The Dark Queen | Chapter 3 of 4

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It was less than an hour before Fordus reached the site of the eruptions. Larken and Stormlight followed him/and Northstar and the woman Tanila. Gormion and a dozen of her bandits were not far behind. What they saw was a desert scarred unnaturally by fissures and craters and chasms, glazed over with a steaming, muddy caul. It looked like a country imagined from heat and light and attendant fire. Shadows of indignant desert birds reeled far overhead, and at the edges of the spreading lava the sand crackled, melted, and added to the rising flood.

For a moment, the handful of rebels fell silent. For-dus, his injury forgotten, took one firm step toward the smoldering landscape. Stormlight walked to his side, took his arm, and held him back. Slowly, the sand at the center of the great wound hardened to dark crystal.

"What is it?" Gormion hissed, her hand slipping absurdly to the hilt of her dagger. She received no answer. Neither Plainsman nor Prophet nor bard could decipher this mystery. Yet one among them knew. One who veiled her knowledge behind expressionless amber eyes. There were other gods in the Abyss, just as eager as Takhisis to enter the world and turn the tide of history to their liking. Zeboim had followed Takhisis once, and Morgion—the tempests in coastal waters and the plagues borne out of the marshes were testament to their ingenuity—but they lacked the power to stay more than minutes, more than an hour at most.

But when the sand glazed and melted that day in the Istarian desert, spreading slowly toward the Plainsman encampment beneath the Red Plateau and destroying everything in its path, it was prelude to something far greater, far more disruptive. Takhisis recognized that at once. Another of her kind—a strong one with powers to rival her own—had discovered her secret and followed her through the crystalline gap between worlds.

And she knew who he was.

"What is it?" Gormion asked again, more insistently this time as the molten sand slowly swallowed the dunes.

"Volcano," Stormlight replied tersely, his eyes never leaving the glowing swirl of glass. "I've seen them before. Long ago, from the foothills of Tho-radin. We had best move the camp, and quickly." Gormion was more than ready to comply. Her silver jewelry rattled as she waved wildly at her bandit followers, whistling and motioning them back toward the camp. Fordus and Stormlight made ready to follow, but suddenly, as they turned toward the Red Plateau, they were startled by a loud, unearthly screech.

Tanila lay in the path of the flowing slag, writhing and clutching her ankle. Without thinking, Stormlight raced toward the fallen woman. In the sand his footing was unsteady, and once, nightmarishly, he stumbled and fell, bracing himself on his hands not a foot from the glowing, blistering pool.

He felt the heat like a hundred suns, and his eyes, blinked and smarted. With a cry, he closed the milky lucerna, pushed himself away from the slag, and staggered to Tanila, slipping his arm about her waist and dragging her blindly toward the safer crest of the nearest dune. She felt incredibly heavy, resistant in his grasp. With a desperate heave, he drew her to safety, toppled over the far side of the dune, and lay breathless, facedown in the sand. Around him a chaos of sounds eddied and swirled—the cries of the bandits, North-star's voice carried on a white-hot wind. He could not believe Tanila's heaviness, how hard and brittle her body had felt in his hands. It was as though the slag had covered her and cooled, turning her to stone, to glass. He turned toward her, incredulous, longing to touch her again.

Her foot was missing, the ankle snapped and severed like hewn stone, no blood flowing from the wound. Stormlight gaped at the woman.

She returned his stare coldly.

A shout from Fordus disrupted his thoughts.

He sprang to his feet, and the earth split apart beneath him.

Kneeling in a daze at the edge of the slag, Storm-light watched the creature rise out of the fissured glaze, its broad wings glittering with spark and ash.

Fordus rushed out of the smoke, Northstar and two of the bandits beside him, as the creature took shape out of fire and cloud: an enormous hook-billed bird—its shape that of a condor or vulture, its naked head blistered and ugly, its black eyes glittering like gems.

Fordus stopped in his tracks, dumbfounded, as the bird wheeled above the desert, shrieking and smoldering. Below, the bandits hurled axe and spear and imprecation, but all bounced harmlessly off the rough skin of the bird, who pivoted slowly, ponderously, as though only recently come to its own body. With another cry, the creature swooped awkwardly. Its attack was predictable and slow, its sharp beak clattering against the shield of one of the bandit spearmen, a young man from Kharolis named Ingaard. Ingaard feinted and laughed, and the bird staggered back, preparing to lunge again. With a defiant cry, Ingaard braced himself to hurl his weapon, but suddenly, as though the whole desert had fallen under a terrible, malign enchantment, the lad's feet slipped in the tumbling sand, and he fell on his back, loosing the grip on his spear. The condor's beak crashed against his uplifted shield, again and again until the tough hide tore and the great bird snatched Ingaard into the air, rending his flesh and hurling him into the molten slag.

The other bandits turned and fled, screaming.

Slowly the creature pivoted toward Tanila, its eyes glowing red and smoke rising from its dark, angular feathers. Again, it fanned its wings, and the hot fetid air swirled like a hurricane around the Plainsmen. Tanila, enraged, lost her balance in the eddying sand, but Stormlight alertly stepped between her and the monster, raising the bronze buckler of one of the fallen bandits. With a shriek, the condor lunged toward Stormlight, lightning blazing from its black, depthless eyes.

The bolts flickered and danced around the elf, who braced himself as the smoldering bird struck him, stopping the searching claws with the little shield and pushing the monster back and away. There was a shattering sound, like porcelain or glass, and the great bird groaned and drew his head back, his long neck arched like a scorpion's tail.

For a moment the desert was silent, as though sound itself had passed through the fissures and vanished. Elf and monster faced one another in a desolation of sand and rising steam.

"Kill him!" Tanila hissed.

And then, with a cry that was no doubt heard at the gates of Istar, the condor lurched after Stormlight. The elf stepped back, then lost his balance as the great beast cleared the edge of the slag, for a moment grotesquely in flight above the desert. With another deafening cry the condor swooped, falling upon Stormlight and driving him to the ground amid a gauntlet of slashing talons. Larken whistled for her hawk and snatched her drumhammer from her belt. Deftly stepping over a widening fissure, she raced toward higher, more solid ground, rifling her memory for a powerful music. Stormlight fell to his knees, bent backward by the weight of the creature. The condor hovered triumphantly over the struggling elf, its claws digging at his rib cage, its neck arched for a final, fatal strike. Stormlight cried out and glanced beseechingly toward Fordus ...

Who was about other business entirely.

* * * * *

Fordus stood on a narrow natural bridge of rock and dried earth left by the lake of molten sand that bubbled and swirled on the desert plain. It was a thin strip of solid ground, untouched by the fire and magma, and narrowing slowly as the hot current ate against its foundations. It was the country of his dreams: the fire, the lava, the dark bird.

He stood breathless, abstracted, until the shouts of his men awakened him. Fordus was faced with a choice. Stormlight lay in the pocked and bubbling field, the condor over him, batting its burning wings, while Northstar, only a dozen feet away, stared desperately into the glowing liquid, calling plaintively for help.

Stormlight was in peril, it was plain to see.

But the condor ...

Was Fordus's old friend, his dream-summoner.

And Stormlight. . . was dissident. A troublesome lieutenant. Whatever happened to him was in the lap of the gods.

Fordus rushed toward Northstar, pulling the lad from the lip of the widening chasm.

"My medallion!" Northstar cried. "The disk!"

Fordus knew what he meant at once. The religious pendant, given to Northstar on his naming night, was a bronze replica of one of the fabled Disks of Mishakal. Worthless to anyone but the devoted lad, it now hung by its broken chain from an outcropping of rock scarcely a foot above the widening crevasse.

"Walk carefully toward the high ground!" Fordus shouted, leaning over the burning lake, his lean, muscular arm stretching toward the medallion, his fingers spread and extended. "Save yourself, North-star!"

It sounded heroic, like the stuff of Larken's poetry. It would make for a good song in the evening's Telling.

* * * * *

On his back in the middle of the steaming field, Stormlight pushed the bird away yet again. His arms were seared by the hot metal buckler he carried, and the smell of sulfur and burnt rock singed his nostrils, rushed down his throat and into his lungs.

Once again, he tried to cry out, but the pain was unbearable, smothering. So this is the way it ends, he thought, strangely calm, the smoke gusting into his eyes and the hoarse cry of the condor on all sides of him.

The dull, dry shriek of the bird was answered by a call more shrill, and suddenly, miraculously, the sky cleared over Stormlight. He blinked painfully, scrambled to his feet. Lucas swooped toward the Red Plateau, the condor glowing and smoldering in pursuit. Swiftly, gracefully, the little hawk banked in the air, dodging the heavier, clumsier bird with a grace born of a thousand hunts, of a year's reconnaissance in the desert sky. Blindly, furiously the condor followed, the ground beneath the path of its flight blistering and blazing at its passage. The hawk flew a wide, looping circle and returned toward the field and Stormlight, the condor picking up speed, swiftly closing the gap until it seemed that Lucas would be caught, ignited, consumed by the fiery monster.

Then Larken, standing on a sloping rise, seeing the danger to her companion, battered her drum loudly, slowly, in the stately Matherian rhythms of high magic. The song began in an incandescence of words, an elvish tralyta that trailed off into a hidden language, into the words that bards speak only in whispers, and only to the gods.

But the little bard gave her song full voice, and at the margins of the lava flow, the red glaze darkened and crusted, cooling so rapidly that the sound of its shattering echoed over the desert. Still the bard's song rose above the chaos and noise, the words completely unintelligible now, trailing into birdsong, into distant thunder and the rush of water, into the sound of the wind through^the nearby crystals.

The crystals themselves, at the edge of the Tears of Mishakal, were breaking to shards, crumbling silently to powder.

Lucas soared high above the cooling earth, then dropped five hundred feet through the smoky air, landing roughly on the sand and mantling, his wings spread over him like a tent, a canopy. The condor followed, a trail of flame in its wake, stretching its glowing talons to strike.

Then, fifty feet above the floor of the desert, the monster collided with the power of the bard's song. Tanila whirled and shrieked and covered her ears.

For a moment, out of the corner of her eye, Larken saw the dark woman hobble toward the Tears of Mishakal, trailing black dust like a cloud of billowing smoke.

Then suddenly, spectacularly, the air went incandescent.

The condor splintered into a thousand sparks, slowly raining deadly flame over the parched landscape, the igneous rock, the cowering bird.

Just before the fire shower reached Lucas, Storm-light/ racing over the hot ground, snatched up the hawk and hurled him free of the deadly rain. Lucas tumbled through the air, regained his balance and wings, and soared clear of the fire as Stormlight sprang free of the burning earth, rolling, his clothing on fire. Larken rushed to the elf, but by the time she reached him, the fire was smothered and he lay, dazed and breathless, in the shadow of a huge cactus.

Shimmering steam rose from the condor's ashes and spread angrily across the fire-ravaged plains. The bard crouched over the elf-warrior, singing a brief song of healing and gratitude. Groggily, leaning on Larken's shoulder, Stormlight rose to his feet, looked her level in the eyes, as though he saw her for the first time, past the roughness and dirt, the weathering and the matted, neglected white hair. Suddenly, Fordus shouted in triumph across the smoldering plain.

The War Prophet stood on the narrow strand of earth, holding aloft a brightly shimmering object, red and golden as the afternoon sun. He danced a victory dance, and Northstar, safely on the other end of the strand, danced with him.

"He's mad!" Stormlight whispered. "Fordus is completely and red-mooned mad!" Larken remained silent, her hands occupied in gently supporting the injured elf. Fordus lifted aloft the medallion again, laughing and whistling. But suddenly the dark smoke bundled and rushed toward him at a blinding speed. Trapped on the narrow bridge, he could not elude it, could not outrun it. In an instant it engulfed him, swirled about him like a whirlpool, like a maelstrom, then dissolved into the clear desert daylight, leaving him lifeless on the scored and barren rock. Stormlight never remembered what happened after that.

He thought he heard Larken singing once, maybe twice, and Northstar shouting, and the distant cry of the bard's hawk. He felt himself being moved, carried ...

And then there was torchlight, and shamans, and medicine women dancing attendance over him, and he felt the pain lift from his arm and legs.

Fordus, he told himself, Fordus is dead.

His sorrow was not pure. In the midst of the mourning, of the weeping, he felt something heavy lifted from him. At last it is over, a voice said or seemed to say, and he felt a strange upsurge of joy, even in the midst of his bereavement.

Later, when he awoke at the foot of the Red Plateau, drenched in rainwater and wrapped in cool hides, he tried to forget that traitorous delight. Northstar stood over him, watching him intently.

"Northstar."

"The commander is alive, Stormlight. Thank the gods he is alive! Twice he has asked for you. Can you stand? Can you walk?"

"I... I think so," the Plainsman replied, pulling himself painfully to a sitting position. "He's . . . he's still. . ." Something tugged at the edge of his memory—something he should remember but could not, given the fire and smoke and the great raging bird.

"His spirit stands at the edge of this life, where the dusk surrounds him and the shadows stalk. But he is strong, and we hope for his recovery."

Stormlight leaned hard against the younger man, his eyes on the fire, the assembly atop the Red Plateau where Fordus lay injured, perhaps dying. Slowly, with great exertion, he matched pace with Northstar, as the two of them crossed the deserted campground and began the gentle, roundabout ascent to the top of the plateau, where a throng had gathered and the drum beat a mournful rhythm. The Branchalan mode. The mode of remembrance.

Perhaps he was already too late.

"Hurry, Northstar," he muttered through clenched teeth, and the young man quickened their pace.

"Five sentries are dead," Northstar explained, as the sound of the drum grew louder. "Gormion survived, and Larken, and three of the bandits."

The drum droned on, and a clear voice rose on the rhythm, the melody doleful and lonely.

"Poor Larken," Northstar murmured. "A widow's weeds though never wed." Stormlight stood upright, stepped away from the young man's support. The memory, elusive in fire and battle.

Tanila.

"The woman, Northstar!" he shouted, his strong hands grasping the guide's shoulders. "What happened to Tanila?"

Northstar shook his head.

"Vanished. No sign of her at the dunes or amid the slag. There's a chance the eruption swallowed her, or..."

"Or?" Stormlight was insistent, shrill.

"I stepped to the edge of the salt flats, where she was headed when Larken's song began, when the monster descended. There was nothing there but the faint outline of a woman's body, already half-vanished in the shifted sand."

"An outline? No tracks leading away?"

"None. Nothing but a smaller pile of rubble ... a heap of black crystal and salt."

Chapter 12

They had been forest at one time, these ranging caverns beneath the city of Istar. A hundred thousand years ago, or two hundred, the volcanoes, now dormant and lying beneath the great Istarian lake, erupted in the last of the great geologic disasters, before the All Saints War of the ancient Age of Dreams. It had buried this landscape beneath lava and ash, and the caverns had formed slowly, inexorably, beneath the rise and fall of a hundred civilizations. The five races stepped forth onto the face of the planet, the House of Silvanos rose in the young forest to the south, the gnomes were born, and the Graystone formed in the divine forges of Reorx. It was then that the strange process of opalescence began in the petrified trunks and limbs of the buried trees, and water from the new lake hollowed passages through the porous volcanic rock.

Now, after thousands of years, living eyes marveled at the immemorial forest, and twenty years of pick and shovel had not yet spoiled its eerie, unearthly beauty. In the smokeless torches of the elven miners, the fossilized landscape glittered as though touched with an ancient, frozen dew. Three elves descended the long, narrow passage between petrified oaks, glowing amber lamps in their hands. They were masked against the dust, and their green eyes flashed like stars in their ash-blackened faces.

This night, they were not searching for opals. Despite the Kingpriest's orders, all mining had been set aside to search for the child.

They had imagined her dead, along with her mother and three other elves, when this part of the cavern collapsed two nights earlier. They had sent out runners and scouts into the midst of the rubble, clambering and crawling back into the darkness until they could clamber and crawl no more, calling the names of the five missing miners.

Tessera and Parian. Gleam. Cabuchon.

Little Taglio. Only a child, but old enough to hold a lamp while the others worked. Just this afternoon they had heard her crying. Now, having combed the most accessible regions of the mines, the Lucanesti had secretly sent several of their strongest and best into more perilous depths, the realm of cave-in and rockslide, and of the spirit naga—the serpentine monsters with the tranquil human faces, whose spellcraft dried the opalescent bodies of the Lucanesti and left them dust and brittle bone in the deep, forgotten corridors.

Dangerous territory indeed, and the sound of the elf-child's crying had haunted them for hours, as the three gaunt miners dug and scrabbled toward the source of the sound.

The oldest of the searchers, Spinel, held the lamp above the younger, stronger elves. Seventeen hundred years had dulled the sharpness of his eyes, the power and resilience of his arms, but the old elf was shrewd, tunnelwise, just as aligned to the dark shift of corridor and passage as the dwarves he had fought for centuries under the earth.

He held the light in hopes of finding one of his vanishing people.

Once a noble, if minor, branch of the Dimernesti elves, the Lucanesti had roamed the grasslands south of Istar, their keen woodsense transformed by their travels into an uncanny discernment of hidden underground springs.

Water in rock. It called to them from its tomb in the dry earth. The Lucanesti had become essential to the early caravans and migrations crossing the face of evolving Krynn. "Dowsers," the wanderers had called them, and hired them at great expense as guides and augurers.

Dowsers.

But they were paid well, and the insulting name had become a badge of curious pride. Over the years, though, water had become taken for granted by the wood elf and high elf, native to river lands and watery forests. The scant influence of the Lucanesti dwindled. They were ignored at the high council of the elves, mocked as vagabonds and ruffians.

The old names returned. "Dowsers." "Hedge elves." In the midst of such scorn and contempt, the opals came to them like a favor from the gods. Water and rock, it was again, for those stones were formed over thousands of years in which water and rock commingled beneath the Istarian mountains. What it was that led the Lucanesti underground had been forgotten under the tide of centuries, but the maze of cubicles in the opal caverns beneath Istar were evidence that they had mined the roots of the city for ages.

And yet they remained a people of open country, of fresh winds and the high arrangement of stars. Their sojourns underground were brief and efficient, the white lucerna of their eyes attuned to the water in the opals, their digging precise. The mining took its toll and changed them, their skin hardening with age and silica and water, until the old elves were translucent, shimmering, opalescent like the stones they hunted. They used the change to their advantage, masking their presence against intruder and predator, fading into the rubble where they stood breathless, indistinguishable from surrounding stone. When they were old enough—two thousand years, or maybe less—the opalescence had its inevitable way, and they entered the stonesleep, unable to return from the dark, encrusted dream. But while they were young, there were opals to mine and riches to gather. And the Lucanesti mined and gathered, bringing the stones back to the surface. Soon what had been a poor and marginal tribe flourished with disproportionate wealth.

A wealth that drew the attention of cities, of the Kingpriest.

Of the venatica, the hunters and spies in the hire of Istarian clergy. Soon the Lucanesti were observed. Then accompanied—in what the venatica called "the interest of geologic science," though it was really an armed surveillance. Observation and accompaniment changed slowly, like a stone in the swim of underground water, and the elves found more and more of the red-robed Istarians as companions, advisors . . .

The "cooperative" venture turned into slavery one day when Spinel and a party of followers made for the surface, for fresh air and light, but were stopped by a squadron of Istarian swordsmen. The mining Lucanesti never saw the surface again.

Still, the Kingpriest's request surprised none of them, really. After all, relocation had been the death sentence for a thousand innocent peoples since the dawn of the planet, and the mountains and plains around the spreading, marbled city were littered with abandoned villages, burned hamlets, and the moldering relics of swallowed civilizations.

It was the way of Istar to finish what greed had started.

* * * * *

Now, in his waning years, the opalescence spreading and constant on his pale arms, Spinel could only guide as his companions combed the rubble for the missing child.

"I never thought it would come to this," he said. "Scarcely a century under the city, and the children are dying."

Heedlessly, the two younger elves continued at their task. They were spela, what the Lucanesti called the generation born and raised in the caverns under Istar. They remembered no sun, no paired moons in the starry sky. Many, fancying that their greatest enemies were the crumbling rocks and the nagas that lurked therein, had no recollection of the Istarians.

Spinel pitied them. They were as buried as the child they sought.

The older of the two spela, a young female named Tourmalin, held aloft a dark, shining stone.

"Glain," she said tersely, extending the gem to the older elf. "At least we will bring something home." Reluctantly, almost ashamedly, Spinel took the opal from her and placed it in a pouch on his belt. Another stone to crush into powder for the King-priest's mysterious rituals.

"We'll find the child," the old elf asserted, his voice thin and wavering in the torchlit alcove. "By Reorx and the lamps of the eye, we shall find that poor creature!"

With pickaxe and dagger, they moved slowly and delicately through the ragged volcanic rock. The frail voice called to them faintly from somewhere behind the baffle of stone and darkness, the child begging for water, for her mother . . . finally, for Branchala and the Sleep He Brings. When Spinel heard the hymn begin, the low bird-like keening that heralds the stonesleep of the Lucanesti, his orders became urgent. Intently, his hand on Tourmalin's shoulder, he guided the three diggers through convoluted layers of rock.

Steady, he told himself. Do not lose faith or judgment or the faint sound coming from somewhere beyond that wall of stone.

Barely audible, the stonesong continued. For a moment, Tourmalin seemed to gather strength. Muttering a mild oath, she redoubled the speed of her digging, and her companions followed her example, the corridor ringing with the sound of metal on stone, the shallow breathing of the four miners. Yes, we are breaking through, Spinel thought as the sound of the pick took on a new resonance. Only a matter of minutes now, and if the child survives, if we can bring the poor innocent to air and light...

"Faster!" he commanded through clenched teeth.

And then, Tourmalin's hammer crashed through the last layer of rock. Exultantly, Spinel surged by his younger companions, reached for the new passageway, his torch aloft... But another wall of rock, not two feet behind the breakthrough, blocked his passage. He swore, scrabbled at the hard stone with his nails, pushed madly against it with his shoulder ... As somewhere in the deep recesses of the earth, the stonesong of the child dwindled. Spinel rested his forehead against the cold, dividing wall and wept. The years would take the child's bones and transform them. Someday, perhaps, descendants of those who dug for the babe in vain would find the form—small, curled, and glowing, in the midst of the rock that had swallowed her and made her its own.

"Opal," Tourmalin breathed, the light of compassion fled from her eyes. Her callused, pale hand touched the new, dividing wall. "Glain opal."

So they all would come to glittering dust, in the heart o.f this indifferent place. Above the rocks and the rubble and the sorrows of elves, miles away in the city of Istar, the Kingpriest's armies watched and waited in boredom and uneasy readiness.

The Shinarion approached—the great festival of gaming, industry, and trade, the great time of commerce and coincidence. Istar and all its tributaries came together to celebrate the glory of the goddess who, it was said, watched over the vast, interwoven economies of the region. As usual, the city was adorned with silk and gold leaf, the inns were swept and strewn with fresh rushes, and throughout the narrow streets of Istar, everyone—from the gray-robed, exclusive diamond merchants to the painted bawds and nimble pickpockets—readied their wares and skills for the coming week.

Even the Temple of the Kingpriest prepared special ceremonies in honor of Shinare. Jasmine incense billowed in the great square, and the tower bells chimed in the dawn carillon that dedicated each morning to the goddess.

It seemed that nothing was amiss in Istar—that the great business of ritual and trade continued gracefully and quietly, as though there were no nasty, ill-starred wars erupting in the desert. The mourning banners had come down in the noble houses, and the black cloth on the doors of the poorer dwellings had been replaced by the bright reds and yellows of Shinarion. The fallen soldiers, buried scarcely a week ago, were forgotten.

