darkness beneath Istar, the last gurgled sigh of a merchant murdered on the edge of the desert, the quiet sermons of the high grass and the ancient vallenwoods far, far to the south in Silvanost.

Among these sounds arose at last the murmur of the Water Prophet, strange, distracted talk of runes and water and the fall of cities.

Lucas found him on a flat stretch of desert south of the Tears. Sharp-eyed and vigilant, the hawk saw Fordus crawling and babbling, coming to rest at last on a rise midway between the salt flats and the standing stone from which he had been returning.

He seemed to be talking to someone, but there was nobody there.

Chapter 8

The hawk swooped through the firelight, and the smoke, and rising cinders scattered in his path. With a shrill, whistling cry, glowing red and amber in the midst of his nightfire, Lucas swept over the rebel campsite like a meteor, startling sentries, rousing the bandits from talk of discontent and sullen conspiracy. Gormion, crouched at dice in a circle of her followers, looked up sullenly and made a warding sign with a flash of silver bracelets, while Rann and Aeleth reached instinctively for their weapons. Larken was standing by Northstar and Stormlight at the arroyo's edge. She heard Lucas's cry, lifted her padded glove, and braced to receive the bird. With a sudden, graceful dive and an upsweep, the hawk struck hard on the underside of the glove, bells jingling while his talons fastened in the layered wool and leather. Then he murmured and pulled himself upright, Larken adjusting his jesses until he perched comfortably on her arm.

Despite her strength and preparation, Larken had staggered this time when the hawk landed. Her arm still shocked a bit, Larken began to look the bird over, spreading his feathers with her ashy fingers, making sure Lucas had not been attacked by a larger raptor. Northstar and Stormlight stepped back apprehensively.

The hawk leaned against his mistress, crying softly like a waking child into her coarse, matted hair. Larken stopped her inspection and listened.

Fordus is approaching, she signed, translating Lucas's cry. He is near, but there is a cloud above him. Lucas saw no more of the Prophet.

"But he saw other things."

The bird's eyes glittered greenly.

"Then sing us that sight, Larken," Northstar urged.

The bard glanced uncomfortably at her younger cousin. For Northstar, the solutions were easy: he read the stars, the paths of the desert, and his destination was mapped. He did not understand the wild moment in which the singer gives her heart to the bird, when the light expands, when the hawk's cry becomes words and the words become song.

When you sing because you cannot choose otherwise.

Almost unwillingly, in a soft voice unaccompanied by her drum, Larken began the hawk's song. The music was an old sea chantey from Balifor— somehow she remembered the music—but the words, as always, were new and fresh, gaining power as they came to her in the firelit dark of the campsite. The dark man in the desert The dark man on the plain The dark man in the gap of the sky Is no dark man. His home is not in moonlight His home is not in sun The dark man on the grassy hill Is no dark man. O his arms are stone and water O his blood is stone and sand The dark man in the circled camp Is no dark man.

As swiftly as they had come, the words ceased. Lucas fluffed contentedly, the last of his ruddy light sprinkling onto the desert floor, and the fires themselves seemed to contract once more around the huddled campsites. Larken placed the bird on his perch and sat down, resting her face in her hands. Already she could barely remember what she had sung, for the words had risen unbidden, had passed through her like light through a faceted glass.

The eyes of the listeners turned to Stormlight, who stared silently into the fire. This time the elf was not sure of the meanings. This was an exotic musing of bard and bird. It was like a foreign language he almost knew.

Stormlight cleared his throat, the white lucerna lifting from his golden eyes./'There is a spy come in the midst of us," he declared. "Someone who is not what he seems. That's what the hawk was saying, as I follow it. Yes. That is what the bird said."

Larken and Northstar exchanged an uncomfortable glance.

"A spy," Stormlight repeated, this time with more certainty. Tamex stepped into the firelight.

The hawk cried out, and raised his wings high, his hooked beak open and threatening. At one moment, the firelit margins of air seemed to waver and glimmer, and then Tamex was among them, visible, tangible. Silently he moved into full view, his black silk tunic shimmering. He shook the dust from the tops of his boots and scanned the circle of rebels indifferently. The firelight glowed through his skin, and for a moment, the sharp-eyed Northstar thought that the warrior's fingers seemed crooked and arched, like talons.

Who was this man, born of the midnight desert?

"The dark man," Stormlight breathed. "Who is not what he seems." Larken shot him a sullen look. And then she flushed, uncertain why she wanted to defend this man. Tamex turned to meet them, black eyes angry and glittering like polished onyx. Gormion, Rann, and Aeleth, never true loyalists to Fordus or his officers, rose to stand beside Tamex, their hands already on the hilts of their weapons.

"Where have you been, warrior?" Stormlight asked, his voice cold and low. Tamex shrugged. The bandits closed behind him.

At a nearby campfire, three Plainsmen rose and, clutching their spears, walked slowly, menacingly, toward Gormion, casting wavering shadows over the warring lights.

Something brushed Stormlight's shoulder. North-star had appeared beside him. Though more scout than warrior, the young man was ready to do his part—knife drawn and keen eyes shifting alertly over the dark man and his bandit following.

Larken watched with rising alarm, and Lucas whistled uneasily.

The two warriors—the elf and the pale, mysterious Tamex—were locked in a stare that could end only in combat.

Then the cry of a sentry fractured the tense silence, and nearly all eyes whipped toward the sound. The young Plainsman atop the Red Plateau pointed north and shouted.

"Cavalry! Two hundred from the north!"

Tamex broke off the stare with Stormlight and smiled wickedly. So they had come, after all. Trained by the Solamnics over the three centuries of their alliance, the Istarian cavalry were almost as brilliant, as swift and effective as their teachers. Accomplished swordsmen and deadly bowmen, they fought from horseback, frequently tied to the saddle to keep them astride their mounts in close combat. They were also much more ruthless than the Solamnics. A Solamnic Knight stayed his hand in occasional mercy against the enemy, whether man or elf or dwarf or even ogre, for his Oath told him "Est Sularus oth Mithas"—"My Honor is My Life."

