DRAGONS OF SUMMER FLAME

©1995 TSR, Inc. ©2001 Wizards of the Coast Inc.

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

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TO SOJOURNERS IN KRYNN

May your Sword never break.

May your Armor never rust.

May the Three Moons guide your Magic.

May your Prayers be heard.

May your Beard grow long.

May your Life Quest never blow up in your face.

May your Hoopak sing.

May your Homeland prosper.

May Dragons fly ever in your Dreams.

-Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

 

Made in the U.S.A.

The sale of this book without its cover has not been authorized by the publisher. If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that neither the author nor the publisher has received payment for this "stripped book."

Cover art by Matt Stawicki

Interior art by Larry Elmore

First Printing: February 2002

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2001089467

987654321

ISBN: 0-7869-2708-9 620-88551-001

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In southernmost country

where the kewall rises

in pale and seasonal sun,

where the legends freeze

in remembered dew and the dawned mercury,

they ready the long vats in memory's custom pouring gold, pouring amber,

the old distillations

of grain, of bardic blood and ice and remembrance.

And into the waters the bard descends

into gold, into amber all the while listening

to the dark amniosis

of current and memory flowing about him,

until the lung, the dilating heart

give way in the waters, until he fills with listening

and the world rushes into him

deeper than thought, and he drowns or addles, or emerges a bard.

In the north it is done otherwise:

wisely under the moon where the phases labor

out of darkness to the light

of coins and mirrors in abundant freedoms of air.

I heard you were strangers to the wronged country where the bards descend,

to the waters where faith

transforms into vision, to the night's elixir,

to the last drowning breath

given over to memory where poetry comes, solitary.

I heard you were strangers

in the merciful north, that Hylo, Solamnia,

and a dozen unnameable provinces

cleansed you past envy,

past loneliness. Then the waters told me the truth:

how much you remember your deaths

where the halves of a kingdom unite in a lost terrain,

how you pass like moons, red and silver,

your destination celestial west, an alliance of mercy and light.

From the outset the heavens

had this in mind, a passage through darkness and suspect country,

its vanishing point in sunlight

in the air and the earth's

horizons- not drowning, nor the harp's flood.

O you have never forgotten

the bard's immersion, the

country of sleep, the time preceding the birth of the worlds

where all of us waited

in the mothering dark, in the death that the card foretells,

but alone and together you ride

into the dying the dying the story that means we are starting again . . .

Book 1

 

I

The Landing Party. The Prophecy.

An  Unexpected  Encounter

t was hot that morning, damnably hot.

Far too hot for late spring on Ansalon. Almost as hot as midsummer. The two knights, seated in the boat's stern, were sweating and miserable in their heavy steel armor; they looked with envy at the half-naked men plying the boat's oars.

The knights' black armor, adorned with skull and death lily, had been blessed by the high cleric, was supposed to withstand the vagaries of wind and rain, heat and cold. But their Dark Queen's blessing was apparently not responding to this unsea­sonable heat wave. When the boat drew near the shore, the knights were first out, jumping into the shallow water, laving the water onto their reddening faces and sun-burned necks. But the water was not particularly refreshing.

"Like wading in hot soup," one of the knights grumbled, splashing ashore. Even as he spoke, he scrutinized the shoreline carefully, eyeing bush and tree and dune for signs of life.

"More like blood," said his comrade. "Think of it as wading in the blood of our enemies, the enemies of our queen. Do you see anything?"

"No," the other replied. He waved his hand without looking back, heard the sound of men leaping into the water, their harsh laughter and conversation in their uncouth, guttural language.

One of the knights turned around. "Bring that boat to shore," he said unnecessarily, for the men had already picked up the heavy boat, were running with it through the shallow water. Grinning, they dumped the boat on the sand beach and looked to the knight for further orders.

He mopped his forehead, marveled at their strength and-not for the first time-thanked Queen Takhisis that these barbarians were on their side. The brutes, they were known as. Not the true name of their race. That name-their name for themselves-was unpronounceable, and so the knights who led the barbarians had begun calling them the shortened version: brutes.

The name suited the barbarians well. They came from the east, from a continent that few people on Ansalon knew existed. Every one of the men stood well over six feet; some were as tall as seven. Their bodies were as bulky and muscular as humans,

I

but their movements were as swift and graceful as elves. Their ears were pointed like those of the elves, but their faces were heavily bearded like humans or dwarves. They were as strong as dwarves, and loved battle as well as dwarves. They fought fiercely, were loyal to those who commanded them, and-out­side of a few grotesque customs, such as cutting off various parts of the body of a dead enemy to keep as trophies-the brutes were ideal foot soldiers.

"Let the captain know we've arrived safely and that we've encountered no resistance," said the knight to his comrade. "We'll leave a couple of men here with the boat, move inland." The other knight nodded. Taking a red silk pennant from his belt, he unfurled it, held it above his head, and waved it slowly three times. An answering flutter of red could be seen coming from the enormous black dragon-prowed ship anchored some distance away. This was a scouting mission, not an invasion. Orders had been quite clear on that point.

The knights sent out their patrols, dispatching some to range up and down the beach, sending others farther inland, where towering hills of chalk-white rock-barren of vegetation-rose from the trees like cat claws to tear at the sky. Breaks in the rock led to the island's interior. The ship had sailed around the island; now they knew it was not large. Their patrols would be back soon.

This done, the two knights moved thankfully to the meager shadow cast by a squat and misshapen tree. Two of the brutes stood guard. The knights remained wary, watchful, even as they rested. Searing themselves, they drank sparingly of the fresh water they'd brought with them. One of them grimaced. "The damn stuff's hot."

"You left the waterskin sitting in the sun. Of course it's hot." "Where the devil was I supposed to put it? There was no shade on that cursed boat. I don't think there's any shade left in the whole blasted world. I don't like this place at all. I get a        j queer feeling about this island, like it's magicked or something." "I know what you mean," agreed his comrade somberly. He kept glancing about, back into the trees, up and down the beach. All he could see were the brutes, and they were certainly not bothered by any ominous feelings. But then they were barbar­ians. "We were warned not to come here, you know."

"What?" The other knight looked astonished. "I didn't know. Who told you that?"

"Brightblade. He had it from Lord Ariakan himself."

DnaqoNS of summgu Flaiue

1                 "Brightblade should know. He's on Ariakan's staff, though I

hear he's asked to be transferred to a fighting talon. Plus Ariakan's his sponsor." The knight appeared nervous, asked softly, "Such information's not secret, is it?"

The other knight appeared amused. "You don't know Steel Brightblade very well if you think he would break any oath, pass along information he was told to keep to himself. He'd sooner let his tongue be ripped out by red-hot tongs. No, Lord Ariakan discussed things openly with all the regimental com­manders before deciding to proceed."

The knight shrugged. Picking up a handful of pebbles, he began tossing them idly into the water. "The Gray Knights start-ed it all. Some sort of augury revealed the location of this island and that it was inhabited by large numbers of people." "So who warned us not to come?"

"The Gray Knights. The same augury which told them of this island warped them not to come near it. They tried to persuade Ariakan to leave well enough alone. Said that this place could mean disaster."

The other knight frowned, glanced around with growing unease. "Then why were we sent?"

"The upcoming invasion of Ansalon. Lord Ariakan felt this move was necessary to protect his flanks. The Gray Knights couldn't say exactly what sort of threat this island posed. Nor could they say specifically that the disaster would be caused by our landing on the island. As Lord Ariakan pointed out, disaster might come even if we did nothing. And so he decided to follow the old dwarven dictum: It is better to go looking for the dragon than have the dragon go looking for you."

"Good thinking," his companion agreed. "If there is an army of Solamnic Knights on this island, it's better that we deal with them now. Not mat it seems likely."

He gestured at the wide stretches of sand beach, at the dunes covered with grayish green grass, and, farther inland, a forest of the ugly, misshapen trees butting up against the clawlike hills. "I can't imagine why the Solamnics would come here. I can't imag­ine why anyone would come here. Elves wouldn't live in a place this ugly."

"No caves, so the dwarves wouldn't like it. Minotaur would have attacked us by now. Kender would have walked off with the boat and our armor. Gnomes would have met us with some sort of fiend-driven fish-catching machine. Humans like us are the only race foolish enough to live on such a wretched isle," the knight concluded cheerfully. He picked up another handful of rocks.

"Perhaps a rogue band of draconians or hobgoblins. Ogres even. Escaped twenty-some odd years ago, after the War of the Lance. Red north, across the sea, to avoid capture by the Solamnic Knights."

"Yes, but they'd be on our side," his companion answered. "And our knight wizards wouldn't have their gray robes in a knot over it. Ah, here come our scouts, back to report. Now we'll find out."

The knights rose to their feet. The brutes who had been sent into the island's interior hurried forward to meet their leaders. The barbarians were grinning hugely. Their near-naked bodies glistened with sweat. The blue paint, with which they had cov­ered themselves, and which was supposed to possess some sort of magical properties such as causing arrows to bounce right off, ran down their muscular bodies in rivulets. Long scalp-locks, decorated with colorful feathers, bounced on their backs as they loped easily over the sand dunes.

The two knights exchanged glances, relaxed.

"What did you find?" the knight asked the leader, a gigantic, red-haired fellow who towered over both knights, could have probably picked up each of them and held them above his head, and who regarded both knights with unbounded reverence and respect.

"Men," answered the brute. They were quick to leam and had adapted easily to the Common language spoken by most of the various races of Krynn. Unfortunately, to the brutes, all people not of their race were known as "men."

The brute lowered his hand near the ground to indicate small men, which might mean dwarves but was more probably chil­dren. He moved it to waist height, which most likely indicated women. This the brute confirmed by cupping two hands over his breast and wiggling his hips. His comrades laughed and nudged each other.

"Men, women and children," said the knight. "Many men? Lots of men? Big buildings? Walls? Cities?"

The brutes apparently thought this was hilarious, for they all burst into raucous laughter.

"What did you find?" repeated the knight sharply, scowling. "Stop the nonsense."

The brutes sobered rapidly.

"Many men," said the leader, "but no walls. Houses." He made a face, shrugged, shook his head and added something in his own language.

"What does that mean?" asked the knight of his comrade.

"Something to do with dogs," said the other, who had led brutes before and had started picking up some of their language. "I think he means that these men live in houses only dogs would live in."

Several of the brutes now began walking about stoop-shouldered, swinging their arms around their knees and grunting. Then they all straightened up, looked at each other, and laughed again.

"What in the name of our Dark Majesty are they doing now?" the knight demanded.

"Beats me," said his comrade. "I think we should have a look for ourselves." He drew his sword partway out of its black leather scabbard. "Danger?" he asked the brute. "We need steel?"

The brute laughed again. Taking his own short sword (the brutes fought with two, long and short, as well as with bows and arrows), he thrust it into the tree, turned his back on it.

The knight, reassured, returned his own sword to its scab­bard. The two followed their guides. Leaving the beach, they walked deeper into the forest of misshapen trees. They walked about half a mile along what appeared to be an animal path, then reached the village.

Despite the antics of the brutes, the knights were completely unprepared for what they found. It seemed that they had come upon a people who had been stranded in the shallows, as the great river Time flowed past them, leaving them untouched.

"By Hiddukel," one said in a low voice to the other. " 'Men' is too strong a term. Are these men? Or are they beasts?"

"They're men," said the other, staring around, amazed. "But such men as we're told walked Krynn during the Age of Twilight. Look! Their tools are made of wood. They carry wood­en spears. And crude ones at that."

"Wooden-tipped, not stone," said the other. "Mud huts for houses. Clay cooking pots. Not a piece of steel or iron in sight. What a pitiable lot! I can't see how they could be much danger, unless it's from filth. By the smell, they haven't bathed since the Age of Twilight either."

"Ugly bunch. More like apes than men. Don't laugh. Look stern and threatening."

Several of the male humans - if human they were, it was so difficult to tell beneath the animal hides they wore-crept up to the knights. The "man-beasts" walked bent over, their arms swinging at their sides, knuckles almost dragging on the ground. Their heads were covered with long, shaggy hair; unkempt beards almost hid their faces. They bobbed and shuf­fled and gazed at the knights in openmouthed awe. One of the man-beasts actually drew near enough to reach out a grimy hand to touch the black, shining armor.

A brute moved to interpose his own massive body in front of the knight.

The knight waved the brute off, drew his sword. The steel flashed in the sunlight. He turned to one of the squat trees. With their twisted limbs and gnarled trunks, the trees very much resembled the people who lived underneath them. The knight raised his sword and sliced off a tree limb with one swift stroke.

The man-beast dropped to his knees, groveled in the dirt, making piteous, blubbering sounds.

"I think I'm going to vomit," said the knight to his comrade. "Gully dwarves wouldn't associate with this lot."

"You're right there." The knight continued his inspection. "You and I between us could wipe out the entire tribe."

"We could, but we'd never be able to clean the stench off our swords," said the other.

"What should we do? Kill them?"

"Small honor in it. These wretches obviously aren't any threat to us. Our orders were to find out who or what was inhabiting the island, then return and make our report. For all we know, these people may be the favorites of some god, who might be angered if we harmed them. Perhaps that is what the Gray Knights meant by disaster."

"I doubt if that could be the case," said the other knight. "I can't imagine any god treating his favorites like this."

"Morgion, perhaps," said the other, with a wry grin.

The knight grunted. "Well, we've certainly done no harm just by looking at them. The Gray Knights can't fault us for that. Send out the brutes to scout the rest of the island. Let's go back to the shore. I need some fresh air."

The two knights walked back to the beach. Sitting in the shade of the tree, waiting for the other patrols to return, they passed the time talking of the upcoming invasion of Ansalon, discussing the vast armada of black dragon-prowed ships, manned by minotaur, that was speeding across the Courrain Ocean, bearing thousands and thousands more barbarian war-riors. All was nearly ready for the two-pronged invasion of the continent, which would take place on Summer's Eve.

The Knights of Takhisis did not know precisely where they were attacking; such information was kept secret. But they had no doubt of victory. This time the Dark Queen would succeed. This time her armies would be victorious. This time she knew the secret to victory.

The brutes returned within a few hours, made their reports. The isle was not large, perhaps five miles long and as many miles around. The brutes found no other people. The tribe of man-beasts had all slunk off, probably hiding in their mud huts until the strange beings left.

The knights returned to their shore boat. The brutes pushed it off the sand, leaped in, grabbed the oars. The boat skimmed across the surface of the water, heading for the black ship that flew the standard of the Knights of Takhisis: the death lily, the skull, and the thorn.

The knights left behind an empty, deserted beach.

But their leave-taking was noted, as their coming had been.

 

The Magical Isle. An Urgent Meeting.

The Decider.

he black dragon-prowed ship vanished over the hori­zon. When no trace of it could be seen, the watchers climbed down from the trees.

"Will they come back? Is it safe?" asked one of the man-beasts of another, a female.

"You heard them. They've gone to report that we are 'harm­less/ that we pose no threat to them. And that means," the female added, after a moment's thought, "that they will be back. Not now. Not soon. But they will return."

"What can we do?"

"I don't know. We came together to live on this isle to keep our secret safe. Perhaps that was a mistake. Perhaps it would have been better to remain scattered throughout the world. Here we are vulnerable to discovery and attack. There we could at least hide among the other races. I don't know," she repeated helplessly. "I can't say. It will be up to the Decider."

"Yes." The male appeared relieved. "That is true. And he will be awaiting our return with impatience. We should go quickly."

"Not like this," warned his companion.

"No, of course not." He gazed unhappily back out to sea, peering through unkempt shaggy hair. "It's all so terrible, so frightening. Even now I don't feel safe. I keep seeing that ship looming on the horizon. I see the dark knights. I hear their voic­es - the spoken and the unspoken. Talk of conquest, battle, death. Surely ..." He was hesitant. "Surely we should warn . . . someone on Ansalon. The Solamnic Knights perhaps."

"That is not our responsibility," the woman returned sharply. "We must look out for ourselves, as we have always done. You can be certain," she added, and her tone was bitter, "that in a similar circumstance, they would have no care for us. Come, return to your true form and let us go."

The two muttered words of magic, words that no wizard on the continent of Ansalon could understand, let alone speak: words every wizard on Ansalon would have given his very soul to possess. None ever would or could. Such powerful magic is born, not acquired.

The shambling, filthy husk of the man-beast fell away, as the ugly shell of the chrysalis falls away to reveal the beautiful dusk-

faery imprisoned within. Two extraordinarily beautiful beings emerged from the disguises.

It is difficult to describe such beauty. They were tall, slender, delicate-boned, with large, luminous eyes. But there are many on this world who can be described as such, many on this world considered beautiful. And what may be beautiful to one is not beautiful at all to another. A dwarf male considers a dwarf female's side-whiskers most alluring; he thinks the smooth faces of human women are denuded and bland. Yet, even a dwarf would realize these people were beautiful, no matter that they did not embody his idea of beauty. They were as beautiful as the sunset on the mountains, as the moonglade on the sea, as the morning mist rising from the valleys.

A word transformed the crude animal hides they wore into fine-spun, shimmering silk. Another word altered the very tree in which the two had been hiding, relaxed the contorted limbs, smoothed the gnarled trunks. The tree stood straight and tall; deep green leaves rustled in the ocean breeze. Flowers exuded sweet-smelling perfume. At another word, all the trees under­went this same transformation.

The two left the beach, headed inland, following the direction the knights had taken to reach the mud-hut village. The two did not speak; they were comfortable in their silence. The words they'd just exchanged were probably more than either had spo­ken to another of their race in years. The Irda enjoy isolation, solitude. They do not even like to be around each other for long periods. It had taken a crisis to start a conversation between the two watchers.

Therefore the scene the two found, on their return, was almost as shocking as the sight of mud huts and clay cooking pots had been to the knights. The two Irda saw all their people - several hundred or more - gathered beneath an enormous wil­low tree, a circumstance almost unparalleled in the history of the Irda.

The ugly, misshapen trees were gone, replaced by a dense, lush forest of oak and pine. Built around and among the trees were small, carefully conceived and designed dwellings. Each house was different in aspect and appearance, but few were ever larger than four rooms, comprising cooking area, meditative area, work area, sleep area. Those dwellings that were built with five rooms also housed the young of the species. A child lived with a parent (generally the mother, unless circumstances dic­tated otherwise) until the child reached the Year of Oneness. At that time, the child moved out and established a dwelling of his or her own.

Each Irda household was self-sufficient. Each Irda grew his own food, obtained his own water, pursued his own studies. Social interchange was not prohibited or frowned upon. It sim­ply didn't exist. Such an idea would never occur to an Irda or- if it did-would be considered a trait peculiar to other, lesser races, such as humans, elves, dwarves, kender and gnomes; or the dark races, such as minotaur, goblins, and draconians; or the one race that was never mentioned among the Irda: ogres.

Irda join with other Irda only once in their lives, for the pur­pose of mating. This is a traumatic experience for both male and female, for they do not come together out of love. They are con­strained to come together by the magical practice known as the Valin. Created by the elders of the race in order to perpetuate the race, the Valin causes the soul of one Irda to take possession of the soul of another. There is no escape, no defense, no choice or selection. When the Valin happens between two Irda, they must couple or the Valin will so torture and torment them that it may lead to death. Once the woman has conceived, the Valin is lifted, the two go their separate ways, having decided between them­selves which would be responsible for the child's welfare. So devastating is this experience in the lives of two Irda, that this rarely happens more than once in a lifetime. Thus few children are born to the Irda, and their numbers remain small.

The Irda had lived on the continent of Ansalon for centuries,
ever since their creation. Yet few members of the other, more
prolific races knew of the Irda's existence. Such wondrous crea­
tures were the stuff of legend and folk tale. Each child learned at
mother's knee the story of the ogres, who had once been the
most beautiful creatures ever created, but who-due to the sin of
pride-had been cursed by the gods, changed into ugly, fear- |
some monsters. Such tales were meant as moral lessons.                '

"Roland, if you pull your sister's hair one more time, you'll turn into an ogre."

"Marigold, if you keep admiring your pretty face, you'll look
into the mirror one day and find yourself as ugly as an ogre."
        !

The Irda, so legend had it, were ogres who had managed to escape the gods' wrath, and so remained beautiful, with all their blessings and magical powers intact. Because they were so pow­erful and so beautiful and so blessed, the Irda did not hobnob with the rest of the world. And so they vanished. Children, walking into a dark and gloomy wood, would always look for >

an Irda, for-so legend had it-if you caught an Irda, you could force him or her to grant you a wish.

This had about as much truth to it as did most legends, but it did encompass the Irda's primary fear: If any of the other races ever discovered an Irda, they would try to make use of the pow­erful magic to enhance their own ends. Fear of this, of being used, drove the Irda to live alone, hidden, disguised, avoiding all contact with anyone.

It had been many years since any Irda had walked on Ansalon- in dark and gloomy woods or anywhere else. Following the War of the Lance, the Irda had looked forward to a long reign of peace. They had been disappointed. The various factions and races on Ansalon could not agree on a peace treaty. Worse, the races were now fighting among themselves. And then there came rumors of a vast darkness forming in the north.

Fearful that his people would be caught in yet another devas­tating war, the Decider made a decision. He sent out word to all of the Irda, .telling them to leave the continent of Ansalon and travel to this remote isle, far beyond the knowledge of anyone. And so they had come. They had lived in peace and isolation on this isle for many years. Peace and isolation, which had just been shattered.

The Irda had come together here, beneath the willow tree, to try to end this threat. They had come together to discuss the knights and barbarians, yet they stood apart, each separated from his or her fellows, glancing at the tree, then askance at each other, uneasy, uncomfortable, and unhappy. The tree's severed branch, cut by the knight's cold steel blade, lay on the ground. Sap oozed from the cut in the living tree. The tree's spirit cried out in anguish, and the Irda could not comfort it. A peaceful existence, which had been perfected over the years, had come to an end.

"Our magical shield has been penetrated." The Decider was addressing the group as a whole. "The dark knights know we are here. They will return."

"I disagree, Decider," another Irda argued respectfully. "The knights will not come back. Our disguises fooled them. They think we are savages, on the level of animals. Why should they return? What could they possibly want with us?"

"You know the ways of the human race." The Decider coun­tered, his tone heavy with the sorrow of centuries. "The dark knights may want nothing to do with us now. But there will come a time when their leaders will need men to fill the ranks of their armies, or they will decide that this island would be a good location for building ships, or they will feel the need to put a garrison here. A human can never bear to leave anything alone. He must do something with every object he finds, put it to some use, take it apart to see how it works, attach some sort of mean­ing or significance to it. So it will be with us. They will be back."

The Irda, always living alone, in isolation, had no need for^ any sort of governmental body. Yet they realized that they need" ed one among them to make decisions for all of them as a whole. Thus, as far back as ancient time, they had always chosen one from among their number who was known as the Decider. Sometimes male, sometimes female, the chosen Decider was nei­ther the eldest nor the youngest, neither the wisest nor the smartest, neither the most powerful mage nor the weakest. The Decider was average and thus, being average, would take no drastic actions, would follow a median course.

The present Decider had proved far stronger, far more aggres­sive, than any of the Deciders before him. He said it was due to the bad times. His decisions had all been wise ones, or at least so most of the Irda believed. Those who disagreed were reluctant to disturb the placidity of Irda life and had thus far said nothing.

"At any rate, they will not return in the immediate future, Decider," said the female who had been one of the watchers on the shore. "We watched their ship disappear over the horizon. And we noted that it flew the flag of Ariakan, son of the late Ariakus, Dragon Highlord. Ariakan, like his father before him, is a follower of the dark goddess Queen Takhisis."

"If he were not a follower of Takhisis, then he would be a fol­lower of Paladine. If not Paladine, then one of the other gods or goddesses. Nothing changes." The Decider folded his arms across his chest, shook his head. "I repeat, they will be back. For the glory of their queen, if nothing else."

"They spoke of war, Decider, of invading Ansalon." This came from the male watcher. "Surely that will occupy them for many years."

"Ah, there, you see?" The Decider looked triumphantly around at the assembly. "War. Again war. Always war. The rea­son we left Ansalon. I had hoped that here, at least, we would be safe, immune." He sighed deeply. "Apparently not."

"What should we do?"

The Irda, standing apart, separate from each other, looked questioningly at each other.

"We could leave this island, travel to another, where we would be safe," suggested one.

"We left Ansalon, traveled to this island," said the Decider. "We are not safe here. We will not be safe anywhere."

"If they come back, we'll fight them, drive them away," said one of the Irda-a very young Irda, newly arrived at the Year of Oneness. "I know that we've never, in our entire history, shed the blood of another race. That we've hidden ourselves away in order to avoid killing. But we have the right to defend ourselves. Every person in the world has that right."

The other, more mature, Irda were regarding the young woman with the looks of elaborate patience adults of every species adopt when the young make statements embarrassing to their elders.

And so they were considerably astonished when the Decider said, "Yes, Avril, you are correct. We do have the right to defend ourselves. We have the right to live the lives we choose to live in peace. And I say we should defend that right."

In their shock, several of the Irda spoke simultaneously. "You are not suggesting that we fight the humans, are you, Decider?"

"No," he returned. "I am not. Of course, I am not. But neither am I suggesting that we pack up our possessions and leave our homes. Is that what you want?"

One spoke, a man known as the Protector, who had occasion­ally disagreed with the Decider and had occasionally made his disagreement known. He was, consequently, not a great favorite with the Decider, who frowned when the Protector started to speak.

"Of all the places we have lived, this is the most congenial, the most lovely, the best suited to us. Here we are together, yet apart. Here we can help each other when there is need, yet remain in solitude. It will be hard to leave this island. Yet ... it doesn't seem the same now. I say we should move."

The Protector gestured to the neat, snug houses surrounded by hedgerows and lovingly tended flower gardens. The other Irda knew what he meant. The houses were the same, unchanged by the magic that had supplied the illusion of mud huts. The dif­ference could not be seen, but it could be felt, heard, tasted, and smelled. The birds, normally talkative and filled with song, were silent, afraid. The wild animals, who roamed freely among the Irda, had vanished back into their holes or up into the trees. The smell of steel and of blood was strong on the air.

Innocence and peace had been ravaged. The wounds would heal, the scars disappear, but the memory would remain. And now the Decider was suggesting that they defend this home­land! The very thought was appalling. The idea of moving was catching hold, gaining supporters.

The Decider saw that he had to swing around, take another tack.

"I am not suggesting we go to war," he said, his tone now gentle, soothing. "Violence is not our way. I have long studied the problem. I foresaw disaster coming. I have just returned from a trip to the contirtent of Ansalon. Let me tell you what I have discovered."

The other Irda stared at their Decider in amazement. So iso­lated were they-one from the other-that no one realized their leader had even been gone, much less that he had risked walk­ing among outsiders.

The Decider's face grew grave and sorrowful. "Our magic-blessed vessel took me to the human city of Palanthas. I walked its streets, listened to the people talk. I traveled thence to the stronghold of the Solamnic Knights, from there to the seafaring nations of Ergoth. I passed into Qualinesti, the land of the elves. I entered the gates of Thorbardin, realm of the dwarves. Invisible as the wind, I slipped over the borders of the cursed elven land of Silvanesti, walked the Plains of Dust, spent time in Solace, Kendermore, and Flotsam. Finally, I looked upon the Blood Sea of Istar and, from there, passed near Storm's Keep, from whence came these same dark knights.

"Over twenty-five years-in human time-has passed since the War of the Lance. The people of Ansalon hoped for peace, hope that was in vain, as we could have told them. As long as the gods war among themselves, their battles will spill over onto the mortal plane. With these dark knights to fight for her, Queen Takhisis is more powerful than ever.

