Sunset in the Kreegills: a fireball impaled on a jagged black peak, the western horizon ablaze with sorcery's lurid colors, and, finally, stars, one by one, crisper and brighter than they were above the dusty plains.
Hamanu held out his hand and gathered a pool of starlight in his palm. He played with the light as a child—or a dancer—might play, weaving luminous silver strands through moving fingers. In his mind, he heard a reed-pipe melody that lulled all his other thoughts, other concerns and memories. Alone and at peace, he forgot who he was, until he heard Windreaver's voice.
"The world stretches far beyond the heartland. There are lush forests beyond the Ringing Mountains and who-knows-what on the far shores of the Silt Sea. Wonders lie just over that horizon," the ghostly troll said, as if they were two old merchants in search of new markets.
"Leave Urik to its fate? Without me?"
"You chose Urik as your destiny. But you're Hamanu; you are your own destiny. You've always been. You can choose somewhere, something else."
Hamanu thought of the leonine giant he'd seen guarding the Black and the Hollow beneath it. "Hamanu is Urik." He let the starlight dribble off the back of his hand. "If I went somewhere else, I'd leave too much behind. I'd leave myself behind."
"What of yourself, Hamanu? Borys is dead. The War-Bringer's prison cannot hold him. If you can believe what he said—if—there's nothing you can do to save Urik. If he's lying—as he usually does—then what do the champions of humanity do next? Whose fear is stronger than his greed? Which one of you will become the next great dragon and burn the heartland for an age? There is no other way."
"There must be. There will be!" Hamanu's shout echoed off the mountain walls. A cloud of pale steam hovered in the air where his voice had been. "I will find a way for Urik to survive in a world without dragons and without Rajaat."
Windreaver merged with the fading mist. "You won't find it here. The Kreegills have been dead for a thousand years. They have no answers for you, Hamanu. Forget the past. Forget this place. Forget Deche and the Kreegills, your woman and me. Think of the future. Think of another woman, Sadira of Tyr. Rajaat had a hand in making her, true, and he's used her, made a fool of her and you. But she's no champion. Her metamorphosis begins each day at dawn and unravels at sundown. She's not immortal. She's not bound to the Dark Lens. She's not like you, Hamanu, not at all, but her spells hold; by day, they hold. Find a way to make them hold at night, and maybe you'll have an Athas without either dragons or the War-Bringer."
Sadira of Tyr was a beautiful woman, though the Lion-King was ages past the time when aesthetics influenced his judgment, and he'd shed Rajaat's prejudices against humanity's cousins long before that. Elves, dwarves, even trolls and races Rajaat had never imagined, they were all human under their skin. There were no misfits, no outcasts, no malformed spirits made manifest in flesh; there was only humanity, individual humans in their infinite variety. He was human, and he would not despise himself. That was Rajaat's flaw—one of many. Rajaat despised himself, and from that self-hatred he conceived the Cleansing Wars and champions.
Rajaat's madness had nothing to do with Hamanu's opinion of Sadira. "She's a dangerous fool." Or her council-ruled city. "They're all fools."
"So were you, once. She'll never learn otherwise with fools for teachers, will she? You've got three days, Hamanu. That's a lot, if you use it properly."
Windreaver was gone before Hamanu concocted a suitable reply. He could have called the troll back. Windreaver came and went on the Lion-King's sufferance; his freedom was as illusory as Hamanu's tawny, black-haired humanity. When his master wanted him, his slave came from whatever place he was, however far away.
Hamanu thought Windreaver traveled through the netherworld, but the troll was never apparent there. Like the mist from Hamanu's voice, Windreaver might still hover, invisible and undetectable, in the ancient troll ruins. He might have remained there after Hamanu slit the Gray and strode from the mountain valley down to the plains northwest of Urik.
The Lion of Urik knew the way to Tyr, the oldest city in the heartland. Kalak, Tyr's now-dead king, had been an immortal before the Cleansing Wars began. Unlike Dregoth, Kalak had spurned Rajaat's offers and never become a champion, though in the chaos after Borys's transformation, he'd found what remained of Sacha Arala and Wyan.
The Tyrant of Tyr had suborned the mindless heads, replacing their champions' memories with demeaning fictions. He convinced them that he, not they, was the source of the Dark Lens magic Tyr's templars wielded at home and in Kalak's endless wars with his champion neighbors.
If he'd tried, Hamanu might have pitied the Pixie-Blight and Curse of Kobolds, but he'd never tried. The traitors had served Urik's interest because Tyr's purview controlled the heartland's sole reliable ironworks, as Urik controlled the vast obsidian deposits near the Smoking Crown volcano. With the traitors' Dark Lens magic, Tyr controlled its treasures just well enough to keep the mines and smelters from falling into a true champion's hands.
