THE RIDDLE OF PAST AND FUTURE

 

The invincible warrior Mina, not content with her army's occupation of Silvanost, moves against Sanction. Exiled by a dragon's wrath, the Qualinesti elves flee the destruction of their homeland, heading towards what they believe to be a safe haven in Silvanesti.

Hoping to find a way to stop the onslaught, the Solamnic Knight Gerard volunteers to return to the army of Dark Knights as a spy. Though brave, it is a move that could prove disastrous for him and the side for which he fights.

Desperate for help, the small band of heroes look outside their group to an unlikely ally. The Dragon Overlord Malys has not taken kindly to Mina's army despoiling her territory with their invasion. But the heroes also look to one of their own, someone who may hold the secret to the past and the key to victory: a kender named Tasslehoff.

The sensational climax to the War of Souls trilogy includes a special "Progression of Souls" appendix that explains the cosmological foundations of Krynn, explores the origins of its gods, and details a timeline of the world's creation.

Cover painting by Matthew Stawicki Jacket Design by T. Matson & M. Adelsperger

 

Margaret Weis

Margaret Weis began her collaboration with Tracy Hickman on the DRAGONLANCE* series more than fifteen years ago, and a decade and a half later she is the author of fourteen dragonlance novels, the four-volume galactic fantasy Star of the Guardian, co-author with her husband Don Perrin of The Doom Brigade, Draconian Measures, Knights of the Black Earth, Robot Blues, Hung Out, and Brothers in Arms, and author of The Soulforge. She lives happily in a converted barn in southern Wisconsin with her husband.

Tracy Hickman

Tracy Hickman started at TSR, Inc. as a game designer, where he helped conceive of the world that became the dragonlance campaign setting. He has written, in collaboration with Margaret Weis, the dragonlance novels, the Darksword series, and the Death Gate Cycle. He is the designer of the game setting Starshield and the author of The Immortals. He lives in Utah with his wife, two daughters, and two sons.

Dragonlance and the Wizards of the Coast logo are

registered trademarks owned by Wizards of the Coast, Inc.

a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. ©2002 Wizards of the Coast,

Inc.


THE WAR OF SOULS

VOLUME THREE

DRAGONS of Vanished Moon

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

 

DRAGONS OF A VANISHED MOON

©2002 Wizards of the Coast, Inc.


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

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

Distributed in the United States by Holtzbrinck Publishing. Distributed in Canada by Fenn Ltd.

Distributed to the hobby, toy, and comic trade in the United States and Canada by regional distributors.

Distributed worldwide by Wizards of the Coast, Inc. and regional distributors.

Dragonlance and the Wizards of the Coast logo are registered trademarks owned by Wizards of the Coast, Inc., a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc.

All Wizards of the Coast characters, character names, and the distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks owned by Wizards of the Coast, Inc.

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

Cartography by Dennis Kauth

First Printing: June 2002

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2001092207

987654321

US ISBN: 0-7869-2740-2 UK ISBN: 0-7869-2741-0 620-88602-001-EN

EUROPEAN HEADQUARTERS

Wizards of the Coast, Belgium

P.B. 2031

2600 Berchem

Belgium

+32-70-23-32-77

U.S., CANADA,

ASIA, PACIFIC, & LATIN AMERICA

Wizards of the Coast, Inc.

P.O. Box 707

Renton, WA 98057-0707

+1-800-324-6496


by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

CHRONICLES Dragons of Autumn Twilight

Dragons of Winter Night Dragons of Spring Dawning

LEGENDS

Time of the Twins

War of the Twins

Test of the Twins

The Second Generation Dragons of Summer Flame

THE WAR OF SOULS

Dragons of a Fallen Sun

Dragons of a Lost Star

Dragons of a Vanished Moon

Visit our web site at www.wizards.com,dragonlance

 


Dedication

To those who fight the never ending battle against the darkness, this book is respectfully dedicated.


Book

1


1

Lost Souls

 

In the dungeon of the Tower of High Sorcery, that had once been in Palanthas but now resided in Nightlund, the great archmagus Raistlin Majere had conjured a magical Pool of Seeing. By gazing into this pool, he was able to follow and sometimes shape events transpiring in the world. Although Raistlin Majere had been dead many long years, his magical Pool of Seeing remained in use. The wizard Dalamar, who had inherited the Tower from his Shalafi, maintained the magic of the pool. A veritable prisoner in the Tower that was an island in the river of the dead, Dalamar had often made use of the pool to visit in his mind those places he could not travel in his body.

Palin Majere stood now at the pool's edge, staring into the unwavering blue flame that burned in the center of the still water and was the chamber's only light. Dalamar was close beside him, his gaze fixed on the same unwavering fire. Although the mages could have seen events transpiring anywhere in the world, they watched intently an event that was happening quite close to them, an event taking place at the top of the very Tower in which they stood.

Goldmoon of the Citadel of Light, and Mina, Lord of the Night, leader of the Dark Knights of Neraka, were to meet in the laboratory that had once belonged to Raistlin Majere. Gold-moon had already arrived at the strange meeting place. The laboratory was cold and dark and shadowed. Dalamar had left her a lantern, but its light was feeble and served only to emphasize the darkness that could never truly be illuminated, not if every lantern and every candle on Krynn should burst into flame. The darkness that was the soul of this dread Tower had its heart here in this chamber, which in the past had been a scene of death and pain and suffering.

In this chamber, Raistlin Majere had sought to emulate the gods and create life, only to fail utterly, bringing into the world misbegotten, shambling, pathetic beings known as the Live Ones, who had lived out their wretched existence in the room where the two wizards now stood. In the chamber, the Blue Dragonlady Kitiara had died, her death as brutal and bloody as her life. Here stood the Portal to the Abyss, a link between the realm of the mortal and realm of the dead, a link that had long ago been severed and was nothing now but a home to mice and spiders.

Goldmoon knew the dark history of this room. She must be considering that now, Palin thought, watching her image that shimmered on the surface of the pool. She stood in the laboratory, her arms clasped about her. She shivered not with the cold, but with fear. Palin was concerned. He could not rememberin all the years that he had known her-seeing Goldmoon afraid.

Perhaps it was the strange body that Goldmoon's spirit inhabited. She was over ninety. Her true body was that of an elderly woman-still vigorous, still strong for her years, but with skin marked and marred with time, a back that was starting to stoop, fingers that were gnarled, but whose touch was gentle. She had been comfortable with that body. She had never feared or regretted the passage of the years that had brought the joy of love and birth, the sorrow of love and death. That body had been taken from her the night of the great storm, and she had been given another body, a stranger's body, one that was young and beautiful, healthful and vibrant. Only the eyes were the eyes of the woman Palin had known throughout his life.

She is right, he thought, this body doesn't belong to her. It's borrowed finery. Clothing that doesn't fit.

"I should be with her," Palin muttered. He stirred, shifted, began to pace restlessly along the water's edge. The chamber was made of stone and was dark and chill, the only light the unwavering flame that burned in the heart of the dark pool, and it illuminated little and gave no warmth. "Goldmoon looks strong, but she's not. Her body may be that of someone in her twenties, but her heart is the heart of a woman whose life has spanned nine decades. The shock of seeing Mina again-especially as she is-may kill her."

"In that case, the shock of seeing you beheaded by the Dark Knights would probably do very little for her either," returned Dalamar caustically. "Which is what she would see if you were to march up there now. The Tower is surrounded by soldiers. There must be at least thirty of them out there."

"I don't think they'd kill me," said Palin.

"No? And what would they do? Tell you to go stand in a corner with your face to the wall and think what a bad boy you've been?" Dalamar scoffed.

"Speaking of corners," he added suddenly, his voice altering, "did you see that?"

"What?" Palin jerked his head, looked around in alarm.

"Not here! There!" Dalamar pointed into the pool. "A flash in the eyes of dragons that guard the Portal."

All I see is dust," Palin said after a moment's intense gaze, and cobwebs and mouse dung. You're imagining things."

"Am I?" Dalamar asked. His sardonic tone had softened, was unusually somber. "I wonder."

"You wonder what?"

"A great many things," said Dalamar.

Palin eyed the dark elf closely but could not read on that gaunt and drawn face a single thought stirring behind the dark eyes. In his black robes, Dalamar was indistinguishable from the darkness of the chamber. Only his hands with their delicate fingers could be seen, and they appeared to be hands that lacked a body. The long-lived elf was presumably in the prime of life, but his wasted form, consumed by the fever of frustrated ambition, might have belonged to an elder of his race.

I shouldn't be casting aspersions. What does he see when he looks at me? Palin asked himself. A shabby, middle-aged man. My face wan and wasted. My hair graying, thin. My eyes the embittered eyes of one who has not found what he was promised.

I stand on the edge of wondrous magic created by my uncle, and what have I done, except fail everyone who ever expected anything of me. Including myself. Goldmoon is just the most recent. I should be with her. A hero like my father would be with her, no matter that it meant sacrificing his freedom, perhaps his life. Yet here I am, skulking in the basement of this Tower.

"Stop fidgeting, will you?" Dalamar said irritably. "You'll slip and fall in the pool. Look there." He pointed excitedly to the water. "Mina has arrived." Dalamar rubbed his thin hands. "Now we will see and hear something to our advantage."

Palin halted on the edge of the pool, wavering in his decision. If he left immediately, walked the corridors of magic, he might yet reach Goldmoon in time to protect her. Yet, he could not pull himself away. He stared down at the pool in dread fascination.

"I can see nothing in this wizard's murk," Mina was saying loudly. "We need more light."

The light in the chamber grew brighter, so bright that it dazzled eyes accustomed to the darkness.

"I didn't know Mina was a mage," said Palin, shading his eyes with his hand.

"She's not," said Dalamar shortly. He cast Palin a strange glance. "Doesn't that tell you something?"

Palin ignored the question, concentrated on the conversation.

"You... you are so beautiful, Mother," Mina said softly, awed. "You look just as I imagined."

Sinking to her knees, the girl extended her hands. "Come, kiss me, Mother," she cried, tears falling. "Kiss me as you used to. I am Mina. Your Mina."

"And so she was, for many years," murmured Palin, watching in sorrowful concern as Goldmoon advanced unsteadily to clasp her adopted child in her arms. "Goldmoon found Mina washed up on the shore, presumably the survivor of some terrible ship wreck, though no wreckage or bodies or any other survivors were ever discovered. They brought her to the Citadel's orphanage. Intelligent, bold, fearless, Mina charmed all, including Goldmoon, who took the child to her heart. And then, one day, at the age of fourteen, Mina ran away. We searched, but we could find no trace of her, nor could anyone say why she had gone, for she had seemed so happy. Goldmoon's heart broke, then."

"Of course, Goldmoon found her," Dalamar said. "She was meant to find her."

"What do you mean?" Palin glanced at Dalamar, but the elf's expression was enigmatic.

Dalamar shrugged, said nothing, gestured back to the dark pool.

"Mina!" Goldmoon whispered, rocking her adopted daughter. "Mina! Child . . . why did you leave us when we all loved you so much?"

"I left for love of you, Mother. I left to seek what you wanted so desperately. And I found it, Mother! I found it for you.

"Dearest Mother." Mina took hold of Goldmoon's hands and pressed them to her lips. "All that I am and all that I have done, I have done for you."

"I ... don't understand, child," Goldmoon faltered. "You wear the symbol of evil, of darkness. . . . Where did you go?

Where have you been? What has happened to you?"

Mina laughed. "Where I went and where I have been is not important. What happened to me along the way-that is what you must hear.

"Do you remember, Mother, the stories you used to tell me? The story about how you traveled into darkness to search for the gods? And how you found the gods and brought faith in the gods back to the people of the world?"

"Yes," said Goldmoon. She had gone so very pale that Palin determined to be with her, cost him what it might.

He began to chant the words of magic. The words that came out of his mouth, however, were not the words that had formed in his brain. Those words were rounded, smooth, flowed easily. The words he spoke were thick and square-sided, tumbled out like blocks dropped on the floor.

He halted, angry at himself, forced himself to calm down and try again. He knew the spell, could have said it backward. He might well have said it backward, for all the sense it made.

"You're doing this to me!" Palin said accusingly.

Dalamar was amused. "Me?" He waved his hand. "Go to Goldmoon, if you want. Die with her, if you want. I'm not stopping you."

"Then who is? This One God?"

Dalamar regarded him in silence a moment, then turned back to gaze down into the pool. He folded his hands in the sleeves of his robes. "There was no past, Majere. You went back in time. There was no past."

"You told me the gods were gone, Mother,” Mina said. "You told me that because the gods were gone we had to rely on ourselves to find our way in the world. But I didn't believe that story, Mother.

"Oh"-Mina placed her hand over Goldmoon's mouth, silencing her-"I don't think you lied to me. You were mistaken, that was all. You see, I knew better. I knew there was a god for I heard the voice of the god when I was little and our

boat sank and I was cast alone into the sea. You found me on the shore, do you remember, Mother? But you never knew how I came to be there, because I promised I would never tell. The others drowned, but I was saved. The god held me and supported me and sang to me when I was afraid of the loneliness

and dark.

"You said there were no gods, Mother, but I knew you were wrong. So I did what you did. I went to find god and bring god back to you. And I've done that, Mother. The miracle of the storm. That is the One God. The miracle of your youth and beauty. That is the One God, Mother."

"Now do you understand, Majere?" Dalamar said softly.

"I think I am beginning to," said Palin. His broken hands clasped tightly together. The room was cold, his fingers ached with the chill. "I would add, 'the gods help us' but that might be out of place."

"Hush!" Dalamar snapped. "I can't hear. What did she say?"

"You asked for this," Goldmoon demanded, indicating her altered body with a gesture. "This is not me. It is your vision of me...."

"Aren't you pleased?" Mina continued, not hearing her or not wanting to hear. "I have so much to tell you that will please you. I've brought the miracle of healing back into the world with the power of the One God. With the blessing of the One, I felled the shield the elves had raised over Silvanesti and I killed the treacherous dragon Cyan Bloodbane. A truly monstrous green dragon, Beryl, is dead by the power of the One God. The elven nations that were corrupt and faithless have both been destroyed, their people dead."

"The elven nations destroyed!" Dalamar gasped, his eyes burning. "She lies! She cannot mean that!"

"Strange to say this, but I do not think Mina knows how to lie," Palin said.

"But in death, they will find redemption," Mina preached. "Death will lead them to the One God."

"I see blood on these hands," Goldmoon said, her voice

tremulous. "The blood of thousands! This god you have found is terrible god. A god of darkness and evil!"

"The One God told me you would feel this way, Mother," Mina responded. "When the other gods departed and you thought you were left alone, you were angry and afraid. You felt betrayed, and that was only natural. For you had been betrayed. The gods in which you had so misguidedly placed your faith fled in fear. ..."

"No!" Goldmoon cried out. She rose unsteadily to her feet and fell away from Mina, holding out her hand in warding. "No, Child, 1 don't believe it. I won't listen to you."

Mina seized Goldmoon's hand.

"You will listen, Mother. You must, so that you will understand. The gods fled in fear of Chaos, Mother. All except one. One god remained loyal to the people she had helped to create. One only had the courage to face the terror of the Father of All and of Nothing. The battle left her weak. Too weak to make manifest her presence in the world. Too weak to fight the strange dragons that came to take her place. But although she could not be with her people, she gave gifts to her people to help them fight the dragons. The magic that they called the wild magic, the power of healing that you know as the power of the heart . . . those were her gifts. Her gifts to you."

"If those were her gifts, then why did the dead need to steal them for her . . ." said Dalamar softly. "Look! Look there!" He pointed to the still water.

"I see." Palin breathed.

The heads of the five dragons that guarded what had once been the Portal to the Abyss began to glow with an eerie radiance, one red, one blue, one green, one white, one black.

"What fools we have been," Palin murmured.

"Kneel down," Mina commanded Goldmoon, "and offer your prayers of faith and thanksgiving to the One True God. The One God who remained faithful to her creation-"

"No, I don't believe what you are telling me!" Goldmoon said, standing fast. "You have been deceived, Child. I know

this One God. I know her of old. I know her tricks and her lies and deceits."

Goldmoon looked at the five-headed dragon.

"I do not believe your lies, Takhisis!" Goldmoon said defiantly. "I will never believe that the blessed Paladine and Mishakal left us to your mercy!"

"They didn't leave, did they?" Palin said.

"No," Dalamar said. "They did not."

"You are what you have always been," Goldmoon cried. "A god of Evil who does not want worshipers, you want slaves! I will never bow down to you! I will never serve you!"

White fire flared from the eyes of the five dragons. Palin watched in horror to see Goldmoon begin to wither in the terrible heat.

"Too late," said Dalamar with terrible calm. "Too late. For her. And for us. They'll be coming for us soon. You know that."

"This chamber is hidden-" Palin began.

"From Takhisis?" Dalamar gave a mirthless laugh. "She knew of this chamber's existence long before your uncle showed it to me. How could anything be hidden from the 'One God'? The One God who stole away Krynn!"

"As I said, what fools we have been," said Palin.

"You yourself discovered the truth, Majere. You used the device to journey back to Krynn's past, yet you could go back only to the moment Chaos was defeated. Prior to that, there was no past. Why? Because in that moment, Takhisis stole the past, the present, and the future. She stole the world. The clues were there, if we'd had sense enough to read them."

"So the future Tasslehoff saw-"

"-will never come to pass. He leaped forward to the future that was supposed to have happened. He landed in the future that is now happening. Consider the facts: a strange-looking sun in the sky; one moon where there were once three; the patterns of the stars are vastly different; a red star burns in the heavens where one had never before been seen; strange dragons appear from out of nowhere. Takhisis brought the world here, to this part of the universe, wherever that may be. Thus the strange sun, the single moon, the alien dragons, and the One God, all-powerful, with no one to stop her."

"Except Tasslehoff,” said Palin, thinking of the kender secreted in an upstairs chamber.

"Bah!" Dalamar snorted. "They've probably found him by now. Him and the gnome. When they do, Takhisis will do with him what we planned to do-she will send him back to die."

Palin glanced toward the door. From somewhere above came shouted orders and the sound of feet running to obey. "The fact Tasslehoff is here at all proves to me that the Dark Queen is not infallible. She could not have foreseen his coming."

"Cling to that if it makes you happy," said Dalamar. "I see no hope in any of this. Witness the evidence of the Dark Queen's power."

They continued to watch the reflections of time shimmering in the dark pool. In the laboratory, an elderly woman lay on the floor, her white hair loose and unbound around her shoulders. Youth, beauty, strength, life had all been snatched away by the vengeful goddess, angry that her generous gifts had been spurned.

Mina knelt beside the dying woman. Taking hold of Goldmoon's hands, Mina pressed them again to her lips. "Please, Mother. I can restore your youth. I can bring back your beauty. You can begin life all over again. You will walk with me, and together we will rule the world in the name of the One God. All you have to do is to come to the One God in humility and ask this favor of her, and it will be done."

Goldmoon closed her eyes. Her lips did not move.

Mina bent close. "Mother," she begged. "Mother, do this for me if not for yourself. Do this for love of me!"

"I pray," said Goldmoon in a voice so soft that Palin held his breath to hear, "I pray to Paladine and Mishakal that they forgive me for my lack of faith. I should have known the truth," she said softly, her voice weakening as she spoke the words with her dying breath, "I pray that Paladine will hear my prayer and he will come ... for love of Mina . . . For love of all . . ."

Goldmoon sank, lifeless, to the floor.

"Mother," said Mina, bewildered as a lost child, "I did this for you...."

Palin's eyes burned with tears, but he was not sure for whom it was he wept-for Goldmoon, who had brought light into the world, or for the orphan girl, whose loving heart had been snared, tricked, deceived by the darkness.

"May Paladine hear her dying prayer," Palin said quietly.

"May I be given bat wings to flap around this chamber," Dalamar retorted. "Her soul has gone to join the river of the dead, and I fancy that our souls will not be far behind."

Footsteps clattered down the stairs, steel swords banged against the sides of the stone walls. The footsteps halted outside their door.

"I don't suppose anyone found a key?" asked a deep, rumbling voice.

"I don't like this, Gaidar," said another. "This place stinks of death and magic. Let's get out of here."

"We can't get in if there's no key, sir," said a third. "We tried. It wasn't our fault we failed."

A moment's pause, then the first voice spoke, his voice firm. "Mina gave us our orders. We will break down the door."

Blows began to rain on the wooden door. The Knights started to beat on it with their fists and the hilts of their swords, but none sounded very enthusiastic.

"How long will the spell of warding hold?" Palin asked.

"Indefinitely, against this lot," said Dalamar disparagingly. "Not long at all against Her Dark Majesty."

"You are very cool about this," said Palin. "Perhaps you are not overly sorry to hear that Takhisis has returned."

"Say, rather, that she never left,” Dalamar corrected with fine irony.

Palin made an impatient gesture. "You wore the black robes. You worshiped her-"

"No, I did not," said Dalamar so quietly that Palin could barely hear him over the banging and the shouting and the thundering on the door. "I worshiped Nuitari, the son, not the mother. She could never forgive me for that."

"Yet, if we believe what Mina said, Takhisis gave us both the magic-me the wild magic and you the magic of the dead. Why would she do that?"

"To make fools of us," said Dalamar. "To laugh at us, as she is undoubtedly laughing now."

The sounds of fists beating at the door suddenly ceased. Quiet descended on those outside. For a hope-filled moment, Palin thought that perhaps they had given up and departed. Then came a shuffling sound, as of feet moving hastily to clear a path. More footsteps could be heard-lighter than those before.

A single voice called out. The voice was ragged, as if it were choked by tears.

"I speak to the wizard Dalamar," called Mina. "I know you are within. Remove the magical spell you have cast on the door that we may meet together and talk of matters of mutual interest."

Dalamar's lip curled slightly. He made no response, but stood silent, impassive.

"The One God has given you many gifts, Dalamar, made you powerful, more powerful than ever," Mina resumed, after a pause to hear an answer that did not come. "The One God does not ask for thanks, only that you serve her with all your heart and all your soul. The magic of the dead will be yours. A million million souls will come to you each day to do your bidding. You will be free of this Tower, free to roam the world. You may return to your homeland, to the forests that you love and for which you long. The elven people are lost, seeking. They will embrace you as their leader, bow down before you, and worship you in my name."

Dalamar's eyes closed, as if in pain.

He has been offered the dearest wish of his heart, Palin realized. Who could turn that down?

Still, Dalamar said nothing.

"I speak now to you, Palin Majere,” Mina said, and it seemed to Palin that he could see her amber eyes shining through the closed and spell-bound door. "Your uncle Raistlin Majere had the power and the courage to challenge the One God to battle. Look at you, his nephew. Hiding from the One God like a child who fears punishment. What a disappointment you have been. To your uncle, to your family, to yourself. The One God sees into your heart. The One God sees the hunger there. Serve the One God, Majere, and you will be greater than your uncle, more honored, more revered. Do you accept, Majere?"

"Had you come to me earlier, I might have believed you, Mina," Palin answered. "You have a way of speaking to the dark part of the soul. But the moment is passed. My uncle, wherever his spirit roams, is not ashamed of me. My family loves me, though I have done little to deserve it. I do thank this One God of yours for opening my eyes, for making me see that if I have done nothing else of value in this life, I have loved and been loved. And that is all that truly matters."

"A very pretty sentiment, Majere," Mina responded. "I will write that on your tomb. What of you, Dark Elf? Have you made your decision? I trust you will not be as foolish as your friend."

Dalamar spoke finally, but not to Mina. He spoke to the blue flame, burning in the center of the still pool of dark water.

"I have looked into the night sky and seen the dark moon, and I have thrilled to know that my eyes were among the few eyes that could see it. I have heard the voice of the god Nuitari and reveled in his blessed touch as I cast my spells. Long ago, the magic breathed and danced and sparkled in my blood. Now it crawls out of my fingers like maggots swarming from a carrion carcass. I would rather be that corpse than be a slave to one who so fears the living that she can trust only servants who are dead."

A single hand smote the door. The door and the spell that guarded it shattered.

Mina entered the chamber. She entered alone. The jet of flame that burned in the pool shone in her black armor, burned in her heart and in her amber eyes. Her shorn red hair glistened. She was might and power and majesty, but Palin saw that the amber eyes were red and swollen, tears stained her cheeks, grief for Goldmoon. Palin understood then the depth of the Dark Queen's perfidy, and he had never hated Takhisis so much as he hated her now. Not for what she had done or was about to do to him, but for what she had done to Mina and all the innocents like her.

Mina's Knights, fearful of the powerful wizards, hung back upon the shadowy stairs. Dalamar's voice raised in a chant, but the words were mumbled and inarticulate, and his voice faded slowly away. Palin tried desperately to summon the magic to him. The spell dissolved in his hands, ran through his fingers like grains of sand from a broken hourglass.

Mina regarded them both with a disdainful smile. "You are nothing without the magic. Look at you-two broken-down, impotent old men. Fall on your knees before the One God. Beg her to give you back the magic! She will grant your pleas."

Neither Palin nor Dalamar moved. Neither spoke.

"So be it," said Mina.

She raised her hand. Flames burned from the tips of her five fingers. Green fire, blue and red, white, and the red-black of embers lit the Chamber of Seeing. The flames merged together to form two spears forged of magic. The first spear she hurled at Dalamar.

The spear struck the elf in the breast, pinned him against the wall of the Chamber of Seeing. For a moment, he hung impaled upon the burning spear, his body writhing. Then his head sagged, his body went limp.

Mina paused. Holding the spear, she gazed at Palin.

"Beg," she said to him. "Beg the One God for your life."

Palin's lips tightened. He knew a moment's panicked fear, then pain sheared through his body. The pain was so horrific, so agonizing that it brought its own blessing. The pain made his last living thought a longing for death.

 

2

Significance of the Gnome

 

Dalamar had said to Palin, "You do understand the significance of the gnome?"

Palin had not understood the significance at that moment, nor had Tasslehoff. The kender understood now. He sat in the small and boring room in the Tower of High Sorcery, a room that was pretty much devoid of anything interesting: sad-looking tables and some stern-backed chairs and a few knick-nacks that were too big to fit in a pouch. He had nothing to do except look out a window to see nothing more interesting than an immense number of cypress trees - more trees than were absolutely necessary, or so Tas thought - and the souls of the dead wandering around among them. It was either that or watch Conundrum sort through the various pieces of the shattered Device of Time Journeying. For now Tas understood all too well significance of the gnome.

Long ago - just how long ago Tasslehoff couldn't remember, time had become extremely muddled for him, what with leaping forward to one future that turned out wasn't the proper future and ending up in this future, where all anyone wanted to do was send him back to the past to die-anyhow, long ago, Tasslehoff Burrfoot had, through no fault of his own (well, maybe a little) ended up quite by accident in the Abyss.

Having assumed that the Abyss would be a hideous place where all manner of perfectly horrible things went on-demons eternally torturing people, for example-Tas had been most frightfully disappointed to discover that the Abyss was, in fact, boring. Boring in the extreme. Nothing of interest happened. Nothing of disinterest happened. Nothing at all happened to anyone, ever. There was nothing to see, nothing to handle, nothing to do, nowhere to go. For a kender, it was pure hell.

Tas's one thought had been to get out. He had with him the Device of Time Journeying-this same Device of Time Journeying that he had with him now. The device had been broken-just as it was broken now. He had met a gnome-similar to the gnome now seated at the table across from him. The gnome had fixed the device-just as the gnome was busy fixing it now. The one big difference was that then Tasslehoff had wanted the gnome to fix the device, and now he didn't.

Because when the Device of Time Journeying was

 Palin and Dalamar would use it to send him-Tasslehoff Burrfoot- back in time to the point where the Father of All and of Nothing would squash him flat and turn him into the sad ghost of himself he'd seen wandering about Nightlund.

"What did you do with this device?" Conundrum muttered irritably. "Run it through a meat grinder?"

Tasslehoff closed his eyes so he wouldn't have to see the gnome, but he saw him anyway-his nut-brown face and his wispy hair that floated about his head as though he were perpetually poking his finger into one of his own inventions, perhaps the steam-powered preambulating hubble-bubble or the locomotive, self-winding rutabaga slicer. Worse, Tas could see the light of cleverness shining in the gnome's beady eyes. He'd seen that light before, and he was starting to feel dizzy. What did you do with this device? Run it through a meat grinder? were exactly the same words-or very close to them-that the previous gnome had said in the previous time.

To alleviate the dizzy feeling, Tasslehoff rested his head with its topknot of hair (going only a little gray here and there) on his hands on the table. Instead of going away, the uncomfortable dizzy feeling spiraled down from his head into his stomach, and spread from his stomach to the rest of his body.

A voice spoke. The same voice that he'd heard in a previous time, in a previous place, long ago. The voice was painful. The voice shriveled his insides and caused his brain to swell, so that it pressed on his skull, and made his head hurt horribly. He had heard the voice only once before, but he had never, ever wanted to hear it again. He tried to stop his ears with his hands, but the voice was inside him, so that didn't help.

You are not dead, said the voice, and the words were exactly the same words the voice had spoken so long ago, nor were you sent here. You are not supposed to be here at all.

"I know," said Tasslehoff, launching into his explanation. "I came from the past, and I'm supposed to be in a different future-"

A past that never was. A future that will never be.

"Is that... is that my fault?" Tas asked, faltering.

The voice laughed, and the laughter was horrible, for the sound was like a steel blade breaking, and the feel was of the slivers of the broken blade piercing his flesh.

Don't be a fool, kender. You are an insect. Less than an insect. A mote of dust, a speck of dirt to be flicked away with a brush of my hand. The future you are in is the future of Krynn as it was meant to be but for the meddlings of those who had neither the wit nor the vision to see how the world might be theirs. All that happened once will happen again, but this time to suit my purposes. Long ago, one died on a Tower, and his death rallied a Knighthood. Now, another dies on a Tower and her death plunges a nation into despair. Long ago, one was raised up by the miracle of the blue crystal staff. Now the one who wielded that staff will be raised up-to receive me.

"You mean Goldmoon!" Tasslehoff cried bleakly. "She used the blue crystal staff. Is Goldmoon dead?"

Laughter sliced through his flesh.

"Am I dead?" he cried. "I know you said I wasn't, but I saw my own spirit."

You are dead and you are not dead, replied the voice, but that will soon be remedied.

"Stop jabbering!" Conundrum demanded. "You're annoying me, and I can't work when I'm annoyed."

Tasslehoff's head came up from the table with a jerk. He stared at the gnome, who had turned from his work to glare at the kender.

"Can't you see I'm busy here? First you moan, then you groan, then you start to mumble to yourself. I find it most distracting."

"I'm sorry," said Tasslehoff.

Conundrum rolled his eyes, shook his head in disgust, and went back to his perusal of the Device of Time Journeying. "I think that goes here, not there," the gnome muttered. "Yes. See? And then the chain hooks on here and wraps around like so. No, that's not quite the way. It must go ... Wait, I see. This has to fit in there first."

Conundrum picked up one of the jewels from the Device of Time Journeying and fixed it in place. "Now I need another of these red gizmos." He began sorting through the jewels. Sorting through them now, as the other gnome, Gnimsh, had sorted through them in the past, Tasslehoff noted sadly.

The past that never was. The future that was hers.

"Maybe it was all a dream," Tas said to himself. "That stuff about Goldmoon. I think I'd know if she was dead. I think I'd feel sort of smothery around the heart if she was dead, and I don't feel that. Although it is sort of hard to breathe in here."

Tasslehoff stood up. "Don't you think it's stuffy, Conundrum? I think it's stuffy," he answered, since Conundrum wasn't paying any attention to him.

"These Towers of High Sorcery are always stuffy," Tas added, continuing to talk. Even if he was only talking to himself, hearing his own voice was far, far better than hearing that other, terrible voice. "It's all those bat wings and rat's eyeballs and moldy, old books. You'd think that with the cracks in these walls, you'd get a nice breeze, but that doesn't seem to be the case. I wonder if Dalamar would mind very much if I broke one of his windows?"

Tasslehoff glanced about for something to chuck through the windowpane. A small bronze statue of an elf maiden, who didn't seem to be doing much with her time except holding a wreath of flowers in her hands, stood on a small table. Judging by the dust, she hadn't moved from the spot for half a century or so and therefore, Tas thought, she might like a change of scenery. He picked up the statue and was just about to send the elf maiden on her journey out the window, when he heard voices outside the Tower.

Feeling thankful that the voices were coming from outside the Tower and not inside him, Tas lowered the elf maiden and peered curiously out the window.

A troop of Dark Knights had arrived on horseback, bringing with them a horse-drawn wagon with an open bed filled with straw. The Knights did not dismount but remained on their horses, glancing uneasily at the circle of dark trees that surrounded them. The horses shifted restlessly. The souls of the dead crept around the boles of the trees like a pitiful fog. Tas wondered if the riders could see the souls. He was sorry he could, and he did not look at the souls too closely, afraid he'd see himself again.

Dead but not dead.

He looked over his shoulder at Conundrum, bent almost double over his work and still mumbling to himself.

"Whoo-boy, there are a lot of Dark Knights about," Tas said loudly. "I wonder what these Dark Knights are doing here? Don't you wonder about that, Conundrum?"

The gnome muttered, but did not look up from his work. The device was certainly going back together in a hurry.

"I'm sure your work could wait. Wouldn't you like to rest a bit and come see all these Dark Knights?" Tas asked.

"No," said Conundrum, establishing the record for the shortest gnome response in history.

Tas sighed. The kender and the gnome had arrived at the Tower of High Sorcery in company with Tas's former companion and longtime friend Goldmoon-a Goldmoon who was ninety years old if she was a day but had the body and face of a woman of twenty. Goldmoon told Dalamar that she was meeting someone at the Tower. Dalamar took Goldmoon away and told Palin to take Tasslehoff and the gnome away and put them in a room to wait-making this a waiting room. It was then Dalamar had said, You do understand the significance of the gnome?

Palin had left them here, after wizard-locking the door. Tas knew the door was wizard-locked, because he'd already used up his very best lockpicks in an effort to open it without success. The day lockpicks fail is a day wizards are involved, as his father had been wont to say.

Standing at the window, staring down at the Knights, who appeared to be waiting for something and not much enjoying the wait, Tasslehoff was struck by an idea. The idea struck so hard that he reached up with the hand that wasn't holding onto the bronze statue of the elf maiden to feel if he had a lump on his head. Not finding one, he glanced surreptitiously (he thought that was the word) back at the gnome. The device was almost back together. Only a few pieces remained, and those were fairly small and probably not terribly important.

Feeling much better now that he had a Plan, Tas went back to observing what was happening out the window, thinking that now he could properly enjoy it. He was rewarded by the sight of an immense minotaur emerging from the Tower of High Sorcery. Tas was about four stories up in the Tower, and he could look right down on the top of the minotaur's head. If he chucked the statue out the window now, he could bean the minotaur.

Clunking a minotaur over the head was a delightful thought, and Tas was tempted. At that moment, however, several Dark Knights trooped out of the Tower. They bore something between them-a body covered with a black cloth.

Tas stared down, pressing his nose so hard against the glass pane that he heard cartilage crunch. As the troop carrying the body moved out of the Tower, the wind sighed among the cypress trees, lifted the black cloth to reveal the face of the corpse.

Tasslehoff recognized Dalamar.

Tas's hands went numb. The statue fell to the floor with a crash.

Conundrum's head shot up. "What in the name of dual carburetors did you do that for?" he demanded. "You made me drop a screw!"

More Dark Knights appeared, carrying another body. The wind blew harder, and the black cloth that had been thrown carelessly over the corpse slid to the ground. Palin's dead face looked up at the kender. His eyes were wide open, fixed and staring. His robes were soaked in blood.

"This is my fault!" Tas cried, riven by guilt. "If I had gone back to die, like I was supposed to, Palin and Dalamar wouldn't be dead now."

"I smell smoke," said Conundrum suddenly. He sniffed the air. "Reminds me of home," he stated and went back to his work.

Tas stared bleakly out the window. The Dark Knights had started a bonfire at the base of the Tower, stoking it with dry branches and logs from the cypress forest. The wood crackled. The smoke curled up the stone side of the Tower like some noxious vine. The Knights were building a funeral pyre.

"Conundrum," said Tasslehoff in a quiet voice, "how are you coming with the Device of Time Journeying? Have you fixed it yet?"

"Devices? No time for devices now," Conundrum said importantly. "I have this contraption about fixed."

"Good," said Tasslehoff.

Another Dark Knight came out of the Tower. She had red hair, cropped close to her head, and Tasslehoff recognized her. He'd seen her before, although he couldn't recall where.

The woman carried a body in her arms, and she moved very slowly and solemnly. At a shouted command from the minotaur, the other Knights halted their work and stood with their heads bowed.

The woman walked slowly to the wagon. Tas tried to see who it was the woman carried, but his view was blocked by the minotaur. The woman lowered the person gently into the wagon. She backed away and Tasslehoff had a clear view.

He'd assumed that the person was another Dark Knight, maybe one who'd been wounded. He was astonished to see that the person in the wagon was an old, old woman, and Tas knew immediately that the old woman was dead. He felt very sorry and wondered who she was. Some relation of the Dark Knight with the red hair, for she arranged the folds of the woman's white gown around her and then brushed out with her fingers the woman's long, flowing, silver-white hair.