"Their lord, Ariakan, son of Highlord Ariakus, had the nerve and the temerity to point out to the Dark Queen wherein her weakness lay. 'Evil turns in upon itself.' The War of the Lance was lost due to the greed and selfishness of the Dark Queen's commanders. Ariakan, a prisoner of the Knights of Solamnia during and after the war, realized that the Solamnic Knights had achieved victory through their willingness to make sacrifices for the cause-sacrifices that were epitomized in the death of the knight Sturm Brightblade.

"Ariakan put his ideas into practice and has now created an army of men and women committed body and soul to the Dark Queen and, more importantly, to conquering the world in her name. They will give up anything-wealth, power, their own lives-to achieve victory. They are bound in honor and in blood to each other. They are an indomitable foe, particularly since Ansalon is, once again, divided against itself.

"The elves are at war with each other. Qualinesti has a new ruler, a boy, the son of Tanis Half-Elven and the daughter of the late Speaker of the Sun, Laurana. The boy was first tricked and then constrained into accepting the role of king. He is, in reality, little more than a puppet, whose strings are being pulled by some of the old order of elves, isolationists who hate everyone different from themselves. That includes their Silvanesti cousins.

"And because these elves have grown in power, the dwarves of Thorbardin fear attack and are considering sealing shut their mountain once again. The Knights of Solamnia are building their defenses-not in fear of the dark knights, but in fear of the elves. Paladine's Knights have been warned against the dark paladins of evil, but they refuse to believe that the tiger could have altered his stripes, as the saying goes. The Solamnics still believe that evil will turn upon itself, as it did in the War of the Lance, when Dragon Highlord Kitiara ended up battling her own commander, Highlord Ariakus, while the black-robed wizard Raistlin Majere betrayed them both. That will not happen this time.

"The balance is once again shifting in the Dark Queen's favor. But this time, my friends"-the Decider gazed around at his people, his eyes going to each in turn, gathering them all in "-this time, it is my belief that Queen Takhisis will win."

"But what of Paladine? What of Mishakal? We pray to them now as we have done in the past. They protect us." The Protector spoke, but many others were nodding in agreement.

"Did Paladine protect us from the evil knights?" asked the Decider in stern tones. "No. He permitted them to land on our coast."

"They did us no harm," the Protector pointed out.

"Yet," the Decider said ominously, "the gods of good, on whose protection we have so long relied, can do little for us. This terrible incident has proven that. Our magic, their magic, has failed us. It is time we rely on something more powerful."

"You obviously have some idea. Tell us," the Protector said, his voice grim.

"My idea is this: That we use one of the world's most powerful magical artifacts to shield us-once and for all-from outsiders. You know the name of the artifact to which I am referring-the Graygem of Gargath."

"The Graygem is not ours," the Protector said sternly. "It does not belong to us. It belongs to the peoples of the world."

"Not anymore," the Decider stated. "We were the ones who sought out this artifact. We found it. We acquired it and brought it here for safekeeping."

"We stole it," the Protector said. "From a simpleminded fish­erman who found it washed up on the shore, who took it to his house and kept it for its sparkling facets and the delight he took in showing it off to his neighbors. He made no use of it, knew nothing of its magic, cared nothing for its magic. And so, the Graygem could make no use of him. Perhaps he was intended to be its keeper. Perhaps, in taking it from him, we have unwit­tingly thwarted the plans of the gods. Perhaps that is why they have ceased to protect us."

"Some might call what we did theft." The Decider stared very hard at the Protector. "But I say that, in recovering the Graygem, we did the world a favor. This artifact has long been a problem, wreaking havoc wherever it goes. It would have fled the sim­pleton as it has fled so many others before it. But now it is bound by our magic. By holding it here, under our control, we are ben-efitting all of mankind."

"You told us, as I recall, Decider, that the Graygem's magic would protect us from incursion from the outside world. That is not, apparently, the case," the Protector said. "How can you say now that its magic will shield us?"

"I have spent long years studying the Graygem and have recently made an important discovery," the Decider answered. "The force that propels the Graygem, causes it to roam the world, is not peculiar to the stone itself, but is, I believe, hidden inside the stone. The stone is only a container-a vessel-which holds and constrains the power within. This magical force, once released, will undoubtedly prove to be immensely powerful. I propose to the assembly that we crack open the Graygem, release the force within, and use it to protect our homeland."

The Irda were clearly unhappy. They did not like to take action of any kind, preferring to spend their lives in meditation and study. To take such drastic action was almost unthinkable! Yet, they had only to look around them to see the damage done to their beloved homeland, their last refuge from the world.

The Protector ventured a final protest. "If there is a force trapped inside the Graygem, it must, as you say, be very power­ful. Are you certain we can control it?"

"We are able to control the Graygem itself quite easily now. I      j see no difficulty in our controlling this power and using it to defend ourselves."

"But how can you be sure you're controlling the Graygem? Perhaps the Graygem's controlling you, Decider!"

A voice-harsher than the musical tones of the Irda-came from somewhere behind the Protector. The Irda all turned their heads in the voice's direction, drew back so that the speaker could be seen. It was a young woman, a human woman of inde­terminate age, somewhere between eighteen to twenty-five human years. The young woman was, to the eyes of the Irda, an extraordinarily ugly creature. Despite her homely looks-or maybe because of them-the Irda cherished the young woman, doted on her, spoiled her. They had done so for years, ever since she had come-an orphaned infant-to live among them.

Few Irda would have dared make such an impertinent state­ment to the Decider. The young human should know better. All eyes turned disapprovingly to the Irda who had been placed in charge of the human-the man known, for that very reason, as the Protector.

He appeared considerably embarrassed, was speaking to the young woman, apparently endeavoring to convince her to return to their house.

The Decider assumed an expression of extreme patience. "I'm not certain what you mean, Usha, my child. Perhaps you could explain yourself."

The young woman appeared pleased at being the center of so much attention. She shrugged free of the Protector's gently restraining hand, strode forward until she stood in the center of the circle of Irda.

"How do you know the Graygem isn't controlling you? If it was, it wouldn't be likely to tell you, now, would it?" Usha glanced around, proud of her argument.

The Decider conceded this argument, praised the human's cleverness, and carefully kept from smiling. The idea was, of course, ludicrous, but then the girl was human after all.

"The Graygem has been quite submissive since taken into our presence," he said. "It rests on the altar we constructed for it, barely even glimmers. I doubt if it is controlling us, Child. You need have no worries along that line."

No other race on Krynn was as powerful in magic as the Irda. Even the gods-so some of the Irda, the Decider among them, had been known to whisper-were not as powerful. The god Reorx had lost the gem. It was the Irda who had discovered it, taken it, and now held it. The Irda knew the stories of the Graygem's past, how it had spread chaos and havoc wherever it went throughout the world. The Graygem was, so legend had it, responsible for the creation of the races of kender, gnomes, and dwarves. But that was before the Irda had been in charge of the gem. It had been in the care of humans. What could you expect?

The meeting continued, the Irda trying every way possible to wriggle out of this situation without resorting to any sort of drastic action.

Usha soon grew bored-as humans easily do-and told her Protector she was going back to their house to fix dinner. He looked relieved.

Walking away from the meeting, Usha was inclined, at first, to be angry. Her notion was a good one, had been dismissed all too quickly. But being angry took a lot of energy and concentra­tion. She had other matters on her mind. She walked into the wilderness, but not to gather herbs for the evening meal.

She walked instead to the beach. When she reached the shore­line, she stood staring down, fascinated, at the footprints left in the sand by the two young knights. Kneeling down, she rested her hand in one of the prints. It was much bigger than her small hand. The knights had been taller, bigger than she. Picturing them in her mind, a pleasurable and confusing tingle coursed through her body. It was the first time she'd ever seen another human, a human male.

They were ugly, certainly, compared to the Irda, but not as ugly as all that... .

Usha remained on the beach, dreaming, a long, long time.

The Irda reached a decision, decided to leave the matter of the Graygem in the hands of the Decider. He would know how best to handle this situation. Whatever he determined needed to be done would be done. This concluded, they returned to their dwellings, anxious to be alone, to put all this unpleasantness behind them.

The Decider did not return immediately to his dwelling. He summoned three of the eldest of the Irda, drew them apart for a private discussion.

"I did not bring this matter up publicly," the Decider said, speaking softly, "because I knew the pain it would cause our people. But there is one more action we must take in order to ensure our safety. We are immune to the temptations generated by the Graygem, but there is one living among us who is not. You all know of whom I speak."

The others-by their dismayed and forlorn expressions- knew.

The Decider continued. "It grieves me to have to make this decision, but we must cast this person out. You all saw and heard Usha today. Because of her human blood, she is in danger from the Graygem."

"We don't know that for certain." One ventured a meek protest.

"We know the stories," the Decider said sharply. "I investi­gated and discovered them to be true. The Graygem corrupts all humans who come near it, filling them with longings and desires they cannot control. The sons of the war hero Caramon Majere nearly fell victim to it, according to one report. The god Reorx himself had to intervene to save them. The Graygem may have already seized on Usha and is trying to use her to cause dissension among us. Therefore, to ensure her safety as well as ours, Usha must be sent away."

"But we've raised her since she was a baby," another of the elders protested. "This is the only home she has ever known!"

"Usha is old enough now to live on her own, among her own kind." The Decider relaxed his stem tone. "We have commented before on the fact that she is growing restless and bored among us. Our studious, contemplative life is not for her. As do all humans, she requires change in order to grow. We are stifling her. This separation will be as much to her advantage as our own."

"It will be hard, giving her up." One of the elders wiped away a tear, and the Irda do not easily cry. "Especially for the Protector. He dotes on the child."

"I know," said the Decider gently. "It seems cruel, but the swifter we act, the better it will be for all of us, including the Protector. Are we all agreed?"

The Decider's wisdom was honored. He went to tell the Protector. The other Irda hurried back to their separate homes.

3

Farewells. The Protector's Parting Gift.

eave?" Usha stared blankly at the man she had always known as Protector. "Leave the island? When?"

"Tomorrow, Child," said the Protector. He was already going about the small house they shared, gathering up Usha's things, placing them on the bed, preparatory to packing them. "A boat is being readied for you. You are an adept sailor. The boat is magically enhanced. It will not overturn, no matter how rough the seas. If the wind quits, the boat will never lie becalmed, but will sail on, sped by the current of our thoughts. It will carry you safely across the ocean to the human city of Palanthas, which lies almost due south of us. A journey of twelve hours, no more."

"Palanthas . . ." Usha repeated, not truly comprehending, not even knowing what she was saying.

The Protector nodded. "Of all the cities on Ansalon, I think you will find Palanthas most suitable. The population is large and varied. The Palanthians have a greater tolerance for cul­tures other than their own. Oddly enough, this is probably due to the presence of the Tower of High Sorcery and its master, Lord Dalamar. Though a mage of the Order of Black Robes, he is respectful of the-"

Usha didn't hear any more. She knew Prot, knew he was talking out of desperation. A silent, reclusive, mild, and gentle man, those words were the most he'd spoken to her in months, and he was likely speaking these just to comfort both of them. She knew this because, when he picked up a doll with which she'd played as a child, he suddenly ceased talking, drew it to his breast, and held it as he had once held her.

Usha's eyes filled with tears. She turned away swiftly so that he wouldn't see her cry.

"So, I'm being sent to Palanthas, am I? Good. You know I've wanted to leave for a long time now. I have my journey all planned. I was thinking of going to Kalaman, but"-she shrugged her shoulders-"Palanthas will do. One place is as good as another."

She hadn't been thinking of going to Kalaman at all. The city's name was the first that popped into her head. But she

20

made it sound as if she'd planned this trip for years. The truth was, she was frightened. Terribly, horribly frightened.

The Irda know where I was last night! she thought, feeling guilty. They know I was out on the beach. They know what I was thinking, dreaming!

Her dreams had conjured up the images of the knights: their youthful faces, their sweat-damp hair, their strong and supple hands. In her dreams, they had met her, talked to her, swept her away on their dragon-headed ship. They had sworn they loved her; had forsaken the battle and the sword for her. Silly, she knew. How could any man love someone so ugly? But she could dream she was beautiful, couldn't she? Usha blushed hotly to think of her dreams now. She was ashamed of them, ashamed of the feelings they woke inside her.

"Yes, we both know it's time for you to leave," the Protector said, somewhat awkwardly. "We've talked about it before."

True, Usha had talked of leaving for the past three years. She would plan her journey, decide what she would take, even go so far as to set a day. A tentative day, a vague day: "Midsummer's Eve" or "the Time of the Three Moons." The days came and the days left. Usha always remained. The sea was too rough or the weather too cold or the boat inadequate or the omens unfavorable. Her Protector always mildly agreed with her, as he agreed with everything she said and did, and no more was said. Until the next time Usha planned her trip.

"You're right. I was meaning to go anyway," she said, hoping that the quiver in her voice would be taken for excitement. "I'm already half packed."

She swiped a hand over her eyes and turned to face the man who had raised her from infancy. "Whatever are you doing, Prot?" Her childish name for him. "You can't imagine I'm going to Palanthas carrying my doll, do you? Leave it here. It will be company for you while I'm gone. You two can talk to each other until I come back."

"You won't be coming back, Child," said Prot quietly.

He did not look at her, but fondled the well-worn doll. Then, silently, he handed the doll to her.

Usha stared. The quiver formed into a lump, and the lump brought more tears to her eyes. Snatching up the doll, she hurled it across the small room.

"I'm being punished! Punished for speaking my mind! Punished because I'm not afraid of that man! The Decider hates me! You all hate me! Because I'm ugly and stupid and . . . and human! Well!" Usha wiped her tears with the backs of her hands, smoothed her hair, drew in a deep, shaking breath. "I wasn't planning on coming back anyway. Who would want to? Who cares about a dull place where no one talks to anyone for months at a time? Not me! I'll leave tonight! Now! The hell with packing! I don't want anything from you ever! Ever! Ever again!"

She was crying now-crying and watching to see the effect of her tears at the same time. The Protector was gazing at her helplessly, just as he always did whenever she wept. He would give in. He always gave in. He would do anything to placate her, soothe her, give her whatever she wanted. He always had.

The Irda are not accustomed to displaying their own emo­tions, unless such emotions are extraordinarily strong. Consequently, the Irda were baffled by the tempestuous vagaries of human temperament. They could not bear to see anyone in a state of strong emotional throes. It was embarrass­ing, unseemly, undignified. Usha had learned, early on, that tears and tantrums would win her anything she wanted. Her sobs increased in volume; she choked and gulped and secretly exulted. She would not be sent away. Not now.

I will leave! she thought resentfully, but only when I'm good and ready!

She'd reached the painful hiccuping stage and was thinking that it was time to quit and give Prot a chance to humbly apolo­gize for upsetting her, when she heard something astonishing.

The door shutting.

Usha gulped, fumbled for a handkerchief to wipe her eyes. When she could see, she stared around in astonishment.

The Protector was gone. He'd walked out on her.

Usha sat alone in the silent, empty little house that had been hers for however many years had passed since they'd brought her here as a tiny baby. She'd once tried to keep track, marking off the years from the day on which Prot said she'd been born. But she'd quit counting at about thirteen. It had been a game up until then, but at that age-for some reason-the game had become hurtful. No one would tell her much about her parents or why they weren't around. They didn't like to talk about such things. It made them sad every time she brought up the subject.

No one could tell her who she was... only what she wasn't. She wasn't an Irda. And so-in a fit of pique-she'd ceased to mark the years, and when they had started to be important to her again, she'd lost track. Had four or five years passed? Six? Ten?

Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered.

Usha knew then that this time tears wouldn't help.

The next day, around sun's zenith, the Irda came together again-twice in two days, something practically unprecedent­ed in their history-to bid the human "child" good-bye.

Usha was armored by anger now, anger and resentment. Her farewells were distant and formal, as if she were bidding good-bye to some estranged cousin who'd happened to drop in for a visit.

"I don't care."

Those were the words the Protector heard her say-none too softly-to herself. "I'm glad I'm leaving! You don't want me. No one ever did want me. I don't care about any of you. It's not as if you cared about me!"

But the Irda did care. The Protector wished he could tell her that, but such words came with difficulty, if at all. The Irda had grown quite fond of the carefree, singing, laughing child, who had jolted them out of their studious contemplation, forced them to open their sealed and locked hearts. If they had spoiled her-and they had spoiled her, the Protector knew-it had been unintentional. It made them happy to see her happy and, therefore, they had done everything possible to keep her that way.

He was beginning to think-dimly-that this may have been a mistake. The world into which they were shoving her so roughly did not care anything about Usha. Whether she was happy or sad, dead or alive, were not the world's concerns. It occurred to him now-a bit late-that perhaps Usha should have been disciplined, taught to handle such indifference.

But then, he had never truly thought he'd have to set the wild, singing bird free. Now the time was at hand and, although there were no overt displays of emotion, the Irda showed their feelings in the only way in which they knew how--they gave her gifts.

Usha accepted the gifts with ungracious thanks, taking them and stuffing them into a leather pouch without ever giving them so much as a glance. When the giver attempted to explain what the gift did, Usha brushed the explanation aside. She was hurt, deeply hurt, and she intended to hurt every one of them back. The Protector really couldn't blame her.

The Decider made a touching speech, to which Usha lis­tened in stone-cold silence, and then the time was at hand. The tide was right; the wind was right. The Irda murmured their prayers and good wishes. Usha turned her back on them all and stalked away through the forest, heading toward the beach, clutching their gifts tightly against her chest.

"I don't care! I don't care!" she repeated over and over in what the Protector hoped was a strengthening mantra.

He was the only one who accompanied her to the boat. She refused to speak to him, and he was beginning to wonder if perhaps he'd misjudged her. Perhaps she was one of the unfeeling, uncaring humans. About halfway to the beach, when the two of them were alone together in the woods, Usha stumbled to a halt.

"Prot! Please!" She threw her arms around him, hugged him close, a show of affection she hadn't made since she'd left childhood behind. "Don't send me away! Don't make me go! I'll be good! I won't cause any more trouble! I love you! I love you all!"

"I know, Child, I know." The Protector-his own eyes mist­ing over-patted her awkwardly on the back. He had strong memories of doing this for her when she was a baby, cradling her in his arms, trying his best to give her the love her mother would never be able to give.

When Usha's sobs quieted, he held her at arm's length, looked into her eyes.

"Child, I wasn't supposed to tell you this. But I can't let you go, thinking that we don't love you anymore, that you've dis­appointed us in some way. You could never do that, Usha. We love you dearly. I want you to believe that. The truth is ... we are going to work magic-very powerful magic, in an effort to keep the evil knights from returning. I can't explain, but this magic might be harmful to you, Usha, because you are not an Irda. It might endanger you. We are sending you away because we are concerned about your safety."

A lie, perhaps, but a harmless one. In truth, Usha was being sent away because she might endanger the magic. The human, Usha, was the one flaw in the perfect crystalline structure of enchantment the Irda planned to use to contain the power of the Graygem. The Protector knew that this was the true reason the Decider had decreed that Usha be sent away.

Usha sniffed. The Protector wiped her nose and face, as he had done for her when she was a little girl.

"This . . . this magic." Usha swallowed. "It will keep you safe? Safe from the evil?"

"Yes, Child. So the Decider says, and we have no reason to doubt his wisdom."

Another lie. The Protector had now told more lies in this one day than he had in a lifetime that spanned centuries. He was extremely amazed to find he was good at it.

Usha made a feeble attempt at a smile. "Thanks for being honest with me, Prot. I'm ... I'm sorry I was so beastly to the others. You'll tell them for me. Tell how much I'll miss them and how I'll think of you-all of you-every day...." The tears threatened again. She gulped, shook them out of her eyes.

"I'll tell them, Usha. Now, come. Sun and tide wait for no one, or so the minotaur say."

They walked to the beach. Usha was very quiet. She looked dazed, disbelieving, numb.

They reached the boat-a large, two-masted sailboat of minotaur make and design. The boat had been obtained by the Irda several years ago, for use in the acquisition of the Graygem. That task accomplished, the Irda had no more use for the boat and had given the Protector permission to teach Usha how to sail it. Though he had dreaded it, he'd always feared this day must come.

Usha and the Protector carefully stowed her two packs-a small one holding personal items that could be slung over her back, and a larger pouch, which held the Irda's gifts. Usha wore what the Irda deemed sensible clothes, suitable for trav­eling in the heat: pants made of light green silk, loose and flow­ing, gathered around the ankles, held in place by an embroi­dered band; a matching silk tunic, open at the neck, tied around her waist with a gold sash; and a vest of black velvet, hand-embroidered in vibrant colors. A green silk scarf covered her head.

"All those packs . . . You look just like a kender." The Protector attempted a small joke.

"A kender!" Usha forced a laugh. "You've told me stories about them, Prot. Will I get to meet one, do you think?"

"Easier to meet them than to get rid of them. Oh, yes, Child." The Protector smiled at old memories. "You will meet the lighthearted, light-fingered kender. And the grim and dour dwarves, the cunning and crafty gnomes, bold and handsome knights, silver-voiced elves. You'll meet them all. . . ."

As he spoke, the Protector watched Usha's gaze turn from him. She looked out across the sea. The expression on her face altered, no longer dazed, numb. He saw the hunger now, the eagerness to see and hear and taste and touch life. On the hori­zon, white clouds massed, building higher and higher. Usha was seeing not clouds, but cities, white and shining in the sun. He had the feeling that if the ocean had been made of slate, she would have run across it then and there.

The Protector sighed. The human side had seized control of the orphan child at last. Excitement glistened in her eyes; her lips parted. She leaned forward in unconscious yearning, ready-as were all humans-to rush headlong into the future.

He knew, far better than she-for he was one of the few Irda to have walked the world-what dangers Usha, in her inno­cence, faced. He almost warned her; the words were on his lips. He had told her of knights and kender. Now he must speak of cruel draconians, evil goblins, humans with corrupt souls and hearts, dark clerics who committed unspeakable acts in the names of Morgion or Chemosh, black-robed wizards with life-draining rings, rogues, thieves, liars, seducers.

But he didn't tell her. The warnings were never given. He did not have the heart to dim her glow, tarnish her bright radi­ance. She would learn soon enough. Hopefully the gods would watch over her, as it was said they watched over slumbering children, stray animals, and kender.

The Protector helped Usha into the boat. "Magic will guide the craft to Palanthas. All you need do, Child, is keep the set­ting sun on your left cheek. Fear no storm. The boat cannot be capsized. Should the wind die, our magic will be your sea breeze, help speed the boat on its way. Let the waves rock you to sleep. When you awake in the morning, you will see the spires of Palanthas shining in the sun."

Together they raised the sail. All during this process, the Protector was distracted, arguing with himself, trying to reach a decision. At length, he made it.

When the craft was ready to launch, the Protector settled Usha in the stern, repositioning her possessions neatly around her. This done, he drew forth a scroll of parchment tied with a black ribbon. The Protector handed the scroll to Usha.

"What is this?" she asked, regarding it curiously. "A map?"

"No, Child. It is not a map. It is a letter."

"Is it for me? Does it"-her face brightened with hope-

"does it tell me about my father? Why he left me? You promised one day you would explain, Prot."

The Protector flushed deeply, taken aback. "It . . . um . . . does not, Child. You know the story already. What more could I add?"

"You have said he left me after my mother's death, but you never said why. It's because he didn't love me, isn't it? Because I was the cause of my mother's death. He hated me-"

"Where did you ever get that notion, Child?" The Protector was shocked. "Your father loved you dearly. You know what happened. I've told you."

Usha sighed. "Yes, Prot," she said. All their conversations about her parentage ended like this. He refused to tell her the truth. Very well, it didn't matter. She'd find her own truth.

The Protector tapped the letter, anxious to change the sub­ject of their conversation.

"The, missive is not for you, but when you have lost sight of our island, you may open this and read it. The one to whom you are to deliver it may have questions which only you can answer."

Usha regarded the letter with a puzzled expression. "Then who is it for, Prot?"

The Protector was silent a moment, wrestling with himself. Shaking his head to rid himself of doubt, he answered. "There is a powerful wizard who dwells in Palanthas. His name is Dalamar. After you have read this letter, take it to him. It is right that he should know what we plan. In case . . ." He stopped himself, but Usha was quick to catch on.

"In case anything goes wrong! Oh, Prot!" She clung to him, now that the moment of parting was at hand. "I'm afraid!"

You will be, Child, all your life. That is the curse of being human. He leaned over, kissed her on the forehead.

"Your mother's blessing-and your father's-will go with you."

He climbed out of the boat. Pushing the boat off the shore, he sent it skimming over the waves.

"Protector!" Usha cried, reaching out her hand as if to seize him.

But the water, or the magic, or both, carried the boat swiftly away. The lapping of the waves on the shore drowned her words.

The Protector stood on the sandy beach as long as the boat was in sight. Even after the tiny white speck had disappeared over the horizon, he stood there still.

Only when the tide had risen, washed away all trace of Usha's footprints on the sand, did the Protector turn around and leave.

A Letter To Dalamar.

 

sha, alone on the boat, watched the slender form of the Protector grow smaller and smaller, watched the shore of her homeland dwindle to nothing more than a black line across the horizon. When the Protector and the shoreline were out of sight, Usha gave the tiller a shove, to turn the boat around, sail it back.

The rudder would not respond. The wind blew strong and steadily. Irda magic kept the boat sailing toward Palanthas.

Usha cast herself down in the bottom of the boat and indulged in her grief, cried until she nearly made herself sick.

The tears did nothing to ease the pain in her heart. Instead, they gave her the hiccups, caused her eyes to itch and burn, her nose to run. Fumbling for a handkerchief, she found the letter the Protector had given her. She opened it without much enthu­siasm-expecting it to be another justification for getting rid of her-and began to read.

My Usha. You lie asleep as I write this. I look on you-resting peacefully, your arm flung over your head, your hair mussed, the stains of tears on your cheeks-and I am reminded of the child who brought joy and warmth to my life. I miss you already, and you are not even gone!

I know you are hurt and angry at being sent away, alone, like this. Please believe me, my darling child, that I would have never done so had I not been con­vinced that this departure was in your best interests.

The question you raised in the meeting, concerning the Graygem and its control over us, is a question many of us have been asking. We are not certain that breaking the Graygem is the best course of action. We accede to the wisdom of the Decider because, quite frankly, we do not feel that we have any other choice.

The Decider has decreed that no hint of what we are planning should be given to the outside world. In that, I think he is wrong. For too long we have kept ourselves aloof from the world. This has resulted-more than once-in tragedy. My own sister...

At this point, whatever had been written had been blotted over. Prot had never mentioned he had a sister. Where was she? What had happened to her? Usha attempted to decipher the handwriting underneath the blot, but failed. Sighing, she read on. The next part was addressed to Lord Dalamar, master of the Tower of High Sorcery, Palanthas.

Usha skimmed through polite introductions and a descrip­tion of how the Irda had managed to steal the Graygem-a story she'd heard countless times and which she now found boring. She skipped down to the interesting part.

The Graygem rests upon the altar which we have built specially to hold it. At a single glance, the stone seems unpretentious in appearance. Closer examina­tion makes the Graygem more interesting. Its size appears to vary with the beholder. The Decider insists it is as large as a full-grown cat, while I see the stone as the size of a hen's egg.

It is impossible to determine the number of facets. We have all of us counted them and none of us has reached the same conclusion. The numbers do not vary by ones or twos, but are radically different, as if each of us had been counting the facets on a different stone.

We know the gem is chaotic in nature. We know fur­ther that the god Reorx has made many efforts to recapture the Graygem, but that these have always failed. The Graygem is beyond his power to keep. Why, then, are we permitted to keep it?