Hamanu wouldn't have tolerated that, and the other champions wouldn't have tolerated a Urik that controlled both obsidian and iron. They'd have united against him, as they did now, but in greater number, and with Borys leading them. For thirteen ages, the Lion-King had supported the Tyrian Tyrant more often than he'd warred with him, until the doddering fool thought he could become a dragon to rival Borys.
Fifteen years ago, that had been the single act of monumental foolishness that brought Hamanu to this morning on the Iron Road. In the guise of a shabby, down-on-his-luck merchant, the king of Urik walked slowly through the morning chill asking other merchants—
"Which way to the old Asticles estate?" which was where, according to his spies, the sorceress maintained a household of former rebels and former slaves.
They pointed him toward a hardpan track that wound through estates, farms, and irrigated fields. Guthay had worn her rings above the entire heartland, not just Urik. Tyr's fields were lush and green, though not as tall as Urik's. The unwieldy Council of Advisors hadn't summoned levies to protect their established fields or take advantage of Guthay's bounty. The Tyrian farmers had simply waited until their fields were nearly dry before they planted. Tyr would reap a good harvest, but nothing like the one Urik's farmers hoped to bring in... if there was a Urik, four days from now.
Despite two thousand years of rule, Kalak had never understood that a city's might wasn't measured by the size of its armies or the magnificence of its palaces, but in the labor of its farmers. In a good year, Tyr could feed herself; in a bad one, she bought grain from Urik or Nibenay.
Kalak had been a man of limited vision and imagination. In Urik, there were free folk and freed folk as well as slaves; guild artisans and free artisans; nobles who lived on estates outside the city walls and nobles who lived like merchants near the market squares. In Urik, a man or woman of any station could find outlets for enterprise and ambition. In Tyr, folk were either free, rich, and noble, or enslaved, poor, and very common. For two thousand years, ambition had. been a criminal offense.
The rebels of Tyr, whose recklessness had turned the heartland on its ear could, perhaps, be forgiven for thinking that slavery was the cause of all their problems. It was easier to identify abused slaves and set them free than it was to resurrect a dynamic society from stagnation. At least, the council-ruled city hadn't succumbed to rampant anarchy as Raam or Draj had done since the demise of their champion kings and queens.
Sadira and her companions had shown themselves capable of learning. Perhaps Windreaver was right and Tyr was the heartland's future.
Hamanu left the hardpan track. He approached a gate guarded by two women and a passel of children, who could not have kept him out even if he'd been no more than the peddler he appeared to be. Indeed, the Lion-King's problem wasn't getting onto the estate, but escaping the curious women who wanted to examine his nonexistent wares. Realizing that curiosity might be worse at the estate-house, Hamanu scooped up a handful of dried grass and pebbles as he walked away from the gate.
"For your mistress's delight," he explained as he displayed the dross to the door-steward.
With only a tiny suggestion bending through in his mind—not enough to rouse anyone's suspicions—the steward saw a handful of whatever the steward imagined would -please Sadira this deceptively unremarkable morning.
The steward chuckled and rubbed his hands together. "Follow me, good man. I'm sure she'll want some for both Rikus and Rkard."
Hamanu wondered what the man had seen, but kept his wondering to himself as the steward led him through a series of corridors and courtyards to a small, elegant chamber where—by the bittersweet flavor of the air—Sadira of Tyr was in the midst of a melancholy daydream.
No need for you to remain. Hamanu put the thought in the steward's mind. I'll introduce myself to your mistress.
When the steward was out of sight in the next corridor, Hamanu erased his entire presence from the mortal's memory. Then he crossed the threshold into Sadira's chamber.
"Dear lady—?" He interrupted her as gently, as unmagically as he could, though aside from his simple peddler's illusion, he'd done nothing to disguise himself, and Sadira should recognize him instantly.
She did. "Hamanu!"
"No cause for alarm, dear lady," he said quickly, holding his hands palms-up, though, like her, he didn't need conventional gestures, conventional sources to quicken his sorcery. "I've come to talk—"
Before Hamanu could say anything more to reassure her, the sorceress quickened a spell. It erupted faster than thought, and whatever its intended purpose, its sole effect was to destroy completely the little pebble Hamanu cached between the black bones of his left forearm.
A smoking gap formed in Hamanu's peddler illusion. Hot, viscous blood dripped onto the floor, corroding the delicate mosaic. The physical pain was intense, but it paled beside the heart-stopping shock as greasy smoke began to flow from the wound. Hamanu clapped his right hand over the gap. The smoke seeped around his fingers. Windreaver took shape in the smoke.