But the guards on the walls still watched nervously, the cavalry stopped and inspected all of the caravans, and in the high temple towers a thousand eyes turned regularly and apprehensively south. There were rumors that the rebel commander, the Water Prophet, stalked the city like a wounded lion. He was coming, the rumors said. In a month's time, if not sooner. Fordus Firesoul was headed north, torch in hand and wading ankle-deep in Istar-ian blood. His goal was the city and the temple itself, its ornate walls to be ransacked and stained with still more Istarian blood. For the first time in memory, the city was humming with the threat of invasion. Yet the Shinarion would take place as it always had. So the Kingpriest had decreed. Daily life would not give way to panic; the city would not become an armed camp.

And the city would profit, above all. Most importantly, the metal from Thoradin, the silks from Ergoth, the grain from the Solamnic plains, would not have to go elsewhere to be sold. Already the caravans had embarked for Istar, laden with expensive and exotic goods, and as the time approached, the first of the merchants arrived and the first booths and bazaars went up in the rapidly filling city. By the end of the week the numbers would be greater still. Balandar claimed that the population of Istar doubled during the Shinarion.

Hidden by a carved screen, Vincus watched the arrivals from his master's library window. As wine steward for the Kingpriest's Tower, Balandar was busy all the time now, and Vincus was often left to his own devices. He divided his time between secretly reading obscure manuscripts and nosing through the crowded Marketplace, watching the preparations for the festival.

In most years, the arrivals were exotic—almost enough to make the young servant believe that the city did not go on forever—that the legendary lands that travelers described were actual and true. The acrobats had come, and the fortune-tellers and dancers. A band of dwarven musicians was expected on the festival eve, and rumors even had it that Shardos, the fabled blind juggler, would attend and entertain.

But this year the first arrivals were somehow disturbing. Vincus wandered the Marketplace, seemingly casual, but totally observant. The acrobats, huge and hulking, practiced their stunts badly, the dancers seemed surly, and the fortune-tellers tight-lipped and private. The dwarves and the juggler were long overdue and the young servant began to suspect that the more famous, legitimate acts would not perform this year.

He saw few rehearsals, and the fortune-tellers' predictions, when they came, were tentative and vague: Today is your lucky day.

You are more insightful than ordinary folk.

Your future is bright.

Not legitimate. That was it, Vincus was sure. The arrivals were impostors. At first, Vincus was hesitant to bring up the matter to the druid. Vaananen, preoccupied with his rena garden, had little love for acrobats and dancers— they did not suit his austere western ways. But finally, two nights before the festival was scheduled to begin, Vincus slipped through the druid's window. Vaananen did not stir. He crouched, as usual, in the rena garden, drawing a rairfglyph. The rena garden had grown, Vincus noted. Vaananen had dismantled one of the wooden walls that kept the sand in place, and now it sprawled onto the floor, spreading like a creature with volition of its own. The druid had added another stone and a squat green barrel cactus to the stark, mysterious arrangement of objects in the sand, and two new glyphs adorned the far walled edge of the garden. Then Vaananen noticed him, rose and turned, his meditations over.

"What have you brought me, Vincus?" he asked with a weary smile. Vincus's dark hands flashed the first of four elaborate signs.

Vaananen laughed. "Impostors? Why, Vincus, all fortune-tellers are impostors." Vincus shook his head, his fingers a blur.

Vaananen turned back to the garden. "You have tried hard," he announced. "Thank you." Vincus shrugged, scratched beneath his silver collar. Perhaps he was wrong after all. He rose and turned toward the window, stepped to the sill...

And climbed out into the close Istarian night, leaving the druid to contemplate the cactus, the stone, the shifting shapes in the sand.

* * * * *

Vaananen might dismiss the suspicion, might laugh it away in his quiet meditation. But there was something different about the city—something strange and curiously out of line. Vincus was accustomed to watching the streets, to sensing with eye and ear and an insight more subtle than the senses when something had shifted, when something was not right.

And it was that feeling, that insight, that took him back to Balandar's library. Always before, the library had been a place of peace for Vincus—a maze of sanctuary amid towering shelves, with its powerful smells of mildew and old leather emanating from the long-neglected volumes. As a slave boy, illiterate at first, sold to the tower to repay his father's debts, he had taken books down from the high, obscure shelves to pore over at night after his master was abed. Slowly, his intelligence had matched the illuminated drawings in the margins of the ancient texts with the shapes of letters. It was like reading glyphs, this long process that had translated indecipherable scrawls into meaning, into things and ideas.

It had taken all of a year, but he had taught himself to read in the shadowy, candlelit room. Each time he returned he felt the same absorbing calm and quietude. This time he came as an intruder, a spy, gathering intelligence.

Silently, he thumbed through old Balandar's records. In a shabby old book the priest had kept account of the temple wineries for years, since before the Siege of Sorcery and long before Vincus himself had been born. He had dwelt upon this very book learning his letters and numbers: "claret" and "malmsey" were among the first words he could read.

Looking at the most recent records, those of the last several months, Vincus quickly tallied the number of wine barrels brought from the warm north into the Kingpriest's cellar. The expensive claret was the Kingpriest's favorite, reserved for only the highest clergy. One barrel^

month sufficed, and Vincus noted no change in the order. Nor in the malmsey, which the lesser clerics and the officers drank with a certain . . . license. Seven barrels this month, six the month before, and six before that.

Vincus nodded. A slight increase in the malmsey. Festival time.

The port, however, was the soldiers' wine. Rationed to the Istarian men at arms, it was issued in the barracks and taken afield. The Istarian soldier was naked without his wineskin. Vincus smiled, adding the numbers.

Ten barrels, then eleven, and this month . . . twenty-two.

Vincus absently fingered his silver collar. There was a marked increase in the port wine, far beyond festival allowances, beyond common sense. It definitely supported his suspicion. Someone new was in the city. Unannounced, unaccounted for.

And port was the wine of soldiers.

Chapter 13

The first night of the Shinarion spangled the city with a gaudy light. In the quiet, less-traveled pockets of the city, marbled squares and opal windows shone with the borrowed glow of Lunitari, red and darkly brilliant like candlelight on wine. But the lamps and the torches drowned the busy commons and thoroughfares with the flashy light of commerce, and like a respected matron who has drained the glass once too often, the elegant city burgeoned with a loud, inelegant life.

Yet those who had been here before knew otherwise—knew that this year was unlike any that had come before. This time the celebration was fevered, almost desperate, and the promised thousands of pilgrims, merchants, and performers had yet to arrive.

Nonetheless, the festival caroused from the center of the Marketplace, the beating heart of the trading, where jewelry, silks, and spices changed hands, to the booths by the gates of the city, where vendors and hucksters sold fireworks, knives, and the red glass bottles of godslight—the strange, everburning mixture of phosfire and salt, dangerous and volatile, that, if handled wisely and cautiously, would provide steady light for weeks.

No one, however, expected wisdom and caution from a drunken reveler. Already Peter Bomberus, commander of the city militia, had been called to extinguish three fires by the city walls. Two had been simple wooden lean-tos—the kind of makeshift dwellings that followed the festivals from Hylo to Balifor. But the third was different: a permanent dwelling, hard by the School of the Games, the dry wooden rafters and interiors igniting almost by themselves—a careless spark from a torch, perhaps, or godslight discarded by a drunken reveler.

By the time the commander reached the building, black smoke billowed from a marble husk, and the red flames joined with the red lamps of the Istarian night to create a harsh, hellish light. Two hours of frenzied work had quenched the spreading, dangerous fire, but the building still smoldered at midnight, the woodwork inside glowing faintly as the interior slowly fell in upon itself. Reckless revelers tossed fireworks into the burst opal windows, and the racket resounded into the dark Istarian morning. But Bomberus and his militia arrested no one. By the time the fireworks began, they were far away, bound toward the abandoned High Tower of Sorcery, where yet another fire had erupted—a metal gate ablaze with phosfire.

On the road to the burning gates, passing through the cluttered Istarian thoroughfares and alleys, Bomberus saw the sights of the Shinarion—the dreamlike arenas of commerce and deception and curious, fraudulent magic.

In a perfumer's booth near the Banquet Hall, two Kharolian merchants stood smugly behind an array of uncorked, parti-colored vials and bottles. The smell of a dozen colognes and attars and oils mingled in the smoky city air, and, reflecting in the red godslight, a thin, transparent hand snaked out of the mouth of each vessel, wavering like a desert mirage, like the blurred air at the lip of a flame. The hands gestured and beckoned as the militiamen passed, but Bomberus had instructed his troops well. On they trudged, past the hall, toward the Welcoming Tower, where a game of chance spilled from a speculator's booth onto the cobbled street, and an odd company of gamblers crouched and knelt and sat on the thoroughfare. Dwarves from Thoradin, Ergothian merchants, and a kender from Hylo gathered around a circle scratched on the cobblestone, the kender's hands tied in front of him according to the house policy of any establishment frequented by the little folk, and the ten-sided Calantina dice flickered through torchlight according to some obscure Ergothian rules.

Bomberus stopped at this booth, peered over a dwarven shoulder. Perfume and wine held no attractions for the commander, but gaming ...

A rough hand at his shoulder drew him away. Old Arcus, a veteran of some forty years, stared at his commander with black glittering eyes. Smiling knowingly, he pointed up the road, where the red fire glowed on the eastern horizon like a premature sunrise.

"Best be gettin' there, commander," he suggested, shouting over the dwarven racket and the carnival come-hither of the gamers. "Whilst some of it is standin', and the fire don't spread." Bomberus muttered to himself and followed. Now he found himself in an awkward spot, in the midst of his men rather than at the head of the column. All around him the militia sheared off from the avenue toward the dozen temptations that littered the lamplit center of the city, and together Bomberus and Arcus collared the younger soldiers, scolded them, and set them aright on the eastern road toward the tower. At first, ashamed at his own wayward behavior near the gambler's booth, the commander was hard on the unruly and gullible boys, planting his foot firmly in the backside of one who crouched beneath a beer barrel, openmouthed, to receive the cascading beer from the opened bunghole. Swearing angrily at the young man, Bomberus prepared to kick him again, but a cautionary wink from Arcus brought him to his senses. It was bad as the dice, this anger. Bomberus took a deep breath, helped the beer-soaked novice to his feet, and shoved the young man up the thoroughfare, where the light from the distant burning suddenly vanished in the stronger glow from the central Marketplace.

Wisely, cautiously, Bomberus steered the militia around the well-lit square. From a distance, in the faceted lamplight he could see the booths of the jewelers, the shimmering silks draped over awning and counter. The expensive booths, heavily guarded by the private soldiers of a dozen merchants. To stray into the Marketplace in armed company would be to invite disaster. At Shinarion, the merchants governed themselves with little regard for Kingpriest or clergy.

No wonder that Istar had hidden a legion in town.

Oh, no one had told him of the hidden legion. Indeed, he had not spoken of it either—not even to the trusted Arcus. Bomberus knew of the army's whereabouts only through instinct, through the inspired guess of a veteran constable who notices subtle changes on familiar streets: new hands with the calluses of crossbowmen, the unmistakable shape of a pike wrapped in canvas in a wagon bed, swords carried with quiet, respectful wisdom.

Standard security, to be sure. But more than that. He had never seen concealed troops in these numbers, not even at the great festivals of five years past, whose opulence and magnitude dwarfed the sorry excuse for a Shinarion unfolding this first, unpromising night.

What could they be planning in the Tower?

He shook his head, continued up the wide street, past the smithy and the Slave Market, to where the spellcraft flourished and the illusions stalked.

Translucent and flitting they were, like ghosts in search of solid flesh. Slowly, in an almost stately dance, they cavorted on the battlements of the abandoned tower like corposants on a stormy mast, and the night air rumbled in accompaniment with the sound of fireworks and thunder, of the last combats in the raucous arena. Above the slack-jawed guardsmen the air crackled as the watery smell of lightning reached them through the smoke and powder and incense of the Shinarion. Peter Bomberus reached for his sword, then laughed quietly, grimly. As if edged steel would fend off these mirages.

In the fitful firelight behind the burning gate, there at the base of the tower, the illusionists gathered for duels and enchantments. Artificial stars glittered above them, spangling the minarets of the tower with borrowed light.

It was a show, the best of the Shinarion. A second heaven formed around the deserted tower, and languidly the constellations, drawn from the memories of the participating illusionists, wheeled about the spire of the tower as though a year were passing in little more than a minute, a century in two hours. Meanwhile, at the shadowy base of the tower a chorus of incantations rose on the air, a great choir in all the known languages of Ansalon, from the watery vowels of Lemish to the harsh Kernian brogue and the suave accents of Balifor.

As the guardsmen covered the burning gate with doused canvas, with earth, with ashes, smothering the strange flames of phosfire, Peter Bomberus watched the spectacle in the western sky. In unison, as a hundred languages choired below them, the imaginary stars and planets lifted into the higher regions of air, sputtering and fading as they caught a sudden wind and scattered, in a babble of fire and voices, over the bay of Istar.

They were always good, these illusionists, with their false light and treacherous mirrors. But this year, their flashy, empty show seemed to suit the city and its festival.

Peter Bomberus stood before the smoldering gate and watched the smoke trail into the heavy sky. The festival was a showy failure. This year was the worst of them all—as many fires as pilgrims, it seemed. And beneath the smoke and incense and the smell of new wine, the pungent, unsavory odor of decay and death.

The Kingpriest himself watched the illusions sail out and crumble over the water. Like dust, he reminded himself.

Like bright and magical dust.

Turning from the window, he closed the thin shades behind him and, oil lamp in hand, hastened to the table where he kept the long work of his dreams.

He was almost through with the gathering. The opal dust filled two large vials already, and the third and final receptacle was three-quarters full. But the mining was laborious, even under the skillful labors of the Lucanesti, and the great day of the ritual might still be months away. Time enough for that mad Prophet to storm the city. To ruin everything. His pale hand trembled as he touched the last vial. Oh, might the gods speed the harvest! But the Prophet... the Plainsmen and rebels ...

'They will not be enough to harm you," a dark voice breathed from somewhere in his chamber. The Kingpriest was suddenly tense and alert. He had heard this voice before—in the clerestory of the great encircling corridor, in the glossy dome of the council hall, and finally, most intimately, in his own private chambers. Yet it never ceased to surprise him, insinuating itself into the depths of his dreams, coming upon him always in solitary and unguarded moments like a thief to an unprotected house.

"T-To harm me?" he stammered, mining for a false bravery. "What have I to fear from . . . petty bandits?"

"But there is one who is more than a bandit," the voice teased. The Kingpriest glanced to the window he had just closed. A dark heart at the center of the opal sheet contracted eerily, like the eye of a reptile, and the voice trailed through the brilliant translucent pane, filling the room with melody and dread.

"This one is close to you, my friend, and it would not be well for you to see him ... face to face and eye to eye. It would be a hall of mirrors, in which you might well become ensnared." The Kingpriest frowned at the obscure threat. Then, dropping all pretense of courage and confidence, he faced the window and asked the question that had kept him sleepless for most of the week.

"If I cannot face him, who can? If five generals have failed, then who will stop him?"

"Your commander is coming," the voice soothed, a strange opaque flatness in its tone. "Rest easy, my friend. I shall let no rebellion touch you."

In the answering silence, the Kingpriest waited, attentive and expectant. What did it mean—this dark, ambiguous promise?

Soon it was apparent that the voice had left the window, that its last sentence had been these odd words of assurance.

Assurance, indeed. It would protect him, deliver him.

Then why did his hand still shake?

* * * * *

It was an odd officer who made his way into the quartermaster's offices on the following morning. His uniform was a ragtag assemblage, mixing rank, regiment and legion with almost a clownish abandon. The lieutenant's tunic from the Istarian Twelfth Legion contrasted strangely with the violet cavalry cape left over from the Ninth Legion, which had been disbanded by the Kingpriest two years before. The green leggings the officer wore had come from the Ergothian infantry and the helmet, fashioned of ornate boiled leather, was a relic from some other time.

A mercenary, the quartermaster deduced, glancing over his shoulder as the motley man entered the offices. No man to reckon with. Or cheat.

The quartermaster might have been more curious had he seen the officer emerge from a nearby alley not minutes earlier, rolling the end of the cape around his silver slave collar, effectively hiding it from curious eyes. He might have wondered who the man was, what was his business. And why he wore the mark of a slave in the first place.

Busy with his inventory, the quartermaster noticed nothing more about the man—not even that he spoke not a word to the other soldiers milling through the assembled supplies, but that his hands flashed secretly with ancient Ergothian numerical signs as he counted, tallied, and took his own inventory of the provisions gathered in the military offices.

The quartermaster scarcely took heed when the officer left, busy as he was with an order for a thousand pairs of legionnaires' boots and as many water-skins.

Nor did the armorer in the shop three streets away pause to notice when an acrobat entered his estab-lishment, dressed in the black tunic of tumblers and fire-dancers. After all, festival performers often came to the armory, searching for old throwing knives, older darts, and other dramatic blunt weapons to lend a certain edge of danger to the torchlit midnight productions. Bent over a used sword he was hammering into shape for a sergeant in the Twelfth Legion, the stocky craftsman did not notice the acrobat's eye stray to the spearheads, arrowheads, and the new short swords requisitioned by the garrisons of the city. Had he looked closer at the acrobat, the armorer might have noticed the metal band peeking through the violet ruffle at the performer's neck.

The silver collar was the sign of a Temple slave, and would have caused suspicion and alarm. The barracks keeper, four streets away, also did not think to be suspicious. He noticed the fortuneteller stroll by the barracks, his conical hat tilted comically, his long red robe unable to cover the fact that he was barefoot, no doubt penniless and desperate to augur and forecast his way to a festival meal. When the man stopped in front of the barracks and weaved drunkenly, he appeared to be talking to himself, and the keeper snickered and shook his head, assured by the sighting of his first drunken wizard that the Shinarion was about to begin.

Had he been closer to the fortune-teller, he might have seen the man counting quietly, estimating the beds freshly set in the vacant barracks. And had he watched intently and followed the augurer, he no doubt would have seen the man slip into a shadowy alcove and hoist a large sack, bulging with well-worn clothing, then make his way along half-deserted streets west through the city, past the Banquet Hall and the Welcoming Tower toward the sound of the roaring crowd as the first gladiatorial contest of the festival began.

Had these three servants of the city—quartermaster, armorer, and barracks keeper—met in a tavern that first festival night, had they compared notes and curious observations over the last several days, they might well have placed together that all three passersby—mercenary, acrobat, and fortune-teller— were exactly the same height, age, and coloring.

Indeed, the Shinarion was a time of commerce and coincidence.

There was one other similar visit in the central city—the last of the four—in a large stable not far from the School of the Games. In the shadowy, musty-smelling barn, a solitary groom mucked out a stall amid the whicker of horses and the buzz of bottle flies. He scarcely noticed when a slave appeared—a dark young man, wearing the white tunic of the Inner Temple.

Balandar's servant, the groom observed dimly, his mind neither on nor off his work. No doubt the old priest was set to buy another mare.

The young slave nodded to the drowsy man and passed between stalls quietly, as though shopping for horses. The groom left him alone, no more interested in his business than the quartermaster, armorer, or barracks keeper had been earlier in the day. Finally, the groom fell asleep over his broom, dreaming of winning a hefty wager at the First Games of Josef Monoculus, and spending it ... spending it... All on beer.

Vincus, meanwhile, moved from stall to stall, looking for anything odd or out of place. Most of the animals were familiar to him:—the roan that belonged to young Trincera, a priestess of Mishakal, the two mares that his master Balandar owned, and

the Kingpriest's half-dozen stallions.

There were others, however, less familiar. Vincus approached one, then another. The great beasts were calm and steady beneath his confident hand, as the young slave quickly checked ears and flanks and teeth.

The brands on the flanks of two geldings clearly indicated that they were the property of merchants from Balifor. Nothing surprising there.

The braided mane of the pony indicated its Tho-radin origins. Vincus smiled to imagine a dwarf riding the creature, unsteady in the saddle, cursing and muttering and pulling at his beard. It was the fourth mount that caught and held the young man's eye. A strong, spirited gray mare, weathered but well tended, stood in the far stall, eyeing Vincus defiantly. An old, long scar creased her withers, and her right flank was pocked with four arrow wounds, healed years ago as well. As Vincus approached, the mare lowered her head and snorted once, menacingly. Vincus slowly extended his hand. The slice of apple, an offering of truce, settled the animal's temper. A bit skittishly, the mare let him stroke her long dark mane, let him examine her flanks and hooves for identifying markings.

Nothing. The horse was unmarked.

Making a soothing, clicking sound, Vincus reached up and opened the mare's mouth. There, on the pink of her inner lip, was the blue tattoo.

The hexagon. Glyph of the Sixth Legion.

Vincus sucked in his breath. The Sixth Legion was the stuff of legends. Istar's finest, a tough, relentless group of veterans trained by Solamnics and schooled in the Siege on Sorcery and in innumerable raids against the ogres. They were noted for their swiftness and endurance ... And utter lack of mercy.

Now they camped on the borders of Kern. At least that was what he had heard in the taverns and the School of the Games—the information he had brought back to Vaananen in their weekly visits. His thoughts racing, Vincus examined the lip of the black gelding in the adjoining stall, and the chestnut mare near the entrance to the stables. The blue hexagon marked them both. The Sixth Legion was in Istar.

Quickly the young man's mind rushed over the gatherings of the day. New provisions, new weaponry, and now a horse that named the stranger. The Sixth Legion, under cover of darkness and disguised as acrobat, dancer, and merchant, had been recalled to Istar.

The Kingpriest was preparing for the rebels.

Chapter 14

For ten days he stood at the border between worlds, as the shamans despaired for his life. Larken sang healing songs over him, and the music and words trickled into his long, dry sleep like a dream of water. Fordus would rise toward the surface then, toward light and waking, but there was another voice inhabiting his sleep—a voice deep and tranquil and alluring.

Lie down, be at peace now, you have fought long and hard and done your best, let someone else do the hard work henceforth and come to me, come to me in the sweet darkness. I will teach you everything of prophecy.

On the third day after his wounding, he gave in to the voice, to its soothing and promises and to his own curiosity, and his dreams revealed wonderful things.

It was always the desert he traveled, a featureless desert with neither rock nor salt flat nor arroyo to mark it, to distinguish one path from innumerable others. And always in this dream, he came upon the kanaji pit by surprise—an old wide well swallowed by sand, rising from the heart of nowhere. He entered the pit, the darkness, and his hands began to glow with unexpected light—a light that seemed to rise from his own veins, filling the high circle of limestone wall. But instead of the expected glyphs, the accustomed marks in the sand, the woman Tanila sat before him, her dark eyes glittering and wild.

The words came to her readily, easily, like the words of Larken's songs. You have opened the rift of the world, she began, as he extended his glowing hands toward her. Let the new world arise from rift and confusion. Let it change in the flame of your hand.

Then the light in his veins would extinguish, the blackness would surround him, and he would sleep heavily, darkly, until the voices returned, Larken's first, then the deep soft voice in pursuit. The dream would happen again and again. And each time, before complete and oblivious darkness, he would hear the other voice, melodious and solitary, blending with his memories of Tanila's voice. And it would tell him the last thing, the thing his heart remembered as he slept.

Your studies are over, Prophet. Now the world will shake. You no longer need glyphs to prophesy, nor the customary second tongue. You will speak to the multitudes on your own, needing neither interpreter nor bard.

In the depths of his sleep Fordus tried to argue, tried to say no, I have not done this before, have not prophesied and interpreted as well. It is not permitted. The ancient way of prophecy is twofold. But the voice was insistent.

You are a city unto yourself, a wondrous city, Fordus Firesoul. Istar will pay you tribute, will be subject to your command. The rival you have longed for awaits you in Istar: the Kingpriest, your match in valor and worthiness. But you will triumph.

And this I promise: In the heart of Istar you will find out who you are. Who I am? he asked, with the same insistent yearning he had felt upon first learning of his strange adoption.