The Decider's answer to this question is that the god Reorx is a weak god, easily distracted and undisci­plined. That may be true, but I wonder why the other gods have never made any attempt to control the gem. Could it be because they, too, are weak against it? Yet, if the gods are all-powerful, how can this be possible? Unless the Graygem itself possesses a magical power far stronger than that of the gods.

If that is so, the Graygem is immensely more pow­erful than we are. And this means that the Graygem is not under our control. It is tricking us, using us-to what end or purpose, I do not know. But I fear it.

That is why I have included a copy of the history of the creation of the world and of the Graygem, as we Irda know it. You will find, my lord Dalamar, that it differs considerably from other recorded histories, and that is one reason why I deem it essential that this information reach the Conclave of Wizards. Perhaps some clues in regard to the Graygem may be gleaned from this account.

"Irda history!" Usha sighed and almost rolled the letter back up. "I've heard this enough times! I know it by heart!"

She had learned to read and write the Irda language and also the language known as Common, which the Irda never spoke among themselves, but which was deemed useful for her to know. Though she'd been good at her lessons, Usha had not par­ticularly enjoyed learning. Unlike the studious Irda, she pre­ferred doing things to reading about doing things.

But she had nothing to do now except whimper and whine and feel sorry for herself. Leaning over the bulwarks, she dipped her handkerchief into the seawater, bathed her hot face and fore­head, and felt better. And so, to keep her mind off her sorrow, she continued reading-bored, at first-but gradually becoming enthralled. She could hear Prot's voice in the words and was, once again, seated at the small table, listening to his account of the creation of the world.

According to our ancestors,* the three gods as we now know them, Paladine, Takhisis, and Gilean, dwelt together on the immortal plane. These three were sib­lings, having been born of Chaos, Father of All and of Nothing. Paladine was the eldest son, conscientious, responsible. Gilean was the middle child, studious and contemplative. Takhisis was the only daughter, the youngest child and, some say, the favorite. She was restless, ambitious, and bored.

She wanted power, wanted to rule over others. She tried but could not gain ascendance over her brothers. Paladine was too strong-willed, Gilean oblivious. And

*It will be noted by Krynnish scholars that the legend of creation related by the Protector differs in some respects from the legends of creation related by other races. This is natural, considering that each race considers itself central in the universe. The dwarves, for example, refuse to admit that they were created by the confusion caused by Graygem. They maintain that they are Reorx's cre­ation. Many elves believe that they are the one true race and that other races are mere ink blots on Gilean's Great Book. The Irda are, however, the race in possession of the longest unbroken history of Krynn and therefore we consid­er that their account probably comes closest to the actual events.

 

thus we Irda believe that it was at the instigation of Takhisis that the world of Krynn and all life on this plane came into being.

Takhisis can be quite charming and clever when she wants. She went to her two elder brothers with the idea of creating a world and spirits to dwell within it. To Paladine she laid stress on how these spirits would bring order to the otherwise chaotic universe. Paladine had long been troubled by the fact that their lives had no purpose, no meaning. He and his consort, Mishakal, were pleased with the idea of change, and gave their consent.

"Of course, you have spoken to Father about this," Paladine said. "You have obtained his permission."

"Oh, of course, my dear brother," Takhisis replied.

Paladine must have known that his sister lied, but he was so eager to order the universe that he closed his eyes to the truth.

Takhisis then went to Gilean. She spoke to him of the opportunities for study, a chance to see how beings other than themselves would react in various situa­tions.

Gilean found this notion intriguing. Having no con­sort (we have no record on what happened to her), Gilean consulted with Zivilyn, a god who came from one of the other immortal planes, simply referred to as Beyond. Zivilyn is said to exist in all planes at all times.

Zivilyn looked ahead and he looked behind. He looked to his left and to his right. He looked up and he looked down and finally pronounced the idea a good one.

Gilean, therefore, agreed.

"You have, of course, mentioned this matter to Father," Gilean asked, as an afterthought, not even bothering to look up from his book.

"Certainly, my dear brother," Takhisis returned.

Gilean knew that Takhisis lied-Zivilyn had warned him she would. But the opportunity for knowledge was too great a temptation, so Gilean closed his eyes to the truth.

Having obtained agreement from her brothers, Takhisis put her plan into action.

There lived, in Beyond, a god known as Reorx.

Nothing much is known about his past, although there are rumors that some terrible tragedy occurred, which led him to shun the company of other immortals. He dwelt alone on his plane, at his forge, spending his time creating things beautiful and horrific, wondrous and terrible. His delight was in the creation. He had no use for any of the objects he made and, once they were finished, he simply tossed them away. We see them still. One will occasionally fall to the ground. They are known as shooting stars.

Takhisis went to Reorx and praised his creations.

"But what a pity," she said, "that you should throw them away! I have in mind a plan. You will create something that will not bore you, but will offer you new challenges every day of your immortal life. You will create a world and populate this world with spir­its, and you will teach these spirits all the skills that you know."

Reorx was captivated at the thought. At last, his endless creating would have some use, some benefit. He readily agreed.

"You have cleared this with the Father?" he asked Takhisis.

"I would have never come to you otherwise/' she responded.

Reorx-simple and guileless-had no idea that Takhisis was lying.

The gods gathered together: Paladine, Mishakal, and their children; Gilean and his only natural daugh­ter, along with his adopted children; and Takhisis, her consort, Sargonnas, and their children. Reorx arrived, set up his forge, and-in the midst of the dark and endless night of Chaos-he placed a chunk of red-hot, molten metal and struck the first blow with his ham­mer.

At that moment, the two brothers were forced to open their eyes.

Takhisis had not consulted Chaos, Father of All and of Nothing. Well aware that he would be opposed to her plan to bring order to the universe, she had delib­erately kept her plot secret from him. And there is no doubt that her brothers knew it.

Chaos could have destroyed his children and their plaything then and there, but-as parents will-he decided it would be better to teach them a lesson.

"You will indeed create order," he thundered, "but I will see to it that order will breed discord, both among you and among those who will dwell in your world."

Nothing could be done to alter what had taken place. Sparks from Reorx's hammer had already become the stars. Light from the stars had given birth to living spirits. Reorx himself forged a world wherein these spirits could dwell.

And it was then that Chaos's curse was made man­ifest.

Takhisis wanted the newly made spirits under her control, intending to order them about and force them to do her bidding. Paladine wanted the spirits under his control, intending to nurture them and lead them in the paths of righteousness. Gilean could see no advan­tage to either-in an academic sense. He wanted the spirits to remain free, to choose whatever path they would walk. Thus, the world would be much more interesting.

The siblings quarreled. Their children and gods from the other planes were drawn into the battle. The All-Saints War began.

The Father of All and of Nothing laughed, and his laughter was terrible to hear.

At length, Paladine and Gilean realized that the bat­tle might well destroy all of creation. They allied forces against their sister and, though they could not achieve total victory, they at least forced her to come to terms. She reluctantly agreed that all three should rule the new world together, maintaining a balance between them. Thus they hoped to end the curse cast on them by their Father, Chaos.

The three gods decided that each of them would give the spirits gifts that would enable them to live and prosper in the new-formed world.

Paladine gave the spirits the need to control. Thus they would work to gain control over their surround­ings and bring order to the world.

Takhisis gave the spirits ambition and desire. Not only would the spirits control the world, but they would seek constantly to make it better-and to better

themselves.

Gilean gave the spirits the gift of choice. Each would have the freedom to make his or her own decisions. No one god would possess absolute power.

All these gifts were good, none of them bad - unless each is taken to extremes. The need to control, taken to extremes, leads to fear of change, suppression of new ideas, intolerance of anything different.

Ambition, taken to extremes, leads to the determi­nation to seize power at all costs, enslavement. Desires can become obsessions, leading to greed, lust, avarice, and jealousy.

Freedom - taken to extremes - is anarchy.

The spirits achieved physical form, springing from the imaginations of the gods. From Paladine's mind came the elves - his ideal race. They delight in control­ling the physical world, shaping it to their will. They live long, change little.

Takhisis imagined a race of supremely beautiful creatures, all as ambitious and selfish as herself. These were the ogres and, as their hungers increased, their beauty was consumed. But they are immensely strong and very powerful.

We, the Irda, might be said to be creations of Takhisis, for we were the original ogres. We saw what was happening to our people, and some of us turned to Paladine, begged for his help. He enabled us to break away from the Dark Queen, but the cost was dear. We could not live in proximity to other races, lest we should succumb to temptation and fall once again. We would be an isolated, lonely people, delighting in our isolation, perpetuating our own loneliness. Even coming together to produce progeny would be diffi­cult for us, and so our people would never be numer­ous. All these conditions we accepted in order to escape the fate of our brethren. And therefore the world knows nothing of us - or what they do know is false.

Gilean imagined into being the race of humans. They have the shortest life span, are the quickest to change, and are easily swayed to one side or the other.

The Father, for his own amusement and to increase the likelihood of turmoil, created the animals. He

DRAQONLANCE CljHONicIes

greatly irritated his children by giving many of the ani­mals advantages; chief among these being the dragons, who possess wisdom, intelligence, long life, magic, strength, and formidable weapons.

Since the arrival of dragons upon Krynn, the other mortal species have either fought the dragons or endeavored to ally with them.

Thus there came about the creation of balance in the world. The elves thought of themselves as the embod­iment of "good," while the ogres were the epitome of "evil." (It is interesting to note that, in the ogre view of the world, this is entirely opposite. It is the ogres who see themselves as "good," the elves and those like them, who advocate the extermination of the ogre race, as "evil.") Humans, in the middle, could be moved to join either side and did so - constantly.

Thus it is the humans, in whose blood mingle all the gifts of the gods- the need to exert control, ambition, desires, and the freedom of choice to use these in ben­eficial or detrimental ways - who race forward through time, creating, changing, altering, destroying. This is called progress.

It was also during this time that magic came into the world. Three of the children of the gods had grown up together and been unusually close: Solinari, son of Paladine and Mishakal; Nuitari, son of Takhisis and Sargonnas, and Lunitari, daughter of Gilean. All the gods possess the power of magic, but in these three that power was enhanced by their love for magic and their dedication to this art. This formed a bond between them, who were unlike in almost all other aspects.

When the All-Saints War occurred, these three were under pressure from their various parents to join one side or the other. The three cousins feared that the war would destroy the thing they loved most: magic. They took a vow to be true to the magic, faithful to each other, and they left the pantheon of the gods. Assuming mortal form, they walked the face of Krynn.

Each cousin found a follower among the mortals and to that follower each gave the gift of magic. This gift could be passed on to other mortals, and those mortals could, in times of need, call upon the three gods for assistance. Then the three cousins left Krynn, yet remained near it, circling in the heavens, watching over with unblinking eyes the mortals who use their gifts. Mortals know these "eyes" as Krynn's three moons: the silver Solinari, the red Lunitari, and the unseen (except by his followers) Nuitari.

We Irda possess immensely strong magical powers, but we are not certain from whence the power emanates. We are not aligned with the wizards of Krynn and are, in fact, considered "renegades." You see us as a threat, a danger to your orders. Our magic is one of the many reasons we shun contact with other species. Magic is crucial to our survival. Every Irda is born with it. Magic is in our blood, so to speak, and comes as naturally to us as do the other senses: seeing, smelling, hearing, touching, tasting. Are we asked to explain how we see? I see no reason for the world to demand that we explain how we perform what are, in their eyes, miracles.

To continue with the history of creation.

The new world was young and wild, as were the spirits of the mortals inhabiting it. The elves worked hard and subdued their part of the world. The ogres learned to adapt to theirs. Humans sought to craft their part and improve on it. Reorx - a lonely god - offered to assist them. It is said that the only time Reorx is truly happy is when he is mingling and interfering in the lives of mortals.

Reorx taught a group of humans innumerable skills, which included the technique of forging steel. The elves and ogres both coveted the metal, which neither of them knew how to produce. They came to the humans to buy steel swords, knives, tools. The humans grew immensely proud of their abilities and began to flaunt them. They forgot - in their pride - to honor Reorx, their teacher. They even shunned the god when he came among them, laughing at him because he was far shorter than they, ridiculing his interest in the very craft by which they were gaining so much wealth.

Infuriated, Reorx cursed these humans. He took from them the skills he had taught them, left them only with the desire to invent, build, construct. He decreed that these humans should be short, wizened, and ridiculed by other races. He changed them into gnomes.

During this time, known as the Age of Twilight, the balance of the world-which had been relatively sta­ble-began to shift. No longer content with what they had, humans began to covet what their neighbors had. The ogres, incited by Takhisis, wanted power. The elves wanted to be left alone and were ready to fight to preserve their isolation.

Hiddukel was one of the gods of Beyond brought to this plane by Takhisis to increase her hold on humans. Hiddukel is a deal maker. He loves to deal and barter and is extremely good at it. He saw in the hiring of the scales of balance a way to increase his own power. War would be good for business, bringing about increased production of weapons, armor, food to feed the armies, and so forth. Since he was also a trader in the souls of the dead, Hiddukel could see a handsome profit to be made in that area as well.

Hoping to further the turmoil, Hiddukel went to Chislev, goddess of woodlands and nature, and-in bis best persuasive manner-convinced her that doom was at hand.

"It's only a matter of time before war breaks out," he said dolefully. "And what will that do to the environ­ment? Forests chopped down to make siege towers, saplings turned into bows and arrows, fields scav­enged or set ablaze. We need to put a stop to this feud­ing among the races, once and for all. For the sake of nature, of course."

"And what's your stake in all this?" Chislev demanded. "I can't believe you are interested in the welfare of baby bunnies."

"No one gives me credit for having a heart," Hiddukel complained.

"That's because it's difficult to see beneath the oil slick of your words," Chislev retorted.

"If you must know, war would be extremely upset­ting to the financial markets. The value of gold would plunge; it would be practically worthless. Farmers can't get their goods to market if the markets are being invaded. And I'm very fond of rabbits."

"In stews, maybe." Chislev sighed. "Yet, you do have a point. I've seen the growing restlessness among the races, and I've been concerned about it myself. I've spoken to Gilean, but you know what that's like! He never looks up from that book. He's always writing, writing, writing."

"Try to get a word in with Takhisis." Hiddukel sniffed. "Either she's off with Sargonnas, watching minotaur bash each other over the head or she's bring­ing on plagues, famine, floods, what have you. She hasn't time for the likes of us anymore."

"What do you suggest we do? I take it you have a plan."

"Don't I always, my tree-hugging friend? If neutral­ity were the ruling force in the world, then the balance would remain constant, never shift. Agreed?"

, "I suppose," Chislev said cautiously, not trusting Hiddukel, but unable to argue the point. "But I don't see - "

"Ah! Go to Reorx. Ask him to create a gem that will hold within it the very essence of neutrality. This gem will serve as an anchor to the neutral position. Neutrality will become the strongest force in Krynn, overwhelming the two opposite extremes. They'll be bound to the cen­ter, will not be able to deviate far from it."

"And what do we do with this gem once it's creat­ed. Give it to you for safekeeping?" Chislev was a gen­tle goddess, but she had a tendency to be sarcastic, especially around Hiddukel.

"Heavens no!" Hiddukel was appalled. "I wouldn't want such a responsibility! Give it to one of your own number to keep. That would be most sensible, wouldn't it?"

Chislev regarded Hiddukel intently, but he met her scrutiny with the utmost innocence, exhibiting sincere anxiety over the fate of the world. It is said that Queen Takhisis herself has lost in many deals with Hiddukel.

The result of this conversation was that Chislev left her forest and wandered the world in mortal form. What she saw disturbed her greatly. Steel forges burned angry red in the night; elves polished their newly attained swords; humans counted their money; ogres practiced lopping off heads. Grieved, Chislev determined that something must be done.

Chislev considered discussing this matter with her consort, Zivilyn, the god who can see all planes, all times, future and past. But Chislev knew from experi­ence that it was difficult getting a straight "yes" or "no" answer from Zivilyn, who was always making up his mind to do one thing, then-seeing it from another angle-changing his mind to do something else-see­ing that from another angle-and changing his mind again until he finally ended up doing nothing at all.

This matter need action, and Chislev decided to take it. She went to Reorx herself.

None of the gods ever visited Reorx, one reason he spent so much of his time chumming around with humans. He was amazed and pleased to have a visitor, particularly a visitor of such delicate beauty and sweet temperament as Chislev.

She, in turn, was overwhelmed by the attention Reorx paid to her, as he bustled about his disorderly dwelling, preparing cakes, stumbling over the furni­ture, losing the teapot, offering her anything in the uni­verse she wanted to eat.

Chislev suffered a twinge of guilt, for she saw the god's loneliness, and reproached herself for having neglected him. Vowing to visit more often in the future, Chislev drank her tea and presented her request.

Reorx was only too happy to comply. She wanted a gem? She should have a gem. A hundred gems! The finest in the universe.

Chislev, blushing, replied that she wanted only one gem, a plain gem, a gem that would hold within it the essence of neutrality.

Reorx stroked his beard, frowned in thought. "And what would that be, exactly?"

Chislev was somewhat perplexed. "Why, the essence of neutrality would be ... well. . ."

"Chaos?" Reorx suggested.

Chislev considered the matter, glancing about some­what fearfully lest the Father of All and of Nothing- the embodiment of Chaos-should overhear. "Could we capture a small part, do you suppose? Not much. Just enough to anchor neutrality in this world."

"Consider it done, Madam," Reorx said with mag-nificent aplomb. "Where shall I deliver this gem?"

Chislev had long pondered this matter. "Give it to Lunitari. She is closest to the world. She is continually involved with the mortals and their doings. She will be the best to hold it."

Reorx agreed. He kissed her hand, fell over an ottoman, upset his teacup, and, face flushed, left immediately for his forge.

Chislev, relieved of her worries, returned thankfully to her forest.

How Reorx managed to capture and encapsulate a bit of Chaos into the gem is not known. But, according to what happened later, he was obviously able to do so. He produced what he called the "Graygem" and, when it was finished, took it to Lunitari for safekeep­ing. She was attracted to the gem immediately, and set the gem in the center of the red moon. She rarely let it out of her sight, for the stone had the strange effect of causing all who looked upon it to covet it.

This included, unfortunately, the gem's creator, Reorx. Once he'd given the stone to Lunitari, Reorx was disconcerted to discover that he dreamed of the gem nightly. He regretted having parted with it. He went to Lunitari and humbly requested that she give it back.

Lunitari refused. She, too, dreamed of it nightly and liked to wake to see it shining in the red moon.

Reorx fretted and fumed and at last hit upon a way to retrieve the Graygem for himself. Assuming mortal form, Reorx appeared among the race he had created, the gnomes. He chose one gnome, whose inventions had been least destructive to life, limb, and property values, and showed this gnome - in a dream - the Graygem.

Of course, the gnome wanted the gem more than anything else on Krynn, with the possible exception of a multiheaded, steam-driven screwdriver. The latter being unattainable (stuck in committee), the gnome decided to capture the Graygem. How he went about it is told in other stories, but the recovery effort involved a magical ladder, various winches and pul­leys, a magical net, and a bit of a boost from Reorx.

Suffice it to say, the gnome captured the Graygem, removing it in a magical net while Lunitari was on the other side of the world.

"Just the thing," the gnome said, eyeing the stone with admiration, "to power my rotating blade combi­nation pickle slicer and beard trimmer." The gnome was about to put the stone into the invention when Reorx appeared, in the guise of a fellow gnome, and demanded it for himself.

The two quarreled and, during the argument, the Graygem slipped out of its net and escaped.

This was the first indication that there was more to the Graygem than Reorx or Lunitari or the gnome or anyone else had imagined.

Reorx watched in astonishment as the gem sailed away through the air. He chased after it (so did the gnome and a host of his relations), but none was able to capture it. The Graygem rampaged around Krynn, leaving havoc in its wake. It altered animals and plants, affected the spell-casting of wizards, and made a considerable nuisance of itself.

All the gods were now aware of the Graygem. Paladine and Takhisis were both furious with Reorx for having forged it without consulting them first. Chislev shamefacedly admitted her part in the scheme, implicating Hiddukel, who shrugged and laughed uproariously.

His plot had worked. Instead of ensuring the bal­ance, the Graygem had further upset it. The elves were planning to go to war with the humans, the humans were preparing to go to war against the elves, and the ogres were eager to fight all comers.

To draw this story swiftly to a close, a human named Gargath managed to capture the Graygem. He imprisoned it inside his castle with various magical devices. (Or so he thought. I am of the opinion that the Graygem permitted itself to be captured, for no human magic that I have encountered would have held it for long.)

The gnomes, who had been chasing after the Graygem for decades, laid siege to Gargath's castle. They succeeded (accidentally) in breaking through the walls. The gnomes rushed into the courtyard and laid eager hands on the Graygem. One party of gnomes demanded that the stone be cut open on the spot, for they were intensely curious to know what was inside.

The other party of gnomes wanted to take the gem back to their dwelling place and hoard it for its value.

A brilliant gray fight illuminated the courtyard, blinding everyone. When people could see once again, they found the two groups of gnomes fighting each other. But what was most astonishing, the gnomes were gnomes no longer. The power of the Graygem had altered them, changing those who lusted after the stone for wealth into dwarves and those who wanted the stone out of curiosity into kender.

Those gnomes who had remained outside the walls of the castle, working on their latest invention-the revolving, mass-firing crossbow, known as the Catling Crossbow, for its inventor, Loosenut Catling-proved immune to the effects of the Graygem's magical light. They assumed it came from the oil-burning candelabra, which was intended to illuminate the battlefield at night and had been sent up in a gas-filled balloon for that pur­pose-the gas being produced by a new technique too complex to be described here, but which required lemon juice, metal prongs, and water. Those who survived the subsequent explosion remained gnomes.

The Graygem vanished over the horizon. Reorx and others have made various attempts to capture it. The Graygem permits people to catch it. The gem uses them for its own purposes-or perhaps amusement- then, when it tires of the sport, it releases them. The Graygem "escapes."

But now we Irda have the Graygem in our posses­sion. We are the first to subdue it to our will-or so the Decider claims. This night, he will break open the gem and command the magic within to protect us and our homeland from the incursion of humankind forevermore.

That ended the letter to Dalamar, which was penned in Profs neat, exact handwriting. A note at the bottom, written in the same hand, but less neat, as if the hand had been trembling, was for Usha herself.

My love and prayers go with you, child of my heart, if not of my body. Pray for us.

Usha thought long on the postscript. She had laughed over parts of the history. The Protector had often entertained her with "gnome stories," as he called them. Some of the few times she'd seen him smile were when he was describing the gnomes' fan­tastical machinery. She smiled now, remembering it, but her smile slid slowly away.

Could only her human mind see the danger?

No, she realized, Prot saw it, he knew it. That was why he had given her the scroll. The Irda were desperate. The intrusion of the strangers-uncouth, barbaric, smelling of blood and steel- had frightened them badly. They were acting in defense of a way of life they had known for countless generations.

Usha dropped the letter into her lap. Her eyes filled with tears, but now they were no longer tears of self-pity. They were tears of longing and love for the man who had raised her. Such tears spring from a different source-or so the elves believe. Such tears come from the heart, and, though caused by pain, they have the strange effect of soothing pain.

Exhausted, lulled by the rocking motion of the boat and the humming of the wind among the ropes, Usha cried herself to sleep.

44

 

                 5

The Altar and The GrayGem.

The Dwarf Arrives Late.

Cracking Open The Stone.

he Irda did not come together again. When the time came for the breaking of the Graygem-a time when none of the moons was visible in the sky, particularly not Lunitari, who, so legend had it, still coveted the gem-the Decider alone walked to the altar on which the stone rested.

The other Irda remained in their separate dwellings, each working his or her own magic, each lending aid to the Decider. There was strength in aloneness, or so the Irda believed. Concentration became muddled, energies fragmented, when the one became many.

The altar on which the Irda had placed the stone was locat­ed in the geographic center of the isle. The altar was some dis­tance from what the Irda termed a village, though to any other race it would have been nothing but a scattered collection of dwellings. The Irda did not pave streets, they did not open markets, they attended no guild meetings. They did not con­struct temples or palaces, inns or taverns, nothing but houses, flung around the isle at random, each built where its owner felt most comfortable.

The altar was fashioned of polished wood carved with intri­cate, arcane symbols. It stood in a glade surrounded by seven gigantic pine trees, which had been magically transported from a secret location on Ansalon to this isle.

So old were these trees that they had likely seen the Graygem pass by the first time it escaped Reorx's control. The pines appeared to be intent on not letting the Graygem escape again. The pines' boughs were intertwined, linked together, presenting a solid front of bark and needle and limb and branch through which even a god might have difficulty in passing.

The Decider stopped in front of the grove of seven pine trees, asked a blessing of the seven spirits who dwelt in the trees.

The pines permitted the Decider to enter the glade, closed up their ranks the moment he was inside. Their massive boughs extended over his head. Looking up, he could not see a single star, much less a constellation. He could not see Takhisis or Paladine. And if he could not see them, he was hopeful they could not see him. The needle canopy of the sacred pines would hide the Decider and the Graygem from any who might try to interfere.

The grove would have been impenetrably dark but for the light cast by the Graygem itself, though the light was feeble, sullen, barely a glimmer.

Almost as if it were sulking, thought the Decider.

But the stone gave light enough to see by. The Decider really didn't need such light. He could have called upon his magic to illuminate the grove as bright as day, had he wanted to, but he preferred not to call attention to what he was doing. Some immortal eye might see that magical glow and wonder what was going on. He was thankful, therefore, for the Graygem's assistance.

Centered, calm, the Decider moved to stand beside the altar. He reveled in being alone, in the solitude the Irda so highly prized. Yet he felt within him the minds and spirits of his peo­ple. He bowed his head and drew on that energy. Then, reaching out, he picked up the Graygem in both hands and studied it intently.

The stone was not pleasant to hold. It was sharp and smooth, warm and cold, and it seemed to writhe in his grasp. As he held it, the gray light began to pulse stronger and stronger, until it started to hurt his eyes. He increased his mental control over the Graygem, and the light lessened, became subdued. The Decider ran his fingers over the gem, gliding over the smooth facets, tracing along each sharp edge, searching, probing. At last, he found what he sought, what he'd discovered the first time he'd handled the gem, what had given him the idea.

A flaw. More precisely, an occlusion. He had felt it first, before he'd seen it. Just as insects can be found in amber, some type of for­eign matter had apparently been trapped within the Graygem dur­ing its formation. Most likely this had occurred as the gem cooled, minerals precipitated, were caught in the complex crystallization. At least, mat is what the Decider theorized. The foreign substance itself was not important. What was important was that here was an area of weakness. Here, at this point, cracks would form.

The Decider replaced the gem upon the altar. The arcane sym­bols that had been carved into the wood wove a spell, held the Graygem enthralled.

The Decider, assisting the spell, had the odd impression that the magic was not necessary, that the Graygem was resting on the altar because it wanted to rest there, not because it was being held there.

This impression was not particularly reassuring. The Decider needed to be in control of the gem, not the other way around. He strengthened the magic.

The gem was now surrounded by a sparkling net of Irda syn­ergy. The Decider picked up two tools-a hammer and a spike. Both were made of silver, crafted in the light of the silver moon, Solinari. Magical incantations had been laid over the tools and on them. The Decider placed the spike's tip at the place of the gem's flaw. He positioned the spike carefully, grasped it firmly, raised the small hammer above it.

The thoughts of all the Irda came together, flowed into the Decider, gave him strength and power.

He hit the spike a sharp blow with the hammer.