Istarians, on the other hand, followed neither Oath nor Measure. The stories of their raids were horrible. Stormlight's heart sank at the sentry's alarm. For a brief moment he struggled for a plan, for the words to express it.

When Tamex seized that moment to begin shouting, the rebels jumped at his words.

"Smother the campfires!" the black-cloaked man ordered. Quickly Rann kicked sand over Gormion's banked fire, and throughout the campsite, the smoke disappeared from the night air.

"To the Plateau!" Stormlight ordered, but his words were lost in Tamex's bellowing cry—a voice inhumanly loud.

"Back to the Tears!" the dark man ordered. "We'll fight them from the rocks!" The old and the young abandoned their campfires and did what they were told, hurrying to the safe maze of standing crystal. Stormlight called to the surrounding Plainsmen, but they were already moving, following Tamex and Gormion toward the eerie field. It was five hundred yards from the campsite to the rocks, over level and open ground, but Tamex led the way, gathering barbarians and bandits as he skirted the edge of the salt flats. More campfires winked out to darkness, and then, at the edge of the camp, a column of Istarian torches wavered and bobbed and advanced.

"Plume! Stardancer!" Stormlight shouted, but the two young men lingered foolishly, ardent to shed Istarian blood. Desperately Stormlight grabbed for Stardancer, but the lad was too quick as he brushed past. A group of young Plainsmen and younger bandits, whooping and beckoning to the approaching torches, girded themselves for battle.

"You fools!" Stormlight shouted.

Then the sound of hoofbeats, distant at first, became deafening, inevitable. The first horse breasted into view, the bronze Istarian armor glistening in the torchlight. With a cry, Northstar wrestled the rider from his saddle, but the ropes that tied the Istarian in place tightened and held, and the startled horse galloped through the ashes of a smothered fire, dragging both men over the hard ground. Stormlight crouched in his fighting stance as a dozen cavalry took shape in the darkness. Bursting into the camp, swords drawn and spears readied, the riders tore into their quarry like leopards into a helpless herd of sheep. Young Plume fell with a scream, impaled on an Istarian spear, and an even younger boy, an orphan named Lightfoot, fell beside him. Indifferent as a storm or a desert wind, the horsemen hurdled the dying bodies on their way toward a handful of bandits clustered around Aeleth at the edge of the Tears of Mishakal.

"No!" Stormlight shouted, as the rebel resistance broke into rout and panic. Plainsman and barbarian—women, old men, and children, exposed in the open country between the campsite and the salt flats—fell before the swords of the Istarians as they scrambled through ash and sand and rubble. Their swords blooded with threescore innocents, the cavalry closed with Aeleth's bandits in a racket of war cries and clashing metal. The Tears echoed dolefully with the screams of the wounded and dying. Where are you, Fordus? Stormlight thought, racing toward Mishakal's Tears. You would know what to ... what to ...

He stopped in horror as a dark wind passed over him.

Tamex appeared and, hook-bladed kala raised aloft, rallied the rebels against the circling Istarians. The mysterious warrior, whose bravery and inventiveness had rescued two hundred noncombatants from the merciless cavalry, had apparently returned to avenge the deaths of those he could not save. As veiled and unsavory as the black-robed man might seem, at least he fought like a hero. The first strong sweep of his weapon drove an Istarian lancer from horseback, the saddle cords snapping with the force of the blow. Tamex wheeled like a ritual dancer, slowly and confidently blocking two spear thrusts and the downward swipe of a sword that seemed to pass through his arm but obviously did not, the blade shimmering bloodless and ineffectual in the firelight.

With a laugh that rang through the crystals, Tamex hooked his blade into the chest of the attacking swordsman, through shield and bronze and leather and bone. The Istarian fell, and the cavalry scattered before the strange and formidable champion.

Like a mythic figure from the Age of Huma, Tamex pivoted amid the horsemen, pulling one, two, a third from their saddles. Aeleth's bow felled another two, and Rann, his battle-rage enkindled by Tamex's valor, leapt up behind the saddle and slit the throat of a hapless officer.

Suddenly, the brazen call of a trumpet rose from the chaos of battlesound and resounding laughter. The Istarian commander rose in his stirrups, signaling frantically at his disorganized troops. One of Gormion's black:feathered arrows flashed through the moonlight and lodged in his shoulder, and the officer cried out and wheeled his horse back into the darkness.

Nor was Stormlight idle, as Tamex and the bandits turned the tide of the battle. Breathing a prayer to Branchala, the wiry elf raced between galloping horses and, with a powerful, high kick, drove his heel soundly into the helmet of an Istarian spearman,

shattering bronze and skull. The man toppled dead from the horse, and wrestling the animal under control, Stormlight mounted and galloped off after the escaping Istarian commander. And then it was all over, leaving an eerie silence, punctuated by only a few distant shouts and the soft cries of the dying.

Northstar and Larken cautiously waded through the grisly campsite, where the dark, clean sands of the Istarian desert had become a shambles, a slaughterhouse. Over a hundred rebels lay dead or dying among the extinguished fires. Over half of them were the very young and very old, unable to move with the quickness that the situation had demanded. The others, forty or so, were the young braves of the company—the blustering youths who had thrown themselves recklessly at the attacking enemy. Sprawled amid sand and ash, run through by short sword and cavalry spear, they were mute testimony to the fate of a leaderless army. The survivors—those the dark man had led into the Tears of Mishakal— returned to the camp slowly, soberly.

It could have been even worse, Larken signed to her cousin. Had not Tamex saved those he could, then rallied the bandits and come to our aid ...