Hurry. You must hurry to know. You must storm Istar now.

Do not delay.

But we are too few.

Do not delay.

On the plateau the rebels held hopeless vigil over their wounded leader. Northstar knelt at his feet and Stormlight at his head, praying the deep prayers to Mishakal. Larken stood above the three of them, beating the drum slowly and singing the Three Songs of Healing, over and over. They stopped only for an hour's fitful sleep.

On the second night, Gormion took her followers back to the red tents of the bandits. It was enough, she concluded. The man was dead, and all that remained was to name Stormlight as his successor. The Que-Nara were more faithful. Many of them stayed through four, five nights, but on the sixth day the number of watchers began to dwindle. Women led the children to their tents, and some of the older warriors and the shamans returned to camp on the seventh day.

The grumbling began. Stormlight heard it first from Gormion, when he returned after the seventh night's vigil, headed for his tent and three hours' sleep before sunrise.

All responsibility had fallen on Stormlight. In the seven days that Fordus had lain silent atop the Red Plateau, he had come to see how unwieldy the sole command of this irregular army could be. It was sleep, however, that he thought of now, and when he heard the rattle and ring of jewelry approaching from behind, for a moment Stormlight envied Fordus his coma. He turned to face the dark-haired bandit, his expression level and impassive.

"It is time to decide, Stormlight," the bandit captain declared, her eyes flashing with impatience and anger.

"What would you have me decide, Gormion?" His voice remained calm, he believed—no hint of the rising irritation he felt as the woman drew near him and raised a solitary, thin finger, pointing and jabbing at him like she wielded a dagger.

"The fate of the rebellion, Stormlight. I would have you decide what is next. Instead of waiting for the ... visionary to die."

Stormlight remained impassive.

"While we crouch on our haunches," the bandit continued, "and await the passing, Istar is moving troops to the north."

"You know this for a fact, Gormion?"

He knew that she didn't.

"What would you do if you were Kingpriest, Stormlight?"

"I am not Kingpriest, Gormion."

"You could be. You are resourceful and brave."

Stormlight laughed wearily. Seven days had worn thin his patience, but this was the most ridiculous of Gormion's proddings. Was she foolish enough to believe that an elf whose greatest enemy sat on the Istarian throne .. .

"And you command these armies."

Tanila had spoken the same words a week ago when he first met her at the fireside. Astonished, Stormlight stared at the bandit leader. Gormion's face, once beautiful, had wrinkled and lined over the years with scheming and anger. Not yet thirty, she looked twice her age.

"What did you say, Gormion?"

With a sniff of disgust, the woman backed away from Stormlight, who continued to stare at her, his dark eyes intent and wide. "I said what I said, elf," she decreed, the menace in her voice brittle and thin. She wheeled about in a chiming of bracelets and a rattle of beads. "I said what I said," she repeated, calling the words over her shoulder as she fled to the darkness of her tent, to safety and concealment.

"And you, Stormlight of the Lucanesti, had better listen. Or be lost like the rest of your people!" Back in the Abyss, her female crystalline body abandoned in the fires and eruptions, Takhisis banked in the windless air and laughed exultantly.

Gormion would be easy, when the time came. Hers was a spirit primed for hatred and strife. Takhisis beat her wings, her laughter settling to a low, contented rumble. For wherever strife and hatred abounded ... there was confusion . . . and confusion was an inroad for her every evil work.

Her defeat was only a temporary one, and not without some satisfaction. For Sargonnas's glowing condor also had crumbled in the air, the bard's song changing the vaunting god into a harmless shower of sparks.

It had been rather beautiful. A bright show of fireworks in the desert sun. It had given Takhisis an image as well... an idea how to punish her insolent consort.

When they returned to the abyss, she had set upon him like a hawk on a sparrow, swooping through the bottomless darkness, folding her wings in a searing dive through the nothingness, sensing him somewhere below her.

Her thoughts called out to Sargonnas in the blackness, and he answered. Penitently. Fearfully. He told her of Fordus's weakness—of the man's great desire to discover his origins, his parentage. Then suddenly she found herself above him, and dove, and he was there, turning his ruddy face, his lidless eyes wide in astonishment and terror as she crashed into him like a merciless black comet. He exploded from the power of her assault, shattering into a hundred thousand shards and fragments, which squeaked and twittered as they scattered in aimless flight through the void. It would take him a century to reassemble.

Now, as she remembered the moment, her rage subsided. Or rather, it turned back to the world, to the Plainsmen who ranged the fringes of the desert in clear defiance of her Istar, her Kingpriest, her plans for the Cataclysm.

This Fordus had shown himself well nigh indestructible. Neither the desert nor its creatures, the Istarians nor Sargonnas's fire and clumsiness had had enough power to bring down this man. Yet, he was suggestible. His ancestry weakened him. Which was why Takhisis had come to the man in his dreams, breathing lies and nonsense about his great and far-reaching destiny. He was ambitious enough to believe anything.

Takhisis purred contentedly.

She had lingered awhile in the Plainsman's dreams, burrowing deeper and deeper into the recesses of his memory, past the layers of adolescence, of childhood, past the time he was brought to the desert's edge, in secrecy and in night.

His mother was a slave girl, an attendant in the Kingpriest's Tower. She learned that, easily. Now, more importantly, Takhisis knew his father. And there is great power in knowledge, great freedom. She would use that knowledge to destroy him.

Now the Prophet was rising from sleep. Fordus lay in a pool of sweat, his breathing easy and his fever broken. But his spiked golden tore tightened ever so slightly upon his wasted neck. The ends then welded in a silent, seamless joining, symbol of a new alliance that could never be broken. Fordus would waken with an altered heart.

She would leave the final, brutal work to her earthly minions, when time and opportunity converged. When the moment came, the Prophet would beg for oblivion.

In the evening of the tenth day, when the Water Prophet opened his eyes, only a handful of the faithful were left on the plateau. Kneeling beside him, Northstar offered him water.

"I have dreamt strangely," Fordus announced after a long drink, a new sound in his voice. His eyes were bright and sunk deeply into their sockets from the ten-day fast of his sleep. Northstar and Stormlight bent over him, and Larken, jubilant, ceased her drumming.

"And I have seen signs and wonders in my dream," he concluded, sitting up painfully. "Assemble the people for a new word."

Larken sounded the gathering call on her drum. Its message echoed from the heights of the Red Plateau, borne on the shouts and calls of the sentries, passed from encampment to encampment, from the white tents of the Que-Nara to the red of Gormion's bandits. They came in throngs, from the battle leaders and shamans and Namers down to the youngest child, for Larken's drum was a powerful summons. When the gathering drum sounded, the gods were ready to speak.

Stormlight waited with the rest of the company as Fordus stood weakly in the midst of the jostling crowd. Fathers lifted children onto their shoulders to better see the Prophet, and the rumor circulated among the awestruck Que-Nara that Fordus had passed through the land of the dead and come back with the deepest prophecy of all. Leaning on North-star's shoulder, the blood on his mending side caked and dried as though he might brush away the wound, Fordus trained his sea-blue eyes toward the horizon.

"My dream has spoken to me," the Prophet proclaimed. "Istar is burning. The fire has come, and the world has opened."

A murmur spread through the crowd, and a thousand eyes turned to Stormlight, who stepped aside, waiting for the lightning to strike as it always struck, for Fordus's obscure poetry to become clear. Quickly, with the confidence born of long experience, he isolated the symbols from the Prophet's speech. Fire. A burning city. The crack in the world.

As he felt the words stirring, felt them rise from that mysterious source in the depths of his spirit, suddenly he heard an excited rumble from the crowd.

Stormlight's unspoken words froze in his throat.

"Hear the word of the Prophet!" Fordus proclaimed, blue eyes scanning the encircling faces. "The meaning of my dream has come to me, and to me alone. No longer do I need interpreter!" Stormlight shivered with a sharp intake of breath. His power, his position, had been usurped.

"For I ljiave passed through the fire and the fever," Fordus continued, his hands raised aloft, "and I have walked on the margins of shadows and looked over into the places from which no man returns." Uncertainly, with a sidelong glance at Stormlight, Larken beat the drum once, twice.

"My dream has told me that Istar is burning. The fire that will destroy the city has not yet been kindled, but we are the ones who will light it."

Slowly, the circle of people surrounding Stormlight widened and dispersed, as the Plainsmen turned in rapt attention toward Fordus. Dumbstruck, the elf watched in befuddlement as Larken, too, turned toward the Water Prophet, storing his words for a song.

"Rest tonight," Fordus said softly, his eyes turned north, to where the red moon and the white sat low on the horizon. The Namers and shamans who circled

him strained to hear his words, caught them, and passed them to the Plainsmen and bandits who waited behind them, so that the message spread like brushfire over the listening crowd. "Rest tonight, for tomorrow we march. We march on Istar, and there will not be peace until the city is mine."

Chapter 15

Stormlight decided to speak against Fordus's prophecy. Standing before the assembled camps, his voice rang loud and true and assured, as it had on a hundred occasions before, when he had helped to guide the Que-Nara through long, waterless stretches of the desert in search of oases, of underground pools, of arroyos suddenly and strangely filled by an outburst of subterranean springs. In the years of drought his voice had been rain, so the people were inclined to listen.

"I have heard the prophecy of Fordus Firesoul," he began, "and I believe his dream has misguided him. Where before have we found the water, and looked in the sand for the approach of Istar, for other dangers and for enemies? Speak, if you know."

The sea of faces was still and quiet. They knew, of course, of the kanaji pit—that there was a magic within the crumbling, sand-swallowed walls that had lasted an age or more. They knew that Fordus entered the pit to seek visions and wisdom. They knew something of the glyphs, and all believed that the gods sent messages through them to the Prophet. But they did not know how. "In all those times," Stormlight continued, "I have stood beside the Water Prophet. I have seen the birth of the visions, and when he has spoken, I have spoken after him. His words were cloudy, but I have made them plain so that you may understand them. Always we have worked together—the Storm of Prophecy and the Stormlight. We have found water, and when we needed to elude the slavers, they went home with their collars empty. In these wars of liberation, we have found Istar and the unprotected flanks of the Kingpriest's army."

"Why did the wars start, Stormlight?" Fordus asked softly, and all eyes turned to the Prophet, all ears awaited his answer. "Was it in the kanaji that the gods told me to move against Istar? No, I tell you. This vision came to me in a dream. I alone was its Prophet and interpreter. The Namers and the shamans all know that I speak the truth."

A dozen gray heads in the first circle of watchers—heads covered in beads and oils, locks caked with penitential and meditative mud—nodded in fierce agreement.

The Prophet was a dreamer. And Stormlight? Perhaps he was jealous. Perhaps the gods had moved him aside.

Stormlight himself wavered with a moment's doubt. Was he jealous, as no doubt they must believe? Had the words of Tanila and Gormion struck him so because they were the same words, spoken on the same day, or because they had touched the secret desires of his own heart?

Yet he knew it was foolish—these doubts, these suspicions—because most foolish of all was For-dus's reckless haste. If they moved in accordance with Fordus this time, all of them, Plainsman and bandit alike, would surely fall in the grasslands north of the desert, where Istar's might was ready. There were fifty thousand of them, to the rebels' five hundred.

He could not let that happen.

Stormlight gathered himself for an answer. "It was your dream that began this war, Fordus. I cannot deny that. But did you dream the thousands of slaves, both Plainsman and elf, who wear the Istar-ian collars, laboring in their households and markets on their swarming docks and in their lampless mines? Did you dream the legion after legion that Istar has set before us, and did you dream the great mountains south of the city, and the lake we need to encircle, and then more plains, and, finally, the great Istarian walls, twenty feet thick, of solid stone?

"There will be a time for great victory, a time to march through the streets of Istar in celebration, with thousands more following us, thousands more at our side. And we will set them free, and forever break the bondage Istar has put upon our people. We will leave the desert and have warm homes and restored families. But it is too soon. Istar will crush us like shells."

He looked out over the armies. Some of the leaders—Breeze and Messenger among the Plainsmen, Gormion and Rann among the bandits—nodded in agreement with his words. They were war leaders, skilled soldiers all.

A fleeting cloud of distaste moved over Fordus's face, but almost at once he converted it to a limpid sweetness. He lifted his hands—the Prophet's gesture of inspiration and blessing—and he turned with a smile toward Larken.

"In the time of glyphs and of defense," he said, "Three of us guided you, not two. I call on Larken in this new age. I call on her song to lift us out of questioning and debate." Stormlight's hopes sank as the girl stood and walked slowly to her drum. Larken was Fordus's bard; he was her true love. She had followed him for years, exalting him, adoring him. There was no question whose story she would tell. How could it be otherwise?

"Let her sing," Stormlight proclaimed quietly. "She will surely sing for you. Once before you led us out of the desert's fastness, and the Kingpriest's army followed us back. There are orphans and widows who remember that day sadly, and there are grieving ancient ones who did not expect to outlive their sons.

"And now you lead us forth once again, and again we will follow. I will come behind you—not follow, but come behind—because the Que-Nara are my people as well, and will need someone to defend them from your great foolhardiness. Still, I cannot blame those who choose to stay behind.

"But know this: If your ambitions outstrip your love for your people, if you venture into country that promises death like the death that swept down on us beneath the Red Plateau ... why, I shall be the first to turn against you. I will kill you myself"

With a silent prayer that his words had found listeners, Stormlight stalked from the council. The crowd parted like high grass in his passage, but he did not look back until he reached the steep, inclining trail that led down from the plateau.

Northstar had stayed.

And Larken ... immoveable in her uncertainty.

Nonetheless, ninety warriors came behind him. Gormion and Rann and their henchmen, Messenger and Breeze and their followers and families descended the trail in a long, uncertain line. He looked toward the camp, where the muted fires, left untended, had lapsed into darkness.

"May the gods and the god beyond them hear me," he whispered. "And may Fordus and Larken someday understand."

"You are a dead man if you leave me, Stormlight," Fordus shouted to the backs of the departing rebels.

"All of you are dead. Without me you will have no water, no defense. Istar will take you at its leisure, or you will go to the Kingpriest and beg for his mercy!" Without so much as a good breath between, he turned to the loyal and continued in an even conversational tone.

"The gods alone send dreams, and the Prophets alone can divine them." He clambered atop a stand of stones and looked down upon the sizeable crowd that remained. Four hundred Plainsmen and barbarians sat on the hard, rocky ground and watched him expectantly.

"Stormlight did not remind you that his words interpreted mine when we emerged from the kanaji. It was he who told you that the water was north of the desert, the moon and wind were on our side, and that Istar was waiting."

Larken looked up at him sharply.

Some of the barbarians stirred and murmured among themselves.

"If any prophecy failed," Fordus continued, "it failed when the interpreter brought you the words." Larken set aside the drum. The only music Fordus wanted was that of his own voice. He stood above his company, waving and gesticulating, his movements swift and frenzied and sinuous. His argument was as shimmering and elusive as a mirage. She could not piece the logic of it, and yet those who remained were listening, were nodding, were agreeing.

As Fordus spoke, preparing his followers for the morning's march into the lands of Istar, the bard fingered her drum hammer absently, uncertainly.

Perhaps, she thought guiltily, her music for Fordus had fled along with her love. Confidently and ardently, after the speech of the Water Prophet, her cousin Northstar stood in the midst of the seated multitude.

"Hear the word of the Prophet!" Northstar cried exultantly, lifting his salvaged bronze medallion into the cool desert night. "Fordus Firesoul is the War Prophet, the man who needs no translator, no interpreter of broken words! I, for one, have kept my eyes to the heavens for forty turning seasons. I have steered you by planet and star, and I have steered by my heart and mind as well.

"For those years, the gods have told me to guide. And now my heart tells me to follow.

"To follow Fordus Firesoul, the War Prophet, the Liberator! On to Istar, warriors of the Que-Nara! To the walled city, friends and brothers!"

A roar arose from the seated multitude, a rumble and shout like the roll of an enormous drum. Lucas soared away from the loud and menacing sound, circling dolefully in the silence of the upper night air until he seemed like a swiftly moving planet, a meteor in the dark vault of the heavens. Below him, the torches converged and filed toward the camp, the council doomed and concluded. The next morning the rebels departed from the camp at the base of the Red Plateau. The War Prophet was steady now, firm of footfall and strong in his stride. His pain had vanished, replaced by a fierce and jubilant sense of his own destiny.

He set off on foot at the head of his army. Waves of the Que-Nara danced in their white robes behind him, and the motley garb of bandit and barbarian decorated the bleak desert with color. It was the morning of the Shinarion, and they formed the last of the caravans headed for Istar. If the gods willed it, Fordus Firesoul would be in the city within a week, celebrating the close of the holy days on the throne of the Kingpriest.

Stormlight watched their departure from the edge of the salt flats. Fordus, his eyes straight ahead toward the beckoning north, did not acknowledge his old companion, nor did the others who flocked around the War Prophet, watching each gesture and listening to each word, certain they were present at the making of history.

Wearily, Larken set out in the middle of the column. Almost as an afterthought, she wrapped the lyre, carrying it in a knapsack over her shoulder.

Dreamlike, she touched the instrument in the dark cloth, and it seemed to quiver in her weary hand. By the jostling of totem standards and bandit banners milling in the company ahead of her, she could locate Fordus, though she could neither see nor hear him. All around her a river of robed bodies surged and pushed, and she felt as though she were being washed away to the north, borne on an irresistible tide.

Once she looked back. At the edge of the Tears of Mishakal, framed in the glittering black of the crystals, a solitary figure watched the passing of the army, at last signaling his forces to follow, his gestures tired and heavy. He was distant, his features lost in the sandy wind and the liquid shimmer that rose from the hot desert surface, but she recognized him at once.

Stormlight.

She wanted to wave, to signal to him something about peace and friendship. But a banner, waved by an enthusiastic barbarian boy, flashed green and golden through her line of sight, and the babble of a foreign tongue distracted her. When she looked to the flats again, Stormlight was gone. She looked to where the banners encircled Fordus. Energized by the sun, by the adulation of his followers, the Prophet was moving more quickly. Already the colors danced at the edge of her sight, moving resolutely into the distance, where the cloudless sky seemed to open and swallow them.

* * * * *

At midday, deep in the Tears of Mishakal, a funnel of black sand swirled skyward, propelled on an unnatural desert wind. Weaving between the crystals like a dark, intangible river, the sand brushed and chimed against the ancient, gleaming stones until the whole salt flat seemed to wail and whistle like a thousand lost souls.

Out into the desert the black wind rushed, over the site of the Plainsmen's recent battle with the condor, scattering sagebrush and ash in its path as it hastened north. It passed about a mile to the east of Fordus's marching legions, and the scouts and outrunners took shelter on the leeward side of the dunes, convinced that the wind was the herald of a great approaching rain.

In its wake, the desert lay calm again. Brush tumbled from dune to dune in sedate, everyday winds, and the sun beat relentlessly over the shifting browns and reds of the arid landscape. The Plainsmen soon forgot about the storm as they scanned the horizons for signs of the Kingpriest's army. But high above them, a solitary bird soared after the dark wind.

The bard's hawk, Lucas, his wings extended, watched the curious cloud from a distance as it raced from the desert into the plains. Skimming low over the dry terrain, the bird watched the ripple of the high grasses and followed the path of the wind through that wide and deceptive country. Soon the grasslands gave way to rocky slopes, to foothills, as the dark wind hurried over farmlands and villages, headed toward mountains and the daunting walls of Istar beyond. Soaring at hunting speed, Lucas at last overtook it as it skimmed across the great expanse of Lake Istar, and from his high vantage, the bird looked down upon the gritty, undulating spine of the wind.

It seemed to the bird that he flew above a huge serpent or above the thrashing tail of an even greater beast. Cautiously, he kept his distance and continued to follow and watch. As the wind neared the city seawalls, its writhing form condensed and compressed. The wind became liquid, then solid, darkening and coalescing until, to the hawk's acute eyes, it looked like a watersnake, glittering like crystal in the harsh sunlight, wriggling swiftly over the lakeside to the city waits, winding and thrashing across the steep, rocky incline.

Now, his confusion over, Lucas swooped for the snake, gliding low over the water behind it, extending and flexing his fierce talons. He narrowed the gap in seconds, caught a glimpse of faceted edges in the skin of his quarry, the smell of salt, and the smell of something older than salt, brilliant and sinister. He shrieked, struck out with his talons, but the snake was swift, elusive. Slipping through a small crevice at the base of the great wall, it vanished, the tip of its tale flickering tauntingly against the gray stone. Lucas landed hard by the city walls and ruffled himself in frustration. Then he climbed steeply on a thermal close to the Istarian walls and, turning above the Kingpriest's Tower, made for the south and Fordus's approaching forces. He would not forget the snake and its strange transformations. And somewhere in the dark beneath Istar, the long, serpentine form altered and grew.

Chapter 16

Shinare's festival was doomed from the outset.

From the abandoned Tower of High Sorcery, its gates draped in drooping golden ribbons in honor of the goddess, all the way across the central city to the School of the Games, where tarnished bronze griffin wings hung as a reminder of earlier, more vibrant festivals, the city stiffened under a turgid pall. The few paltry booths, decked with the ribbons of the goddess, looked muddy and stained in the hot, windless afternoons. The goods sold in the Marketplace seemed tawdry and cheap: shoddy earthenware statuary from Thoradin replaced the customary carved stone, the scrimshaw from Balifor seemed abstract and rushed, and the scaleless fish from northern Karthay was the worst of all failures. This fish, brought to the markets in thousands of pounds and kept on ice from the Karthayan moun-^

tains, was intended as the principal delicacy of this" year's Shinarion. But the heat of the city grew suddenly unbearable, and the catch had spoiled by the second day, leaving the air of the city tainted, almost unbreatheable.

The visitors could not help but notice. Despite the fuming incense on the windowsills of houses, despite the cloves hung by the thresholds and the attars of roses and violets let run in rivulets through the gutters of the streets, the city stank.

By the second evening of the Shinarion, those who were leaving the festival outnumbered the arrivals. Into the adjoining towns about the bay they retreated, past the monastery or through the Karthayan forest, rushing on horseback, in carts, on foot toward the fresh, cool air, shaking the odors of incense and dead fish from their clothing.

The few among them who looked back, nostalgic, no doubt, for the merriment of earlier festivals, saw the lights of Istar flickering and dim across the dark water. The Shinarion candles, once used to mark the festival time in such profusion that the light was visible ten miles away, had dwindled to a few sad thousand, barely producing light to steer by. It was not long before the travelers lost the city behind them in the rising dusk. Alone on the Temple battlements, gazing out over the putrid city, Vaananen marveled at the quiet and darkness of this most unusual festival time.

The city looked besieged.

Of course, the rumors had spread through Istar more quickly than the smell of the rotten fish. A rebel force had come out of the desert again, headed toward the city, its numbers unknown. At its helm was the same man—the Water Prophet—who had burst into the grasslands less than a month before, inflicted great casualties on the Twelfth and Seventh Istarian legions, then hastened back into that godless country of rock and sand, where he had vanished like a dying wind. Vaananen shook his head. It was too soon.

No matter the powers of this Fordus Firesoul, he and his rebels were not ready. The forces arrayed against them were more than formidable, the road ahead of them perilous and long. With Fordus away from the kanaji, there was no chance to warn him. Vaananen leaned against the cooling stone wall and stared out over the city. In the distance, the School of the Games blazed with gaudy purple light, and a roar erupted from a crowd accustomed to gladiatorial slaughter and reckless horse races.

Now was the most dangerous time—for his own mission in the city, and for Fordus's rebellion in the outlands.