"So Goldmoon used to brush out my hair, Gaidar," said the woman.

Her words carried clearly in the still air. Much too clearly, as far as Tas concerned.

"Goldmoon." Tas felt a lump of sadness rise up in his throat. "She is dead. Caramon, Palin ... Everyone I love is dead. And it's my fault. I'm the one who should be dead."

The horses drawing the wagon shifted restlessly, as if anxious to leave. Tas glanced back at Conundrum. Only two tiny jewels remained to be stuck on somewhere.

"Why did we come here, Mina?" The minotaur's booming voice could be heard clearly. "You have captured Solanthus, given the Solamnics a sound spanking and sent them running home to mama. The entire Solamnic nation is yours now. You have done what no one else has been able to do in the entire history of the world-"

"Not quite, Gaidar," Mina corrected him. "We must still take Sanction, and we must take it by the time of the Festival of the Eye."

"The . . . festival?" The minotaur's forehead wrinkled. "The Festival of the Eye. By my horns, I had almost forgotten that old celebration." He grinned. "You are such a youngling, Mina, I'm surprised you know of it at all. It hasn't been celebrated since the three moons vanished."

"Goldmoon told me about the festival," said Mina, gently stroking the dead woman's wrinkled cheek. "That it was held on the night when all three moons-the red, the white, and the black-converged, forming the image of a great staring eye in the heavens. I should like to have seen that sight."

"Among humans, it was a night for riot and revelry, or so I have heard. Among my people, the night was honored and reverenced," Gaidar stated, "for we believed the Eye to be the eye of Sargas, our god-former god," he added hastily, with a sidelong glance at Mina. "Still, what has some old festival to do with capturing Sanction? The three moons are gone, and so is the eye of the gods."

"There will be a festival, Gaidar," said Mina. "The Festival of the New Eye, the One Eye. We will celebrate the festival in the Temple of Huerzyd."

"But the Temple of Huerzyd is in Sanction," Gaidar protested. "We are on the other side of the continent from Sanction, not to mention the fact that Sanction is firmly in control of the Solamnic Knights. When will the festival occur?"

"At the appointed time," said Mina. "When the totem is assembled. When the red dragon falls from the skies."

"Ugh," Gaidar grunted. "Then we should be marching to Sanction now and bringing with us an army. Yet we waste our time at this fell place." He cast a glance of enmity at the Tower. "Our march will be further slowed if we must cart along the body of this old woman."

The bonfire roared and crackled. The flames leaped up the stone walls of the Tower, charring them. Smoke swirled about Gaidar, who batted irritably at it, and drifted in through the window. Tas coughed, covered his mouth with his hand.

"I am commanded to bring the body of Goldmoon, princess of the Que-shu, bearer of the blue crystal staff, to Sanction, to the Temple of Huerzyd on the night of the Festival of the New Eye.

There a great miracle will be performed, Gaidar. Our journey will not be slowed. All will move as has been ordered. The One God will see to that."

Mina raised her hands over the body of Goldmoon and lifted up her voice in prayer. Orangish-yellow light radiated from her hands. Tas tried to look into the light to see what was happening, but the light was like tiny pieces of glass in his eyes, made them burn and hurt so that he was forced to shut them tight. Even then he could see the glare right through them.

Mina's praying ceased. The bright light slowly faded. Tasslehoff opened his eyes.

The body of Goldmoon lay enshrined in a sarcophagus of golden amber. Encased in the amber, Goldmoon's body was once again youthful, beautiful. She wore the white robes she had worn in life. Feathers adorned her hair, that was gold threaded with silver-yet all now held fast in amber.

Tas felt the sick feeling in his stomach rise up into his throat. He choked and clutched the window ledge for support.

"This coffin you've created is very grand, Mina," said Gaidar, and the minotaur sounded exasperated, "but what do you plan to do with her? Cart her about as a monument to this One God? Exhibit her to the populace? We are not clerics. We are soldiers. We have a war too fight."

Mina stared at Gaidar in silence, a silence so large and terrible that it absorbed into itself all sound, all light, snatched away the air they breathed. The awful silence of her fury withered Gaidar, who shrank visibly before it.

"I'm sorry, Mina," he mumbled. "I didn't mean-"

"Be thankful that I know you, Gaidar," said Mina. "I know that you speak from your heart, without thinking. But someday, you will go too far, and on that day I will no longer be able to protect you. This woman was more than mother to me. All I have done in the name of the One God, I have done for her."

Mina turned to the sarcophagus, placed her hands upon the amber, and bent near to look at Goldmoon's calm, still face. "You told me of the gods who had been but were no more. I went in search of them-for you!"

Mina's voice trembled. "I brought the One God to you, . The One God gave you back your youth and your beauty. I thought you would be pleased. What did I do wrong? I don't understand." Mina's hands stroked the amber coffin, as if smoothing out a blanket. She sounded bewildered. "You will change your mind, dear Mother. You will come to understand... ."

"Mina . . ." Gaidar said uneasily, "I'm sorry. I didn't know. Forgive me."

Mina nodded. She did not turn her head.

Gaidar cleared his throat. "What are your orders concerning the kender?"

"Kender?" Mina repeated, only half-hearing him.

"The kender and the magical artifact. You said they were in the Tower."

Mina lifted her head. Tears glistened on her cheeks. Her face was pale, the amber eyes wide. "The kender." Her lips formed the words, but she did not speak them aloud. She frowned. "Yes, of course, go fetch him. Quickly! Make haste!"

"Do you know where he is, Mina?" Gaidar asked hesitantly. "The Tower is immense, and there are many rooms." .    Mina raised her head, looked directly at Tas's window, looked directly at Tas, and pointed.

"Conundrum," said Tasslehoff in a voice that didn't sound to him like his own voice but belonged to some altogether different person, a person who was well and truly scared. "We have to get out of here. Now!"

He backed precipitously away from the window.

"There, it's finished," said Conundrum, proudly displaying the device.

"Are you sure it will work?" Tas asked anxiously. He could hear footsteps on the stairs, or at least he thought he could.

"Or course," Conundrum stated, scowling. "Good as new. By the way, what did it do when it was new?"

Tas's heart, which had leaped quite hopefully at the first part of the gnome's statement, now sank.

How do you know it works if you don't know what it does?"

Tas demanded. He could quite definitely hear footsteps. "Never mind. Just give it to me. Quickly!"

Palin had wizard-locked the door, but Palin was . . . wasn't here anymore. Tas guessed that the wizard-lock wasn't here either. He could hear footsteps and harsh breathing. He pictured the large and heavy minotaur, tromping up all those stairs.

"I thought at first it might be a potato peeler," Conundrum was saying. He gave the device a shake that made the chain rattle. "But it's a bit small, and there's no hydraulic lift. Then I thought-"

"It's a device that sends you traveling through time. That's what I'm going to do with it, Conundrum," Tasslehoff said. "Journey back through time. I'd take you with me, but I don't think you'd much like where I'm going, which is back to the Chaos War to be stepped on by a giant. You see, it's my fault that everyone I love is dead, and if I go back, they won't be dead. I'll be dead, but that doesn't matter because I'm already dead-"

"Cheese grater," said Conundrum, regarding the device thoughtfully. "Or it could be, with a few modifications, a meat grinder, maybe, and a-"

"Never mind," said Tasslehoff, and he drew in a deep breath to give himself courage. "Just hand me the device. Thank you for fixing it. I hate to leave you here in the Tower of High Sorcery with an angry minotaur and the Dark Knights, but once I'm stepped on, they might not be here anymore. Would you please hand me the device?"

The footsteps had stopped, but not the harsh breathing. The stairs were steep and treacherous. The minotaur had been forced to halt his climb to catch his breath.

"Combination fishing rod and shoe tree?" guessed the gnome.

The minotaur's footsteps started again.

Tas gave up. One could be polite for only so long. Especially to a gnome. Tas made a grab for the device. "Give it to me!"

"You're not going to break it again?" Conundrum asked, holding it just out of the kender's reach.

"I'm not going to break it!" Tasslehoff said firmly. With a another lunge, he succeeded in nabbing the device and wrenched it out of the gnome's hand. "If you'll watch closely, I'll show you how it works. I hope," he muttered to himself.

Holding the device, Tas said a little prayer in his heart. "I know you can't hear me, Fizban ... Or maybe you can but you're so disappointed in me that you don't want to hear me. I'm truly sorry. Truly, truly sorry." Tears crept into his eyes. "I never meant to cause all this trouble. I only wanted to speak at Caramon's funeral, to tell everyone what a good friend he was to me. I never meant for this to happen. Never! So, if you'll help me just once to go back to die, I'll stay dead. I promise."

"It's not doing anything," Conundrum grumbled. "Are you sure it's plugged in?"

Hearing the footsteps growing louder and louder, Tas held the device over his head.

"Words to the spell. I have to say the words to the spell. I know the words," the kender said, gulping. "It goes ... It goes ... Thy time is thine ... Around it you journey ... No, that can't be right. Travel. Around it you travel. . . and something, something expanses . . ."

The footsteps were so close now that he could feel the floor shake.

Sweat beaded on the kender's forehead. He gulped again and looked at the device, as if it might help him. When it didn't, he shook it.

"Now I see how it got broken in the first place," said Conundrum severely. "Is this going to take long? I think hear someone coming."

"Grasp firmly the beginning and you'll end up at the end. No, that's wrong," Tas said miserably. "All of it's wrong. I can't remember the words! What's the matter with me? I used to know it by heart. I could recite it standing on my head. I know because Fizban made me do it."

There came a thundering crash on the door, as of a heavy minotaur shoulder bashing into it.

Tas shut his eyes, so that he wouldn't hear what was going on outside the door. "Fizban made me say the spell standing on my head backwards. It was a bright, sunny day. We were in a green meadow, and the sky was blue with these little puffy white clouds, and the birds were singing, and so was Fizban until I asked him politely not to...."

Another resounding crash and a sound of wood splintering.

Thy time is thy own.

Though across it you travel.

Its expanses you see.

Whirling across forever.

Obstruct not its flow.

Grasp firmly the end and the beginning.

Turn them forward upon themselves.

All that is loose shall be secure

Destiny be over your own head.

The words flooded Tasslehoff's being, as warm and bright as the sunshine on that spring day. He didn't know where they came from, and he didn't stick around to ask.

The device began to glow brightly, jewels gleaming.

The last sensation Tas felt was that of a hand clutching his. The last sound Tas heard was Conundrum's voice, crying out in panic, "Wait! There's a screw loose-"

And then all sound and sensation was lost in the wonderful and exciting rushing-wind noise of the magic.

 

3

Punishment  for  Failure

 

The kender is gone, Mina," Gaidar reported, emerging from the Tower.

"Gone?" Mina turned away from the amber coffin that held the body of Goldmoon to stare at the minotaur. "What do you mean? That's impossible? How could he escape - "

Mina gave a cry of anguish. Doubling over in wrenching pain, she sank to her knees, her arms clasped around her, her nails digging into her bare flesh in transports of agony.

"Mina!" Gaidar cried in alarm. He hovered over her, helpless, baffled. "What has happened? Are you wounded? Tell me!"

Mina moaned and writhed upon the ground, unable to answer.

Gaidar glared around at her Knights. "You were supposed to be guarding her! What enemy has done this?"

"I swear, Gaidar!" cried one. "No one came near her - "

Mina," said Gaidar, bending over her, "tell me where you are hurt!

Shuddering, in answer, she placed her hand on the black hauberk she wore, placed her hand over her heart.

"My fault!" she gasped through lips that bled. She had bitten down on them in her torment. "My fault. This . . . my punishment."

Mina remained on her knees, her head bowed, her hands clenched. Rivulets of sweat ran down her face. She shivered with fevered chills. "Forgive me!" she gasped, the words were flecked with blood. "I failed you. I forgot my duty. It will not happen again, I swear on my soul!"

The spasms of wracking pain ceased. Mina sighed, shuddering. Her body relaxed. She drew in deep breaths and rose, unsteadily, to her feet.

Her Knights gathered around her, wondering and ill at ease.

"Alarm's over," Gaidar told them. "Go back to your duties."

They went, but not without many backward looks. Gaidar supported Mina's unsteady steps.

"What happened to you?" he asked, eyeing her anxiously. "You spoke of punishment. Who punished you and for what?"

"The One God," said Mina. Her face was streaked with sweat and drawn with remembered agony, the amber eyes gray. "I failed in my duty. The kender was of paramount importance. I should have retrieved him first. I ..." She licked her bloodied lips, swallowed. "I was so eager to see my mother, I forgot about him. Now he is gone, and it is my fault."

"The One God did this to you?" Gaidar repeated, appalled, his voice shaking with anger. "The One God hurt you like this?"

"I deserved it, Gaidar," Mina replied. "I welcome it. The pain inflicted on me is nothing compared to the pain the One God bears because of my failure."

Gaidar frowned, shook his head.

"Come, Gaidar," she said, her tone chiding, "didn't your father whip you as a child? Didn't your battle master beat you when you made a mistake in training? Your father did not strike you out of malice. The battle master did not hit you out of spite. Such punishment was meant for your own good."

"It isn't the same," Gaidar growled. He would never forget the sight of her, who had led armies to glorious conquest, on her knees in the dirt, writhing in pain.

"Of course, it is the same," Mina said gently. "We are all children of the One God. How else are we to learn our duty?"

Gaidar had no reply. Mina took his silence for agreement.

"Take some of the men and search every room in the Tower. Make certain the kender is not hiding in any of them. While you are gone, we will burn these bodies."

"Must I go back in there, Mina?" said Galdar, his voice heavy with reluctance.

"Why? What do you fear?" she asked.

"Nothing living," he replied, with a dark scowl at the Tower.

"Don't be afraid, Gaidar," said Mina. She cast a careless glance at the bodies of the wizards, being dragged to the funeral pyre. "Their spirits cannot harm you. They go to serve the One God."

A bright light shone in the heavens. Distant, ethereal, the light was more radiant than the sun, made that orb seem dim and tarnished by comparison. Dalamar's mortal eyes could not look long at the sun, lest he be blinded, but he could stare at this beautiful, pure light forever, or so he imagined. Stare at it with an aching longing that rendered all that he was, all that he had been, paltry and insignificant.

As a very small child, he had once looked up in the night sky above his homeland to see the silver moon. Thinking it a bauble, just out of his reach, he wanted it to play with. He demanded his parents fetch it for him, and when they did not, he wept in anger and frustration. He felt that way now. He could have wept, but he had no eyes to weep with, no tears to fall. The bright and beautiful light was out of reach. His way to it was blocked. A barrier as thin as gossamer and strong as adamant stretched in front of him. Try as he might, he could not move past that barrier, a prison wall that surrounded a world.

He was not alone. He was one prisoner among many. The souls of the dead roamed restlessly about the prison yard of their bleak existence, all of them looking with longing at the radiant light. None of them able to attain it.

"The light is very beautiful," said a voice that was soft and beguiling. "What you see is the light of a realm beyond, the next stage of your soul's long journey. I will release you, let you travel there, but first you must bring me what I need."

He would obey. He would bring the voice whatever it wanted, so long as he could escape this prison. He had only to bring the magic. He looked at the Tower of High Sorcery and recognized it as having something to do with what he was, what he had been, but all that was gone now, behind him. The Tower was a veritable storehouse for the magic. He could see the magic glistening like streams of gold dust among the barren sand that had been his life.

The other, restless souls streamed into the Tower, now bereft of the one who had been its master. Dalamar looked at the radiant light, and his heart ached with longing. He joined the river of souls that was flowing into the Tower.

He had almost reached the entrance when a hand reached out and seized hold of him, held him fast. The voice, angry and frustrated itself, hissed at him, "Stop."

"Stop!" Mina commanded. "Halt! Do not burn the bodies. I have changed my mind."

Startled, the Knights let loose their hold. The corpses flopped limply to the ground. The Knights exchanged glances. They had never seen Mina like this, irresolute and vacillating. They didn't like it, and they didn't like to see her punished, even by this One God. The One God was far away, had little to do with them. Mina was near, and they worshiped her, idolized her.

"A good idea, Mina," said Gaidar, emerging from the Tower. He glared balefully at the dead wizards. "Leave the vultures to be eaten by vultures. The kender is not in the Tower. We've searched high, and we've searched low. Let's get out of this accursed place."

Fire crackled. Smoke curled about the Tower, as the mournful dead curled about the boles of the cypress trees. The living waited in hopeful expectation, longing to leave. The dead waited patiently, they had nowhere to go. All of them wondered what Mina meant to do.

She knelt beside Dalamar's body. Clasping one hand over the medallion she wore around her neck, she placed her other hand on the mage's mortal wounds. The staring eyes looked up vacantly.

Softly, Mina began to sing.

Wake, love, for this time wake. Your soul, my hand does take. Leave the darkness deep. Leave your endless sleep.

Dalamar's flesh warmed beneath Mina's hand. Blood tinged the gray cheeks, warmed the chill limbs. His lips parted, drew in breath in a shivering gasp. He quivered and stirred at her touch. Life returned to the corpse, to all but the eyes. The eyes remained vacant, empty.

Gaidar watched in scowling disapproval. The Knights stared in awe. Always before, Mina had prayed over the dead, but she had never brought them back to life. The dead serve the One God, she had told them.

"Stand up," Mina ordered.

The living body with the lifeless eyes obeyed, rose to its feet.

"Go to the wagon," Mina ordered. "There await my command."

The elf's eyelids shivered. His body jerked.

"Go to the wagon," Mina repeated.

Slowly, the mage's empty eyes shifted, looked at Mina.

"You will obey me in this," said Mina, "as you will obey me in all things, else I will destroy you. Not your body. The loss of this lump of flesh would be of little consequence to you now. I will destroy your soul."

The corpse shuddered and, after a moment's hesitation, shuffled off toward the wagon. The Knights fell back before it, gave it wide berth, although a few started to grin. The shambling thing looked grotesque. One of the Knights actually laughed aloud.

Horrified and repelled, Gaidar saw nothing funny in this. He had spoken glibly of leaving the corpses to the vultures, and he could have done that without a qualm-they were wizards, after all-but he didn't like this. There was something wrong with this, although he couldn't quite say what or why it should so disturb him.

"Mina, is this wise?" he asked.

Mina ignored him. Singing the same song over the second wizard, she placed her hand upon his chest. The corpse sat up.

"Go join your fellow in the wagon," she commanded.

Palin's eyes blinked. A spasm contorted his features. Slowly, the hands with their broken fingers started to raise up, reach out, as if to grab and seize hold of something only he could see.

"I will destroy you," Mina said sternly. "You will obey me."

The hands clenched. The face contorted in agony, a pain that seemed far worse than the pain of death.

"Go," said Mina, pointing.

The corpse gave up the fight. Bowing its head, it walked to the wagon. This time, none of the Knights laughed.

Mina sat back, pale, wan, exhausted. This day had been a sad one for her. The death of the woman she loved as a mother, the anger of her god. She drooped, her shoulders sagged. She seemed scarcely able to stand under her own power. Gaidar was moved to pity. He longed to comfort and support her, but his duty came first.

"Mina, is this wise?" he repeated in a low voice, for her ears alone. "Bad enough we must haul a coffin about Ansalon, but now we are further burdened by these two . . . things." He didn't know what name to call them. "Why have you done this? What purpose does it serve?" He frowned. "It unsettles the men."

The amber eyes regarded him. Her face was drawn with fatigue and grief, but the eyes shone clear, undimmed, and, as always, they saw right through him.

"It unsettles you, Gaidar," she said.

He grunted. His mouth twisted.

Mina turned her gaze to the corpses, sitting on the end of the wagon, staring out at nothing.

"These two wizards are tied to the kender, Gaidar."

"They are hostages, then?" said Gaidar, cheering up. This was something he could understand.

"Yes, Gaidar, if you want to think of it that way. They are hostages. When we recover the kender and the artifact, they will explain to me to how it works."

"I'll put an extra guard on them."

"That will not be necessary," Mina said, shrugging. "Think of them not so much as prisoners, but as animated slabs of meat."

She gazed at them, her expression thoughtful. "What would you say to an army of such as these, Gaidar? An army of soldiers who obey commands without question, soldiers who fight without fear, who have inordinate strength, who fall, only to rise again. Isn't that the dream of every commander? We hold their souls in thrall," she continued, musing, "and send forth their bodies to do battle. What would you say to that, Gaidar?"

Gaidar could think of nothing to say. Rather, he could think of too much to say. He could imagine nothing more heinous, nothing more obscene.

"Fetch my horse, Gaidar," Mina ordered. "It is time we left this place of sorrow."

Gaidar did as he was told, obeyed that order eagerly.

Mounting her horse, Mina took her place at the head of the mournful caravan. The Knights fell in around the wagon, forming an honor guard for the dead. The wagon's driver cracked his whip, and the heavy draft horses heaved against the harness. The wagon and its strange burden lurched forward.

The souls of the dead parted for Mina, as did the trees. A trail opened up through the thick and tangled wood that surrounded the Tower of High Sorcery. The trail was smooth, for Mina would not have the coffin jostled. She turned often in her saddle to look back to the wagon, to the amber sarcophagus.

Gaidar took his customary place at Mina's side.

The bodies of the two wizards sat on the back of the wagon, feet dangling, arms flaccid, hands resting in their laps. Their eyes stared straight ahead behind them. Once, Gaidar glanced back at them. He saw two wispy entities trailing after the living corpses, like silken scarves caught in the wagon wheels.

Their souls.

He looked quickly away and did not look back again.

 

4

Death of Skie

 

The silver dragon had no idea how much time had passed since he had first entered the caverns of Skie, the mighty blue dragon. The blind silver, Mirror, had no way of judging time, for he could not see the sun. He had not seen it since the day of that strange and terrible storm, the day he'd heard the voice in the storm and recognized it, the day the voice had commanded that he bow down and worship, the day he'd been punished for his refusal, struck by the bolt that left him sightless and disfigured. That day was months past. He had wandered the world since, stumbling about in human form, because a blind human can walk, whereas a blind dragon, who cannot fly, is almost helpless.

Hidden away in this cave, Mirror knew nothing but night, felt nothing but night's cool shadows.

Mirror had no notion how long he had been here in the lair with the suffering blue dragon. It might have been a day or a year since Skie had sought to make demands of the One God. Mirror had been an unwitting witness to their encounter.

Having heard the voice in the storm and recognized it, Mirror had come seeking an answer to this strange riddle. If the voice was that of Takhisis, what was she doing in this world when all the other gods had departed? Thinking it over, Mirror had decided that Skie might be the one to provide him with information.

Mirror had always had questions about Skie. Supposedly a Krynn dragon like himself, Skie had grown larger and stronger and more powerful than any other blue dragon in the history of the world. Skie had purportedly turned on his own kind, slaying and devouring them as did the dragon overlords. Mirror had often wondered: Had Skie had truly turned upon his own kind? Or had Skie joined his own kind?

With great difficulty, Mirror had managed to find Skie's lair and enter it. He had arrived in time to witness Skie's punishment by Mina for his presumption, for his perceived disloyalty. Skie had sought to kill Mina, but the lightning bolt meant to slay her reflected off her armor, struck him. The immense blue dragon was mortally wounded.

Desperate to know the truth, Mirror had done what he could to heal Skie. He had been only partially successful. He was keeping the Blue alive, but the barbs of the gods are powerful weapons, and Mirror, though a dragon, was mortal.

Mirror left his charge only to fetch water for them both.

Skie drifted in and out of consciousness. During the times he was awake and lucid, Mirror was able to question the blue dragon about the One God, a god to whom Mirror was now able to give a name. These conversations took place over long periods of time, for Skie was rarely able to remain conscious long.

"She stole the world," Skie said at one point, shortly after he first regained his senses. "Stole it away and transported it to this part of the universe. She had long planned out her actions. All was in readiness. She awaited only the right moment."

"A moment that came during the Chaos War," Mirror said. He paused, asked quietly, "How are you feeling?"

"I am dying," Skie returned bluntly. "That's how I am feeling."

Had Mirror been human, he would have told some comforting falsehood intended to sooth the dying dragon's final moments. Mirror was not human, although he now walked in human form. Dragons are not given to telling falsehoods, not even those meant to comfort. Mirror was wise enough to know that such lies bring comfort only to the living.

Skie was a warrior dragon. A blue dragon, he had flown into battle countless times, had sent many of his foes plummeting to their deaths. He and his former rider, the infamous Kitiara uth Matar, had cut a swath of terror and destruction across half of Ansalon during the War of the Lance. After the Chaos War, Skie had been one of the few dragons in Ansalon to hold his own against the alien dragon overlords, Malys and Beryl, finally rising in power to take his place among them. He had slaughtered and gorged on other dragons, gaining in strength and power by devouring his own kind. He had built a hideous totem of the skulls of his victims.

Mirror could not see the totem, but he could sense it nearby. He heard the voices of the dead, accusing, angry, crying out for revenge. Mirror had no love for Skie. Had they met in battle, Mirror would have fought to defeat his foe and rejoiced in his destruction.

And Skie would have rejoiced in such a death. To die as a warrior, to fall from the skies with the blood of your foe wet on your talons, the taste of lightning on your tongue. That was the way Skie would have wanted to die. Not this way, not lying helpless, trapped in his lair, his life passing from him in labored, gasping breaths; his mighty wings stilled; his bloodied talons twitching and scrabbling on the rock floor.

No dragon should die this death, Mirror thought to himself. Not even my worst enemy. He regretted having used his magic to bring Skie back to life, but Mirror had to know more about this One God, he had to find out the truth. He inured himself against pity for his foe and continued asking questions. Skie did not have much time left to answer.

"You say Takhisis planned this removal," Mirror said, during another conversation. "You were part of her plan."

Skie grunted. Mirror could hear the massive body shift itself in an effort to ease the pain.

"I was the most important part, curse the eon I met the conniving bitch. I was the one who discovered the Portals. Our world, the world where I and others of my kind were born, is not like this world. We do not share our world with the short-lived, the soft-bodies. Ours is a world of dragons."

Skie was not able to say this without many pauses for breath and grunts of pain. He was determined to continue his tale. His voice was weak, but Mirror could still hear the anger, like a rumble of distant thunder.

"We roamed our world at will and fought ferocious battles for survival. These dragons you see here, this Beryl and this Malys, they seem to you enormous and powerful, but in comparison to those who ruled our world, they are small and pitiful creatures. That was one reason they came to this world. But I jump ahead of myself.

"I could see, as could others of our kind, that our world was growing stagnant. We had no future, our children had no future but to eat or be eaten. We were not advancing, we were regressing. I was not the only one to seek a way off the world, but I was the first to be successful. Using my magic, I discovered the roads that led through the ethers to worlds far beyond our own. I grew skilled at traveling these roads. Often the roads saved my life, for if I was threatened by one of the Elders, I had only to jump into the ethers to escape.

"It was while I was inside the ethers that I came upon Her Dark Majesty." Skie ground his teeth as he spoke, as if he would be glad to grind her between them. "I had never seen a god before. I had never before beheld anything so magnificent, never been in the presence of such power. I bowed before her and offered myself to her as her servant. She was fascinated by the roads through the ethers. I was not so enamored of her that I foolishly revealed their secrets to her, but I gave her enough information so that she could see how they might be of use to her.

"Takhisis brought me to her world that she called Krynn. She told me that on Krynn she was but one of many gods. She was the most powerful, she said, and because of that, the others feared her and were constantly conspiring against her. She would one day be triumphant over them, and on that day she would give me rich reward. I would rule Krynn and the soft-bodies who lived on it. This was to be my world in exchange for my services. Needless to say, she lied."

Anger stirred in Mirror, anger at the overweening ambition that gave no thought or care to any of those living on the world that was apparently little more than a bauble to Queen Takhisis. Mirror took care to keep his own anger hidden. He had to hear all that Skie had to tell. Mirror had to know what had happened. He could not change the past, but he might be able to affect the future.

"I was young then," Skie continued, "and the young of our species are the size of the blue dragons on Krynn. Queen Takhisis paired me with Kitiara-a favorite of the Dark Queen. Kitiara ..."

Skie was silent, remembering. He gave a deep sigh, an aching sigh of longing. "Our battles together were glorious. For the first time, I learned that one could fight for more than survival-one could fight for honor, for the joy of the battle, for the glory in victory. At first, I despised the weaklings who inhabit this world: humans and the rest. I could not see why the gods permitted them to exist. Soon, I came to find them fascinating-Kitiara, especially. Courageous, bold, never doubting herself, knowing exactly what she wanted and reaching out to seize it. Ah, what a goddess she would have made."

Skie paused. His breath came with a painful catch. "I will see her again. I know I will. Together, we will fight.. . and ride once more to glory...."

"And all this time," Mirror said, leading Skie back to the main topic, "you worked for Takhisis. You established the road that would take her here, to this part of the universe."

"I did. I made all ready for her. She had only to wait for the right time."

    "But, surely, she could not have foreseen the Chaos War?" A terrible thought came to Mirror. "Or did that come about through her machinations?"

Skie snorted in disgust. "Clever Takhisis may be, but she is not that clever. Perhaps she had some inkling that Chaos was trapped inside the Graygem. If so, she had only to wait-for what is time to her, she is a god-for some fool to let him loose. If it had not been that, she would have found some other means. She was constantly watching for her chance. As it was, the Chaos War played right into her hands. All was in readiness. She made a show of fleeing the world, withdrawing her support and her power, leaving those who relied on her helpless. She had to do that, for she would need all her power for the enormous task that awaited her.

"The moment came. In the instant that Chaos was defeated, the energy released was immense. Takhisis harnessed that energy, combined it with her own power, and wrenched the world free of its moorings, brought it along the roads I had created with my magic, and set it here, in this part of the universe. All of this happened so fast that no one on the world was aware of the shift. The gods themselves, caught up in the desperate battle for survival, had no inkling of her plan, and once they realized what was happening, they were so depleted of their own power that they were helpless to stop her.

"Takhisis snatched the world away from them and hid it from their sight. All proceeded as she had planned. Bereft of the gods' blessing, stripped of their magic, the people of the world were thrown into turmoil and despair. She herself was exhausted, so weak that she was reduced to almost nothing. She needed time to heal herself, time to rest. But she wasn't worried. The longer the people were without a god, the greater their need. When she returned, they would be so thankful and relieved that they would be her abject slaves. She made one minor miscalculation."

"Malys," said Mirror. "Beryl and the rest."

"Yes. They were intrigued by this new toy that had suddenly dropped down among them. Weary of struggling to survive in their world, they were only too happy to take over this one. Takhisis was too weak to stop them. She could do nothing but watch in helpless frustration as they seized rulership of the world. Still, she lied to me and continued to promise me that someday, when she was again powerful, she would destroy the usurpers and give the world to me. I believed her for a while, but the years passed, and Malystryx and Beryl and the rest grew more powerful still. They killed the dragons of Krynn and feasted on them and built their totems, and I heard nothing from Takhisis.

"As for me, I could see this world degenerating into a world like the one I had left. I looked back with joy to my days of battle with Kitiara. I wanted nothing more to do with my kind, nothing more to do with the pathetic wretches who populated this place. I went to Takhisis and demanded payment.

"'Keep the world,” I said to her. 'I have no need of it. I do not want it. Restore Kitiara to me. We will travel the roads together. Together we will find a world where glory awaits us.' "

"She promised me she would. In a place called the Gray, I would find Kitiara's soul. I saw the Gray. I went there. Or thought I did." Skie rumbled deep in his chest. "You heard the rest. You heard Mina, the Dark Queen's new toady. You heard her tell me how I had been betrayed."

"Yet, others saw you depart. . . ."

"Others saw what she meant them to see, just as all saw what she meant them to see at the end of the Chaos War."

Skie fell silent, brooding over his wrongs. Mirror listened to the blue dragon's labored breathing. Skie might live for hours or days. Mirror had no way of knowing. He could not find out where Skie was wounded, and Skie himself would not tell him. Mirror wondered if the wound was not so much heart-deep as soul-deep.

Mirror changed the subject to turn Skie's thoughts. "Takhisis faced a new threat-the dragon overlords."

"The overlords." Skie grunted. "Yes, they were a problem. Takhisis had hoped that they would continue to fight and eventually slay each other, but the overlords agreed to a truce. Peace was declared. People began to grow complacent. Takhisis feared that soon people would start to worship the overlords, as some were already doing, and have no need of her. The Dark Queen was not yet strong enough to battle them. She had to find a way to increase her power. She had long recognized and lamented the waste of energy that passed out of the world with the souls of the dead. She conceived a way to imprison the dead within the world, and thus she was able to use them to steal away the wild magic and feed it to her. When she deemed she was strong enough to return, she came back, the night of the storm."

"Yes," said Mirror. "I heard her voice. She called to me to join her legions, to worship her as my god. I might have, but something stopped me. My heart knew that voice, if my head did not. And so I was punished. I-"

He halted. Skie had begun to stir, trying to lift his great bulk from the floor of the lair.

"What is it? What are you doing?"

"You had best hide yourself," said Skie, struggling desperately to regain his feet. "Malys is coming."

"Malys!" Mirror repeated, alarmed.

"She has heard I am dying. Those cowardly minions who used to serve me must have raced to her with the glad tidings. The great vulture comes to steal my totem. I should let her! Takhisis has usurped the totems for her own use. Malys takes her worst enemy to bed with her every night. Let the red monster come. I will fight her with my last breath-"

Skie might be raving, as Mirror truly thought he was, but the Blue's advice to hide was sound. Even had he not been blind, Mirror would have avoided a fight with the immense red dragon, much as he hated and loathed her. Mirror had seen too many of his kind caught and crushed in the mighty jaws, set ablaze by her horrific fire. Brute strength alone could not overcome this alien creature. The largest, strongest dragon ever to walk Krynn would be no match for Malystryx.

Not even a god had dared face her.

Mirror shifted back to human form. He felt very fragile and vulnerable in the soft skin, the thin and delicate bones, the paltry musculature. Yet, a blind human could manage in this world. Mirror began to grope his way around Skie's massive body. Mirror planned to retreat, move deeper into the twisting maze of corridors in the Blue's labyrinthine lair. Mirror was feeling his way about, when his hand touched something smooth and cold.

A shiver passed through his arm. Mirror could not see, but he knew immediately what he had touched-Skie's totem, made of skulls of his victims. Shuddering, Mirror snatched his hand away and almost lost his balance in his haste. He stumbled into the wall, steadied himself, used the wall to guide his steps.

"Wait," Skie's voice hissed through the dark corridors. "You did me a favor, Silver. You kept me from death by her foul hands. Because of you, I can die on my own terms, with what dignity I have left. I will do you a favor in return. The others of your kind-the Golds and Silvers-you've searched for them, and you cannot find them. True enough?"

Mirror was reluctant to admit this, even to a dying blue dragon. He made no reply but continued groping his way along the passage.

"They did not flee in fear," Skie continued. "They heard Takhisis's voice the night of the storm. Some of them recognized it, understood what it meant. They left the world to try to find the gods."

Mirror paused, turned his sightless face to the sound of Skie's voice. Outside, he could now hear what Skie had heard long before him-the beating of enormous wings.

"It was a trap," Skie said. "They left, and now they cannot return. Takhisis holds them prisoner, as she holds the souls of the dead prisoner."

"What can be done to free them?" Mirror asked.

"I have told you all I know," Skie replied. "My debt to you is paid, Silver. You had best make haste."

Moving as fast as possible, Mirror slipped and slid down the passage. He had no notion of where he was going, but guessed that he was traveling deeper into the lair. He kept his right hand on the wall, moved with the wall, never let go. Thus, he reasoned, he would be able to find his way out. When he heard Malys's voice, strident and high-pitched-an odd sound to come from such a massive creature-Mirror halted. Keeping his hand firmly against the wall, he hunkered down onto the smooth floor, shrouded in the lair's cool darkness. He quieted even his breathing, fearful that she might hear him and come seeking him.

Mirror crouched in the blue dragon's lair and awaited the outcome with dread.

Skie knew he was dying. His heart lurched and shivered in his rib cage. He fought for every breath. He longed to lie down and rest, to close his eyes, to lose himself in the past. To once more spread his wings that were the color of heaven and fly up among the clouds. To hear Kitiara's voice again, her firm commands, her mocking laughter. To feel her hands, sure and capable, on the reins, guiding him unerringly to the fiercest, hottest part of the battle. To revel again in the clash of arms and smell the blood, to feel the flesh rend beneath his talons and hear Kitiara's exultant battle cry, challenging all comers. To return to the stables, have his wounds dressed, and wait for her to come, as she always did, to sit down beside him and relive the battle. She would come to him, leaving behind those puny humans who sought to love her. Dragon and rider, they were a team-a deadly team.

"So, Skie," said a voice, a hated voice. Malys's head thrust inside the entrance to the lair, blotted out the sunlight. "I was misinformed. You're not dead yet, I see."

Skie roused himself. His dreams, his memories had been very real. This was unreality.

"No, I am not dead," he growled. His talons dug deep into the rock, fighting against the pain, forcing himself to remain standing.

Malys insinuated more of her great bulk inside his lair-her head and shoulders, front talons and neck. Her wings remained folded at her side, her hind feet and tail dangled down the cliff face. Her small, cruel eyes swept over him disdainfully. Discounting him, she searched for the reason she had come-his totem. She found it, elevated in the center of the lair, and her eyes glistened.