On the beach, several leagues from the Irda village and the altar, a boat had landed. This boat had not sailed across the seas in the usual manner of boats. It had sailed down from the heav­ens, its originating point a red star-the only red star in the skies. A dwarf, with a full, curly black beard and hair, sat in the boat-an astonishing sight, if anyone had been watching, for no dwarf living on Ansalon or anywhere else in Krynn had ever sailed a boat out of the stars. The Irda were not watching, how­ever. Their eyes were closed, their thoughts centered on the Graygem.

The dwarf, grumbling and talking to himself, climbed out of the boat and promptly sank almost ankle-deep in the shifting sands. Cursing, the dwarf slogged on, heading for the woods.

"So these are the thieves," he muttered into his beard. "I might have known it. No one else could have kept my treasure hidden from me for so long. I'll have it back, though. Paladine or no Paladine, they will return it to me or, by my beard, my name isn't Reorx!"

A chiming sound, as of metal striking against metal, rang through the night.

Reorx paused, cocked his head. "Strange. I didn't know the Irda practiced the fine art of metal forging." He stroked his beard. "Perhaps I've underestimated them."

Another ringing sound. Yes, it was most definitely the sound made by the blow of a hammer. But it lacked the deep resonance of an iron hammer and not even the dwarf could convince him­self that the Irda had suddenly taken an interest in making horseshoes and nails. Silversmithing, perhaps. Yes, it was the sound made by silver.

Teapots, then, or fine goblets. Jewelry maybe. The dwarf's eyes glistened. Working with sparkling gems, setting them into the metal...

Gems.

One gem. A hammer blow ...

Fear shook Reorx, a fear such as he had not known on this plane of existence. He endeavored to penetrate the shadows. The god's eyesight was keen. He could see, on a fine night, a steel coin that had been carelessly dropped on the streets of a town in a country on a continent of a distant star. But he could not penetrate the darkness of the grove of pine trees. Something blocked his view.

Trembling, the dwarf stumbled forward, his terror clutching at him with cold, sweaty hands. He had only the vaguest idea what he feared, a fear enhanced by a certain suspicion that had been niggling at his mind for centuries. He'd never admitted to it, never openly explored it, for the possibility was too dreadful to contemplate. He'd certainly never told any of his fellow immortals.

Reorx considered calling on Paladine, Takhisis, and Gilean for aid, but that would mean explaining to them what he was afraid he might have done, and there was always the chance that he could halt the Irda in their madness. No one would ever be the wiser.

And there was always the chance that he was wrong, that he was worrying about nothing.

The dwarf increased his speed. He could see a flicker of gray light now.

"You can't hide from me long," he cried out, and barreled ahead.

Keeping his gaze fixed on the light, Reorx didn't pay much attention to his immediate surroundings. He crashed headlong through bushes, tripped over exposed tree roots, slipped on wet grass. He thumped and thudded and made noise enough for an army. The noise disturbed the Irda in their concentration. They thought it was an army-the return of the black-armored knights-and that increased their fear and desperation. They urged the Decider to hurry.

The dwarf reached the grove of pine trees. The gray light welled out from the center; he could see it shining sullenly through the intertwined branches. Reorx searched for a place to enter, but the pines stood as close as soldiers drawn up in battle formation, shields held up to present a solid wall against the enemy. They would not permit even the god to enter. Panting and cursing in frustration, Reorx ran round and round the grove, seeking a way inside.

The silver ringing increased in intensity. The gray light dimmed a bit with each blow, then shone brighter.

Reorx was certain he knew what was happening, and his ter­ror grew with his certainty. He tried shouting out for the Irda to stop, but the ringing hammer blows drowned out his cries. At last, he gave up yelling, quit running.

Panting, sweat dripping from his hair and beard, he pointed at two of the largest pine trees and cried, in a voice that was like a blast of wind, "I swear by the red light of my forge that I will shrivel your roots and wither your limbs and send worms to eat your nuts if you do not let me pass!"

The pines shuddered. Their limbs creaked. Needles fluttered down all around the furious dwarf. An opening appeared, bare­ly large enough for him to squeeze through.

The rotund god sucked in his breath, wedged his body between the trunks, and struggled and heaved and, eventually, with a gasp, burst out the ather side. And just at that moment, just as he staggered out into the glade, blinking in the brighten­ing light, the Decjoer nit the spike a seventh sharp blow.

A crack that was like the rending of the world split the night. The gray lignt of the gem flared brilliantly. Reorx, accustomed to Staring into his forge fire, the light of which shone in the heav­ens as a red star, could not bear it and was forced to shut his eyes. The Decider screamed and clutched his head. Moaning in agony, he slumped to the ground. The altar, on which the gem had rested, split asunder.

And then, the light blinked out.

The dwarf risked opening his eyes.

The altar where the Graygem rested was now dark. Not a nat­ural, normal darkness, but a terrible, foreboding darkness.

Reorx recognized the darkness; he'd been born of it.

He tried to move forward, with some wild and panicked idea of repairing the damage, but his boots weighed more than the world he had once forged. He tried to cry out a warning to the other gods, but his tongue was made of iron, would not move in his mouth. There was nothing he could do, nothing except tear at his beard in frustration and wait for what was coming.

The darkness began to coalesce, take shape and form. It took the shape of mortal man, not in homage-as do the gods when they take man-shape-but in savage mockery. It was man enlarged, engorged. A giant emerged from the darkness, grew and grew until he stood taller than the pine trees.

He was clad in armor made of molten metal. His hair and beard were crackling flame. His eyes, pits of darkness. And in their depths burned rage.

Reorx sank, shivering, to his knees.

"Himself!" the dwarf whispered in awe.

The giant roared in triumph. He stretched up his arms, broke through the boughs of the pines as if they were made of straw. His fingertips brushed the clouds, tore them into rags. The stars, the constellations, glittered in terror.

"Free! Free from that wretched prison at last! Ah, my beloved children!" The giant spread wide his arms, gazed up at the stars, which quivered before him. "I have come to visit you! Where is your welcome for your father?" He laughed aloud.

Reorx was in such terror as he had never before known, but he was not scared witless. Greatly daring, while the giant's attention was focused upward, the dwarf crawled on hands and knees to the shattered altar.

In the wreckage lay the Graygem, broken, split in two. Nearby was the Irda who had cracked it open. Reorx put his hand on the Irda to find a pulse. The mortal still lived, but he was unconscious.

Reorx could do nothing to save the Irda; the dwarf would be lucky if he was able to save himself. Something had to be done to stave off calamity, though just exactly what and how, Reorx had no idea. Hastily, he caught up the two halves of the Graygem, shoved the fragments beneath the wreckage of altar, covered them with bits of wood. Then he scuttled backward, as far from the altar as he could get.

The giant, sensing movement, glanced down to find the dwarf attempting to burrow into the roots of the pine trees.

"Trying to escape me, Reorx? You puny, wretched imp of a thankless god!"

The giant leaned down near the cowering dwarf. Cinders from the giant's beard drifted among the pine trees. Tendrils of smoke began to rise from the dried pine needles on the ground.

"You thought you were quite clever, imprisoning me, didn't you, Worm?"

Reorx cast a nervous glance upward. "As ... as it so happens, revered Father of All-"

"Father of All and of Nothing," the giant corrected with an ominous emphasis on the latter.

Reorx was shaken, but he stammered on. "It... it was a bit of an accident. I was forging the stone, intending to capture just a tiny wee portion of chaos, when-and I'm still not certain how this happened-but it seems I ended up capturing Yourself."

"And why didn't you free me then?"

The heat of the Father's anger beat on the dwarf. He coughed in the thickening smoke.

"I would have!" Reorx gasped with desperate sincerity. "Believe me, Father of All, I would have freed you then and there, had I known what I had done. But I didn't. I swear! I-"

"Fool!" The Father's rage set the grass all around the dwarf ablaze. "You and my thankless children conspired to imprison me. Am I to be captured by one puny god? It took the powers of all of you combined to hold me captive. But, though you had captured me, you couldn't control me. I did damage enough to your precious toys. And all the while I searched for one of your puppets, who could be tricked into freeing me. And finally I found him."

The giant cast a glance at the Decider. Casually he placed his huge, booted foot on the man's body and stomped it, crushed it, ground it into the dirt. Bones cracked. Blood welled out from beneath the giant's boot.

Reorx, sickened, turned away his head. He had the distinct and unhappy impression that he was next.

The giant knew what the dwarf was thinking. The Father gazed down on Reorx, long and grimly, enjoying watching the god squirm.

"Yes, I could squash you as well, but not now. Not yet." The Father looked again at the heavens, and he shook his fist at the stars. "You refused to pay me homage. You refused to be guided by me. You went your own ways to 'create' a world, fill that world with dolls and puppets. Well, my children, as I gave you life, so I can take it away. I am weak now, since I've been forced to assume mortal form, but my power grows by the second. When I am ready, I will destroy your plaything, then cast you and your creation back into the oblivion out of which you were made. Beware, Children. The Father of All and of Nothing has returned."

The Father turned his attention back to the dwarf. "You will be my messenger. In case they didn't hear me, go to them and warn my children of the doom that awaits them. I will enjoy see-ing them try to escape me for a change! And show them this!"

The Father plucked a strand of flame from his beard and cast it among the pine trees. First one, then another caught fire, exploding into flame. The still-living trees writhed in agony as their limbs were consumed in the roaring inferno.

Reorx knelt among the smoke and the ashes, helpless to stop the blaze that was rapidly spreading from the pines to the other trees in the tinder-dry forest. Flames leapt from tree to tree. Flames sizzled over the ground. The flames burned even the air, left it scorched and empty. The flames created their own wind, that roared and drove the fire onward.

Within seconds, the firestorm reached the Irda village.

Over the rush of wind, the crackle of flames, Reorx heard the screams of the dying. Covering his face with his hands, the god wept... for the Irda, for the world.

The Protector sat stunned and immobile in his house. He knew-all the Irda knew-that the Decider was dead. They heard booming thunder that seemed to be words, but the words were too enormous, too monstrous, to be understood. And then the Protector, looking out his window, saw the red glow of the flames. He heard the cries of the dying pine trees.

The glow grew brighter. He could feel the heat. Cinders began raining down on his house and, soon, his roof was burning. He looked out the window, uncertain what-if anything-to do.

Several elder Irda appeared, attempted to stop the fire with their magic. They summoned rain. It evaporated in the heat. They summoned ice. It melted to water and sizzled away. They sum­moned wind. It blew the wrong direction, only fanned the flames. The Protector watched as, one by one, the Irda were consumed.

A distant neighbor ran out of her burning house. She was screaming something about the ocean. If they could reach the sea, they would be safe.

Flames, running through the grass, caught hold of the hem of the woman's skirt like a playful, deadly child.

The woman's clothing burst into flame. She became a living torch.

The roof of the Protector's house was engulfed now. From somewhere in the back came a crash: a beam falling. The Protector coughed, choked. While he could still see through the smoke, he searched the house until he found the precious object

He held the doll clasped to his breast and waited-not long- for the end.

Far out to sea, the sailboat began to pitch and lurch in a hot wind that was blowing from the north. The erratic motion-a change from the gentle rocking that had lulled her to sleep- woke Usha from a sound sleep. At first she was disoriented, couldn't remember where she was. The sight of sails and masts, pointing toward the heavens and the clustering stars, reassured her.

Hearing thunder, she sat up, scanned the dark skies for the storm. She had no fear the boat would capsize; Irda magic would keep it afloat in the strongest gale.

Flickering lightning came from the north, from the direction of her homeland. She watched it, then saw a lurid red glow light the sky. The Decider must be working his magic.

Usha could not go back to sleep. She sat huddled in the stern, watching the red glow grow brighter and brighter. Then she watched it begin to dwindle, fade away.

Usha smiled. The magic must have been very powerful. And it must have worked.

"You will be safe now, Protector," she said softly.

As she spoke, the clear, sweet call of trumpets drifted over the water. Usha turned.

The sun was rising up out of the water, looking like a red and fiery eye glaring in hatred at the world. Bathed in that strange light, the spires of the city of Palanthas glistened blood red.

 

Book 2

 

I

The Honored Dead. A Single Prisoner.

A Fated Meeting.

he bodies of the Knights of Solamnia had been laid out in a long row upon the sands of the shore of Thoradin Bay. There were not many of them, only eighteen. They had been wiped out, to a man. Their squires lay in a row behind them. These, too, had all died. There was no one left to tend to the dead except for their enemies.

A hot wind swirled among the sand and tall grasses, lifted and plucked at the torn and blood-spattered capes that had been draped across the men's lifeless forms.

A knight officer supervised the burial detail.

"They fought bravely." He pronounced the dead knights' epithet. "Outnumbered, taken by surprise, they might have turned and run and none the wiser. Yet they stood their ground, even when they knew they must be defeated. Lord Ariakan has ordered us to bury them with full honor. Lay out each man properly, place his weapons at his side. The ground is too marshy to bury the bodies. I am told a cave has been found, not far from here. We will entomb the bodies within, seal it up and mark it as a resting place for brave men. Have you examined the bodies? Is there any way we can determine their names, Knight Warrior Brightblade?"

"There was one survivor, sir," the knight reported, saluting his superior.

"Indeed? I hadn't known."

"A white-robed mage, sir. He was captured at the last."

"Ah, of course." The subcommander was not surprised. Mages fought at the rear of armies, casting their magical spells from safe places, since they were prohibited by the constraints of their art from wearing armor or carrying more conventional weaponry. "Odd that Knights of Solamnia should have been using a wizard. That would have never happened in the old days. Still, times change. This mage must know the names of the dead. Have him brought here to identify them, that we may do them honor when we lay them to rest. Where is he now?"

"He is being held by the Gray Knights, sir."

"Go and fetch him, Brightblade."

"Yes, sir. At your command, sir."

The knight left on his errand. His task was not an easy one.

The battlefield atop the sea wall was now the only quiet place on the southern coast of Thoradin Bay. The vast stretch of black sand was awash with men and equipment. Shore boats lined the beaches, rubbing side against side, and more boats came ashore each moment. The brutes, under command of dark knights, were unloading stacks of equipment and supplies, everything from massive coils of rope to water casks, from quivers of arrows to huge shields, marked with the death lily-insignia of the Knights of Takhisis.

Horses were being ferried ashore; their handlers keeping close to the beasts, soothing their terror and promising that their long voyage would end soon. Blue dragons, ridden by knights, patrolled the skies, though Lord Ariakan did not have much fear that his landing would be further interrupted. Scouts reported that what few people lived in the nearby fishing village east of Kalaman had all fled.

They would certainly report his arrival, but by the time any substantial force could be mustered and sent against him, he would not be here. His beachhead established, he was planning to march swiftly west, to seize the deep-water port city of Kalaman. Once Kalaman fell, he would summon the rest of his troops from Storm's Keep, the knights' impregnable fortress to the north, in the Turbidus Ocean. With a deep-water port for his ships, his forces massed, he would launch tike main assault up the Vingaard River and into the heart of the Solamnic Plains.

His objective: to take the one place on Krynn that had never fallen to enemy assault, the place he'd spent many long years as prisoner. Honored prisoner, to be sure, but a captive nonethe­less. To take the one place that he saw nightly, in his dreams. And he could take it, he had no doubt. In that place, they had taught him the secrets of their strength. He already knew the secret of their weakness. Lord Ariakan's goal-the High Clerist's Tower. And from there, the world.

Brightblade picked his way through the confusion, almost deafened by the shouts of the officers, the curses and grunts of the brutes bent beneath heavy loads, the frightened whinnying of the horses and, occasionally, from above, the shrill call of a blue dragon to its comrade.

The early morning sun blazed; already the heat was intense, and it was only the beginning of summer. The knight had removed most of his armor once the battle was over, but still wore his breastplate and bracers, the death lily marking him as a Knight of the Lily. A dragon rider, he had not taken part in the battle, which had been fought on the ground. Following the battle, his talon had been chosen to take responsibility for the dead on both sides, and thus, though second in command, he was placed in the position of errand runner.

Brightblade did not resent this, however, just as his comman­der did not resent being placed in charge of burial detail. It was part of the discipline of the Knights of Takhisis that they served their Dark Queen in all capacities and gave her glory in the doing.

Halfway across the beach, Brightblade was forced to stop and ask where the Gray Knights, the Knights of the Thorn, had set up their headquarters. He was grateful to discover that they had sought shelter in a grove of trees.

"I might have known," he said to himself, with a slight smile. "I never knew a wizard yet who didn't relish what comfort he could find."

Brightblade left the crowded, hot, and noisy beach and entered the relatively cool shade of the trees. The noise receded, as did the heat. He paused a moment to revel in both the cool­ness and the stillness, then continued on his way, anxious to dis­charge his duty and leave this place, no matter how cool and inviting. He was now beginning to experience the customary sense of unease and disquiet all those not endowed with the gift of magic feel around those who are.

He found the Knights of the Thorn some distance from the beach, in a grove of tall pine trees. Several large wooden chests, carved with intricate arcane symbols, rested on the ground. Apprentices were sorting through these chests, ticking off items listed on sheets of parchment. The knight gave these chests a wide berth. The smells issuing from them were sickening; he wondered how the apprentices could stand it, but supposed they must grow used to it over time. The Thorn Knights carried their own equipment, always.

He grimaced at a particularly foul odor emanating from one of the chests. A glance within revealed rotting and unsavory objects, best not defined. He turned his gaze away in disgust, searched for his objective instead. Through the shadows of the trees, he saw a patch of white, gleaming in a shaft of sunlight, yet partially obscured by gray. Brightblade was not particularly fanciful, but he was reminded of fleece-white clouds overtaken by the gray of the storm. He marked it as a good omen. Diffidently, he approached the head of the order-a powerful wizardess of high rank known as a Nightlord.

"Madam, Knight Warrior Steel Brightblade." He saluted. "I am sent by Subcommander Knight Trevalin with the request mat your prisoner, the white-robed mage, be conveyed to him. Lord Trevalin is in need of the prisoner to make identification of the bodies of the dead, that they may be entombed with honor. Also," he added in a low voice, not be overheard, "to verify the count."

Trevalin would be glad to know if any Solamnic Knight had escaped, one who might lie in ambush, perhaps hope to pick off a leader.

The Nightiord thus addressed did not return the knight's salute, nor did she appear at all pleased by his request. An older woman, perhaps in her late forties, Lillith had once been a Black Robe, but had switched allegiances when the opportunity had presented itself. As a Thorn Knight, she was now considered a renegade by the other wizards of Ansalon, including those who wore the black robes. This might seem confusing to some, since the sorcerers all served the same Dark Queen. But the Black Robes served Nuitari, god of dark magic first, his mother, Queen Takhisis, second. The Knights of the Thorn served the Dark Queen first, last, and only.

The Nightiord eyed Steel Brightblade intently. "Why did Trevalin send you?"

"Madam," Brightblade returned, taking care not to reveal his irritation at this unwonted interrogation, "I was the only one available at the time."

The Nightiord frowned, deepening an already dark line between her brows. "Return to Subcommander Trevalin. Tell him to send someone else."

Brightblade shrugged. "I beg your pardon, Madam, but my orders come from Subcommander Trevalin. If you wish to have him countermand them, then you must apply to him directly. I will remain here until you have conferred with my commanding officer."

The Nightlord's frown deepened, but she was caught on the hooks of protocol. To alter Steel's orders, she would be forced to send one of her own apprentices back across the beach to talk to Trevalin. The journey would likely accomplish nothing, for Trevalin was short-handed anyway and would not send anoth­er knight to do what this knight could do with ease.

"It must be Her Dark Majesty's will," the Nightiord muttered, regarding Steel with green, penetrating eyes. "So be it, then. I bow to it. The mage you seek is over there."

Steel had no idea what mis odd conversation was in regard to, and he had no desire to ask.

"Why does Trevalin want the mage?" the Nightiord inquired.

Steel counseled patience, repeated himself. "He needs him to identify the bodies. The White Robe is the sole survivor."

At this, the prisoner lifted his head. His face blanched and he grew nearly as pale as the corpses laid out on the sand. The White Robe jumped to his feet, to the startlement of those assigned to guard him.

"Not all!" he cried in a ravaged voice. "Surely, not all!"

Steel Brightblade responded with a respectful yet dignified salute, as he had been taught. Treat all persons of rank, title, and education with respect, even if they are the enemy. Especially if they are the enemy. Always respect your enemy; thus you will never underesti­mate him.

"We believe that to be so, Sir Mage, though we have no way of knowing for certain. We plan to bury the dead with honor, record their names on the tomb. You are the only one who can identify them."

"Take me to them," the young mage demanded.

His face had the flush of fever. Splotches of blood stained his robes, some of it probably his own. One side of his head was badly bruised and cut. His bags and pouches had all been taken from him and lay on the ground to one side. Some unlucky apprentice would sort through those, risking being burned - or worse - by the arcane objects which, due to their propensity for good, only a White Robe could use.

Such objects would not be of any immediate use to a Gray Knight, for despite the Thorn Knights' ability to draw power from all three moons, white, black, and red, each magic knows its own and often reacts violently to the presence of its opposite. A Thorn Knight might possibly be able to use an artifact dedi­cated to Solinari, but only after long hours of the most disci­plined and intense study. The White Robe's spell components and other captured magical objects would be held in safekeep­ing, to be studied, then those that could not be safely handled might be exchanged for arcane artifacts of more value - and less danger - to the Thorn Knights.

Brightblade did note, however, that the White Robe kept with him a staff. Made of wood, the staff was topped by a dragon's claw fashioned out of silver, holding in its grip a multifaceted crystal. The knight knew enough about the arcane to realize that this staff was undoubtedly magical and probably highly valuable.

He wondered why the White Robe was permitted to retain it.

"I suppose the mage may go," said the Nightlord ungra­ciously and with reluctance. "But only if I accompany him." "Certainly, Madam."

Brightblade did his best to conceal his shock. This White Robe could not be of very high level. He was too young. Add to that the fact that no high-level White Robe would have ever permit­ted himself to be taken prisoner. Yet Lillith-head of the Thorn Knights' order-was treating this young man with the careful caution she would have treated, say, Lord Dalamar, renowned Master of the Tower of High Sorcery in Palanthas.

The White Robe moved weakly, leaned heavily upon the staff. His face was drawn with pain and anguish. He winced as he walked, bit his lip to keep from crying out. He crept forward at a gully dwarf's pace. It would take them the remainder of the day and into the night to reach the bodies, traveling at mis rate. Subcommander Trevalin would not be pleased at the delay.

Steel glanced at the Nightlord. The mage was her prisoner. It was her place to offer him assistance. The Nightlord was regard­ing them both with a look of displeasure mingled with- oddly-curiosity, as if she were waiting to see what Steel would do in this situation. He would act as he had been taught to act- with honor. If the Nightlord didn't like it...

"Lean on my arm, Sir Mage," Steel Brightblade offered. He spoke coldly, dispassionately, but with respect. "You will find the going easier."

The White Robe lifted his head and stared in amazement that quickly hardened to wary suspicion. "What trick is this?"

"No trick, sir. You are in pain and obviously find walking dif­ficult. I am offering you my aid, sir."

The White Robe's face twisted in puzzlement. "But... you are one of... hers."

"If you mean a servant of our Dark Queen, Takhisis, then you are correct," Steel Brightblade replied gravely. "I am hers, body and soul. Yet, that does not mean that I am not a man of honor, who is pleased to salute bravery and courage when I see it. I beg you, sir, accept my arm. The way is long, and I note that you are wounded."

The young mage glanced askance at the Nightlord, as if think­ing she might disapprove. If she did, she said nothing. Her face was devoid of expression.

Hesitantly, obviously still fearing some sort of evil design on the part of his enemy, the White Robe accepted the dark knight's aid. He clearly expected to be hurled to the ground, stomped, and beaten. He looked surprised (and perhaps disappointed) to find that he was not.

The young mage walked easier and faster with Steel's help. The two soon moved out of the cool shadows of the trees and into the hot sun. At the sight of the landing party, the White Robe's face registered awe and dismay.

"So many troops ..." he said softly to himself.

"It is no disgrace that your small band lost," observed Steel Brightblade. "You were vastly outnumbered."

"Still . . ." The White Robe spoke through teeth clenched against the pain. "If I had been stronger ..." He closed his eyes, swayed on his feet, seemed on the verge of passing out.

The knight supported the fainting mage. Glancing back over his shoulder, Brightblade asked, "Why haven't the healers, the Knights of the Skull, attended to him, Nightlord?"

"He refused their help," answered the Nightlord offhandedly. She shrugged. "And, being servants of Her Dark Majesty, there may have been nothing our healers could have done for him anyway."

Brightblade had no answer for this. He knew very little of the ways of the dark clerics. But he did know how to dress battle­field wounds, having experienced a few of his own.

"I have a recipe for a poultice I'll give you," he promised, assisting the mage to walk once more. "My mother-" He paused, corrected himself. "The woman who raised me taught me how to make it. The herbs are easily found. Your wound is in your side?"

The young mage nodded, pressed his hand against his rib cage. The white cloth of the mage's robes was soaked in blood, had stuck to the wound. Probably just as well to leave the cloth where it was. It kept the wound sealed.

"A spear," the young mage replied. "A glancing blow. My brother-"

He halted whatever he had been about to say, fell silent.

Ah, so that's it, Steel reasoned. That's why Solamnic Knights had a magic-user with them. One brother who fights with the sword, the other with the staff. And that is why he is so anx­ious to see the dead. He hopes for the best, but in his heart he must know what he will find. Should I say something to warn him? No, he might inadvertently reveal information that would help us.

Steel was not being callous. It was simply that he could not understand the young mage's obvious anxiety over the fate of this brother. Surely, a Knight of Solamnia expected death in bat­tle, even welcomed it! A relative of the honored dead should be proud, not grief-stricken.

But then this mage is young, Brightblade reflected. Perhaps this was his first battle. That would explain much.

They continued across the crowded beach, the knight and his prisoner receiving some curious stares. No one said anything to them, however. The Nightlord followed behind; her green-eyed gaze never left them. Steel could have sworn he felt the fierce intensity burn through his heavy metal breastplate.

The sun, dripping with red, had fully risen by the time they reached the site of the battle, where the bodies of the dead were located. The sunrise had been spectacular, a fiery display of angry reds and triumphant purples, as if the sun were flaunting its power over a blistered and dried-up world. This day would be a scorcher. Not even night would bring relief. Heat would radiate up from the sand, covering like a smothering blanket those who tried to sleep on it. Rest would come tonight only to those too exhausted to notice.

Steel escorted the White Robe to his superior, Subcommander Sequor Trevalin.

"Sir, here is the prisoner, as you commanded." The subcommander glanced at the prisoner, then shifted his gaze to the Nightlord who had accompanied them. Trevalin, too, seemed surprised to note the honored company in which they traveled. He saluted the Nightlord, who outranked him. "I thank you for your assistance in this matter, Madam." "I did not see that I had much choice," she replied bitterly. "It is Her Majesty's will."

The comment apparently greatly puzzled Trevalin. Queen Takhisis oversaw all they did-or so the knights believed-but surely Her Dark Majesty had more important matters to occupy her immortal mind than simply identifying prisoners. Wizards were strange folk, however, and the Nightlord was stranger than most. Who knew what she meant now? Trevalin certainly wasn't going to ask. He proceeded swiftly with the task at hand.

"Sir Mage, if you could give us the names and titles of these knights, we will see that these are recorded, that posterity may honor their bravery as they deserve."

The young mage was exhausted by the walk, the heat, and the pain he suffered. He appeared to be dazed, stood looking at the bodies without recognition, as he might have looked at the bod­ies of strangers. His arm, resting on Steel's, trembled.

"Perhaps, sir," Steel suggested, "if the mage might have some water. Or a cup of wine."

"Certainly." Trevalin supplied not wine, but a cup of potent brandy he kept in a flask on his belt.