For the Sixth Legion had indeed arrived in Istar. Of that much Vaananen was certain. After his trip to the stables and the other discoveries, Vincus had rushed back to the druid's quarters, scrambled through the window in a net of torn vines and brambles, and gesticulated so wildly that it took Vaananen the goodly part of an hour to calm the young man down.

By now, the druid believed the servant's story, but he accompanied him back to the stables anyway, and the horse's tattooed lip had confirmed the unpleasant truth.

Not even three legions of Solamnic Knights could hope for victory against Istar's garrison of over five thousand veteran soldiers.

He had warned the Prophet accordingly, drawn the glyphs in the rena garden, four symbols bold in the dark sand.

But who would be there to read it?

Vaananen pulled his cloak tightly about his shoulders. It always seemed to happen during the Shinarion: the last days of summer blended unaccountably into the first of autumn, and sometime, usually in midfestival, one cool, unforeseen night would signal a change in the season. Vaananen descended the battlements. The sun had drifted behind the delicate white spires and domes of the western city, staining the luminous buildings with an ominous red. He had one desperate hope. The Kingpriest, for all his skill in ritual and politics, was not known for his perfect choice of generals. Each successive commander had been worse than the last, culminating in the abysmal Josef Monoculus. To find a good leader had become next to impossible when the Solamnic Order, disgusted with Istar's.policy of oppression, had ceased to support the Kingpriesf s sterner measures.

And a good thing that was, Vaananen concluded, because the Istarian army with a real general at its head would be matchless.

Shivering at the thought, the druid pulled up his hood and entered the great Council Hall of the Temple, where, in his guise as a loyal follower of the Kingpriest, he would join a handful of other chosen clerics in receiving the next, no doubt, in a sorry line

of military leaders.

"The fool of the season" Brother Alban had called the new commander. None of the priests had met the new man.

Always an occasion for curiosity, the moVnent arrived, and Vaananen was somewhat shocked when, entering the torchlit hall, he saw the clergy crowded around the impressive figure of a black-robed man. The man stood next to the Kingpriest himself.

For the first time in years, perhaps the Kingpriest had chosen wisely. Vaananen could tell by the cut of the man: sturdy and strong, his pale body chiseled, almost translucent, as though an able sculptor had carved him of marble. The black silk tunic he wore was simple and elegant, a striking contrast to the billowing, ornate robes of his clerical hosts, and he wore a battered sword at his side—a weapon that had seen years of action, the druid guessed, unlike the ornamental baubles banging around on the belts of the last three generals.

This man was dark-haired, handsome in a feminine, almost reptilian fashion, and he held the gaze of the Istarian priests impassively, with neither respect nor condescension. He refused the wine offered him by Brother Burgon and remained standing when most of the clergy chose to sit, his pale arms crossed over his broad chest.

Beside him, the Kingpriest displayed his gentlest features. He was a lean, balding scholar with bright sky-blue—no, sea-blue—eyes. If the power of Istar had not resided in the little man, he might have been mistaken for the new general's obsessively proper secretary.

The two dignitaries spoke quietly to one another, as the priests and monks leaned into the conversation. The Kingpriest looked tired, harried; what remained of his auburn hair had thinned even more since Vaananen had seen him last, and for a moment the druid wondered if the monarch was ill. But when the blue eyes turned toward him, they were bright and hectic. And afraid.

How odd.

Vaananen edged closer through the crowd, hearing the stranger's name bandied excitedly by the murmuring clerics.

Tadec? Tanik? The whispering was insistent, distracting, the words blending together so that the druid could not make out the name in question. But whoever the man was, Tadec or Tanik, he continued to charm his hosts: a low, melodious comment from the man drew animated laughter and, with an icy smile, he scanned the room, his eyes locking at once with Vaananen's.

The eyes of the new general were amber, depth-less, and slitted. He stared at the druid, and the black core of his gaze opened malignly. Looking into the heart of those eyes, Vaananen saw an image of a dark void, a huge winged shape spiraling in the windless nothingness, its webbed, extended wings flexing and shimmering.

/ know you, a dark voice seemed to say, rising from nowhere but registering inside the shaking druid's head.

Then, as suddenly as it struck, the feeling subsided. Vaananen blinked, the general turned away, and the image vanished. But in that moment's communion Vaananen knew both what the man called himself, and who he really was.

"Takhisis," Vaananen whispered to himself, as the clergy around him slipped past on their way to meet and admire and adore this new, mysterious leader. "Takhisis commands the armies of Istar. Now I know.

"And now she knows, too."

* * * * *

The corridors of the tower were drafty and dank as the druid made his way back to his quarters. The hour was still early, his priestly brothers either at prayers or the festival ... or adoring the general, breathless and rapt like vermin mesmerized before a sewer snake.

There was still time to warn the rebels, if Fordus returned to the kanaji. Vaananen knew that the days to come would be dangerous for all of them. Now he would have to lock his doors, board his windows against the suddenly hostile night. The goddess had recognized him—he was almost sure of it. And since that was true, his life was forfeit.

A faint light wavered and approached from a side corridor. Not even an hour, and. it has already begun, Vaananen thought, wrestling down a rising fear. He stepped into a dark threshold, pressed himself against the polished wood of the door . . . and watched as a sleepy acolyte passed, bearing a torch to the last prayers of the night.

Vaananen moved out from the darkness, laughed softly and sadly. It would not do. He would not hide and hole away in the temple, waiting for Takhisis to strike. He would not lie trembling in bed, awaiting a footfall outside his locked doors.

And yet, despite his brave thoughts, Vaananen sighed in relief when his own door was behind him, when it was locked and double-locked against the night and his own fearful imaginings. At once the druid moved to the rena garden, to see if the four glyphs he had drawn that morning lay untouched in the shadowy sand.

Yes, they were still there. Fordus had not received them.

Vaananen sat on the black stone. It was time for a fifth symbol. The druids had taught him that a powerful magic lay in the crafting of this extraordinary glyph—a magic to be used only when circumstances were dire. The message of the fifth symbol was always loud: sometimes a warning of famine or sudden flood, often, during the Age of Dreams, a token that a dragon approached. It was distinct from the other glyphs, for it beckoned with an impulse as strong as hunger or weariness.

Now the message would call out to Fordus from the landscape itself—from the rocks in the foothills to the mud along Lake Istar, wherever his army marched. The fifth rune would summon him back to the desert, to the kanaji.

Carefully, shaking ever so slightly, Vaananen drew the glyph beneath the other four. It was an ancient symbol, used last, the druid believed, in the time of Huma—in the Third Dragon War that had driven the goddess from the face of Krynn.

The markings were twofold, overlapping. The image of a woman upon that of a man. Beware Takhisis! the glyph read. Beware the dark man!

Tamex greeted the last of the clergy, two balding old men who bowed and scraped before him as though he were the Kingpriest himself. They babbled their amenities, their little phrases of flattery and adoration, never noticing that the new commander's amber eyes had strayed from them. Quick, ruthless, and efficient, she had come to Istar for business. Crawling through the city as a snake had been a pleasing reconnaissance. No one noticed another serpent in Istar, anyway. And there had been no one to bar entry to the arena, no one to disturb her next transformation. Out of the sands she had assembled Tamex, and it had been easy for this embodiment, this creature of crystal and lies, to win over the Kingpriest and his company—indeed, to win over all of them. All of them, that is, except that druid.

Oh, yes. She had seen the druid for the first time in a vision, exultant at Fordus's victory, raising his bared arms. It had to be him. She had seen the red oak leaf tattooed on the inside of his left arm. That information alone, in the proper hands, would be enough to silence him. Yet, at times the court of Istar moved with exasperating slowness. Misdemeanors could take years to try and judge, and a capital crime such as this—high treason against the empire—could take so long the druid might die of old age before he was sentenced.

No, his silencing would come by older, more traditional means.

Tamex moved through the dispersing crowd, taking care not to brush against priest or acolyte. The cold, stony feel of the adopted body would surely arouse suspicion. Moving the heavy limbs without overmuch noise or breakage was difficult enough.

Watch your windows, druid, the crystals in Tamex's blood whined and whispered. Watch your doors, and watch your back in the corridors.

And, oh, yes, count the sunrises and the sunsets, and bless each one of them. For you, there are few remaining.

Chapter 17

A third day had passed, and a fourth, while the glyphs lay unchanged in the rena garden. Always before, they had vanished on their own, a sign that their message had been received by the rebels. But now Fordus was far afield, and Vaananen's concern deepened with the passing hours. Had the fifth sign not called him back? Perhaps the Prophet refused to return to the kanaji, to the intelligence that might save him and his small army.

Vaananen's own time had run out. He knew Takhi-sis was coming for him. It was only a matter of when and how.

As he sat on the red stone in the rena garden, Vaananen composed his last message. He picked gingerly at a black silken hair caught on the.inch-long needles of the large barrel cactus near his foot. The strand caught on a ripple of his breath and settled back upon the spines, this time well entangled. Vaananen stared abstractedly at it for a moment, and then caught a tiny, odd vibration from the life-current in the plant. He noticed the cactus had also swelled somewhat over the last few hours, as if there had been a sudden rain the afternoon before.

"Just like the new commander's power," he muttered. "Swelled full-blown overnight." The priests of Istar had reveled as the new commander assumed the reins of the army. The scattered Twelfth and Ninth Legions recombined within a day and were renamed the Fifteenth, joining the First, Second, Fourth and Eighth in the defense of the city.

With the current size of the city's garrison, three legions could at any time march out the gates and still leave a sizeable guard at home. The town now knew that the fabled Sixth had arrived—the hexagons drawn in charcoal on the stone walls of alleys, scratched on doors and hung on tattered banners from the windows of abandoned houses, bore ominous witness that at last the legion was showing itself. Soon they would all join together. Tamex would have his army, and the goddess within him would have her foothold in the world.

Vaananen shifted on the red stone. "But it isn't over yet," he said firmly, quietly. Outside the window, almost in mockery, the distant sounds of the shabby festival reached him from the Marketplace, and the druid stood, stepped away from the garden, and walked to the lectern, where he scrawled a hasty note on a scrap of parchment. He stepped into the corridor, handed the note to a passing linkboy, and ordered the child to the library.

"I want this book from the dark young man, the silent one," he whispered, and the linkboy hurried off. Of course, it was no book Vaananen awaited.

Vincus arrived minutes later, his hands ink stained and sandy from Balandar's copying tasks. He found Vaananen somber and crouched above the rena garden as usual, but this time circled by lanterns as though he awaited a deeper darkness, as though all of that light was meant to ward him from something deadly and close.

Instantly, Vincus knew that this time was different. This time was special. Vaananen beckoned him, and cautiously Vincus approached. He knew there was a magic in this garden, but it was quiet and meditative magic—far from the fire and thunder of the festival illusionists. And yet, best be alert.

Solemnly, the druid showed him four symbols drawn in the sand. "You're a copyist, Vincus," he whispered, "and a good one, I hear. How is your memory?"

Vincus stared at the symbols in puzzlement. His memory was sharp and searching. Though he had seen them just once, he could have told of each booth in the Marketplace, the merchant's name and his wares, his home country and the color of the pennants on his tents.

No, there were no clouds in Vincus's recollection.

But the druid was asking for more than memory. And what he was asking for ... Well, Vincus was not sure.

So he shrugged, his right hand flickering with three tentative signs. I remember as well as some, he told the druid.

Vaananen raised an eyebrow and smiled grimly. "You'll have to do better than that," he whispered.

"You're the only one I can trust."

Vincus averted his eyes.

"No, look!" Vaananen urged, clutching the young servant's arm, pointing at the row of glyphs. "Could you remember these?"

Vincus looked. The lines were simple, bold. He already knew them. And yet.. . Slowly, reluctantly, Vincus nodded.

Vaananen erased the glyphs. "Show me," he said.

Vincus drew again the four simple signs: Desert's Edge, Sixth Day of Lunitari, No Wind, the Leopard. And then the fifth symbol—the elaborate interlacing of two ancient letters.

"The last is the most important one," Vaananen said quietly. "The one that must reach Fordus Fire-soul—and he is far away, beyond the city walls, in the desert. Go." Vincus looked up sharply in disbelief. The mythical rebel commander!

"Yes, you must go to him," Vaananen said, smiling, trying to ease the young man's mind. I will, Vincus signed. His gestures were confident, perhaps a little too bold. He would go. But he would never come back. Vincus did not believe in Fordus, nor in the world outside the city, for that matter. Vincus stepped to the windowsill, searching the dark expanses of vallenwood below, the walls and the city beyond. Vaananen moved to him and touched his silver collar. A sharp blaze of blue crackled in the air at Vincus's ear, and he jerked away, dazed.

Vaananen looked him in the eye and said, "For years I have been striving to pay your debt—your father's debt—legitimately and legally. I have wrestled the Kingpriest, losing under his self-serving rules. But all the rules are broken now. Go in peace. Your collar will tell Fordus who you are." The druid produced two books from beneath his cot. He handed them to Vincus, who turned the volumes over in his hands, then opened one.

On the frail, brittle pages was a story in the elusive Lucanesti script, of gods and goddesses, of Istar and inheritances and the rightful ruler. Vincus could read little of it. The other was a copy, but still written in Lucanesti.

"The one is too fragile to travel," the druid observed. "Here is a copy. Old words upon new parchment, as much as is legible. Take it with you. One will ask for it soon, and you will know it is right to give the book to that person."

Vaananen placed the book and some food, along with a dagger and some odd seeds, in a small hide bag, and pressed it into Vincus's hand.

"You have served well, Vincus," the druid concluded, as Vincus moved away, still puzzled. An odd note of finality crept into Vaananen's voice. "Well done."

Vincus descended through the spreading branches, climbing away from the words. He stood at the edge of the Marketplace as the festival closed for the night. One of the merchants—an enormous wine seller from Balifor—walked wearily from lantern to lantern, slowly darkening his brightly lit booth.

Vincus stepped into the shadows as the merchant passed. Uneasily, he fingered his silver collar. The druid's magic still stung.

It was too much, this task Vaananen had set before him. Until now, his work for the druid had been easy and intriguing—find this, listen to that, carry rumor and gossip and the whispers of officers back to Vaananen's quarters. And in return, Vaananen made sure Vincus received the best food and lightest duties.

What the druid did with the information could be anything, and it could be nothing. Whatever happened had been none of Vincus's business or care, until now. This thing fretted at him. He leaned against a marble wall that formed the southernmost edge of the Slave Market. On the day the Temple had bought him—a lone boy of eleven, he had stood in the square between two auctioned Que-Kiri warriors and been sold for the debts of a larcenous father—nobody had supposed him a spy in the making.

If they had only known! The strange, bright-eyed boy in their midst, inexplicably mute, had come to be trusted with the keys to a dozen chambers, to the library and the upper room of the Tower, where the Kingpriest spoke to his counsel. They had given him books and scrolls to carry and sort and store. They never knew when he had learned to read.

Vincus's smile was veiled by the dark of the alley. They had always underestimated him—all except Vaananen, that is, whose bidding he had followed over the last year. He scooped up a fistful of sand from the base of the wall, scattered it into the shadows, covering his tracks. Out in the lamplit square, the vintner stored the last of the wine barrels in his rickety oxcart and, with a soft, guttural command to the huge animal, steered the vehicle into the dark.

Vincus rose slowly. The square was empty now. But tomorrow the vendors would return, and the day after, and for five days after that, unless the impossible actually happened. Unless the mythical rebels, who were scarcely more than a fleeting, unpleasant dream amid the chanting and ritual of the Tower nights, stepped into the waking world, closed down the festival, captured the Tower, and liberated Istar. Liberate. It made Vincus smile again—that confident, foolish word. Oh, he had heard talk from the other servants that, if Fordus seized the city, there would be freedom for many who now were enslaved. Each would receive a handful of silver, a cart, or a tun of ale—depending on the version of the rumor. But the elder slaves, the ones who remembered the old Kingpriest and the times before the Siege on Sorcery, said that freedom talk always arose, drifting like smoke into the corners of the city, when a new leader threatened old power. The grayheads did not believe in Fordus, did not believe in a coming freedom.

After all, they had seen the years, seen Kingpriest and liberator come and go. And they still wore the collars—brass, copper, or silver—and the slave trade continued to boom in Istar. Now the square was empty, the lanterns shut and darkened. With a cautious glance toward the torchlit Tower, the young man crossed the open Marketplace, headed toward the School of the Games and the ramshackle houses that lay in the western slums of the city.

There he had grown up, his friends and companions the child thieves and pickpockets of Istar. They would receive him back, and he could lose himself in the narrow streets and alleys, where neither Istar-ian Guard nor clergy nor the Kingpriest himself would bother to look. It would be like it was before.

Vincus slipped past the Welcoming Tower, past the great Banquet Hall to where the streets narrowed and darkened, the older wooden buildings leaning in on each other like wind-felled trees, the faint scent of the harbor lost in the sharp stink of tannery and midden.

Pale faces peered out of the darkened windows. An old woman in an upper story lifted her hand in a warding sign. Someone in the mouth of an alley, cloaked and bent, hissed at him as he passed. He knew better than to stop or even look back. This was a part of the city untouched by the festival, by the priests or the merchants or the guards.

These were the ones whom Fordus would liberate.

Vincus quickened his steps. He was south of the arena now, somewhere south of the School of the Games. At a decent hour, he could have located hinv self by the sound of the crowd at the gladiatorial combats, could have told the street name and the nearest alley by the echoing roar. But it was far past a decent hour now, and dark.

He was not exactly sure where he was. It had been longer than he remembered. Things had changed. He found himself on a commercial street—a shabby line of storefronts on the slum's edge. A dozen or so darkened buildings, boarded and barred, lined a road that led to a small, circular court, in the center of which stood a broken fountain, littered with ashes and refuse and crawling with rats. No doubt the night had turned toward morning, for every shop hung in uneasy quiet except a small pub, the Sign of the Basilisk, outside of which three torches sputtered and popped, casting a blood-red light on the fountain square and streaking the storefronts with long shadows.

A solitary watchman, lantern in hand, passed from storefront to storefront. Vincus slipped back into the shadows until the lantern weaved into the darkness and vanished. Laughter from the Basilisk broke uneasily in the close, humid air, and from somewhere in the vaulted shadows of the buildings there came the unmistakable sound of wingbeat, the harsh cry of a bird.

Cautiously, Vincus stepped into the torchlight. The Basilisk was as good a place as any to start—a run-down pub, not far from his childhood haunts. There might be someone here who would remember him—certainly someone would remember his father. And once he had made the connection, had touched on old friendships and older memories ...

There would be a safe place for him somewhere in the city's intricate, anonymous alleys. This was his big chance.

As he watched the door of the pub, it swung open. Four young men walked out of the smoky light and into the square. One of them, a lean, wiry type dressed in a tattered gray tunic, shielded his eyes against the torchlight and returned Vincus's stare.

"Y'got an eyeful, pup?" he shouted. He was well into his cups, and the wine blurred his thick street accent.

Vincus was not sure what the man said next. Something about "feast" and "come on over," but his gestures were large and violent—waving his arms and beckoning dramatically—and it could have been greeting or challenge. The other three brushed by the drunkard, headed up the street between the storefronts, and when Vincus stepped uncertainly toward the gesturing man, one of them turned and regarded him.

"Vincus?" the man asked, his tight face breaking into a grin. " "Us you, old post? Old cat-tongued barnacle?"

He recognized the taunts, the pet names. Pugio, who used to tease him when the gang of boys stole loaves from the bakery by the Welcoming Tower. Vincus walked toward the young man, smiling sheepishly.

Sure enough, it was Pugio.

Vincus gestured. It has been a long time, his hands said.

Pugio laughed and shrugged. "I don't remember none of that hand-jabber. No use for it in Bywall." Bywall. Vincus had forgotten the name.

The worn, crowded settlement pitched in the shadow of Istar's original fortifications was known as Bywall. When the city had expanded beyond its original boundaries, wealthy Istarians had moved north of the Tower, or south into outlying country villas, leaving the older buildings to the itinerant, the unhoused, the poor.

The buildings had collapsed and burned in a fire two years before Vincus was born. In the midst of the rubble and ashes, the destitute survivors had built a city of tents and lean-tos, of capsized wagons and abandoned vendors' booths, carried from the festival grounds and the Marketplace to the filthy, shadowy strip at the foot of the ancient walls. While Vincus was growing up, he and his friends had avoided that part of the city where the plentiful and average dangers turned large and unmanageable. Vincus approached reluctantly, already misgiving his hopes of renewing old friendships. Pugio was hard, almost stringy, and there was an ashy sallowness about his skin. He was scarcely a year older than Vincus, yet his hair was wispy and matted, and a long purple scar laced jaggedly across his right forearm. No more than twenty, Pugio looked three times his age, and the men with him were even worse for wear—toothless and scarred, but not past menace and danger. Vincus watched warily as the three men spread out, walking slowly toward him across the torch-haunted square.

"Y'member Anguis," Pugio said, nodding at the man to his left. "And Ultion. Ultion done the games at the School under Angard."

Vincus nodded and lifted his hand to both men. He remembered neither of them, though Anguis looked faintly familiar—a face recalled in the red light of Lunitari... something about knives.

"Y'member us all, don'ya, Vincus?" Pugio asked, his street talk thickening the nearer he drew to Vincus.

"Y'member us well enough for the handlin'?"

The-handling. Vincus raced through his memory for the word.

He remembered, shook his head.

"Livin' high put you out o' thievin', Vincus?" Ultion drew back mockingly and asked with a faint, pleasant smile. "I hear of it happenin' when you got three square an' all. Nice clothes they give ya." Pugio and Anguis murmured in assent. "A one-timer?" Pugio asked. "Just an old-times handle on the rug merchant over to the Marketplace?"

Vincus shook his head. The three drew nearer.

"No?" Pugio asked, his voice filling with a steely coldness. "Then you'll be givin' us your food, I'm certain. You don't starve an old friend, Vincus."

Suddenly chilled, Vincus looked into their eyes. They returned his gaze steadily, calmly, almost innocently, and then, when his guard descended slowly, when he thought that perhaps his suspicions had all been wrong, that they had been the good and loyal friends he remembered ... Anguis glanced over Vincus's shoulder, a quick, flickering movement to his narrow eyes. Vincus saw it, and spun about...

In time to catch the drunkard's club, as it descended with swift ferocity. For a moment Vincus stared his attacker face-to-face, saw the man's eyes widen, smelled the stale wine...

Then, with a strength born of life and health, of steady sleep and three squares, he pushed the man aside and, spinning with a fierce, desperate lunge, brought his fist crashing into the face of Ultion. Ultion fell back with a cry, but the others leapt greedily onto Vincus. Strong fingers probed his throat, and a blinding punch, hurtling out of nowhere, struck him firmly on the side of the head. He turned toward Anguis, but the air itself seemed to resist him, and one man hit him, and then another. The silver collar snapped and dropped from his neck, and Vincus fell to his knees on the cobbled square, the drunkard stalking toward him, club raised.

Suddenly, his assailants scattered. Shouts followed them from an alley, a rushing column of torches. The Istarian Guard, Vincus thought. I am safe.

He looked down at the collar, the heavy silver broken in two neat crescents at his knees. If the Guard caught him here even Vaananen could not help him.

Vincus crouched on the roof of the building, peering down like a bruised gargoyle onto the milling soldiers.