Northstar turned to argue, but the sight of the black-robed man stopped his words. Framed in torchlight, Tamex stood haughtily before a mound of Istarian dead. Under his supervision, the bandits had spread through the battleground, gathering bodies for a huge, midnight pyre. Roughly, indifferently, they threw the last of the Istarian corpses on the heap, and Tamex signaled to the torchbearers, who crouched and ignited the kindling beneath the bodies. In the new, fitful light, the black-robed warrior watched the flames rise with a look that Northstar could only describe as exultant. His,broad arms folded across his chest, Tamex laughed softly. The fire touched the first of the dead, and the dark man's amber eyes flickered with their burning reflections. With an eye accustomed to reading the constellations, Northstar followed the flames to the heavens. Gilean was there, the starry Book in the height of the sky. Half encircling it, spread along the western sky, was Paladine's constellation, a huge and brilliant arc almost obscured by the clouds and the smoke. Northstar strained to see the eastern sky. There would be the sign of the Dark Lady, the stars in a dim and sinuous pattern always facing those of Pal-adine, as if in perpetual war . . . But the smoke was now too thick.

And yet something had changed up there.

As he gazed into the shrouded sky, Northstar shuddered with a cold and dark sensation. Something passed over him and through him. He was afraid again, afraid and weary. Suddenly he was dizzy; he lowered his gaze.

Tamex was staring at him, his eyes burning like distant, hostile stars. The shadow he cast in the fierce light of the fire was enormous, spreading.

For a moment, it seemed to have wings.

* * * * *

Fordus saw the first fires in the crystals.

He woke from another fevered dream, from a reverie of glyph and symbol, to desperate shouts on the wind. Somehow he had circled the rebel camp in his wandering, had strayed into the Tears of Mishakal. Through the gemlike landscape the cries

and screams intermingled with the chiming, then echoed off the facets of the farthest glassy growths. For a moment he did not know where he was. Blearily he scrambled to his feet, drank the last from his water flask, and looked for Larken, for Storm-light. His swollen foot gave beneath him, and he fell, clutching at the nearest crystal, which broke cleanly in his iron fever grip, its top flat and level like a plateau. The wind rushed from him, and he lay on his back in the dark sand, cursing bad circumstance, the rotten luck of springjaws and falls and poison.

Slowly, amid chime and echo, he recognized the distant cries as the clamor of battle. Shapes milled at the edge of his vision. There were people in the salt flats, cowering, hiding. Steadying himself against the largest crystal, For-dus regained his footing and hobbled toward the sound, toward the people. On all sides the red moonlight glittered, reflected off the crystals until the rebel chieftain was dazzled and confused, turned about like a wanderer in a house of mirrors. Through the maze of light and sound Fordus stumbled, his apprehension growing. He recalled the stories about the Tears—the vanished travelers even in this new age of might, the deadly serenades of crystal and wind and evil magic. On the faces of the crystals he saw towering fires, the glint of bronze armor, the flash of steel.

And the soft, ominous sheen of black silk, as a solitary warrior paced through the shifting light. He heard the sound of Istarian trumpets, the signaled retreat. For a moment he rejoiced, shifting his weight from his swollen foot and listening for cheers, for the victory cry of the rebel troops. Instead, it was the smell of smoke that reached him on the wind—of burning wood and straw, and an acrid, unsettling smell he remembered from his youth, when once a raiding band of Irda had ransacked the camp where he lived.

The burning dead. The smell of pyres and the old, barbaric funerals of the Age of Dreams. And also on the wind, beneath the crackle of fires, the keening of women, the wailing of men and the moans of the wounded, a solitary voice, no louder than a whisper, came to him as though borne from the crystals themselves.

A whisper on the wind, so soft that he was never sure whether he really had heard it, or if it was only that his thoughts and fears had prompted the words.

Without you, the voice insinuated, dark and seductive and denying. They have defeated Mar without you, Fordus.

Dismayed, the rebel lowered himself to the salty sand.

Chapter 9

Stormlight lost the Istarian rider in thc pitch black of thc night.

At one moment, the man was a shape ahead of him, flitting in and out of the gloom like a wraith. Stormlight tried valiantly to keep pace, but the Istar-ian was a seasoned rider, as at home in the night as in the saddle.

Finally, the Istarian vanished entirely. At one moment he was the wraith, the shadow, and then ... he was nothing, not even sand. The desolate, scrubby landscape stretched into darkness all around the pursuing elf. Stormlight found himself

in an unknown, bleak terrain, where forked black tree trunks sprouted starkly out of the crusty earth.

"I have followed him too far," he told himself, wrestling with a rising alarm. "I can see the foothills to the north, the mouth of the Central Pass. We're out on the plains somewhere, too close to Istar and its armies

..."

Then the horse brushed by one of the dark trees, which crumbled into powder, streaking the animal's flank with a long, black stain.

Not trees. Crystals.

A light wind chimed through the glittering forest.

"The salt flats," Stormlight whispered. "The Tears of Mishakal." At once he turned his horse about, intent on riding out of the perilous region, out to the safety of the desert, out to the plains. Even the prospect of Istar-ian armies no longer daunted him, faced as he was with night and magic and the dangerous illusions of this crystalline maze. Slowly the horse weaved between the crystals, and Stormlight scanned the opaque horizon for signs of torchlight, of campfires, of a moon or a fortunate star. He refused to think on the old legends of his people, on how the salt flats would open to swallow the traveler, how they drew you toward their heart and toward your destruction by the serenade of the wind over the crystals—a cruel, cold wind that tumbled suddenly into song and language, against which, the legends said, the listener was powerless. Amid the mist and the high chiming, amid the shifting dark shapes and the crunch of his horse's hooves through the crusted layers of sand and salt, Stormlight rode in widening circles, looking for light, for clear ground. He breathed a string of memorized prayers—to Shinare and to his patron Branchala, to Gilean the Book for knowledge, and of course to Mishakal herself, the goddess of healing whose tears, it was said, had created these flats.