The young mage drank it heedlessly, probably not knowing what passed his lips. But the first sip brought some color back to the pale cheeks. That and the brief rest appeared to have helped. He even went so far as to thrust aside Steel's arm and stand on his own.

The White Robe closed his eyes. His lips moved. He appeared to be offering up a prayer, for Steel thought he heard the whis­pered word "Paladine."

Strength restored, probably more from the prayer than the brandy, the young mage limped over to the first of the dead. The White Robe bent down and drew aside the cape that had been laid over the face. A tremor of relief, as well as sorrow, shook his voice as he pronounced the name and the title, adding the knight's homeland.

"Sir Llewelyn ap Ellsar, Knight of the Rose from Guthar of Sancrist."

He moved down the row of dead with more strength and for­titude than the young knight would have first credited him.

"Sir Horan Devishtor, Knight of the Crown from Palanthas township; Sir Yori Beck, Knight of the Crown from Caergoth; Sir Percival Nelish ..." He continued on.

A scribe, summoned by Subcommander Trevalin, followed, recording all the details on a horn slate.

And then the young mage came to the last two bodies. He stopped, looked back over the row of dead. Everyone there could see him taking count. He bowed his head, pressed his hand over his eyes, and did not move.

Steel moved to Trevalin's side.

"He mentioned something to me about a brother, sir."

Trevalin nodded in understanding, said nothing. The White Robe had revealed all the officer needed to know. There were no more knights; none had escaped.

The White Robe knelt down. With a trembling hand, he drew aside the cape that covered the still, cold face. He choked on his grief, sat huddled near the body.

"I beg your pardon, sir," said the scribe. "I didn't understand what you said. This man's name?"

"Majere," whispered the White Robe brokenly. "Sturm Majere. And that"-he moved to lift the cape that covered the other knight's face-"is Tanin Majere."

Bending over them, he wiped the blood from the shattered faces, kissed each one on the chill forehead.

"My brothers."

Cousins. A Debt Of Honor. A Death Sentence. The Parole.

ajere." Steel turned to face the young mage. "Majere. I know that name."

Overcome by his grief, the White Robe did not respond. He had probably not even heard. The Nightlord heard, however. She made a soft hissing sound, breath drawn inward. The green eyes shut partway. She gazed at Steel from beneath lowered lids.

He paid no attention to the Nightlord. Steel walked forward, came to stand beside the mage. The young man was tall, well built, though he lacked the bulky musculature of his soldier brothers. His hair was a rich auburn; he wore it long to his shoul­ders. His hands were the hands of the mage: supple, slender, with tapered fingers. Now that Steel studied the young man, he could see the resemblance, not only to the bodies lying in the sand, but to the man who had once saved Steel Brightblade's life.

"Majere. Caramon Majere. These"-Steel indicated the dead knights-"must be his two eldest sons. And you are the younger. You are the son of Caramon Majere?"

"I am Palin," the young mage answered brokenly. With one hand, he brushed back the damp red curls from his brother's cold forehead. The other hand clung tightly to the staff, as if drawing from it the strength that was keeping him alive. "Palin Majere."

"Son of Caramon Majere, nephew of Raistlin Majere!" the Nightlord whispered with sibilant emphasis.

At this, Subcommander Trevalin-who had been paying scant attention, mulling over the logistics of moving the bodies, the detailing of men to the task-lifted his head, looked with greater interest at the young White Robe.

"The nephew of Raistlin Majere?" he repeated.

"A great prize," said the Nightlord. "A valuable prize. His uncle was the most powerful wizard who ever walked Ansalon." But even as she talked about Palin, the Nightlord kept her eyes on Steel.

The knight did not notice. Staring down at me bodies, yet not truly seeing them, he was turning something over in his mind, making some difficult decision, to judge by the dark expression on his face.

And then Palin stirred, lifted eyes that were red-rimmed with tears. "You are Steel. Steel Brightblade. Son of Sturm-" His voice broke again as he spoke the name that was the same as his brother's.

Steel said, almost to himself, "A strange coincidence, our meeting like this..."

"No coincidence," stated the Nightlord loudly. The green eyes were jeweled slits. "I tried to prevent it, but Her Dark Majesty prevailed. And what does it mean? What does it portend?"

Steel cast the woman an exasperated glance. The knight had great respect for the Nightlords and their work. Unlike the Knights of Solamnia, who scorned to blend blade with magic, the Knights of Takhisis used mage-craft in their battles. Wizards were given rank and status equal to that of warrior knights; wizards held honored and respected places at all levels of command. But there was still occasional friction between the two groups, though Lord Ariakan tried his best to eliminate it. The practical soldier, who saw straight from point A to point B and nothing else, could not hope to understand the wizard, who saw not only A and B but all the shifting planes of existence between.

And of all the Thorn Knights, this woman was the most impractical-seeing six sides to every four-sided object, as the saying went, constantly searching for meaning in the slightest incident, casting her seeing stones three times a day, peering into the entrails of roosters. Subcommander Trevalin and his staff had discussed, more than once, the difficulties encountered in working with her.

A coincidence. Nothing more. And not such a strange one at that. Knights of Solamnia with a mage-brother meeting their cousin, a Knight of Takhisis. The world was at war, though not all the world was aware of it. These three surely would have met at some time. Steel was thankful for one thing: for the fact that he had not been responsible for the deaths of the two Majere boys. He would have been doing his duty, after all, but still, it made things easier. He turned to his commanding officer.

"Subcommander Trevalin. I ask a favor. Grant me permission to take the bodies of these two knights back to their homeland for burial. I will, at the same time, deliver the White Robe to his people and collect his ransom."

Trevalin regarded Steel in amazement; Palin stared at him in stupefaction. The Nightlord muttered, snorted, and shook her head.

"Where is their homeland?" Trevalin asked.

"Solace, in central Abanasinia, just north of Qualinost. Their father is an innkeeper there."

"But that is far in enemy territory. You would be in immense danger. If you had some special mission related to the Vision, then, yes, I would approve. But this . . ." Trevalin waved a hand. "To deliver bodies . . . No, you are too good a soldier to risk los­ing, Brightblade. I cannot grant your request." The elder knight looked curiously at the younger. "You do not act on whims, Brightblade. What is your reason for making this strange request?"

"The father, Caramon Majere, is my uncle, half-brother to my mother, Kitiara uth Matar. The dead knights and the mage are my cousins. In addition . . ." Steel's face remained impassive, expressionless, his tone matter-of-fact. "Caramon Majere battled at my side during a fight when I was almost captured in the High Clerist's Tower. I owe a debt of honor. According to Lord Ariakan, >a debt of honor is to be repaid at the first opportunity. I would take this opportunity to repay mine."

Subcommander Trevalin did not hesitate. "Caramon Majere saved your life? Yes, I recall hearing this story. And these are his sons?" The knight gave the matter serious consideration, com­paring it in his mind to the Vision - the Grand Plan of the Dark Queen's. Each knight at his investiture is given the Vision, shown how his single thread is woven into the immense Tapestry. Nothing was allowed to conflict with the Vision, not even a debt of honor.

However, the battle was over. The objective won. The dark knights would spend time establishing their beachhead before moving west. Trevalin could not see that any one knight would be missed, at least not in the near future. And it was always in the knights' interest to gain as much information about the enemy as possible. Steel would undoubtedly see and hear much on his journey into enemy territory that would be useful later.

"I grant you leave to go, Brightblade. The trip will be danger­ous, but the greater the danger, the greater the glory. You will return the bodies of these knights to their homeland for burial. As to the White Robe's ransom, the decision as to what to do with him is up to our worthy comrade."

Trevalin looked to the Nightlord, who had been seething with indignation at being left out of the decision-making process. She was not Steel's commander, however, and could have no say in the matter of his going or coming. The White Robe was her pris-oner, however, and she did have the right to decide what to do with him.

She pondered the matter, apparently torn between her long­ing to keep hold of the mage and her longing for whatever ran­som his return might bring. Or perhaps something else was dis­turbing her. Her gaze flitted from Steel to Palin, and her green eyes burned.

"The White Robe has been sentenced to die," she said abruptly.

"What? Why? For what cause?" Trevalin was amazed and, it seemed, impatient. "He surrendered. He is a prisoner of war. He has the right to be ransomed."

"The ransom demand was already made," the Nightlord returned. "He refused. Therefore, his life is forfeit."

"Is this true, young man?" Trevalin regarded Palin sternly. "Did you refuse the ransom?"

"They asked for what I cannot give," Palin said. His hand tightened around the wood of the staff, and all present knew immediately what the ransom demand had been. "The staff is not mine. It has been loaned to me, that is all."

"The staff?" Trevalin turned to the Nightlord. "All you want­ed was that staff? If he refused, then take the damn thing!"

"I tried." Lillith exhibited her right hand. The palm was blis­tered, burned.

"Did you do that, White Robe?" Trevalin asked.

Palin met his gaze, his eyes clear, though red-rimmed with unshed tears. "Does it matter, sir? The Staff of Magius was given to me in sacred trust. I do not 'own' it. I have only limited con­trol over it. The staff belongs to no one, only to itself. Yet, I will not part with it, not to save my life."

Both dark paladins were impressed with the young man's answer. The Nightlord was not. She glowered at them all, rubbed her injured hand.

"An interesting problem," Trevalin remarked. "A man cannot be constrained to pay for his life with that which he does not own. He may go to his friends and family and ask them to raise ransom money for him, but he may not steal from them. The young man is honor-bound to refuse to turn over the staff. You, Madam, may therefore claim his life. But, it seems to me, that this would not conform to the Vision."

The Nightlord cast Trevalin a sharp glance, opened her mouth to protest. The invocation of the Vision took precedence over everything, however. She had to remain silent until he was fin­ished.

"The Vision requires us to advance the cause of Her Dark Majesty in all things, in all ways. Taking this young man's life does nothing to advance the cause. His soul would fly to Paladine, who would be the gainer, not us. However, if we barter this young man's life for something else, some powerful magical object the wizards of Wayreth have in their possession ..."

The Nightlord's stern expression softened. She regarded Palin speculatively and, oddly enough, her glance went to Steel as well. "Perhaps," she was heard to mutter to herself, "perhaps this is the reason. Very well," she said aloud. "I bow to your wis­dom, Subcommander Trevalin. There is one thing we will accept in ransom for Palin Majere." She paused, dramatically.

"And what is that, Madam?" Trevalin demanded, impatient to get on with his duties.

"We want the wizards to open the Portal to the Abyss," said the Nightlord.

"But . . . that's impossible!" Palin cried.

"The' decision is not yours, young man," the Nightlord replied coolly. "You are under the jurisdiction of the Wizards' Conclave. They must decide. Opening the Portal is not like handing over the Staff of Magius. Such a decision belongs to the Conclave."

Palin shook his head. "What you ask for will not - cannot - be granted. It is impossible. You might as well take my life now. I could not," he added softly, his hand resting on the shoulder of his dead brother, "die in better company."

"Judgment has been passed, White Robe. You are our prison­er and must submit yourself to our will." Trevalin was firm. "You will travel, in the company of Knight Brightblade, to the Tower of Wayreth, there to make your ransom known to the Wizards' Conclave. If they refuse, your life is forfeit. You will be brought back to us to die."

Palin shrugged, said nothing, not caring one way or the other.

"You, Steel Brightblade, accept responsibility for the prisoner. If he escapes, you take his parole upon yourself. Your life will be required in payment. You will be sentenced to die in his place."

"I understand, Subcommander," said Steel. "And I accept the penalty."

"You have a fortnight to complete your journey. On the first night that the red and silver moons are both in the sky, you must report to me, your commander, no matter whether you have suc­ceeded or failed. If your prisoner escapes, you must report to me at once, without delay."

Steel saluted, then left to saddle his blue dragon. Trevalin returned-thankfully-to his duties and ordered a squire to pre­pare the two corpses for transport. The bodies of the other knights were loaded onto a cart, to be conveyed to the tomb. Palin stayed close to his brothers, doing what he could to dean the bodies, wash off the blood, shut the clouded, staring eyes.

Lillith remained near Palin, watched him closely, intently. She was not afraid he would escape. She was searching, rather, for some clue. Why had this young mage-of all the young mages in the world-been sent here, to fight in this battle? Why had he been the only person to survive? And, most importantly, why had Palin Majere been brought into contact with his cousin, Steel Brightblade?

She conjured up the image of the two of them, walking together, talking together. She saw no immediate family resem­blance. In fact, the two could not have been-on first glance- more dissimilar. Steel Brightblade was tall, muscular, well built. Long, dark, curling hair framed a face that was strong and well proportioned, the eyes dark, large, and intense. He was undeni­ably a handsome man. But though many women looked at Steel Brightblade with admiration once, they tended not to look again. He was comely, certainly, but all attraction ended there. It was obvious to everyone that he belonged, heart and soul, to a stern mistress: War.

War alone could satisfy his lusts, his desires. His cold, proud, haughty mien came alive only during the charge, the fight. The clash of arms was the music he adored, the song of challenge the only love song he would ever sing.

By contrast, his cousin, Palin Majere, was slight of build, with auburn hair and a fair complexion. Fine-boned, with penetrat­ing, intelligent eyes, he reminded the Nightlord immediately of his uncle. She had once seen Raistlin Majere, and she had recog­nized his nephew the moment she had come in contact with him. It was the hands, she thought. He has his uncle's delicate, deft touch.

Cousins, the same blood running in each. Yes, the resem­blance was there, in the soul, if not the body. Steel knew his strength. Palin had yet to discover his. But it was in him as it had been within his uncle. How to turn it to Her Dark Majesty's advantage? For surely there had to be some reason the two had been brought together!

Not coincidence. No, a great Plan was at work here, but as yet the Nightlord could not unravel it. The answer would come. Of that, she had no doubt. She had merely to be patient. And so she watched and she waited.

Palin-either thinking he was alone or not caring-began to talk to his brothers.

"It was my fault, Tanin," he said softly, through a voice husky with tears. "My fault you died. I know you will forgive me. You always forgive me, no matter what I do. But how can I forgive myself? If I had been stronger in my magic, had studied harder, learned more spells... If I hadn't frozen in fear, forgot all I knew, I would not have failed you at the end. If I had been more like my uncle..."

More like my uncle!

Lillith heard those words. A shiver of awe and excitement raised the flesh on her arms. She saw the Plan. Her Dark Majesty's thoughts were made clear to her, or at least as clear as they can ever be to a mortal mind. It had to be! This had to be the reason. The two men-one in his doubt and insecurity, the other in riis haughty pride-would be each other's downfall.

The Nightlord did not trust Steel Brightblade. She had never trusted him, not since she had discovered his parentage. She had argued long against his admittance into the elite ranks of the Knights of Takhisis. The omens were bad; the seeing stones prophesied doom.

A white stone on the left-that was the father, Sturm Brightblade, renowned and revered Solamnic Knight, honored even by his enemies for his courageous sacrifice. A black stone to the right-that was the mother, Kitiara uth Matar, leader of one of the dragonarmies, renowned for her skill and fearlessness in battle. Both were dead, but-the Nightlord could sense-both were reaching out to the son who had been brought into the world by accident, not design.

Though seemingly calm and steadfast in his loyalty and devo­tion to the Dark Queen, Steel Brightblade must be a raging sea of turmoil within. At least, so the Nightlord speculated. And she had good reason. Steel Brightblade wore the sword of a Knight of Solamnia-his father's sword. And he also wore (though this was a well-guarded secret) a jewel of elven make. Known as a starjew-el, it was nothing more than a token exchanged between lovers. It had been given to Sturm Brightblade during the War of the Lance by Alhana Starbreeze, Queen of the Silvanesti elves. And Sturm Brightblade-or rather the corpse of Sturm Brightblade, if you believed Steel's account-had given the jewel to his son.

A white stone to the left, a black stone to the right, and in the center a stone marked with a fortress. Falling on top of the fortress, a stone marked with fire. Thus Lillith read the signs: the young man was torn in two and this inner conflict would result in disaster. What else could a fortress being devoured by flames represent?

The Nightlord had argued long and hard, but no one had lis­tened. Even the Lord of the Skull, a powerful priestess-an old, old woman who was said to be a favorite with Queen Takhisis- had recommended that Steel be admitted into the knighthood.

"Yes, he wears the starjewel," the old crone had mumbled through her toothless mouth. "The jewel is the only crack in his iron facade. We will use it to see into his heart, and from that vantage we will see into the hearts of our enemies!"

Blathering old fool.

But now the Nightlord understood. She threw the idea on the black cloth of her mind, much as she tossed her seeing stones. It fell to the table clean, did not roll or nimble, landed right side up. Pondering, choosing her words with care, she approached the young mage.

"You spoke of your uncle," she said, standing over Palin, star­ing down at him, her arms folded across her chest. "You never met him, did you? Of course not. You are too young."

Palin said nothing, gripped the Staff of Magius a bit tighter. The young man had done what he could for his brothers. Now all that remained would be the bitter task of taking them home, of breaking the news to his father and his mother. He was weak and vulnerable now. The Nightlord's task was almost too easy.

"Raistlin left this world before you were born."

Palin glanced up and, in that flashing glance, revealed every­thing, though he continued to say nothing.

"Left the world. Chose to remain in the Abyss, where he is tormented daily by our dread queen."

"No." Palin was stung into speaking. "No, that is not true. For his sacrifice, my uncle was granted peace in sleep. My father was given this knowledge by Paladine."

Lillith knelt down, to come level with the young man. She moved closer to him. She was an attractive woman and, when she chose, could be charming, as fascinating as a snake.

"So your father says. So he would say, wouldn't he?"

She felt the young man stir restlessly beside her and she thrilled, deep within. He did not look at her, but she felt his doubt. He'd thought about this before. He believed his father- yet part of him didn't. That doubt was the crack in his armor.

Through that crack, she slid her poisoned mental blade.

"What if your father is wrong? What if Raistlin Majere lives?" She sidled closer still. "He calls to you, doesn't he?"

It was a guess, but the Nightlord knew immediately she was right. Palin flinched, lowered his eyes.

"If Raistlin was back in this world, he would take you on as his apprentice. You would study with the greatest mage who ever walked this plane of existence. Your uncle has already given you a precious gift. What more would he not do for a loved nephew?"

Palin glanced at her, nothing more than a glance, but she saw the fire kindle deep in his eyes, and she knew it would consume him.

Satisfied, the Nightlord rose, walked away. She could leave the prisoner now. He was safe-safely entangled in the coils of temptation. And he would, inadvertently, draw his cousin in with him. That was the reason the Dark Queen had brought the two together.

Lillith thrust her hand into a black velvet bag, grabbed a handful of stones at random. Muttering the incantation, she tossed the stones on the ground. The Nightlord shuddered.

What she had surmised was correct. Takhisis must have both souls-and quickly.

Doom was very near.

 

75

3

The City Of Palanthas. A Weary Search, Not Quite Fruitless.

he heat of the midday sun poured like flaming oil on the waters of the Bay of Branchala. The noon hour was the busiest of the day on the docks of Palanthas, when Usha's boat joined the throng of others crowd­ing the harbor. Unaccustomed to such heat, noise, and confu­sion, Usha sat in her bobbing craft and stared around her in dismay.

Enormous merchant galleys with minotaur crews rubbed up against the large fishing vessels piloted by the seagoing black-skinned humans of Northern Ergoth. Smaller "market" barges bumped and nosed their way among the crowd, bringing down a storm of curses and the occasional bucket of bilge water or fish heads when they piled up against a larger craft. To add to the confusion, a gnome ship had just entered port. The other ships were hauling up anchor, endeavoring to put as much sea as possible between themselves and the gnomes. No one with any sense would risk life and limb by staying any­where near the steam-burping monstrosity. The harbormaster, in his specially painted boat, sailed hither and thither, mop­ping his sweating, bald head and shouting up at the captains through a speaking trumpet.

Usha very nearly hoisted her sail, turned her boat around, and went back home. The cruel-sounding curses of the mino­taur (she had heard of them, but never seen one) frightened her; the gnome ship-its smoking stacks looming dangerously close-appalled her. She had no idea what to do or where to

go-

An elderly man, bobbing placidly in a small fishing skiff on the outskirts of the turmoil, saw her and, appreciating her dif­ficulty, drew in his line and rowed his boat over.

"Bein' a stranger to these parts, er you?" the old man asked, by which Usha understood him (eventually) to be inquiring if she was a stranger.

She acknowledged that she was and asked him where she might dock her boat.

"Not here," he said, sucking on a battered pipe. Removing it from his mouth, he gestured at the barges. "Too dang many farmers."

At that moment a minotaur clipper hove up behind Usha's boat and nearly swamped her. The captain, leaning over the side, promised to split her boat-and her-in two if she didn't move out of his way.

Usha, panic-stricken, laid her hands on the oars, but the old man stopped her.

Standing up in his own boat-a marvelous feat, Usha thought, considering that the boat was rocking wildly-the old man answered the captain in what must have been the mino­taur's own language, fpr it sounded like someone crunching bones. Just exactly what the old man said, Usha never knew, but the minotaur captain ended by grunting and ordering his ship to veer off.

"Bullies," muttered the old man, reseating himself. "But damn fine sailors. I should know. I crewed with 'em regular." He eyed her boat curiously. "A fine craft, that. Minotaur-built, if I'm not mistaken. Where did you come by it?"

Usha evaded his question. Before she left, the Protector had warned against her revealing anything about herself to any­one. She pretended not to have heard the old man-an easy thing, amidst the clashing of oars, the swearing, and the har­bormaster's trumpeting. Thanking him for his help, she asked, again, where she should dock.

"Over t'east." The old man pointed with the pipe stem. "Thar's a public pier. Usually a docking fee, but"-he was eye­ing her now, not the boat-"with that face and them eyes, like­ly they'll let you in fer naught."

Usha flushed in anger and shame, bit back a scathing retort. The old man had been kind and helpful. If he wanted to mock her homely appearance, he'd earned the right. As for the rest of what he'd said-something about a "fee" and letting her in for "naught," she had no idea what he was talking about. Peering through the tangle of masts, she located the pier to which he referred, and it seemed a haven of peace compared to the main docks. Thanking the old man again-rather coolly-Usha sailed her boat that direction.

The public harbor was far less crowded, being restricted to small boats, primarily the pleasure craft of the wealthy. Usha lowered her sails, rowed in, found a pier, and dropped anchor. Gathering up her possessions, she slung one pouch over her shoulders, hung the other around her waist, and climbed out of the boat. She tied the boat to the dock, started to leave it, then paused to take one last look.

That boat was the last tie to her homeland, to the Protector, to everyone she loved. When she walked away from it, she would be walking away from her past life. She recalled the strange red glow in the sky last night and was suddenly loathe to leave. She ran her hand over the rope that linked her to the boat, the boat that linked her to her homeland. Her eyes filled with tears. Half blind, she turned and bumped into something dark and solid that caught hold of her sleeve.

A voice, coming from somewhere around waist-level, demand­ed, "Where do you think you're going, girlie? There's a small mat­ter of the docking fee."

Usha, embarrassed to be caught crying, hurriedly wiped her eyes. Her accoster was a dwarf, with a gray, scruffy beard and the weathered face and squinting eyes of those who spend their days watching the sun beat on the water.

"Fee? I don't know what you mean, sir," Usha returned, try­ing not to stare. She'd never seen a dwarf, either, although she knew of them from Profs stories.

"A fee to leave your boat where you've docked it! You don't think the people of Palanthas run this operation out of the good­ness of their hearts, do you, girlie? There's a fee! How long are you leaving the boat? Day, week, month? The fee varies."

"I... I don't know," Usha said helplessly.

The Irda have no concept of money. Their needs being simple, each Irda makes what he or she needs, either by hand-crafting it or magicking the object into being. One Irda would never mink of exchanging anything with another. Such an act would be tan­tamount to an incursion into another's soul.

Usha was beginning to recall stories Prot had told her about dwarves. "Do you mean that if I give you something, you will let me leave the boat here in exchange?"

The dwarf glared up at her, eyes squinting until they were nearly shut. "What's the matter, girlie? Boom hit you in the head?" He altered his voice, speaking in a high-pitched tone, as one might to a child. "Yes, little girl, you give the nice dwarf something-preferably cold, hard steel-and the nice dwarf will let you keep your boat where it is. If you don't give the nice dwarf something-preferably cold, hard steel-the nice dwarf will impound your goddamn boat. Got it?"

Usha's face burned. She had no steel, wasn't even certain what he meant by that term. But a crowd of grinning men, some of them rough-looking, was starting to gather around the two of them. Usha wanted only to get away. Fumbling in one of her pouches, her fingers grasped an object. She pulled it out and thrust it in the dwarf's direction.

"I don't have any steel. Will this do?"

The dwarf took hold of it, examined it closely. The squinted eyes opened wider than they'd probably opened in a hundred years. Then, noting the interest of the men around him, the dwarf glowered at them all, closed his hand hastily over the object.

"Platinum, by Reorx's beard. With a ruby," he was overheard to mutter. He waved his hand at the men. "Be gone, you gawk-ers! Go about your business, or I'll have the lord's guardsmen down on you!"

The men laughed, made a few ribald remarks, and drifted off. The dwarf took hold of Usha's sleeve, drew her down to his level.

"Do you know what this is, Mistress?" He was much more polite.

"Ifs a ring," Usha said, thinking he might not know what a ring was.

"Aye." The dwarf licked his lips. His gaze went hungrily to the pouch. "A ring. Might . . . might there be more where that come from?"

Usha didn't like his look. She pressed her hand over the pouch, drew it close to her body. "Will that be enough to leave the boat in your care?"

"Oh, aye, Mistress! As long as you want. I'll take real good care of her. Scrub the decks, shall I? Scrape off the barnacles? Mend the sail?"

"Whatever you like, sir." Usha started walking away, heading for the shore and the large buildings that could be seen lining it.

"When will you be coming back for it?" the dwarf asked, his short legs pumping to keep up with her.

"I don't know," Usha said, hoping to sound carefree and care­less, not confused. "Just so long as the boat's here when I do come back."

"She will be, Mistress. And 111 be right with her," said the dwarf. The fingers of one grimy hand could be seen working busi­ly, as if he were doing sums. "Might be a few extra charges ..."

Usha shrugged, continued on her way.

"Platinum!" she heard the dwarf say with a covetous sigh. "With a ruby!"

Usha evaded the Palanthas port authority simply because she had no idea who they were or that she was supposed to explain to them who she was and why she was in Palanthas. She walked right past the guards and through the rebuilt portion of the city wall with such perfect poise and cool aplomb that not one of the admittedly overworked guardsmen took the time to stop her or question her. She looked as if she had a perfect right to be where she was.

Her poise was, in reality, innocence. Her aplomb was an ice coating over her terror and confusion.

She spent the next several hours wandering the hot, dust-ridden, and overcrowded streets of Palanthas. At every turn, she saw something that amazed, terrified, dazzled, or repulsed her. She had no idea where she was headed, what she was doing, except that somehow she had to find this Lord Dalamar. After that, she supposed she should find someplace to sleep.

The Protector had made some vague references to "lodg­ings" and a "job," earning "money." The Protector could not be more specific. He'd had only limited contact with humans dur­ing his long life, and though he'd heard of such concepts as "working for one's bread," he had only the vaguest idea what that meant.

Usha had no idea whatsoever.

She stared and gawked, overawed. The ornate buildings- so different from the Irda's small, single-story dwellings-tow­ered over her, taller than the pine trees. She was lost in a forest of marble. And the number of people! She saw more people in one minute in Palanthas than she'd seen during a lifetime of living among the Irda. And all the people seemed to be in a tearing hurry, bustling and shoving and pushing and walking very fast, red-faced and out of breath.