"We come to the end of the trolls at last."
"No." A soft, impotent denial. "Let go of the past, Hamanu. It's time."
"Leave it be, Hamanu," Windreaver cautioned, and laid a faintly warm, faintly tangible hand over the Lion-King's wounded arm. "I know your ways. You think this is no accident. You think this is my vengeance. It's not. Thirteen ages is too long to think of vengeance, Hamanu. We've fought the past long enough. Think of the future." The troll's smoky fingers began to collapse. "I'll wait for you, Manu of Deche. I'll prepare a place beside me, where the stone is young..."
Four greasy streaks of soot on Hamanu's arm and a larger splotch on the floor were all the remained of the last and greatest commander of the once-great race known as trolls.
Sadira rose from her stool. Her foot came down beside the stain.
"Stay back!" Hamanu warned.
The power of death was inside him, and the will to use it She lived because Windreaver wished her to live. Hamanu would honor the last troll's wish—if he could. And if he couldn't let her live, then he'd live with the consequences, as he'd lived with all his other consequences.
Sadira sensed her danger and retreated. "What—" she began, then corrected herself. "Who was that? Another dragon?"
It was an almost-honest question. The half-elf had no notion of trolls or the Troll-Scorcher. Her experience bound Hamanu with dragons instead. He collected his wits and tried to speak, but it was too soon.
Sadira mistook his silence. "Did you think that you could come in here and work your foul sorcery on me?" she asked with all the arrogance that Rajaat's sorcery could breed in a sorcerer's mind. "I know how to destroy dragons. Kalak, Rajaat, Borys, you—you're all alike. You destroy my world. Athas won't be safe until every dragon's dead."
Hamanu's tangled emotions snapped free. The rage that killed with a thought vanished like a cool breeze at midday. Grief and mourning were set aside for the moment when he'd be alone—very alone. He forgot, in large part, why he'd come, and that Rajaat's promised doom hung over his city. What remained was the capriciousness, the cruelty that fully deserved the hatred the half-elf directed at him.
She was a fool, and he intended to enjoy proving it to her.
"You know very little, Sadira of Tyr, if you don't know the difference between Kalak and Borys, Borys and Rajaat, Rajaat and me."
"There is no difference. You're all the same. All evil. All life-sucking defilers," she insisted. "I know you get your magic from the Dark Lens. I know you'd enslave all Athas if no one stood against you. I know all the lies, you told me that day in Ur Draxa when Rkard bested Rajaat. You were children rebelling against your father, but the only reason you rebelled was envy. You wanted his power for yourselves. What more do I need to know?"
"You need to know that every dragon is different and that Rajaat created dragons when he created sorcery and that was long before he created champions to wage his Cleansing Wars. You need to know that if a sorcerer lives long enough to master the secrets of the Unseen netherworld, then that immortal sorcerer will change into a dragon—but not a dragon like Borys. Borys wasn't a sorcerer when he became a dragon; he was a champion. Rajaat shaped his champions out of human clay in his white tower. He bathed them in a black-water pool and stood them in a Crystal Steeple beneath the Dark Lens. The dragon is a part of a champion's nature—a large part, an inevitable part—but not the only part, or the most powerful part."
"Anything else?" Sadira asked, feigning disinterest.
She feigned disinterest because she owed her sooty armor and shadow magic to an immersion in that black-water pool and to spells cast in the Crystal Steeple. Her inner thoughts betrayed a deep concern about the powers she used so freely. The Dark Lens hadn't been in its proper place when the shadowfolk transformed her. Rajaat hadn't been there, either, but the shadowfolk were Rajaat's minions, and they'd acted on his orders. Sadira had reason to be worried,
Hamanu savored her worry. "Borys was a champion. I was Rajaat's last champion of the Cleansing Wars. Kalak wasn't a champion—" Hamanu began.
"Sacha Arala and Wyan were Kalak's champions—fools and traitors, too. They gave Tyr's templars their spells. They could have done the same for anyone—especially after Tithian found the Dark Lens."
"Tithian," Sadira sighed. In Tyr, the conversation always came back to Tithian.
"Tithian wanted it all: Rajaat's spells, the pool, the tower, the Dark Lens. He didn't think about dragons. He thought he wanted to be a sorcerer-king, but what he truly wanted to be was a champion."
"Would he—" the sorceress succumbed to her own curiosity. "Would Rajaat have made Tithian into something like you or Borys? The way Rajaat was hunting and killing sorcerer-kings, I wouldn't think he'd ever make another champion."