"Don't mind me," she said coolly. "You were dying, I believe. Please continue. I don't mean to interrupt. I just came to collect a few mementos of our time together."

Reaching out her talon, Malys began to weave a magical web around the skulls of his totem. Skie saw eyes in the skulls of the totem. He could sense his Queen's presence. Takhisis had no care for him. Not anymore. He was of no use to her now. She had eyes only for Malys. Fine. Skie wished them joy together. They deserved each other.

His legs trembled. They could not support his weight any longer, and he slumped to the floor of his lair. He was angry with himself, furious. He had to fight, to take a stand, to at least leave his mark upon Malys. He was so weak, shivering. His heart pounded as if it would burst in his chest.

"Skie, my lovely Blue!" Kitiara's voice came to him, mocking, laughing. "What, you sluggard, still asleep? Wake up! We have battles to fight this day. Death to deal. Our enemies do not slumber, you may be certain of that."

Skie opened his eyes. There she stood before him, her blue dragon armor shining in the sun. Kitiara smiled her crooked smile and, lifting her arm, she pointed.

"There stands your foe, Skie. You have one fight left in you. One more battle to go. Then you may rest."

Skie raised his head. He could not see Malys. His sight was going rapidly, draining away with his life. He could see Kitiara, though, could see where she pointed. He drew in a breath, his last breath. He had better make it a good one.

The breath mingled with the sulfur in his belly. He exhaled.

Lightning cracked and sizzled, split the air. Thunder boomed, shook the mountain. The sound was horrendous, but he could still near Malys's shriek of rage and pain. He could not see what damage he had done to her, but he guessed it had been considerable.

Enraged, Malys attacked him. Her razor-sharp talons dug through his scales, ripped apart his flesh, tore a gaping hole in his flank.

Skie felt nothing, no more pain, no more fear.

Pleased, he let his head sink to the floor of his lair.

"Well done, my lovely Blue," came Kitiara's voice, and he was proud to feel the touch of her hand on the side of his neck. "Well done. . ."

Skie's weak thunderbolt had caused Malys no real harm, beyond a jarring, tingling sensation that danced through her body and knocked a large chunk of scaly flesh off the joint of her upper left foreleg. She felt the pain more to her pride than to her great, bloated body, and she lashed out at the dying Skie, ripping and rending his flesh until the lair was awash with blood. Eventually, she realized she was doing nothing but maltreating an unfeeling corpse.

Her fury spent, Malys resumed her dismantling of his totem, prepared it for transport back to her lair in the new Goodlund Range, the Peak of Malys.

Gloating over her prize, eyeing with satisfaction the large number of skulls, Malys could feel her own power swell just handling them.

She had never had much use for Krynn dragons. In a world where they were the dominant species, Krynn dragons were feared and revered by the rest of the world's puny inhabitants and had thus become spoiled. Sometimes, it was true, Krynn's soft-skins had taken up arms against the dragons. Malys had heard accounts of these contests from Skie, heard him go on and on about some event known as the War of the Lance, about the thrill of battle and the bonds formed between dragonrider and dragon.

Clearly Skie had been away from his native world for too long, if he considered such childlike flailings to be true battles. Malys had gone up against a few of these dragonriders, and she'd never seen anything so amusing in her life. She thought back to her old world, where not a day went by but that some bloody fight erupted to establish hierarchy among the clan.

Survival had been a daily battle, then, one reason Malys and the others had been glad to find this fat and lazy world. She did not miss those cruel times, but she tended to look back upon them with nostalgia, like an old war veteran reliving his past. She and her kind had taught these weakling Krynn dragons a valuable lesson-those who survived. The Krynn dragons had bowed down before her, had promised to serve and worship her. And then came the night of that strange storm.

The Krynn dragons changed. Malys could not say exactly what was different. The Reds and Blacks and Blues continued to serve her, to come when summoned and answer her every beck and call, but she had the feeling they were up to something. She would often catch them in whispered conversations that broke off whenever she appeared. And, of late, several had gone missing. She'd received reports of Krynn dragons bearing dragonriders-Dark Knights of Neraka-into battle against the Solamnics at Solanthus.

Malys had no objections to the dragons killing Solamnics, but she should have been consulted first. Lord Targonne would have done so, but he had been slain, and it was in the reports of his death that Malys had first heard the most disturbing news of all- the appearance on Krynn of a god.

Malys had heard rumors of this god-the very god who had brought the world to this part of the universe. Malys had seen no signs of this god, however, and could only conclude that the god had been daunted by her arrival and had abandoned the field. The idea that the god might be lying low, building up her strength, never occurred to Malys-not surprising, for she came from a world devoid of guile, a world ruled by strength and might.

Malys began to hear reports of this One God and of the One God's champion-a human girl-child named Mina. Malys did not pay much attention to these, mainly because this Mina did noth-ing to annoy Malys. Mina's actions actually pleased Malys. Mina removed the shield from over Silvanesti and destroyed the sniveling, self-serving green dragon, Cyan Bloodbane. The Silvanesti elves were properly cowed, crushed beneath the boots of the Dark Knights.

Malys had not been pleased to hear that her cousin Beryl was about to attack the land of the Qualinesti elves. Not that Malys cared anything for the elves, but such actions broke the pact. Malys didn't trust Beryl, didn't trust her ambition and her greed. Malys might have been tempted to intervene and put a stop to this, but she had been assured by Lord Targonne, late leader of the Dark Knights, that he had the situation under control. Too late Malys found out that Targonne didn't even have his own situation under control.

Beryl flew off to attack and destroy Qualinesti, and she was successful. The Qualinesti elves were now fleeing the wreckage of their homeland like the vermin they were. True, Beryl managed to get herself killed in the process, but she had always been an impulsive, over-emotional, irrational nincompoop.

The green dragon's death was reported to Malys by two of Beryl's minions-red dragons, who cringed and groveled properly but who, Malys suspected, were chortling out of the sides of their mouths.

Malys did not like the way these reds gloated over her cousin's death. They didn't show the proper respect. Nor did Malys like what she heard of the reports of Beryl's death. It had the whiff of the god about it. Beryl might have been a braying donkey of a dragon, but she was an immense and powerful beast, and Malys could not envision any circumstances under which a band of elves could have taken her down without divine assistance.

One of the Krynn dragons gave Malys the idea of seizing Beryl's totem. He had happened to mention the totem, wondered what they were going to do with it. Power radiated from the totem still, even after Beryl's death. There was some talk among her surviving human generals that they might make use of it themselves, if they could figure out how to harness the magic.

Appalled by the idea of humans laying their filthy hands on something so powerful and sacred as the totem, Malys flew immediately to claim it for herself. She used her magic to transport it to her lair, added the skulls of Beryl's victims to the skulls of her own. She drew upon the magic and felt it well up inside her, making her stronger, more powerful than ever. Then came the report from Mina that she had slain the mighty Skie.

Malys wasted no time. So much for this god. She had best creep back into whatever hole she had crawled out of. Malys wrapped Skie's totem in magic and prepared to carry it off. Pausing, she glanced at the mangled remains of the great blue dragon, and wondered if she should add his head to the totem.

"He does not deserve such distinction," Malys said, shoving aside a bit of Skie's bone and flesh with a disdainful toe. "Mad, that's what he was. Insane. His skull would likely be a curse."

She glowered at the wound on her shoulder. The bleeding had stopped, but the burned flesh stung and ached, the damage to the muscle was causing her front foreleg to stiffen. The wound would not impede her flying, however, and that was all that mattered.

Gathering up the skulls in her magical web, Malys prepared to depart. Before leaving, she sniffed the air, took one last look around. She had noticed something strange on her arrival-an odd smell. At first she'd been unable to determine the nature of the smell, but now she recognized it. Dragon. One of those Krynn dragons and, unless Malys was much mistaken, a Krynn metallic dragon.

Malys searched the chamber of Skie's lair in which his body lay, but found no trace of a metallic dragon: no golden scales lying about, no silver scrapings on the walls. At length, Malys gave up. Her wound pained her. She wanted to return to the dark and restful sanctuary of her lair and build up her totem.

Holding fast to the web-encased skulls of the totem and favoring her wounded leg, Malys wormed her massive body out of the lair of the dead Blue and flapped off eastward.

 

5

The Silver Dragon and the Blue

 

Mirror remained in hiding until he was certain beyond doubt that Malys was gone and that she would not return. He had heard the battle, and he'd even felt pride in Skie for standing up to the heinous red dragon, experienced a twinge of pity at Skie's death. Mirror heard Malys's furious roar of pain, heard her rip apart Skie's body. When he felt a trickle of warm liquid flow past his hand, Mirror guessed that it was Skie's blood.

Yet now that Malys was gone, Mirror wondered what he would do. He put his hand to his maimed eyes, cursed his handicap. He was in possession of important information about the true nature of the One God. He knew what had become of the metallic dragons, and he could do nothing about any of it.

Mirror realized he was going to have to do something - go in search of food and water. The odor of dragon blood was strong, but through it he could just barely detect the scent of water. He used his magic to shift back to his dragon form, for his sense of smell was better in that form than this puny human body. He invariably looked forward to the shifting, for he felt cramped and vulnerable in the frail, wingless human form, with its soft skin and fragile bones.

He flowed into the dragon's body, enjoying the sensation as a human enjoys in a long, luxurious stretch. He felt more secure with his armored scales, felt better balanced on four legs than on two. He could see far more clearly, could spot a deer running through a field miles below him.

Or, rather, I could have once seen more clearly, he amended.

His sense of smell now much more acute, he was soon able to find a stream that flowed through the cavernous lair.

Mirror drank his fill and then, his thirst slaked, he next considered easing his hunger pangs. He smelled goat. Skie had brought down a mountain goat and not yet had a chance to eat it. Once he quieted the rumblings of his belly, Mirror would be able to think more clearly.

He hoped to avoid returning to the main chamber where the remnants of Skie's body lay, but his senses told him that the goat meat he sought was in that chamber. Hunger drove Mirror back.

The floor was wet and slippery with blood. The stench of blood and death hung heavy in the air. Perhaps it was this that dulled Mirror's senses or perhaps the hunger made him careless. Whatever the reason, he was startled beyond measure to hear a voice, dire and cold, echo in the chamber.

"I thought at first you must be responsible for this," said the dragon, speaking in the language of dragons. "But now I realize that I was wrong. You could not have brought down the mighty Skie. You can barely move about this cavern without bumping into things."

Calling defensive magical spells to mind, Mirror turned his sightless head to face the unknown speaker-a blue dragon, by the sound of his voice and the faint scent of brimstone that hung about him. The blue must have flown in the main entrance to Skie's lair. Mirror had been so preoccupied with his hunger that he had not heard him.

"I did not slay Skie," said Mirror.

"Who did, then? Takhisis?"

Mirror was surprised to hear her name, then realized that he shouldn't be. He was not the only one to have recognized that voice in the storm.

"You might say that. The girl called Mina wielded the magical bolt that brought about his death. She acted in self-defense. Skie attacked her first, claiming that she had betrayed him."

"Of course she betrayed him," said the Blue. "When did she ever do anything else?"

"I am confused," said Mirror. "Are we speaking of Mina or Takhisis?"

"They are one and the same, to all intents and purposes. So what are you doing here, Silver, and why is the stench of Malys heavy about the place?"

"Malys took away Skie's totem. Skie was mortally wounded, yet he still managed to defy her. He wounded her, I think, though probably not severely. He was too weak. She did this to him in retaliation."

"Good for him," growled the Blue. "I hope gangrene sets in and she rots. But you didn't answer my first question, Silver. Why are you here?"

"I had questions," said Mirror.

"Did you receive answers?"

"I did," said Mirror.

"Were you surprised to hear these answers?"

"No, not really," Mirror admitted. "What is your name? I am called Mirror."

 "Ah, the Guardian of the Citadel of Light. I am called Razor. I am"-the Blue paused and when he next spoke, his voice was heavy and tinged with grief-"I was the partner of Marshal Medan of Qualinesti. He is dead, and I am on my own now. You, being a Silver, might be interested to hear that Qualinesti has been destroyed," Razor added. "The Lake of Death, the elves call it. That is all that is left of the once-beautiful city."

Mirror was suspicious, wary. "I can't believe this!"

"Believe it," said Razor grimly. "I saw the destruction with my own eyes. I was too late to save the Marshal, but I did see the great, green dragon Beryl meet her death." His tone held grim satisfaction.

"I would be interested to hear the account," said Mirror.

The Blue chuckled. "I imagine you would. The elves of Qualinesti were warned of her coming, and they were ready for her. They stood on their rooftops and fired thousands of arrows at her. Attached to each arrow was cord that someone had strengthened with magic. The elves thought it was their magic, naturally. It wasn't. It was her magic."

"Takhisis?"

"Simply ridding herself of another rival and the elves at the same time. The thousands of strands of magical cord formed a net over Beryl, dragged her down from the skies. The elves planned to kill her as she lay helpless on the ground, but their plans went awry. The elves had worked with the dwarves, you see, to dig tunnels beneath the ground of Qualinesti. Many elves managed to escape through these tunnels, but, in the end, they proved to be Qualinesti's undoing. When Beryl landed on the ground, her great weight caused the tunnels to collapse, forming a huge chasm. She sank deep into the ground. The waters of the White-Rage River left their banks and flowed into the chasm, flooding Qualinesti and turning it into a gigantic lake. A Lake of Death."

"Beryl dead," Mirror murmured. "Skie dead. The Qualineseti lands destroyed. One by one, Takhisis rids herself of her enemies."

"Your enemies, too, Silver," said Razor. "And mine. These overlords, as they call themselves, have slain many of our kind. You should rejoice in our Queen's victory over them. Whatever you may think of her, she is the goddess of our world, and she fights for us."

"She fights for no one but herself," Mirror retorted. "As she has always done. This is all her fault. If Takhisis had not stolen away the world, these overlords would have never found us. Those who have died would be alive today: dragons, elves, humans, kender. The great dragons murdered them, but Takhisis herself is ultimately responsible for their deaths, for she brought us here."

"Stole the world . . ." Razor repeated. His claws scratched against the rock. He shifted his tail slowly back and forth, his wings stirred restlessly. "So that is what she did."

"According to Skie, yes. So he told me."

"And why would he tell you, Silver?" Razor asked, sneering.

"Because I tried to save his life."

"He a blue dragon, your most hated enemy! And you tried to save his life!" Razor scoffed. "I am not some hatchling to swallow this kender tale."

Mirror couldn't see the Blue, but he could guess what he looked like. A veteran warrior, his blue scales would be shining clean, perhaps with a few scars of his prowess on his chest and head.

"My reasons for saving him were cold-blooded enough to satisfy even you," Mirror returned. "I came to Skie seeking answers to my questions. I could not let him die and take those answers to the grave with him. I used him. I admit it. I am not proud of myself, but at least, because of my aid, he managed to live long enough to strike a blow against Malys. For that, he thanked me."

The Blue was silent. Mirror could not tell what Razor was thinking. His claws scraped the rock, his wings brushed the blood-tainted air of the lair, his tail swished back and forth. Mirror had spells ready, should Razor decide to fight. The contest would not be equal-a seasoned, veteran Blue against a blind Silver. But at least, like Skie, Mirror would leave his mark upon his enemy.

"Takhisis stole the world." Razor spoke in thoughtful tones. She brought us here. She is, as you say, responsible. Yet, she is our goddess as of old, and she fights to avenge us against our enemies."

"Her enemies," said Mirror coldly. "Else she would not bother."

"Tell me, Silver," Razor challenged, "what did you feel when you first heard her voice. Did you feel a stirring in your heart, in your soul? Did you feel nothing of this?"

"I felt it," Mirror admitted. "When I first heard the voice in the storm, I knew it to be the voice of a god, and I thrilled to hear it. The child whose father beats him will yet cling to that parent, not because he is a good or wise parent, but because he is the only parent the child knows. But then I began to ask questions, and my questions led me here."

"Questions," Razor said dismissively. "A good soldier never questions. He obeys."

"Then why haven't you joined her armies?" Mirror demanded. "Why are you here in Skie's lair, if not to ask questions of him?"

Razor had no response. Was he brooding, thinking things over or was he angry, planning to attack? Mirror couldn't tell, and he was suddenly tired of this conversation, tired and hungry. At the thought of food, his stomach rumbled.

"If we are going to battle," Mirror said, "I ask that we do it after I have eaten. I am famished, and unless I am mistaken, I smell fresh goat meat in the lair."

"I am not going to fight you," said Razor impatiently. "What honor is there in fighting a blind foe? The goat you seek is over to your left, about two talon-lengths away. My mate's skull is in one of those totems. Perhaps, if we had not been brought to this place, she would be alive today. Still," the Blue added moodily, slashing his tail, "Takhisis is my goddess."

Mirror had no help to offer the Blue. Mirror had solved his own crisis of faith. His had been relatively easy, for none of his kind had ever worshiped Takhisis. Their love and their loyalty belonged to Paladine, God of Light.

Was Paladine out there somewhere searching for his lost children? After the storm, the metallic dragons left to find the gods, or so Skie had said. They must have failed, for Takhisis remained unrivaled. Yet, Mirror believed, Paladine still exists. Somewhere the God of Light is looking for us. Takhisis shrouds us in darkness, hides us from his sight. Like castaways lost at sea, we must find a way to signal those who search the vast ocean that is the universe.

Mirror settled down to devour the goat. He did not offer to share. The Blue would be well fed, for he could see his prey. When Mirror walked the land in human form, he carried a begging bowl, lived off scraps. This was the first fresh meat he'd eaten in a long time and he meant to enjoy it. He had some notion now of what he could do, if he could only find the means to do it. First, though, he had to rid himself of this Blue, who appeared to think he had found a friend.

Blues are social dragons, and Razor was in no hurry to leave. He settled down to chat. He had seemed initially a dragon of few words, but now they poured out of him, as though he was relieved to be able to tell someone what was in his heart. He described the death of his mate, he spoke with sorrow and pride of Marshal Medan, he talked about a Dark Knight dragonrider named Gerard. Mirror listened with half his brain, the other half toying with an idea.

Fortunately, eating saved him from the necessity of replying beyond a grunt or two. By the time Mirror's hunger was assuaged, Razor had once more fallen silent. Mirror heard the dragon stir and hoped that finally the Blue was ready to leave.

Mirror was mistaken. Razor was merely shifting his bulk to obtain a more comfortable position.

If I can't get rid of him, Mirror decided dourly, I'll make use of him.

"What do you know of the dragon-skull totems?" Mirror asked cautiously.

"Enough." Razor growled. "As I said, my mate's skull adorns one of them. Why do you ask?"

"Skie said something about the totems. He said"-Mirror had to do some fancy mental shuffling to keep from revealing all Skie had said about the totems and the missing metallic dragons-

"something about Takhisis having taken them over, subverted to her own use." What does that mean? It's all very vague," Razor stated.

"Sorry, but he didn't say anything more. He sounded half crazy when he said it. He may have been raving."

"From what I have heard, one person alone knows the mind of Takhisis, and that is the girl Mina, the leader of the One God's armies. I have spoken to many dragons who have joined her. They say that this Mina is beloved of Takhisis and that she carries with her the goddess's blessing. If anyone knows the mystery of the totems, it would be Mina. Not that this means much to you, Silver."

"On the contrary," Mirror said thoughtfully, "it might mean more than you imagine. I knew Mina as a child."

Razor snorted, skeptical.

"I am Guardian of the Citadel, remember?" Mirror said. "She was a foundling of the Citadel. I knew her."

"Perhaps you did, but she would consider you her enemy now."

"So one would think," Mirror agreed. "But she came upon me only a few months ago. I was in human shape, blind, weak, and alone. She knew me then and spared my life. Perhaps she remembered our experiences together when she was a child. She was always asking questions-"

"She spared you out of sentimental weakness." Razor snorted. "Humans, even the best of them, all have this failing."

Mirror said nothing, carefully hid his smile. Here was a blue dragon who could grieve for his dead rider and still chide a human for being sentimentally attached to people from her youth.

"Still, in this instance, the failing could prove useful to us," Razor continued. He gave a refreshing shake, from his head to the tip of his tail, and flexed his wings. "Very well. We will confront this Mina, find out what is going on."

"Did you say 'we'?" Mirror asked, astounded. He truly thought he hadn't heard correctly, although the words "we" and "I" in the language of dragons are very distinct and easily distinguished.

"I said"-Razor lifted his voice, as though Mirror were deaf, as well as blind-"that we will go together to confront this Mina and demand to know our Queen's plans-"

"Impossible," said Mirror shortly. Whatever he himself planned, it did not involve partnering with a Blue. "You see my handicap."

"I see it," said Razor. "A grievous injury, yet it does not seem to have stopped you from doing what you needed to do. You came here, didn't you?"

Mirror couldn't very well deny that. "I travel on foot, slowly. I am forced to beg for food and shelter-"

"We don't have time for such nonsense. Begging! Of humans!" Razor shook his head so that his scales rattled. "I would think you would have much rather died of starvation. You must ride with me. Time is short. Momentous events are happening in the world. We don't have time to waste trudging along at a human's pace."

Mirror didn't know what to say. The idea of a blind silver dragon riding on the back of a Blue was so utterly ludicrous as to make him sorely tempted to laugh out loud.

"If you do not come with me," Razor added, seeing that Mirror was apparently having trouble making up his mind, "I will be forced to slay you. You speak very glibly about certain information Skie gave you, yet you are vague and evasive when it comes to the rest. I think Skie told you more than you are willing to admit to me. Therefore you will either come with me where I can keep an eye on you, or I will see to it that the information dies with you."

Mirror had never more bitterly regretted his blindness than at this moment. He supposed that the noble thing to do would be to defy the Blue and die in a brief and brutal battle. Such a death would be honorable, but not very sensible. Mirror was, so far as he knew, one of two beings on Krynn who were aware of the departure of his fellow gold and silver dragons, who had flown off on the wings of magic to find the gods, only to be trapped and imprisoned by the One God. Mina was the other being who knew this, and although Mirror did not think that she would tell him anything, he would never know for certain until he had spoken to her.

"You leave me little choice," said Mirror.

"Such was my intent," Razor replied, not smug, merely matter-of-fact.

Mirror altered his form, abandoning his strong, powerful dragon body for the weak, fragile body of a human. He took on the aspect of a young man with silver hair, wearing the white robes of a mystic of the Citadel. He wore a black cloth around his hideously injured eyes.

Moving slowly on his human feet, he groped about with his human hands. His shuffling footsteps stumbled over every rock in the lair. He slipped in Skie's blood and fell to his knees, cutting the weak flesh. Mirror was thankful for one blessing-he did not have to see the look of pity on Razor's face.

The Blue was a soldier, and he made no gibes at Mirror's expense. Razor even guided Mirror's steps with a steadying talon, assisted him to crawl upon the Blue's broad back.

The stench of death was strong in the lair where lay Skie's maltreated corpse. Both Blue and Silver were glad to leave. Perched on the ledge of the cavern, Razor drew in a breath of fresh air, spread his wings and took to the clouds. Mirror held on tightly to the Blue's mane, pressed his legs into Razor's flanks.

"Hold on," Razor warned. He soared high into the air, wheeled about in a huge arc. Mirror guessed what Razor planned and held on tightly, as he'd been ordered.

Mirror felt Razor's lungs expand, felt the expulsion of breath. He smelt the brimstone and heard the sizzle and crackle of lightning. A blast and the sound of rock splitting and shattering, then the sound of tons of rock sliding down the cliff face, rumbling and roaring amidst the thunder of the lightning bolt. Razor unleashed another blast, and this time it sounded to Mirror as if the entire mountain was falling into rubble.

"Thus passes Khellendros, known as Skie," said Razor. "He was a courageous warrior and loyal to his rider, as his rider was loyal to him. Let this might be said of all of us when it comes our time to depart this world."

His duty done to the dead, Razor dipped his wings in a final salute, then wheeled and headed off in a different direction.

Mirror judged by the warmth of the sun on the back of his neck that they were flying east. He held fast to Razor's mane, feeling the rush of wind strong against his face. He envisioned the trees, red and gold with the coming of autumn, like jewels set against the green velvet cloth of the grasslands. He saw in his mind the purple-gray mountains, capped by the first snows of the seasons. Far below, the blue lakes and snaking rivers with the golden blot of a village, bringing in the autumn wheat, or the gray dot of a manor house with all its fields around it.

"Why do you weep, Silver?" Razor asked.

Mirror had no answer, and Razor, after a moment's thought, did not repeat the question.

 

6

The Stone  Fortress of the Mind

 

The Wilder elf known as the Lioness watched her husband with growing concern. Two weeks had passed since they had heard the terrible news of the Queen Mother's death and the destruction of the elven capital of Qualinost. Since that time, Gilthas, the Qualinesti's young king, had barely spoken a word to anyone - not to her, not to Planchet, not to the members of their escort. He slept by himself, covering himself in his blanket and rolling away from her when she tried to offer him the comfort of her presence. He ate by himself, what small amount he ate. His flesh seemed to melt from his bones, and he'd not had that much to spare. He rode by himself, silent, brooding.

His face was pale, set in grim, tight lines. He did not mourn. He had not wept since the night they'd first heard the dreadful tidings. When he spoke, it was only to ask a single question: how much farther until they reached the meeting place?

The Lioness feared that Gilthas might be slipping back into old sickness that had plagued him during those early years of his enforced rulership of the Qualinesti people. King by title and prisoner by circumstance, he had fallen into a deep depression that left him lethargic and uncaring. He had often spent days sleeping in his bed, preferring the terrors of the dream world to those of reality. He had come out of it, fighting his way back from the dark waters in which he'd nearly drowned. He'd been a good king, using his power to aid the rebels, led by his wife, who fought the tyranny of the Dark Knights. All that he had gained seemed to have been lost, however. Lost with the news of his beloved mother's death and the destruction of the elven capital.

Planchet feared the same. His Majesty's bodyguard and valet-de-chamber, Planchet had been responsible, along with the Lioness, in luring Gilthas away from his nightmare world back to those who loved and needed him.

"He blames himself," said the Lioness, riding alongside Planchet, both gazing with concern on the lonely figure, who rode alone amidst his bodyguards, his eyes fixed unseeing on the road ahead. "He blames himself for leaving his mother there to die. He blames himself for the plan that ended up destroying the city and costing so many hundreds of lives. He cannot see that because of his plan Beryl is dead."

"But at a terrible cost," said Planchet. "He knows that his people can never return to Qualinost. Beryl may be dead, but her armies are not destroyed. True, many were lost, but according to the reports, those who remain continue to burn and ravage our beautiful land."

"What is burned can be restored. What is destroyed can be rebuilt. The Silvanesti went back to their homes to fight the dream," said the Lioness. "They took back their homeland. We can do the same."

"I'm not so sure," Planchet returned, his eyes fixed on his king. "The Silvanesti fought the dream, but look where it led them-to even greater fear of the outside world and an attempt to isolate themselves inside the shield. That proved disastrous."

"The Qualinesti have more sense," insisted the Lioness.

Planchet shook his head. Not wanting to argue with her, he let the subject drop. They rode several miles in silence, then Planchet said quietly, "You know what is truly wrong with Gilthas, don't you?"

The Lioness said nothing for long moments, then replied softly, "I think I do, yes."

"He blames himself for not being among the dead," said Planchet.

Her eyes filling with tears, the Lioness nodded.

Much as he now loathed this life, Gilthas was forced to live it. Not for his sake, for the sake of his people. Lately he began to wonder if that was reason enough to go on enduring this pain. He saw no hope for anyone, anywhere in this world. Only one thin strand tethered him to this life: the promise he had made to his mother. He had promised Laurana that he would lead the refugees, those who had managed to escape Qualinesti and who were waiting for him on the edges of the Plains of Dust. A promise made to the dead is a promise that must be fulfilled.

Still, they never rode past a river but he looked into it and imagined the peace he would find as the waters closed over his head.

Gilthas knew his wife grieved for him and worried about him. He knew or suspected that she was hurt that he had withdrawn from her, retreated to the stone-walled fortress in which he hid from the world. He would have liked to open the gates and let her come inside, but that required effort. He would have to leave the sheltered corner in which he'd taken refuge, advance into the sunlight, cross the courtyard of memory, unlock the gate to admit her sympathy, a sympathy he did not deserve. He couldn't bear it. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

Gilthas blamed himself. His plan had proven disastrous. His plan had brought destruction to Qualinesti and its defenders. His plan had caused his mother's death. He shrank from facing the refugees. They would think him a murderer-and rightly so. They would think him a coward-and rightly so. He had run away and left his people to die. Perhaps they would accuse him of having deliberately plotted the Qualinesti's downfall. He was part human, after all. In his depression, nothing was too outrageous or fantastic for him to believe.

He toyed with the idea of sending an intermediary, of avoiding facing the refugees directly.

"How very like the coward you are," Gilthas said to himself with a sneer. "Shirk that responsibility, as you've shirked others."

He would face them. He would suffer their anger and pain in silence as his due. He would relinquish the throne, would hand over everything to the Senate. They could choose another ruler. He would return to the Lake of Death, where lay the bodies of his mother and his people, and the pain would end.

Thus were the dark thoughts of the young elven king as he rode, day after day, by himself. He looked straight ahead toward a single destination-the gathering place for the refugees of Qualinost, those who had, through the gallant efforts of the dwarves of Thorbardin, escaped through tunnels that the dwarves had dug deep beneath the elven lands. There to do what he had to do. He would fulfill his promise, then he would be free to leave . . . forever.

Sunk in these musings, he heard his wife's voice speak his name.

The Lioness had two voices-one her wifely voice, as Gilthas termed it, and the other her military commander voice. She made the shift unconsciously, not aware of the difference until Gilthas had pointed it out to her long ago. The wife's voice was gentle and loving. The commander's voice could have cut down small trees, or so he teasingly claimed.

He closed his ears to the gentle and loving wife's voice, for he did not feel he deserved love, anyone's love. But he was king, and he could not shut out the voice of the military commander. He knew by the sound she brought bad news.

"Yes, what is it?" he said, turning to face her, steeling himself.

"I have received a report . . . several reports." The Lioness paused, drew in a deep breath. She dreaded telling him this, tout she had no choice. He was king. "The armies of Beryl that we thought were scattered and destroyed have regrouped and reformed. We did not think this was possible, but it seems they have a new leader, a man named Samuval. He is a Dark Knight, and he follows a new Lord of the Night, a human girl called Mina."

Gilthas gazed at his wife in silence. Some part of him heard and understood and absorbed the information. Another part crawled farther into the dark corner of his prison cell.

"This Samuval claims he serves a god known as the One God. The message he brings his soldiers is this: The One God has wrenched Qualinesti from the elves and means to give it back to the humans, to whom this land rightly belongs. Now, all who want free land have only to sign on to serve with this Captain Samuval. His army is immense, as you can imagine. Every derelict and ne'er-do-well in the human race is eager to claim his share of our beautiful land. They are on the march, Gilthas," the Lioness said in conclusion. "They are well armed and well supplied and moving swiftly to seize and secure Qualinesti. We don't have much time. We have to warn our people."

"And then do what?" he asked.

The Lioness didn't recognize his voice. It sounded muffled, as if he were speaking from behind a closed door.

"We follow our original plan," she said. "We march through Plains of Dust to Silvanesti. Only, we must move faster than we had anticipated. I will send riders on ahead to alert the refugees-"

"No," said Gilthas. "I must be the one to tell them. I will ride day and night if need be."

"My husband . . ." The Lioness shifted to the wife voice, gentle, loving. "Your health-"

He cast her a look that silenced the words on her lips, then turned and spurred his horse. His sudden departure took his bodyguard by surprise. They were forced to race their horses to catch up with him.

Sighing deeply, the Lioness followed.

The place Gilthas had chosen for the gathering of the elven refugees was located on the coast of New Sea, close enough to Thorbardin so that the dwarves could assist in the defense of the refugees, if they were attacked, but not near enough to make the dwarves nervous. The dwarves knew in their heads that the forest-loving elves would never think of living in the mighty underground fortress of Thorbardin, but in their hearts the dwarves were certain that everyone on Ansalon must secretly envy them their stronghold and would claim Thorbardin for themselves, if they could.

The elves had also to be careful not to draw the ire of the great dragon Onysablet, who had taken over what had once been New Coast. The land was now known as New Swamp, for she had used her foul magicks to alter the landscape into a treacherous bog. To avoid traveling through her territory, Gilthas was going to attempt to cross the Plains of Dust. A vast no-man's land, the plains were inhabited by tribes of barbarians, who lived in the desert and kept to themselves, taking no interest in the world outside their borders, a world that took very little interest in them.

Slowly, over several weeks, the refugees straggled into the meeting place. Some traveled in groups, streaming through the tunnels built by the dwarves and their giant dirt-devouring worms. Others came singly or by twos, escaping through the forests with the help of the Lioness's rebel forces. They left behind their homes, their possessions, their farmland, their crops, their lush forests and fragrant gardens, their beautiful city of Qualinost with its gleaming Tower of the Sun.

The elves were confident they would be able to return to their beloved homeland. The Qualinesti had always owned this land, or so it seemed to them. Looking back throughout history, they could not find a time when they had not claimed this land. Even after the elven kingdoms had split in twain following the bitter Kinslayer Wars, creating the two great elven nations, Qualinesti and Silvanesti, the Qualinesti continued to rule and inhabit land that had already been theirs.

This uprooting was temporary. Many among them still remembered how they had been forced to flee their homeland during the War of the Lance. They had survived that and returned to make their homes stronger than before. Human armies might come and go. Dragons might come and go, but the Qualinesti nation would remain. The choking smoke of burning would soon be blown away. The green shoots would shove up from underneath the black ash. They would rebuild, replant. They had done it before, they would do it again.

So confident were the elves of this, so confident were they in the defenders of their beautiful city of Qualinost, that the mood in the refugee camps, which had been dark at first, became almost merry.

True, there were losses to mourn, for Beryl had taken delight in slaughtering any elves she caught out in the open. Some of the refugees had been killed by the dragon. Others had run afoul of rampaging humans or been caught by the Dark Knights of Neraka and beaten and tortured. But the numbers of dead were surprisingly few, considering that the elves had been facing destruction and annihilation. Through the planning of their young king and the help of the dwarven nation, the Qualinesti had survived. They began to look toward the future and that future was in Qualinesti. They could not picture anything else.

The wise among the elves remained worried and troubled, for they could see certain signs that all was not well. Why had they not heard any news from the defenders of Qualinesti? Wildrun-ners had been stationed in the city, ready to speed swiftly to the refugee camps. They should have been here by now with either good news or bad. The fact that they had not come at all was deeply disturbing to some, shrugged off by others.

"No news is good news," was how the humans put it, or "No explosion is a step in the right direction," as the gnomes would say.

The elves pitched their tents on the sandy beaches of New Sea. Their children played in the gently lapping waters and made castles in the sand. At night they built fires of driftwood, watching the ever-changing colors of the flames and telling stories of other times the elves had been forced to flee their homeland-stories that always had a happy ending.

The weather had been beautiful, with unusually warm days for this late in the year. The seawater was the deep, blue-black color that is seen only in the autumn months and presages the coming of the winter storms. The trees were heavily laden with their harvest gifts, and food was plentiful. The elves found streams of fresh water for drinking and bathing. Elven soldiers stood guard over the people by day and by night, dwarven soldiers watched from the forests, keeping one eye alert for invading armies and one eye on the elves. The refugees waited for Gilthas, waited for him to come tell them that the dragon was defeated, that they could all go home.

"Sire," said one of the elven body guards, riding up to Gilthas, "you asked me to tell you when we were within a few hours' ride of the refugee camp. The campsite is up ahead." The elf pointed. "Beyond those foothills."

"Then we will stop here," said Gilthas, reigning in his horse. He glanced up at the sky, where the pale sun shone almost directly overhead. "We will ride again when dusk falls."

"Why do we halt, my husband?" the Lioness asked, cantering up in time to hear Gilthas give his instructions. "We have nearly broken our necks to reach our people, and, now that we are near, we stop?"

"The news I have to tell should be told only in darkness," he said, dismounting, not looking at her. "The light of neither sun nor moon will shine on our grief. I resent even the cold light of the stars. I would pry them from the skies, if I could."

"Gilthas-" she began, but he turned his face from her and walked away, vanishing into the woods.

At a sign from the Lioness, his guard accompanied him, maintaining a discreet distance, yet close enough to protect him.

"I am losing him, Planchet," she said, her voice aching with pain and sorrow, "and I don't know what to do, how to reclaim him."

''Keep loving him," Planchet advised. "That is all you can do. The rest he must do himself."

Gilthas and his retinue entered the elven refugee encampment in the early hours of darkness. Fires burned on the beach. Elven children were sprightly shadows dancing amidst the flames. To them, this was a holiday, a grand adventure. The nights spent in the dark tunnels with the gruff-voiced and fearsome looking dwarves were now distant memories. School lessons were suspended, their daily chores remitted. Gilthas watched them dance and thought of what he must tell them. The holiday would end this night. In the morning, they would begin a bitter struggle, a struggle for their very lives.

How many of these children who danced so gaily around the fire would be lost to the desert, succumbing to the heat and the lack of water, or falling prey to the evil creatures reputed to roam the Plains of Dust? How many more of his people would die? Would they survive as a race at all, or would this be forever known as the last march of the Qualinesti?