At first, Usha wondered fearfully if the city was afflicted by some sort of dire emergency. Perhaps war. But, on asking a young girl who was drawing water from a well, Usha learned that this was only "market day" and that the city was unusu­ally quiet-probably due to the severe heat.

It had been hot near the bay; the sun reflecting off the water burned Usha's fair skin, even in the shade. But at least on the docks she had felt the lingering cool touch of an ocean breeze. Such relief never reached the city proper. Palanthas sweltered. The heat radiated upward from the cobblestone streets, frying those who walked on them as surely as if they'd been set down on a red-hot griddle. Yet the streets were cool compared to the interiors of shops and houses. Shop owners, who could not leave their businesses, fanned themselves and tried to keep from dozing off. The poor people abandoned their stifling homes, lived and slept in the parks or on top of roofs, hoping to catch the barest hint of a breath of air. The wealthy stayed within their marble-walled dwellings, drank warm wine (there was no ice, for the^ snows on the mountaintops had almost all melted), and complained languidly of the heat.

The stench of too many sweating bodies, crowded too close together, of garbage and refuse baking in the sun, stole Usha's breath, set her gagging. She wondered how anyone could ever live with such a dreadful smell, but the girl had said she didn't smell anything except Palanthas in the summertime.

Usha traveled all over Palanthas, walked and walked. She passed an enormous building, which someone told her was "the Great Library" and recalled hearing the Protector speak of it in respectful tones as the source of all knowledge about everything in the world.

Thinking this might be a good place to inquire about the whereabouts of Lord Dalamar, Usha stopped a brown-robed young man walking about the grounds of the Great Library and made her inquiry. The monk opened his eyes very wide, drew back from Usha about six paces, and pointed down a street.

Following his directions, Usha emerged from an alley into the shadow of a hideous-looking tower surrounded by a grove of dark trees. Although she had been sweating moments before, she now shook with sudden chills. Cold, dank darkness seemed to flow from out of the woods. Shivering, she turned and fled and was actually relieved to find herself once again in the baking sunlight. As for Lord Dalamar, Usha could only imagine that the monk had been mistaken. No one could pos­sibly live in such a dreadful place.

She passed a beautiful building that was, by its inscription, a temple to Paladine. She passed parks and the magnificent yet sterile-looking homes of the wealthy. (Usha took them to be museums). She passed shops filled with wondrous objects, everything from sparkling jewels to swords and armor such as the young knights had worn.

And always, hordes of people.

Lost and confused, not sure why she'd been sent to this bewildering city, Usha continued to wander the streets. She was weakened by the heat and weariness, and only gradually became conscious, as she walked along, that people were star­ing at her. Some actually came to a halt and gazed at her in gaping wonderment. Others-generally men, who were fash­ionably dressed-doffed their feathered caps and smiled at her.

Usha naturally assumed they were mocking her appearance, and she thought this very cruel. Bedraggled, miserable, feeling sorry for herself, she wondered how the Protector could have sent her to such a hateful place. Gradually, however, she came to real­ize that these stares and cap-doffings and bowings were admiring.

Having some vague idea that the journey had altered her appearance, Usha halted to study her reflection in the glass win­dow of a shop. The glass was wavy and distorted her face, but then so did the water of the small pond she was accustomed to using for a mirror back at home. She hadn't changed. Her hair was still flaxen-silver, her eyes still their odd color, her features regular, but lacking the molded, crafted, exquisite beauty of those of the Irda. She was, as she had always been-in her own eyes-homely.

"What very strange people," Usha said to herself, after a young man had been so occupied in staring at her that he'd acci­dentally walked into a tree.

At length, when she'd nearly worn the soles of her leather boots through, Usha noticed that the hot sun was finally setting, the shadows of the buildings were growing longer and a hint cooler. The number of people on the street diminished. Mothers appeared in doorways, shouting for their children to come home. Looking through the windows of several fine houses, Usha saw families gathering together. She was worn, weary, alone. She had no place to spend the night, and, she realized, she was ravenously hungry.

The Protector had supplied her with food for her journey, but she'd eaten all that before she had sailed into Palanthas. Fortunately, however, she had accidentally wended her way into the merchandising section of the city.

The vendors were just closing up their stalls, prior to calling it a day. Usha had been wondering what people did for food in this bustling city. Now she had her answer. Apparently, people didn't serve food on tables here in Palanthas. They handed it out in the streets. Usha thought that rather odd, but then everything in this city was odd.

She drew close to a booth that had a few odd pieces of fruit left on it. The fruit was withered and dried, having baked in the heat all day, but it looked wonderful to her. Picking up several apples, Usha bit into one, devoured it, and stuffed the rest into one of her pouches.

Leaving the fruit vendors, she came to a baker and added a loaf of bread to her meal. Usha was glancing about, searching for a booth offering wine, when an unholy commotion burst out around her.

"Catch her! Hold her! Thief! Thief!"

An Assault. Arrested. Tasslehoff is surprised.

sha stared in amazement at a tall, thin man in a leather apron, who danced and bobbed around her. "Thief!" he cried, pointing at her. "She stole my fruit!"

"She ran off with my bread," panted a flour-smudged woman, who had been running after the man. "That's-it, sticking out of her pouch! I'll have that back, you hussy."

The baker made a grab for the bread. Usha slapped the woman's hand away.

The woman began to howl. "Murder! She tried to murder me!"

The idlers and ruffians who generally hung about the market, swilling raw wine and waiting for trouble, were quick to sniff it. A jeering crowd gathered around Usha. A ragged and uncouth-looking man grabbed hold of her.

"I'll volunteer to search her!" he yelled. "Looks to me like she's got those apples stuffed down her blouse!"

The crowd laughed and pressed closer.

Usha had never experienced such rough treatment. Pampered, coddled, brought up among a society of people who didn't raise their voices, much less their fists, she was shocked almost sense­less. She had no weapons, and it didn't occur to her, in her initial panic, to use the magical items the Irda had given her. She wouldn't have known how to use them anyway, having paid scant attention to the instructions given her.

The man's filthy hands tore her blouse; his fingers groped to touch her flesh. His fellows cheered him on.

Panic gave way to fury. The ferocity of a cornered animal burned in Usha. She lashed out wildly, with strength borne of terror. She hit and bit and kicked and flailed, not knowing, not caring who she hurt, wanting to hurt them all, wanting to hurt every living being in this hateful city.

It was only when strong hands took hold of her arm, clasping it and giving it a painful twist, and a clear, firm voice said, "Here now, stop this, young woman!" that the blood-tinged mist cleared from her eyes.

Usha blinked, gasped for breath, and peered dizzily around.

A tall, muscular man dressed in a dull, crimson-colored tunic and leggings, with an official air about him, had hold of her. At his arrival, the crowd rapidly dispersed, with varied and color­ful comments about guardsmen who spoiled their fun. The man who had accosted her lay on the ground, groaning and clutching his private parts.

"Who started this?" The guardsman glared around.

"She stole bread from my stall, Y'Honor," cried the baker, "and then she tried to murder the lot of us."

"Them's my apples," accused the fruit vendor. "She walked off with 'em, just as cool as cucumbers."

"I never meant to steal anything," Usha protested, snuffling a little. Tears had always worked with Prot when she was in trou­ble, and she was quick to fall back on old habits. "I thought the fruit and the bread were set out for anyone to take." She wiped her eyes. "I didn't mean to hurt anyone. I'm tired and I'm lost and I'm hungry, and then that man ... he touched ..."

The tears came for real at the horrible memory. The guards­man gazed at her helplessly, attempted to comfort her.

"Now, now there. Don't cry. The heat's likely addlepated you. Give these two fair payment, and we'll call it even. Won't we?" the guardsman added, with a glowering glance at the two ven­dors, who glowered back, but nodded grudging assent.

"I don't have any money," Usha gulped.

"Vagrant!" the man snapped.

"Worse than that." The woman sniffed. "Obviously no better than she should be. Look at those outlandish clothes! I want her set in the stocks and whipped!"

The guardsman appeared displeased, but he didn't have much choice. The contested bread lay on the street, having fall­en out of Usha's pouch during the scuffle, and she reeked of overripe, squashed apple.

"We'll let the magistrate settle all this. Come along, young woman. And you two, you'll have to come as well if you want to swear out a warrant."

The guard marched Usha off. The two vendors trailed behind, the woman stiff with righteous indignation, the apple-vendor wondering uneasily if this was going to cost him money.

Numb and exhausted, Usha paid no attention to where she was being taken. She stumbled along beside her captor, her head bowed, not wanting to see any more of this horrible place. She was dimly aware of leaving the streets and entering a large building made entirely of stone, with an enormous, heavy wooden door guarded by more men wearing the same crimson-colored tunic as the man-at-arms. They opened the door. Her guard led her inside.

The stone-walled room into which she was led was refresh­ingly dark and cool, after the glare and heat of the streets. Usha looked up and around. The guard was arguing with the two vendors. Usha ignored them. Although she was involved, none of this seemed to have anything to do with her. It was all part of this horrible city, which she was going to leave the moment she delivered her letter.

A large man, looking bored by the whole affair, sat at a desk, writing something down in a greasy-paged book. Behind him was an enormous room filled with people, sitting or sleeping on the cold stone floor. Numerous iron bars, bolted into the ceiling and floor, separated the people inside the large room from those on the outside.

"Here's another one, jailer. Petty theft. Lock her up with the rest of the lot until the magistrate can hear her case in the morn­ing," said the guardsman.

The large man glanced up, saw Usha. His eyes widened. "If the Thieves' Guild is taking on recruits who look like her, I'll join myself!" he said in an undertone to the guardsman. "Now then, Mistress, you'll have to leave those pouches with me."

"What? Why? Don't touch these!" Usha clasped her valuables tightly to her.

"You'll likely get them back," the guardsman assured her with a shrug. "Here, now, young woman, don't start any trou­ble. You're in enough as it is."

Usha held on to the pouches a moment longer. The large man frowned, said something about taking them by force.

"No, don't touch me!" Usha said, and reluctantly removed both of her pouches-the small one with her clothes, the large one with her gifts-and placed them on the desk in front of the jailer.

"I should warn you," she said, in an anger-choked voice, "that some of the objects in that pack are magic, and you better treat them with respect. Also, I am carrying a scroll that I am supposed to deliver to someone known as Lord Dalamar. I don't know who this Dalamar is, but I'm sure he wouldn't be pleased to know you tampered with his things."

Usha had hoped to impress her captors, and she did, though not quite in the way she'd intended. The jailer, who had been rifling eagerly through the pouches, suddenly snatched his hand away from mem as if they might be some gnomish invention that was likely to explode at a moment's notice.

The apple vendor cried out, "I drop all charges!" and made a swift departure.

"A witch," pronounced the baker, standing her ground. "I figured as much. Burn her at the stake."

"We don't do that anymore," the jailer growled, but he was pale and shaken. "Did you say Dalamar?"

"Yes, I did." Usha was considerably startled at all this fuss, but-seeing that the name meant something to these people- she took advantage of it. "And you better treat me well, or I'm certain Lord Dalamar will be displeased."

The two men conferred in low voices.

"What should we do?" the jailer whispered.

"Send for Mistress Jenna. She'll know," returned the guard.

"Do I put her in the cells?"

"You want her running around loose?"

The conversation ended with Usha being escorted-respect­fully-into the large room behind the iron bars. Almost imme­diately, she was surrounded by what she thought at first were human children. She was wondering what crimes these children could have committed, when she heard the jailer swear at them.

"Get back, you blasted kender! Here now! Where's my keys? Ah, you rascal! Give me them back! Find a seat, Missy," the jail­er yelled at her, making snatches and grabs at the kender all the while. "Someone'll be along soon. And what are you doing with my pipe? And you, hand over that ironweed pouch or so help me, Gilean, I'll-"

Muttering and swearing, the jailer left the cell, retreated thankfully to his desk.

So these were kender! Usha was interested in meeting the people whom Prot had dubbed, the "merry thieves of Krynn." Meeting them was not a problem, since the ever curious kender were always interested in meeting any stranger who came into what they considered to be "their" jail.

All talking at once, asking her thirty questions in the space of five seconds, the kender swarmed around her, jabbering and giggling, touching and patting. The noise, the clamor, the heat, her fear and hunger-it was all suddenly too much for her to bear. The room started to heave, then tilt. The air was shot through with sparkling stars.

The next thing Usha knew, she was lying on the floor, looking up into the anxious face of one of the kender. This kender appeared older than the rest; crinkly lines webbed his eyes, laugh-lines tugged at his mouth. Long hair streaked with gray was gathered in a topknot on his head and hung to his shoulder. His face was as pleasant and friendly and curious as that of a child or all the other kender, but he seemed more grown-up than the rest.

When any of the kender came too dose, this elder kender shooed them off. Even the rougher elements of the human pop­ulation, who were also penned up in the holding cell, appeared to respect him, for they, too, kept their distance.

"What happened?" Usha asked, struggling to sit up.

"You fainted," the kender explained. "And I really think you should lie down some more. I've never fainted myself-at least not that I can remember. I keep thinking I should like to try it sometime, but I never seem to manage it. How are you feeling? The guard said you probably passed out because you haven't eaten in a while and that you'd come around. And, sure enough, you did! Are you hungry? In about an hour they'll bring us some bread and soup. The food's good here. Palanthas has a very nice jail, one of the nicest in all Ansalon. What remarkable eyes you have. Kind of a gold color, aren't they? You certainly do look familiar. Have we met before? Were you ever in Solace?"

"I don't think so," Usha answered wearily. The kender's chat­ter was comforting, but his innumerable questions confused her. "I've never heard of Solace."

She felt rotten. Her head ached and her empty stomach gnawed at her. Prot had warned her to be wary of kender, but this one was the first person she'd met who'd spoken kindly to her. Looking around, she noticed that her head was pillowed on what was probably-to judge by the vivid green, which was the same color as the pants he was wearing-the kender's cloak.

Usha was grateful and tried a smile. "Who are you?"

The kender appeared shocked, then chagrined. "Didn't I introduce myself? I guess not. I was going to, when you keeled over." He held out a small, nut-brown hand. "My name's Tasslehoff Burrfoot. My friends all call me Tas. What's your name?"

"Usha." She accepted the hand and shook it solemnly.

"Just Usha? Most humans I know have two names."

"Just Usha."

"Anyway, that's a pretty name. Pretty enough for two names together." The kender studied her thoughtfully. "You know, Usha, you really do remind me of someone. I wonder who it could be?"

Usha didn't know, and she didn't care. Closing her eyes, feel-ing protected by her new friend, she let herself relax and drift into sleep.

On the ragged edge of consciousness, she heard the kender murmur in awed tones, "I have it! She has gold eyes - just like Raistlin!"

The Sorceress.

Mistress Jenna Is Surprised.

he smell of hot soup woke Usha from her nap. She felt better after her brief rest. Propped against the stone wall, she drank chicken broth from a chipped crockery bowl and wondered what was going to hap­pen to her next. At least she'd solved the problem of where she was going to sleep.

It was now nighttime. The cell was dark, lit only by the light of a few sputtering torches on the wall of the prison's entrance.

The kender, Tas, drank his soup, then offered Usha his hunk of brown bread. "Here, you still look hungry."

Usha had finished her bread in about three bites. She hesi­tated. "Are you sure you don't want it?"

Tas shook his head. "No, that's all right. If I get hungry, I've likely got something in my pouches to eat." He indicated vari­ous bulging bags that were draped about his slender frame.

Usha frowned. "Why do you get to keep your things? They took mine."

"Oh, that's the way it always is." Tas shrugged. "I'm not sure why, but they never take anything from us kender. Maybe it's because they don't have room to store them. We tend to col­lect things in our travels. Or perhaps it's because it would be too difficult to sort out who belongs to what in the morning. Not that it would matter to us, particularly. We" - he gestured at the other members of his race, who were now pelting each other with bread - "share everything."

"So do my people," said Usha, before she thought.

"Your people. Who are your people? Where do you come from? You certainly don't come from around here, that's for sure." Tas nodded so emphatically that his topknot flipped over his head and smacked him in the nose.

"How can you tell?" Usha asked, ignoring the question.

"Well ..." Tas stared at her, paused to consider. "You're dressed differently, that's one. You talk differently. Same words, but you say them in a peculiar way. And you're about one hundred times prettier than any woman I've ever seen, with the exception of Laurana - that's Tanis's wife, but you probably don't know him, do you? I didn't think so. Oh, and Tika. She married Caramon. Do you know him? He had a twin brother named Raistlin."

Tas looked at Usha oddly as he asked this question. She recalled hearing the name Raistlin before she drifted off to sleep, but she couldn't remember what the kender had said about it. Not that it mattered. She'd never heard of either of them, and she said as much.

"As for my being pretty, I know you mean well, but you don't have to lie to me. I know what I am." Usha sighed.

"I'm not lying!" Tas protested. "Kender never lie. And if you don't believe me, ask those men over in that corner there. They were talking about you. Well, maybe you better not speak to them after all. They're a bad lot. They're thieves!" he added, in a shocked whisper.

Usha was moderately confused. "You're not a thief?"

"Great Paladine's beard, no!" Tas's eyes were round and wide in indignation.

"Then why are you in prison?"

"A mistake," Tas said cheerfully. "It always happens to us kender-on a daily basis, if you can believe that! Of course, they know it's a mistake." He nodded at the guardsman. "They never charge us, and they always let us go in the morning. Then they spend the day rounding us up and bringing us all back here at night. Gives us all something to do, you see."

Usha didn't understand, tried to think of how to get infor­mation without rousing the kender's suspicions.

"Maybe you can explain something to me, Tas. Where I come from, my people live a lot like you do. We share every­thing. But here, everyone seems so-well-greedy. I took some man's apples. I was hungry. The apples were spoiled. He would have had to throw them out anyway. Why did he get so mad? And that woman. Her bread would have been stale by morning."

"I know what you mean. It all has to do with things," Tas explained. "Humans are very keen on things. They like to own things, and when they get tired of owning their things they don't give them away, they demand other things in exchange. Remember that, and you'll get on fine. Where do you come from, by the way, Usha?"

It was a casual question. The kender was probably just curi­ous, but Usha remembered Profs warning not to reveal that she'd been living among the Irda.

"I'm from all over, really," she answered, watching the kender from beneath lowered eyelids, to see his reaction. "I wander here and there, never stay in one place long."

"You know, Usha," said Tas admiringly, "you'd make a great kender. You've never been to Solace, you said?"

"Oh, I might have. One place is a lot like another. Who can remember names?"

"I can! I make maps. But the reason I asked about Solace is that you look just like-"

Keys clanked in the cell door. The jailer entered. This time he carried a staff, which he used to fend off the kender. He peered around the shadowy cell. "Where's that newest prisoner?" He spotted Usha. "You there. Someone wants to talk to you."

"Me?" Usha thought he must be mistaken.

"You. Get moving. Mistress Jenna ain't got all night."

Usha looked at Tas for information.

"Mistress Jenna's a Red Robe mage," he offered. "She runs a mage-ware shop in town. A truly wonderful place!"

"What's she want with me?"

"The jailer always calls her to come inspect anything he con­fiscates that he thinks might be magic. Did you have anything with you that might be magic?"

"Maybe," Usha said, biting her lip.

"You! Apple thief!" The jailer was prodding at the giggling kender with his staff. "Get over here now!"

"Come on, Usha." Tas stood up, held out his hand. "Don't be afraid. Mistress Jenna's real nice. She and I are old acquain­tances. I've been thrown out of her shop on numerous occa­sions."

Usha stood. She did not accept the kender's hand. Arranging her face to show careless indifference, she walked on her own over to the iron-barred door.

The jailer let her out and grabbed hold of Tasslehoff just as the kender was sidling past, hiding in Usha's shadow. "Here now? Where are you going, Master Burrfoot?"

"To say hello to Mistress Jenna, of course. I wouldn't want to be impolite."

"You wouldn't, would you? Well, now, you just be good and polite and hustle your way back into that cell."

The jailer gave Tas a shove and slammed the door shut in the kender's face. Tas clung to the bars, peering out, trying to see.

"Hullo, Mistress Jenna!" he yelled, waving his small arms. "It's me! Tasslehoff Burrfoot, one of the Heroes of the Lance!"

A woman wearing a red velvet hooded cloak stood beside the jailer's desk. She turned her head in the direction of the kender's shout, smiled a cool smile, and briefly nodded. Then she went back to what she had been doing - sorting through Usha's pos­sessions, which were now lined neatly on the desk.

"Here she is, Mistress Jenna, the one who was asking about the Master of the Tower."

The woman drew aside the hood of her cloak to get a better view. She was human, her face lovely but cold, as if it were carved from the same stone as the white marble buildings. Dark eyes gazed intently at and through Usha.

Usha's stomach clenched. Her legs trembled. Her mouth went dry. She realized in an instant that this woman knew everything. What would happen to her now? Prot had warned her. Humans consider the Irda no better - maybe worse - than ogres. And humans slew ogres without mercy.

"Come closer, child," the woman said, beckoning with a shapely, delicate hand. "Into the light."

The woman was probably not much older than Usha herself, but the aura of mystery, power, and magic that surrounded the Red Robe wizardess added immeasurably to her years.

Usha walked brashly forward, determined not to let this sor­ceress see that she was intimidated. She stepped into the light.

Jenna's eyes widened. She took a step forward, sucked in a swift breath. "Lunitari bless us!" she whispered.

With a swift motion, she drew her hood back up over her head and turned to the jailer. "You will release this prisoner into my custody. I'll take her and her belongings."

The woman gathered up the gifts of the Irda, handling each carefully, with respect, and replaced them safely inside Usha's pouch. The jailer regarded them with deep suspicion.

"I was right, then, wasn't I, Mistress Jenna. They are magic."

"You were quite right to summon me. And I'm glad to see, Torg, that you've learned your lesson about handling strange objects. That spell you accidentally cast on yourself was not an easy one to reverse."

"I won't be doing that again, I promise you, Mistress Jenna!" The jailer shuddered. "You can have her and good riddance. But you've got to sign for her. She's your responsibility. She robs another fruit stand and - "

"She won't be robbing any more fruit stands," Jenna said crisply, picking up Usha's pouches. "Come along, child. What is your name, by the way?"

"Usha. And I want my things," she said loudly, far more loud­ly than she'd intended.

Jenna raised feathery eyebrows.

Usha flushed, chewed on her lip. "They are mine," she said sullenly. "I didn't steal them."

"I am aware of that," Jenna replied. "Such valuable, arcane objects do not permit themselves to be stolen. A curse on anyone foolish enough to try." She cast a glance at the jailer, who blushed, ducked his head, and wrote furiously in his book. Jenna handed over the pouches.

Usha took them, followed Jenna to the prison entrance.

"Thank you for getting me out of there, Mistress. If there's
ever anything I can do for you, just let me know. Where's your
shop? Perhaps I'll stop by it sometime...... "

Jenna was smiling again.

"Yes, indeed you will. Right now. Don't worry, Usha. I plan to take you exactly where you want to go."

"Where's that?" Usha asked in heart-sinking bewilderment.

"To see Dalamar, of course. The Master of the Tower will be quite interested in meeting you, Usha."

"You bet he will!" piped a shrill voice from behind. "Tell Dalamar that Tasslehoff Burrfoot said hullo. And say, Mistress Jenna, don't you think that Usha looks an awful lot like Raistlin?"

The sorceress halted. For as long as it might take someone to count to ten, she stood perfectly still and quiet. Then, slowly, she turned around, retraced her steps.

Usha remained at the entrance, wondering if she should try to run for it. She had the feeling she wouldn't get very far; her legs were the consistency of jelly. And where would she run to any­way? She leaned wearily against the door.

Jenna approached the jailer. "Release the kender into my cus­tody as well."

Torg scowled. "You sure, Mistress? He's a dang nuisance-"

"I'm sure," Jenna said, an edge in her voice as sharp and cold as steel. "Release him now."

Torg drew out his keys, hastened to the cell door, unlocked it.

Tasslehoff-topknot swinging, pouches jouncing-marched out. He offered a polite hand to Jenna.

"How do you do? I don't think we've been formally intro­duced. I'm Tasslehoff-"

"I know who you are," she said. "I believe Dalamar would like to have a word with you."

"How wonderful! I haven't seen Dalamar in years. Is it true that he's your lover? Well, you needn't look at me like that.

Caramon told me. He said you two-"

"Start walking," Jenna said somewhat grimly, steering the kender out of the jail and into the street. "Five paces in front of me, and keep your hands where I can see them. Usha, stay with me."

"I get to lead the way?" Tas was excited.

"If you want to think of it as that," Jenna returned. "No, not that direction. We're going outside the city wall, back to my dwelling place."

"But I thought we were visiting the Tower of High Sorcery!" Tas wailed. "I wanted to go through the Shoikan Grove! I saw it once, from a distance. It was truly evil and horrible and deadly. It almost killed Caramon, you know. Please, couldn't we take that route?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Jenna snapped. "No person in his right mind-though I realize that this description precludes kender!- would' want to walk the Shoikan Grove, especially at night. / do not walk the Shoikan Grove, and I have been a student at the Tower. I will transport us there by a more sedate route, if you don't mind. That is why we are returning to my shop."

Tas was downcast for a moment, then he shrugged. "Oh, well," he said, cheering up. "At least we get to go to the Tower.

"This will be fun!" he added, looking back at Usha as he skipped along ahead of her. For an elder, he certainly had a lot of energy. "The Tower of High Sorcery is a fascinating place! I haven't been there in years, mind you. It's filled with all sorts of magic-most of it evil and all of it very, very powerful. Dalamar's a black-robed wizard, but then I guess you know that, if you want to see him. He's a dark elf and now he's the most powerful wizard in all of Ansalon-"

Usha stopped, stared at the kender.

"A Black Robe? A dark elf? But... mat can't be right! The Protector wouldn't have sent me to see one of them. Surely ... maybe there's another Dalamar?"

She heard laughter, like the chiming of silver bells, ring out in the darkness.

"Keep walking," said Jenna, stifling her amusement. "And rest assured, child-there is only one Dalamar."

The Tower Of High Sorcery.

A Dinner Party. Dalamar

Is Unpleasantly Surprised.

n daylight, the Tower of High Sorcery in Palanthas was a place of terror, avoided by all. By night, the tower was ghastly.

Once there had been five Towers of High Sorcery, located throughout the continent of Ansalon. Now there were only two. One of them was in Wayreth Forest and was impossible to reach, unless the mages there wanted you to reach them. At that time, the magical forest surrounding the tower would find you and guide you.

The Tower of High Sorcery in Palanthas was also nearly impossible to reach. It was guarded by the Shoikan Grove, a stand of trees inhabited by undead guardians. The fear the grove generated was so potent that most people could not bear to come within sight of it. Only those loyal to Queen Takhisis or those with a special charm, provided by the tower's master, could enter the accursed grove. And even they did not do so with impunity. Those who had to travel to the tower on busi­ness - or, as in Jenna's case, pleasure - generally took a less dan­gerous route. They walked the paths of magic.

Jenna escorted her charges through the old wall, entered what was known as New City. Designed and built by dwarves some­time during the Age of Might, Palanthas was divided into two sections: Old City and New City. Old City, surrounded by a wall, was carefully laid out like a wheel, with eight roads radiating from a central hub, wherein was located the lord's palace. Palanthas having long ago outgrown the cramped confines of Old City, its people built New City.

Sprawling outside the wall, New City was the center of the merchandising district. All the major guild halls could be found here, as well as dwellings for the merchants.

Jenna's mage-ware shop was located in the best part of New City, rather to the discomfort of other shop owners nearby, who viewed her arcane clientele with deep suspicion. It was known that Jenna was a favorite with Dalamar, Master of the Tower of High Sorcery. And while the Lord of Palanthas was the avowed authority figure in the city, no citizen would have dared do any­thing to cross the Master of the Tower.