The trap was set, the prey was sniffing at the bait, all that remained was a little tug on the trip-cord. "Rajaat already had his next creation: something better than an immortal champion who'd slip from his control. His minions had already shaped her in his tower—with his permission, of course. They couldn't have worked magic there otherwise. She can't draw on the Dark Lens, can't channel its power to her friends, because it wasn't there when she was made. And, being mortal when she was made, she won't survive long enough to become a dragon. But she'll serve his purposes; she already has—"
Sadira boiled off her stool. The shadow-stuff that cloaked her skin when the bloody sun was above the horizon came alive with the sorcery she intended to hurl at him. But Rajaat's last champion—his last true champion-sprang his trap. Pursing his lips, Hamanu inhaled through his mouth. A thin stream of shadow-stuff whirled from her to him, and, to Sadira's wide-eyed horror, she couldn't stop it.
"There are," Hamanu explained when she was mortally pale and shaken, "a few things you don't know about yourself."
He shed what remained of his peddlar's illusion and became his favorite self: the tawny-skinned man with flowing black hair. There was just a hint of sulphur in his eyes. The shadow-stuff he'd stolen flowed in serpentine streams along his limbs.
Sadira tried to cast an ordinary spell the ordinary way Hamanu wagged a finger, and she was cut off from everything except herself. A dragon could quicken spells from the life essence he, or she, hoarded inside; a mortal sorcerer didn't have the essence to spare. Sadira wrapped her arms beneath her breasts.
"Why have you come? Why have you come now, today? You could have killed me anytime."
"Not to kill you, dear lady. I came to talk to you, but you weren't listening and, because of that, no one will ever see a troll—the silver shadow of a troll—again."
The words of an apology swirled the surface of Sadira's thoughts. She swallowed them without speaking them, which was wise, because the apology wouldn't have been sincere. She didn't care about trolls; she especially didn't care about Hamanu's loss. "Talk to me," she said instead, her thoughts a mixture of fear and defiance.
"We'll talk about sorcery. It must be quickened. You know that—" Hamanu stirred Sadira's memories. "You learned when you were twelve, when Ktandeo of the Veil came to—" he stirred deeper and found the name—"the Mericles estate, Tithian's estate—"
Hamanu's eyebrow rose. He hadn't suspected an older connection between the sorceress and the usurper, between a slave and her master.
Sadira squirmed on her stool. She froze when he smiled. Her mind conjured images of her fears; the fears women naturally and needlessly had in his presence. Foolish fears: the Lion-King hadn't raped a woman since Borys became the Dragon of Tyr.
"I'm not here for that," he said wearily. "From Ktandeo, you learned to steal the life essence from plants for your sorcery. Then you learned that with obsidian between you and your spell, you could steal the essence from any living thing. The Dark Lens is a sort of obsidian, dear lady, a very special sort: it steals from the sun, the source of all life. I don't know where Rajaat found it, but he didn't make it. He used it to make his champions, but mostly he was looking for a way to steal directly from the sun, as you first learned to steal directly from plants."
"The War-Bringer had found a way well before that." Hamanu held out his arm. The shadows had ceased writhing and were spreading a sooty pall across his tawny skin. "But his way was independent, contrary. He rebelled, refused his destiny. Because of him, all the champions rebelled and sealed Rajaat beneath the Black. For ages Rajaat had explored the sun and light; in the Hollow, he studied dark and shadow. That's when he made the shadowfolk and the shadowfolk made you. But one thing is always true, whatever Rajaat does, his sorcery exacts a price. Each time you resort to the gifts Rajaat's shadowfolk gave you, whether to quicken your spells or save a life, you slip deeper into Rajaat's destiny."
Sadira rose. She stood in the hot sunlight streaming through the open window. Her thoughts moved far below the surface of her mind. Hamanu left them alone. If the sorceress was cold, the light would warm her. If she thought her shadow-gifts would be restored, she'd be sorely disappointed. They'd be back tomorrow, and not one sunbeam sooner.
"I would know," she said, too softly for mortal ears to overhear, but loud enough for the Lion-King. "I would know if I was one of them. It can't be true. Hamanu is the liar, the deceiver."
Silently, Hamanu came up behind her and laid his hands gently on her shoulders. She shuddered as thoughts of resistance rose, then fell, in her consciousness.
"Dear lady, I have neither need nor reason to deceive you. The War-Bringer's sorcery lives within you as it lives within me. It makes patterns of light and shadow across our thoughts. We deceive ourselves." For a fleeting moment, the lava lake was foremost in his thoughts. "We've deceived each other—"
Sadira cut him short. "I'm not like you. I went to the Pristine Tower because the Dragon had to be destroyed and the shadowfolk could give me the power to destroy him."