He entered the camp on foot without fanfare. Those who saw him as he passed were startled to see their king-those who recognized him as their king. Gilthas was so altered that many did not know him.

Thin and gaunt, pale and wan, Gilthas had lost almost any trace of his human heritage. His delicate elven bone-structure was more visible, more pronounced. He was, some whispered in awe, the very image of the great elven kings of antiquity, of Sil-vanos and Kith-Kanan.

He walked through the camp, heading for the center, where blazed a large bonfire. His retinue stayed behind, at a command from the Lioness. What Gilthas had to say, he had to say alone.

At the sight of his face, the elves silenced their laughter, ceased their storytelling, halted the dancing, and hushed their children. As word spread that the king had come among them, silent and alone, the elves gathered around him. The leaders of the Senate came hastily to greet him, clucking to themselves in irritation that he had robbed them of a chance to welcome him with proper ceremony. When they saw his face-deathlike in the firelight-they ceased their duckings, forgot their welcoming speeches, and waited with dire foreboding to hear his words.

Against the music of the waves, rolling in one after the other, chasing each other to shore and falling back, Gilthas told the story of the downfall of Qualinesti. He told it clearly, calmly, dispassionately. He spoke of the death of his mother. He spoke of the heroism of the city's defenders. He lauded the heroism of the dwarves and humans who had died defending a land and a people not their own. He spoke of the death of the dragon.

The elves wept for their Queen Mother and for loved ones now surely dead. Their tears slid silently down their faces. They did not sob aloud lest they miss hearing what came next.

What came next was dreadful.

Gilthas spoke of the armies under this new leader. He spoke of a new god, who claimed credit for ousting the elves from their homeland and who was handing that land over to humans, already pouring into Qualinesti from the north. Hearing of the refugees, the army was moving rapidly to try to catch them and destroy them.

He told them that their only hope was to try to reach Silvanesti. The shield had fallen. Their cousins would welcome them to their land. To reach Silvanesti, however, the elves would have to march through the Plains of Dust.

"For now," Gilthas was forced to tell them, "there will be no homecoming. Perhaps, with the help of our cousins, we can form an army that will be powerful enough to sweep into our beloved land and drive the enemy from it, take back what they have stolen. But although that must be our hope, that hope is far in the future. Our first thought must be the survival of our race. The road we walk will be a hard one. We must walk that road together with one goal and one purpose in our hearts. If one of us falls out, all will perish.

"I was made your king by trickery and treachery. You know the truth of that by now. The story has been whispered among you for years. The Puppet King, you called me."

He cast a glance at Prefect Palthainon as he spoke. The prefect's face was set in a sorrowful mask, but his eyes darted this way and that, trying to see how the people were reacting.

"It would have been best if I had remained in that role," Gilthas continued, looking away from the senator and back to his people. "I tried to be your ruler, and I failed. It was my plan that destroyed Qualinesti, my plan that left our land open to invasion."

He raised his hand for silence, for the elves had begun to murmur among themselves.

"You need a strong king," Gilthas said, raising his voice that was growing hoarse from shouting. "A ruler who has the courage and the wisdom to lead you into peril and see you safely through it. I am not that person. As of now, I abdicate the throne and renounce all my rights and claims to it. 1 leave the succession in the hands of the Senate. I thank you for all the kindness and love that you have shown me over the years. I wish I had done better by you. I wish I was more deserving."

He wanted to leave, but the people had pressed close about him and, much as he needed to escape, he did not want to force a path through the crowd. He was forced to wait to hear what the Senate had to say. He kept his head lowered, did not look into the faces of his people, not wanting to see their hostility, their anger, their blame. He stood waiting until he was dismissed.

The elves had been shocked into silence. Too much had happened too suddenly to absorb. A lake of death where once stood their city. An enemy army behind them, a perilous journey to an uncertain future ahead of them. The king abdicating. The senators thrown into confusion. Dismayed and appalled, they stared at each other, waited for someone to speak the first word.

That word belonged to Palthainon. Cunning and conniving, he saw this disaster as a means to further his own ambition. Ordering some elves to drag up a large log, he mounted it and, Clapping his hands, called the elves loudly to silence, a command that was completely unnecessary, for not even a baby's cry broke the hushed stillness.

I know what you are feeling, my brethren," the prefect stated in sonorous tones. "I, too, am shocked and grieved to hear of the tragedy that has befallen our people. Do not be fearful. You are in good hands. I will take over the reins of leadership until such time as a new king is named."

Palthainon pointed his bony finger at Gilthas. "It is right that this young man has stepped down, for he brought this tragedy upon us-he and those who pulled his strings. Puppet King. Yes, that best describes him. Once Gilthas allowed himself to be guided by my wisdom and experience. He came to me for advice, and I was proud and happy to provide it. But there were those of his own family who worked against me. I do not name them, for it is wrong to speak ill of the dead, even though they sought continuously to reduce my influence."

Palthainon warmed to his topic. "Among those who pulled the puppet's strings was the hated and detested Marshal Medan-the true engineer of our destruction, for he seduced the son as he seduced the mother-"

Rage-white-hot-struck the fortress prison in which Gilthas had locked himself, struck it like the fiery bolt of a blue dragon. Leaping upon the log on which Palthainon stood, Gilthas hit the elf a blow on the jaw that sent him reeling. The prefect landed on his backside in the sand, his fine speech knocked clean out of his head.

Gilthas said nothing. He did not look around. He jumped off the log and started to shove his way through the crowd.

Palthainon sat up. Shaking his muzzy head, he spat out a tooth and started to sputter and point. "There! There! Did you see what he did! Arrest him! Arrest-"

"Gilthas," spoke a voice out of the crowd.

"Gilthas," spoke another voice and another and another.

They did not chant. They did not thunder his name. Each elf spoke his name calmly, quietly, as if being asked a question and giving an answer. But the name was repeated over and over throughout the crowd, so that it carried with it the quiet force of the waves breaking on the shore. The elderly spoke his name, the young spoke his name. Two senators spoke it as they assisted Palthainon to his feet.

Astonished and bewildered, Gilthas raised his head, looked around.

"You don't understand-" he began.

"We do understand," said one of the elves. His face was drawn, marked with traces of recent grief. "So do you, Your Majesty. You understand our pain and our heartache. That is why you are our king."

"That is why you have always been our king," said another, a woman, holding a baby in her arms. "Our true king. We know of the work you have done in secret for us."

"If not for you, Beryl would be wallowing in our beautiful city," said a third. "We would be dead, those of us who stand here before you."

"Our enemies have triumphed for the moment," said yet another, "but so long as we keep fast the memory of our loved nation, that nation will never perish. Some day, we will return to claim it. On that day, you will lead us, Your Majesty."

Gilthas could not speak. He looked at his people who shared his loss, and he was ashamed and chastened and humbled. He did not feel he had earned their regard-not yet. But he would try. He would spend the rest of his life trying.

Prefect Palthainon spluttered and huffed and tried to make himself heard, but no one paid any attention to him. The other senators crowded around Gilthas.

Palthainon glared at them grimly, then, seizing hold of the   arm of an elf, he whispered softly, "The plan to defeat Beryl was my plan all along. Of course, I allowed His Majesty to take credit it. As for this little dust-up between us, it was all just a mis-understanding, such as often happens between father and son. is like a son to me, dear to my heart." Lioness remained on the outskirts of the camp, her own too full to see or speak to him. She knew he would seek her out. Lying on the pallet she spread for both of them, on the edge water, near the sea, she heard his footsteps in the sand, felt hand brush her cheek.

one put her arm around him, drew him beside her.

"Can you forgive me, beloved?" he asked, lying down with a sigh.

"Isn't that the definition of being a wife?" she asked him, smiling.

Gilthas made no answer. His eyes were closed. He was already fast asleep.

The Lioness drew the blanket over him, rested her head on his chest, listened to his beating heart until she, too, slept.

The sun would rise early, and it would rise blood red.

 

7

An Unexpected Journey

 

Following the activation of the Device of Time Journeying, Tasslehoff Burrfoot was aware of two things: impenetrable darkness and Conundrum shrieking in his left ear, all the while clutching his (Tasslehoff's) left hand so tightly that he com-pletely lost all sense of feeling in his fingers and his thumb. The rest of Tas could feel nothing either, nothing under him, nothing over him, nothing next to him-except Conundrum. Tas couldn't tell if he was on his head or his heels or an interesting combina-tion of both.

This entertaining state of affairs lasted an extremely long so long that Tas began to get a bit bored by it all. A person can stare into impenetrable darkness only so long before he thinks he might like a change. Even tumbling about in time and space (if that's what they were doing, Tas wasn't at all sure at point) grows old after you've been doing it a long while. Eventually you decide that being stepped on by a giant is to having a gnome shrieking continuously in your ear (remarkable lung capacity, gnomes) and nearly pinching your hand off at the wrist.

This state of affairs continued for a good long while until Tasslehoff and Conundrum slammed down, bump, into something that was soft and squishy and smelled strongly of mud and pine needles. The fall was not a gentle one and knocked the boredom out of the kender and the shrieks out of the gnome.

Tasslehoff lay on his back, making gasping attempts to catch what would probably be the last few breaths he would ever take. He looked up, expecting to see Chaos's enormous foot poised above him. Tas had just a few seconds in which to explain matters to Conundrum, who was about to be inadvertently squished.

"We're going to die a hero's death," said Tasslehoff with his first mouthful of air.

"What?" Conundrum shrieked with his first mouthful of air.

"We're going to die a hero's death," Tasslehoff repeated.

Then he suddenly realized that they weren't.

Absorbed in preparing both himself and the gnome for an imminent demise, Tasslehoff had not taken a close look at their surroundings. He assumed that all he would be seeing was the ugly underside of Chaos's foot. Now that he had time to notice, he saw above him not a foot, but the dripping needles of a pine tree in a rain storm.

Tasslehoff felt his head to see if he had received a severe bump, for he knew from past experience that severe bumps to the head can cause you to see the most remarkable things, although those were generally starbursts, not dripping pine needles. He could find no signs of a bump, however.

Hearing Conundrum drawing in another large breath, undoubtedly preparatory to letting loose another ear-piercing shriek, Tasslehoff raised his hand in a commanding gesture.

"Hush," he whispered tensely, "I thought I heard something."

Now, if truth be told, Tasslehoff had not heard something. Well, he had. He'd heard the rain falling off the pine needles, but he hadn't heard anything dire, which is what his tone implied. He'd only pretended that in order to shut off the gnome's shrieks. Unfortunately, as is often the way with transgressors, he was immediately punished for his sin, for the moment he pretended to hear something dire, he did hear something dire-the clash of steel on steel, followed by a crackling blast.

In Tas's experience as a hero, only two things made sounds like that: swords beating against swords and fireballs exploding against just about anything.

The next thing he heard was more shrieking, only this time it was not, blessedly, Conundrum. The shrieking was some distance away and had the distinct sound of dying goblin to it, a notion that was reinforced by the sickening smell of burnt goblin hair. The shrieking ended summarily, then came a crashing, as of large bodies running through a forest of dripping wet pine needles. Thinking these might be more goblins and realizing that this was an inopportune time to be running into goblins, especially those who have just been fireball-blasted, Tasslehoff squirmed his way on his belly underneath a sheltering, low-hanging pine bough and dragged Conundrum in after him.

"Where are we?" Conundrum demanded, lifting up his head out of the mud in which they were lying. "How did we get here? When are we going back?"

All perfectly sound, logical questions. Trust a gnome, thought Tas, to go right to the heart of the matter.

"I'm sorry," said Tas, peering out through the wet pine needles, trying to see what was going on. The crashing sounds were growing louder, which meant they were coming closer. "But I don't know. Any of it."

Conundrum gaped. His chin fell so far it came back up with mud on it. "What do you mean you don't know?" he gasped, swelling with indignation. "You brought us here."

"No," said Tas with dignity, "I didn't. This brought us here." He indicated the Device of Time Journeying that he was holding in his hand. "When it wasn't supposed to."

Seeing Conundrum sucking in another huge breath, Tas fixed the gnome with a withering stare. "So I guess you didn't fix it, after all."

The breath wheezed out of Conundrum. He stared at the device, muttered something about missing schematics and lack of internal directives, and held out his mud-covered hand. "Give it to me. I'll take a look at it."

"No, thank you," said Tasslehoff, shoving the device into a pouch and closing the flap. "I think I should hold onto it. Now hush!" Turning back to stare out from under the pine bough, Tas put his fingers to his lips. "Don't let on we're here."

Contrary to most gnomes, who never see anything outside of the inside of Mount Nevermind, Conundrum was a well-traveled gnome who'd had his share of adventures, most of which he hadn't enjoyed in the slightest. Nasty, bothersome things, adventures. Interrupted a fellow's work. But he had learned an important lesson-the best way to survive adventures was to lie hidden in some dark and uncomfortable place and keep your mouth shut. This he was good at doing.

Conundrum was so good at hiding that when Tasslehoff, who was not at all good at this sort of thing, started to get up with a glad and joyful cry to go to meet two humans who had just run out of the forest, the gnome grabbed hold of the kender with a strength borne of terror and dragged him back down.

"What in the name of all that's combustible do you think you're doing?" Conundrum gasped.

"They're not burnt goblins, like I first thought," Tas argued, pointing. "That man is a Solamnic Knight. I can tell by his armor. And the other man is a mage. I can tell by his robes. I'm just going to go say hello and introduce myself."

"If there is one thing that I have learned in my travels," said Conundrum in a smothered whisper, "it is that you never introduce yourself to anyone carrying a sword or wearing wizard's robes. Let them go their way, and you go your way."

"Did you say something?" said the strange mage, turning to his companion.

"No," said the Knight, raising his sword and looking keenly about.

"Well, somebody did," said the mage grimly. "I distinctly heard voices."

"I can't hear anything for the sound of my own heart beating." The Knight paused, listening, then shook his head. "No, I can't hear a thing. What did it sound like? Goblins?"

"No," the mage said, peering into the shadows.

The man was a Solamnic by his looks, for he had long, blond hair that he wore braided to keep out of his way. His eyes were blue, keen, and intense. He wore robes that might have started out red but were now so stained with mud, charred with smoke, and smeared with blood that their color was indistinguishable in the gray light of the rainy day. A glint of golden trim could be seen at the cuffs and on the hem.

"Look at that!" gasped Tasslehoff, agog with amazement, "He's carrying Raistlin's staff!"

"Oddly enough," the mage was saying, "it sounded like a kender."

Tasslehoff clapped his hand over his mouth. Conundrum shook his head bleakly.

"What would a kender be doing here in the middle of a battle field?" asked the Knight with a smile.

"What does a kender do anywhere?" the mage returned archly, "except cause trouble for those who have the misfortune to encounter him."

"How true," sighed Conundrum gloomily.

"How rude," muttered Tasslehoff. "Maybe I won't go introduce myself to them, after all."

"So long as it was not goblins you heard," the Knight said. He cast a glance over his shoulder. "Do you think we've stopped them?"

The Knight wore the armor of a Knight of the Crown. Tas had first taken him to be an older man, for the Knight's hair had gone quite gray, but after watching him awhile, Tas realized that the Knight was far younger than he appeared at first glance. It was his eyes that made him look older-they had a sadness about them and a weariness that should not have been seen in one so young.

"We've stopped them for the time being," the mage said. Sinking down at the foot of the tree, he cradled the staff protectively in his arms.

The staff was Raistlin's, all right. Tasslehoff knew that staff well, with its crystal ball clutched in the golden dragon's claw. He remembered the many times he'd reached out to touch it, only to have his hand smacked.

"And many times I've seen Raistlin hold the staff just like that," Tas said softly to himself. "Yet that mage is most certainly not Raistlin, Maybe he's stolen Raistlin's staff. If so, Raistlin will want to know who the thief is."

Tas listened with all his ears, as the old kender saying went.

"Our enemy now has a healthy fear of your sword and my magic," the mage was saying. "Unfortunately, goblins have an even healthier fear of their own commanders. The whip will soon convince them to come after us."

"It will take them time to regroup." The Knight squatted down beneath the tree. Picking up a handful of wet pine needles, he began to clean the blood off his sword. "Time enough for us to rest, then try to find our way back to our company. Or time for them to find us. They are undoubtedly out searching for us even now."

"Searching for you, Huma," said the mage with a wry smile. He leaned back against the tree and wearily closed his eyes. "They will not be looking very hard for me."

The Knight appeared disturbed by this. His expression grave, he concentrated on his cleaning, rubbing hard at a stubborn speck, "You have to understand them, Magius-" he began.

"Huma . . ." Tas repeated. "Magius .. ." He stared at the two, blinked in wonder. Then he stared down at the Device of Time Journeying. "Do you suppose . . . ?"

"I understand them quite well, Huma," Magius returned. "The average Solamnic Knight is an ignorant, superstitious who believes all the dark tales about wizards told to him by his nursery maid in order to frighten him into keeping quiet at night, in consequence of which he expects me to start leaping through camp naked, gibbering and ranting and transforming him into a newt with a wave of my staff. Not that I couldn't do it, mind you," Magius continued with a quirk of his brow and the twist of an infectious smile. "And don't think I haven't considered it. Spending five minutes as a newt would be an interesting change for most of them. Expand their minds, if nothing else."

"I don't think I'd much care for life as a newt," said Huma.

"You, alone, are different, my friend," Magius said, his tone softening. Reaching out his hand, he rested it on the Knight's wrist. "You are not afraid of new ideas. You are not afraid of that which you do not understand. Even as a child, you did not fear to be my friend."

"You will teach them to think better of wizards, Magius," said Huma, resting his hand over his friend's. "You will teach them to view magic and those who wield it with respect."

"I will not," said Magius coolly, "for I really have no care what they think of me. If anyone can change their obsolete, outdated and outmoded views, you are the one to do it. And you had best do it quickly, Huma," he added, his mocking tone now serious. "The Dark Queen's power grows daily. She is raising vast armies. Countless thousands of evil creatures flock to her standard. These goblins would never before have dared to attack a company of Knights, but you saw with what ferocity they struck us this morning. I begin to think that it is not the whip they fear, but the wrath of the Dark Queen should they fail."

"Yet she will fail. She must fail, Magius," said Huma. "She and her evil dragons must be driven from the world, sent back to the Abyss. For if she is not defeated, we will live as do these wretched goblins, live our lives in fear." Huma sighed, shook his head. "Although, I admit to you, dear friend, I do not see how that is possible. The numbers of her minions are countless, their power immense-"

"But you do defeat her!" Tasslehoff cried, unable to restrain himself any longer. Freeing himself from Conundrum's frantic grasp, Tas scrambled to his feet and burst out from underneath the pine trees.

Huma jumped up, drawing his sword in one, swift movement. Magius extended the staff with the crystal held fast in the dragon's claw, aimed the staff at the kender, and began to speak words that Tas recognized by their spidery sound as being words of magic.

Knowing that perhaps he didn't have much time before he was turned into a newt, Tasslehoff accelerated his conversation.

"You raise an army of heroes, and you fight the Queen of Darkness herself, and while you die, Huma, and you die, too, Magius-I'm really very sorry about that, by the way-you do send all the evil dragons back to- ulp"

Several things happened simultaneously with that "ulp." Two large, hairy, and foul-smelling goblin hands grabbed hold Conundrum, while another yellow-skinned, slavering-jawed goblin seized hold of Tasslehoff.

Before the kender had time to draw his blade, before Conundrum had time to draw his breath, a blazing arc of lightning flared from the staff and struck the goblin who had hold of Conundrum. Huma ran his sword through the goblin trying to drag off Tas.

"There are more goblins coming," said Huma grimly. "You had best take to your heels, Kender."

Flapping goblin feet could be heard crashing through the trees, their guttural voices raised in hideous howls, promising death. Huma and Magius stood back to back, Huma with his sword drawn, Magius wielding his staff.

"Don't worry!" Tasslehoff cried. "I have my knife. It's called Rabbit-slayer." Opening a pouch, he began searching among his things. "Caramon named it. You don't know him-"

"Are you mad?" Conundrum screamed, sounding like the noon whistle at Mount Nevermind, a whistle that never, on any account, goes off at noon.

A hand touched Tasslehoff on the shoulder. A voice in his ear whispered, "Not now. It is not yet time."

"I beg your pardon?" Tasslehoff turned to see who was talking.

And kept turning. And turning.

Then he was still, and the world was turning, and it was all a mass of swirling color, and he didn't know if he was on his head or his heels, and Conundrum was at his side, shrieking, and then it was all very, very dark.

In the midst of the darkness and the turning and the shrieking, Tasslehoff had one thought, one important thought, a thought so important that he made sure to hang onto it with all his brain.

"I found the past."

 

8

The Coming of the God

 

Rain fell on the Solamnic plains. The rain had been falling without letup since the Knights' crushing defeat by Mina's force at the city of Solanthus. Following the loss of the city, Mina had warned the surviving Knights that she meant next to take the city of Sanction. She had also told them to think on the power of the One God, who was responsible for the Solam-nic's defeat. This done, she had bidden them ride off in safety, to spread the word of the One God.

The Knights didn't have much choice but to glumly obey the command of their conqueror. They rode for days through the rain, heading for Lord Ulrich's manor house, located about fifty east of Solanthus. The rain was chill and soaked everything. Knights and what remained of their meager force were wet coated with mud, and shivering from the cold. The wounded they brought with them soon grew feverish, and many of them died.

Lord Nigel, Knight of the Crown, was one of the dead. He was buried beneath a rock cairn, in the hopes that at some future date his relatives would be able to remove the body and give him proper burial in his family's vault. As Gerard helped place the heavy stones over the corpse, he couldn't help but wonder if Lord Nigel's soul had gone to join the army that had defeated the Solamnic Knights-the army of the dead. In life, Lord Nigel would have shed his last drop of blood before he betrayed the Knighthood. In death, he might become their enemy.

Gerard had seen the souls of other Solamnic Knights drifting on the fearful tide of the river of souls. He guessed that the dead had no choice, they were conscripts, constrained to serve. But who or what did they serve? The girl, Mina? Or someone or something more powerful?

Lord Ulrich's manor house was constructed along simple lines. Built of stone quarried from the land on which the house stood, it was solid, massive, with square towers and thick walls. Lord Ulrich had sent his squire ahead to warn his lady wife of their coming, and there were roaring fires, fresh rushes on the floors, hot bread and mulled wine waiting for them on their arrival. The Knights ate and drank, warmed themselves and dried out their clothes. Then they met in council to try to determine what to do next.

Their first move was obvious-they sent messengers riding in haste to Sanction to warn the city that the Knights of Neraka had taken Solanthus and that they were threatening to march next on Sanction. Before the loss of Solanthus, the Knights would have scoffed at this notion. The Dark Knights of Neraka had been laying siege to Sanction for months without any success. Solamnic Knights insured that the port remained open and that supplies flowed into the city, so that while the besieged citizens didn't live well, they didn't starve either. The Solamnics had once almost broken the siege, but had been driven back by strange mischance. The siege continued, the balance held, neither side making any headway against the other.

But that had been before Solanthus had fallen to an army of dead souls, living dragons, a girl called Mina, and the One God.

These all figured large in the discussions and arguments that rang throughout the great hall of the manor house. A large, rectangular room, the hall had walls of gray stone covered with a few splendid tapestries depicting scenes illustrative of texts from the Measure. Thick, beeswax candles filled the hall with light. There were not enough chairs, so the Knights stood gathered around their leaders, who sat behind a large, ornately carved wooden table.

Every Knight was permitted his say. Lord Tasgall, Lord of the Rose and head of the Knights' Council, listened to them all in patient silence-including Odila, whose say was extremely uncomfortable to hear.

"We were defeated by a god," she told them, as they shifted and muttered and glanced askance at each other. "What other power on Krynn could hurl the souls of the dead against us?"

"Necromancers," suggested Lord Ulrich.

"Necromancers raise the bodies of the dead," Odila stated. "They drag skeletons from the ground to fight against the living. They have never had power over the souls of the dead."

The other Knights were glum, bedraggled, dour. They looked and felt defeated. By contrast, Odila was invigorated, exalted. Her wet, black hair gleamed in the firelight, her eyes sparked as she spoke of the god.

"What of death knights such as Lord Soth?" Lord Ulrich argued. The pudgy Lord Ulrich had lost considerable weight during the long, dispirited journey. Loose skin sagged around his mouth. His usually cheerful face was solemn, his bright eyes shadowed.

"You prove my point, my lord," Odila replied coolly. "Soth was cursed by the gods. Only a god has such power. And this god is powerful."

She raised her voice to be heard among the angry cries and denunciations. "You have seen that for yourself! What other force could create legions of souls and claim the loyalty of the dragons, saw them! You saw them on the walls of Solanthus-red white, black and green and blue. They were not there in the service of Beryl. They were not there in the service of Malys or any other of the dragon overlords. They were there in the service of Mina. And Mina is there in the service of the One God."

Odila's words were drowned out by jeers and boos, but that meant only that she'd struck a weak point in their armor. None could deny a word she said.

Lord Tasgall, the elder Knight, graying, upright, stern of bearing and countenance, shouted repeatedly for order and banged his sword hilt upon the table. Eventually order was restored. He looked at Odila, who remained standing, her head with its two thick, black braids thrown back in defiance, her face flushed.

"What is your proposal-" he began, and when one of the Knights hissed, the Lord Knight silenced him with a withering glance.

"We are a people of faith," said Odila. "We have always been people of faith. I believe that this god is trying to speak to us and that we should listen-"

The Knights thundered in anger, many shaking their fists.

"A god who brings death!" cried one, who had lost his brother in the battle.

"What of the old gods?" Odila shouted back. "They dropped a fiery mountain on Krynn!"

Some of the Knights were silenced by this, had no argument. Others continued to rant and rage.

"Many Solamnics lost their faith after the Cataclysm," Odila continued. "They claimed that the gods had abandoned us. Then we came to find out during the War of the Lance that we were the ones who had abandoned the gods. And after the Chaos War, when we woke to find the gods missing, we cried out again that they had left us. Perhaps again that is not the case. Perhaps this Mina is a second Goldmoon, coming to bring us the truth. How do we know until we investigate? Ask questions?"

How, indeed? Gerard asked himself, the seeds of a plan starting to take root in his mind. He couldn't help but admire Odila, even as he wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her until her teeth rattled. She alone had the courage to say aloud what needed to be said. Too bad she lacked the tact to say it in such a way that didn't start fistfights.

The hall erupted into chaos with people arguing for and against and Lord Tasgall banging his sword hilt with such force that chips flew from the wooden table. The wrangling continued far into the night, and eventually two resolutions were presented for consideration. A small but vocal group wanted to ride to Ergoth, where the Knights still held firm, there to lick their wounds and build up their strength. This plan was favored by many until someone sourly pointed out that if Sanction fell they might build up their strength from now until the end of forever and they wouldn't be strong enough to retake all that they had lost.

The other resolution urged the Knights to march to Sanction, there to reinforce the Knights already defending that disputed city. But, argued the minority, how do we even know they mean to go to Sanction? Why would this girl give away her plans? It is a trick, a trap. Thus they argued, back and forth. No one mentioned anything about the One God.

The council itself was divided. Lord Ulrich was in favor of riding to Sanction. Lord Siegfried, who replaced the late Lord Nigel on the council, was from Ergoth and argued that the Knights would do better to retreat.

Gerard glanced at Odila, who stood near him. She was thoughtful and very quiet, her eyes dark and shadowed. She apparently had no more arguments to present, nothing more to say. Gerard should have realized silence was a bad sign for the glib-tongued young woman. As it was, he was too absorbed in his own thoughts and plans to pay much attention to her beyond wondering what she'd expected to accomplish in the first place. When next he looked around at her, to ask her if she wanted to go get something to eat, he found that she had gone.

Lord Tasgall rose to his feet. He announced that the council would take both matters under advisement. The three retired to discuss the matter in private.

Thinking that his own proposed plan of action might aid their decision making, Gerard left his fellows, who were still arguing, and went in search of the Lord Knights. He found them closeted in what had once been an old chapel dedicated to the worship of Kiri-Jolith, one of the old gods and one favored by the Solamnic Knights.

Retainers in the service of Lord Ulrich stood guard at the door. Gerard told them he had a matter of urgency to bring before the council and then, having been standing for hours, he sank thankfully onto a bench outside the chapel to await the Lord Knights' pleasure. While he waited, he went over his plans once more, searching for any flaw. He could find none. Confident and excited, he waited impatiently for the Knights to summon him.

At length, the guard came to him and said that they would see him now. As Gerard entered the old chapel, he realized that the council had already reached a decision. He guessed, by the way Lord Ulrich was smiling, that the decision was to march to Sanction.

Gerard was kept waiting a moment longer while Lord Siegfried conferred in a low voice with Lord Tasgall. Gerard glanced with interest around the old chapel. The walls were made of rough-hewn stone, the floor lined with wooden benches, worn smooth by years of use. The chapel was small, for it was a private chapel, intended for the family and servants. An altar stood at the front. Gerard could just barely make out the symbol of Kiri-Jolith-the head of a buffalo-carved in relief.

Gerard tried to picture in his mind what the chapel had been like all those many years ago, when the Lord Knight and his lady wife and their children, their retinue and their servants, had come to this place to worship their god. The ceiling would have been hung with bright banners. The priest-probably a stern, warrior-type-would have taken his place at the front as he prepared to read from the Measure or relate some tale of Vinas Solamnus, the founder of the Knighthood. The presence of the god would have been felt in this chapel. His people would have been comforted by that presence and would have left to go about their daily lives strengthened and renewed.

His presence was lacking now, when it was sorely needed.

"We will hear you now, Sir Gerard," said Lord Tasgall with a touch of impatience, and Gerard realized with a start that this was the second time he'd been addressed.

"I beg your pardon, my lords," said Gerard, bowing.

Receiving an invitation to advance and speak, he did so, outlining his plan. The three Knights listened in silence, giving no hint of their feelings. In conclusion, Gerard stated, "I could provide you with the answer to one question, at least, my lords- whether in truth this Mina does intend to march to Sanction or if that was a ruse to divert us from her true goal. If so, I might be able to discover the nature of that goal."

"The risk you run is very great," observed Lord Siegfried, frowning.

"'The greater the risk, the greater the glory,'" quoted Lord Ulrich, with a smile.

"I would it were so, my lord," said Gerard with a shrug, "but, in truth, I will not be in all that much danger. I am known to the Dark Knights, you see. They would have little reason to question my story."

"I do not approve of the use of spies," stated Lord Siegfried, "much less one of our own Knights acting in such a demeaning capacity. The Measure forbids it."

"The Measure forbids a lot of things," said Lord Tasgall dryly. "I for one, tend to choose common sense over rules that have been handed down in the distant past. I do not command you to do this, Sir Gerard, but if you volunteer-"

"I do, my lord," said Gerard eagerly.

"-then I believe that you can be of inestimable help to us. The council has determined that the Knights will ride to the support of Sanction. I am convinced that this Mina does mean to attack and therefore we cannot delay. However, I would be glad to receive confirmation of this and to learn of any plans she has for the capture of the city. Even with dragons, she will find her way difficult, for there are many underground structures where armies can be safely concealed from attack,"

"Then, too, her own armies may be susceptible to the dragon-fear," stated Lord Ulrich. "She may use dragons against us, only to watch helplessly as her own troops flee the field in terror."

The dead won't flee in terror, thought Gerard, but he kept that thought to himself. He knew by their grim expressions and grimmer faces that the Knights understood that as well as he did.

"Good luck to you, Sir Gerard," said Lord Tasgall, rising to his feet to shake hands.

Lord Ulrich also shook hands heartily. Lord Siegfried was stiff and solemn and clearly disapproving, but he made no further argument and actually wished Gerard luck, although he did not shake hands.

"We'll say nothing of this plan to anyone, gentlemen," said Lord Tasgall, glancing around at the others.

This agreed to, Gerard was about to take his departure when the retainer entered to say that a messenger had arrived with urgent news.

Since this might have some impact on Gerard's plan, Lord Tasgall gave a sign that he was to remain. The messenger entered. Gerard was alarmed to recognize a young squire from the household of Lord Warren, commander of the outpost of Solamnic Knights that protected Solace, location of Gerard's last posting. Gerard tensed, sensing dire news. The young man was mud-spattered, his clothes travel-worn. He strode forward, came to stand in front of Lord Tasgall. Bowing, he held out a sealed scrollcase.

Lord Tasgall opened the scrollcase, drew out the scroll, and began to read. His countenance changed markedly, his eyebrows raised. He looked up, amazed.

"Do you know what this contains?" Lord Tasgall asked.

"Yes, my lord," answered the squire. "In case the message was lost, I committed it to memory to relate to you."

"Then do so," said Lord Tasgall, leaning on the table. "I want these gentlemen to hear. I want to hear myself," he added in a low voice, "for I can scarce believe what I have read."

"My lords," said the squire, facing them, "three weeks ago, the dragon Beryl launched an attack against the elven nation of Qualinesti."

The Knights nodded. None were surprised. Such an attack had been long foreseen. The messenger paused to draw breath and consider what he would say next. Gerard, in a fever of impatience to hear news of his friends in Qualinesti, was forced to clench his fists to keep from dragging the information out of the man's throat.

"My lord Warren regrets to report that the city of Qualinost was completely destroyed in the attack. If the reports we have received are to be believed, Qualinost has disappeared off the face of Ansalon. A great body of water covers the city."

The Knights stared, astounded.

"The elves did manage to take their enemy down with them. The dragon overlord, Beryl, is dead."

"Excellent news!" said Lord Ulrich.

"Perhaps there is a god, after all," said Lord Siegfried, making a weak joke at which no one laughed.

Gerard bounded across the room. Grasping the startled messenger by the collar, Gerard nearly lifted the young man off the floor. "What of the elves, damn you? The Queen Mother, the young king? What of them? What has happened to them?"

"Please, sir-" the messenger exclaimed, rattled.

Gerard dropped the gasping young man. "I beg your pardon, sir, my lords," he said, lowering his strident tones, "but I have recently been in Qualinesti, as you know, and I came to care deeply for these people."

"Certainly, we understand, Sir Gerard," said Lord Tasgall. "What news do you have of the king and the royal family?"

"According to the survivors who managed to reach Solace, the Queen Mother was killed in the battle with the dragon," said the messenger, eyeing Gerard distrustfully and keeping out of his reach. "She is being proclaimed a hero. The king is reported to have escaped safely and is said to be joining the rest of his people, who fled the dragon's wrath."

"At least with the dragon dead, the elves can now go back to Qualinesti," said Gerard, his heart heavy.

"I am afraid that is not the case, my lord," the messenger replied grimly. "For although the dragon is dead and her armies dispersed, a new commander arrived very shortly afterward to take control. He is a Knight of Neraka and claims he was present during the attack on Solanthus. He has rallied what was left of Beryl's armies and overrun Qualinesti. Thousands flock to his standard for he has promised wealth and free land to all who join him."

"What of Solace?" asked Lord Tasgall anxiously.

"For the moment, we are safe. Haven is free. Beryl's forces who held control of that city abandoned their posts and traveled south to be in on the looting of the elven nation. But my lord believes that once this Lord Samuval, as he calls himself, has a firm grip on Qualinesti, he will next turn his gaze upon Abanasinia. Thus does my lord request reinforcements....."

The messenger paused, looked from one lord knight to another. None met the man's pleading gaze. They looked at each other and then looked away. There were no reinforcements to send.

Gerard was so shaken that he did not immediately recognize the name Samuval and call to mind the man who had escorted him through Mina's camp. He would remember that only when he was on the road to Solanthus. For now, all he could think about was Laurana, dying in battle against the great dragon, and his friend and enemy, the Dark Knight commander, Marshal Medan. True, the Solamnics would never mention him or name Medan a hero, but Gerard guessed that if Laurana had died, the gallant Marshal had preceded her in death.

Gerard's heart went out to the young king, who must now lead his people in exile. Gilthas was so young to have such terrible responsibility thrust upon him, young and untried. Would he be up to the task? Could anyone, no matter how old and experienced, be up to that task?

"Sir Gerard . . ."

"Yes, my lord."

"You have leave to go. I suggest that you depart tonight. In all the turmoil, no one will think to question your disappearance. Do you have everything you need?"

"I need to make arrangements with the one who is to carry my messages, my lord." Gerard had no more luxury for sorrow. Someday, he hoped to have the chance to avenge the dead. But, for now, he had to make certain that he did not join them. "Once that is accomplished, I am ready to depart on the instant."

"My squire, Richard Kent, is young, but sensible, and an expert horseman," said Lord Tasgall. "I will appoint him to be your messenger. Would that be satisfactory?"

"Yes, my lord," said Gerard.

Richard was summoned. Gerard had seen the young man before and been impressed with him. The two soon settled where Richard was to wait to hear from Gerard and how they were going to communicate. Gerard saluted the Knights of the council, then departed.

Leaving the chapel of Kiri-Jolith, Gerard entered the sodden wet courtyard, ducked his head to keep the rain out of his eyes. •His first thought was to find Odila, to see how she was faring. His second and better thought convinced him to leave her alone. She would ask questions about where he was going and what he was planning, and he'd been ordered to tell no one. Rather than lie to her, he decided it would be easier to not speak to her at all.