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Thus, the merchants grumbled about Jenna, but they did so quietly.

Arriving at her mage-ware shop, which was marked by a sign bearing the images of the three moons - the silver, the red, and the black - Jenna first took the precaution of binding the kender's hands with a silken cord. Only then did she remove the spell guarding the door. She ushered her guests inside.

"Is that necessary?" Usha asked indignantly, pointing at the kender's bindings. "He's not a thief, you know."

Jenna gazed at Usha, lifted her eyebrows.

Usha, wondering what she'd said that was so remarkable, flushed and bit her lip.

"I don't mind, truly," Tas said cheerfully, admiring the silken cord around his wrists. "I'm used to it."

"It's more for his protection and our own, than because I'm worried about losing money," Jenna returned. She spoke a word that sounded to Usha like brittle ice cracking, and a lamp in the room burst into light. Jenna cast a sharp glance at the young woman. "You're not familiar with kender, are you?"

Usha thought frantically of what Prot had told her, wished she paid more attention. She decided to bluff, though she had the heart-sinking feeling that she was wasting her time. "What a strange question. Of course I know all there is to know about kender. Doesn't everyone who lives on Ansalon?"

"Unfortunately, yes. Which is precisely why I asked. This way. Put that down!" Jenna ordered Usha sharply. She had just paused to pick up and study a pretty bottle. "A drop of that on your skin will cause your flesh to fall off in chunks. For mercy's sake, don't touch anything else! You're as bad as a kender. Both of you, come with me."

Usha gingerly replaced the bottle on the shelf. She clasped her hands firmly behind her back and hurried along, trying to see everything at once, with the result that she saw very little. Her chief impression of the shop was the smell, which was enticing and, at the same time, repulsive. Jars of spices and pungent herbs stood beside jars of dead and rotting things. Spellbooks, some of them musty and mildewed, were arranged neatly on bookshelves that covered one entire wall. Jewelry sparkled from inside glass cases.

"In the cellar is my laboratory," Jenna said, opening a door. "You're not to touch anything in here either!"

The door, marked with strange and unreadable symbols, led to a staircase. Jenna personally escorted Tasslehoff, keeping fast

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hold of his topknot and giving it a painful yank whenever he looked inclined to meddle with anything. She motioned Usha to descend the stairs after them.

The laboratory was underground, beneath the shop. A light came on at their entrance, but it was a dim and eerie blue and illuminated very little. Usha had to watch her footing going down the stairs.

"Now, both of you stand right there and don't move!" Jenna commanded when they reached the floor level. She disappeared into the shadows. At length, they heard her talking to someone in low, indistinguishable tones.

Usha caught hold of Tasslehoff by the collar of his green shirt just as he was walking off.

"She said not to move!" Usha scolded.

"I'm sorry," Tas whispered back. He looked truly contrite. "I didn't mean to. It's my feet. My head told them not to move, but sometimes what my head thinks doesn't quite make it down that far. The thoughts seem to stop somewhere around the level of my knees. But don't you think mis all terribly exciting? Look over there!" He was breathless with awe. "That's a human skull! I don't suppose she'd mind if I-"

"Yes, I do think she'd mind," Usha said crossly. "Now stay put." She kept fast hold of Tas, not because she was really wor­ried about him disobeying Jenna, but because she desperately needed someone to hold on to.

"I'm glad she brought you along," Usha added impulsively, "though I'm really not sure why. She doesn't seem to like having you around."

"Oh, she didn't have much choice," Tas said, shrugging. "Not after I said what I said about Raistlin."

"What did that mean-my looking like Raistlin? I don't understand. Who is Raistlin?"

"Who is Raistlin?" Tasslehoff repeated, stunned, forgetting to whisper. "You never heard of Raistlin Majere? I didn't think there was anyone in Ansalon who'd never heard of Raistlin!"

Usha, realizing she'd made a mistake, gave a small laugh. "Oh, that Raistlin! Well, certainly I've heard of him. I just didn't know which Raistlin you were talking about. Raistlin's quite a common name where I come from. Several people named Raistlin live in our village. Elvish, isn't it?"

"I don't think so," Tas returned thoughtfully. "Raistlin wasn't an elf, and Caramon certainly isn't an elf! Caramon's big enough to make about three elves, if you chopped him up. And then they were twins, and elves don't tend to have twins a whole lot, as I recall. It's been quite awhile since I've visited Qualinesti. They won't let me across the border, though I know the new Speaker of the Sun. He's Tanis's boy, Gil. You've heard of Tanis Half-Elven, haven't you?"

"Who hasn't!" Usha exclaimed, though she might have included herself. •

At least she'd discovered that Raistlin was a "he," something she hadn't been certain about. And that he had something to do with someone named Caramon. Congratulating herself on hav­ing covered her tracks nicely, she was thinking up her next ques­tion when Jenna returned.

"She knows who Raistlin is. Don't let her fool you, kender. Come along now, both of you. I've spoken to Dalamar and-"

"Dalamar! Is he here? Dalamar!" Tasslehoff waved and hoot­ed. "Yoo hoo! It's me, Tas. Remember me? I-"

"He is not here," Jenna interrupted in stern, cold tones. "He is in the tower. We have ways of communicating, he and I. Now, see that circle of salt on the floor?"

Usha didn't; she couldn't even see the floor in the dimness, but at that moment, the light from the lamp suddenly intensi­fied. The circle was clearly visible.

"Step into it carefully," Jenna instructed. "Make certain you don't disturb the salt."

"I know!" Tas cried, highly excited. "I saw Par-Salian do this with Caramon. That was the time I accidentally turned myself into a mouse. You see, Usha, I was in the Tower of Wayreth and I'd found this ring-white with two red stones-and I put it on and-"

"For Gilean's sake, hold your tongue!" Jenna snapped. "Or /'// rum you into a mouse! And I'll turn myself into a cat."

"Could you really? What kind of a cat?" Tas chattered on. "Maybe you could turn me into a cat instead? I've never been a cat..."

"Take hold of my hands, both of you," Jenna continued, ignoring the kender. "Close your eyes and you won't become dizzy. And no matter what happens, don't let go of my hand."

She spoke words that crawled and twisted inside Usha's head. The floor seemed suddenly to give way. Usha's stomach gave way with it and she had the fearful impression of wind buffeting her. She needed no urging to hang on to Jenna's hand. She clung to the sorceress in terror.

And then Usha was standing on solid ground. The sound and feel of wind ceased. The darkness was gone. She squinted her eyes shut against a bright light.

"You can look now," came Jenna's voice. "We have arrived. You stand safely in the Tower of High Sorcery in Palanthas."

Usha wasn't certain she wanted to open her eyes. From the kender's description, this Tower of High Sorcery must be an evil, horrible place. Tasslehoff was already talking eagerly with someone, who was answering the kender in the polite but dis­tracted tones of one whose thoughts are elsewhere.

"Open your eyes, Usha," Jenna repeated sternly.

Blinking, Usha obeyed and was amazed to find herself, not in some sort of horror-filled dungeon, with bodies chained and manacled, hanging from the walls, but in a beautifully decorat­ed room. Colorful tapestries, portraying fantastical animals, cov­ered the stone walls. Woven rugs, with lovely, intricate patterns, were spread over the floors. Usha had never seen so much fur­niture in one place at one time.

"Welcome, Usha. Welcome to my tower," said a voice.

Usha turned to see what could only have been-from Prot's description of them-an elf. Tall and slender, with features almost rivaling those of the Irda in beauty, the man was clad in soft black robes, decorated with cabalistic symbols.

"I am Dalamar," said the elf.

His voice was as sweet and clear and seductive as flute music. He advanced toward her, and his movements were graceful, fluid, sinuous. His hair was dark and soft, worn shoulder-length. She was charmed by him, captivated, until she looked into his eyes. They caught her, held her, began to absorb her. Frightened, she tried to shift her gaze. The eyes refused to release her.

"Those pouches look heavy. I'll take them," Dalamar offered.

Usha relinquished the packs without a thought.

"You're trembling, my dear," Dalamar observed, adding in soothing tones, "Don't be afraid. I mean you no harm and might mean you a great deal of good. Please, sit down. May I pour you some wine? Offer you food?"

He gestured to a table, and with that gesture, he released Usha from the enchantment of his gaze. She glanced over at the table. Tempting smells rose from covered pots. Bowls of chilled fruit glis­tened in the bright light of a candelabra. Tasslehoff had already seated himself, was lifting lids and sniffing in appreciation.

"This really looks good. I'm hungry. Aren't you hungry, Usha? I can't imagine why. I just ate only about an hour ago. But then jail-house soup doesn't stay with you long. Not to say any­thing bad about the Palanthas jail soup," Tas added, looking anxiously at Dalamar. "You won't tell them I didn't like it, will you? I mean, it's truly quite tasty. I wouldn't want to hurt the cook's feelings."

"I won't say a word," Dalamar promised with a grave smile. "I only hope my poor repast is as good. Roast fowl, bread, fruit, sweetmeats, sugared nuts-all I can offer, this late at night, I'm afraid."

Usha was suddenly extremely hungry.

"It looks wonderful!" she said, and before she quite knew what she was doing, she sank down into one of the comfortable chairs and began ladling food onto her plate.

"I've never been so hungry in my life," she confided to Tas.

"Me neither," he mumbled incoherently, having shoved an entire baked apple into his mouth. With a tremendous effort, he chewed, swallowed, returned to his plate for more. "Must be all the excitement."

"Must be," said Jenna, biting into the crispy brown skin of a baked chicken breast.

The taste was so exquisite, she sighed with pleasure, devoured the chicken breast, and started in on another. It was only then that she realized that she and Tas were alone in the room.

"Where do you suppose Jenna and Dalamar went?" Usha asked, not particularly caring. She took a drink of hot, spiced cider, thought she had never tasted anything so delicious, and drank two more glasses.

"Dunno." Tas was gnawing vigorously on a hunk of bread. "I didn't see them leave. But then that's not unusual. People come and go like that all the time around here. Say, look, your pouch­es are gone, too."

"So they are." Usha, for some reason, found that funny.

She laughed. Tasslehoff laughed. Their laughter made them thirsty, and they drank more cider. Their thirst made them hun­gry, and they kept eating .•.. and eating.

Pausing at last, Usha wiped her hands on a clean cloth. Then, settling back in her chair, she said to Tas, "Tell me more about this person named Raistlin."

In another room, Jenna spread the contents of Usha's pouch onto a table. Dalamar bent over them, taking care not to touch

them, but studying each with a critical eye.

"That's the lot," said Jenna.

"What's in the other pouch?"

"Clothes, all made of silk, like those she's wearing. Nothing else."

"You said she said something about having a message for me."

"That's what she told the jailer. Three possibilities: she's lying, she's carrying it in her head, or she has it on her person."

Dalamar considered this. "I doubt she's lying. With what intent? She obviously has no idea who I am."

Jenna sniffed. "She claims she doesn't recognize the name Raistiin Majere, either."

"That's possible, all things considered." Dalamar continued inspecting the contents of the pouch. Placing his hand over them, he recited certain words. Every object on the table began to glow with a soft light, a few shining brighter than the rest. He lowered his hand, sighed with satisfaction. "You are right. All of them magical, some of them extremely powerful. And, none of them were made by any mage in any of the orders. You agree with me, my love?"

"Most assuredly." Jenna slipped her hand over his shoulder, kissed him lightly on the cheek.

Dalamar smiled, but did not withdraw his attention from the magical paraphernalia. "I wonder what spells are locked inside?" he said longingly.

He extended his hand again, this time moving toward a smallish piece of amber, which had been skillfully carved into the shape of a deer. Hesitantly, grimacing-as if he knew what was going to happen-he touched the amber with the tip of one finger.

A blue flash, a sizzling sound. Dalamar gasped in pain and hastily withdrew his hand.

Jenna, pursing her lips, shook her head.

"I could have told you that would happen. They are intended to be used by one person and one person only."

"Yes, I guessed as much myself. Still, it was worth a try."

The two exchanged glances, arrived at the same conclusion.

"Of Irda make?" Jenna asked.

"No doubt of it," Dalamar replied. "We have a few such arti­facts stored in the Tower of Wayreth. I recognize the workman­ship and"-he shook away the pain in his injured hand-"the effects."

"We can't use them, but obviously, since the Irda gave them to this girl, she can. Yet, I sense none of the art about her."

"Still, she must have some talent. If she is who we think she is."

Jenna looked amazed. "Do you have any doubts? Didn't you see her eyes? Like liquid gold! Only one man on Krynn had eyes like that. Even the kender recognized her."

"Tasslehoff?" Dalamar glanced up from his study of the arti­facts. "Did he? I wondered why you risked bringing him along. What did he say?"

"Too much. And too loudly," Jenna replied grimly. "People were starting to take notice."

"The kender as well." Dalamar walked over to the window, stared out into the night that seemed merely a deepening of the perpetual darkness surrounding the tower. "Can it be that the legend is true?"

"What else? The girl has obviously been raised in some place far from Ansalon. She has with her magical objects of great value crafted by the Irda. The kender recognized her and, beyond all of that, she has the golden eyes. She would be of the right age. And then there is the very fact that she was guided here."

Dalamar frowned, not altogether pleased at the notion. "I remind you again that Raistiin Majere is dead. He has been dead for well over twenty years."

"Yes, my dear one. Don't be upset." Jenna ran her hand through Dalamar's soft hair, gently kissed him on the ear. "But, there was that little matter of the Staff of Magius. Locked up inside the tower laboratory. Guarded by the undead with orders to allow no one to pass, not even you. Yet, who has the staff now? Palin Majere, Raistlin's nephew."

"The staff could have been a gift from Magius as well as Raistiin," Dalamar said irritably, withdrawing from her touch. "Magius being the more likely, since he was friends with the knight Huma, and all know that Palin's brothers were planning on entering the knighthood. I explained this all to the Conclave-"

"Yes, my love," Jenna said, lowering her eyes. "Still, you are the one who refuses to believe in coincidence. Was it coincidence that brought that young woman here? Or something else?"

"Perhaps you are right," Dalamar said, after a moment's thought.

He walked over to a large, ornately framed wall mirror. Jenna joined him. For a moment, they saw only their own reflections. Dalamar reached out, brushed his hand across the glass. The

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reflections vanished, were replaced by Usha and Tasslehoff, eat­ing the charmed food, drinking the enchanted cider, laughing at nothing and at everything.

"How strange," Dalamar murmured, watching them. "I thought it no more than legend. Yet there she sits."

"Raistlin's daughter," Usha said softly. "We have found Raistlin's daughter!"

 

 

The Inn Of The Last Home.

A Discussion Between Old Friends.

 

t was nighttime in Solace. The day's heat remained, rising from the dirt, the trees, the walls of the houses. But at least the night banished the angry, fiery sun, which glared down from the heavens like the baleful eye of some infuriated god. At night, the eye closed and people breathed sighs of relief and began to venture out.

This summer was the hottest and driest anyone in Solace could remember. The dirt streets were baked hard; cracks had formed. A choking dust, rising whenever a cart trundled by, hung in the air, cast a pall over the valley. The beautiful leaves of the gigantic vallenwood trees wilted, drooped limp and seem­ingly lifeless from dried-out, creaking boughs.

Life had turned upside-down in Solace. Usually the days were bustling, busy times, with people going to market, farmers working in the fields, children playing, women washing clothes in the streams. Now the days were empty, lifeless, drooping, like the leaves on the trees.

The crops in the fields had withered and died in the blaring heat, so the farmers no longer went to market. Most of the stalls in the market closed. It was too hot to play, so the children stayed indoors, fretting and whining and bored. The rushing streams had shrunk to meandering, muddy puddles. The waters of Crystalmir Lake were unnaturally warm. Dead fish washed up on the shoreline. Few people left the relative coolness of their homes during the day. They came out at night.

"Like bats," Caramon Majere said gloomily to his friend, Tanis Half-Elven. "We've all turned into bats, sleeping during the day, flying about by night..."

"Flying everywhere except here," Tika remarked. Standing behind Caramon's chair, she fanned herself with a tray. "Not even during the war was business this bad."

The Inn of the Last Home, perched high in the branches of an enormous vallenwood tree, was brightly lit, generally a wel­come beacon to late-night travelers. Shining through the stained glass, the warm light conjured up images of cool ale, mulled wine, honey mead, tingling cider and, of course, Otik's famous spiced potatoes. But the inn was empty this night, as it had been for many nights previous. Tika no longer bothered to light the cooking fire. It was just as well, for the kitchen was too hot to work in comfortably anyway.

No customers gathered around the bar to tell tales of the War of the Lance or swap more recent gossip. There were rumors of civil war among the elves. Rumors that the dwarves of Thorbardin had sent out the word to all their people to return home or risk being shut out when the dwarves-fearing elven attack-sealed up their mountain fortress. No peddlers tramped by on their customary routes. No tinkers came to mend pots. No minstrels came to sing. The only people still traveling these days were kender, and they generally spent their nights in local jail cells, not inns.

"People are nervous and upset," Caramon said, feeling called upon to make some excuse for his vanished customers. "All this talk of war. And unless this heat breaks soon, there'll be no har­vest. Food will be hard to come by this winter. That's why they're not coming-"

"I know, dear. I know." Uka put the tray on the counter. Wrapping her arms around her husband's brawny shoulders, she hugged him close. "I was just talking. Don't pay any atten­tion to me."

"As if I could ever not pay attention to you," Caramon said, running his hand through his wife's hair.

The passing years had not been easy ones for either of them. Tika and Caramon both worked hard to maintain the inn and, though it was work they loved, it was not easy. While most of her guests slumbered, Tika was awake, supervising the cooking of breakfast. All day long there were rooms to be made up, food to be prepared, guests welcomed with a cheery smile, clothes to be washed. When night came and the guests went to bed, Tika swept the floor, scrubbed the tables, and planned out what she would do tomorrow.

Caramon was still as strong as three men, still as big as three men, though much of his girth had shifted location, due to what he claimed was his bound duty to taste all the food. His hair had gone a bit gray at the temples and he had what he called "cogi­tating lines" marking his forehead. He was genial, affable, and took life as it came. He was proud of his boys, adored his little daughters, dearly loved his wife. His one regret, his one sorrow, was the loss of his twin brother to evil and to ambition. But he never allowed that one small cloud to dim his life.

Though she had been married over twenty-five years, and had borne five children, Tika could still turn heads when she

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walked through the bar. Her figure had grown plumper over the years, her hands cracked and reddened from being constantly in sudsy water. But her smile was still infectious, and she could proudly boast that there wasn't a strand of gray mingled with her luxuriant red curls.

Tanis could not say the same. His human blood was cooling - rapidly, it seemed to him. The elven blood could do little to warm him. He was strong, still, and could hold his own in bat­tle - though he hoped it wouldn't come to that.

Perhaps it was the sorrow, the worry, the turmoil of these past few months that streaked his hair with silver, his beard with gray.

Tika and Caramon remained for a moment in an affectionate embrace, finding rest and comfort in each other.

"Besides," Tika added, glancing at Tanis, "it's well for you that we're not busy. When are they supposed to arrive?"

Tanis looked out the window. "Not until well after dark. At least that was Porthios's plan. It will depend on how Alhana is feeling. . . ."

"Making her tramp about the wilderness! In this heat and in her condition. Men!" Tika sniffed. Straightening, she gave her husband a playful thump on the head.

"What'd you hit me for?" Caramon demanded, rubbing his scalp and peering around at his wife. "I didn't have anything to do with it."

"You're all alike, that's what," she said, somewhat vaguely. She stared out the window into the gathering darkness, twisting her apron around and around in her hands.

She's middle-aged, Tanis realized suddenly. Odd. I never noticed before. Perhaps it's because, whenever I think of Tika Waylan, I see that saucy red-headed girl who thwacked draco-nians over the head with her skillet. I used to be able to find that girl again in Tika's green eyes, but not tonight. Tonight I see the lines around her mouth and the sag in her shoulders. And in her eyes - fear.

"Something's wrong with the boys," she said suddenly. "Something's happened. I know it."

"Nothing's happened," said Caramon, with fond exaspera­tion. "You're tired. It's the heat - "

"I'm not tired. And it's not the heat!" Tika snapped, temper flaring. "I've never felt like this before." She put her hand over her heart. "As if I were smothering. I can't draw a breath, my heart aches so. I ... I think I'll go see to Alhana 's room."

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"She's seen to that room every hour on the hour, ever since you got here, Tanis." Caramon sighed. He watched his wife climb the stairs, a worried expression on his face. "She's been acting peculiar aD day. It started last night, with some terrible dream she can't remember. But then it's been like that ever since the boys joined the knighthood. She was the proudest person at the ceremony. You remember, Tanis? You were there."

Tanis smiled. Yes, he remembered.

Caramon shook his head. "But she cried herself to sleep that night, when we were alone. She thought nothing of fighting dra-conians when she was young. I reminded her of that. She called me a 'dolt.' Said that was then and this was now and I couldn't possibly understand a mother's heart. Women."

"Where are young Sturm and my namesake?" Tanis asked.

"The last we heard from them, they were riding up north, toward Kalaman. Seems that the Solamnic leadership is finally taking you seriously, Tanis. About the Knights of Takhisis, I mean." Caramon lowered his voice, though the common room was empty, except for the two of them. "Palin wrote that they were going north, to patrol along the coast."

"Palin went with them? A mage?" Tanis was amazed. For the moment, he forgot his own troubles.

"Unofficially. The knights would never sanction having a mage along, but since this was routine patrol duty, Palin was allowed to accompany his brothers. At least that's what High Command said. Palin obviously thought there's more to it than that. Or so he implied."

"What made him think so?"

"Well, Justarius's death, for one."

"What?" Tanis stared. "Justarius ... dead?"

"You didn't know?"

"How could I?" Tanis demanded. "I've been skulking about in the woods for months, trying my best to keep the elves out of civil war. This night will be the first I've slept in a real bed since I left Silvanesti. What happened to Justarius? And who's head of the Wizards' Conclave now?"

"Can't you guess? Our old friend." Caramon was grim.

"Dalamar. Of course. I should have known. But Justarius-"

"I don't know the details. Palin can't say much. But the wiz­ards of the three moons took your warnings about the dark knights seriously, if no one else on Ansalon did. Justarius ordered a magical assault on the Gray Robes of Storm's Keep. He and several others entered the tower there. They barely

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escaped with their lives, and Justarius didn't even do that much."

"Fools," Tanis said bitterly. "Ariakan's wizards are immense­ly powerful. They draw their magic from all three moons, or so Dalamar told me. A small force of magic-users from Wayreth entering the Gray Tower would be marked for disaster. I can't imagine Dalamar going along with a lame-brained scheme like that."

"He came out of it well enough," Caramon said dryly . "You've got to wonder which side he's on in all this. He serves the Dark Queen, too."

"His allegiance is to magic first, though. Just as his shalafi taught him."

Tanis smiled at old memories, was pleased to see that Caramon smiled, too. Raistlin, Caramon's twin brother, had been Dalamar's shalafi-the elven term for teacher. And though the relationship had ended in disaster-and very nearly the destruction of Krynn-Dalamar had learned a great deal from his shalafi. A debt he never hesitated to acknowledge.

"Yes, well, you know the dark elf better than I do," Caramon acknowledged. "At any rate, he took part in the raid, was one of the few to return unscathed. Palin said Dalamar was extremely shaken and upset, refused to talk about what hap­pened. It was the dark elf who brought back Justarius's body, though I guess since Dalamar is keeping company with Justarius's daughter, Jenna, he didn't have much choice. At any rate, the wizards took a drubbing. Justarius wasn't the only one to die, though he was the highest rank. And now Dalamar's head of the Conclave."

"You think he was the one who sent Palin out with the knights?"

"Palin would have had to get permission to leave his stud­ies." Caramon grunted. "The wizards are a lot stricter now than in the old days. Raistlin came and went as he chose."

"Raistlin was a law unto himself," Tanis said, yawning. He wished he hadn't mentioned sleeping in a bed. The thought of clean sheets, soft mattress, fluffy pillow, was suddenly over­powering. "I'll have to have a talk with Dalamar. Obviously, he knows something about these dark knights."

"Will he tell you?" Caramon was dubious.

"If he thinks it's to his benefit," Tanis replied. "Porthios will be staying here for at least a few weeks. AJhana will need time to rest and, though he won't admit it, Porthios himself is on the

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verge of exhaustion. Hopefully, I can find time to get away, pay Dalamar a visit.

"Which reminds me, I can't thank you enough, Caramon"- Tanis rested his hand over the large hand of the big human- "for letting Porthios and Alhana stay here. Their presence could put you in danger if anyone found out. They have been formal­ly cast out, exiled. They are dark elves, which means they are fair game-"

"Bah!" Caramon waved away the thought, inadvertently dri­ving away a pesky fly at the same time. "The people in Solace don't know anything about elven tiffs, could care less anyway. So Porthios and Alhana have been exiled, branded 'dark elves.' Unless they've both suddenly turned purple, no one here will ever know the difference. An elf's an elf, to us."

"Still, it's rumored that both the Qualinesti and the Silvanesti have assassins out after Porthios and Alhana." Tanis sighed. "Once they were rulers of the mightiest elven nations on Ansalon. By their marriage, they forged an alliance between the two realms that would have made the elves one of the leading political powers on the continent. For the first time in centuries, a child is being born who is heir to both kingdoms! And there are those who have already sworn this child's death!"

Tanis clenched his fists. "What's so damn frustrating is that the majority of elves want peace, not only with their cousins, but with their neighbors. It's the extremists on both sides who are urging that we go back to the days of isolationism, close our bor­ders, shoot any human or dwarf who comes in sight. The rest of the elves follow along because it's easier to do that than to speak out, cause confrontation."

Tanis shook his head. "I don't think their assassins would dare attack the inn, but, these days, you never know ..."

"We survived dragons," Caramon said cheerfully. "We'll sur­vive elves and drought and whatever else comes along."

"I hope so," Tanis said, now in a somber mood. "I hope so, my friend."

"Speaking of Qualinesti, how's Gil doing?"

Tanis was silent for long moments. The pain of Gil's leaving had not diminished, though it had been many months since his son had run away from home, been tricked into becoming leader-or puppet ruler-of the elves of Qualinesti.

Gilthas-named for Laurana's ill-fated brother Gilthanas- was the child both had wanted but had believed they would never have. Laurana's pregnancy had been difficult; Gilthas was

a frail baby and was near death several times. Tanis knew he and his wife were overly protective of their son, refusing to allow him to visit the land of his parent's birth, trying to shield him from a racially divided world that found it difficult to accept a child of mixed blood.

When Porthios, Speaker of the Sun of the Qualinesti, left his land to risk his life fighting for the Silvanesti, extremists took the opportunity of his absence to brand him a traitor and choose a new Speaker. They decided on Gilthas, whose mother, Porthios's sister, would be in line for the position, but who had abrogated her right by marrying Tanis Half-Elven.

Believing that Gil, by virtue of his human blood, was a fool and a weakling, who could be manipulated into serving as a puppet king, the extremists persuaded the young man to run away from home and travel to Qualinesti. Once there, Gil proved tougher than the senators had imagined. They had to resort to threats of violence against Alhana Starbreeze, ruler of the Silvanesti and their prisoner, in order to convince Gil to become Speaker.

Tanis had endeavored-with Dalamar's help-to save his son, but the half-elf had failed.

Or rather, Tanis told himself with sorrowful pride, I succeed­ed. Gil had chosen to stay, to serve his people, to do what he could to thwart the extremists and bring peace to the elven nations.