He had snatched up the collar and run, only steps » ahead of the torches and shouting into the nearest alley. The window into the adjoining brewer's shop was boarded, but not well. In less than a minute, his strength doubled in the desire to escape, Vincus had pulled down the boards and scrambled into the darkened brewery. Dropping into a stack of empty barrels, he clattered and rolled into the warm, yeast-smelling darkness, lying still until the torches and shouting passed. Then he ascended the stairs to the attic, and, stacking barrel on barrel, he clambered through cobweb and rafter to the trapdoor in the ceiling, firmly bolted from the inside against acrobatic trespassers. Vincus threw back the rusty bolt and climbed to the roof, where he could see by starlight the dark maze of streets beyond the receding torchlight of the guardsmen, as far as the Old Wall, the settlements on the shore of a great lake, and on into the black foothills of a distant mountain range. He had never ventured outside the walls, not even in thought or imagination. Gaping, marveling, still shaking, Vincus lay down upon the roof and looked into the wheeling constellations. There was a place where the city ended. Vaananen had told him so, talked about the way past those faraway mountains and into the desert. In the towers, all you could see was the city, and Vincus had always believed that Istar extended to the end of sight, and that the end of sight was the end of the world. The collar, now two slivers of silver moon, lay cold in his dark hand. The breaks were clean, like they had been cut. Right through the letters of his name.

Dabbing at the cut over his right eye, Vincus held the pieces up before the lightening sky, so that his name was whole again upon them. The metal was deeply notched but for a hair-thin edge at both breaks. Let alone, the collar would have dropped off by morning, long before he could have made his way to the gates. Now he understood the druid's parting words.

"The rules are broken. . . . You have served well, Vincus. Well done." Vincus smiled slowly and looked through the silver circle to the wide country beyond the city. Here was a freedom and a country greater than any of his imaginings.

He would see if Fordus was real, too.

Chapter 18

The Old Wall faded into the darkness behind him as the first of the lakeside camps came into view. For a moment Vincus stopped in the shadows, baffled.

The camp looked like Bywall, or Westedge, or Pierside—one of the sprawling communities of paupers that dotted the shimmering marble of the inner city. The tents were there, and the lean-tos, the banked fires, and the barrels set on their sides to house the poorest of the huddled poor. For a brief, disorienting second he imagined he had somehow turned himself about in the city, retracing his steps unknowingly.

But no. Behind him was the Old Wall. If he stepped back from the camp and looked carefully, he could see the outline of the ancient battlements, the crenels jagged and crumbling like the rotten teeth of an ancient animal.

Through the camp the ragged people moved, dodging in and out of the firelight. Perhaps what he had seen from the brewery roof was illusion.

Perhaps the world was all city, all Istar.

All of a sudden the country ahead of him, glimpsed only fleetingly from the starlit brewery roof, seemed like a murky maze again, its whorls and corridors leading nowhere. And yet the memory of the lake, the dark waters and the vaulting horizon beyond rose foremost in Vincus's mind as he passed from camp's edge to camp's edge on his way toward the shore.

It is only an hour's journey, he told himself. I will reach the lake in an hour. But it was longer than that.

Twice in the early morning, when the campfires behind had settled to ashes and the road before him lay at its darkest, he had slipped behind tents to conceal himself from a passing squadron of the Istarian Guard.

"Rebels," they muttered. "Fordus."

Once in the rumble of voices and rattle of armor, he thought he heard the druid's name. He leaned forward, wrapping himself in musty canvas, and listened intently for more, but the name and the noise and the squadron passed on into the night, and scarcely three breaths later, Vincus leapt from behind the tent, running to keep himself awake and alert, his hands silently saying an ancient protective prayer. It must have been prayer that protected him on the last occasion, scarcely an hour before dawn, when a company of Istarian cavalry rode by, their commander so lost in thought that he never looked above, to the branches of a blasted vallenwood, where Vincus perched like some huge, outrageous bird, newly flown from its cage.

Finally, in the purple dawn, the tents and ruins gave way to the cemeteries, the great funerary grounds that bordered the south of Istar. Now, beyond the scattered white monuments burnished by the rising sun, Vincus saw shimmering blue rising out of the darkness and smelled the waters of Lake Istar—the lake of his rooftop vision.

It is true, he told himself, leaning against a marble stone. There is a lake out here, and there are mountains, beyond the buildings. And Fordus is somewhere beyond the edge of sight. I am glad I kept believing. And he rested, free from fear and Istar, for the first time in years. At nightfall, Vincus found the coracle Vaananen had left tied to a willow by the lakeside. Slowly and clumsily, for it was his first time in a boat of any sort, he steered the craft into midlake, where he circled aimlessly, rowing ever more frantically as a distant bell tolled and the night turned. He could not be found here in the morning. He had to get across the water. Now Istar and the mountains seemed equidistant—

dark, looming forms against the darker shores. Worn out with rowing, with spinning, with trying to steer by stars that ducked in and out of the clouds, Vincus lay down in the coracle. Just a few minutes, he promised himself. An hour at most.

When he awoke, it was nearly noon. The craft had drifted to the far side of the lake, and the foothills lay in front of him, inviting and solid and wonderfully, delightfully dry.

Vincus thanked whatever gods had taken charge of the water and the fools who ventured onto it, and, giving the craft a kick he hoped would send it on its way back to the Istarian shore, he scrambled up a narrow path and, by midafternoon, found himself at a great height—at the mouth of the Western Pass with a distant view of the city.

Of the three passes leading through the Istarian range, only the Western Pass was free of the sterim—

the harsh winds off the desert that seemed to gain force as they climbed. Had Vincus traveled through either the Eastern or the Central Pass, his chance of survival would have been slim. Vaananen had known, Vincus thought. Those hundreds of times he rattled on about it—they were all for this. For by the time he had wakened on the southern shores of the lake, Vincus was so turned around, so disoriented, that he was not quite sure if the path he followed led to the Western or the Central Pass. Then he saw gentian and edelweiss—hardy mountain flowers, but not stormfast—at the mouth of the pass. It had to be the Western Pass, Vincus concluded, and he set out through the treacherous mountains by the lone safe route, congratulating himself on his newfound mountaineering skills. Three days later, he emerged on the southern side of the mountains. Thinking that the hard part of his journey was over, he trudged merrily southward, his last day's food his only baggage besides the precious book.

As sunset overtook him, he crested a rise and looked down into a quiet, shadowy valley, where felled and stunted trees littered a gray basin in the midst of the plains. To Vincus's city eyes, it seemed like the area had been touched by fire or high wind in a distant time; the dried boles of trees, already crusted with sand and salt and a shimmering opales-cence, were a pleasant change from the grasslands' monotony. Vincus lay down amid the sheared remains of a vallenwood grove. Branches of elm and willow littered his campsite, and he gathered some of them to build a small fire in the twilight. He would travel by night from now on, he decided. It was easier, he had seen, to steer by the stars and to avoid discovery.

With a smile of contentment, he rested his head against the blackened trunk of a willow. All of a sudden he was weary, and his thoughts strayed over the road behind him and back to the city. What was it called?

Istar. That was it.

For a moment it seemed to Vincus that something was not right, that he should have remembered the name quickly, more easily. But his mind drifted from this brief, pointless worry, and he began to drowse. It seemed as though the collar was back around his neck.

Vincus stirred uneasily.

The collar tightened, and tightened again, and the young man sprang into wakefulness. The dead branches of the willow had closed around his neck, gripping, clutching, and strangling. A rare carnivorous plant, the black willow masked itself as log or tree and preyed on hapless creatures it lulled to sleep beneath its spreading, branchlike tentacles.

A child of the city, Vincus had never seen such a monster, and when the willow grabbed him, he struggled vainly against its grip and his own growing drowsiness. The plant seemed to sing to him, an eerie and menacing lullaby, and despite his fright, the young man found himself listening. No. From his robe he drew half of his silver collar, a ragged crescent that glittered in the moonlight. Desperately, his strength and senses failing, Vincus sawed at the largest branch with the sharp metal edge until black sap, sticky and cold like the blood of a reptile, dripped over the tendril and onto his chest. The willow let out a shrill, hissing scream and, for a brief moment, released him. But a moment was all Vincus needed. He rolled away from the monster, snapping two thinner branches that remained around his shoulder. Springing clear of the grove, he crouched in the dry grass for a moment and gathered his breath, rubbing the long, fresh lashes on his arm where the pliant wood had whipped and cut him. He had seen everything now, he thought.

The country itself could kill you.

Forewarned and wary, he slipped the silver crescent—an excellent weapon, he had discovered— back into his robe. He would make good on his plans tonight, traveling sleepless by moonlight. Surely he would be safe as the desert slept.

Many months ago, at Vaananen's insistence, Vin-cus had scanned a map of the plains. Meticulously, the druid had moved the small meditative stones in the rena garden—red Lunitari representing the mountains, white Solinari the plains beyond. Slowly, precisely, Vaananen had traced the safest route with his finger, and then, standing over Vincus, had urged the young man to mind it all. Now, Vincus wished he had minded more closely. Was the army southwest of the city, or had Vaananen said go south-southwest? Was the camp five miles from the desert's edge or six miles?

He could not remember.

Vincus scrambled to a little rise, a high point in the featureless landscape. Prairie stretched all about him, endlessly and shapelessly, the warm wind rustling and rattling through the dry grass. Even from this vantage he saw nothing but plains.

Unless it was the floating shadow on the farthest southwest horizon—a cloud, perhaps, or a mirage, but at least something amid the sea of grass. Vincus shielded his eyes and stared long and hard, but he could see nothing more than the shifting, formless gray.

When the night came, it was cloudy. Solinari and Lunitari darted in and out of the clouds, the only luminaries in a slate-gray sky.

Vincus knew that the tail of the constellation Sargonnas "was his guiding star, that it would point him due into the heart of the desert. But glimpsed fitfully in the early hours of the morning, the constellations seemed different, almost alien. Vaananen's neatly plotted drawings of the heavenly maps were gone now, and in their place was a chaos of faint and wavering light.

The morning's red sky restored the east, and Vin-cus found that he had turned in the night, had wandered due west on the indefinite plains. His hands flickering a mild oath, he sat down on a small cluster of rocks and, chin cupped despondently in his hands, watched the horizon shimmer and recede as another day of uncertainty began.

He felt famished. He breakfasted on the provisions he had brought from Istar, and the grimness of his situation dawned on him.

Soon he would have to forage for his food, for meat and roots and water in this inhospitable country. Armed only with a dagger and a schoolboy's knowledge of edible plants, he faced even greater hunger in the days to come.

That is, unless the Istarians caught him.

Vincus drew his new dagger slowly, scratching idle designs on the dry earth. Istar and slavery almost seemed better now. A sudden anger at Vaana-nen fluttered briefly through his thoughts—at that druid with his intrigues and fond ideas.

Fordus, indeed! Vaananen had conjured the rebels out of sand and stone. They were no more real than... Than Vincus's freedom.

He looked down at his feet. Absently, numbly, he had sketched Vaananen's five glyphs on the hard, grassy ground.

No. He had come this far.

It was then that the hawk shrieked overhead, and Vincus looked up.

Lucas had been circling for an hour, aloft on the morning thermals. His red feathers glowed in the sunrise, and his angular wings tilted smoothly as he circled.

His mistress had loosed him to forage and scout in the early hours, whispering a song of return in his ear. Over the plateau he had arced, then east over the Tears of Mishakal, gliding swiftly in a low flight before gaining altitude and sailing into the grasslands, where the hunting was good and the Istarian army ranged uneasily.

The solitary man seated in the midst of the grasslands was something new. For a while Lucas watched him curiously.

Not enemy. Not a soldier.

When the man took a small scrap of meat from his pocket, Lucas noticed immediately. Noticed as well the jagged pieces of silver in his hand as they caught the sunlight. It was something more than instinct that made the bird circle and call, made him skim the high grass and pass not five yards from the seated man, his hooked wings banking gracefully as he rose again, turning and returning, circling and calling, through all of his actions urging the man to follow. Once in his motioning, the bird had swooped near enough for Vincus to hear the bells on its jesses. Vincus stood and followed.

The bird had surprised him with its circling and cries. South and north it sailed, south and north, shrieking as though in signal and warning.

Vincus had laughed at the thought. Too long in the wilderness, he told himself, when a bird becomes your messenger.

And yet the bird would know where to find water and game.

For a morning he followed, the hawk never lost from his sight. Turning and returning, its circles narrowing, the bird seemed attentive, almost protective. Far to the west a column of smoke hovered on the horizon—the gray shadow that Vincus had seen the day before, now obviously no mirage, but the watch-fires surrounding an armed encampment.

Istarians. Had he been slightly wiser, and hadn't needed to follow the hawk, he might have walked right into their camp. Vincus shuddered to think what might have happened.

He quickened his step, searching the sky for the hawk that had become his omen and guide. Seated on his horse, shielding his eyes against the sunset, the sergeant watched the man trudge out of the foothills and onto the dry, waving margins of the grasslands.

A solitary wanderer. On foot.

The sergeant nodded to his three companions— troopers, skilled swordsmen, and even more skillful riders. Dressed in the light brown cotton robes and red kaffiyeh of the Istarian desert fighters, mounted on roan horses, they blended with the brown landscape until, with the blinding sun around them, they were almost invisible—mirage warriors on the high ridge.

In tight formation, the four cavalrymen descended from the high ground toward the trespasser, their horses breasting the tall brown grass in long surges, overtaking him quickly when the grass gave way to rocky flatland.

The war horses' hooves clattered over the ground, kicking up stones and dust. Nearly engulfed, the traveler turned, raised his hands, began an elaborate series of gestures and signals. Mage! the sergeant's instincts cried. Somatic preparations! Since the strange death of his lieutenant— the one dissolved by the spells of a dark enchanter—a month ago, he was wary of encounters with solitary men in the desert.

With the quick reflexes practiced over a dozen years of horse-soldiering, the sergeant leaned back in the saddle, reined his horse to a skidding halt. One of the troopers, a young man named Parcus, weaved and nearly fell as he fumbled to draw forth his short bow.

"Move your hands no more, sir!" the sergeant shouted. "Upon your life, be still!" Abruptly, the fellow buried his hands in the folds of his tunic. Two of the troopers dismounted and approached him.

Parcus stared at the trespasser over the shaft of a nocked arrow.

Vincus clenched his fists hard in his tunic as the Istarian troopers drew near, tightening his grip on the silver crescents hidden in his robes.

The plains were no city street. Here were no shadows, no alleys, no dark thresholds. Here in flat bare country and relentless sunlight, there was no place to hide.

He had begun to pray at the sound of hoofbeats, praying ceaselessly until the bowman menaced and the sergeant shouted his warning.

They would find the broken collar. They would....

"Who are you?" the sergeant asked coldly, standing up in the saddle. Vincus did not, could not answer. His great golden eyes never blinked.

"Bring him to me, Crotalus," the sergeant ordered.

The trooper dismounted and seized Vincus roughly by the shoulders.

Aloft in a swirl of wind, his sharp eye scanning the edge of the desert, Lucas saw the riders surround the man. Saw them dismount, approach him, and drag him toward the horses. Something in the bird—an old instruction from his mistress, perhaps, or something embedded and patterned since his time in the egg—stirred him to action. Folding his wings, the hawk plunged from the sky a hundred, two hundred, five hundred feet. The bird dove gracefully, its talons extended like deadly, curved knives, the falconer's jesses and bells trailing. In a shimmer of ringing music, Lucas struck the sergeant in the back of the neck just as the man leaned over to question Vincus. The sergeant fell headlong, neck broken in a heap of spattered robes, his horse bolting away with a terrified whinny.

The bird jerked to free himself from the kill, the awkward jesses tangling and knotting in the fabric of the sergeant's robes.

He flies bound. Enslaved, too! Vincus thought. Somehow the thought inspired him. With a fierce, powerful surge, he shook loose the astonished troopers. Crotalus spun about, his sword ringing as it fell to the hard ground. The other man, quicker and more resourceful, had already lifted his spear.

Rolling away from the flashing pont, Vincus drew forth the slivers of his collar, the edges forming deadly hooks on each side of each hand. They glittered in the dying sun like scimitars, like the talons of the hawk. Before the spearman could recover, the broken collar's sharp edges whipped cleanly and fatally into his throat. Vincus pushed him aside in a fierce, pantherlike rush toward Crotalus, who had managed to find and draw his crossbow from its place on the saddle of his skittish horse, just as Lucas hopped free of his tangles.

A piercing cry and the flap of wings about his head forced Crotalus's point-blank aim high, and the bolt whizzed over Vincus's shoulder, skidding long and hollowly over the cracked earth behind him. With a lunging leap, Vincus wrestled Crotalus to the ground, and the two men scuffled briefly, until the other collar half flashed high in the sunlight and plunged downward.

Moving away from Crotalus, who had breathed his last foul breath, Vincus covered his head, still expecting a rain of arrows from the last trooper's direction. But he heard the soldier cry out weakly, and looked up to see him already borne far away atop his rampaging horse, the two remaining steeds following close behind.

In high pursuit of them, Lucas swooped and glided and dodged, all the while crying shrilly until they were dwindling specks on the horizon.

Vincus stood up painfully, more bruised than he first had realized by the struggle with the outriders. The hawk, unruffled and fresh, sailed back to him through the climbing dusk. With a cry it circled overhead, then soared toward the southwest, its flight now framed by Lunitari low in the sky. His heart rejoicing for the bird—for its mastery and bravery—Vincus threw his hands up and followed eagerly. They had fought together. The hawk would not betray him.

When darkness had fallen and the stars spangled the clear sky, a comforting light seemed to rise from the looming shadows.

Vincus laughed and quickened his pace. He called to mind again the druid's patterns in the sand of the rena garden, the arranged stones, and the instructions.

At last Vincus knew where he was.

The camp of the rebels lay ahead in a soft, wavering firelight.

Chapter 19

Silently, moving through the tall grass like he moved through Istarian alleys, Vincus made his way to the edge of the rebel encampment.

He was not sure, actually, why he chose such secrecy. After all, he had come this far, through dangerous country and Istarian patrols, and finally, with the aid of the mysterious hawk, had reached his destination. But all of his instincts—born, perhaps, of his years in slavery and his childhood on the fringes of Bywall—urged him to be cautious, not to drop his guard just yet.

So he approached the camp stealthily, crouched low to make his movements small and quick through the grass.

The camp was laid out in three concentric circles. The outermost contained the outposts and fires of the sentries, the first warning line against assault or raid.

The men here were young: sharp-eyed, but also inexperienced. If an army had approached, they would have surely given warning, but Vincus was a solitary traveler, and a slippery, streetwise one at that. Folding his tattered cloak and the bag Vaananen had given him close to his side, Vincus moved easily between two sentries—sallow-faced bandit boys from Thoradin, part of Gormion's following. He crept around the shadowy side of the first tent he came to, then waited until a cloud passed over the red moon, and raced through an open dry expanse until he reached another tent, another shadow, the second circle of the camp.

Instantly, Vincus knew he was among more seasoned and watchful troops. These were men and women who had fought the year's war in the service of Fordus Firesoul, and had probably come to the Water Prophet battle-scarred and ready.

As Vincus crouched in the tent shadow, he suddenly heard a low growling behind him. Slowly he turned to face a snarling midsized dog, its teeth bared and its fur bristling with aggression. Vincus extended his hand. With the last scrap of his Istarian traveling rations, he bribed the dog to silence. He sat in the darkness, rubbing the willow-wounds that scored his shoulders, feeding bread to his newfound friend, mulling over a dozen ways— all unsatisfactory—to try to reach the center of the camp. Something rattled against the book in the bottom of the bag. Reaching into the dark folds, gently brushing away the curious, snuffling dog, Vincus drew forth something hard and oblong, smelling green and citric, like the soft, thick husk of a freshly fallen walnut.

A zizyphus fruit. It could be nothing else.

Vincus wrinkled his nose. The zizyphus was inedible, good only for a soporific—to induce the sleep that banished pain. Clerics and druids made infusions from the fruit that their patients would inhale, and, within a matter of minutes ...

Vincus smiled, tight-lipped.

Tossing the very last crust of bread into the shadows, he waited until the dog vanished after it, then crept around the side of the tent.

He approached another tight circle of tents and fires, perhaps a hundred yards away, that marked the command post of the rebel army. Vincus fell to his belly at the sight of two sentries standing watch by a fire in the open ground.

Raindiver and Bittern, the Plainsman sentries, stood faithfully at their posts, exchanging few words and staring out into the darkness. The banked fire between them was dim but warm, and while they watched, their thoughts slipped in and out of vigilance like the moon slipped in and out of the scattered clouds above the plains.

It was a night like any other, until something whistled by Raindiver's ear and skittered into the ashes, scattering sparks and filling the air with a thick, acrid smoke.

Bittern bent toward the fire and saw the small, oblong seed aflame in its very heart. Suddenly, the seed and the fire began to waver and double and blur, and he looked up to call to Raindiver, to warn him that something ... something ...

But Raindiver was already facedown in the grass, snoring contentedly. Bittern dropped to his knees and tried to call out to the other sentries, to Fordus or Northstar, but another cloud seemed to pass over the moon and the sky and the fire went dark, and he felt himself falling. Someone brushed by him, running. Bittern tried to shout again—a cry of alarm, of warning. But a pleasant dreamless sleep rushed over him, and he remembered nothing more.

The man had the look of a Prophet.

Vincus, belly-down in the dark grass like some enormous lizard, watched the auburn-haired Plainsman from a distance.

It was Fordus, he was certain. The slight blond woman who stood beside him in the firelight spoke in sign language—a strangely inflected version, but easy enough to interpret. And there was the hawk, perched on a ring near her!

She had called the man "Commander." Called him "Prophet." Vincus rose to his knees, peering through the last stretch of darkness toward the firelight. Not yet, he told himself. I will wait here for a while. For there is something more I am supposed to know.

"Bring me water!" Fordus commanded, his voice deep and melodious and a little too loud. "Bring meat, and a cup of wine as well."

A young man leapt at his command and rushed off into the darkness.

"Where is that boy? Where is the wine?" Fordus asked, much too soon. His followers stood about him uncomfortably, averting their eyes as he stared at each of them.

Finally, Fordus turned in Vincus's direction.

Though Vincus was well out of sight, hidden by tall grass and shadow, the firelight showed him the full face of the Prophet—the handsome, windburnt features and the auburn beard. Unusual for a Plainsman. As were the eyes.

Vincus had seen that color before. Sky-blue? Sea-blue? Had seen it in Istar ... At the School of the Games? No. It must have been at the Kingpriest's Tower. Barely had the name crossed through his thoughts than Vincus remembered. The hushed room of the great Council Hall, the man almost swallowed by a globe of brilliant white light, reflected off the polished marble and the luminous pellidryn stones that spangled the Imperial Throne. The Kingpriest. The Kingpriest had eyes like that.

And the other features. The thin aristocratic nose, the high cheekbones, and even the auburn hair. The resemblance was uncanny. Fordus might have been the Kingpriest's brother. Or ... Vincus's thoughts recoiled from the prospect. The priesthood of Istar was austere and proper. Suppose the Kingpriest...

It was a thought he could not even finish.

For a moment he lay silent in the darkness, his thoughts far away—on Vaananen, on those in service to the Tower and the city. He had come a long way with a single message of great importance. But now, having seen what he had seen, would he deliver that message?

He would think on this a while, find a sheltered place in a greater darkness. He would have the night, at least, perhaps until sunrise. Then he would decide whether to approach the Water Prophet, or go-He started to back away from the firelight, intent on losing himself somewhere outside the encircled tents. But suddenly, rough hands seized him by the shoulders and jerked him to his feet. Vincus spun around, but his attacker caught his arm and, with a flawless wrestler's maneuver, twisted it behind his back.

Hot pain shot through Vincus's shoulder, and he looked into the face of his assailant. A Lucanesti elf, his arms encrusted with the first bejewellings of middle age, regarded Vincus calmly. "I am not sure whether your intentions are good or ill," the elf whispered. "But perhaps by other fires and among other people, we can find out just who you are, and why you spy on Fordus Firesoul."

* * * * *

The elf's name was Stormlight. He was a lieutenant of the War Prophet, but had fallen from favor in some recent dispute of policy.