All of his efforts—both strategy and prayer— seemed for naught. As the night wore on, Stormlight found himself moving into a deeper and deeper darkness. Now, though the stars and planets scattered the flats with a mysterious half-light, the elf could see no more than ten feet ahead of his horse. The pocked and hoof-churned ground told him he had passed this way before.

Instead of widening circles, his path had spiraled inward, turning toward the center of the salt flats, where the darkness was most dense, the country most confusing.

"Stop," he whispered, and reined in the horse. With a rising sense of unease, he scanned the maze around him for some clue, some glimmering—some definable light to guide him anywhere. In seven hundred years of roaming the desert, it was as close as he had ever come to being lost. When he reached what appeared to be the center of the salt flats he dismounted slowly, testing the ground beneath his feet and carefully leading his horse toward the centermost crystals. It would be a long time—four, maybe five hours— until dawn. If the Tears of Mishakal were the legendary death trap, why, he was already dead. And yet, if they were only confusing and impassable terrain ... If nothing else, the sunrise would show him reliable east. Stormlight sat at the foot of the crystal, leaning back against the dark surface, which crumbled slightly against his weight. He sat, and waited, and watched for light.

After a while—Stormlight was unsure whether it was an hour, three hours, five hours—the darkness began to lift, and the wind chiming through the crystals calmed in the anticipation of approaching dawn. Now he could make out his face reflected on the facets of crystal.

It was distorted. In the nearest crystal, one eye was magnified, outsized, while in another not three feet away, his face was grotesquely narrowed, as though he had passed through a crack in a wall. Yet another facet showed him as squat, shorter than he ever remembered. Always sensitive about his height, Stormlight turned quickly away.

And saw yet another, and another, each one bending, twisting, or otherwise translating his form into something bizarre and grotesque, some even reflecting those other reflections in an infinity of confusion. Like the visions and prophecies that milled through the rebel camp, he thought. Each was a way of looking at the world, of holding the light so that it reflected the beholder as much as what he beheld.

"It is all too confusing," Stormlight murmured.

He closed his eyes and prayed again to Mishakal, for insight and healing wisdom. After all, this land was named for her, and hers as well was the power of healing, to restore the fractured and distorted body to its natural health.

No voice of the goddess did he hear, whistling through the crystal fields with revelation. And yet—

The solution came to him softly and slowly—it was so simple that his laughter rang through the Tears in recognition.

He would need eyes, of course, to guide him out of the salt flats. And his own eyes were subject to the mirror maze of the crystals, the distraction and distortion and misdirection. Still chuckling to himself, Stormlight mounted and, leaning back in the saddle, laid the reins gently over the animal's withers. He closed his eyes, brought down the lucerna, and surrendered to the horse. The animal serenely wandered through the crystals, bent toward the edge of the salt flats, toward open country, and toward his breakfast.

Stormlight let himself be carried homeward, his thoughts on cool water—if water indeed had been found—and the morning's quith-pa and bread. A sudden lurch from the horse snapped him back to alertness. Instantly wary, Stormlight opened his eyes and sat upright. Dark shapes lay ahead of him, gray lines and imprints on the surface of the black salt. Stormlight took up the reins and guided the horse toward them.

One of the crystals—once a very large one, he guessed—lay in powder and rubble, a forlorn heap in the middle of a wasteland. Half out of idleness, half out of curiosity, Stormlight dismounted to examine it more closely.

The facets of the crystals caught the first pink light, and for a moment they shone softly, warmly, like freshly mined gems. Was it this that had prompted his people to go underground years ago? Had they mistaken something like this black glimmering for the stone more rare, for the glain opals their priests and Namers had told them lay deep beneath the Khalkist and Vingaard Mountains?

It was a story older than his own memories—how, adopted, he had come to reside with the Que-Nara. Stormlight had little recollection of his people. He recalled a face half-revealed by firelight, the smell of buckskin and pine, the touch of a soft hand ...

Memories from childhood, or from a hundred years of wandering. He could not distinguish which. But he remembered well the ambush at the desert's edge. The red armor and white banners of Istar, the knives of the slavers and the white-hot pain in his side.

He shrugged, pushing away the memory. Alone then, he was even more alone now in the Tears of Mishakal. That was the past, and to dwell on it was foolish, especially here in the deceptive salt flats, where a despairing thought could be your last.

Idly, the elf shifted his foot through the odd rubble.

Then the new light shone on a track—a single deep footprint in the black salt. Stormlight crouched in the rubble, peering more closely.

A woman's print. Two days old, maybe three. Narrow and graceful, and incredibly deep. As though she had sunk to her knees in the packed sand.

Yet the print was strangely delicate. The soft whorls of the heel marked the fine-grained, compressed salt, and the foot was clearly defined and free of callus and scar.

She did not walk much. At least not barefoot. Even a child among trackers would know that. With a rough, leathery finger, Stormlight traced the graceful instep of the print. He should know something more. The footprint taunted him with a mystery, with a secret in its spirals and simple, deep lines ...

Lines. Like the foot of an infant.

Stormlight rested on his heels. Slowly, with a judicious sweep of his hand, he blew the drifted black salt from another print, and another. Then risingto his feet, he mounted the horse and followed the trail of the woman out of the Tears—a trail that seemed to rise out of nothingness, out of the blank center of the flats.

It could be a trap, he cautioned himself. The gods know there is danger in this . . . there is danger . . . Yet he followed with a strange, fascination as the path weaved sinuously through the standing crystals. Leaning low, face pressed against the horse's withers, he read the dark sand with a skill born of centuries in the hunt. When the slowly rising sun gave him direction, it revealed the footprints again, a thin path stalking over the salt flats, the steps wider and wider apart.