Taking a circuitous route to avoid the possibility of bumping into her or anyone else, he went to gather up what he needed. He did not take his armor, nor even his sword. Going to the kitchen, he packed some food in a saddlebag, snagged some water, and a thick cape that had been hung in front of the fire to dry. The cape was still damp in places and smelled strongly of wet sheep that had been baked in an oven, but it was ideal for his purpose. Clad only in his shirt and breeches, he wrapped himself in the cape and headed for the stables.

He had a long ride ahead of him-long, wet, and lonely.

 

9

The Plains of Dust

 

The rain that drenched the northlands of Ansalon and was such a misery to the Solamnic Knights would have been welcome to the elves in the south, who were just starting their journey through the Plains of Dust. The Qualinesti elves had always gloried in the sun. Their Tower was the Tower of the Sun; their king, the Speaker of the Sun. The sun's light banished the darkness and terrors of the night, brought life to the roses and warmth to their houses. The elves had loved even the new sun, that had appeared after the Chaos War, for though its light seemed feeble, pale, and sickly at times, it continued to bring life to their land.

In the Plains of Dust, the sun did not bring life. The sun brought death.

Never before had any elf cursed the sun. Now, after only a few days' travel through the empty, harsh land under the strange, glaring eye of this sun-an eye that was no longer pale and sickly but fierce and unforgiving as the eye of a vengeful goddess-the elves grew to hate the sun and cursed it bleakly as it rose with malevolent vindictiveness every morning.

The elves had done what they could to prepare for their journey, but none, except the runners, had ever traveled so far from their homeland, and they had no idea what to expect. Not even the runners, who maintained contact with Alhana Starbreeze of the Silvanesti, had ever crossed the Plains of Dust. Their routes took them north through the swamp land of the dragon overlord Onysablet. Gilthas had actually considered trying to travel these routes, but rejected the idea almost immediately. While one or two could creep through the swamps undetected by the dragon or the evil creatures who served her, an entire populace could not escape her notice. The runners reported that the swamp grew darker and more dangerous, as the dragon extended her control over the land, so that few who ventured into it these days came out alive.

The rebel elves-most of them Wilder elves, who were accustomed to living out-of-doors-had a better idea of what the people would face. Although none of them had ever ventured out into the desert, they knew that their lives might well depend on being able to flee at a moment's notice, and they knew better than to burden themselves with objects that are precious in life, but have no value to the dead.

The majority of the refugees had yet to learn this hard lesson. The Qualinesti elves had fled their homes, made a dangerous journey through dwarven tunnels or traveled by night under the shelter of the trees. Even so, many had managed to bring along bags and boxes filled with silken gowns, thick woolen robes, jewels and jewel boxes, books containing family histories, toys and dolls for the children, heirlooms of all types and varieties. Such objects held sweet remembrances of their past, represented their hope for the future.

Acting on the advice of his wife, Gilthas tried to convince the people that they should leave their heirlooms and jewels and family histories behind. He insisted that every person carry as much water as he or she could possibly manage, along with food enough for a week's journey. If that meant an elf maiden could no longer carry her dancing shoes, so be it. Most thought this stricture harsh in the extreme and grumbled incessantly. Someone came up with the idea of building a litter that could be dragged along behind and soon many of the elves began lashing together tree limbs to haul their goods. Gilthas watched and shook his head.

   "You will never force them to abandon their treasures, my love," said the Lioness. "Do not try, lest they come to hate you."

"But they will never make it alive through the desert!" Gilthas gestured to an elven lord who had brought along most of his household possessions, including a small striking clock. "Don't they understand that?"

"No," the Lioness said bluntly, "but they will. Each person must make the decision to leave his past behind or die with it hanging about his neck. Not even his king can make that decision for him." Reaching out, she rested her hand over his. "Remember this, Gilthas, there are some who would rather die. You must steel yourself to face that."

Gilthas thought of her words as he trudged over the windswept rock that flowed like a harsh, hard, and barren red-orange •sea to the blue horizon. Looking back across the land that shimmered in the hot sun, he saw his people straggling along behind. Distorted by the waves of heat rising from the rock, they appeared to waver in his vision, to lengthen and recede as he watched. He had placed the strongest at the rear of the group to assist those who were having difficulty, and he set the Wilder elves to keep watch along the flanks.

The first few days of their march, he had feared being attacked by the human armies rampaging through Qualinesti, but after traveling in the desert, he soon realized that here they were safe-safe because no one in his right mind would ever waste his energy chasing after them. Let the desert kill them, his enemies would say. Indeed, that seemed likely.

"We're not going to make it," Gilthas realized.

The elves did not know how to dress for the desert They discarded their clothes in the heat and many were terribly burned by the sun. The litters now served a useful purpose-carrying those too burned or sick to walk. The heat sapped strength and energy, so that feet stumbled and heads bowed. As the Lioness had predicted, the elves began to divest themselves of their past. Although they left no mark on the rock, the tale of their passage could be read in the abandoned sacks and broken chests dumped off the litters or thrown down by weary arms.

Their pace was slow-heartbreakingly slow. According to the maps, they would have to cross two hundred and fifty miles of desert before they reached the remnants of the old King's Highway that led into Silvanesti. Managing only a few miles a day, they would run out of both food and water long before they reached the midpoint. Gilthas had heard that there were places in the desert where one could find water, but these were not marked on the maps, and he didn't know how to locate them.

He had one hope-the hope that had led him to dare to make this treacherous journey. He must try to find the Plainspeople who made their homes in this forbidding, desolate land. Without their help, the Qualinesti nation would perish.

Gilthas had naively supposed that traveling the Plains of Dust was similar to traveling in other parts of Ansalon, where one could find villages or towns within a day's journey along the route. He had been told that there was a village of Plains-people at a place called Duntol. The map showed Duntol to be due east from Thorbardin. The elves traveled east, walking straight into the morning sun, but they saw no signs of a village. Gazing across the empty expanse of glistening red rock, Gilthas could see for miles in all directions and in all directions he saw no sign of anything except more rock.

The people were drinking too much water. He ordered that waterskins be collected by the Wilder elves and rationed. The same with the food.

At the loss of their precious water, the elves became angry and afraid. Some fought, others pleaded with tears in their eyes. Gilthas had to be harsh and stern, and some of the elves turned from cursing the sun to cursing their king. Fortunately for Gilthas-his one single stroke of luck-Prefect Palthainon was so badly sunburned that he was too sick to cause trouble.

"When the water runs out we can bleed the horses and live off their blood for a few days," said the Lioness.       "What happens when the horses die?" he asked.    She shrugged.

The next day, two of the sunburn victims died. The elves could not bury them, for no tool they owned would break through the solid rock. They could find no stones on the windswept plains to cover the bodies. They finally wrapped them in woolen capes and lowered the bodies with ropes into deep crevices in the rock.

Light-headed from walking in the blazing sun, Gilthas listened to the keening of those who mourned the dead. He stared down into the crevice and thought dazedly how blissfully cool it must be at the bottom. He felt a touch on his arm.

"We have company," said the Lioness, pointing north.

Gilthas shaded his eyes, tried to see against the harsh glare. In the distance, wavering in the heat, he could make out three riders on horseback. He could not discern any details-they were •shapeless lumps of darkness. He stared until his eyes watered, hoping to see the riders approaching, but they did not move. He waved his arms and shouted until his parched throat was hoarse, but the riders simply stood there.

     Unwilling to lose any more time, Gilthas gave the order for the people to start walking.

"Now the watchers are on the move," said the Lioness.

"But not toward us," said Gilthas, sick with disappointment.

The riders traveled parallel to the elves, sometimes vanishing from sight among the rocks, but always reappearing. They made their presence known, made the elves aware that they were being watched. The strange riders did not appear threatening, but they had no need to threaten. If they viewed the elves as an enemy, the blazing sun was the only weapon they required.

Hearing the wailing of children in his ears and the moans of the ill and dying, Gilthas could bear it no longer.

"You're going to talk to them," the Lioness said, her voice cracking from lack of water.

He nodded. His mouth was too parched to waste words.

"If they are Plainspeople, they have no love for strangers trespassing in their territory," she warned. "They might kill you."

He nodded again and took hold of her hand, raised it to his lips, kissed it. Turning his horse's head, he rode off toward the north, toward the strange riders. The Lioness called a halt to the march. The elves sank down on the burning rock. Some watched their young king ride off, but most were too tired and dispirited to care what happened to him or them.

The strange riders did not gallop forth to meet Gilthas, nor did they gallop off. They waited for him to come to them. He could still make out very few details, and as he drew closer, he could see why. The strangers were enveloped in white garments that covered them from head to toe, protecting them from the sun and the heat. He could also see that they carried swords at their sides.

Dark eyes, narrowed against the sun, stared at him from the shadows cast by the folds of cloth swathed around their heads. The eyes were cold, dispassionate, gave no indication of the thoughts behind them.

One rider urged his horse forward, putting himself forth as the leader. Gilthas took note of him, but he kept glancing at a rider who kept slightly apart from the rest. This rider was extremely tall, towered over the heads of the others, and, although Gilthas could not say why, instinct led him to believe that the tall man was the person in charge.

The lead rider drew his sword, held it out before him and shouted out a command.

Gilthas did not understand the words. The gesture spoke for itself, and he halted. He raised his own sunburned hands to show that he carried no weapons,

"Bin'on du'auih," he said, as best he could talk for his cracked lips. "I give you greeting."

The stranger answered with a swarm of unfamiliar words that buzzed about the king's ears, all of them sounding alike, none leaking any sense.

"I am sorry," Gilthas said, flushing and shifting to Common, "but that is all I know of your language." Speaking was painful. His throat was raw.

Waving the sword, the stranger spurred his horse and rode Straight at Gilthas. The king did not move, did not flinch. The sword whistled harmlessly past his head. The stranger wheeled, galloped back, bringing his horse to a halt in a flurry of sand and a fine display of riding skill.

He was about to speak, but the tall man raised his hand in a gesture of command. Riding forward, he eyed Gilthas approvingly.

"You have courage," he said, speaking Common,

"No," Gilthas returned. "I am simply too tired to move."

The tall man laughed aloud at this, but his laughter was short and abrupt. He motioned for his comrade to sheathe his sword, then turned back to Gilthas.

"Why do the elves, who should be living on their fat land, leave their fat land to invade ours?"

Gilthas found himself staring at the waterskin the man car-Tied, a waterskin that was swollen and beaded with drops of cool water. He tore his gaze away and looked back at the stranger.

"We do not invade your land," he said, licking his dry lips. "We are trying to cross it. We are bound for the land of our cousins, the Silvanesti."

"You do not plan to take up residence in the Plains of Dust?" the tall man asked. He was not wasteful of his words, spoke only what was needful, no more, no less. Gilthas guessed that he was not one to waste anything on anyone, including sympathy.

"Trust me, no, we do not," said Gilthas fervently. "We are a people of green trees and cold, rushing water." As he spoke these words, a homesickness welled up inside him so that he could nave wept. He had no tears. They had been burned away by the sun. "We must return to our forests, or else we will die."

"Why do you flee your green land and cold water?" the tall man asked.

Gilthas swayed in the saddle. He had to pause to try to gather enough moisture in his throat to continue speaking. He failed. His words came out a harsh whisper.

"The dragon, Beryl, attacked our land. The dragon is dead, but the capital city, Qualinost, was destroyed in the battle. The lives of many elves, humans, and dwarves were lost defending it. The Dark Knights now overrun our land. They seek our total annihilation. We are not strong enough to fight them, so we must-"

The next thing Gilthas knew, he was flat on his back on the ground, staring up at the unwinking eye of the vengeful sun. The tall man, wrapped in his robes, squatted comfortably at his side, while one of his comrades dribbled water into Gilthas's lips.

The tall man shook his head. "I do not know which is greater- the courage of the elves or their ignorance. Traveling in the heat of the day, without the proper clothing ..." He shook his head again.

Gilthas struggled to sit up. The man giving him water shoved him back down.

"Unless I am much mistaken," the tall man continued, "you are Gilthas, son of Lauralanthalasa and Tanis Half-elven."

Gilthas stared, amazed. "How did you know?"

"I am Wanderer," said the tall man, "son of Riverwind and Goldmoon. These are my comrades." He did not name them, apparently leaving it up to them to introduce themselves, something they did not seem disposed to do. Obviously a people of few words. "We will help you," he added, "if only to speed you through our land."

The offer was not very gracious, but Gilthas took what he could get and was grateful for it.

"If you must know," Wanderer continued, "you have my mother to thank for your salvation. She sent me to search for you."

Gilthas could not understand this in the slightest, could only suppose that Goldmoon had received a vision of their plight.

"How is ... your mother?" he asked, savoring the cool drops of tepid water that tasted of goat, yet were better to him than the finest wine.

"Dead," said Wanderer, gazing far off over the plains.

Gilthas was taken aback by his matter-of-fact tone. He was about to mumble something consoling, but the tall man inter-rupted him.

   "My mother's spirit came to me the night before last and told me to travel south. I did not know why, and she did not say. I thought perhaps I might find her body on this journey, for she told me that she lies unburied, but her spirit disappeared before she could tell me where."

Gilthas again began to stammer his regrets, but Wanderer paid no heed to his words.

"Instead," Wanderer said quietly, "I find you and your people. Perhaps you know how to find my mother?"

Before Gilthas could answer, Wanderer continued on. "I was told she fled the Citadel before it was attacked by the dragon, but no one knows where she went. They said that she was in the grip of some sort of madness, perhaps the scattered wits that come to the very old. She did not seem mad to me when I saw her spirit. She seemed a prisoner."

Gilthas thought privately that if Goldmoon was not mad, her son certainly was-all this talk of spirits and unburied bodies. Still, Wanderer's vision had saved their lives, and Gilthas could not very well argue against it. He answered only that he had no idea where Goldmoon was, or if she was dead or alive. His heart ached, for he thought of his own mother, lying unburied at the bottom of a new-formed lake. A great weariness and lethargy came over him. He wished he could lie here for days, with the taste of cool water on his lips. He had his people to think of, however. Resisting all admonitions to remain prone, Gilthas staggered to his feet.

"We are trying to reach Duntol," he said.

Wanderer rose with him. "You are too far south. You will find an oasis near here. There your people may rest for a few days and build up their strength before you continue your journey. I will send my comrades to Duntol for food and supplies."

"We have money to pay for it," Gilthas began. He swallowed the words when he saw Wanderer's face darken in anger. "We will find some way to repay you," he amended lamely.

"Leave our land," Wanderer reiterated sternly. "With the dragon seizing ever more land to the north, our resources are stretched as it is."

"We intend to," said Gilthas, wearily. "As I have said, we travel to Silvanesti."

Wanderer gazed long at him, seemed about to say more, but then apparently thought better of it. He turned to his companions and spoke to them in the language of the Plainspeople. Gilthas wondered what Wanderer had been about to say, but his curiosity evaporated as he concentrated on just remaining upright. He was glad to find that they had given his horse water.

Wanderer's two companions galloped off. Wanderer offered to ride with Gilthas.

"I will show you how to dress yourselves to protect your fair skin from the sun and to keep out the heat," Wanderer said. "You must travel in the cool of the night and the early morning, sleep during the heat of the day. My people will treat your sick and show you how to build shelters from the sun. I will guide you as far as the old King's Highway, which you will be able to follow to Silvanesti. You will take that road and leave our land and not return."

"Why do you keep harping on this?" Gilthas demanded. "I mean no offense, Wanderer, but I cannot imagine anyone in his right mind wanting to live in a place like this. Not even the Abyss could be more empty and desolate."

Gilthas feared his outburst might have angered the Plainsman and was about to apologize, when he heard what sounded like a smothered chuckle come from behind the cloth that covered Wanderer's face. Gilthas remembered Riverwind only dimly, when he and Goldmoon had visited his parents long ago, but he was suddenly reminded of the tall, stern-faced hunter.

"The desert has its own beauty," said Wanderer. "After a rain, flowers burst into life, scenting the air with their sweetness. The red of the rock against the blue of the sky, the flow of the cloud shadows over the rippling sand, the swirling dustdevils and the rolling tumbleweed, the sharp scent of sage. I miss these when I am gone from them, as you miss the thick canopy of incessantly dripping leaves, the continuous rain, the vines that tangle the feet, and the smell of mildew that clogs the lungs."

"One man's Abyss is another man's Paradise, it seems," said "Gilthas, smiling. "You may keep your Paradise, Wanderer, and you are welcome to it. I will keep my trees and cool water."

"I hope you will," said Wanderer, "but I would not count upon it."

"Why?" Gilthas asked, alarmed. "What do you know?"

"Nothing for certain," said Wanderer. Checking his horse, he turned to face Gilthas. "I was of two minds whether to tell you this or not. These days, rumors drift upon the wind like the cot-tonwood seeds."

"Yet, obviously, you give this rumor credence," Gilthas said.

When Wanderer still did not speak, Gilthas added, "We intend to go to Silvanesti no matter what has happened. I assure you, we have no plans to remain any longer in the desert than is necessary for us to cross it."

Wanderer gazed out across the sand to the mass of elves, bright spots of color that had blossomed among the rocks with-out benefit of life-giving rain.

   "The rumors say that Silvanesti has fallen to the Dark Knights." Wanderer turned his dark eyes to Gilthas. "You've heard nothing of this?"

"No," replied Gilthas. "I have not."

"I wish I could give you more details, but, needless to say, your people do not confide in us. Do you believe it?"

Even as Gilthas shook his head firmly in the negative, his heart sank. He might speak confidently before this stranger and before his people, but the truth was that he had heard nothing from the exiled Silvanesti queen, Alhana Starbreeze, in many weeks, not since before the fall of Qualinost. Alhana Starbreeze had been waging a concerted fight to reenter Silvanesti, to destroy the shield that surrounded it. The last Gilthas had heard, the shield had fallen and she and her forces were poised on the border, ready to enter her former homeland. One might argue that Alhana's messengers would have a difficult time finding him, since he'd been on the move, but the Silvanesti Wildrunners were friends with the eagles and the hawks and all whose sight was keen. If they had wanted to find him, they could have. Alhana had sent no runners, and perhaps this explained why.

Here was yet another burden to bear. If this was true, they were not fleeing danger, they were running headlong toward it. Yet, they could not stay in the desert.

At least if I have to die, let it be under a shade tree, Gilthas thought.

He straightened in the saddle. "I thank you for this information, Wanderer. Forewarned is forearmed. Now I should no longer delay telling my people that help is coming. How many days will take us to reach the King's Highway?"

"That depends on your courage," said Wanderer. Gilthas could not see the man's lips, due to the folds of cloth that swathed his face, but he saw the dark eyes warm with a smile. "If all your people are like you, I should not think the journey will take long at all."

Gilthas was grateful for the compliment. He wished he had earned it. What is taken for courage might only be exhaustion, after all.

 

10

Breaking into Prison

 

Gerard planned to enter Solanthus on foot. He stabled the animal at a roadhouse about two miles from the city-a roadhouse recommended by young Richard. Taking the opportunity to eat a hot meal (about the best that could be said for it), Gerard caught up on the local gossip. He put out that he was a sell-sword, wondered if there might be work in the great City.

He was immediately told all he needed and more than he wanted to know about the disastrous rout of the Solamnic Knights and the takeover of the city by the Dark Knights of Neraka. There had not been many travelers after the fall of Solanthus several weeks ago, but the inn's mistress was hopeful that business would soon improve. Reports coming from Solanthus indicated that the citizens were not being tortured and slaughtered in droves as many had feared, but that they were well treated and encouraged to go about their daily lives as though nothing had happened.

Oh, certainly, a few people had been hauled off to prison, but they had probably deserved it. The person in charge of the Knights, who was said to be a slip of a girl, was not lopping off heads, but was preaching to the people of a new god, who had come to take care of them. She had gone so far as to order an old temple of Paladine cleaned out and restored, to be dedicated to this new god. She went about the city healing the sick and performing other miracles. The people of Solanthus were becoming enamored of her.

Trade routes between Solanthus and Palanthas, long closed, had now been reopened, which made the merchants happy. All in all, the innkeeper stated, things could be worse.

"I heard there were evil dragons about," Gerard said, dunking his stale bread in the congealing gravy, the only way to make either palatable. "And worse than that." He lowered his voice. "I heard that the dead walked in Solanthus!"

The woman sniffed. She'd heard something along these lines, but she'd seen nothing of any dragons herself, and no ghost had come to the roadhouse asking for food. Chuckling at her own humor, she went bustling off to provide indigestion to some other unsuspecting guest, leaving Gerard to feed the rest of his meal to the roadhouse dog and ponder what he'd heard.

He knew the truth of the matter. He'd seen the red and blue dragons flying above the city, and he'd seen the souls of the dead surrounding the city's walls. The hair still rose on the back of his neck whenever he thought about that army of empty eyes and gaping mouths, wispy hands with ragged fingers that stretched out to him over the gulf of death. No, that had been very real. Inexplicable, but real.

He was startled to hear that the people of Solanthus were being so well treated, but not much surprised to hear that they had apparently taken Mina to their hearts. He'd had only a brief talk with the charismatic leader of the Dark Knights, and yet he retained a vivid picture of her: he could see the fell, amber eyes, hear the timbre of her voice, recall every word she'd spoken. Did the fact that she was treating the Solanthians well make his job easier or more difficult? He argued one way and the other and at length came to the conclusion that the only way to find out was to go there and see for himself.

    Paying for his meal and for the stabling of the horse for a week, Gerard set out for Solanthus on foot.

Coming within sight of the city walls, he did not immediately enter. He sat down in a grove of trees, where he could see but not be seen. He needed more information on the city, and he needed that information from a certain type of person. He had been sitting there for about thirty minutes when a wicket at the main gate opened up and several small bodies shot out, as though forcibly propelled from behind.

The small bodies picked themselves up, dusted themselves off as though this were nothing out of the ordinary, and, after shaking hands all round, set off upon their separate ways.

One of the small bodies happened to pass quite close to Gerard. He called out, accompanying his call with a friendly ges-ture, and the small body, which belonged to a kender, immediately came over to chat.

Reminding himself that this was for a worthy cause, Gerard braced himself, smiled in a friendly manner at the kender, and invited him to be seated.

"Goatweed Tangleknot," said the kender, by way of introduction. "My goodness, but you're ugly," he added cheerfully, peering up into Gerard's pockmarked face, admiring his corn-yellow and recalcitrant hair. "You're probably one of the ugliest humans I've ever met,"

The Measure promised that all who made the supreme sacrifice for the sake of their country would be rewarded in the afterlife. Gerard figured that this particular experience should gain him a suite of rooms in some celestial palace. Gritting his teeth, he said he knew he wouldn't win any prizes as queen of the May dance.

"And you have very blue eyes," said Goatweed. "Uncomfortably blue, if you don't mind my saying so. Would you like to see what I have in my pouches?"

Before Gerard could answer, the kender dumped out the contents of several pouches and began happily to sort through them.

"You just left Solanthus," Gerard said, interrupting Goatweed in the middle of a story about how he'd come by a hammer that had once belonged to some unfortunate tinker. "What's it like inside there? I heard that it had been taken over by Dark Knights?"

Goatweed nodded vigorously. "It's about the same as usual The guards round us up and throw us out. Except that now they take us first to this place that used to belong to the Mystics, and before that it was a temple of some old god or other. They brought in a group of Mystics from the Citadel of Light and talked to them. That was fun to watch, I tell you! A girl stood up in front of them, dressed up like a knight. She had very strange eyes. Very strange. Stranger than your eyes. She stood in front of the Mystics and told them all about the One God, and she showed them a pretty lady stored up in an amber box and told them that the One God had already performed one miracle and given the pretty lady her youth and beauty and the One God was going to perform another miracle and bring the pretty lady back to life.

"The Mystics stared at the pretty lady, and some of them began to cry. The girl asked the Mystics if they wanted to know more about this One God, and those who said they did were marched off one way, and those who said that they didn't were marched off another, including some old man called the Star-master or something like that. And then the girl came to us and asked us lots of questions, and then she told us all about this new god who has come to Krynn. And then she asked us if we'd like to worship this new god and serve the new god."

"And what did you say?" Gerard was curious.

"Why, I said 'yes,' of course," said Goatweed, astonished that he could suppose otherwise. "It would be rude not to, don't you think? Since this new god has taken all this trouble to come here and everything, shouldn't we do what we can to be encouraging?"

"Don't you think it might be dangerous to worship a god you don't know anything about?"

"OK I know a lot about this god,"Goatweed assured him. "At least, as much as seems important. This god has a great liking for kender, the girl told us. A very great liking. So great that this god is searching for one very special kender in particular. If any of us find this kender, we're supposed to bring him to the girl and she'll give us a huge reward. We all promised we would, and that's the very thing I'm off to do. Find this kender. You haven't seen him, by any chance?"

"You're the first kender I've seen in days," said Gerard. And hopefully the last, he added mentally. "How do you manage to get into the city without-"

    "His name," said Goatweed, fixated on his quest, "is The Tasslehoff Burrfoot, and he-"     "Eh?" Gerard exclaimed, astonished. "What did you say?"

"Which time? There was what I said about Solanthus and what I said about the girl and what I said about the new god-"

"The kender. The special kender. You said his name was Burrfoot? Tasslehoff Burrfoot?"

"The Tasslehoff Burrfoot,"Goatweed corrected. "The 'The' is very important because he can't be just any Tasslehoff Burrfoot." .. "No, I guess he couldn't be," said Gerard, thinking back to the kender who had started this entire adventure by managing to get himself locked inside the Tomb of Heroes in Solace.  "Although, to make sure," Goatweed continued, "we're supposed to bring any Tasslehoff Burrfoot we find to Sanction for the girl to have a look at."

"You mean Solanthus," said Gerard.

Goatweed was absorbed in examining with interest a bit of broken blue glass. Holding it up, he asked eagerly, "Do you think that's a sapphire?"

"No," said Gerard. "It's a piece of broken blue glass. You said you were supposed to take this Burrfoot to Sanction. You mean Solanthus. The girl and her army are in Solanthus, not Sanction."

"Did I say Sanction?" Goatweed scratched his head. After some thought, he nodded. "Yes, I said Sanction, and I meant Sanction. The girl told us that she wasn't going to be in Solanthus long. She and her army were all heading off to Sanction, where the new god was going to establish a huge temple, and it was in Sanction where she wanted to see Burrfoot."

That answers one of my questions, Gerard thought to himself.

"I think it's a sapphire," Goatweed added, and slid the broken glass back into his pouch.

"I once knew a Tasslehoff Burrfoot-" Gerard began hesitantly.

"Did you?" Goatweed leaped to his feet and began to skip around Gerard in excitement. "Where is he? How do I find him?"

"I haven't seen him for a long time," Gerard said, motioning the kender to calm down. "It's just that I was wondering what makes this Burrfoot so special."

"I don't think the girl said, but I may be mistaken. I'm afraid I dozed off for a bit at about that point. The girl kept us sitting there a very long time, and when one of us tried to get up to leave, a soldier stuck us with a sword, which isn't as exciting as it sounds like it might be. What was the question?"

Patiently, Gerard repeated it.

Goatweed frowned, a practice that is commonly known to aid the mental process, then said, "All I can remember is that he is very special to the One God. If you see this Tasslehoff friend of yours, will you be sure to tell him the One God is looking for him? And please mention my name."

"I promise," said Gerard. "And now, you can do me a favor. Say that a fellow had a very good reason for not entering Solan-thus through the front gate, what's another way a fellow could get inside?"

Goatweed eyed Gerard shrewdly. "A fellow about your size?"

"About," said Gerard, shrugging.

"What would this information be worth to a fellow about your size?" Goatweed asked.

Gerard had foreseen this, and he brought forth a pouch containing an assortment of interesting and curious objects he'd appropriated from the manor house of Lord Ulrich.

"Take your pick," he said.

Gerard regretted this immediately, for Goatweed was thrown into an agony of indecision, dithering over the lot, finally ending up torn between a rusty caltrop and an old boot missing its heel.

     "Take them both," Gerard said.

     Struck by such generosity, Goatweed described a great many
places whereby one could sneak unnoticed into Solanthus. Unfor
tunately, the kender's descriptions were more confusing than
helpful, for he often jumped forward to add details about one he
hadn't described yet or fell backward to correct information
about one he'd described fifteen minutes earlier.

Eventually, Gerard pinned Goatweed down and made him go over each in detail-a time-consuming and frustrating process, during which Gerard came perilously close to strangling Goatweed. At length, Gerard had three locations in mind: one he deemed most suitable to his needs and the other two as back-up.  Goatweed required Gerard to swear on his yellow hair that he would never, never divulge the location of the sites to anyone. Gerard did so, wondering if Goatweed himself had taken that  very same vow and considering it highly likely. After this came the hard part. Gerard had to rid himself of the kender, who had by now decided that they were best friends, if not brothers or maybe cousins. The loyal Goatweed was quite prepared to travel with Gerard for the rest of his days. Gerard said that was fine with him, he was going to lounge about here for a good long while. Maybe take a nap. Goatweed was free to wait.

Fifteen minutes passed, during which the kender developed the fidgets and Gerard snoozed with one eye open to see that he didn't lose anything of value. Finally Goatweed could stand the strain no longer. He packed up his treasure and departed, coming back several times to remind Gerard that if he saw The Tasslehoff Burrfoot, he was to send him straight to the One God and mention that his friend Goatweed was to receive the reward. Gerard promised and finally managed to rid himself of the kender. He had several hours to wait until darkness, and he whiled away his time trying to figure out what Mina wanted with Tasslehoff Burrfoot.

Gerard couldn't imagine that Mina had any great love for kender. The magical Device of Time Journeying the kender carried was probably the prize the girl was after.

"Which means," said Gerard to himself, "that if the kender can be found, we should be the ones to find him."

He made a mental note to tell the Solamnic Knights to be on the lookout for any kender calling himself Tasslehoff Burrfoot and to seize and hold said kender for safekeeping and, above all, not let him fall into the hands of the Dark Knights. This settled, Gerard waited for nightfall.

 

11

The prison House of Death

 

Gerard had no difficulty slipping unobserved into the city. Although his first choice had been blocked up - showing that the Dark Knights were working to stop up all the "rat holes" - they had not yet found the second. True to his vow, Gerard never revealed the location of the entrance site.

The streets of Solanthus were dark and empty. According to the innkeeper, a curfew had been imposed on the city. Patrols marched through the streets, forcing Gerard to duck and dodge to avoid them, sliding into a shadowed doorway, ducking behind piles of rubbish in an alleyway.

What with hiding from the patrols and an imperfect knowledge of the streets, Gerard spent a good two hours roaming about the city before he finally saw what he'd been looking for - the walls of the prison house.

He huddled inside a doorway, keeping watch and wondering how he was going to manage to sneak inside. This had always been the weak point of his plan. Breaking into a prison was proving just as difficult as breaking out.

A patrol marched into the courtyard, escorting several curfew violators. Listening as the guard made his report, Gerard found out that all the taverns had been shut down by order of the Dark Knights. A tavern owner, trying to cut his losses, had secretly opened his doors to a few regular customers. The private party had turned rowdy, drawing the attention of the patrols, and now the customers and the proprietor were all being incarcerated.

One of the prisoners was singing at the top of his lungs. The proprietor wrung his hands and demanded to know how he was supposed to feed his family if they took away his livelihood. Another prisoner was sick on the pavement. The patrol wanted to rid themselves of their onerous burden as quickly as possible, and they beat on the door, yelling for the gaoler.

He arrived, but he didn't look pleased. He protested that the jail cells were filled to overflowing, and he didn't have room for any more. While he and the patrol leader argued, Gerard slid out of his doorway, darted across the street, and took his place at the back of the group of prisoners.

He pulled the hood of his cloak over his head, hunched his shoulders, and crowded as close to the others as possible. One of the prisoners glanced at him, and his eyes blinked. Gerard held his breath, but after staring at him a moment, the man broke into a drunken grin, leaned his head on Gerard's shoulder, and burst into tears.

The patrol leader threatened to march away and leave the prisoners in the street, adding that he would most certainly report this obstruction of his duty to his superiors. Cowed, the gaoler flung open the door of the prison and shouted for the prison guards. The prisoners were handed over, and the patrol marched off.

The guards herded Gerard and the others into the cell block.

The moment the gaoler came in sight, the prisoners began shouting. The gaoler paid no attention to them. Shoving his prisoners into any cell that could accommodate them, the gaoler and his guards left with all haste.

The cell in which they stuffed Gerard was already so packed that he didn't dare sit down for fear of being trampled. Adjoining cells were just as bad, some filled with men, others with women, all of them clamoring to be set free. The stench of unwashed [bodies, vomit, and waste was intolerable. Gerard retched and clamped his hand over his nose and mouth, trying desperately and unsuccessfully to filter the smell through his fingers.

Gerard shoved his way through the mass of bodies toward the  back of the cell, as far from the overflowing slop bucket as he  could manage. He had feared he and his clothes might look too clean for what he planned, but he no longer had to worry about that. A few hours in here and the stench would cling to him so that he doubted if he could ever be free of it. After a brief time spent convincing himself that he was not going to throw up, he noticed that a neighboring cell-one that was large and spacious-appeared to be empty.

Nudging one of his cellmates in the ribs, Gerard jerked a thumb in that direction.

"Why don't they put some of us in there?" he asked.

"You can go in there if you want to," said the prisoner, with a dark glance. "Me, I'll stay here."

"But it's empty," Gerard protested.

"No, it ain't. You just can't see 'em. Good thing, too." The man grimaced. "Bad enough lookin' at 'em by daylight."

"What are they?" asked Gerard, curious.

"Wizards," the man grunted. "At least, that's what they was. I ain't sure what they are now."

"Why? What's wrong with them?"

"You'll see," the man predicted dourly. "Now let me get some sleep, will you?"

Squatting down on the floor, the man closed his eyes. Gerard figured he should try to rest, too, although he guessed gloomily it would be impossible.

He was pleasantly amazed to wake up some hours later to find daylight struggling to make its way inside the slit windows. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he looked with interest at the occupants of the neighboring cell, wondering what made the wizards so very formidable.

Startled, Gerard pressed his face against the bars that separated the two cells.

"Palin?" Gerard called out in a low voice. "Is that you?"

He honestly wasn't certain. The mage looked like Palin. But if this was Palin, the usually conscientious mage had not bathed or shaved or combed his hair or taken any care of his appearance for weeks. He sat on a cot, staring at nothing, eyes empty, his face expressionless.

Another mage sat on another cot. This mage was an elf, so emaciated that he might have been a corpse. He had dark hair, unusual in the elves, who tended to be fair, and his skin was the color of bleached bone. He wore robes that might have started out black in color, but grime and dust had turned them gray. The elf sat still and lifeless as Palin, the same expression that was no expression on his face.

Gerard called Palin's name again, this time slightly louder so that it could be heard over the coughing, hacking, wheezing, shouting, and complaining of his fellow prisoners. He was about to call again when he was distracted by a tickling sensation on his neck.

"Damn fleas," he muttered, slapping at it.

The mage lifted his head, looked up.

"Palin! What are you doing here? What's happened to you? Are you hurt? Drat these fleas!" Gerard scrubbed viciously at his neck, wriggled about in his clothes.

Palin stared vacantly at Gerard for long moments, as if waiting for him to do something or say something more. When Gerard only repeated his earlier questions, Palin shifted his eyes away and once more stared at nothing.

Gerard tried several more times but finally gave up and concentrated on ridding himself of the itching vermin. He managed to do so at last, or so he assumed, for the tickling sensation ceased.

"What happened to those two?" Gerard asked his cellmate.

"Dunno," was the answer. "They were like that when I was brought here, and that was three days ago. Every day, someone comes in and gives 'em food and water and sees that they eat it. All day, they just sit like that. Gives a fellow the horrors, don't it." Yes, Gerard thought, indeed it did. He wondered what had happened to Palin. Seeing splotches of what appeared to be dried blood on his robes, Gerard concluded that the mage had been beaten or tortured so much that his wits had left him. His heart heavy with pity, Gerard scratched absently at his neck, then turned away. He couldn't do anything to help Palin now, but, if all went as he planned, he might be able to do something in the future.

He squatted down in the cell, keeping his distance from a loathsome-looking straw mattress. He had no doubt that's where he'd picked up the fleas.

"Well, that was a waste of time," remarked Dalamar.

The elf's spirit lingered near the prison's single window. 'Even in this twilight world that he was forced to inhabit-neither dead nor alive-he felt as if he were suffocating inside the stone walls. He found it comforting at least to imagine he was breathing fresh air.

:.     "What were you trying to accomplish?" he asked. "I take it you weren't indulging in a practical joke."

"No, no joke," said Palin's spirit quietly. "If you must know, I was hoping to be able to contact the man, to speak to him."

"Bah!" Dalamar snorted. "I would have thought you had more sense. He cares nothing for us. None of them do. Who is he, anyhow?"

"His name is Gerard. He's a Solamnic Knight. I knew him in Qualinesti. We were friends . . . well, maybe not friends. I don't think he liked me. You know how Solamnics feel about mages, and I wasn't very pleasant company, I have to admit. Still"-Palin remembered what it was to sigh-"I thought perhaps I might be able to communicate with him, just as my father was able to communicate with me."

"Your father loved you, and he had something of importance |to relate to you," said Dalamar. "Besides, Caramon was quite thoroughly dead. We are not, at least I must suppose we are not. Perhaps that has something to do with it. What were you hoping he could do for you, anyhow?"