After he seized Vineus near Fordus's fire and tents, Stormlight had taken his captive to the other side of the encampment entirely—to quiet quarters, where a half dozen veteran Plainsmen waited in silence. Stormlight had questioned Vincus, and when he failed to understand the sign language, had reluctantly sent for the woman, the one with the yellow hair, whose name was Larken. With her odd, alien gestures, she translated Vincus's signs in her own silence.

"What proof have you that you were a slave in Istar?" Stormlight asked finally, regarding Vincus with a stare that was melancholy but not unkind.

Vincus showed him the collar, how the pieces fit together, how they spelled his name. Stormlight nodded, placed the pieces around Vincus's neck, and was satisfied they fit. He started to ask another question, then fell silent.

"How did you find us?" he asked finally, and Vincus told of his journey, of the pass through the mountains and his guidance by the benevolent hawk.

It was a god, he signed. / am sure it was a god taking the bird's form to guide me. He camps with you? I saw him perched by your fire.

Larken smiled as she translated his gestures for Stormlight.

The elf's expression softened.

"And why have you found us?" he asked. "What do you ask of us? Or what do you bring us?" Vincus gestured excitedly, knelt on the ground. Stormlight dropped beside him, and the Plainsmen, Larken, and Gormion stood above them, watching curiously and intently. Though he had mistrusted Fordus from the start, Vincus felt surprisingly safe in the company of the elf. He knew that Vaananen's glyphs were meant for this man, for Stormlight was one who asked instead of commanded.

To Vincus, that was a sign of wisdom and discernment. He had heard enough of command in his servitude.

Confidently, he drew the five glyphs on the ground before Stormlight. After he was finished, he looked up. Stormlight stared at the glyphs intently.

"Desert's Edge," he said. "Sixth Day of Lunitari. No Wind." It seemed to be nothing new to him until he reached the fourth glyph.

"The Leopard? And ... there is a fifth one that follows. Something dreadfully important here." I shall bring Fordus, Larken signed, but Stormlight waved the thought away.

"Not this time."

Larken frowned, a question forming in her thoughts.

Stormlight stared at Vincus, and a long moment passed in which the camp lay silent.

"Is the Sixth Legion in Istar, Vincus?" Stormlight asked.

Elatedly, Vincus nodded, gesturing excitedly as Larken struggled to translate his account of his own discoveries, of conveying the news to Vaananen, of the whole series of events that boded danger for Fordus and the rebels. Stormlight leaned back, his face lost for a moment in the shadow. Then, craning toward the fifth glyph, he read it and proclaimed: "Beware the dark man."

He looked up at Vincus, then at Larken. A crooked, bemused smile played at the corner of his mouth.

"Hear the word of the Prophet," he whispered, with a laugh.

"Beware the lady," he said flatly. For a while he knelt before the fifth glyph, tracing its outline with a callused finger.

"I see," he murmured. "I should have known by the amber eyes. Tamex . . . Tanila . . . They looked alike. Reptilian.

"And then ... the dragon tracks through the Tears of Mishakal!"

* * * * *

"One will ask for it soon," Vaananen had said. "And you will know it is right to give the book to that person." •

So Vincus gave the book to Stormlight, trusting the same instinct that had guided him through the desert and steered him from Fordus at the last moment.

After all, the book was written in Lucanesti. What other sign could a man expect?

Together, the elf and the bard puzzled over the ancient text, Larken frowning at the complexities of the scattered, angular script, but Stormlight nodding, reading...

Until he came to the lost passages. Gray dust eddied in the hands of the elf as he knelt at the campsite, spreading the opened book before him.

Stormlight bowed over the page and inspected it for a long time. "Perhaps," he murmured, "it is in my language, and it is prophecy as well."

"The Anlage ..." he murmured. "The oldest seeing." Long before the first migrations of the Lucanesti across the Istarian desert, before the first discoveries of glain opal, and perhaps even before the time when the elders of that dwindling people had discovered the powers of the lucerna, another deeper way of seeing had been encoded in their thoughts and memory. The Anlage. The great mine of elventhought. The shared memory of the race. In its depths lay the earliest recollections of the mining elves: their wanderings, their departure from Silvanesti. Some even said that, in the hands of a wise and anointed elf, the Anlage could reveal the earliest days—in the Age of Dreams, when the Firstborn of the world opened their eyes to moonlight upon a newly awakened planet.

It was all there. All memory and all imagining.

So the elders had told Stormlight in his childhood and youth, in the long years of wandering before the ambush, his wounding, and his adoption by the Plainsmen. The elders had told him how to draw upon that power as well, and of the danger therein— the risk that the visionary might not return to the waking world, but sleep and sleep until the opales-cence of age covered and swallowed him entirely. Yet without fear or misgiving, Stormlight sank into these meditations, tunneling deeper and deeper until he reached a level where he knew the thoughts and recollections were no longer his own, and he sank into a cloudy vein of mutual remembrance.

Around him, his Plainsmen companions, Larken, and Vincus watched helplessly, expectantly, as though they stood on the shores of a great ocean, waiting for a distant sail. But Stormlight was calm, preternaturally alert. No fear, he told himself. No fear is very good. Mindfully, he explored the shadowy dream, a shifting landscape bedazzled with the light of both . . . no, of three moons. The five elements enfolded him: the fire of the stars, the water in the heart of the earth, the desert and stone, the parched and wandering air.

And memory. The fifth oi the ancient elements.

Dancing, as the elders said it did, as a gray absorbent light on the margins of vision. Stormlight directed his thought toward that grayness, and it parted before him.

For a moment there were grasslands, the pale face of someone he neither remembered nor knew ... Then forest.

The book, he told himself. Keep your mind on the book.

Briefly, a great darkness yawned to his left, full of flashing color and a strange, seductive beckoning. For a while he stood at the borders of that darkness, which seemed to call to him, promising sleep, an easeful rest.

But that way was dangerous. He would be lost if he entered it.

The book, he told himself. Nothing but the book.

And then it appeared before him, its pages crisp and sharp and entirely intact. Eagerly, he opened the pages with his mind.

He read and remembered.

Finally, Stormlight looked up, and Vincus saw the transformation.

For a moment the elf looked blind, his pale eyes milky and unfocused. Vincus started, believing the book had struck Stormlight sightless, but then the eyes of the elf changed again, a white shell or a pale film dropping out of his gaze and receding beneath his eyelids.

"Come with me, Larken," Stormlight urged. He shot to his feet as though at a call for battle. Grabbing the bard by the arm, he ushered her into the night, whispering a warning or strategy that reached Vincus only in snatches, in fragments.

"Against us" he heard.

"Incarnate. Opals."

"Takhisis."

And "opals" again, the last word swallowed by the rising night.

* * * * *

So the stones that protect us will enable her to enter the world? Larken asked. Stormlight nodded. "And if we deny her the stones, if we destroy them or hide them, we relinquish our protection."

Together they stood in the twilight not a hundred yards from the fire. Overhead, scarlet Lunitari reeled through the night sky, and the landscape, rock and rubble and distant tent, seemed bathed suddenly in dark blood.

What shall we do, Stormlight?

Her hands did not shake, Stormlight noticed. She was awaiting his command, and was not afraid. His face softened, and for a long time the elf stood silent. "I am not sure, Larken. Nor were the elves who wrote the manuscript. But the text is clear on one thing. Whatever it takes to stop a goddess will demand our utmost. Something perilous and altogether new.

"Despite our quarrel, Fordus must know of it. I shall warn him this night." Without further word, the elf stalked off into the darkness, his destination the level plain to the east, the largest circle of camp-fires. Larken watched as Stormlight receded into the night.

"Something perilous," he had said. "And altogether new." She was ready. She had changed. She felt it now, with a slow certainty. Danger and novelty no longer frightened her. Out of a strange solitude, she awaited the approaching change calmly and with a new eagerness.

Stormlight came back at dawn, a great heaviness in his cold eyes.

He had talked to Fordus, the rumors said. He had told the Prophet the news of the discovered text. But Fordus had stared beyond him, into the nothingness of desert and night. Had called Stormlight a dead man, said that his words no longer had life.

Fordus had rejected him, and it was Stormlight now who stood at the edge of the sea, a powerless observer.

By midmorning of the next day, Fordus's group had resumed the march, and by late afternoon, they had reached the foothills of the Istarian Mountains. Stormlight's troops still followed at a distance. Vincus leaned gratefully against an outcropping of rock, making certain that the ground around him was free of willow branches. It was the best of times to camp, he thought, before darkness fell in the midst of rough and treacherous terrain.

A courier came back from the ranks to Fordus's rear guard, to where Vincus waited with Stormlight and two older Plainsmen, Breeze and Messenger.

It was a man Vincus had never met—a young man named Northstar—who brought the word.

"The Prophet Fordus," Northstar said, speaking the name in quiet and reverent tones, "had a dream in which a dead man visited him with a warning."

Stormlight turned away at these words.

"The dead man told him," Northstar continued, "that Takhisis herself—She of the Many Faces—has arrayed her dark powers against the rebellion, against the Prophet Fordus."

"And what else did the . . . dead man say, North-star?" Stormlight asked bitterly, his back to the messenger.

"All the rest was lies, says the Prophet Fordus. For Takhisis sends her minions to deceive, to waylay and destroy. Her army is the living and the dead, and none are to be believed. So says the Prophet Fordus.

"But the goddess is afraid now. Her warnings and threats are the words of a beast in flight. For if she thought she could defeat the Prophet Fordus ...

"She would not let him know of her presence. She would wait, and hide, waylaying him when he least expected, when he stood at the edge of his greatest victory, rather than now, before the war has even begun."

Stormlight shook his head.

Vincus tried to follow the reasoning of the Water Prophet. Perhaps Northstar had not remembered it right, for it seemed cloudy and formless, a poor and shoddy logic.

Yet Northstar was ardent, rapt, fresh from the presence of his hero, his lord.

"We shall continue the assault on Istar," the messenger proclaimed. "Her threats are the banner of the Kingpriest's fear. So says the Prophet Fordus.

"We shall march through the night, for speed and surprise are our allies, and the mountains will be ours by morning. Through the Central Pass we will go, and let those who dispute the word of the Prophet Fordus stay in their camps and cower.

"We are bound for Istar, and to us will the city belong!"

Having spoken, Northstar wheeled about and raced back up the column, his long strides eager and jubilant. Stormlight turned, an overwhelming sadness on his face, and stared at Vincus.

" Tis the wrong pass, is it not?"

Vincus nodded, started to gesture, to explain that it was the Western Pass that was free of the sterint, free of rockslide and shearing and the terrible destructive wind.

But Stormlight rested his hands on Vincus's shoulders and regarded him openly, honestly.

" 'Tis what I told him last night, when I spoke to him and warned him. Told him that I had a man in my camp who could guide him safely through the mountains if he chose to continue, but that it would be far wiser to return, to go back to the desert. And it was no dream. But he is no longer listening to me. He pulls phrases from the air, words out of their places, and distorts them into what he wants to hear—into what he says those damnable dreams and visions are telling him." Stormlight turned away. Far ahead, Fordus's banners flew aloft in the dying air, red in the sunset light. Already his columns were starting to move again, and somewhere far up in Fordus's ranks, a solitary drum began a slow, stumbling cadence.

The new drummer was no match for Larken.

"He is completely, utterly mad," Stormlight said. "And I have no choice but to go behind him and to fight his enemies. For the time is coming when he will take my people into more than the weather, more than the death of a few in a narrow, storm-swept pass.

"The walls of Istar are coming. And the Sixth Legion. And Takhisis herself. And before Fordus rides out to meet them, someone will have to stop him."

Chapter 20

The Cental Pass through the Istrian mountains was and moonlit, littered with fallen branches, with stones, with smaller, uprooted alder and fir.

Despite Solinari and the clear sky, the rubble in the pass was an ominous prospect to Stormlight. Vincus had warned Stormlight, who, in turn, had tried to warn the War Prophet. Follow the Western Pass, they had urged. But Fordus had not listened, had stared through Stormlight as if he were water, all the while toying with the enormous golden circle that enclosed his neck. It bristled with spikes that seemed to grow daily with his madness.

Now Fordus marched through the Central Pass at the head of his exhausted troops. Seven hundred had followed him before the Battle of the Plains, and scarcely five hundred survived it. Seventy had fallen to the Istarian ambush, and a dozen to the desert eruptions.

What do you want, old friend, dear madman? Stormlight thought bitterly as Fordus's banner danced out of view. Your forces have been wrecked, and yet you march. You cannot arm a legion with promises. By sunrise they were midway through the Central Pass, climbing through boulders and downed pine and aeterna. Fordus's new drummer had struck up a song for courage and endurance. But the going grew slower and slower as dawn crept into midmorning, and by noon, their hands blistered and their limbs bruised and scratched, the trailblazers stopped to rest, and noticed to their astonishment that they had traveled only a hundred yards in the last two hours.

There was no magic, as there had been in Larken's songs, to help.

Aeleth, his leather armor soggy with sweat, wiped his brow and scrambled to the top of a stone outcropping, glaring over the rubblestrewn wasteland.

"What do you see, Aeleth?" Fordus called up to him.

Aeleth thought before he answered. Suffering from shortness of breath, muttering at the thin mountainous air and the countless obstructions in the path, the War Prophet had become an impossible commander, short with his lieutenants and merciless

in his quest to reach the other side of the pass by the evening.

Two men had fallen over dead from exertion, and despite the urgings of the Namers, Fordus had left the bodies where they lay.

"It's .. . it's downhill from here, sir!" Aeleth called down. Heartened, Fordus turned to face his followers.

"Another vision has come to me!" he proclaimed, his bony hands clutching his golden collar, fingering the dark glain opals. "If we march through the night, we cover ourselves with the mantle of surprise. When we reach the shore of Lake Istar, there will be nothing the Kingpriest can do to stop our advances!" The storm charged upon them suddenly, rolling out of the south in a rumbling chaos like a herd of horses. For a moment the air was still, and the hardy mountain birds—raptor and thrush, the loud purple jays of northern Ansalon—fell quiet in anticipation of the rising wind.

Then it surged through the pass behind them like a flash flood through a dry arroyo, the wind picking up velocity and force as it barreled over the felled trees, over the rocks and boulders, scattering sand and gravel and branches as it shrieked through the pass.

Stormlight turned around in astonishment as the wind roared past and over him, knocking him to the ground and thundering through the back of his followers.

Children were swept up and dashed against the rockface. Terrified, their mothers screamed for them, their words lost and useless. Stormlight covered his ears in the fierce, deafening wail, and a wave of sand broke over them, stinging and abrading.

Up ahead, a felled vallenwood launched into the air and crashed into Gormion and a handful of her followers. The bandit captain shrieked and rolled from the path of the hurtling limbs, scattering earrings and bracelets as the wind took her up, buoyed her, and hurled her, alive, into a stand of aeterna. The rest of the bandits fared even less well. The vallenwood branches exploded with screams as the heavy tree crushed the hapless men against the rocks.

Clinging to Stormlight and Breeze, Vincus rode out the storm with his head in his hood. The pass vanished in a whirl of sand, and from the murky cyclone ahead he could hear wail and outcry. Occasionally a dark, unrecognizable shape rocketed past, and from somewhere back up the pass came the skidding, too-human sound of frightened horses.

Then, as suddenly as it had rushed over them, the storm was gone. The sand settled lazily over the mountain rocks—the desert transported by the fierce and merciless weather—and slowly, almost imperceptibly, a few moving shapes emerged from rock and sand and thicket. When they all had gathered, they were sixty less.

A new wailing began, the ancient funerary call of the Que-Nara rising like another wind, echoing from the mountainsides. Plaintively, eerily, the cry spread through the Central Pass, until even'the returning birds began to sing in response—thrush and jay in full cry from the ravaged, wind-blasted trees. But Fordus scrambled up the rockface, clinging like a grotesque spider, and waved his hand for silence. It was a long time coming. The rebels were grieving, swept away by the dark river of their own sorrow.

"It is the vengeance of Takhisis," Fordus rasped, his breath shallow and panting. But nobody was listening.

"Hear the word of the Prophet!" he cried. A hundred pairs of eyes looked up at him, new fear flickering alongside their old devotion. The rest of the survivors milled aimlessly, combing the rubble for the injured and the dead.

"There are a thousand roads to Istar," Fordus proclaimed, his voice gaining power and authority as the words rushed from him. "Each of those roads is guarded, with torment and danger and hardship.

"But we have passed through the first of these hardships, my people. And though there are some we must leave behind ..."

His gesture toward the gathered bodies of the dead was quick and casual, as though he brushed away a fly.

"Let them be remembered, and let their names be sung, at the time when we will remember all the fallen, commemorate all those who spilled their blood in my glorious cause." Still clinging to the rockface, Fordus pointed north, the collar at his neck afire in the reflected light of the sunset.

"Their names will be sung around the throne of Istar, when I ascend to the lordship of the great Imperial City. We will sing them in glory when I am Kingpriest, set to the music of drum and passing bell. For the glyphs and the signs and my own dreams have told me that the rule of Istar is mine.

"You have followed my dream through four hard seasons. We have sown seed in the bitter ground of the desert, in obscurity and distance and sand, where all ambition was water. We have watered the plains with our blood, and tilled in the storm-furrowed mountain passes. Now Istar stands open to bandit and Plainsmen. My worthy rival—the kindred warrior and prophet in the Kingpriest's Tower—has met his adversary in the southern fields! The season has come! Set your hand to the harvest!" For a moment the rebels fell into complete, astonished silence. All eyes were riveted on the Water Prophet, all ears turned to his feverish, wild pronouncements.

"Hear the word of the Prophet!" Northstar shouted.

A pathetic tap-tap, late and halfhearted, accompanied his cry.

"The word of the Prophet King!" the young man continued, unfazed and triumphant, and to the surprise of the elders and the Namers, a voice deep in the milling rebels took up the call—a dark voice, neither masculine nor feminine, but a voice that seemed to rise up within the hearts of all assembled. Another cried in response, and another, and soon the young men, chanting "The Prophet King! The Prophet King!" lifted Fordus atop their shoulders and bore him through the wreckage, through the wide path that the wind had cut over rock and rubble and undergrowth.

At the mouth of the pass, Larken, Vincus, and a score of Que-Nara remained, as Fordus's companions hastened toward the lakeside road and the plains and city beyond. Her dark eyes distant and mournful, Larken watched as the Prophet's banner was hoisted into the air, and the walls of the mountain pass resounded with this new and alien cheer.

"The Prophet King!"

As the cry carried down the column, Fordus's rebels picked up their pace. The weary trudge became a brisk, revitalized march, as a strange, perfumed wind rolled through the pass, bearing upon it the smell of jasmine and juniper, of attar of roses and spice and old wine.

Istar the temptress was calling them. Soft and feminine, conniving and poisonous, at sunset she cast her nets of beguilement.

As Fordus and his followers ranged through the treacherous passes, the seeds of another insurrection were being sown in the depths of the mines.

Deep below the city, their dead mourned and placed reverently in porous pockets of volcanic rock, the elves resumed their digging.

Exhausted, the sounds of little Taglio's cries still echoing in his thoughts, Spinel guided his work-numbed crew into the dark recesses beneath the shores of Lake Istar.

These were the newest mines. No sooner had the mourning ceased than word came down from the Kingpriest's tower to open them. Obviously, some event above had changed the nature of the labor, brought a new urgency to this mysterious need for the glain opals.

By lamplight, Spinel examined the most recently discovered stones. Judging from the veins of opal the diggers had found, the glain themselves were young—younger by far than any he had mined in his thousand years of subterranean labor.

The stones looked oddly familiar—as though in a shape—a formation—the old elf should recognize. He knelt, examined more closely.

There was something deep and important he was forgetting.

It was time for the Anlage.

The lucerna closed over the old elf's eyes as he entered the deep recollection of his people. Abstractly, he fingered the gems.

He remembered the years of mining beneath the city. The bright eyes of the Kingpriest's guards, the serpentine, human-faced nagas, with their enchantments that dried and paralyzed the Lucanesti, the wanderings in the Age of Might.

Remembered the Age of Light, of Dreams, his thoughts tunneling back into Starbirth, into the God-time ... Then he looked at the stones in his hands, and cried out in horror.

"Bones," Spinel told the assembled miners. "The glain opals, the special black ones the Kingpriest covets, are the bones of our deepest ancestors."

Tourmalin frowned in disbelief, but her gaze faltered under the withering stare of the ancient elf.

"No, neither your fathers nor your grandfathers, nor the bones of any in five generations of Lucanesti. But the eldest of the race—those who entered the company of Branchala in the years before the ward and the wanderings. How could we have been so blinded?"

He extended his pale, encrusted hands.

"Istar has blinded us!" someone shouted from the borders of the torchlight, but Spinel shook his head.

"Istar has used our blindness," he insisted. "Used our greed and our cowardice for its own dark strategies. All the while, the Anlage was there for us, bearing this terrible secret. Why did we never consult it?" His words tumbled into a long silence. Spinel leaned against the rock and gazed out over the torches and lamps, over the glittering eyes of his people.

"Blame and punishment are not the answer," he insisted, and others—the oldest of the company—

nodded in eager assent. "For years we have complied, have knelt in submission to the Kingpriest and his minions. Now we must redress our wrongdoing. Regardless of the guards and venatica, one road remains for our people. We must reclaim and rebury our ancient dead." The rebels reached the shores of the lake at midnight.

Barely three hundred of Fordus's followers remained. In early evening, Larken and Stormlight, who had been following at an unfriendly distance, had taken a sloping path into the sunset, headed for the Western Pass and a safe route back to the desert.

Fordus did not acknowledge them. With North-star and three of the younger bandits, he approached the lapping waters of Lake Istar, dark and spangled with the reflections of a thousand stars. He knelt, recovered his breath, and stirred the waters with his hand.

The surface of the lake glittered with starlight and torchlight, for the bandits had brought fire with them, the better to burn the city.

"With neither glyph nor interpreter, he finds the greatest of all waters," Fordus pronounced, an eerie laughter underscoring his voice. Resolutely, he stepped into the water, took another step, and waded waist-deep into the lake. Pensively he traced his finger across the glittering surface.

"I had thought to run to Istar," he murmured cryptically. "Perhaps my steps would skip over the water, or the lake itself would buoy me ..."

"But we must travel like mortals," he conceded with a smile. "For all of you are my charges, my minions, my . . . celebrants. And though to cross the water would be more swift, I would have to do it alone—to leave you here to plod in your brave little paths."

He stepped forward, sank to his chest.

"I choose not to travel alone," he declared. "At least not yet." The drama that played out in the mountains was small, insignificant compared to the large struggles among the pantheon of Krynn.

Deep in the Abyss, the dark gods felt the absence of the Lady. In the dark unfathomable void they waited—Zeboim and Morgion, Hiddukel and Chemosh, the dark moon Nuitari hovering over them all. It was strangely restful, this respite from her chaos and torment. Oh, there would be time to gather and turn on one another—to intrigue and rend and divide and wrestle for power. But for now they were content to recline and bask on the dark currents, to recover and regroup their failing energies. All except one: the most devious of all the evil pantheon. Sargonnas circled the void in a thousand pieces, his fragmented thoughts on the War Prophet whose campaigns he had inspired and nurtured. He had been foolish, trying to break into the world through the sands of the desert, but the knowledge that Takhisis walked the earth and spoke to his minions, his Prophet, was too galling, too frightening for silence and inaction.

Now, fragmented and abstract, he spread through the void like a cloud of locusts, like a monstrous contagion.

There would be a time. He would watch and wait. In her desire to destroy Fordus, Takhisis's attentions would shift elsewhere, and there would be a time for him to strike.

He would precede her into the world. His clerics would build their fortresses of stone and lies. And even if they failed, he would spoil the plans of the Dark Queen.

His mind on vengeance, Sargonnas dropped a thousand miles through the chaos, glittering darkly as he fell like a fiery rain.