Had he looked up from this close, intent scrutiny, he might have seen the Plainsman's form reflected in the mirroring crystal—the wounded man lying in the salt flats, his ruddy beard matted with the last swallow from his now-empty waterskin.

He might have found Fordus, helped the Prophet to safety.

But in his oblivion, Stormlight passed near the wounded commander, who stared at him blearily, resentfully, through the maze of crystals.

She's running now, Stormlight thought, rising in the saddle, his thoughts focused on the strange, feminine tracks.

But running to what? Or from what?

Now it seemed that the woman's foot had expanded, widened, kept changing, the toes fusing and splaying.

Stormlight leaned against the warm neck of the horse and let forth a slow, uneasy breath. It was a clawed creature he followed now, an enormous thing that had trampled a path over the salt flats, crushing rock and crystal in its heedless journey. All of his instincts told him to leave well enough alone, that the danger he had only suspected when he took up the trail was close to him now, a rumbling just at the edge of his hearing, an acrid smell beneath the smoke of a distant campfire.

The fires of the rebels. The monster was headed toward the Red Plateau, toward his drowsing, battle-dazed people.

With a click of his tongue and a shrill whistle, Stormlight spurred his horse through the black flats, longing for Fordus's speed, for the speed of the wind or a comet.

You are too late, a deep, denying voice told him, its cold, resonant words mingling with his thoughts until Stormlight could not tell whether it was the voice he heard or the bleak suggestions of his own worst imaginings.

"No!" Stormlight shouted. Suddenly the trail ended before him, the monstrous tracks vanished into unruffled black salt. Alarmed, confused, the elf wheeled the horse in a wide frantic circle and retraced his path. In the heart of the last track, in the very center of the enormous, splayed claw, a man's booted footprint lay in the dark sand as though he had stepped in that spot only, dropped from the sky or born from the swirling earth.

Stormlight reined in his horse. The human print was like a deep embedded thought of the clawed thing, like a glyph drawn in a time of dreams and dragons. Out of the monstrous print, boot prints led—the heavy steps of a man walking resolutely toward the rebel camps.

Cautiously, with his horse slowed to a walk, the Plainsman followed.

* * * * *

Tired and dirty, Larken watched the last of the flames lick the black rubble of the pyre. Children, the old, and the flower of Plainsmen manhood had been put to the Istarian swords. Innocent and defenseless or ill-prepared and rash, they had fallen before the enemy like sacrificial offerings. Their deaths were even more monstrous because of the dishonor involved—the cavalry ambush that savaged graybeard and infant alike.

In the brilliant dawn, there was no way to mask the night's slaughter. The Istarian cavalry had left over a hundred rebels dead. Now, as the funeral fires themselves died and smoldered, it was the bard's duty to sing the Song of Passing, a farewell to all the departed, from the youngest to the wizened old. Each of the dead would be remembered in a verse, a line, a phrase of the song, so that none left the world unheralded. Larken's song would probably continue through the next night. And longer still, if the augurers found no water.

Already miserably fatigued, Larken struck the drum once, twice, and waited for words and music to come to mind. The drumhead mottled and darkened in her hand, as though it, too, was mourning. When no song came, Northstar sat down beside Larken, draping his arm consolingly over his cousin's shoulders.

Tamex approached them, smoke curling over the black silk of his robe. Larken gave the dark stranger a sidelong glance. Though she had nothing for the dead, words that would attend Tamex's deeds and the music that would exalt his glory suddenly flooded her mind. The bard felt unsettled, troubled by the strange, unbidden music. The melody was simple—a Plainsman ballad from her deepest childhood—with the first lines about the dark man and the mystery and the desert night. Still, some part of her refused to give voice to them.

Her drumming was soft and tentative as she hovered like a hawk between singing and silence. Then a cry arose from the Plainsmen, and a dozen or so ragged children rushed toward a solitary rider emerging from the Tears of Mishakal.

It took Larken a moment to realize that the rider was Stormlight.

The elf leapt from the saddle and, with a swift and relentless stride, made his way through the group of children and past the smoldering campfires, brushing by Gormion and Aeleth as though the bandits were mist or high grass. Taking Larken's drum hand firmly and gently in his grasp, he guided her away from the fireside, away from her startled listeners, and when the two of them had passed out of earshot from the rest of the rebels, he spoke to her fervently, whispering through clenched teeth.

"Whatever you do, singer, whatever the magic you wield by drum and song, I command your silence now!"

Command? Larken signed, bristling at the elf's rough words. Take your hand from me, Stormlight!

Her gestures snapped sharp and final in the air between them. Slipping his grasp, the bard stalked off toward the Red Plateau.

Stormlight caught up with her. Overhead, Lucas soared out of the black salt flats.

"I know the power of your song," the elf insisted.

"How it raises up and it casts down ..."

"Stop!" Larken shouted, but Stormlight continued, never hearing her.

"You were set to sing the glories of Tamex—this new and sudden hero. I could see it. But think of this before you sing. Whose bard have you been through the long months of exile and wandering and rebellion? And who is it you love?" I know, Larken admitted, this time signing more evenly. Fordus is still our commander.

"And Tamex," Stormlight added, "is not who he seems to be!" Larken shot the elf a searching glance. Something deeper than knowing, deeper even than song, told her that Stormlight spoke the truth, and that she knew it too well.

Tell me who he is, Stormlight, she gestured.

Then the hawk screamed above her, and all eyes lifted to the Red Plateau. Fordus stood on the great height, overlooking the campsite and the ruin it had become.

* * * * *

He had climbed out of the salt flats and made the arduous ascent of the Red Plateau, his swollen foot still throbbing and aflame with the springjaw's poison. Twice more he had stumbled, his strong fingers scrabbling on the plateau's heights, as the desert reeled below him, a breathtaking distance into a black, crystalline void.