Palin was silent.

"Come now," said Dalamar. "We are hardly in a position to keep secrets from one another."

If that is true, Palin thought, than what do you do on those solitary rambles of yours? And don't tell me you are lingering beneath the pine trees to enjoy nature. Where do you go and why?

For a long time after their return from death, the mages' spirits remained tethered to the bodies they had once inhabited, as a prisoner is chained to a wall. Dalamar, restless, searching for a way back to life, was the first to discover that their bonds were self-created. Perhaps because they were not wholly dead, their spirits were not enslaved to Takhisis, as were the souls caught up in the river of the dead. Dalamar was able to sever the link that bound body and soul together. His spirit left its jail, left Solan-thus, or so he told Palin, although he didn't say where he had gone. Yet, even though he could leave, the mage was always forced to return.

Their spirits tended to be as jealous of their bodies as any miser of the chest that holds his wealth. Palin had tried venturing out into the sad world of the other imprisoned souls only to be consumed by fear that something might happen to his body in his absence. He flitted back to find it still sitting there, staring at nothing. He knew he should feel glad, and part of him was, but another part was bitterly disappointed. After that, he did not leave his body. He could not join with the dead souls, who neither saw nor heard him. He did not like to be around the living for the same reason.

Dalamar was often away from his body, though never for long. Palin was convinced that Dalamar was meeting with Mina, trying to bargain with her for the return of his life. He could not prove it, but he was certain it was so.

"If you must know," said Palin, "I was hoping to persuade Gerard to kill me."

"It would never work," said Dalamar. "Don't you think I've already considered it?"

"It might," Palin insisted. "The body lives. The wounds we suffered are healed. Killing the body again might sever the cord that binds us."

"And once again, Takhisis would bring us back to this cha-tade of life. Haven't you figured out why? Why does our Queen feed us and watch over us as the Shalafi once fed and cared for those poor wretches he termed the Live Ones? We are her experiment, as they were his. The time will come when she will determine if her experiment has succeeded or failed. She will determine it. We will not. Don't you think I've tried?"

He spoke the last bitterly, confirming Palin's suspicions.

"First," Palin said, "Takhisis is not my queen, so don't include me in your thinking. Second, what do you mean- experiment? She's obviously keeping us around to make use of the magical Device of Time Journeying, should she ever get hold of it."

"In the beginning that was true. But now that we've done so well-thrived, so to speak-she's starting to have other ideas, Why waste good flesh and bone by letting it rot in the ground when it could be animated and put to use? She already has an army of souls. She plans to augment her forces by creating an army of corpses to go along with it."

"You sound very certain."

"I am,"said Dalamar. "One might say I've heard it from the horse's mouth."

"All the more reason for us to end this," said Palin firmly. "I-"

Dalamar's spirit made a sudden move, darted quickly back to be near the body.

"We are about to have visitors," he warned.

Guards entered the cells, dragging along several kender, tied together with ropes around their waists. The guards marched the kender through the cells to the clamorous amusement of the other prisoners. Then jeering and insults ceased abruptly. The prison grew hushed, quiet.

Mina walked along the rows of cells. She glanced neither to the right nor the left, took no interest in those behind the bars. Some of the prisoners looked at her with fear, some shrank from her. Others reached out their hands in wordless pleading. She ignored them all.

Halting in front of the cell in which the bodies of the two mages were incarcerated, Mina took hold the rope and dragged the assorted kender forward.

"Every one of them claims to be Tasslehoff Burrfoot," she said, speaking to the corpses. ''Is one of these the kender I seek? Do either of you recognize him?"

Dalamar's corpse responded with a shake of the head.

"Palin Majere?" she asked. "Do you recognize any of these kender?"

Palin could tell at a glance that none of them were Tasslehoff, but he refused to answer. If Mina imagined she had the kender, let her waste her time rinding out otherwise. He sat there, did nothing.

Mina was not been pleased at his show of defiance.

"Answer me," she commanded. "You see the shining light, the realms beyond?"

Palin saw them. They were his constant hope, his constant torment.

"If you have any thought of freedom, of obtaining your soul's wish to leave this world, you will answer me."

When he did not, she clasped her hand around the medallion she wore at her throat.

"Just tell her!" Dalamar hissed at him. "What does it matter? A simple search of the kender will reveal that they don't have the device. Save your defiance for something truly important."

Palin's corpse shook its head.

Mina released her hold on the medallion. The kender, most of them protesting that they were too The Tasslehoff Burrfoot, were marched away.

Watching them go, Palin wondered how Tasslehoff-the real one-had managed to evade capture for so long. Mina and her God were both growing increasingly frustrated.

Tasslehoff and his device were the bedbugs keeping the Queen from having a really good night's sleep. The knowledge of her vulnerability must nip at her constantly, for no matter how powerful she grew, the kender was out there when and where he should not be.

If anything happened to him-and what kender ever lived to a ripe old age?-Her Dark Majesty's grand schemes and plans would come to naught. That might be a comforting thought, but for the fact that Krynn and its people would come to naught, as well.

"All the more reason to remain alive," Dalamar stated with vehemence, speaking to Palin's thoughts. "Once you join that river of death, you will drown and be forever at the mercy of the tide, as are those poor souls who are out there now. We still have a modicum of free will, as you just discovered. That is the flaw in the experiment, the flaw that Takhisis has yet to correct. She has never liked the concept of freedom, you know. Our ability to think and act for ourselves has always been her greatest enemy. Unless she somehow finds a way to deprive us of that, we must cling to our one strength, keep fast hold of it. Our chance will come, and we must be ready to seize it."

Our chance or yours? Palin wondered. He was half-amused by Dalamar, half-angry at him, and on reflection, wholly ashamed of himself.

As usual, he thought, I've been sitting around feeling sorry for myself while my self-serving, ambitious colleague has been out and doing. No more. I will be just as selfish, just as ambitious as any two Dalamars. I may be lost in a foreign country, hobbled hand and foot, where no one speaks my language and they are all deaf, dumb, and blind to boot. Yet, some way, some how, I will find someone who sees me, who hears me, who understands me.

Your experiment will fail, Takhisis, Palin vowed. The experiment itself will see to that.

 

12

In the Presence of the God

 

The day Gerard spent in the cell was the worst day of his life. He hoped he would grow used to the smell, but that proved impossible, and he caught himself seriously wondering if breathing was actually worth it. The guards tossed food inside and brought buckets of water for drinking, but the water tasted like the Smell, and he gagged as he swallowed. He was gloomily pleased to note that the day gaoler, who appeared none too intelligent, was, if possible, more harassed and confused than the night man.

Late in the afternoon, Gerard began to think that he'd miscalculated, that his plan wasn't as good as he'd thought and that there was every possibility he would spend the rest of his life in this cell. He'd been caught by surprise when Mina had entered the cells, accompanying the kender. She was the last person he wanted to see. He kept his face hidden, remained crouched on the floor until she had gone.

After a few more hours, when it appeared that no one else was likely to come, Gerard was beginning to have second thoughts about this mission. Suppose no one came? He was reflecting that he wasn't nearly as smart as he'd thought he was, when he heard a sound that improved his spirits immensely-the rattle of steel, the clank of a sword.

Prison guards carried clubs, not swords. Gerard leaped to his feet. Two members of the Dark Knights of Neraka entered the prison cells. They wore their helmets with the visors lowered (probably to keep out the smell), cuirasses over woolen shirts, leather breeches, and boots. They kept their swords sheathed but their hands on the hilts.

Immediately the prisoners set up a clamor, some demanding to be freed, others pleading to be able to talk to someone about the terrible mistake that had been made. The Dark Knights ignored them. They headed for the cell where the two mages sat staring at the walls, oblivious to the uproar.

Lunging forward, Gerard managed to thrust his arm between the bars and seize hold of the sleeve of one of the Dark Knights. The man whipped around. His companion drew his sword, and Gerard might have lost his hand had he not snatched it away.

"Captain Samuval!" Gerard shouted. "I must see Captain Samuval."

The Knight's eyes were glints of light in the shadow of his helm. He lifted his visor to get a better view of Gerard.

"How do you know Captain Samuval?" he demanded.

"I'm one of you!" Gerard said desperately. "The Solamnics captured me and locked me up in here. I've been trying to convince the great oaf who runs this place to set me free, but he won't listen. Just bring Captain Samuval here, will you? He'll recognize me."

The Knight stared at Gerard a moment longer, then snapped his visor shut and walked over to the cell that held the mages. Gerard could do nothing more but hope that the man would tell someone, would not leave him here to die of the stink.

The Dark Knights escorted Palin and his fellow mage out of the cellblock. The prisoners fell back as the mages shuffled past, not wanting anything to do with them. The mages were gone for more than an hour. Gerard spent the time wondering if the Knight would tell someone. Hopefully, the name of Captain Samuval would spur the Knight to action.

The clanking of swords announced the Knights' return. They deposited their catatonic charges back on their cots. Gerard hastened forward to try to talk to the Dark Knight again. The prisoners were banging on the cell bars and shrieking for the guards when the commotion suddenly ceased, some swallowing their cries so fast that they choked.

A minotaur entered the cells. The beast-man, who had the face of a bull made even more ferocious by the intelligent eyes that looked out of the mass of shaggy brown fur, was so tall that he was forced to walk with his head bowed to avoid raking his sharp horns against the low ceiling. He wore a leather harness that left bare his muscular torso. He was armed with numerous weapons, among them a heavy sword that Gerard doubted if he could have lifted with two hands. Gerard guessed rightly that the minotaur was coming to see him, and he didn't know whether to be worried or thankful.

As the minotaur approached his cell, the other prisoners scrambled to see who could reach the back fastest. Gerard had the front of the cell all to himself. He tried desperately to remember the minotaur's name, but it eluded him.

"Thank goodness, sir," he said, making do. "I was beginning to think I'd rot in here. Where's Captain Samuval?"

"He is where he is," the minotaur rumbled. His small, bovine eyes fixed on Gerard. "What do you want with him?"

"I want him to vouch for me," said Gerard. "He'll remember me, I'm sure. You might remember me, too, sir. I was in your camp just prior to the attack on Solanthus. I had a prisoner-a female Solamnic Knight."

"I remember," said the minotaur. The eyes narrowed. "The Solamnic escaped. She had help. Yours."

"No, sir, no!" Gerard protested indignantly. "You've got it all wrong! Whoever helped her, it wasn't me. When I found out she was gone, I chased after her. I caught her, too, but we were close to the Solamnic lines. She shouted, and before I could shut her up"-he drew his hand across his throat-"the Solamnics came to her rescue. They took me prisoner, and I've been locked here ever since."

"Our people checked to see if there were any Knights being held prisoner after the battle," said the minotaur.

"I tried to tell them then," said Gerard, aggrieved. "I've been telling them ever since! No one believes me!"

The minotaur said nothing in reply, just stood staring. Gerard had no way of knowing what the beast-man was thinking beneath those horns.

"Look, sir," said Gerard, exasperated, "would I be in this stinking hole if my story wasn't true?"

The minotaur stared at Gerard a moment longer. Turning on his heel, he stalked off to the end of the corridor to confer with the gaoler. Gerard saw the jailer peer at him and then shake his head and fling up his hands helplessly.

"Let him out," ordered the minotaur.

The gaoler hurried to obey. Fitting the key in the lock, he opened the cell door. Gerard walked out to the tune of muttered curses and threats from his fellow prisoners. He didn't care. At that moment, he could have hugged the minotaur, but he thought his reaction should be one of indignation, not relief. He flung a few curses himself and glowered at the gaoler.

The minotaur laid a heavy hand on Gerard's shoulder. The hand was not there in the spirit of friendship. The minotaur's nails dug painfully into Gerard's shoulder.

"I will take you to Mina," said the minotaur.

"I plan to pay my respects to Lord of the Night Mina," said Gerard, "but I can't appear before her like this. Give me some time to wash up and find some decent clothes-"

"She will see you as you are," said the minotaur, adding, as an afterthought, "She sees all of us as we are."

This being precisely what he feared, Gerard was not in the least eager to be interviewed by Mina. He had hoped to be able to retrieve his knightly accoutrements (he knew the storehouse where the Solamnics had stashed them) and blend in with the crowd, hang about the barracks with the other Knights and soldiers, pick up the latest gossip, discover who'd been given orders to do what, then leave to make his report.

There was no help for it, however. The minotaur (whose name was Gaidar, Gerard finally remembered), marched Gerard out of If the prison. Gerard cast a last glance at Palin as he left. The mage had not moved.

Shaking his head, feeling a shiver run through him, Gerard accompanied the minotaur through the streets of Solanthus.

If anyone would know Mina's plans, it was Gaidar. The minotaur was not the talkative type, however. Gerard mentioned Sanction a couple of times, but the minotaur answered only with a cold, dark glower. Gerard gave up and concentrated on seeing what he could of life in Solanthus. People were out in the streets, going about their daily routine, but they did so in a fearful and hurried manner, keeping their heads down, not wanting to meet the eyes of the numerous patrols.

All the taverns were closed, their doors ceremoniously sealed by a band of black cloth that had been stretched across them. Gerard had always heard the saying about courage being found at the bottom of a jug of dwarf spirits, and he supposed that was why the taverns had been shut down. The black cloth was stretched across other shops, as well-most notably mageware shops and shops that sold weapons.

They came within sight of the Great Hall, where Gerard had been brought to trial. Memories came back to him forcibly, particularly memories of Odila. She was his closest friend, his only friend, really, for he was not the type to make friends easily. He was sorry now that he hadn't said good-bye to her and at least given her some hint of what he planned.

Gaidar steered Gerard past the Great Hall. The building teemed with soldiers and Knights, for it had apparently been taken over as a barracks. Gerard thought they might stop here, but Gaidar led him to the old temples that stood near the hall.

These temples had been formerly dedicated to the gods most favored by the Knights-Paladine and Kiri-Jolith. The temple of Kiri-Jolith was the older of the two and slightly larger, for Kiri-Jolith was considered the Solamnics' special patron. Paladine's temple, constructed of white marble, drew the eye with its simple but elegant design. Four white columns adorned the front. Marble steps, rounded so that they resembled waves, flowed down from the portico.

The two temples were attached by a courtyard and a rose garden. Here grew the white roses, the symbol of the Knighthood. Even after the departure of the gods and, subsequently, the priests, the Solamnics had kept up the temples and tended the rose gardens. The Knights had used the temples for study or for meditation. The citizens of Solanthus found them havens of peace and tranquility and could often be seen walking here with their families.

"Not surprising this One God looks on them with covetous eyes," Gerard said to himself. "I'd move here in a minute if I were out wandering the universe, searching for a home."

A large number of the citizens stood gathered around the outer doors of the temple of Paladine. The doors were closed, and the crowd appeared to be awaiting admittance.

"What's going on, sir?" Gerard asked. "What are all these people doing here? They aren't threatening to attack, are they?"

A tiny smile creased the minotaur's muzzle. He almost chuckled. "These people have come to hear about the One God, Mina speaks to crowds like this every day. She heals the sick and performs other miracles. You will find many residents of Solanthus worshiping in the temple."

Gerard had no idea what to say to this. Anything that came to mind would only land him in trouble and so he kept his mouth shut. They were walking past the rose garden when a brilliant flash of sunlight reflecting off amber caught his eye. He blinked, stared, then stopped so suddenly that Gaidar, irritated, almost yanked off his arm.

"Wait!" Gerard cried, appalled. "Wait a minute." He pointed. "What is that?"

"The sarcophagus of Goldmoon," said Gaidar. "She was once the head of the Mystics of the Citadel of Light. She was also the mother of Mina-her adopted mother," he felt compelled to add. "She was an old, old woman. Over ninety, so they say. Look at her. She is young and beautiful again. Thus does the One God grant favor to the faithful."

"A lot of good that does her if she's dead," Gerard muttered, his heart aching, as he looked at the body encased in amber. He remembered Goldmoon vividly, remembered her beautiful, golden hair that seemed spun with silver moonbeams, remembered her face, strong and compassionate and lost, searching. He couldn't find the Goldmoon he had known, though. Her face, seen beneath the amber, was the face of no one, anyone. Her gold and silver hair was amber-colored. Her white robes amber. She'd been caught in the resin, like all the rest of the insects.

"She will be granted life again," said Gaidar. "The One God has promised to perform a great miracle."

Gerard heard an odd tone in Gaidar's voice and he glanced, startled, at the minotaur. Disapproving? That was hard to be believe. Still, as Gerard thought back over what he knew of the minotaur race, he had always heard them described as devout followers of their former god, Sargonnas, who was himself a minotaur. Perhaps Gaidar was having second thoughts about this One God. Gerard marked that down as a hunch he might be able to make use of later.

The minotaur gave Gerard a shove, and he had to continue walking. He looked back at the sarcophagus. Many of the citizenry were standing around the amber coffin, gaping at the body inside and sighing and ooohing and aahing. Some were on their knees in prayer. Gerard kept twisting his head to look around, forgot to watch where he was going, and tripped over the temple stairs. Gaidar growled at him, and Gerard realized he had better keep his mind on his own business or he'd end up in a coffin himself. And the One God wasn't likely to perform any miracle on him, The temple doors opened for Gaidar, then shut behind him, to the great disappointment of those waiting outside.

"Mina!" they called out, chanting her name. "Mina! Mina!"

Inside, the temple was shadowed and cool. The pale light of the sun, that seemed to have to work hard to shine through the stained glass windows, formed weak and watery patterns of blue, white, green, and red on the floor, criss-crossed with black bars. The altar had been covered with a cloth of white velvet. A single person knelt there. At the sound of their footfalls in the still temple, the girl raised her head and glanced over her shoulder.

"I am sorry to disturb you in your prayers, Mina," said Gaidar in a subdued voice that echoed eerily in the still temple, "but this is a matter of importance. I found this man in the prison cells. You may remember him. He-"

"Sir Gerard," said Mina. Rising, she moved away from the altar, walked down the central aisle. "Gerard uth Mondar. You brought that young Solamnic Knight to us. Odila was her name. She escaped."

Gerard had his story all ready, but his tongue stuck firmly to the roof of his mouth. He had not thought he could ever forget those amber eyes, but he had forgotten the powerful spell they could cast over any person caught in their depths. He had the feeling that she knew all about him, knew everything he had done since they last parted, knew exactly why he was here. He could lie to her, but he would be wasting his time.

Still, he had to try, futile as it might be. He stumbled through his tale, thinking all the while that he sounded exactly like a guilty child lying to avoid the strap and the woodshed.

Mina listened to him with grave attention. He ended by saying that he hoped that he would be permitted to serve her, since he understood that his former commander, Marshal Medan, had died in the battle of Qualinesti.

"You grieve for the Marshal and for the Queen Mother, Lau-rana," said Mina.

Gerard stared at her, dumbfounded.

She smiled, the amber eyes shone. "Do not grieve for them. They serve the One God in death as they both unwittingly served the One God in life. So do we all serve the One God, whether we will or no. The rewards are greater for those who serve the One God knowingly, however. Do you serve the One God, Gerard?"

Mina came nearer to him. He saw himself small and insignificant in her amber eyes, and he suddenly wanted very much to do something to make her proud of him, to win her favor.

He could do so by swearing to serve the One God, yet in this, if in nothing else, he must speak the truth. He looked at the altar, and he listened to the stillness, and it was then he knew for a certainty that he was in the presence of a god and that this god saw through to his very heart.

"I ... I know so little of this One God," he stammered evasively. "I cannot give you the answer you want, Lady. I am sorry."

"Would you be willing to learn?" she asked him.

"Yes" was all he needed to say to remain in her service, yet the truth was that he didn't want to know anything at all about this One God. Gerard had always done very well without the gods. He didn't feel comfortable in the presence of this one.

He mumbled something unintelligible, even to himself. Mina seemed to hear what she wanted to hear from him, however. She smiled.

"Very well. I take you into my service, Gerard uth Mondar. The One God takes you into service, as well."

At this, the minotaur made a disgruntled rumbling sound.

"Gaidar thinks you are a spy," said Mina. "He wants to kill you. If you are a spy, 1 have nothing to hide. I will tell you my plans freely. In two days time, an army of soldiers and Knights from Palanthas will join us, adding another five thousand to our number. With that army and the army of souls, we will march on Sanction. And we will take it. Then we will rule all of the northern part of Ansalon, well on our way to ruling all of this continent. Do you have any questions?"

Gerard ventured a feeble protest. "Lady, I am not-"

Mina turned from him. "Open the doors, Gaidar," she ordered. "I will speak to the people now." Glancing back at Gerard, she added, "You should stay to hear the sermon, Sir Gerard. You might find my words instructive."

Gerard could do nothing but acquiesce. He glanced sidelong at Gaidar, caught the minotaur glowering back at him. Clearly, Gaidar knew him for what he was. Gerard must take care to keep out of the minotaur's way. He supposed he should be thankful, for he'd accomplished his mission. He knew Mina's plans- always provided she was telling the truth-and he had only to hang about for a couple of days to see if the army from Palanthas showed up to confirm it. His heart was no longer in his mission, however. Mina had killed his spirit, as effectively as she might have killed his body.

We fight against a god. What does it matter what we do?

Gaidar flung wide the temple doors. The people streamed inside. Kneeling before Mina, they pleaded with her to touch them, to heal them, to heal their children, to take away their pain. Gerard kept an eye on Gaidar. The minotaur watched a moment, then walked out.

Gerard was about to sidle out the door when he saw a troop of Knights marching up the stairs. They had with them a prisoner, a Solamnic, to judge by the armor. The prisoner's arms were bound with bowstrings, but she walked with her head held high, her face set in grim determination.

Gerard knew that face, knew the expression on that face. He groaned softly, swore vehemently, and hastily drew back into the deepest shadows, covering his face with his hands as though overcome by reverence.

"We captured this Solamnic trying to enter the city, Mina," said one of the Knights.

"She's a bold one," said another. "Walked right in the front gate wearing her armor and carrying her sword."

"Surrendered her sword without a fight," added the first. "A fool and a coward, like all of them."

"I am no coward," said Odila with dignity. "I chose not to fight. I came here of my own accord."

"Free her," said Mina, and her voice was cold and stern. "She may be our enemy, but she is a Knight and deserves to be treated with dignity, not like a common thief!"

Chastened, the Knights swiftly removed the bindings from Odila's arms. Gerard had stepped into the shadows, afraid that if she looked around and saw him, she might give him away. He soon realized he could spare himself the worry. Odila had no eyes for anyone except Mina.

"Why have you come all this way and risked so much to see me, Odila?" Mina asked gently.

Odila sank to her knees, clasped her hands.

"I want to serve the One God," she said.

Mina bent down, kissed Odila on the forehead.

"The One God is pleased with you."

Mina removed the medallion she wore on her breast, fastened the medallion around Odila's neck.

"You are my cleric, Odila," said Mina. "Rise and know the blessings of the One God."

Odila rose, her eyes shining with exaltation. Walking to the altar, she joined the other worshipers, knelt in prayer to the One God. Gerard, a bitter taste in his mouth, walked out.

"Now what in the Abyss do I do?" he wondered.

 

13

The Convert

 

Absorbed into the main body of the Dark Knights of Neraka, Gerard was assigned to patrol duty. Every day, he and his small band of soldiers marched through their assigned portion of Solanthus, keeping the populace in check. His task was not difficult. The Dark Knights under Mina's command had acted swiftly to round up any members of the community who might have given them trouble. Gerard had seen most of them inside the prison.

As for the rest, the people of Solanthus appeared to be in a state of shock, stunned by the recent, disastrous turn of events. One day they were living in the only free city in Solamnia, and the next day their city was occupied by their most hated enemy. Too much had happened too quickly for them to comprehend. Given time, they might organize and become dangerous.

Or they might not.

Always a devout people, the Solamnics had grieved over the absence of their gods. Feeling an absence and a lacking in their lives, they were interested in hearing about this One God, even if they didn't plan on believing what they heard. The adage goes that while elves strive to be worthy of their gods, humans require that their gods be worthy of them. The citizens of Solanthus were naturally skeptical.

Every day, the sick and the wounded came or were carried to the former temple of Paladine, now the temple of the One God. The lines for miracles were long and the lines waiting to view the miracle maker were longer still. The elves of far-off Silvanesti, so Mina had told them, had bowed down to the One God and proclaimed their devotion. By contrast, the humans of Solanthus started fistfights, as those who believed in the miracles took umbrage with those who claimed they were tricks. After two days of patrol duty, Gerard was ordered to cease walking the streets (where nothing happened) and to start breaking up fights in the temple.

Gerard didn't know if he was glad for this change in assignment or not. He'd spent the last two days trying to decide if he should confront Odila and try to talk some sense into her or if he should continue to avoid her. He didn't think she'd give him away, but he wasn't certain. He couldn't understand her sudden religious fervor and therefore no longer trusted her.

Gerard had never really been given the choice of worshiping the gods, so he hadn't wasted much thought on the matter. The presence or absence of the gods had never made much difference to his parents. The only change that had occurred in their lives when the gods left was that one day they said prayers at the table and the next day they didn't. Now Gerard was being forced to think about it, and in his heart he could sympathize with those who started the fights. He wanted to punch someone, too.

Gerard sent off his report to Richard, who was waiting for it at the roadhouse. He gave the Knights' Council all the information he'd gleaned, confirming that Mina planned to march to Sanction.

Counting the reinforcements expected to arrive from Palan-thas, Mina had over five thousand soldiers and Knights under her command. A small force, yet with this force she planned to take the walled city that had held out against double that Dumber of troops for over a year. Gerard might have laughed at the notion, except that she'd taken Solanthus-a city considered impregnable-with far fewer troops than that. She'd .taken Solanthus using dragons and the army of souls, and she spoke of using dragons and the army of souls to take Sanction. Recalling the terror of that night he'd fought the dead, Gerard was convinced that nothing could withstand them. He said as much to the Knights' Council, although they hadn't asked for his opinion.

His assignment now completed, he could have left Solanthus, returned to the bosom of the Solamnic Knighthood. He stayed on, however, at risk of his life, he supposed, for Gaidar considered him a spy. If that was true, no one paid much attention to him. No one watched him. He was not restricted in his movements. He could go anywhere, talk to anyone. He was not admitted to Mina's inner circle, but he didn't lose by that, for apparently Mina had no secrets. She freely told everyone who asked what she and the One God meant to do. Gerard was forced to concede that such supreme confidence was impressive.

He stayed in Solanthus, telling himself that he would remain to see if Mina and her troops actually marched out, headed east. In truth, he was staying because of Odila, and the day he took up his duties at the temple was the day he finally admitted as much to himself.

Gerard stationed himself at the foot of the temple steps, where he could keep a watchful eye on the crowd, who had gathered to hear Mina speak. He posted his men at intervals around the courtyard, trusting that the sight of armed soldiers would intimidate most of the troublemakers. He wore his helmet, for there were those in Solanthus who might recognize him.

Mina's own Knights, under the command of the minotaur, surrounded her, kept watch over her, guarding her not so much from those who would do her harm, but from those who would have adored her to death. Her speech concluded, Mina walked among the crowd, lifting up children in her arms, curing the sick, telling them all of the One God. The skeptical watched and jeered, the faithful wept and tried to fling themselves at Mina's feet. Gerard's men broke up a few fights, hauled the combatants off to the already crowded prisons.

When Mina's steps began to falter, the minotaur stepped in and called a halt. The people still waiting for their share of the miracles groaned and wailed, but he told them to come back tomorrow.

"Wait a moment, Gaidar," said Mina, her voice carrying clearly over the tumult. "I have good news to tell the people of Solanthus."

"Silence!" Gaidar shouted, but the effort was needless. The crowd immediately hushed, leaned forward eagerly to hear her words.

"People of Solanthus," Mina cried. "I have just received word that the dragon overlord, Khellendros, also known as Skie, is dead. Only a few days earlier, I told you that the dragon overlord, Beryl, was dead, as well as the wicked dragon known as Cyan Bloodbane."

Mina raised her arms and her eyes to the heavens. "Behold, in their defeat, the power of the One God!"

"Khellendros dead?" The whisper went through the crowd, as each person turned to his neighbors to see what their reaction was to such astonishing news.

Khellendros had long ruled over much of the old nation of Solamnia, exacting tribute from the citizens of Palanthas, using the Dark Knights to keep the people in line and the steel flowing into the dragon's coffers. Now Khellendros was dead.

"So when does this One God go after Malys?" someone yelled.

Gerard was appalled to find that the someone was himself.

He'd had no idea he was going to shout those words. They'd burst out before he could stop them. He cursed himself for a fool, for the last thing he wanted to do was draw attention to himself. Snapping shut the visor of his helm, he glared around, as if searching for the person who had spoken. He did not fool Mina, however. Her amber gaze pierced the eyeslits of his helmet with unerring accuracy.

"After I have taken Sanction," Mina said coolly, "then I will deal with Malys."

She acknowledged the cheers of the crowd with a gesture toward heaven, indicating that their praise belonged to the One God, not to her. Turning, she disappeared inside the temple.

Gerard's skin burned so hot it was a wonder that his steel helm didn't melt around his ears. He expected to feel the heavy hand of the minotaur close around his neck any moment, and when someone touched his shoulder, he nearly crawled out of his armor.

"Gerard?" came a puzzled voice. "Is that you in there?"

"Odila!" he gasped in relief, uncertain whether to hug her or hit her.

"So now you're back to being a Dark Knight," she said. "I must concede that drawing your pay from two coffers is a good way to make a living, but don't you find yourself getting confused? Do you flip a coin? 'Which armor do I put on this morning? Heads Dark Knight, tails Solamnic-'"

"Just shut up, will you," Gerard growled. Grabbing her by the arm, he glanced around to see if anyone had been listening, then hauled her off to a secluded part of the rose garden. "Apparently finding religion hasn't caused you to lose your twisted sense of humor."

He yanked off his helm, glared at her. "You know perfectly well why I'm here."

She eyed him, frowning. "You didn't come after me, did you?"

"No," he answered, which was truth enough.

"Good," she said, her face clearing.

"But now that you mention it-" Gerard began.

Her frown returned.

"Listen to me, Odila," he said earnestly, "I came at the behest of the Knights' Council. They sent me to find out if Mina's threat to attack Sanction is real-"

"It is," said Odila coolly.

"I know that now," said Gerard. "I'm on an intelligence-gathering mission-"

"So am I," she said, interrupting, "and my mission is far more important than yours. You are here to gain information about the enemy. You are here to listen at keyholes and count the numbers of troops and how many siege engines they have."

She paused. Her gaze shifted to the temple. "I am here to find out about this god."

Gerard made a sound.

She looked back at him. "We Solamnics can't ignore this, Gerard, just because it makes us uncomfortable. We can't deny this god because the god came to an orphan girl and not to the Lord of the Rose. We have to ask questions. It is only in the asking that we find answers."

"And what have you found out?" Gerard asked unwillingly.

"Mina was raised by Goldmoon at the Citadel of Light. Yes, I was surprised to hear that myself. Goldmoon told Mina stories of the old gods, how she-Goldmoon-brought knowledge of the gods back to the people of Ansalon when everyone thought the gods had left the world in anger. Goldmoon showed them that it was not the gods who had left mankind but mankind who had left the gods. Mina asked if that might be what was happening now, but Goldmoon told her no, that this time the gods had gone, for there were those who spoke to Paladine and the other gods before they left and who were told that the gods departed the world to spare the world the wrath of Chaos.

"Mina didn't believe this. She knew in her heart that Goldmoon was wrong, that there was a god on this world. It was up to Mina to find the god, as Goldmoon had once found the gods. Mina ran away. She searched for the gods, always keeping her heart open to hear the voice of the gods. And, one day, she heard it.

"Three years, Mina spent in the presence of the One God, learning the One God's plans for the world, plans for us, learning how to put those plans in motion. When the time was right and [Mina was strong enough to bear the burden of the task given to her, she was sent to lead us and tell us of the One God."

"That answers some of the questions about Mina," said Gerard, "but what about this One God? So far all I've seen is that this god is a sort of press-gang for the dead."

"I asked Mina about that," Odila said, her face growing solemn at the memory of that terrible night she and Gerard had fought the dead souls. "Mina says that the souls of the dead serve the One God willingly, joyfully. They are glad to remain among |the living in the world they love."

Gerard snorted. "They didn't look glad to me."

"The dead do no harm to the living,” Odila said sharply. "If they seem threatening, it is only because they are so eager to bring the knowledge of the One God to us."

"So that was proselytizing?" Gerard said. "While the souls preach to us of the One God, Mina and her soldiers fly red dragons into Solanthus. They kill a few hundred people in the process, but I suppose that's just more evangelical work. More souls for the One God."

"You saw the miracles of healing Mina performed," said Odila, her gaze clear and level. "You heard her tell of the deaths of two of the dragon overlords who have long terrorized this world. There is a god in this world, and all your gibes and snide comments won't change that."

She thrust a finger accusingly into his chest. "You're afraid. You're afraid to find out that maybe you're not in control of your own destiny. That maybe the One God has a plan for you and for all of us."

"If you're saying I'm afraid to find out I'm a slave to this One God, then you're right!" Gerard returned. "I make my own deci-sions. I don't want any god making them for me."

"You've done so well so far," Odila said caustically. ..      "Do you know what I think?" Gerard returned, jabbing his {'finger in her chest with a force that shoved her backward a step. I think you made a mess of your life, and now you're hoping this god will come along and fix everything."

Odila stared at him, then she rounded on her heel, started to walk away. Gerard leaped after her, caught hold of her by the arm.

"I'm sorry, Odila. I had no right to say that. I was just angry because I don't understand this. Any of it. And, well, you're right. It does frighten me."

Odila kept her head turned away, her face averted, but she didn't try to break loose of his grip.

"We're both in a tough situation here," Gerard said, lowering his voice. "We're both in danger. We can't afford to quarrel. Friends?"

He let go her arm, held out his hand.

"Friends," Odila said grudgingly, turning around to shake hands. "But I don't think we're in any danger. I honestly believe that the entire Solamnic army could walk in here and Mina would welcome them with open arms."

"And a sword in each hand," Gerard muttered beneath his breath.

"What did you say?"

"Nothing important. Listen, there's something you can do for me. A favor-"

"I won't spy on Mina," Odila stated firmly.

"No, no, nothing like that," Gerard said. "I saw a friend of mine in the dungeon. His name is Palin Majere. He's a wizard. He doesn't look well, and I was wondering if maybe Mina could .. -er . . . heal him. Don't tell her I said anything," he added hurriedly. "Just say that you saw him and you were thinking ... I mean, it should sound like your idea. .. ."

"I understand," Odila said, smiling. "You really do believe that Mina has god-given powers. This proves it."

"Yes, well, maybe," said Gerard, not wanting to start another argument. "Oh, and one thing more. I hear that Mina is searching for Tasslehoff Burrfoot, the kender who was with me. You remember him?"

"Of course." Odila's eyes were suddenly alert and focused, intent on Gerard's face. "Why? Have you seen him?"

"Look, I have to ask-what does this One God want with [Tasslehoff Burrfoot. Is this some sort of joke?"

"Far from it," said Odila. "This kender is not supposed to be here."

"Since when is a kender supposed to be anywhere?"

"I'm serious. This is very important, Gerard. Have you seen Bum?"

"No," said Gerard, thankful he didn't have to lie to her.

"Remember about Palin, will you? Palin Majere? In the prison?"

"I'll remember. And you keep watch for the kender."

"I will. Where can we meet?"

"I am always here," Odila said, gesturing toward the Temple.

"Yeah, I guess you are. Do you . . . um . . . pray to this One God?" Gerard asked uncomfortably.

"Yes," said Odila.

"Have your prayers been answered?"

"You're here, aren't you?" Odila said. She wasn't being glib. -•'She was serious. With a smile and a wave, she walked back toward the temple.

Gerard gaped at her, speechless. Finally, he found his tongue. 'Tm not..." he shouted after her. "I didn't... You didn't... Your • god didn't.. . Oh, what's the use!"

Figuring that he was confused enough for one day, Gerard turned on his heel and stalked off.

The minotaur, Gaidar, saw the two Solamnics deep in discussion. Convinced that both of them were spies, he sauntered their direction in hopes of hearing something of their conversation. One drawback to being a minotaur in a city of humans was that he could never blend in with his surroundings. The two stood near the amber sarcophagus of Goldmoon, and using that as cover, he edged near. All he could hear was a low murmur, until at one point they forgot themselves and their Voices rose.

"You're afraid," he heard the the female Solamnic say in Accusing tones. "You're afraid to find out that maybe you're not in control of your own destiny. That maybe the One God has a plan for you and for all of us."

"If you're saying I'm afraid to find out I'm a slave to this One God, then you're right!" the Knight returned angrily. "I make my own decisions. I don't want any god making them for me."

At that point their voices dropped again. Even though they were talking theology, not sedition, Gaidar was still troubled. He remained standing in the shadow of the sarcophagus until long after they had both gone, one returning to the temple and the other heading back to his quarters. The Knight's face was red with anger and frustration. He muttered to himself as he walked and was so absorbed in his thoughts that he passed within a foot of the enormous minotaur and never noticed him.

Solamnics and minotaurs have always had much in common- more in common than not, although, throughout history, it was the "not" that divided them. Both the Solamnics and the minotaurs place high emphasis on personal honor. Both value duty and loyalty. Both admire courage. Both reverenced their gods when they had gods to worship. Both gods were gods of honor, loyalty and courage, albeit one god fought for the side of light and the other for the side of darkness.