Alone in the rena garden, Vaananen stirred the sand over yet another futile message of glyphs. The druid had done all he could. And the hope that stirred within Vaananen was now the hope of flight. Solitary and recklessly brave, the druid had remained in the city, gathering information and sending it nightly through the white, decorative sands to a distant point in a distant country—information that could save rebel lives, perhaps ensure rebel victory.

Absently Vaananen rubbed his tattooed arm. His efforts had gone unheeded. And now Fordus stood at the outskirts of Istar, and it was time for the druid to save himself. He'd tied his belongings in a hide bag not much larger than the one he had given Vincus. Three druidic texts, as yet uncopied, took up most of the space. For the last time, in the hopes that somehow Fordus would receive the message, Vaananen scrawled the five glyphs in the sand of the garden, beside the yellowed, rapidly swelling cactus.

Desert's Edge. Sixth Day of Lunitari. No Wind.

The Leopard and the fifth and warning symbol— the sign of the Lady beneath the sign of the Dark Man. It was all he could do.

The turgid cactus beside him trembled. The plant, usually deep green and healthy, had suffered like this for days. Three nights before, searching for rain, the druid had passed his hand just above its spiny surface and sensed a tremor, a boiling from the center of the cactus, as though it heralded a new and unnatural life.

He had ignored it at first, and now he chided himself for his negligence, searching his memory for a healing chant, for something to soothe and settle the plant.

He began slowly, whispering an old warding from Qualinesti. But a humming sound from the heart of the cactus, unlike any song or language of plants the druid had ever heard, drowned out the chant before he had really begun. Alarmed, Vaananen stepped back from the plant, which swelled more and more rapidly, like a grotesquely inflated waterskin, its shiny yellow surface mottling and browning. Vaananen realized that the cactus was no longer just a plant, but had been transformed into something monstrous and menacing. Run! the druid's instincts told him.

He turned to the lectern to gather the last of his belongings—his copying pens and inks—as the cactus sizzled and whined, the sound reaching above audibility. Mesmerized, the druid stayed one second too long—and with a shattering boom, the cactus burst open. The room filled with a hot, swarming rain of something fierce and stinging and relentlessly hungry and alive. Vaananen felt searing heat course up his legs and run down his back, and he futilely lifted his arms to shield his face. Tiny black scorpions covered his shoulders, his neck, the hidden red oak leaf on his wrist. The druid cried out once, briefly, but the poison that raced through his blood felled him like a crosscut oak. He sank to his knees in the midst of the white sand, with a last painful brush of his hand erasing the final glyphs he had written for Fordus, the message the War Prophet would never read. I am again surprised, thought Vaananen, sinking into green darkness. How remarkable. Swarming over the room, their dark mission accomplished, the scorpions turned upon one another until all of them, stung by their own poison, lay as dead as the druid.

The next day, the stunned acolytes found that the sand from the rena garden covered the floor, the bed, the lectern, the dead scorpions, and Vaananen, too, in a thin white layer like a fresh new snowfall. It was pristine, almost beautiful, except for a wide stain of sand hardened into dark volcanic glass, in the center of the garden between three standing stones.

Chapter 21

The gold and gray plains at the edge of lstar stretched out sandy and rock-littered—little more hospitable than the desert in which Fordus had wandered and prophesied and fought for most of his life. There was said to be forest somewhere farther north—a land of thick and luxurious green, dripping with soft autumn rain or the hard, thunderous downpours of an Ansalon spring.

Standing in the midst of his ragged army, for a moment Fordus let himself imagine that northern country. He had never seen a landscape of lush and resplendent green, never walked beside brooks or looked up into a vault of leaf and evergreen. His country was brown and red and ochre, its landmarks visible for miles over the level terrain.

Landmarks like the towering city of Istar, carved of marble in the Age of Dreams, the heart of an empire. Soon to be his. City and empire alike.

What did it matter that so few warriors stood behind him now? What did it matter that his numbers were not the thousands, the hundreds of thousands, he had dreamed long ago in the Tears of Mishakal and again, a few nights ago, high up on the Red Plateau?

It was not loss, not attrition. It was a weeding out, a culling. Only the finest fighters remained, their worthiness proved by their survival.

For Northstar was still with him, and Rann and Aeleth. Somehow Gormion had wrestled down her natural cowardice, and she was beside him as well, as were threescore of the younger men and women, their sunken eyes alight with adulation, their thoughts upon the liberation of the Plainsmen enslaved in Istar. Stormlight is dead, Fordus hallucinated. He is a forerunner, a harbinger, the vanguard of an invisible legion.

For the dead would arise and follow Fordus Fire-soul. So he had read in the fissures on this cracked and graven plain.

Oh, he had not told the others yet. Not even Northstar knew. At night Fordus found himself laughing at his little surprise, at the army he knew was coming. For the dead army would fear nothing ... especially not death.

He held back a high and rising laughter as he crouched among his lieutenants on the stubbled plains. Milling before the city walls, the Kingpriest's army assembled—soldiers and mercenaries called from all corners of Ansalon.

Because the Kingpriest was afraid now. Fordus's dreams had told him that as well. It was the time of the Water Prophet, and the War Prophet, and the Prophet King. The Prophet King's army, bound for Istar, set to marching around the lake, rising to Fordus's demand yet again, tired beyond belief and helplessy enthralled. Their torches fanned the shoreline like glowing gems set in the half-circlet of a crown. Fordus would be Istar's new monarch, and their native prince. They needed no songs, no chanting of bards to dismantle the walls of Istar. With his gallant following and the huge invisible army at his back, Fordus would scale the walls himself.

Into a city promised him before the beginning of the world.

* * * * *

Stormlight watched from the encampments, as Fordus organized his few men for the assault. Just as he had previously seen huge, destructive storms brewing and approaching, he could see this disaster in the making—less than fourscore rebels marching against the assembled might of the city. Left behind were the children and grandfathers and pregnant wives, starved and vulnerable amid smoking campfires and tattered tents.

Even if, as a last resort, he killed Fordus, the others would still attack, propelled by the martyrdom of the Prophet King and by his final prophecies—some delirious foolishness about armies of the dead. Stormlight had known it would come to this when he bade Larken farewell, told her to wait with his followers while he set out after Fordus's quick-marched forces. He had looked over his shoulder once, twice, and she stood as he had left her, silhouetted against the red light of Lunitari.

"Wait here," he had told her. "I shall return."

Now he was not so sure.

Miles away, on the other side of the lake, Larken stood in the Western Pass, staring across the water toward the harbors and walls of the marbled city.

Vincus stood at her shoulder; stroking Lucas, who danced back and forth eagerly upon her gloved hand. The young man believed that Lucas was his closest friend among them, the creature most worthy of his trust and reliance. Larken's sign language was soothing and familiar, as well. Through the afternoon he had guided Larken and her hundred followers to the Western Pass. There they meant to wait—for tidings of the battle, for Stormlight and returning survivors. All of them sensed the disaster approaching, doom riding the air as heavily, as corrosively as the wind-driven sand in the southern sterim.

Oddly, the bard had set aside her drum. She held the lyre now, softly fingering its bow as though reluctant to touch its strings. Lucas hopped to her shoulder, raining amber light into the moonlit shadows, his soft voice mewling, encouraging.

Vincus tugged at Larken's tunic. How long do we wait? he signaled.

The bard blinked, as though awakened from a light sleep.

Three days, she signaled in reply. Longer would be dangerous, but news travels slowly across the lake. If we had the glyphs ... Vincus offered hopefully.

But Larken shook her head. Those were the old days.

Now we have belief and waiting. Belief in Stormlight, in his skill and resourcefulness. Larken turned again to her harp, and the young Istarian, cast back into his own thoughts, stared north over Lake Istar.

The distant walled city reflected serenely on the glassy surface of the water. With a fumbling of weapons, the ranks closed behind the Prophet King. Solemnly, as though at the beginning of a great and somber ritual, the rebels marched toward the city—toward Istar, shimmering in refracted light.

In the distance, they saw the Istarian army grouping—red banners aloft and fluttering in the rising wind. The rebels had seen these flags before, had eluded them over a world of high grass and sand, striking from the flanks and the rear with the swiftness and surprise of swooping birds. But now, they marched to meet Istar head-on. Seventy, seventy-five warriors arrayed against ten thousand. It was certain madness. Were it not for the promise of the Prophet King.

For Fordus had sworn their deliverance in the council fires of the night before. Never trust simple numbers, he had urged them, for I have a magic that no numbers can quell. Now, as they saw the army assembled against them, the banners and the bright, approaching standards of four legions, for a moment it crossed their minds that the magic might fail and the prophecies go dry. Yet each man stood at the shoulder of Kis cohort, and pride and illusion prevailed. Having come this far, they would not run and they would not waver.

Ahead, dressed in a dirty white robe and a brown kaffiyeh, indistinguishable from his followers, his golden collar hidden under the loose robes, the Prophet King shouted and beckoned. Past judgment and past wisdom, they lifted their shields and followed. The first wave of arrows rained down upon the rebels.

The archers perched in the distance, perhaps two hundred yards away, and their efforts, spent and inaccurate, clattered against the rebels' uplifted shields and fell harmlessly on the hard ground. Good. The Istarians were nervous. Too quick to shoot.

The pikemen in the forward ranks lowered their weapons. Men of the Fourth Legion—old foes with a score to settle—quickened their pace, breaking into a run, a shouting, shrieking charge across the level fields where the rebels, woefully outnumbered, braced to face the first assault.

"Now!" Fordus shouted as the lines collided. Rebel weaponry flashed amid the lunging pikes, and Istarian after Istarian fell to the more mobile rebels. The Fourth Legion's attack billowed and eddied around Fordus, Northstar, and Rann, then the Istarian lines broke, the pikemen withdrew, and the distant archers showered arrows once more.

Fordus looked around him. Forty Istarians dead, but twelve of his own, as well. Even more rebels wounded, though these were rising to their feet, preparing for yet another assault. It did not matter. Reinforcements were coming soon.

* * * * *

From the Kingpriest's Tower, Tamex looked out across the city, past the walls and onto the plains, where the skirmish unfolded. There, banners tilted and nodded as Istarian troops attacked and regrouped, then attacked again, each time suffering grievous losses, it seemed, but each time whittling away at the rebel numbers.

He could not believe the easy foolishness of this War Prophet, this Prophet King. Assaulting the Istar-ians with less than a hundred men.

He scanned the ranks of the entrenching rebels. Plainsman and bandit had gathered the shields and armor of the fallen Istarian pikemen. The desert robes were lost in a swirl of leather cuirasses, of burnished bronze shields so bright that the glare made the rebels hard to number, their leaders hard to identify.

Surely not Fordus, Tamex thought. Surely this is a scouting party only, and the War Prophet waited behind the lines, safe in an encampment from which he could direct the battle. With the sight of a god couched in his crystalline eyes, Tamex scanned the horizons, his gaze reaching as far as a small rebel camp, twenty more miles of plains, and then the beginning of the forests. Nothing.

No concealed forces. No rebel reinforcements, except for that huddled handful in the mountain pass, led by the jilted bard.

Still, the dark general refused to commit his troops. Perhaps Fordus had surprises planned, was waiting for the full assault to unleash a veiled and dangerous tactic.

The woods themselves could be bristling with rebels.

Tamex would wait. He would hurl attack after attack at the entrenching company of Plainsmen, losing ten men, twenty, even a hundred for each fallen Que-Nara.

What difference would it make? The rebels were gravely outnumbered. Eventually, the numbers would win out.

From his balcony, Tamex signaled the herald. The mounted messenger guided his horse to the foot of the tower. Scrawling a hasty message on a scroll, Tamex dropped the missive to the young man, who took it and galloped to the gates of the city, bearing orders for Celeres, the commander of the celebrated Sixth Legion, whose soldiers waited impatiently, hidden from rebel eyes inside the city gates. Hold ranks, the message said. Wait until further orders.

They would hold until he found Fordus Firesoul.

* * * * *

Weary and battle-shocked, the Fourth Legion withdrew and regrouped in the milling Istarian ranks. Again the archers drew and fired, and then for a moment the battlefield stilled, as if neither side were willing to engage again.

Then slowly, not as if they had not been ordered, but prodded or pushed or cajoled, the spearmen of the Second Legion surged over the beaten plain, two companies of the finest Istarian swordsmen following. In a ragged semicircle, their numbers reduced to about fifty, the rebels braced for the attack. In the center of the line, Aeleth nocked his bow, and a dozen Que-Nara readied their slings. On each flank the officers waited—Rann on the left and Fordus on the right.

It was the old tactic, straight out of the Battle of the Plains. First the rebels salted the legion with arrows and stones, then Aeleth's troops turned and withdrew, the angry Istarians charging after. At the right moment, when the Second Legion was spread out and overextended, Fordus and Rann attacked, and the rebels converged on the hapless Istarians, who turned, broke ranks, and ran under a withering assault. Fordus, eyes alight and head high, whirled across the battlefield like a deadly wind. An arrow passed inches from his head, ripping away his kaffiyeh, and bare-headed, his auburn hair blowing back and tangling, he urged his men to pursue the fleeing Second Legion. The enlivened rebels surged around and past him, and the War Prophet whooped ecstatically. He had turned the Istarian army, and behind his charging forces, he thought he saw wavering shapes rising out of the bloodied ground.

The dead. The army of the dead had arrived.

Hear the word of the Prophet.

From his vantage in the Tower, Tamex saw the kaffiyeh fall from the auburn-haired warrior, saw as well the gold collar at the man's neck.

It was all he needed to see.

"Fordus!" he whispered. Then, aloud, "Messenger!" The next courier galloped to the city gates, where a thousand men stood ready. Celeres and the Sixth Legion got their order:

March. Attack. Take no prisoners.

The gates of Istar opened, issuing forth the Sixth Legion, their strides quickening with the loose, confident movement of veterans. The other Istarian soldiers parted ranks as the crack troops moved into the open field. Spears raised, shields glittering, in a matter of minutes they closed with the remaining rebels. Twenty of Fordus's troops fell before they could return a single blow. The rebels reeled back, turned, and routed, their destination the camp, the forest— anywhere.

High in her marble perch, masked by the face of Tamex, Takhisis laughed softly. She leaned against the wall, her masculine, faceted body as hard as the stone against which it rested. And so it would have been over, were it not for the storm that lifted out of the sandy fields and bore down upon the armies.

For Sargonnas had not waited and brooded and plotted to let this moment pass. When the Sixth Legion surged through the rebel lines, the landscape burst with a hundred geysers of fire. Borne on the rising wind, the glowing ash rained havoc on the Istarian rear guard. The red banners smoldered and caught fire, and the vaunted troops scattered, screaming and burning, unable to fight what they could not understand.

In the front of the little battle the Sixth Legion slowed, uncertain. The firestorm rushed at them, passing over them in a deadly wave of fire. The stark hexagonal standards erupted in flame, and Celeres himself fell in the inferno.

On the far flank of the rebel forces, Fordus and Northstar scrambled clear of the storm. Behind them, Istarian and rebel burned on the blasted battlefield—Rann and Aeleth, the vaunted Sixth Legion fell quickly, engulfed in smoke and fire.

"The Prophet King . . ." Northstar began. He blindly searched for Fordus in the rolling murk of the smoke-filled sky.

"This way," Fordus shouted, and began to run.

"But, Fordus!" Northstar coughed. "I can't see you..." The Prophet vanished in a curtain of smoke.

Spiraling to the ground, the great young guide of the Que-Nara crawled the tight circle he had already passed over, then circled it again. Cries burst from the smoke, and at the edges of his awareness, North-star could catch the dance of flames, shadows flitting back and forth through the smothering, twilight country.

"Fordus?" he called. "Fordus?"

No answer returned from the thickening smoke.

Choking, sneezing, the Plainsman fell flat on his face. Stay low in a fire, someone had told him when he was a child. So he lay in a flat, barren clearing, clutching his rescued medallion and praying for the fire to pass, for the smoke to spare him.

When three Istarians, swords drawn, stumbled into the clearing a moment later, they found him facedown on the ground—guttering, gasping, drowning in smoke. And though they, too, were seeking refuge from the fire-storm, passage through the flame and through the strangling smoke, they were veterans and merciless, stopping long enough to follow their general's orders: "Take no prisoners." Northstar's hand at last relaxed on the medal, and he found his way to death with no trouble at all.

* * * * *

Using his extraordinary speed, Fordus burst clear of the smoke. Behind him the plains were ablaze from one horizon to the other. Istarian legionnaires raced toward the city in panic, but Fordus passed them by, his thoughts no longer on strategy and tactics.

He was bound for the city gates, for the Temple.

And for the Kingpriest.

On whose head he would rain the fire of vengeance.

* * * * *

Upon the Tower's highest balcony, reeling in disbelief from the sudden turn of the battle, Tamex saw a solitary figure spring clear of the holocaust.

"Fordus!" he breathed, alarm changing slowly to a silent exultation as the man raced toward the gates of the city.

Oh, this is better, Tamex thought, his faceted features suddenly feminine, reptilian. Rain on, Sargonnas. Rain on, you petty fool. May the smoke of your torment ascend for ever and ever, and may you have no rest in day or night. You cannot send fire enough to burn me, storm enough to make me seek shelter.

Now, across the burning plain, Fordus comes to Istar. He will be mine, and I shall keep my promise. I will show him who he really is.

Chapter 22

The last morning of the Shinarion was disrupted by the smoke from the battlefield. It began as a shifting haze overhead, a sharp musty smell in the sunstruck air. But slowly it thickened, and the merchants, the drovers, the pickpockets and vendors took to the northern streets in. curiosity at what could possibly overcome the lingering smell of dead fish.

Their golden ribbons, worn in honor of the goddess, fluttered soiled and frayed. Their pockets were empty, their resources drained, for the saying held true that nobody grew rich at the Shinarion. Above all, they felt weary, tired out by the revelry, by the wheeling and dealing and the thick corruption on display in the final days of the festival.

What they sought in the streets, the air above them bristling with smoke and cinder, offered diversion. Something was afoot in the fields outside the city. The rumors were as thick as the smoke. So, many of the celebrants, watching the sky and listening and gossiping, missed entirely the strange, quiet warrior that slipped through their midst, borne on fleet foot through the northernmost streets of the city, his head bared, his eyes smoke-stung and ravening, his heart twisted toward murder. The city lay before him like a maze of crystals, the tall reflective buildings blinding him, baffling his path to the Tower.

For long, painful moments Fordus ranged through the baffling marbled streets. Smoke from the burning plain drifted over the Istarian walls, and the new, alien landscape of man-made things clouded over, hazy and indistinct.

At the edges of his sight, just out of focus, dark shapes flitted and dodged like swamplight. The Prophet could see the gold fretting on their robes, the gold ribbons drooping over their shoulders, a testament to some forgotten god. They chattered to each other in a hidden language. He knew the army of the dead had come to help him. They had come at last, just as he prophesied. They had invaded Istar at his orders, and were waiting for him.

Heartened, the raving Prophet wound his way through the intricate streets, past tavern and booth and vendors' wagons, always moving toward the center of the city where, through the fretted purple smoke, the looming spires of the Kingpriest's Tower dodged in and out of view. His city. His Tower. He would meet this usurping Kingpriest face-to-face. As equals, who spoke to the gods, who commanded innumerable legions.

Into the Marketplace Fordus rushed. A passing squadron of Istarian soldiers startled, dropped their weapons, and dispersed as the haunted, robed man rushed at them silently, like some dangerous wind from the desert.

It lay directly before him now: the great Tower with its ancient marble foundations, low surrounding wall... and bolted iron gates.

Muttering distractedly, Fordus rattled the bars across the archway. Then, like a spider, he scrambled over the wall.

And found himself in yet another maze—this time of thick foliage and lush, overgrown garden rows of evergreen and climbing vine.

Drawing his throwing axe, Fordus cut his way through the Kingpriest's private wilderness, slashing and hacking, his anger rising until his hand touched cold marble, his axe splintering with a blind, furious blow against the strong foundation of the Tower itself.

For a moment the Prophet rested his head against the cold stone, choking and gasping for air. Had the smoke come this far?

He looked up the Tower. Faint murky tendrils encircled the spire, and its looming top was lost in a higher haze, but directly above was the dark of a window. Instantly, resolutely, using only his fingers and toes, Fordus began to climb.

Through the smoke and the damaged landscape, Stormlight followed.

Wading through the burning fields, he traced a long, looping path around the flames, the massacred rebels, the ignited Sixth Legion, and found his way to the damaged gates of Istar—to the same portal through which the Prophet had passed.

Istar loomed inside them, unreal and dark. Tracing a roundabout path through the concentric pentagonal walls of the inner city, he approached its epicenter, its heart: the marble tower that housed the Kingpriest. For that was Fordus's destination. Stormlight was sure of it. And sure, from the years of affinity between Prophet and interpreter, in which their minds had virtually melded in the search for water, for victory, for hidden dangers, that his old companion was still alive.

Alive, and bound for the end of his journey.

At the very window toward which Fordus climbed, Takhisis waited, breathing cold life into the crystalline form of Tamex. Her hours as a warrior of salt and sand were dwindling. Already Tamex crumbled at the edges, two of his fingers broken off in the mere act of opening the door to this sparely appointed guest chamber.

Yes, the both of them waited there—the translucent warrior and his animating spirit. But there was another as well. A blue-eyed, balding man who cowered in the corner of the chamber, nervously fraying the lace on his high priest's robes.

Tamex had wakened him from his unsettling mid-morning slumber, where he dreamt trees as things with daggers, brooks and streams thickening and darkening in the red moon. He had almost been grateful to awaken, until he saw his visitor, translucent and eroding, at the foot of his bed. He whimpered once, most unroyally. Fumbling for the broadsword in which the druid had instructed him all these years, he clutched the pommel desperately, but it was as though his arms had failed him—the sword was heavy and his hands trembled.

Tamex had dragged the Kingpriest from his sumptuous quarters, imprisoning him in this room to wait out the last of the night, the sunrise, the first blood of the battle. Then, coming down from the walls, the crystal warrior had joined his captive in a meeting he knew would be brief. Now Fordus climbed the last few feet toward the window. Tamex glanced once at the Kingpriest, whose sea-blue eyes widened at the sound of something scraping beneath the sill. Good, the goddess thought, swirling slowly in her body of salt.

Good. It is time for them to meet.

* * * * *

Fordus climbed through the window.

Moving quickly, his eyes adjusting to the shadows of the room, the Prophet saw two figures at the far door. One was Tamex, the man in the salt flats—the dark and menacing warrior who had trifled with Larken in the battle's aftermath.

Fordus crouched, prepared for battle. But then he noticed the other.

The older man—the balding, robed dignitary—he had seen somewhere, he was certain. The face lay half-shadowed, but the curious sunlight in the room illumined the man's eyes. Sea-blue. The color of Fordus's own.

Cautiously, the Prophet approached them, drawing his dagger.

"At last," Tamex said, with a voice that resonated out of Fordus's memory—a voice he recalled from a vision, a dream.

He shrank from its sound.

"At last," Tamex repeated, raising a cracked and crumbling hand. "I have brought us all together." With astonishment, Fordus saw that the warrior— the creature—before him was a thing of rock and crystal, a breathing stone with a stone's heart.

The thing gestured toward its white-robed companion. "Bow before the Kingpriest of Istar, Fordus Firesoul."

"The Prophet bows to no man," Fordus replied coldly, knuckles whitening as his grip on the dagger tightened.

"But honor is due the Kingpriest," Tamex insisted melodiously. "A natural honor that rises . . . from a forgotten time."

"You talk in riddles, false warrior," Fordus replied.

"Who is this man, Tamex?" asked the Kingpriest nervously, and the pale man turned his faceted face to the cowering ruler.