Let it go . . . let it go . . . you are weary, the desert seemed to say. The hard rock and the razored crystal beckoned to him—and for a brief, dizzy moment he listened, leaning out into the silent air, his iron grip slackening.

But he thought he heard a drum, distant and faint in the blurred encampment, and despite his groggi-ness and the deafening pulse of his blood, he had kept his balance.

Now he raised his arms to the heavens and shouted to the sunstruck sky, to the solitary reeling hawk, to the sea of uplifted faces now gathered in the black rubble below.

"I have returned from the desert. From the heart of the desert I have returned." A dark man—someone new to the camp, and menacing—sneered at him. "Where were you when Istar returned?"

An approving murmur rose from the assembled rebels, loudest among the milling bandits. Heedless of the noise and growing strife, Larken rushed by Tamex toward the staggering Fordus, humming a quick healing song.

"Your departure was . . . singularly convenient, Water Prophet," Tamex continued, folding his pale arms and glaring at Fordus with cold, reptilian eyes. "I trust that you at least have water to show for such a costly absence?"

Climbing the slow incline to the top of the plateau, Larken sang more loudly, her ragged voice transformed by concern for the wounded man. The tune was an ancient one, but in her voice it renewed and empowered, gaining depth and strength. Even the battle-wounded, lying on the blankets about the campfires, felt some stirrings of healing.

Suddenly Fordus's fever broke, and as the sweat rushed over his body, the glyphs returned to his shocked and dazzled memory.

"I have brought you this," he shouted, pointing at the pooling liquid on his skin, "as a foretaste of the water we shall find elsewhere. For the glyphs are the sign of the Tine, the Third Day of Solinari, and No Wind." Though exhausted and bleary, he knew to keep the sign of the Springjaw from them—the ominous glyph that foretold danger—at least for now.

And he hid the other glyphs, too—the Tower and Chair. The signs that Fordus Firesoul was the King-priest of Istar.

He hid much and said little, but Stormlight listened intently to what he said. Suddenly, as it always did, the interpretation came to him.

"At the Tine!" he shouted. "Water three feet, four feet under! Hail the Water Prophet!"

"Who brings us the water!" Northstar chimed exultantly. He spun about, looking for Tamex. But Tamex was nowhere to be found. On the bit of ' rock where he had stood only moments before, between Gormion and Rann, a dark dust wavered and dispelled.

For a moment Northstar wondered again who this man was. From where had he come? To where had he vanished? The question unresolved, the young guide stepped into the shadowy vacancy and lifted his eyes loyally to the rebel commander, who staggered a little in the full sunlight. Larken began a second song of healing, of reconciliation and celebration—the song just as powerful, designed to drive away the darkness that had brushed against her people, that had dwelt among them for a while.

This healing song was as ancient as Krynn itself— so ancient that, according to the legend, the larken-vales themselves had taught the words to the first elven bards. And again in this late and fallen time, the old words worked. Tough, wiry grass suddenly bristled in the sands and the salt. A soft mist gathered and rose from the watery sand, bathing the Plainsmen and the bandits, rising up the sheer face of the Red Plateau until Fordus himself felt the cooling balm, felt the soothing mist wash over him and the poison slow in his hectic blood.

He looked down. The swelling in his foot had subsided.

The rebel leader raised his hands to the heavens once more, triumphantly and defiantly. He had mastered the darkness and the old death; he had returned from the desert with visions. At the foot of the blossoming mesa, the Plainsmen danced.

Chapter 10

Takhisis stormed into the fastness of thc salt flats. The warrior's body she inhabited had stiffened and dried, almost to the point of crumbling and dissolving, so the goddess moved heavily, clumsily. Muttering a dark oath, she hastened between the droning crystals, over the level black sand, silk robe and translucent, faceted legs blurred with unnatural speed. The crystals themselves bent at her passing, like trees in a strong wind.

Takhisis crossed the flats to an upturned spot among the crystals, a black whorl of churned salt and crossing tracks. She had wandered this spot upon other nights, clad in the crystal flesh of the dark woman, her other avatar.

Now, preparing for yet another change, the goddess crouched amid the black rubble, her glinting hands dry and fragile from her long stay in the invented body. Her brittle finger traced the outline of new tracks in the salt.

A fresh trail. A horse. Its path encircled this cen-termost spot...

And headed for the rebel camp, weaving through the barren landscape of crystals. Takhisis glanced up warily, the features of her face suddenly crumbling, hardened and angular. Sunlight caught in her eyes and vanished, the warrior's body she inhabited glittered like polished onyx. Somehow, she would get to that elf, Takhisis thought, as her assumed form of Tamex crumbled into black powder. She would eliminate that slight, wiry shadow with the desert eyes and the grand suspicions. He must know of the opals. Of the watery black stones and their secrets. After all, he was Lucanesti, the opalescence of his own skin protecting him from her energies.

But he was vulnerable ... on other counts.

The goddess hovered, a dark, incandescent cloud over the pooled salt. Slowly, the salt and rubble began to whirl, as if borne on an unearthly wind. The spinning, unnatural cloud took on another shape—that of a huge creature, its leathery, angular batwings fanning the chaos of the hurtling debris. For a moment the cloud dwarfed the surrounding crystals, then suddenly it began to diminish toward a smaller, more solid form—that of the beautiful dark-haired woman, the temptress of all mythologies.