Or was it truly that? Might not it be said that one god, Kiri-Jolith, fought for the side of the humans and that Sargas fought for the minotaurs? Was it race that divided them, not daylight and night shadow? Humans and minotaurs both told tales of the famous Kaz, a minotaur who had been a friend of the great Solamnic Knight, Huma.

But because one had horns and a snout and was covered with fur and the other had soft skin and a puny lump of a nose, the friendship between Kaz and Huma was considered an anomaly The two races had been taught to hate and distrust each other for centuries. Now the gulf between them was so deep and wide and ugly that neither could cross.

In the absence of the gods, both races were deteriorating. Gaidar had heard rumors of strange doings in the minotaur homeland-rumors of murder, treachery, deceit. As for the Solamnics, few young men and women in this modern age {wanted to endure the rigors and constraints and responsibilities of the Knighthood. Their numbers were dwindling, their backs •were to the wall. And they had a new enemy-a new god.

Gaidar had seen in Mina the end of his quest. He had seen in Mina a sense of duty, honor, loyalty, and courage-the ways of old. Yet, certain things Mina had said and done had begun to trouble Gaidar. The foremost of these was the horrible rebirth of the two wizards.

Gaidar had no use for wizards. He could have watched these two being tortured without a qualm, could have slain them with his own hand and never given the matter another thought. But the sight of their lifeless bodies being used as mindless slaves gave him a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He could not look at the two shambling corpses without feeling his gorge rise.

Worst was the One God's punishment of Mina for losing the kender. Recalling the sacrifices Mina had made, the physical pain she had endured, the torment, the exhaustion, thirst, and starvation, all in the name of the One God, then to see her suffering like that, Gaidar was outraged.

Gaidar honored Mina. He was loyal to Mina. His duty lay with Mina. But he was beginning to have doubts about this One God.

The Solamnic's words echoed in Gaidar's mind. If you're saying I'm afraid to find out I'm a slave to this One God, then you're right! I make my own decisions. I don't want any god making them for me.

Gaidar did not like thinking of himself as a slave to the will of this One God or any god. More important, he didn't like seeing Mina as a slave to this One God, a slave to be whipped if she failed to do the god's bidding.

Gaidar decided to do what he should have done long ago. He needed to find out more about this One God. He could not speak of this to Mina, but he could speak of it to this Solamnic female.

And perhaps kill two with one blow, as the saying went among minotaurs, in reference to the well-known tale of the thieving kender and the minotaur blacksmith.

 

14

Faith in the One God

 

Over a thousand Knights and soldiers from Palanthas entered the city of Solanthus. Their entry was triumphant. Flags bearing the emblems of the Dark Knights as well as flags belonging to individual Knights whipped in the wind. The Dark Knights who served in Palanthas had grown wealthy, for although much of the tribute had gone to the late dragon Khellendros and still more had been sent to the late Lord of the Night Targonne, the high-ranking Knights of Palanthas had done all right for themselves. They were in a good mood, albeit a bit concerned over rumors that had reached them concerning the new, self-proclaimed Lord of the Night-a teen-age girl.

These officers could not imagine how any right-thinking veteran soldier could take orders from a chit who should be dreaming of dancing around the Maypole, not leading men into battle. They had discussed this on the march to Solanthus and had privately agreed among themselves that there must be some shadowy figure working behind the scenes-this minotaur, who was said never to stir far from Mina's side. He must be the true leader. The girl was a front, for humans would never follow a minotaur. There were some who pointed out that few men would follow a slip of a girl into battle, either, but others replied knowingly that she performed tricks and illusions to entertain the ignorant dupe them into fighting for her.

No one could argue with her success, and so long as it worked, they had no intention of destroying those illusions. Of course, as intelligent men, they would not be fooled.

As had others before them, the officers of the Palanthas Knighthood met Mina with boisterous bravado, preparing to hear her with outward composure, inward chuckles. They came away pale and shaken, quiet and subdued, every one them trapped in the resin of the amber eyes.

Gerard faithfully recorded their numbers in a coded message to the Knighthood. This was his most important missive yet, for this confirmed that Mina meant to attack Sanction and she meant to march soon. Every blacksmith and weaponsmith in the city was pressed into duty, working day and night, making repairs on old weapons and armor and turning out new ones.

Her army would move slowly. It would take weeks, maybe months, to march through the woods and trek across the grasslands and into the mountains that surrounded Sanction. Watching the preparations and thinking of this prolonged march, Gerard developed a plan of attack that he included along with his report. He had little hope that the plan would be adopted, for it involved fighting by stealth, hitting the flanks of the army as it crawled across the ground, striking their supply trains, attacking swiftly, then disappearing, only to strike again when least expected.

Thus, he wrote, did the Wilder elves of Qualinesti succeed in doing great damage to the Dark Knights who occupied that land. I realize that this is not an accepted means of fighting for the knighthood, for it is certainly not chivalric nor honorable nor even particularly fair. However, it is effective, not only in reducing the numbers of the enemy but in destroying the morale of the troops.

Lord Tasgall was a sensible man, and Gerard actually thought that he might toss aside the Measure and act upon it. Unfortu-ffcately, Gerard couldn't find any way of delivering the message to Richard, who'd been instructed to return to the roadhouse on a Weekly basis to see if Gerard had more information.

Gerard was now being watched day and night, and he had a good idea who was to blame. Not Mina. The minotaur, Gaidar.

Too late Gerard had noticed the minotaur eavesdropping on his conversation with Odila. That night, Gerard discovered Gaidar was having him watched.

No matter where Gerard went, he was certain to see the horns of the minotaur looming over the crowd. When he left his lodging, he found one of Mina's Knights loitering about in the street outside. The next day, one of his patrol members fell mysteriously ill and was replaced. Gerard had no doubt that the replacement was one of Gaidar's spies.

He had no one to blame but himself. He should have left Solanthus days ago instead of hanging about. Now he had not only placed himself in danger, he'd imperiled the very mission he'd been sent to accomplish.

During the next two days, Gerard continued to perform his duties. He went to the temple as usual. He had not seen Odila since the day they'd spoken and was startled to see her standing alongside Mina today. Odila searched the crowd until she found Gerard. She made a small gesture, a slight beckoning motion. When Mina left, and the supplicants and idlers had departed. Gerard hung around outside, waiting.

Odila emerged from the temple. She shook her head slightly, indicating he was not to speak to her, and walked past him without a glance.

As she passed, she whispered, "Come to the temple tonight an hour before midnight."

Gerard sat gloomily on his bed, waiting for the hour Odila had set. He whiled away the time, by staring in frustration at the scrollcase containing the message that should have been in the hands of his superiors by now. Gerard's quarters were in the same hall once used to house the Solamnic Knights. He had at first been assigned a room already occupied by two other Knights, but he'd used some of the money he'd earned from the Dark Knights to buy his way into a private chamber. The chamber was, in reality; little more than a windowless storage room located on the first level. By the lingering smell, it had once been used to store onions.

Restless, he was glad to leave it. He walked openly into the streets, pausing only long enough to lace up his boot and to catch a glimpse of a shadow detaching itself from a nearby doorway. Resuming his pace, he heard light footfalls behind him.

Gerard had a momentary impulse to whirl around and confront his shadow. He resisted the impulse, kept walking. Going straight to the temple, he entered and found a seat on a stone bench in a corner of the building.

The temple's interior was dark, lit by five candles that stood on the altar. Outside, the sky was clouded over. Gerard could smell rain in the air, and within a few moments, the first drops began to fall. He hoped his shadow got soaked to the skin.

The flames of the candles wavered in a sudden gust stirred up by the storm. A robed figure entered the temple from a door in the rear. Pausing at the altar, she fussed with the candles for a moment, then, turning, walked down the aisle. Gerard could see her silhouetted against the candlelight, and although he could not see her face, he knew Odila by her upright bearing and the tilt of her head.

She sat down beside him, slid closer to him. He shifted on the stone bench, moved nearer to her. They were the only two in the temple, but they kept their voices low.

"Just so you know, I'm being followed," he whispered.

Alarmed, Odila turned to stare at him. Her face was pale against the candle-lit darkness. Her eyes were smudges of shadow. Reaching out her hand, she fumbled for Gerard's, found it, and clasped hold tightly. He was astonished, both at the fact that she was seeking comfort and by the fact that her hand was cold and trembling.

"Odila, what is it? What's wrong?" he asked. "I found out about your wizard friend, Palin," she said in a smothered voice, as if she found it hard to draw breath. "Gaidar told me."

Odila's shoulders straightened. She turned to him, looked I' him in the eyes. "Gerard, I've been a fool! Such a fool!"

"We're a pair of them, then," he said, patting her hand clumsily.

He felt her stiff and shivering, not comforted by his touch. She didn't seem to hear his words. When she spoke, her voice was muffled.

"I came here hoping to find a god who could guide me, care for me, comfort me. Instead I've found-" She broke off, said abruptly. "Gerard, Palin's dead."

"I'm not surprised," Gerard said, with a sigh. "He didn't look well-"

"No, Gerard!" Odila shook her head. "He was dead when you saw him."

"He wasn't dead," Gerard protested. "He was sitting on his cot. After that, I saw him get up and walk out."

"And I'm telling you that he was dead," she said, turning to face him. "I don't blame you for not believing me. I didn't believe it myself. But I... Gaidar took me to see him.. .."

He eyed her suspiciously.

"Are you drunk?"

"I wish I were!" Odila returned, but with sudden, savage vehemence. "I don't think there's enough dwarf spirits in the world to make me forget what I've seen. I'm cold sober, Gerard. I swear it."

He looked at her closely. Her eyes were focused, her voice shaking but clear, her words coherent.

"I believe you," he said slowly, "but I don't understand. How could Palin be dead when I saw him sitting and standing and walking?"

"He and the other wizard were both killed in the Tower of High Sorcery. Gaidar was there. He told me the whole story. They died, and then Mina and Gaidar found out that this kinder they were searching for was in the Tower. They went to find him, only they lost him. The One God punished Mina for losing the kender. Mina said that she needed the wizards' help to find him, and . . . and she . . . she gave them back their lives."

"If she did, they didn't look any too pleased by it," Gerard said, thinking of Palin's empty eyes, his vacant stare.

"There's a reason for that," Odila returned, her voice hollow. "She gave them their lives, but she didn't give them their souls. The One God holds their souls in thrall. They have no will to think or act on their own. They are nothing more than puppets, and the One God holds the strings. Gaidar says that when the kender is captured, the wizards will know how to deal with him and the device he carries."

"And you think he's telling the truth?"

"I know he is. I went to see your friend, Palin. His body lives, but there is no life in his eyes. They're both corpses, Gerard. Walking corpses. They have no will of their own. They do whatever Mina tells them to do. Didn't you think it was strange the way they both just sit there, staring at nothing?"

"They're wizards," Gerard said lamely, by way of excuse.

Now that he looked back, he wondered he hadn't guessed something was wrong. He felt sickened at the thought.

Odila moistened her lips. "There's something else," she said, dropping her voice so that it was little more than a breath. Gerard had to strain to hear her. "Gaidar told me that the One God is so pleased by this that she has ordered Mina to use the dead in battle. Not just the souls, Gerard. She is supposed to give life back to the bodies."

Gerard stared at her, aghast.

"It doesn't matter that Mina plans to attack Sanction with a ridiculously small army," Odila continued relentlessly. "None of her soldiers will ever die. If they do, Mina will just raise them up and send them right back into battle-"

"Odila," said Gerard, his voice urgent, "we have to leave here. Both of us. You don't want to stay, do you?" he asked suddenly, uncertain.

"No," she answered emphatically. "No, not after this. I am • sorry I ever sought out this One God."

"Why did you?" Gerard asked.

She shook her head. "You wouldn't understand."

"I might. Why do you think I wouldn't?"

"You're so... self-reliant. You don't need anyone or anything. You know your own mind. You know who you are."

"Cornbread," he said, recalling her disparaging nickname for him. He had hoped to make her smile, but she didn't even seem to have heard him. Speaking of his feelings like this wasn't easy for him. "I'm looking for answers," he said awkwardly, "just like you. Just like everyone. Like you said, in order to find the answers, you have to ask questions." He gestured outside the temple, to the steps where the worshipers congregated every day. "That's what's the matter with half these people around here. They're like starving dogs. They are so hungry to believe in something that they take the first handout that's offered and gulp it down, never dreaming that the meat might be poisoned."

"I gulped," said Odila, sighing. "I wanted what everyone claimed they had in the old days. You were right when you said I hoped that the One God would fix my life. Make everything better. Take away the loneliness and the fear-" She halted, embarrassed to have revealed so much.

"I don't think even the old gods did that, at least from what I've been told," Gerard said. "Paladine certainly didn't solve all Huma's problems. If anything, he heaped more on him."

"Unless you believe that Huma chose to do what he did," said Odila softly, "and that Paladine gave him strength to do it." She paused, then added, in bleak despair, "We can't do anything to this god, Gerard. I've seen the mind of this god! I've seen the immense power this god wields. How can such a powerful god be stopped?"

Odila covered her face with her hands.

"I've made such a mess of things. I've dragged you into danger. I know the reason you've stayed around Solanthus, so don't try to deny it. You could have left days ago. You should have. You stayed around because you were worried about me."

"Nothing matters now because both of us are going to leave," Gerard said firmly. "Tomorrow, when the troops march out, Mina and Gaidar will be preoccupied with their own duties. There will be such confusion that no one will miss us."

"I want to get out of here," Odila said emphatically. She jumped to her feet. "Let's leave now. I don't want to spend another minute in this terrible place. Everyone's asleep. No one will miss me. We'll go back to your quarters-"

"We'll have to leave separately. I'm being followed. You go first. I'll keep watch."

Reaching out impulsively, Odila took hold of his hand, clasped it tightly. "I appreciate all you've done for me, Gerard. You are a true and loyal friend."

"Go on," he said. "Quickly. I'll keep watch."

Releasing his hand with a parting squeeze, she started walking toward the temple doors, which were never locked, for worshipers of the One God were encouraged to come to the temple at any time, day or night. Odila gave the doors an impatient push and they opened silently on well-oiled hinges. Gerard was about to follow when he heard a noise by the altar. He glanced swiftly in that direction, saw nothing. The candle flames burned steadily. No one had entered. Yet he was positive he'd heard something. He was still staring at the altar, when he heard Odila give a strangled gasp.

Gerard whipped around, his hand on his sword. Expecting to find that she had been accosted by some guard, he was surprised to see her standing in the open doorway, alone.

"Now what's the matter?" He didn't dare go to her. The person following him would be watching for him. "Just walk out the damn door, will you?"

Odila turned to stare at him. Her face glimmered so white in the darkness, that he was reminded uncomfortably of the souls of the dead.

She spoke in a harsh whisper that carried clearly in the still night. "I can't leave!"

Gerard swore beneath his breath. Keeping a tight grip on his sword, he sidled over to the wall, hoping to remain unseen. Reaching a point near the door, he glared at Odila.

"What do you mean you won't leave?" he demanded in low and angry tones. "I risked my neck coming here, and I'll be damned if I'm going to leave without you. If I have to carry you-"

"I didn't say I won't leave!" Odila said, her breath coming in gasps. "I said I can't"

She took a step toward the door, her hands outstretched. As she came nearer the door, her movements grew sluggish, as if she were wading into a river, trying to move against a swift-flowing current. Finally, she came to a halt and shook her head.

"I... can't!" she said, her voice choked.

Gerard stared in perplexity. Odila was trying her best, that much was clear. Something was obviously preventing her from leaving.

His gaze went from her terrified face to the medallion she wore around her neck.

He pointed at it. "The medallion! Take it off!"

Odila raised her hand to the medallion. She snatched back her fingers with a pain-filled cry.

Gerard grabbed the medallion, intending to rip it off her.

A jolting shock sent him staggering back against the doors. His hand burned and throbbed. He stared helplessly at Odila. She stared just as helplessly back.

"I don't understand-" she began.

"And yet," said a gentle voice, "the answer is simplicity itself."

Hand on his sword hilt, Gerard turned to find Mina standing in the doorway.

"I want to leave," Odila said, managing with a great effort to keep her voice firm and steady. "You have to let me go. You can't keep me here against my will."

"I am not keeping you here, Odila," said Mina.

Odila tried again to walk through the door. Her jaw clenched, and she strained every muscle. "You are lying!" she cried. "You have cast some sort of evil spell on me!"

"I am no wizard,” said Mina, spreading her hands. "You know that. You know, too, what binds you to this place."

Odila shook her head in violent negation,

"Your faith," said Mina.

Odila stared, baffled. "I don't-"

"But you do. You believe in the One God. You said so yourself. 'I've seen the mind of this god! I've seen the immense power this god wields.’ You have placed your faith in the One God, Odila, and in return, the One God claims your service."

"Faith shouldn't make anyone a prisoner," Gerard said angrily.

Mina turned her eyes on him, and he saw with dismay the images of thousands of people frozen in their amber depths. He had the terrible feeling that if he looked long enough, he would see himself there.

"Describe to me a faithful servant," said Mina, "or, better yet, a faithful knight. One who is faithful to his Order. What must he do to be termed 'faithful'?"

Gerard stubbornly kept silent, but that didn't matter, because Mina answered her own question.

Her tone was fervent, her eyes glowed with an inner light. "A faithful servant performs loyally and without question all the duties his master asks of him. In return, the master clothes him and feeds him and protects him from harm. If the servant is disloyal, if he rebels against his master, he is punished. Just so the faithful knight who is duty-bound to obey his superior. If he fails in his duty or rebels against authority, what happens to him? He is punished for his oath breaking. Even the Solamnics would punish such a knight, wouldn't they, Sir Gerard?"

She is the faithful servant, Gerard realized. She is the faithful knight. And this makes her dangerous, perhaps the most dangerous person to have ever lived on Krynn.

Her argument was flawed. He knew that, in some deep part of him, but he couldn't think why. Not while staring into those amber eyes.

Mina smiled gently at him. Because he had no answer, she assumed she had won. She turned the amber eyes back to Odila.

"Deny your belief in the One God, Odila," Mina said to her, "and you will be free to go."

"You know I cannot," Odila said.

"Then the One God's faithful servant will remain here to perform her duties. Return to your quarters, Odila. The hour is late. You will need your rest, for we have much to do tomorrow to pre-Wie for the battle that will see the fall of Sanction,"

Odila bowed her head, started to obey.

"Odila!" Gerard risked calling.

She kept walking. She did not look back at him.

Mina watched her depart then turned to Gerard. "Will we see you among the ranks of our Knights as we march in triumph to Sanction, Sir Gerard? Or do you have other duties that call you away? If you do, you may go. You have my blessing and that of the One God."

She knows! Gerard realized. She knows I'm a spy, yet she does nothing. She even offers me the chance to leave! Why doesn't she have me arrested? Tortured? Killed? He wished suddenly that she would. Even death would be better than the notion in the back of his mind that she was using him, allowing him to think he was acting of his own free will, when all the time, whatever he did, he was carrying out the will of the One God.

"I'll ride with you," Gerard said grimly and stalked past her through the door.

On the steps of the temple he halted, stared in the darkness, and announced in a loud voice, "I'm going back to my quarters! Try to keep up, will you?"

Entering his room, Gerard lit a candle, then went to his desk and stood staring for long moments at the scrollcase. He opened it, removed the paper that detailed his plans to defeat Mina's army. Deliberately, grimly, he ripped the paper into small pieces. That done, he fed the pieces, one by one, to the candle's flame.

 

15

The Lame and the Blind

 

Mina's army left Solanthus the next day. Not all the army marched, for she was forced to leave behind troops enough to occupy what was presumably a hostile city. Its hostility was largely a myth, judging by the number of Solanthi-ans who turned out to cheer her and wish her well and press gifts upon her-so many that they would have filled the wagon that contained the amber sarcophagus, had Mina permitted it. She told them instead to give the gifts to the poor in the name of the One God. Weeping, the people of Solanthus blessed her name.

Gerard could have wept, too, but for different reasons. He'd spent the night wondering what to do, whether to go or stay. He decided finally to remain with the army, ride with them to Sanction. He told himself it was because of Odila.

She rode with the army. She sat in the wagon with the corpse of Goldmoon, imprisoned in amber, and the corpses of the two wizards, imprisoned in their own flesh. Viewing the wretched, ambulating corpses, Gerard wondered that he had not known the truth the moment he saw Palin, with his staring, vacant eyes. Odila did not glance at Gerard as the wagon rumbled past.

Gaidar looked at him, dark eyes baleful. Gerard stared back. The minotaur's displeasure gave Gerard one consolation. The fact that he was accompanying Mina's army so obviously angered the minotaur that Gerard felt he must be doing something right.

As he cantered out the gates, taking up a position in the rear, as far from Mina as he could get and still be part of her army, his horse nearly ran down two beggars, who scrambled hastily to get out of his way.

"I'm sorry, gentlemen" said Gerard, reigning in his horse. "Are you hurt, either of you?"

One beggar was an older man, human, with gray hair and a gray, grizzled beard. His face was seamed with wrinkles and browned from the sun. His eyes were a keen, glittering blue, the color of new-made steel. Although he limped and leaned upon a crutch, he had the air and bearing of a military man. This was borne out by the fact that he wore what appeared to be the faded, tattered remnants of some sort of military uniform.

The other beggar was blind, his wounded eyes wrapped in a black bandage. He walked with one hand resting on the shoulder of his comrade, who guided him along his way. This man had white hair that shone silver in the sun. He was young, much younger than the other beggar, and he lifted his sightless head at the sound of Gerard's voice.

"No, sir," said the first beggar gruffly. "You did but startle us, that is all."

"Where is this army bound?" the second beggar asked.

"Sanction," said Gerard. "Take my advice, sirs, keep clear of the temple of the One God. Even though they could heal you, I doubt it's worth the price."

Tossing each beggar a few coins, he turned his horse's head, galloped off down the road, and was soon enveloped in a cloud of dust raised by the army.

The citizens of Solanthus watched until Mina was long out of sight, then they turned back to their city, which seemed bleak and empty now that she was gone.

"Mina marches on Sanction," said the blind beggar.

"This confirms the information we received last night," said the lame beggar. "Everywhere we go, we hear the same thing. Mina marches on Sanction. Are you satisfied now, at last?"

"Yes, Razor, I am satisfied," the blind man replied.

"About time," Razor muttered. He hurled the coins Gerard had given him at the blind man's feet. "No more begging! I have never been so humiliated."

"Yet, as you have seen, this disguise permits us to go where we will and talk to whom we want, from thief to knight to nobleman," Mirror said mildly. "No one has any clue that we are more than we seem. The question now is, what do we do? Do we confront Mina now?"

"And what would you say to her, Silver?" Razor raised his voice to a mocking lilt. "'Where, oh where, are the pretty gold dragons? Where, oh where, can they be?'"

Mirror kept silent, not liking how close Razor had come to the mark.

"I say we wait," Razor continued. "Confront her in Sanction."

"Wait until Sanction has fallen to your Queen, you mean," Mirror stated coldly.

"And I suppose you're going to stop her, Silver? Alone, blind?" Razor snorted.

"You would have me walk into Sanction, alone and blind," said Mirror.

"Don't worry, I won't let anything happen to you. Skie told you more than you've let on. I intend to be there when you have your conversation with Mina."

"Then I suggest you pick up that money, for we will need it," said Mirror. "These disguises that have worked well thus far will aid us all the more in Sanction. What better excuse to speak to Mina than to come before her as two seeking miracles?"

Mirror could not see the expression on Razor's face, but he could imagine it-defiant at first, then glum, as he realized that what Mirror said made sense.

He heard the scrape of the coins being snatched irritably from the ground.

"I believe you are enjoying this, Silver," Razor said. "You're right," Mirror returned. "I can't think when I've had this much fun,"

 

16

An Unexpected Meeting

 

Like leaves flung from out the center of the cyclone, the gnome and the kender fluttered to the ground. That is, the kender-with his gaily colored clothes-fluttered. The gnome landed heavily, resulting in a subsequent cessation of breathing for a few heart-stopping minutes. Lack of breath also resulted in a cessation of the gnome's shrieking, which, considering where they found themselves, was undeniably a good thing. Not that they knew right away where they were. All Tasslehoff knew, as he looked about, was where he wasn't, which was anywhere he'd been up to this point in his life. He was standing- and Conundrum was lying-in a corridor made of enormous blocks of black marble that had been polished to a high gloss. The corridor was lit sporadically with torches, whose orange light gave a soft and eerie glow to the corridor. The torches burned clean, for no whisper of air stirred. The light did nothing to remove the gloom from the corridor. The light only made the shadows all that much darker by contrast.

No whisper, no sound at all came from anywhere, though Tas listened with all his might. Tas made no sound either, and he hushed Conundrum as he helped the gnome to his feet. Tas had been adventuring most of his life, and he knew his corridors, and without doubt, this corridor had the smothery feeling of a place where you want to be quiet, very quiet.

"Goblins!" was the first word Conundrum gasped.

"No, not goblins," said Tasslehoff in a quiet tone that was meant to be reassuring. He rather spoiled by it by adding cheerfully, "Probably worse things than goblins down here."

"What do you mean?" Conundrum wheezed and clutched at his hair distractedly. "Worse than goblins! What could be worse than goblins? Where are we anyway?"

"Well, there's lots worse than goblins," whispered Tas upon reflection. "Draconians, for instance. And dragons. And owl-bears. Did I ever tell you the story about the Uncle Trapspringer and the owlbear? It all began-"

It all ended when Conundrum doubled up his fist and punched Tasslehoff in the stomach.

"Owlbears! Who cares about owlbears or your blasted relations? I could tell you stories about my cousin Strontiumninety that would make your hair fall out. Your teeth, too. Why did you bring us here, and where is here, anyway?"

"7 didn't bring us anywhere," returned Tasslehoff in irritable tones when he could speak again. Being struck soundly and unexpectedly in the stomach tended to make a fellow irritable. "The device brought us here. And I don't know where 'here' is anymore than you do. I- Hush! Someone's coming."

When in a dark and smothery feeling corridor, it is always a good idea to see who is coming before giving them a chance to see you. That's the maxim Uncle Trapspringer had always taught his nephew, and Tas had found that, in general, it was a good plan. For one thing, it allowed you to leap out of the darkness and give the person a grand surprise. Tasslehoff took hold of the collar of Conundrum's shirt and dragged the gnome behind a black, marble pillar.

A single figure walked the corridor. The figure was robed in black and was not easily distinguishable from either the darkness of the corridor or the black, marble walls. Tasslehoff had his first good view of the figure as it passed beneath one of the torches. Even in the darkness, able to see only the dimmest, shadowiest ; outline of the figure, Tasslehoff had the strange and squirmy feeling in his stomach (probably left over from being struck) that he knew this person. There was something about the walk that was slow and halting, something about the way the person leaned upon the staff he was carrying, something about the staff that gave off a very soft, white light.

"Raistlin!" Tasslehoff breathed, awed.

He was about to repeat the name in a much louder voice, accompanied by a whoop and a shout and a rushing forward to give his friend, whom he hadn't seen in a long time and presumed to be dead, an enormous hug.

A hand grasped his shoulder, and a voice said softly, "No. Leave him be."

"But he's my friend," Tas said to Conundrum. "Not counting the time he murdered another friend of mine, who was a gnome, by the way."

Conundrum's eyes opened wide. He clutched at Tas nervously. "This friend of yours. He doesn't make it a practice of ... of m-m-murdering gnomes, does he?"

Tas missed this because he was staring at Conundrum, noting that the gnome had hold of Tasslehoff's sleeve with one hand and his shirt front with the other. This accounted for two hands and, so far as Tas knew, gnomes came with only two hands. Which meant there was a hand left over, and that hand was holding Tasslehoff  firmly  by  the  shoulder.  Tasslehoff  twisted  and " Squirmed to see who had hold of him, but the pillar behind which 'they were standing cast a dark shadow, and all he could see 'behind him was more darkness.

Tas looked round at the other hand-the hand that was on his shoulder-but the hand wasn't there. Or at least, it was there because he could feel it, but it wasn't there because he couldn't see it.

Finding this all very strange, Tasslehoff looked back at Raistlin. Knowing Raistlin as he did, Tas was forced to admit that there were times when the mage had not been at all friendly to the kender. And there was the fact that Raistlin did murder gnomes. Or at least, he had murdered one gnome for fixing the Device of Time Journeying. This very device, although not this very gnome. Raistlin wore the black robes now, and he had been wearing black robes then, and while Tasslehoff found Conundrum extremely annoying at times, he didn't want to see the gnome murdered. Tasslehoff decided that for Conundrum's sake he would keep silent and not jump out at Raistlin, and he would forgo the big hug.

Raistlin passed very near the kender and the gnome. Conundrum was, thank goodness, speechless with terror. Through a heroic effort on his part, Tasslehoff kept silent, though the absent gods alone knew what this cost him. He was rewarded with an approving squeeze by the hand on his shoulder that wasn't there, which, all in all, didn't make him feel as good as it might have under the circumstances.

Raistlin was apparently deep in thought, for his head was bowed, his walk slow and abstracted. He stopped once to cough, a racking cough that so weakened him he was forced to lean against the wall. He choked and gagged, his face grew deathly pale. Blood flecked his lips. Tas was alarmed, for he'd seen Raistlin have these attacks before but never one this bad.

"Caramon had a tea he used to fix for him," Tas said, starting forward.

The hand pressed him back.

Raistlin raised his head. His golden eyes shone in the torchlight. He looked about, up and down the corridor.

"Who spoke?" he said in his whispering voice. "Who spoke that name? Caramon? Who spoke, I say?"

The hand dug into Tasslehoff's shoulder. He had no need of its caution, however. Raistlin looked so very strange and his expression was so very terrible that the kender would have kept silent, regardless.

"No one," said Raistlin, at last able to draw a ragged breath. "I am imagining things." He mopped his brow with the hem of his black velvet sleeve, then smiled sardonically "Per-Ihaps it was my own guilty conscience. Caramon is dead. They are all dead, drowned in the Blood Sea. And they were all so shocked when I used the dragon orb and departed, leaving them to their fate. Amazed that I would not meekly share in their doom."

Recovering his strength, Raistlin drew away from the wall. He steadied himself with the staff, but did not immediately resume his walk. Perhaps he was still too weak.

"I can see the look on Caramon's face now. I can hear his blubbering." Raistlin pitched his voice high, spoke through his nose. "'But... Raist-'" He ground his teeth, then smiled again, a most unpleasant smile. "And Tanis, that self-righteous hypocrite! His illicit love for my dear sister led him to betray his friends, and yet he has the temerity to accuse me of being faithless! I can see them all-Goldmoon, Riverwind, Tanis, my brother-all staring at me with great cow eyes."

Again, his voice rose to mimic. '"At least save your brother ...'" The voice resumed its bitter monologue. "Save him for what? A lawn ornament? His ambition takes him no further than the bed of his latest conquest. All my life, he has been the manacles that bound my hands and shackled my feet. You might as well ask me to leave my prison but take along my chains. . . ."

He resumed his walk, moving slowly down the corridor.

"You know, Conundrum," whispered Tasslehoff, "I said he was my friend, but it takes a lot of work to like Raistlin. Sometimes I'm not sure it's worth the effort. He's talking about Caramon and the rest drowning in the Blood Sea, but they didn't drown. They were rescued by sea elves. I know because Caramon told me the whole story. And Raistlin knows they weren't drowned because he saw them again. But if he thinks that they're drowned, then obviously he doesn't yet know that they weren't, which means that he must be somewhere between the time he I thought they drowned and the time he finds that they didn't.

Which means," Tas continued, awed and excited, "that I've found another part of the past,"

Hearing this, Conundrum eyed the kender suspiciously and backed up a few steps. "You haven't met my cousin, Stroni-umninety, have you?"

Tas was about to say that he hadn't had the pleasure when the sound of footsteps rang through the corridor. The footsteps were not those of the mage, who barely made any noise at all beyond the occasional rasping cough and the rustle of his robes. These footsteps were large and imposing, thunderous, filling the corridor with noise.

The hand that wasn't on Tasslehoff's shoulder pulled him back deeper into the shadows, cautioning him with renewed pressure to keep quiet. The gnome, with finely honed instincts for survival so long as steam-powered pistons weren't in the offing, had already pressed himself so far into the wall that he might have been taken for the artistic renderings of some primitive tribe.

A man as large as his footfalls filled the corridor with sound and motion and life. He was tall and brawny, wore heavy, ornately designed armor that seemed a part of his anatomy for all that it slowed him down. He carried under his arm the horned helm of a Dragon Highlord. An enormous sword clanked at his side. He was obviously on his way somewhere with a purpose in mind, for he walked rapidly and with intent, looking neither to the right nor the left. Thus he very nearly ran down Raistlin, who was forced to fall back against the wall at the man's coming or be crushed.

The Dragon Highlord saw the mage, acknowledged his presence with no more than a sharp glance. Raistlin bowed. The Dragon Highlord continued on his way, Raistlin started to go his, when suddenly the Highlord halted, spun round on his heel.

"Majere," boomed the voice.

Raistlin halted, turned. "My Lord Ariakas."

"How do you find things here in Neraka? Your quarters comfortable?"

"Yes, my lord. Quite adequate for my simple needs," Raistlin replied. The light of the crystal ball atop his staff glimmered ever so slightly. "Thank you for asking,"

Ariakas frowned. Raistlin's response was polite, servile, as the Dragon Highlord had a right to respect. Ariakas was not a man to note subtleties, but apparently even he had heard the sardonic tone in the mage's raspy voice. The Highlord could not very well rebuke a man for a tone, however, so he continued.

"Your sister Kitiara says that I am to treat you well," said Ariakas gruffly. "You have her to thank for your post here."

"I owe my sister a great deal," Raistlin replied.

"You owe me more," said Ariakas grimly.

"Indeed," said Raistlin with another bow.

Ariakas was plainly not pleased. "You are a cool one. Most men cringe and cower when I speak to them. Does nothing impress you?"

"Should anything impress me, my lord?" Raistlin returned.

"By our Queen," Ariakas cried, laying his hand on the hilt of his sword, "I could strike off your head for that remark!"

"You could try, my lord," said Raistlin. He bowed again, this time more deeply than before. "Forgive me, sir, I did not mean the words the way they sounded. Of course, I find you impressive. I find the magnificence of this city impressive. But just because I am impressed does not mean I am fearful. You do not admire fearful men, do you, my lord?"

"No," said Ariakas. He stared at Raistlin intently. "You are right. I do not."

"I would have you admire me, my lord," said Raistlin.

Ariakas continued to stare at the mage. Then, suddenly, the Highlord burst out laughing. His laughter was enormous. It rolled and crashed through the corridor, smashed the gnome up against the wall. Tasslehoff felt dazed by it, as though he'd been struck in the head by a large rock. Raistlin winced slightly, but held his ground.

"I don't admire you yet, mage," said Ariakas, when he had regained control of himself. "But someday, Majere, when you have proven yourself, maybe I will."

Turning on his heel, still chuckling, he continued on his way down the corridor.

When his footfalls had died away and all was once again silent, Raistlin said softly, "Someday, when I have proven myself, my lord, you will do more than admire me. You will fear me."

Raistlin turned and walked away, and Tasslehoff turned to try to see who it was who didn't have hold of his shoulder, and he turned and turned and kept on turning. . . .


Book

2

 


1

Meeting of the Gods

 

The gods of Krynn met in council, as they had done many times since the world had been stolen away from them. The gods of light stood opposite the gods of darkness, as day stands opposite night, with the gods of neutrality divided evenly in between. The children of the gods stood together, as they always did.

These council sessions had accomplished little in the past except to sometimes soothe raging tempers and cheer crushed spirits. One by one, each of the gods came forth to tell of searching that had been done in vain. Many were the journeys taken by each god and goddess to try to find what was lost. Long and dangerous were some of these treks through the planes of existence, but one and all ended in failure. Not even Zivilyn, the all-seeing, who existed in all times and in all lands, had been able to find the world. He could see the path Krynn and its people would have taken into the future, but that path was populated now by the ghosts of might-have-beens. The gods were close to concluding sorrowfully that the world was lost to them forever.

When each had spoken, Paladine appeared to them in his radiance.

"I bring glad tidings," he said. "I have heard a voice cry out to me, the voice of one of the children of the world. Her prayer rang through the heavens, and its music was sweet to hear. Our people need us, for as we had suspected, Queen Takhisis now rules the world unchallenged."

"Where is the world?" Sargonnas demanded. Of all the gods of darkness, he was the most enraged, the most embittered, for Queen Takhisis had been his consort, and he felt doubly betrayed. "Tell us and we will go there immediately and give her the punishment she so richly deserves,"

"I do not know," Paladine replied. "Goldmoon's voice was cut off. Death took her and Takhisis holds her soul in thrall. Yet, we now know the world exists. We must continue to search for it."

Nuitari stepped forth. The god of the magic of darkness, he was clad all in black. His face, that of a gibbous moon, was white as wax.

"I have a soul who begs an audience," he said.

"Do you sponsor this?" Paladine asked.

"I do," Nuitari answered.

"And so do I." Lunitari came forward in her red robes.

"And so do I." Solinari came forth in his silver robes.