But the pain of missing his son did not lessen over time and, to add to it, now an infuriated, vengeful Porthios was massing his forces to declare war on Qualinesti, a tragedy Tanis was try­ing to prevent. When he felt he could control his voice, he answered.

"Gil's well, or so I hear. I'm not permitted-on threat of death-to see him, you know."

Caramon nodded, his big face soft with sympathy.

"Laurana's still trying to enter Qualinesti. She's been negoti­ating with them for months now. She says, in her last letter, that she thinks they're beginning to relent. Gil's having something to do with it. He's stronger than they think. But"-Tanis shrugged, shook his head-"I miss him, Caramon. You can't imagine ..."

Caramon, who missed his own boys, could well imagine, but he knew what Tanis meant. There was a difference. Tanis's boy was a virtual prisoner of his own people. One day soon, Caramon's boys would be coining home.

The two continued to talk of times past and present, when

III

 

they were interrupted by a soft tap on the door.

Caramon jumped, startled. "Who in the Abyss is that? At this time of night! I didn't hear anyone climb the stairs-"

"You won't," Tanis said, rising to his feet. "That will be Porthios's escort. And these soldier elves are silent even for elves. Moonlight shining on the grass makes more noise than they do."

Reaching the door, Tanis put his hand on the handle. Mindful of what he'd warned Caramon about assassins, Tanis gave a low whistle.

His whistle was answered, in higher pitch. The tapping was repeated.

Tanis opened the door.

An elven warrior glided inside. He cast a quick glance around the room, then nodded to himself in satisfaction. Inspection con­cluded, he shifted his gaze to Tanis.

"All is secure?"

"All is secure. I introduce your host, Caramon Majere. Caramon, I introduce Samar, of House Protector."

Samar regarded Caramon with cool appraisal. Taking in the big man's spreading paunch and jovial face, the elf didn't seem much impressed.

Those who first met Caramon often mistook his affable grin and slowness of thought as indicative of a simple mind. This wasn't true, as Caramon's friends had come to learn. Caramon never arrived at an answer until he had mentally walked clear around the question, studied it from all sides, examined it from every angle. When finished, he often reached some extremely astute conclusions.

Caramon was not one to be intimidated by an elf, however. The big man gave back as good as he got, standing tall and self-assured. This was, after all, his inn.

Samar's cold face relaxed in a half-smile. "Caramon Majere, a Hero of the Lance. 'A big man, but his heart is bigger than his body.' So my Queen says. I bid you greeting in Her Majesty's name."

Caramon blinked, somewhat confused. He nodded clumsily to the elf. "Sure, Samar. Glad to be of service to Alhana, I mean ... Her ... uh ... Majesty. You just go back and tell her that every­thing's all ready and she's got nothing to worry about. But where's Porthios? I thought-"

Tanis trod on the big man's foot, whispered, "Don't mention Porthios to Samar. I'll explain later." More loudly he made haste

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to change the subject. "Porthios will be coming, too, Caramon. Under separate escort. You're early, Samar. I didn't expect - "

"Her Majesty is not well," Samar interrupted. "In fact, I must beg your indulgence, gentlemen, and return to her. Is her room prepared?"

Tika came bustling down from upstairs, her face creased with anxiety. "Caramon! What is it? I heard voices. Oh!" She caught sight of Samar. "How do you do?"

"My wife, Tika," Caramon said proudly. After well over twenty years of marriage, he still regarded his wife as the most beautiful woman in the world, and himself as the luckiest man.

Samar gave a gracious, if hurried, bow. "Madam. And now, if you will excuse, my queen is not well - "

Tika mopped her face with her apron. "Have the labor pains started?"

Samar flushed. Among the elves, such matters are not con­sidered suitable subjects for conversation in mixed company. "I couldn't say, Madam - "

"Has her water broken?" Tika pursued the inquiry.

"Madam!" Samar's face burned. He was obviously scandal­ized, and even Caramon had gone red.

Tanis cleared his throat. "Tika, I don't think - "

"Men!" Tika snorted. She grabbed her cloak from a hanger on the door. "And just how did you plan to get her up the stairs? Maybe she can fly? Or did you expect her to walk? In her con­dition? With the baby coming?"

The warrior looked back down at the numerous stairs leading up to the inn. It was obvious he'd not given the matter any thought.

"I ... couldn't say . . ."

Tika brushed past him, already headed out the door, giving instructions as she left. "Tanis, start the kitchen fire and put the kettle on to boil. Caramon, run and get Dezra. She's our mid­wife," Tika explained to Samar, catching hold of his sleeve in passing and dragging him along. "I've told her to expect this. Come along, Samovar or whatever your name is. Take me to Alhana."

Samar pulled away. "Madam, you can't! That is impossible. My orders are to - "

Tika fixed her green eyes on him, her jaw set. Caramon and Tanis exchanged glances. Both knew that expression.

"Uh, if you'll excuse me, dear." Caramon squeezed past, was out the door, and headed for the stairs.

Tanis, grinning into his beard, left quickly, retreated to the kitchen. He could hear Tika's voice.

"If you don't take me, I'll go out there and stand in the mid­dle of the market square and yell at the top of my lungs-"

Samar was a gallant warrior. He had fought everything from ogres to draconians. Tika Waylan Majere disarmed him, routed him in a single skirmish.

"No, Madam!" Samar begged. "Please! No one must know we are here. I'll take you to my queen."

"Thank you, sir." Tika was gracious in victory. "Now, get a move on!"

8

Dragon Flight.

Dragon Counsel. Captor and Captive.

he blue dragon and its riders left Valkinord after the sun had set. They flew over Ansalon in darkness, in silence.

The night sky was cloudless and it was cool up here above the wispy clouds, if nowhere else on Ansalon. Steel took off his helm, which was shaped in the image of a skull, and shook out his long black hair, let the wind from the dragon's wings dry the sweat on his head and neck. He had removed most of the heavy plate armor he wore in battle, retaining only the breast­plate beneath a dark blue traveling cloak, attaching leather brac­ers to his arms and above his tall leather boots on his legs. He was heavily armed, for he was venturing into enemy territory. A longbow, a quiver of arrows, and a throwing lance were attached to the dragon's saddle. On his person he bore a sword-his father's sword, the ancient sword of a Knight of Solamnia, the sword that had once belonged to Sturm Brightblade.

Steel's hand rested on the hilt of the sword-a habit he'd grown into. He stared down into the darkness, trying to see something besides darkness. Lights from a village, perhaps, or red moonlight, reflected off a lake. He saw nothing.

"Where are we, Flare?" he demanded abruptly. "I've seen no signs of life since we left the coast."

"I shouldn't suppose you wanted to," the dragon retorted. "Any life we met here would be hostile to us."

Steel shrugged off such considerations, implying they could take care of themselves. Trevalin had spoken of "immense dan­ger," since they were traveling over enemy territory, but the threat, in reality, was small. Their main danger was from other dragons, silver and gold. Those few who had remained on Ansalon when their brethren had returned to the Isle of the Dragons were, according to reports, concentrated in the north, around Solamnia.

Not many people in this part of the country would risk bat­tling a dark knight and a blue dragon. Flare, though small for her race-being only about thirty-eight feet long-was young, fierce, and tenacious in battle. Most blue dragons are excellent magic-users; Flare was the exception. She was too impetuous, lacked the patience needed to cast spells. She preferred to fight

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with tooth and claw and her devastating lightning breath, which could shatter castle walls and set forests ablaze. Flare tended to have a low opinion of wizards and had not been pleased at the prospect of transporting one. It had taken Steel a considerable amount of pleading, cajoling, and a deer haunch to at last per­suade the dragon to permit Palin to ride upon her back.

"He won't, though, you know." Flare had smirked while devouring the tidbit. "He'll take one look at me and be so scared that he'll soil those nice white robes of his."

Steel had been afraid that this would be the case. The bravest warrior in the world can be unmanned by dragonfear, the terror and awe that dragons inspire in their enemies. Palin had indeed turned deathly pale at the sight of the dragon, with her sparkling blue scales, flaring eyes, and rows of tearing teeth, dripping with the blood of her treat.

At first, Steel had thought he had lost the young man, that they'd have to find another, slower means of travel. But the sight of the bodies of his brothers, strapped onto the back of the sad­dle, had lent the young mage courage. Palin had pressed his lips together and walked resolutely to the dragon's side, and-with Steel's help-had mounted.

Steel had felt the body of the young mage shiver, but Palin forbore crying out or saying a word. He held himself upright, with dignity-courage for which Steel gave the young man credit.

"I know where I am, in case you think I'm lost," Flare added softly. "Sara and I flew this route . . . that night. The night she came to Caramon Majere. The night she came to betray you."

Steel knew the night to which the dragon referred, and he maintained stem silence. In the seat behind him-the knight had exchanged his one-man saddle for one that accommodated two people-Palin stirred and muttered incoherent words. Not even dragonfear could contend with exhaustion. The mage had fallen into a sleep that was bringing him little comfort apparently, for he flinched, cried out sharply, loudly, and began to flail about.

"Silence him," warned the dragon. "You may see no signs of life on the ground beneath us, but it is there. We are flying over the Khalkist Mountains. The hill dwarves dwell here. Their scouts are alert and cunning. We show up black against the star­lit sky. They would easily identify us and pass the word along."

"Much good it would do them or anyone," Steel remarked, but he knew better than to annoy the dragon, and so he twisted

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around in the saddle and laid a firm, restraining hand on the mage's arm.

Palin quieted at the touch. Sighing heavily, he shifted to a more comfortable position. The two-person saddle had been designed to carry two knights into battle, one wielding steel, the other either magic or clerical spells, useful in counteracting the magical attacks of the enemy. The saddle was fashioned of light­weight wood covered by leather and was equipped with pouch­es and harnesses intended to hold not only weapons but spell components and artifacts. The riders were separated by a shelf, covered with padded leather. Inside was a drawer, meant to hold scrolls, supplies or other paraphernalia. Palin rested his head on this shelf, his bloodstained cheek on one arm. His other hand, even in his sleep, kept hold of the Staff of Magius, which - by his instruction - had been lashed to the saddle beside him.

"He relives the battle," observed Steel. Seeing the mage set­tled, the 'knight removed his hand and turned back to face the rushing wind.

The dragon indicated what she thought of this remark with a snort and flick of the blue-scaled head. "It was a rout. Don't dig­nify it by terming it a 'battle.' "

"The Solamnics fought valiantly," Steel returned. "They held their ground. They did not run, nor did they dishonor them­selves by surrendering."

Flare shook her mane, but made no comment, and Steel was wise enough not to press the issue. The dragon had fought in the Dragon Wars, twenty-six years ago. In those days, the soldiers of the Dark Queen never missed an opportunity to ridicule or dis­parage their enemy. Any Dragon Highlord who had dared praise the Solamnic Knights, as Steel had just done, would have been stripped of his rank, possibly his life. Flare, as well as most of the other dragons loyal to Takhisis, was having difficulty adjusting to the new way of thinking. A soldier should respect his enemy - she agreed with Lord Ariakan on that. But praising them went just a bit too far in her mind.

Steel leaned forward to pat the dragon on the neck, indicating that he respected her view and that he would offer no further comment.

Flare, who was quite fond of her master - she doted on him, in fact - showed her appreciation by changing the subject. Though, as might be noted from the topic she chose, blue drag­ons are not lauded for their tact.

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"I don't suppose you've heard anything of Sara?" Flare asked.

"No," Steel answered, his voice hard and cold, keeping his emotions in check. "And you know you are not supposed to mention her name."

"We're alone. Who's going to hear us? Perhaps we'll learn something of her during our visit to Solace."

"I don't want to hear anything of her," Steel replied, still in the same harsh tones.

"I suppose you're right. If we did happen to find out where she was hiding, we'd be forced to capture her, return her. Lord Ariakan may praise the enemy all he likes, but he has no use for traitors."

"She is not a traitor!" Steel said, his chill melting in the flash of his temper. "She could have betrayed us any number of times, but she remained loyal-"

"To you," said Flare.

"She raised me when my own mother abandoned me. Of course she loved me. It would be unnatural if she did not."

"And you loved her. I mean no disparagement," Flare added, feeling Steel shift uncomfortably in the saddle. "I loved Sara, too, if we dragons can be said to love mortals. She treated us as intelligent beings. She consulted us, asked our opinions, listened to our advice. Most of the time. The one time I could have helped her, she didn't come to me." Flare sighed. "A pity she could never understand our cause. She should have been given the Vision. I suggested as much, but, of course, Lord Ariakan paid no attention to me."

"I'm not certain, from what I've heard, that my own true moth­er would have understood our cause," Steel said caustically.

"Highlord Kitiara?" Flare chuckled, amused at the thought. "Yes, she was one to walk her own path and Takhisis take anyone who stood in her way. What a fighter, though! Fearless, daring, skilled. I was among those who fought with her at the High Clerist's Tower."

"Not a battle that does her much credit," Steel commented dryly.

"True, she was defeated, but she rose from the ashes to strike down Lord Ariakus and gain the Crown of Power for herself."

"Which led to our ultimate downfall. 'Evil turns upon itself.' A credo of jealousy and treachery that meant destruction. Not anymore. We are allied, brothers in the Vision, and we will sac­rifice anything in order to bring it about."

"You have never revealed your share of the Vision, Steel Brightblade," Flare observed.

us

"I am not permitted. Since I did not entirely understand it, I related it to Lord Ariakan. He did not understand it either and said it would be best if I kept it to myself, not discussed it with others."

"I am hardly 'others'!" Flare bridled, the blue mane bristling in indignation.

"I know that," Steel said, softening his tone, patting the drag­on on the neck again. "But my lord has forbidden that it be dis­cussed with anyone. I see lights. We must drawing near."

"The lights you see belong to the city of Sanction. We have only to cross the Newsea, and we will be in Abanasinia, very near Solace." Flare scanned the skies, tested the wind, which seemed to be dying. "It is nearly dawn. I will set you and the mage down on the outskirts of the village."

"Where will you hide during the day? It would never do for you to be seen."

"I will take refuge in Xak Tsaroth. The city remains aban­doned, even after all these years. People believe it is haunted. It is, but only by goblins. I'll breakfast on a few of those before I sleep. Shall I return for you at nightfall or wait until you sum­mon me?"

"Wait for my summons. I am not yet certain what my plans will be."

Both spoke nonchalantly, neither mentioning the fact that they were far behind enemy lines, would be in danger of their lives every second, and could count on no one for support. Certain knights of the Order of Takhisis were living on the con­tinent of Ansalon, spying, infiltrating, recruiting others to the cause. But even if these other knights became known to Steel, he could make no use of them, could do nothing that would disturb the veil they had drawn around themselves. They had their tasks, according to the Vision, and he had his.

Except he wasn't quite certain what that task was.

Flare left land behind, soared over the Newsea. The red moon had not yet set, but dawn's gray light dimmed Lunitari's luster. It sank down into the sea swiftly, almost as if it were thankful to be shutting its red eye to the world.

Palin moaned in his sleep, spoke his dead brother's name, "Sturm..."

The name came eerily in the wake of the remembered Vision. Sturm had been the name of the mage's brother, but that broth­er had been named for Steel's father.

"Sturm ..." Palin repeated it.

Steel twisted around in the saddle.

"Wake up!" he ordered roughly, irritably. "You're almost home."

Neither Steel nor Palin knew it, but the dragon set them down in almost the very same spot that had once been the meeting place of two friends, many years ago.

The time then had not been much different from the time now. It had been autumn, not summer, but that was about the only difference. It had been a time of peace, as it was now a time of peace. Most said then, as they said now, that peace would last forever.

Palin Majere slumped against the very same boulder on which Flint Fireforge had once rested. Steel Brightblade walked the path once walked by Tanis Half-Elven. Palin looked down into the valley. The tall vallenwood trees normally hid almost all signs of the village that perched in the trees' limbs. But the thick green foliage was now a dusty brown; many of the leaves had died and fallen off. The houses were visible, naked and forlorn and vulnerable.

Though it was early and the people of Solace were wakening and beginning their day, no smoke of fire or forge rose from the valley. It was dangerous to light a fire of any type; only last week, a tinder-dry vallenwood had gone up in a rush of flame, destroying several houses. Thankfully, no lives had been lost; those within had managed to jump to safety. But since then, people had been leery of burning anything.

The Inn of the Last Home was the largest building in Solace and the first building that the two saw. Palin stared down at his home, longing to run to it, longing to run away from it. Steel had removed the bodies of Palin's brothers from the dragon's back. They now lay, wrapped in linen, on a crude, makeshift sled, fashioned by Steel out of tree branches. He was lashing the remaining few branches together now. When he was finished, they would start their journey down the hill.

"Ready," said Steel. He gave the sled a tug. It lurched over a stone and then skidded along the road, raising a cloud of dust as it went.

Palin did not look at it. He heard it scrape through the dirt, thought of the burden it carried, and clenched his fists against the rending pain.

I2O

"Are you fit to walk?" Steel asked, and though the knight's voice was grim and rough, it was respectful, did not mock Palin's sorrow.

For this, Palin was grateful, yet he found it humiliating to be asked such a question. Sturm and Tanin would want him to appear strong, not weak, before the enemy.

"I'm fine," Palin lied. "The sleep helped me, as did the poul­tice you put over the wound. Shall we go now?"

He rose to his feet and, leaning heavily on the Staff of Magius, started to walk down the hill. Steel followed after, dragging the sled behind. Palin, glancing back, saw the bodies jounce, heard the rattle of armor, as the sled lurched over the rough dirt road. He stumbled, losing his balance.

Steel reached out his hand, steadied Palin.

"It is best to look ahead, not behind," the knight remarked. "What's done is done. You cannot change it."

"You talk as if I'd upset a dish of milk!" Palin returned angri­ly. "These are my brothers! To know that I'll never talk to them again, never hear them laugh or ... or ..." He was forced to stop, swallow his tears. "I don't suppose you've ever lost any­one you care about. You people don't care about anything - except slaughter!"

Steel made no comment, but his face darkened at the mention of losing someone. He trudged on, tugging the heavy sled with ease. His eyes, shadowed beneath lowering black brows, were constantly moving, not aimlessly, but taking note of his sur­roundings. He stared hard into copses and tangled underbrush.

"What's the matter?" Palin glanced around.

"This would be an excellent place for an ambush," Steel remarked.

Palin's pain-drawn face eased slightly. "In fact, it was. Right over there, the hobgoblin known as Fewmaster Toede stopped Tanis Half-Elven, Flint Fireforge, and Tasslehoff Burrfoot and asked about a blue crystal staff. That moment changed their lives."

He fell silent, thinking about the terrible moments that had changed his life and had ended the lives of his brothers. Steel's voice did not interrupt his thoughts, but marched along beside them.

"Do you believe in fate, Sir Mage?" Steel asked abruptly, star­ing at the dirt-baked road. "That moment, the ambush, changed the half-elf's life, or so you say. This implies that his life would have been different if that moment had never occurred. But what

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if that moment was meant to happen, that there was no way to escape it? Perhaps that moment was lying in ambush for him, waiting for him just as surely as the hobgoblins. What if-" Steel's dark-eyed gaze shifted to Palin. "What if your brothers were born to die on that beach?"

The question was like a blow to the stomach. For a moment, Palin couldn't breathe. The world itself seemed to tip; every­thing he'd been taught slid away from him. Was there some inexorable Fate crouching behind a bush somewhere, waiting for him? Was he a bug, trapped in a web of time, wriggling and twisting in feeble efforts to escape?

"I don't believe that!" He drew in a deep breath and felt bet­ter. His mind cleared. "The gods give us choices. My brothers chose to become knights. They didn't have to. In fact, since they weren't Solamnians and didn't have ancestors who had been knights, the way wasn't easy for them..."

"They chose to die, then," Steel said, his gaze shifting to the bodies. "They could have run away, but they did not."

"They did not," Palin repeated softly.

Amazed at the dark knight's question, wondering what lay behind it, Palin examined Steel intently. And the young mage saw, for an instant, the iron visage of hard, cold resolution lift, saw the human face beneath. That face was doubting, seeking, suffering.

He's asking for something, but what? Comfort? Understanding? Palin forgot his own troubles, was prepared to reach out, to offer what poor counsel he could. But at that moment, Steel turned, saw Palin staring at him.

The iron visage dropped. "They chose well, then. They died with honor."

Palin's anger and bitterness returned. "They chose wrong. / chose wrong. What's so honorable about that!" He gestured at the bodies on the crude sled. "What honor is there in having to tell my mother... to tell her..."

Turning on his heel, Palin left the place where Tanis had first heard of the blue crystal staff, and continued on down the road.

He heard Steel's voice, musing, thoughtful, behind him. "Still, it is an excellent place for an ambush."

And then the sound of the sled, bumping and skidding through the dust.

 

 

A Warning. The Elves Take Up Arms.

Tika Takes Up The Skillet.

 

 shaft of early morning sunlight shot through one of the diamond-paned windows of the inn, struck Tanis full in the eyes. He woke up, blinded, and realized he had been asleep, had dozed off in one of the inn's high-backed wooden booths. He sat up, rubbing his face and eyes, more than a little angry at himself. He had fully intended to sit up all night, keeping watch. And there he was, slumbering like a drunken dwarf.

Across the room from him, the exiled elven king, Porthios, was seated at a table covered with maps, a flask of elven wine and a glass at his elbow. He was writing something; Tanis wasn't certain .what. A report, a letter to an ally, noting down plans, updating his journal. Tanis recalled that Porthios had been in much the same position when the half-elf had drifted off to sleep. The wine flask was slightly less full; that was the only difference.

The two were brothers, though not by blood. Tanis was mar­ried to Porthios's sister Laurana. They had all been raised together, grown up together. Porthios was the eldest, had been born to the leadership of his people, and he took his role seri­ously. He had not approved of his sister marrying a half-human, as Porthios invariably viewed Tanis.

Porthios lacked the charm of his father, the late Speaker of the Sun. Porthios was, by nature, stern, serious, plain-spoken to a fault. He scorned to tell the diplomatic lie. He was a proud man, but his reticence and diffidence caused pride to seem like arro­gance to those who did not know him. Instead of endeavoring to overcome this flaw, Porthios used it to isolate himself from those around him, even from those who loved and admired him. And mere was much to admire. He was a skilled general and a coura­geous warrior. He had gone to the aid of the Silvanesti, risked his life to fight Lorac's dread dream, which had decimated their land. It was their betrayal that had soured him. And, for that, Tanis sup­posed he couldn't blame his brother-in-law for wanting revenge.

The strife had taken its toll. Once tall and handsome, with a regal bearing, Porthios had grown somewhat stooped, as if the weight of his rage and sorrow were bowing him down. His hair had grown long and ragged, was streaked with gray-some-

thing one almost never saw, even among the eldest elves. He was clad in leather armor, stiff and battered; his fine clothes were beginning to show wear, were starting to fray at the hem, come apart at the seams. His face was a mask, cold and implaca­ble, bitter. Only occasionally did the mask slip to reveal the man beneath, the man who grieved over his people, even as he planned to go to war against mem.

Tanis glanced up as Caramon, yawning, lumbered over and settled his great bulk in the booth opposite his friend.

"I fell asleep," Tanis said, scratching his beard.

Caramon grinned. "Yeah, tell me. Your snoring could have sawed down a vallenwood tree."

"You should have wakened me. I was supposed to be on watch!"

"What for?" Caramon yawned again and rumpled his hair. "li's not like we're in a tower surrounded by forty-seven legions of hobgoblins. You'd been riding all day. You needed the rest."

"That's not the point," Tanis returned. "It looks bad."

He cast a glance at his brother-in-law. And though the elf king wasn't looking at Tanis, Tanis knew by the set of Porthios's jaw and the stiffness of his posture that he was thinking to himself, "Weakling! Pitiful half-human!"

Caramon followed Tanis's glance, shrugged. "You and I both know he'd feel the same way if you stayed awake the rest of your life. C'mon. Let's go wash up."

The big man led the way down the stairs to ground level. The morning was already hot. It seemed to Tanis that the very air itself might catch fire. Beneath the inn stood a water barrel. It was supposed to be filled with water. Caramon peered inside and sighed. The barrel was almost half-empty.

"What happened to the well?" Tanis asked.

"Dried up. Most everyone's well went dry around the end of spring. People've been hauling water from Crystalmir Lake. If s a long journey. This barrel was full last night. Some people are setting guards on their water."

Caramon lifted a ladle, bent over the barrel, brought it up. He offered the water to Tanis.

Tanis peered down at the muddy footprints surrounding the barrel. The mud was still damp.

"But not you," Tanis said. Smiling, he drank the brackish water. "You make that trip every day, to Crystalmir Lake and back, hauling water for the inn. And you never see more than half of it because your neighbors are robbing you of it."

124

Caramon flushed, splashed water onto his face. "Not robbing. I've told them they could take what they needed. But they feel ashamed, some of them. It's too much like begging, and no one's ever had to beg in Solace, Tanis. Not even when times were hard, after the war. No one ever had to steal just to survive either."

Heaving a sigh, Caramon snorted and blew and toweled his face with the sleeve of his shirt. Tanis laved his face, taking care to use the precious water sparingly. Some of the footprints around the barrel were small, child-sized.

Tanis returned the ladle to its hook on the vallenwood tree. "Has Porthios been awake all night?"

He and Caramon walked back to the bottom of the stairs, but did not immediately climb up. A common room filled with grim and dour-faced elves-half of whom were not speaking to the other half-was not the most pleasant place in the world.

"He never even blinked, that I could see," Caramon remarked, looking up at the window beside which the elf king was sitting. "But then, his wife's having a baby. I know I didn't sleep when Tika was ... in the same condition."

"That I could understand," Tanis returned griirth/. "Any hus­band could. But Porthios looks more like he's preparing for bat­tle than preparing for fatherhood. I don't suppose he's ever even asked about Alhana."

"Not in so many words," Caramon said slowly. "But then Tika's been coming down pretty often, reassuring him. He really doesn't need to ask. I've been watching him, and I think you're wrong about Porthios. I think he truly loves Alhana and that, right now, she and his unborn child are the most important things in the world to him."

"I wish I could believe that. / think he'd trade both to have his kingdom back. It's just- What in the name of the Abyss ... ?"

The rope bridge above their heads-bridges that served as "roads" connecting the tree-built houses of Solace-swayed and rustled. An elven soldier came skimming along, running fast. By the grim expression on his face, the elf was the bearer of bad news. Tanis and Caramon glanced at one another and raced up the stairs. By the time they reached the inn, the elf was already reporting to Porthios.

"What is it? What's going on?" Caramon demanded, arriving late, puffing and red-faced from the unaccustomed exertion. "What are they saying?"

The urgent conversation was being carried on in the Qualinesti Elvish tongue.

125

Tanis, listening, silenced the big man with a gesture. What he heard obviously disturbed him. Turning to Caramon, Tanis drew the big man behind the bar.

"Their scouts have reported seeing a soldier, human, with long black hair, wearing accoutrements of darkness, walking down the main road, heading for Solace. And Caramon"-Tanis gripped the big man's arm-"he's in company with a white-robed mage. A young mage."

"Palin," said Caramon instantly. "And the other? You're thinking what I'm thinking?"

"The description fits Steel Brightblade."

"But why would Steel come here? Is he alone?"

"Except for Palin, apparently."

"Then what in the name of all the gods are the two of them doing together? Doing here together?"

Tanis kept silent about the rest of the report, about the fact that the dark paladin was dragging behind him a sled bearing what appeared to be the bodies of two knights. He had a grim foreboding he knew the answer to those questions, but he might very well be wrong. He hoped and prayed to Paladine he was wrong.

Porthios was issuing orders. The entire contingent of elves was on its feet, reaching for bows and