* * * * *

The woman emerged secretly from the Tears of Mishakal, at the southernmost edge of the salt flats after sunset. She came when the watches changed and the sentries, caught in the last business of the day before their long night vigil, turned their attentions briefly and idly elsewhere. Nobody saw the whirling black sand, borne on a cold night wind, as it descended and coalesced at the border of the salt flats. Nobody saw the woman it formed, saw her slip into the camp. She blended in at once and well, her black silk robe discarded for a deerskin Plainsman tunic Tamex had taken from one of the newly dead. Nobody saw the woman take a place by the fires of the Que-Nara, her long dark hair tangled and covered with sand as though she had been grieving.

But it was not long until they noticed her, Plainsman and bandit and barbarian alike. They could not help but notice.

The woman was splendidly beautiful, her skin pale and luminous and her amber eyes glittering under heavy, sensuous lashes. But those eyes were red-rimmed and that pale face tearstained, and though her face was cold and impassive, it was easy to see that she had lost someone—someone dear—in the raids of the morning. And though all the men of the encampment looked upon her admiringly, longingly, they kept the mourner's distance out of decency.

Even Gormion's bandits were respectfully silent in her presence.

Stormlight noticed the woman as well, as he stood alone by his fire near the foot of the Red Plateau. Above, like a soft accompaniment to her arrival, the bard's singing tumbled from the height of the mesa, where Larken kept watch over Fordus as he drowsed and waked and wandered and continued to heal.

* * * * *

The-woman's amber eyes followed the elf intently as he walked across the littered campground. Storm-light approached slowly, drawn to stand silently beside her fire, the opalescence in his skin playing from blues to golds in the flickering light.

Stormlight wished then that Larken had come with him, to fable his deeds into wonders and miracles for this enchanting woman. His face flushed at the foolish prospect. He needed no glamour or go-betweens. He would show her who he was, without embellishment or ornament. He ... But what was he thinking? She was likely a new widow.

"You're too close to the fire, sir," a soft, echoing voice observed, breaking through the tangle of his confused thoughts.

"I... I beg ..."

He stepped back as small sparks scattered on his lower legs, spangling his boots for a brief, uncomfortable moment. He thought the woman laughed, but her expression was unchanged, nor had she moved from her spot by the dwindling fire.

"Here," Stormlight muttered, clumsily tossing kindling onto the blaze. "It will be cold tonight, and your fire is failing."

"Thank you," the woman said, her voice chilly and somber. She lifted her amber eyes to him for a moment, then lowered them demurely.

Stormlight hovered above the fire, more dried twigs in his hand. He started to turn, started to slip into the shadows back to his lonely post, but her presence held him in unwilling fascination—the firelight shimmering on her dark hair, the pale, almost translucent skin.

When she spoke again, it was like precious rain in the expectant desert.

"I am Tanila," she pronounced. "From the south. From Abanasinia."

"Que-Shu?" he asked hopefully. Larken's father was of the Que-Shu tribe. He knew something of those Plainsmen.

The woman shook her head slowly. "Que-Kiri. From the foothills near Xak Tsaroth." Stormlight nodded, but they were names only, these distant tribes and places. The strange woman remained a mystery.

"You are Stormlight," she said, her voice still strangely vacant. "And you command these armies."

"No," Stormlight began, crouching by the fire, his gemlike hands radiating purples and reds as he extended them to the warming glow. "Fordus commands the armies. I am his lieutenant."

"You are Stormlight the elf, are you not?" Tanila asked skeptically. "I have heard that Stormlight commands these armies."

For a moment his heart cried Yes! Yes, I command these armies, in the field and in encampment. Fordus is only foxfire, a brilliant spark, and I am the substance, I am the guide through the wilderness of his words . ..

But he stopped before he voiced the cry, amazed at his own vehemence and dishonor.

"My husband . . ." Tanila continued, her gaze shifting toward the fire, "my husband fought in your legions. Moccasin was his name."

Still shaken by his own vaulting thoughts, Stormlight plumbed his memory for the face of the man, for the name itself.

Nothing. It was as though Tanila's husband had vanished in the depths of the desert, and the sands had settled over him for a thousand years.

"I ... I am sure he was a brave man, Tanila," he offered, knowing his answer was not enough. In the distance, by the foot of the Red Plateau, the campfires waxed with a brighter light, and for the first time on that somber evening, the sounds of music and storytelling arose from the encampment. As is often the case in a warrior's camp, the rebels were putting the ambush behind them. Having mourned the dead for a brief space, they had set about to bolster their hearts for the coming day. For if the Istarian cavalry had struck once ...

Stormlight glanced toward the fires, which seemed to glow across a gap of miles and years. Part of him longed to be in the midst of the councils. There his cool presence was encouragement.

"Go ahead and join the others, if it please you," Tanila urged. "You have been most kind." She sat by the fire, her dark hair covered in ash and sand, but oddly, almost unnaturally, beautiful. Larken's drum sounded, and her sinewy voice carried over the campfires. They were too far away for Stormlight to make out her words, but he no longer listened to them.

For the first time, as he sat beside her near the fire, Tanila smiled at him. He banished his awareness of the camp at once, his thoughts transfixed by her depthless amber eyes. He remembered little of what he said to her that night, but he was surprised that he said it. Long tales he told, ranging across hundreds of years, of his wandering days with the Lucanesti, and finally of the ambush, the slavers, and his hostage people in the caverns below Istar. The telling drained him, sapping his strength as his story unwound. And Tanila changed as he spoke, the mourning lifting from her until Stormlight could see only the devastating, almost haughty beauty that had no doubt imprisoned ...

Moccasin. Yes, that had been his name.

Tanila listened intently as Stormlight told her of the night among the crystals when, for the first time, Fordus read the mysterious glyphs of the gods. Tanila was most curious about that night, her questions soft at first, encouraging the story, then more subtle, more detailed. When he turned to other sto--ries—of their exploits in Fordus's youth, of the hunts and the battles, and of this great venture against the rule of the Kingpriest—her interest seemed to waver. Yet he persisted, story after story as the night passed toward morning.