"Very well, we will hear this soul," Paladine agreed. "Let this soul come forward."

The soul entered and took his place among them. Paladine frowned at the sight, as did most of the other gods, light and darkness alike, for none trusted this soul, who had once tried to become a god himself.

"Raistlin Majere has nothing to say that I want to hear," Sargonnas stated with a snarl and turned to depart.

The others grumbled their agreement-all but one.

"I think we should listen to him," Mishakal said.

The other gods turned to look at her in surprise, for she was the consort of Paladine, a loving goddess of healing and compassion. She knew better than most the harm and suffering and sorrow that this man had brought upon those who loved and trusted him.

"He made reparation for his crimes," Mishakal continued, "and he was forgiven."

"Then why has his soul not departed with the rest?" Sar-gonnas demanded. "Why does he linger here, except to take advantage of our weakness?"

"Why does your soul remain, Raistlin Majere," Paladine asked sternly, "when you were free to move on?"

"Because half of me is missing," returned Raistlin, facing the god, meeting his eyes. "Together, my brother and I came into this world. Together, we will leave it. We walked apart for much of our lives. The fault was mine. If I can help it, we will not be separated in death."

"Your loyalty is commendable," said Paladine dryly, "if a bit belated. But I do not understand what business you have with us."

"I have found the world," said Raistlin.

Sargonnas snorted. The other gods stared at Raistlin in troubled silence.

"Did you hear Goldmoon's prayer as well?" Paladine asked.

"No," Raistlin responded. "I could hardly be expected to, could I? I did hear something else, though-a voice chanting words of magic. Words I recognized, as perhaps none other could. I recognized, as well, the voice that spoke them. It belonged to a kender, Tasslehoff Burrfoot."

"That is impossible," said Paladine. "Tasslehoff Burrfoot is dead."

"He is and he isn't, but I will come to that later," Raistlin said. "His soul remains unaccounted for." He turned to Zivilyn. "In the future that was, where did the kender's soul go after his death?"

"He joined his friend Flint Fireforge," said Zivilyn readily.

"Is his soul there now? Or does the grumbling dwarf wait for him still?"

Zivilyn hesitated, then said, "Flint is alone."

"A pity you did not notice this earlier," Sargonnas growled at Zivilyn. The minotaur god turned his glare at Raistlin. "Suppose this blasted kender is alive. What was he doing speaking words of magic? I never had much use for you mages, but at least you had sense enough to keep kender from using magic. This story of yours smells of yesterday's fish to me."

"As for the magic words he spoke," Raistlin replied, unperturbed by the minotaur god's gibe, "they were taught to him by an old friend of his, Fizban, when he gave into his hands the Device of Time Journeying."

The gods of darkness raised a clamor. The gods of magic looked grave.

"It has long been decreed that none of the Gray Gemstone races should ever be given the opportunity to travel through time," said Lunitari accusingly. "We should have been consulted in this matter."

"In truth, I gave him the device," said Paladine with a fond smile. "He wanted to attend the funeral of his friend Caramon Majere to do him honor. Quite logically assuming that he would die long before Caramon, Tasslehoff asked for the device so that he could go forward into the future to speak at the funeral. I thought this a noble and generous impulse, and thus I permitted it."

"Whether that was wise or not, you know best, Great One," Raistlin said. "I can affirm that Tasslehoff did travel forward in time once, but he missed, arriving at the funeral too late. He came back, thinking he would go again. As for what happened after that, the following is surmise, but since we know kender, I believe we can all agree that the premise I put forth is logical.

"One thing came up, then another, and Tasslehoff forgot all about traveling to Caramon's funeral until he was just about to be crushed by Chaos. At that moment, with only a few seconds of life left, Tas happened to recall this piece of unfinished business. He activated the device, which carried him forward in time. He arrived in the future, as he intended, except that it was a different future. Quite by mischance, the kender found the world. And I have found the kender."

For long moments, no one spoke. The gods of magic glanced at one another, their thoughts in perfect accord.

"Then take us there," said Gilean, the keeper of the book of knowledge.

"I would not advise it," Raistlin returned. "Queen Takhisis is extraordinarily powerful now. She is watchful. She would be aware of your coming far in advance, and she has made preparations to receive you. Should you return now, weak and unprepared to face her, she might well destroy you."

Sargonnas rumbled deep in his chest. The thunder of his ire echoed through the heavens. The other gods were scornful, suspicious, or solemn, depending on the nature of each.

"You have another problem," Raistlin continued. "The people of the world believe that you abandoned them in their hour of greatest need. If you enter the world now, you will not find many who will welcome you."

"My people know I did not abandon them!" Sargonnas cried, clenching his fist.

Raistlin bowed, made no reply. He kept his gaze upon Paladine, who looked troubled.

"There is something in what you say," said Paladine at last. "We know how the people turned against us after the Cataclysm. Two hundred years passed before they were ready to accept us back. Takhisis knows this, and she would gladly use the distrust and anger of the people against us. We must proceed slowly and cautiously, as we did then."

"If I might suggest a plan," Raistlin said.

He detailed his idea. The gods listened, most of them. When he concluded, Paladine glanced around the circle.

"What say you all?"

"We approve," said the gods of magic, speaking together with one voice.

"I do not," said Sargonnas in anger.

The other gods remained silent, some doubtful, others disapproving.

Raistlin looked at each of them in turn, then said quietly, "You do not have an eternity to mull this over and debate among yourselves. You may not even have one second. Is it possible that you do not see the danger?"

"From a kender?" Sargonnas laughed.

"From a kender," said Nuitari. "Because Burrfoot did not die when he was supposed to have died, the moment of his death hangs suspended in time."

Solinari caught up his cousin's words, so that they seemed to come from the same throat. "If the kender dies in a time and place that is not his own, Tasslehoff will not defeat Chaos. The Father of All and Nothing will be victorious, and he will carry out his threat to destroy us and the world."

"The kender must be discovered and returned to the time and place of his death," Lunitari added, her voice stern, "Tasslehoff Burrfoot must die when and where he was supposed to die or we all face annihilation."

The three voices that were distinct and separate and yet seemed one voice fell silent.

Raistlin glanced around again. "I take it I have leave to go?"

Sargonnas muttered and grumbled, but in the end he fell silent.

The other gods looked to Paladine.

At length, he nodded.

"Then I bid you farewell," said Raistlin.

When the mage had departed, Sargonnas confronted Paladine. "You heap folly upon folly," the minotaur stated accusingly. "First you give a powerful magical artifact into the hands of a kender, then you send this twisted mage to fight Takhisis. If we are doomed, you have doomed us."

"Nothing done out of love is ever folly," Paladine returned. "If we face great peril, we now do so with hope." He turned to Zivi-lyn. "What do you see?"

Zivilyn looked into eternity.

"Nothing," he replied. "Nothing but darkness."

 

2

The  Song of the Desert

 

Mina's army moved east, heading for Sanction. The army traveled rapidly, for the skies were clear, the air cool and crisp, and they met no opposition. Blue dragons flew above them, guarding their march and scouting out the lands ahead. Rumor of their coming spread. Those along their route of march quaked in fear when they heard that they lay in the path of this conquering army. Many fled into the hills. Those who could not flee or had nowhere to go waited fearfully for destruction.

Their fears proved groundless. The army marched through villages and past farms, camped outside of towns. Mina kept her soldiers under strict control. Supplies they could have taken by force, they paid for. In some cases, when they came to an impoverished house or village, the army gave of what they had. Manor houses and castles they could have razed, they let stand. Everywhere along their route, Mina spoke to the people of the One God. All they did, they did in the name of the One God.

Mina spoke to the high born and the low, to the peasant and the farmer, the blacksmith and the innkeeper, the bard and the tinker, the noble lord and lady. She brought healing to the sick, food to the hungry, comfort to the unhappy. She told them how the old gods had abandoned them, left them to the scourge of these alien dragons. But this new god, the One God, was here to take care of them.

Odila was often at Mina's side. She took no part in the proceedings, but she watched and listened and fingered the amulet around her neck. The touch no longer seemed to cause her pain.

Gerard rode in the rear, as far as possible from the minotaur, who was always in the front ranks with Mina. Gerard guessed that Gaidar had been ordered to leave him alone. Still, there was always the possibility of an "accident." Gaidar could not be faulted if a poisonous snake happened to crawl into Gerard's bedroll or a broken tree branch came crashing down on his head. Those few times when the two were forced by circumstance to meet, Gerard saw by the look in the minotaur's eyes that Gerard was alive only because Mina willed it.

Unfortunately, riding in the rear meant that Gerard was back among those who guarded the wagon carrying the sarcophagus of Goldmoon and the two wizards. The phrase, "More dead than alive" came to Gerard's mind as he looked at them, and he looked at them often. He didn't like to. He couldn't stand the sight of them, sitting on the end of the wagon, bodies swaying to and fro with the motion of the bumpy ride, feet and arms dangling, heads drooping. Every time he watched them, he rode away sickened, vowing that was the last time he would have anything to do with them. The next day he was drawn to stare at them, fascinated, repulsed.

Mina's army marched toward Sanction, leaving behind not fire and smoke and blood, but cheering crowds, who tossed garlands at Mina's feet and sang praises of the One God.

Another group marched east, traveling almost parallel to Mina's army, separated by only a few hundred miles. Their march was slower because it was not as organized and the land through which they traveled was not as hospitable. The same sun that shone brightly on Mina seared the elves of Qualinesti as they struggled across the Plains of Dust, heading for what they hoped would be safe sanctuary in the land of their kin, the Silvanesti. Every day, Gilthas blessed Wanderer and the people of the plains, for without their help, not a single elf would have crossed the desert alive.

The Plainspeople gave the elves enveloping, protective clothing that kept out the heat of the day and held body warmth for the cold nights. The Plainspeople gave the elves food, which Gilthas suspected they could ill afford to share. Whenever he questioned them about this, the proud Plainspeople would either ignore him or cast him such cold glances that he knew that to continue to ask questions would offend them. They taught the elves that they should march during the cool parts of the morning and night and seek shelter against the sweltering heat of the afternoon. Finally, Wanderer and his comrades offered to accompany the elves and serve as guides. Gilthas knew, if the rest of the elves did not, that Wanderer had a twofold purpose. One was beneficent-to make certain the elves survived the crossing of the desert. The other was self-serving-to make certain the elves crossed.

The elves had come to look very much like the Plainspeople, dressing in baggy trousers and long tunics and wrapping themselves in many layers of soft wool that protected them from the desert sun by day and the desert chill by night. They kept their faces muffled against the stinging sand, kept delicate skin shielded from exposure. Having lived close to nature, with a respect for nature, the elves soon adapted to the desert and lost no more of their people. They could never love the desert, but they came to understand it and to honor its ways.

Gilthas could tell that Wanderer was uneasy at how swiftly the elves were adapting to this hard life. Gilthas tried his best to convince the Plainsman that the elves were a people of forests and gardens, a people who could look on the red and orange striated rock formations that broke the miles of endless sand dunes and see no beauty, as did the Plainspeople, but only death.

One night when they were nearing the end of their long journey, the elves arrived at an oasis in the dark hours before the dawn. Wanderer had decreed that here the elves could rest this night and throughout the day tomorrow, drinking their fill and renewing their strength before they once more took up their weary journey. The elves made camp, set the watch, then gave themselves to sleep.

Gilthas tried to sleep. He was weary from the long walk, but sleep would not come. He had fought his way out of the depression that had plagued him. The need to be active and responsible for his people had been beneficial. He had a great many cares and worries still, not the least of which was the reception they might receive in Silvanesti. He was thinking of these matters, and restless, he left his bedroll, taking care not to wake his slumbering wife. He walked into the night to stare up at the myriad stars. He had not known there were so many. He was awed and even dismayed by their number. He was staring thus, when Wanderer found him,

"You should be sleeping," said Wanderer.

His voice was stern, he was giving a command, not making idle conversation. He had not changed from the day Gilthas had first met him. Taciturn, quiet, he never spoke when a gesture would serve him instead. His face was like the desert rock, formed of sharp angles marred by dark creases. He smiled, never laughed, and his smile was only in his dark eyes.

Gilthas shook his head. "My body yearns for sleep, but my mind prevents it."

"Perhaps the voices keep you awake," said Wanderer.

"I've heard you speak of them before," Gilthas replied, intrigued. "The voices of the desert. I have listened, but I cannot hear them."

"I hear them now," said Wanderer. "The sighing of the wind among the rocks, the whispering of the sand floes. Even in the silence of the night, there is a voice that we know to be the voice of the stars. You cannot see the stars in your land or, if you can, they are caught and held prisoner by the tree branches. Here"- Wanderer waved his hand to the vast vault of star-studded sky that stretched from horizon to horizon-"the stars are free, and their song is loud."

"I hear the wind among the rocks," said Gilthas, "but to me it is the sound of a dying breath whistling through gaping teeth. Yet," he added, pausing to look around him, "now that I have traveled through this land, I must admit that there is a beauty to your night. The stars are so close and so numerous that sometimes I do think I might hear them sing." He shrugged. "If I did not feel so small and insignificant among them, that is."

"That is what truly bothers you, Gilthas," said Wanderer, reaching out his hand and touching Gilthas on his breast, above his heart. "You elves rule the land in which you live. The trees form the walls of your houses and provide you shelter. The orchids and the roses grow at your behest. The desert will not be ruled. The desert will not be subjugated. The desert cares nothing about you, will do nothing for you except one thing. The desert will always be here. Your land changes. Trees die and forests burn, but the desert is eternal. Our home has always been, and it will always be. That is the gift it gives us, the gift of surety."

"We thought our world would never change," said Gilthas quietly. "We were wrong. I wish you a better fate."

Returning to his tent, Gilthas felt exhaustion overcome him. His wife did not waken, but she was sleepily aware of his return, for she reached out her arms and drew him close. He listened to the voice of her heart beating steadily against his. Comforted, he slept.

Wanderer did not sleep. He looked up at the stars and thought over the words of the young elf. And it seemed to Wanderer that the song of the stars was, for the first time since he'd heard it, mournful and off-key.

The elves continued their trek, their progress slow but steady. Then came the morning the Lioness shook her husband awake.

"What?" Gilthas asked, fear jolting him from sleep. "What is it? What is wrong?"

"For a change, nothing," she said, smiling at him through her rampant, golden curls. She sniffed the air. "What do you smell?"

"Sand," said Gilthas, rubbing his nose, that always seemed clogged with grit. "Why? What do you smell?"

"Water," said the Lioness. "Not the muddy water of some oasis but water that runs swift and fast and cold. There is a river nearby. . . ." Her eyes filled with tears, her voice failed her. "We have done it, my husband. We have crossed the Plains of Dust!"

A river it was, yet no river such as the Qualinesti had ever before seen. The elves gathered on its banks and stared in some dismay at the water, that flowed red as blood. The Plainspeople assured them that the water was fresh and untainted, the red color came from the rocks through which the river ran. The elves might have still hesitated, but the children broke free of their parents' grasp and rushed forward to splash in the water that bubbled around the roots of giant cottonwood and willow trees. Soon what remained of the Qualinesti nation was laughing and splashing and rollicking in the River Torath.

"Here we leave you," said Wanderer. "You can ford the river at this point. Beyond, only a few miles distant, you will come upon the remains of the King's Highway that will take you to Silvanesti. The river runs along the highway for many miles, so you will have water in abundance. The foraging is good, for the trees that grow along the river give of their fruits at this time of year."

Wanderer held out his hand to Gilthas. "I wish you good fortune and success at your journey's end. And I wish for you that someday you will hear the song of the stars."

"May their song never fall silent for you, my friend," said Gilthas, pressing the man's hand warmly. "I can never thank you enough for what you and your people have done-"

He stopped speaking, for he was talking to Wanderer's back. Having said all that was needed, the Plainsman motioned to his comrades, led them back into the desert.

"A strange people," said the Lioness. "They are rude and uncouth and in love with rocks, which is something I will never understand, but I find that I admire them."

"I admire them, too," said Gilthas. "They saved our lives, saved the Qualinesti nation. I hope that they never have reason to regret what they have done for us."

"Why should they?" the Lioness asked, startled.

"I don't know, my love," Gilthas replied. "I can't say. Just a feeling I have."

He walked away, heading for the river, leaving his wife to gaze after him with a look of concern and consternation.

 

3

The Lie

 

Alhana Starbreeze sat alone in the shelter that had been shaped for her by those elves who still had some magical power remaining to them, at least enough to command the trees to provide a safe haven for the exiled elven queen. As it turned out, the elves did not need their magic, for the trees, which have always loved the elves, seeing their queen sorrowful and weary to the point of collapse, bent their branches of their own accord. Their limbs hung protectively over her, their leaves twined together to keep out the rain and the wind. The grass formed a thick, soft carpet for her bed. The birds sang softly to ease her pain.

The time was evening, one of the few quiet times in Alhana's unquiet life. These were busy times, for she and her forces were living in the wilderness, fighting a hit-and-run war against the Dark Knights: raiding prison camps, attacking supply ships, making daring forays into the city itself to rescue elves in peril. For the moment, though, all was peaceful. The evening meal had been served. The Silvanesti elves under her command were settling down for the night. For the moment no one needed her, no one demanded that she make decisions that would cost more elven lives, shed more elven blood. Alhana sometimes dreamed of swimming in a river of blood, a dream from which she could never escape, except by drowning.

Some might say-and some elves did-that the Dark Knights of Neraka had done Alhana Starbreeze a favor. She had once been deemed a dark elf, exiled from her homeland for daring to try to bring about peace between the Silvanesti and their Qualinesti cousins, for daring to marry a Qualinesti in order to unite their two squabbling realms.

Now, in their time of greatest trouble, Alhana Starbreeze had been accepted back by her people. The sentence of exile had been lifted from her formally by the Heads of House who remained alive after the Dark Knights had completed their occupation of the capital, Silvanost. Alhana's people now embraced her. Kneeling at her feet, they were loud in their lamentations for the "misunderstanding." Never mind that they had tried to have her assassinated. In the very next breath, they cried to her, "Save us! Queen Alhana, save us!"

Samar was furious with her, with her people. The Silvanesti had invited the Dark Knights into their city and turned away Alhana Starbreeze. Not so many weeks before, they had fallen on their knees before the leader of the Dark Knights, a human girl called Mina. The Silvanesti had been warned of Mina's treachery, but they had been blinded by the miracles she performed in the name of the One God. Samar had been among those who had warned them that they were fools to put their trust in humans-miracles or not. The elves had been all astonishment and shock and horror when the Dark Knights had turned on them, set up their slave camps and prisons, killed any who opposed them.

Samar was grimly pleased that the Silvanesti had at last come to revere Alhana Starbreeze, the one person who had remained loyal to them and fought for them when they had reviled her. He was less pleased with his queen's response, which was forgiving, Magnanimous, patient. He would have seen them cringe and grovel to obtain her favor.

"I cannot punish them, Samar," Alhana said to him on the Evening on which the sentence of exile had been lifted. She was 'now free to return to her homeland-a homeland ruled over by the Dark Knights of Neraka, a homeland she was going to have I, to fight to reclaim. "You know why."

He knew why: All she did was for her son, Silvanoshei, who was the king of Silvanesti. An unworthy son, as far as Samar was concerned. Silvanoshei had been the person responsible for admitting the Knights of Neraka into the city of Silvanost. Enamored of the human girl, Mina, Silvanoshei was the cause of the downfall of the Silvanesti people.

Yet the people adored him and still claimed him as their king. Because of him, they followed his mother. Because of Silvanoshei, Samar was on a perilous journey, forced to leave his queen at the most desperate time in the ancient history of Silvanesti, forced to go chasing over Ansalon after this very son. Although few knew it, Silvanoshei, the king of the Silvanesti, had run away the very night Samar and other elves had risked their lives to rescue him from the Dark Knights.

Few knew he was gone, because Alhana refused to admit it, either to her people or to herself. Those elves who had been with mem the night of his departure knew, but she had sworn them to secrecy. Long loyal to her, loving her, they had readily agreed. Now Alhana kept up the pretense that Silvanoshei was ill and that he was forced to remain in seclusion until he had healed.

Meantime, Alhana was confident he would return. "He is off sulking somewhere," she told Samar. "He will get over this infatuation and come to his senses. He will come back to me, to his people."

Samar did not believe it. He tried to point out to Alhana the evidence of the tracks of horse's hooves. The elves had brought no horses with them. This animal was magical, had been sent for Silvanoshei. He wasn't coming back. Not then, not ever. At first Alhana had refused even to listen to him. She had forbidden him to speak of it. But as the days passed and Silvanoshei did not return, she was forced to admit, with a breaking heart, that Samar might be right.

Samar had been gone long weeks now. During this time, Alhana had kept up the pretense that Silvanoshei was with them, sick and confined to his tent. She even went so far as to maintain his tent, pretend to go visit him. She would sit on his empty bed and talk to him, as if he were there. He would come back, and when he did, he would find her waiting for him, with all in readiness as if he had never left.

Alone in her bower, Alhana read and reread her latest message from Samar, a message carried by a hawk, for these birds had long served as messengers between the two. The message was brief-Samar not being one to waste words-and it brought both joy and sorrow to the anxious mother, dismay and despair to the queen.

I have picked up his trail at last. He took a ship from Abanasinia, sailed north to Solamnia. There he traveled to Solanthus in search of this female, but she had already marched eastward with her army. Silvanoshei followed her.

Other news I have heard. The city of Qualinost has been utterly destroyed, A lake of death now covers what remains of Qualinost. The Dark Knights now ravage the countryside, seizing land and making it their own. It is rumored that many Qualinesti escaped, including Laurana's son, Gilthas, but where they are or what has happened to them is unknown. I spoke to a survivor, who said that it is certain that Lauranalanthalsa was slain in the battle, along with many hundreds of Qualinesti, as well as dwarves of Thorbardin and some humans who fought alongside them. They died heroes. The evil dragon Beryl was killed.

I am on the trail of your son, I will report when I can.

Your faithful servant,

Samar

Alhana whispered a prayer for the soul of Laurana and the souls of all those who had perished in the battle. The prayer was to the old gods, the departed gods, who were no longer there to heed it. The beautiful words eased her grief, even if she knew in her heart that they held no meaning. She prayed, too, for the Qualinesti exiles, hoping that the rumor of their escape was true. Then, concern for her son banished all other thoughts from her mind.

"What witchery has this girl worked on you, my son?" she said softly, absently smoothing the vellum on which Samar had written his note. "What foul witchery..."

A voice spoke from outside her shelter, calling her name. The voice belonged to one of her elite guard, a woman who had served her long, through many difficult and dangerous times. She was known to Alhana to be stoic, reserved, never showing ^ny emotion, and the queen was startled and alarmed now to hear a tremor in the woman's voice.

Fears of all kinds and sorts crowded around Alhana. She had to steel herself to react calmly. Crumpling the vellum in her hand, she thrust it into the bosom of her chemise, then ducked out of the sheltering vines and branches to face the woman. She saw with her a strange elf, someone unknown to her.

Or was he unknown? Or simply forgotten? Alhana stared at him closely. She knew this young man, she realized. Knew the lines of his face, knew the eyes that held in them a sadness and care and crushing responsibility to mirror her own. She could not place him, probably due to the foreign garb he wore- the long and enveloping robes of the barbarians who roamed the desert.

She looked to her guard for answers.

"The scouts came across him, my queen," said the woman. "He will not give his name, but he claims to be related to you through your honored husband, Porthios. He is Qualinesti, beneath all these layers of wool. He does not come armed into our lands. Since he may be what he claimed, we brought him to you."

"I know you, sir," Alhana said. "Forgive me, I cannot give you a name,"

"That is understandable," he replied with a smile. "Many years and many trials separate us. Yet"-his voice softened, his eyes were warm with admiration-"I remember you, the great lady so wrongfully imprisoned by her people-"

Alhana gave a glad cry, flung herself into his arms. Even as she embraced him, she remembered the mother he had lost, who would never more put her arms around her son. Alhana kissed him tenderly, for her sake and that of Laurana's, then she stepped back to look at him.

"Those trials of which you speak have aged you more than the corresponding years. Gilthas of the House of Solostaran, 1 am pleased beyond measure to see you safe and well, for I just heard the sad news concerning your people. I hoped that what I heard was rumor and gossip and that it would prove false, but, alas, I see the truth in your eyes.’

"If you have heard that my mother is dead and that Qualinost is destroyed, then you have heard the truth," Gilthas said.

"I am sorry beyond measure," Alhana said, taking his hand in her own and holding it fast. "Please, come inside, where you may be comfortable, for I see the weariness of many weeks of travel lie on you. I will have food and water brought to you."

Gilthas accompanied Alhana into the shelter. He ate the food that was offered, though Alhana could see he did so out of politeness rather than hunger. He drank the water with a relish he could not disguise, drank long and deep, as if he could never get enough.

"You have no idea how good this water tastes to me," he said, smiling. He glanced around. "But when am I going to have a chance to greet my cousin, Silvanoshei? We have never met, he and I. We heard the sad rumor that he had been slain by ogres and were glad to receive news that this was not true. I am eager to embrace him."

"I regret to say that Silvanoshei is not well, Gilthas," said Alhana. "He was brutally beaten by the Dark Knights when they seized Silvanost and barely escaped with his life. He keeps to his tent on the order of the healers and is not permitted to have any company."

She had told this lie so often that she was able to tell it now without a break in her voice. She could meet the young man's eyes and never falter. He believed her, for his face took on a look of concern.

"I am sorry to hear this. Please accept my wishes for his swift recovery."

Alhana smiled and changed the subject. "You have traveled far and on dangerous roads. Your journey must have been a hard and perilous one. What can I do for you, Nephew? May I call you that, although I am only your aunt by marriage?"

"I would be honored," said Gilthas, his voice warm. "You are all the family I have left now. You and Silvanoshei."

Alhana's eyes filled with sudden tears. He was all the family she had, at this moment, with Silvanoshei lost to her. She clasped his hand, and he held fast to hers. She was reminded of his father, Tanis Half-Elven. The memory was heartening, for the times in which they had known each other had been fraught with peril, yet they had overcome their foes and gone on to find peace, even if only for a short while.

"I come to ask a great boon of you, Aunt Alhana," he said. He gazed at her steadfastly. "I ask that you receive my people."

Alhana stared at him, bewildered, not understanding.

Gilthas gestured to the west. "Three days' ride from here, on the border of Silvanesti, a thousand exiles from Qualinesti wait to receive your permission to enter the land of our cousins. Our home is destroyed. The enemy occupies it. We lack the numbers to fight them. Someday," he said, his chin lifting and pride lighting his eyes, "we will return and drive the Dark Knights from our land and reclaim what is ours.

"But that day is not today," he continued, the light fading, darkened by shadow. "Nor is it tomorrow. We have traveled across the Plains of Dust. We would have died there but for the help of the people who call that terrible land home. We are weary and desperate. Our children look to us for comfort, and we have none to give them. We are exiles. We have nowhere to go. Humbly we come to you, who left so long ago, and humbly we ask that you take us in."

Alhana looked long at him. The tears that had burned in her eyes now slid unchecked down her cheeks.

"You weep for us," he said brokenly. "I am sorry to have brought this trouble to you."

"I weep for us all, Gilthas," Alhana said. "For the Qualinesti people, who have lost their homeland, and for the Silvanesti, who are fighting for ours. You will not find peace and sanctuary here in these forests, my poor nephew. You find us at war, battling for our very survival. You did not know this when you set out, did you?"

Gilthas shook his head.

"You know this now?" she asked.

"I know," he said. "I heard the news from the Plainspeople. I had hoped they exaggerated-"

"I doubt it. They are a people who see far and speak bluntly. I will tell you what is happening, and then you can decide if you want to join us."

Gilthas would have spoken, but Alhana raised her hand, silenced him. "Hear me out, Nephew." She hesitated a moment, underwent some inward struggle, then said, "You will hear from some of our people that my son was bewitched by this human girl, Mina, the leader of the Dark Knights. He was not the only Silvanesti to fall under her fatal spell. Our people sang songs of praise to her as she walked through the streets. She performed miracles of healing, but there was a price-not in coin but in souls. The One God wanted the souls of the elves to torment and enslave and devour. This One God is not a loving god, as some of our people mistakenly thought, but a god of deceit and vengeance and pain. Those elves who served the One God were taken away. We have no idea where. Those elves who refuse to serve the One God were killed outright or enslaved by the Dark Knights.

"The city of Silvanost is completely under the control of the Dark Knights. Their forces are not yet large enough to extend that control, and so we are able to maintain our existence here in the forests. We do what we can to fight against this dread foe, and we have saved many hundreds of our people from torture and death. We raid the prison camps and free the slaves. We harass the patrols. They fear our archers so much that no Dark Knight now dares set foot outside the city walls. All this we do, but it is not enough. We lack the forces needed to retake the city, and every day the Dark Knights add to its fortifications."

"Then our warriors will be a welcome addition," said Gilthas quietly.

Alhana lowered her eyes, shook her head. "No," she said, ashamed. "How could we ask that of you? The Silvanesti have treated you and your people with contempt and disdain all these years? How could we ask you to give your lives for our country?"

"You forget," said Gilthas, "that our people have no country. Our city lies in ruins. The same foe that rules your land rules ours." His fist clenched, his eyes flashed. "We are eager to take retribution. We will take back your land, then combine our forces to take back our own."

He leaned forward, his face alight. "Don't you see, Alhana? This may be the impetus we need to heal the old wounds, to once more unite our two nations."

"You are so young," Alhana said. "Too young to know that old wounds can fester so that the infection strikes to the very heart, turning it sick and putrid. You do not know that there are some who would see all of us fall rather than one of us rise. I tried to unite our people. I failed and this is what has come of my failure. I think it is too late. I think that nothing can save our people."

He gazed at her in consternation, clearly disturbed by her words.

Alhana rested her hand on his. "Maybe I am wrong. Perhaps your young eyes see more clearly. Bring your people into the safety of the forest. Then you must go before the Silvanesti and tell them of your plight and ask them to admit you into their lands."

"Ask them? Or do you mean beg them?" Gilthas rose, his expression cool. "We do not come before the Silvanesti as beggars." "There, you see," Alhana said sadly. "You have been infected. Already, you jump to conclusions. You should ask the Silvanesti because it is politic to ask. That is all I meant." She sighed. "We corrupt our young, and thus perishes hope for anything better."

"You are sorrowful and weary and worried for your son. When he is well, he and I- Alhana," Gilthas said, alarmed, for she had sunk down upon a cushion and begun weeping bitterly. "What is wrong? Should I call someone? One of your ladies?"

"Kiryn," Alhana said in a choked voice. "Send for Kiryn,"

Gilthas had no notion who this Kiryn was, but he ducked outside the shelter and informed one of the guards, who dispatched a runner. Gilthas went back inside the shelter, stood ill at ease, not knowing what to do or say to ease such wrenching grief.

A young elf entered the dwelling. He looked first at Alhana, who was struggling to regain her composure, then at Gilthas. Kiryn's face flushed with anger.

"Who are you? What have you said-"

"No, Kiryn!" Alhana raised her tearstained face. "He has done nothing. This is my nephew, Gilthas, Speaker of the Sun of the Qualinesti."

"I beg your pardon, Your Majesty," said Kiryn, bowing low. "I had no way of knowing. When I saw my queen-"

"I understand," said Gilthas. "Aunt Alhana, if I inadvertently said or did anything to cause you such pain-"

"Tell him, Kiryn," Alhana ordered in a tone that was low and terrible to hear. "Tell him the truth. He has a right... a need to know."

"My queen," said Kiryn, glancing at Gilthas uncertainly, "are you certain?"

Alhana closed her eyes, as if she would thankfully close them upon this world. "He has brought his people across the desert. They came to us for succor, for their capital city is destroyed, their land ravaged by the Dark Knights."

"Blessed E'li!" exclaimed Kiryn, calling, in his astonishment, upon the absent god Paladine or E'li, as the elves know him.

"Tell him," said Alhana, sitting with her face averted from them, hidden behind her hand.

Kiryn motioned Gilthas to draw near. "I tell you, Your Majesty, what only a few others know, and they have taken vows of secrecy. My cousin, Silvanoshei, is not wounded. He does not lie in his tent. He is gone."

"Gone?" Gilthas was puzzled. "Where has he gone? Has he been captured? Taken prisoner?"

"Yes," said Kiryn gravely, "but not the way you mean. He has become obsessed with a human girl, a leader of the Dark Knights called Mina. We believe that he has run off to join her."

"You believe?" Gilthas repeated. "You do not know for sure?"

Kiryn shrugged, helpless. "We know nothing for certain. We rescued him from the Dark Knights, who were going to put him to death. We were escaping into the wilderness when a magical sleep came over us. When we awoke, Silvanoshei was gone. We found the tracks of a horse's hooves. We tried to follow the hoof" prints, but they entered the Than-Thalas River, and although we searched upstream and down, we could not find any more tracks. It was as if the horse had wings."

Alhana spoke, her voice muffled. "I have sent my most trusted friend and advisor after my son, to bring him back. I have told the Silvanesti people nothing about this. I ask you to say nothing of this to anyone."

Gilthas was troubled. "I don't understand. Why do you keep his disappearance secret?"

Alhana lifted her head. Her eyes were swollen with her grief, red-rimmed. "Because the Silvanesti people have taken him to their hearts. He is their king, and they follow him, when they would not willingly follow me. All I do, I do in his name."

"You mean you make the hard decisions and face the danger, while your son, who should be sharing your burden, chases after a petticoat," Gilthas began sternly.

"Do not criticize him!" Alhana flared. "What do you know of what he has endured? This female is a witch. She has ensorcelled him. He does not know what he is doing."

"Silvanoshei was a good king until he had the misfortune to meet Mina," said Kiryn defensively. "The people came to love and respect him. He will be a good king when this spell is broken."

"I thought you should know the truth, Gilthas," Alhana said stiffly, "since you have responsibilities of your own you must bear, decisions you must make. I ask only that you do as Kiryn does, respect my wishes and say nothing of this to anyone. Pretend, as we pretend, that Silvanoshei is here with us."

Her tone was cold, her eyes beseeching. Gilthas would have given much to have been able to ease her pain, to lift her burdens. But, as she said, he bore burdens himself. He had responsibilities, and they were to his people.

"I have never yet lied to the Qualinesti, Aunt Alhana," he said, as gently as he could. "I will not start now. They left their homeland on my word, they followed me into the desert. They have given their lives and the lives of their children into my hands. They trust me, and I will not betray that trust. Not even for you, whom I love and honor."

Alhana rose to her feet, her fists clenched at her sides. "If you do this, you will destroy all that I have worked for. We might as well surrender to the Dark Knights now." Her fists unclenched, and he saw that her hands trembled. "Give me some time, Nephew. That is all I ask. My son will return soon. I know it!"

Gilthas shifted his gaze from her to Kiryn, looked long and intently at the young elf. Kiryn said nothing, but his eyes flickered. He was clearly uncomfortable.

Alhana saw Gilthas's dilemma.

"He is too kind, too polite, too mindful of my pain to speak the words that must be burning on his tongue," she said herself. "If he could, he would say to me, This is not my doing. I am not at fault. This is your son's doing. Silvanoshei has failed his people. I will not follow in those same footsteps."

Alhana was angry with Gilthas, jealous of him and proud of him, all in the same scalding moment. She envied Laurana suddenly, envied her death that brought blessed silence to the turmoil, an end to pain, an end to despair. Laurana had died a hero's death, fighting to save her people and her country. She had left behind a legacy of which she could be proud, a son she could honor.

"I tried to do what was right," Alhana said to herself in misery, "but it all has ended up so terribly wrong."

Her loved husband Porthios had vanished and was presumed to be dead. Her son, her hope for the future, had run away to leave her to face that future alone. She might tell herself he had been ensorcelled, but deep in her heart, she knew better. He was spoiled, selfish, too easily swayed by passions she had never had the heart to check. She had failed her husband, she had failed her son. Her pride refused to let her admit it.

Pride would be her downfall. Her pride had been wounded when her people turned against her. Her pride had caused her to attack the shield, to try to reenter a land that didn't want her. Now her pride forced her to lie to her people.

Samar and Kiryn had both counseled against it. Both had urged her to tell the truth, but her pride could not stomach it. Not her pride as a queen, but her pride as a mother. She had failed as a mother and now all would see that failure. She could not bear for people to regard her with pity. That, more than anything else, was the true reason she had lied.

She had hoped that Silvanoshei would come back, admit that he had been wrong, ask to be forgiven. If that had happened, she could have overlooked his downfall. She knew now after reading Samar's letter that Silvanoshei would never come back to her, not of his own free will. Samar would have to drag him back like an errant schoolboy.

She looked up to find Gilthas looking at her, his expression sympathetic, grave. In that moment, he was his father. Tanis Half-Elven had often looked at her with that same expression as she underwent some inward battle, fought against her pride.

"I will keep your secret, Aunt Alhana," Gilthas said. His voice was cool, he was clearly unhappy with what he was doing. "As long as I can."

"Thank you, Gilthas," she said, grateful and ashamed for having to be grateful. Her pride! Her damnable pride. "Sil-vanoshei will return. He will hear of our plight and come back. Perhaps he is already on his way."

She pressed her hand over her bosom, over Samar's letter that said entirely the opposite. Lying had become so easy, so very easy.

"I hope so," said Gilthas somberly.