"This is the one who would have your throne, such as it is," Tamex announced. "This is Fordus, the Desert Prophet."

"Wh-What do you want of me?" the Kingpriest stammered, backing hard against the wall and the nearby door. "I intend you no harm, no slight. Stay away from my throne!" His fingers fumbled vaguely for the latch.

"You will remain!" ordered Tamex, a new, cold authority in his voice. It delighted and amused the goddess within him to humiliate the ruler of a vast empire, but the cravenness of the Kingpriest was sometimes . . . inconvenient.

In disgust and contempt, Fordus watched the robed man grovel. Why, the Kingpriest, his chosen enemy, was nothing but a coward! A thing of robes and heraldry and high renown—no more than a figurehead, an elegant glove for his general's iron hand.

"And are you any better, false Prophet?" asked Tamex, his glittering amber eyes turned toward Fordus.

"You accuse me of speaking in riddles . . . you! The mirage of the desert, the mockery of a Prophet!"

"You dare call me a mockery?" Fordus asked menacingly, taking a long, aggressive stride toward the warrior.

"Oh, yes, Fordus Firesoul. You are a mockery. And many other foolish things." With a brittle arm, Tamex seized the Kingpriest by the nape and dragged him into full light. Now Fordus and his adversary looked at one another face-to-face, and the slow light of recognition dawned in each man's eyes.

"That is correct, Your Eminence," Tamex sneered. "The son of a slave girl you wished so ... devoutly to forget. And when the time came, you took the child—no, you had the child taken—to the desert, and there, in a lonely place where predators stalked and the sun was nigh and merciless . .."

"No!" the Kingpriest cried, covering his ears.

In astonishment, Fordus dropped his dagger. The world seemed to rock and, tumble around him, as though once again, huge cracks opened in the earth—molten crevasses, threatening to engulf and swallow him. He staggered, fell against the far wall.

"Don't you admit the . . . family resemblance?" asked Tamex, a sinister glee in his voice. "Why, the two of you are exactly alike!"

He gestured to the Kingpriest, who had fallen to his knees, moaning and shaking his head.

"You, sir," Tamex said, "are nought but a backwater king. A ruler of ghosts and little fictions. And you, Fordus Firesoul..."

His amber eyes fixed Fordus once again.

"You are as much a tyrant as the man you sought to overthrow. I knew you always had it in you. In all your talk of liberation, you have only shackled, only oppressed!

"Yes, the two of you are identical! And you are both my creatures!" With a cry, Fordus leapt for Tamex, but the crystal warrior tumbled into dust and swirled in a blinding cloud through the room. The dust rose, glittering and eddying, and flashed suddenly, painfully, into the Prophet's eyes.

Blinded, Fordus fell to the hard stone floor, groping for his dropped dagger, for anything. Slowly the Kingpriest approached the helpless rebel.

"Forgive me," the Kingpriest murmured ironically, as delicately he touched the collar at Fordus's neck, removing the opals with a whispered spell. He stalked from the room as the golden tore around the Prophet's neck began to sparkle, tighten, compress.

Blute lightning played over the glittering metal, whichVontracted with a slow, inexorable motion. Fordus, writhing and gasping, clutched savagely at the strangling collar, tried to cry out. He fell face first to the floor, stirring the unswept dust with his last, desperate thrashing. Slowly, with a choking cry, he sank into a black, abiding darkness, where the army of the dead opened their ranks to receive him. His last breath eddied on the dusty floor of the Great Tower of Istar.

At the door, the Kingpriest turned, looking guiltily back into the rooni He whispered a last incantation, waving his hand over the dead Prophet, and the body of his son, now unprotected, hardened, blanched, and crumbled quickly into sand.

"I could not have done otherwise," he declared, to nothing but theidust and his conscience. "He was found in the salnds of tljie desert,/fhe protective tore I had devised around his neck. Sand and opals were the unsteady ground of his prophecy. Now to sand he returns, but his memory .... Nor will the world remember, Takhisis replied, mingling the remains of Fordus with the whirlwind that rose and vanished through the chamber window. We will veil it all, y0u and I. We shall decide what history is. Create it...

Or destroy it.

The Kingpriest reeled, as relief and sorrow and secret ambition warred for mastery in his heart. Now do my bidding.

"But..." began the Kingpriest, but the last wisp of dust spiraled swiftly out the window, leaving a whisper in its wake.

Prepare for the incantation. The one we planned in the first days.

"But it is too soon . . ." began the Kingpriest, and his protest died in his throat. Be ruled by me, the window murmured, and the chamber settled into unnatural darkness.

* * * * *

The Prophet was vanquished.

In a chaotic swirl above the Kingpriest's Tower, a faint, reptilian outline coalescing and dissolving in the whirling sand, Takhisis watched and laughed.

Now the Cataclysm was inevitable. Now the world would begin again in chaos; the gods would be readmitted.

And she would await them all.

From her stronghold she could seize them as they tried to enter the plane. Oh, yes, they would all come—good and neutral and evil alike—but her clergy would be there before them, her way established, and the blandishments of their followers would fall on deaf ears.

The age to come would be hers entirely, and last for thousands of years. All that remained was the Kingpriest's ritual, the binding of her spirit in the glain opals, the gods-blood stones. Then her stay would be permanent.

Never again would she be driven from-Krynn.

How long yet would she wait? A year, perhaps two. The elven miners brought forth an abundance of gems from the dark.

From a dark far deeper than they imagined, Takhisis thought, and chuckled as her whirlwind moved through the cloudy Istarian sky.

But thoughts of the Lucanesti brought her back to StormlightyThe last of the rebel triad. She wpmd see to that elf. If only out of thoroughness.

With a shriek, the whirlwind dove into the streets of the city.

* * * * *

The elf reeled and stumbled in the wind. Full of gravel and sand, it encircled him, whirling him about, smothering him in a harsh and stinging flood.

In the heart of the wind, Takhisis swirled and laughed.

Swept along by the bizarre sandstorm, the elf gasped and choked as the salt rushed into his nostrils, down his throat, into his eyes until, blinded, he groped his way across the Tower yards, looking for shelter, for covering, for the lee side to the pummeling wind.

Takhisis laughed again, more harshly as the pitiful creature tried to raise his lucerna against the gritty blast.

His hands clutched stone, mortar. With great effort, he pulled himself against the Tower wall as the wind Shrieked and battered.

Like a fly in a gale he was. Like a straw in a whirlwind.

So fare all who vie with the power of a god.

Takhisis watched contentedly, her low purr rumbling in the air like thunder over Istar as the elf encrusted with sand and stone.

I have vitrified him, she thought. Only a moment more...

Then, from somewhere far below her, imbedded in the depths of rock and water and earth, arose a murmur, a cry of a thousand voices so deep and remote that only a god's hearing could discern it. The miners! Takhisis shrieked and hurled hysterically against the ancient stone of the tower, sand and salt rattling against the windows. Then with a strange and urgent sighing, she settled on the cobbled streets of Istar, pouring like sand through the cracks of the stones in a sudden and frantic descent to the depths of the earth. The goddess was air and fire, salt and sand and glittering dark light, and as she poured through the crevasses~of the undercity, she forgot her victory, the dead reheL chieftain and his broken, abandoned bard, and the\ elf translated into crusted, dried stone.

* * * * *

Deep in the tunnels beneath the city, Spinel knew that something had changed—that for a moment, and perhaps only for a moment, the chains of the Lucanesti were loosened ever so slightly. The old elf crouched in the lamplight and whispered the last of his directions to Tourmalin. The younger elf turned away, and raced with a handful of followers down the deepest incline. They would leave the mines collapsed in their wake, burying the fabled opals under a hundred foot of rock. It would be decades before anyone—human or elf or even dwarf—could mine them again. Tourmalin had cleared the rubble of a hundred cave-ins. She knew how the stones fell, how a slipping shelf of rock, an ill-guided pick, or a miner's spell might collapse the whole spindly arrangement of tunnel and winze and shortwall until the ground above them shuddered as the planet fell in on itself. Jargoon, younger still, and a band of reckless younglings, would set pick and adze to the new beams supporting five of the six adits to the opal mines.

One lasfentrance would remain, and the Lucanesti would use it, overpower their guards by sheer number. Then would be the fresh light of moon and stars, and breezes the likes of which Spinel barely remembered, and the smell of cedar and open water. With a wakened resolve that bordered on hope, the old elf rose and made for the last of the adits. Sifting through the layers of shivering stone, a dark sand tumbling through the porous volcanic rock, Takhisis growled and muttered.

The-least likely of saboteurs. A fossil of an elf and his cringing people. Wluie-her eyes had been elsewhere, her powers diyerted:

The dark salts settled in a lightless chamber, then rose in an eddy of underground-wind, rattling eerily against the porous rock, sifting and stirring through the subterranean blackness. The opals were lost to her now, the mines caved in and closed to her slaves and minions. There was enough of the glain dust to bring her into the world. Not in the form and the strength she would like, and perhaps not for the thousand years she had yearned for and craved. But fifty years. Perhaps a hundred. Enough to punish all those who had foiled her. It would be enough.

But meanwhile the Lucanesti would pay for the time she would lose. Pay dearly and in kind, with the time they had remaining.

* * * * *

Gasping for air in the collapsing tunnels, Spinel led a handful of the Lucanesti, mainly children, toward a wavering light—the last of the entrances, supported and protected by the young elf Jargoon. The amber torchlight was soft, almost silky/ through his lowered lucerna, and the children daneed at the edge of his vision, their dark robes flickering like blades of translucent fire. Somewhere below, Spinel prayed, Tourmalin was guiding the rest of the elves—the most skillful sappers and miners—toward thejsame entrance, the same faint source of light and air. Breathing a last hopeful petition to Branchala, the old elf followed the dodging, visionary light through the winding and crumbling corridors.

Sabotage had been easy. The Kingpriest had little regard for safety, and the whole network tumbled in upon itself in a vast, subterranean chain reaction. Already dust was rising from the lower corridors, and Spinel urged the younglings on, lifting a frail little elf-maid to his crusted shoulders and carrying her toward the entrance and freedom.

"Where are we going?" she asked, and asked again as the corridor snaked up through thick, glassy layers of obsidian.

Spinel soothed her with a faint, musical cooing, reached up and stroked her shoulder with a knobby hand. He must protect these children. The fate of the Lucanesti lay in their futures.

^ Spinel calmed the children, stepped over the body of a battered Istarian sentry sprawled at the intersection of two collapsed tunnels. It was apparent that Jargoonjiail been hard at work, and judging from the face of the poor Istarian, the elves had been enthusiastically merciless. Holding his breath, the old elf rushed up the corridor, past another felled sentry, and another. Now the entrance to the mine was fully visible, a bright arch in the receding gloom some hundred yards away. Spinel quickened his steps.

But where was Jargoon and his company? Spinel looked to the side tunnels, all collapsed and filled with rubble.

There was no sign of the other elves.

* * * * *

Long before the Lucanesti were brought to the caverns below Istar, before the long line of Kingpriests and the city itself, a race of creatures ruled the intricate underworld of obsidian and brittle pumice and ages of dark voldanic gems.

The spiritvnaga had guarded these recesses diligently, jealously, hoarding the jewels, the precious metals—any stone that caught their depthless, glittering eyes—and guarding their riches out of sheer and aimless greed.

When the elves had come, the naga had fought against their invasion, and the nightmares of Lucanesti children were soon peopled with these monsters. Enormous serpents with passionless, blank human faces became the villains of a thousand elven legends, and every catastrophe from famine to collapsed tunnels was seen as the doing of the naga. Most importantly, the beasts practiced a rough and villainous magic, armed with an array of spells that blinded and stunned their unfortunate victims, so that the creatures might approach them and, using a magic more ancient and despicable still, drain their prey of all moisture, leaving the elves a mocking heap of opalescent bone.

Sinister and marginal, the spirit naga were a mystery to the Lucanesti, to the Istarians, to dwarf and druid as\well.

But nojt to Takhisis.

Long ago the goddess had found them and made them her minions.

The time had come to deploy them.

Now, an ancient naga crouched in the shadows beside the last clear entrance to the Istarian mines, hissing with hungry anticipation. The sinuous, scaled form flashed once in the rubble. It was answered by another movement in the darkness on the other side of the entrance. Which was enough for the old elf to understand.

Two of them. And no sign of Jargoon.

The monsters would make short work of the children, here at the edge of freedom, unless ... How did the words of the chanting go? It had been a hundred years since he used the spell, four hundred seasons with his thoughts on tunnels and corridors and hidden veins of opal. Yet it was there, if he mined his memory wisely.

Slowly, Spinel lowered the elf-child to the tunnel floor. A faint rumbling from the rocks let him know the naga awaited them, had begun their long and treacherous incantations.

"Culet," he whispered to the little elf-maid. "When I tell you to run toward the light, you will do so. It is a game we can play, you and I, but remember to keep running when you reach the light and the wind. The rest of the people will follow."

Two of the older elf-children exchanged troubled glances, andthe corridor filled with the sound of a dry rustle, like something crawling over a century of leaves.

"Do not concern yourselves with me," Spinel assured them, affecting bravery, confidence, hoping his voice did not betray him. "You will follow Culet on my signal, and I shall join you later." May the gods grant that reunion, he thought, his gaze flickering over the stirring darkness, the deep muttering in the rocks.

Slowly his arm encircled the elf-maid. Spinel guided her to the forefront of the company and, with a last, quick embrace, pushed her forward and away from him.

"Now!" he commanded, and the girl ran dutifully toward the light, the others following. Spinel ran with them, his old, stony bones creaking with sudden movement, and there, at the entrance to the mines, he turned to face the waiting creatures.

Mouthing an old elven incantation, Spinel stood in the opening, and a globe of amber light formed around him. As each child, each youngling passed through the glow, it was as though they were cleansed and delivered. Shielding their eyes, they burst into sunlight and fresh airland a new, unexpected life. The nagas, unable to penetrate the amber glow of magic, groaned angrily in the darkness. Finally, the last of the elf children leapt free of the mine. The light around him fading, Spinel prepared to follow, but the incantations, faint during his own swelling magic, grew louder and louder still. Blocking out thought, and will, and memory.

Wearily, he took a last step toward the light, and his unveiled eyes looked longingly at the rockface, a patch of green and a spray of wildflowers in the midst of the black obsidian. Gentian, he thought. And I had almost forgotten.

The monsters slithered into the light, blockingxthe entrance, Rising and arching, their pale, human> faces expressionless, they chanted the last of the spell to the humped, opalescent pillar at the edge of the cavernous dark.

Spinel became one with his ancestors and the earth that covered them. The Dark Queen hovered in the upper chambers of the opal mines. A black dust whirling in the stagnant passages, she heard the rumbling deep in the ground and rejoiced.

What difference did it make that the mines collapsed? That the elven younglings had escaped?

Most of the Lucanesti were far underground, easy prey for rockslides and spirit naga. As for the rest... They would suffer the most in her impending return.

For now was the hour, when the Kingpriest chanted and the glain dust, the godsblood, filled with her fierce and abysmal life.

This did not go according to her schedule. Had it not been for that impudent ancient elf—the one who lay stony dead at the very edge of light and freedom—she could have planned all things in her own time. But now, the remaining opals darkly glittering in the depths of the earth, far from the grasp of her minionsTitwas as good a time as any. And a time to demolish the twenty or so remaining Plainsmen in the southern passes, the fool of a slave, the bard— the lot of them.

As though a wind rose from the deepest recesses of the planet, the dark dust rose and sifted through the cracks in the earth, merging into a hulking black cloud, sprouting tail and talon and tattered wings in its headlong flight for the lofty parapets of the King-priest's Tower.

When the windows spoke to him, clouded in smoke and approaching evening, their message was urgent, angered.

Now is the time, they told the Kingpriest. Your bride awaitsryou in the collected dust. But he no longer believed the voices. It was fear that prompted his magic, rather than hope and desire. Sifting the glain dust through his trembling hands, he began the first of the incantations, his breath enkindling the dust, spangling it with a harsh, artificial light.

I must not fail, he thought. Bride or no bride, I must do the bidding of the voice. He did not notice the clouckpf smoke and sand until it surrounded him, pouring through the stained opalescent windows and filling his chamber with a thick, choking haze. Then the dust in his hands rose and mingled with the blinding air.

You have done your part, the voices proclaimed. I will let you live for now. He knew better than to ask for the woman, the bride—the beautiful girl crafted of dust opalescent and promised him years ago by the dark voice in the clerestory. She would not come. He knew that he had been deceived. Duped and humiliated, weaker than he had ever imagined himself to be, the King-priest watched helplessly as the cloud darkened and solidified and poured out the opened windows.

* * * * *

Emerging from the temporary stonesleep that had saved him from Takhisis's anger, Stormlight watched from the foot of the Tower as a new whirlwind stirred on the balcony. Dark sand eddied and rose, and within it the flat, opaque dust of the glain opals. The elf saw three shapes intertwined in the heart of the cloud: Tamex and Tanila, their amber eyes glittering with a strange, reptilian identity...

And the other one, bearded and long-haired ...

The one with sea-blue eyes.

The shapes were insubstantial, ever shifting, sometimes indistinguishable from each other, sometimes individual and distinct. He watched, horror-stricken, and he knew, as the sand and opal dust rose into an enormous, boiling cloud above the tower, that his old friend was no more and that the fabled city they had sought together was nothing but glittering, hollow marble.

"Beware, Istar," he whispered, retreating through the streets toward the gate, the burning fields, and the people beyond who were his care and charge.

"Beware in the years to come. For the ground is unsteady."

Larken watched in alarm as the storm rose over the city.

A deep, brooding shadow settled on the tallest of Istar's towers, and above the marbled horizon swirled a shapeless cloud, shot through with wind and lightning.

Suddenly, the cloud took form and settled on the spire, dark wings emerging from the whirling chaos. Now a tail, now a thick, muscular neck and a strong reptilian jaw.

With a cry, Lucas vaulted into the air. Wheeling once above the mouth of the pass, he shot south ahead of the building storm. In dismay, Larken watched him fly—watched her people scatter in fear and panic. Now a dragon perched atop the Kingpriest's Tower—a dragon of cloud and spinning sand. Slowly the wings began to flutter and fan, and Istar Lake buckled and rolled as a fierce wind passed over it. The clouds above the stormy image wheeled about it like indignant desert birds, and the air itself buckled in sheets of violet lightning,

in a hundred whirlwinds racing throughout the northern sky.

What is it? Vincus signed to the bard.

Nothing. Nothing but a storm.

But the shape, Vincus insisted, his dark hands emphatic. It looks like ... Nothing, Larken signed. Nothing more than sand and old malice.

Then the raging wind rushed over them all.

Far worse than the sterim in the central pass, Takhisis's vengeance was swift and powerful. The alder trees were torn from their roots and hurled against the walls of the pass. Their crash and splinter and the cracking of rocks was deafening: all around Larken, the Plainsmen sought cover, as the wind tunneled through the Western Pass, whipping down into the plains and the desert beyond. Now, in the ear-splitting racket of wind, in the breaking of nature, Larken took up her lyre. The wind buffeted her frail song back to her, and, breathless, she stood in the mountain pass as the world uprooted around her.

In the midst of chaos, she found herself peculiarly calm. There was a passage—a way past the shrieking wind and the devastation. And she knew that the answer lay somewhere in her memory.

"Something perilous," Stormlight had told her. "And altogether new." She touched the lyre's strings, gathered her last shreds of courage and hope, faced the stormy dragon and began to sing. \

Fierce, driving sand clawed at her throat, and the wind took away her breath. Her voice flowed through the lyre, inaudible above the clamor, and yet she continued, singing despite the fact that no one could hear her, not even Vincus, who stood clinging to her, holding them both down, his face averted from the driving wind.

She could not even hear herself.

My song will not abandon me, she thought. It is the last thing I have against this chaos. And I will sing it until the world breaks in two.

So the song of the bard warred against the shriek of the wind for a long hour, while a dozen Plainsmen huddledJix alarm and forks of lightning flickered through the distant wings of the dragon. Twice Larken lost her footing—once she even fell, but Vin-cus's sinewy arms hung on to her, his dark head bent above her trembling shoulder as he stood in the wind like a strong rock in the sterim. Through it all Larken kept singing, sending all the verses and music she knew into the relentless assault of the wind, composing new melodies with a wild and reckless invention. Then, slowly, the cloudy dragon drew itself up and sailed high above the Kingpriest's Tower. As it took to the air, a wave of immeasurable silence—a last calm before the final, strangling tempest—rolled forth over the lake. The cloudy dragon followed, a swirling figure of sand, its broad wings beating slowly over the dark waters.

In that sudden silence, Larken, still singing, discovered that no sound came from her throat—none but a faint, exhausted rasping.

It is over, she thought, still trying to sing, opening her^ eyes and cradling the lyre like a sleeping child. I have done I can all to stand against the beast.

Then, in the flash of a second before her last frail note slipped into fear and despair, as she held to her song with her ruined voice, the cry of a hawk fractured the expectant silence. Like a herald, Lucas flew north, out of the pass, in the fore of a great rumbling. Then the Istarian Mountains gave back Larken's lost song. It powered forth, strong, clear, and sweet, resounding with magic she had never known she possessed, of a love that sheltered her adopted people. Larken heard her own voice surge over her, echoing off the facets of a thousand rocks, a chorus magnified and deepened, echo upon echo, until the ground shook under her feet.

At the edge of the lake, the shape of the dragon began to crumble and fall, harmlessly sifting into thtsvvater. The lake hissed as it received the fiery sand, and great columns of steam rose from the boiling surface. A horrendous shriek of anger and futility drowned swiftly in the rising song, and the steam hovered in the air, molding itself into the form of a bearded Plainsman warrior, a spiked tore about his neck and a celestial sadness in his countenance.

Then a soft rain fell from the steaming clouds, and the last image of the Prophet vanished into the Istarian skies.

Neither sand nor salt would ever be the same: every crystalline structure changed to the core, all geology translated, no mineral of Krynn would ever again harbor a god.

For a moment the Kingpriest's Temple looked like a shining spire in the afternoon sun, pristine and washed.

Larken's song—her last song—had done this.

"So be it," she whispered, softly, absently, her thoughts on old memories, on private, inexpressible things.

"Things will change after this. Things will have to change." Beside her, to her great surprise, Vincus nodded in agreement.

The bard had spoken, and for the first time in a long time, her people had heard her voice. Another voice thundered in the depths of the Abyss.

In black fire Takhisis rolled and raged, stirring a hot and lethal wind. The godlings scattered before her, twittering like bats.

Defeated! By a squeaking bard and her attendant elves!

The darkness whirled in disarray, the Abyss spangling with bright stars, white and violet and crimson. Slowly, the goddess enfolded herself in the leathery sheath of her enormous batwings. She soothed herself in the permeating darkness, turning and calming her anger.

Perhaps this time they had won.

Perhaps these petty weaklings, in their great good fortune, had postponed her entry into Krynn for a few, paltry hours.

But Fordus was dead, his insurrection crushed. She had seen to that.

Now, her thoughts burst in flames on the tough, leathery surface of her inner wings. As though she watched a mural of light take form and evolve, Takhisis guided the images, shaped them and gave them purpose.

The fire from her anger and magic splashed violet and crimson and white in the leathery cocoon of her folded wings. It shone upon a burning, collapsing city, the fall of great towers and the rending of the earth. It shone upon the Kingpriest's Tower, where the most powerful of her minions sat amid the dust of a hundred opals, chanting the last of a hundred spells she would begin to teach him today. Oh, it was not the inalterable future. Not yet. But in dream and insinuation, through his guilt and through the darker promptings of his heart, she would bring the Kingpriest to this spell, this moment, this pass. Her time would still come, was still coming.

The Kingpriest would see to it all.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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