She asked him most often about the opals, leaning toward him hungrily as he explained the stones his people had hunted for since the early times: the white and the black, the water and fire. And of course the opal darker than black—the glain, which the Lucanesti called the godsblood, for obscure reasons lost in the Age of Light. Her questions tunneled and probed, her eyes urged and tempted and haunted.

The eyes. The elf felt swallowed by their loveliness.

The dawn came before he expected or even imagined, the eastern horizon rising from the darkness and the night's fires fading into the sunlight. Slowly, with the barking of dogs and the cry of Larken's hawk hunting overhead, the camp awakened. Now Stormlight could make out shapes moving from tent to tent, and he realized to his dismay that he had

been thoughtless and rude, filling Tanila's mourning night with his boastful stories.

"And all of this . . . from that single night in the salt flats," Tanila remarked, her amber eyes brilliant and alert.

Stormlight shifted uncomfortably and rose to his feet. The eyes again. Where had he seen them before?

His memory was tired and scattered.

She was just a girl. Dark-haired and very beautiful.

But she had noticed him—preferred him—to For-dus.

As he was turning back to her, to those glorious amber eyes, as he thought of another story and a story to follow that one, suddenly a call rose up from the encampment. Fordus approached, hobbling, leaning on Larken for support.

"So this is where the night has kept you!" Fordus exclaimed, a strange laughter in his voice. Now Tanila rose to her feet, brushing back her hair with a graceful wave of her translucent hand. Modestly, she lowered her gaze at the approach of the commander. Fordus's sea-blue gaze darted from Stormlight to Tanila as though he read a glyph in the morning sand. He smiled fiercely, and the bright blue of his eyes grew suddenly flat and cold.

"Who is your friend, Stormlight?" he asked quietly, gently pushing away Larken and standing unsteadily on his own. "Lady, I do not recall your presence in this camp, and I would remember those eyes and the long temptation of this raven hair."

Larken stepped away, a look of familiar hurt and anger passing over her face. Fordus took two wobbly steps toward Tanila and extended his hand, his fingers playing softly with a braided strand of her hair. "I know I would remember you," he murmured lazily.

"Her name is Tanila," Stormlight replied icily, glaring at the commander. Fordus was like this— had always been like this—the joy of the chase and the conquest impelling him in the hunt, in battle, and in more tender matters. He meant no harm, no injury, but when he set forth, he was cold and indifferent to the hearts of all around him.

"Tanila?" Fordus replied, blue eyes locked with amber in a fervent, stormy exchange.

"The widow of Moccasin," Stormlight continued. "One of your followers, who fell yesterday in the ambush." His own voice annoyed him with its thin, weak self-righteousness.

"I am sorry to hear of your loss, Tanila," Fordus said, his expression never changing. "In such a sorrowful time, it is the commander's duty to see . . . that all your needs are met."

"Great Branchala!" Larken spat, turning from the fire and stalking back toward the camp, whistling to the hawk as she broke into a run.

Of course, Fordus's gaze never wavered.

"I shall study to be deserving of your kindness," Tanila replied, almost formally and yet with a subtle and sinuous heat.

It was Stormlight's turn to mutter.

Then, overhead, Larken's hawk screamed in alarm.

All eyes shifted to the bird, the moment forgotten in the outcry and the approaching tumult of his wings. Lucas swooped out of the pale morning sky and, gliding low across the shadowy sand, struck the gloved hand of his mistress and frantically pulled himself upright. His shrieks and whistles were shrill, almost deafening, and a strange green light flashed over his pinions. Larken soothed the creature, her fingers stroking his feathers like harp strings.

Stormlight rushed to the side of the bard. Fordus was not far behind, the pain in his foot forgotten. Larken stared at them, her brown eyes wide with alarm.

"Istarians?" Fordus asked, his right hand reaching instinctively for the throwing axe at his belt. Still the bird screeched and yammered. Larken raised her hand to the two men, motioning for their silence. Not Istarians, she signed with one hand, inclining her ear toward the loud, insistent bird. Not sandlings nor ankheg, not panther ...

"Then what?" Fordus exclaimed impatiently.

Larken shook her head, her fingers slow and deliberate.

Their fresh hostility forgotten for the moment, Fordus and Stormlight exchanged troubled glances. It is nothing he knows, Larken concluded, as the bird whistled once more and fell silent. Nothing he has ever seen. There is no word for it in Hawk.

"Then we shall find the words for it," Stormlight declared. Fordus nodded and drew forth his axe.

By the cooling ashes of the fire, Tanila regarded them impassively. The black pupils of her amber eyes slitted and closed.

Chapter 11

There was no word in hawk for what happened next, either.

Though Fordus's scouts were sharp-eyed, skilled in reading trail and terrain, the subtle change in the nearby sands raised no alarm at first. By morning the dunes had shifted to encircle a huge, undulating mass of sand. The men were curious. A dozen of them, veterans of a hundred journeys and a score of battles, crouched around the disturbance, regarding it cautiously, intently. It was a springjaw at worst, they told themselves, setting its funneled trap for unwary travelers. More likely a sandling, or the simple change of an overnight wind.

So the scouts kept their posts and turned their sights to the far horizons, to the edge of the salt flats—to anything, in short, except the whorling, lifting sands at their feet. Indeed, they had almost forgotten this strange movement when the first rumbling shook the ground around them. The youngest of the scouts, standing not twenty yards from the disturbance, pointed and screamed . ..

And was swallowed by the first spray of molten sand that surged from the ruptured heart of the desert. Dumbstruck, two other scouts fell seconds later, as the sands all around them erupted and, like an eerie, hidden volcano, rained glowing glass upon Plainsman and bandit alike. Overhead, the bard's hawk soared to a great height, the heat on his wings unbearable even at a thousand feet above this sudden holocaust.

The bird cried out, again and again. "

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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