The lake was gone; the cruel need to make her suffer for Windreaver's loss had returned. "Rajaat's shadowfolk. Rajaat's shadowfolk helped you because Borys was the key to Rajaat's prison. Once you destroyed Borys, Rajaat was free—"
"Tithian freed Rajaat! Tithian had the Dark Lens."
"Tithian was aided by the same shadowfolk who took you to the Crystal Steeple."
"I fought Rajaat. He would have killed me if Rkard hadn't used the sun and the Dark Lens together against him. I cast the spells that put him back beneath the Black. I put his bones and the Dark Lens at the bottom of a lake of molten rock, where no one can retrieve them. How can you dare say that I'm Rajaat's creation, that I serve him!"
Hamanu amused himself with her hair. Like Manu so many ages ago, Sadira had all the pieces in her hand, but she couldn't see the pattern. Unlike Manu, she had someone older and wiser who would make the pattern for her. And he would show it to her, without mercy.
"Dear lady—what is obsidian?"
"Black glass. Shards of sharp black glass mined by slaves in Urik."
"And before it was black glass?" Hamanu ignored her predictable provocations.
She didn't know, so he told her—
"Obsidian is lava, dear lady. Molten rock. When lava cools very fast it becomes obsidian. You, dear lady—as you said—put Rajaat's bones and the Dark Lens in a lava lake. Have you felt the Black, dear lady? It's so very cold, and Rajaat, dear lady, is both beneath the Black and at the bottom of a lava lake. Think of the Dark Lens sealed in an obsidian mountain. Think of Rajaat—or Tithian, if you'd rather—quickening a spell."
"No," Sadira whispered. She would have collapsed if his hands hadn't been there to support her. "No, my spells bind them."
"Have you returned to Ur Draxa recently?" Hamanu thrust an image of the fog-bound lake into Sadira's consciousness. "Your spells weaken each night." Her pulse slowed until it and the sullen red crevasses of the image throbbed in unison. "Rajaat is a shadow of what he was, but with the War-Bringer, shadow is essence. Tithian serves him as Sacha Arala once served him, so blinded by his own arrogance that he doesn't know he's a fool. A foolish enemy is sometimes the most dangerous enemy of all—"
Sadira writhed against the hands supporting her shoulders. Hamanu let her go. She reeled and stumbled her way to the window ledge where she crumpled into a small parcel of misery and fear. Her eyes and mouth were open wide. Her fingers fluttered against her voiceless throat.
"I had to know," he explained. "I had to know what you're capable of."
Hamanu already knew what he was capable of—not merely the sundering of a woman's mind, but the planting of a thousand years of memories of Windreaver. Hamanu had seen to it that Windreaver wouldn't be forgotten by the woman whose spell had both freed him and—in the Lion-King's eyes—destroyed him. Whenever Sadira remembered, she'd remember the troll commander. It was rough justice: the Lion-King's sort of justice, and no real justice at all, only guilt and grief.
Sadira's hair fell over her face as she struggled against Hamanu's spell. Locks of red tangled in her fingers. She gasped, a rattling spasm that left her limp against the wall. Still, it had been a sound. The Lion-King's sorcery was fading.
"There's nothing to fear. No need to scream. You are Rajaat's creation, but you don't serve him willingly."
Sadira swept her hair back from her face. Her eyes were baleful, belying Hamanu's words. "I would die first," she whispered. "I'm not Rajaat's creation. I put his bones and the Dark Lens where I thought they'd be sealed away forever. If you knew otherwise, then you're to blame. I did what I thought was right. If I was wrong..." She shook her head and stared at the floor. "Kill me and be done with it."
"I'm not here for that. I have been to the lava lake and now I've come here for your help. In three—"
She laughed, a rasping sound that clearly hurt and left her gagging as she pushed herself to her feet. "Help? Me help you? You must—"
Sadira winced. Her eyes were drawn to the sooty stain that marked Windreaver's passage. She'd encountered a memory that wasn't hers. With a cold sweat blooming on her already pallid face, Sadira once again needed the wall to support her. Hamanu skimmed her thoughts. What he found was Deche, not Windreaver; Dorean as she was after the trolls finished with her.
Hamanu was an expert at the deceptive mind-bending art of suggestion and false memory. He didn't make many mistakes; he removed them if he had. But his memory of Dorean resonated through Sadira's mind faster than he could remove it. The image, fixed and frozen, had become an inextricable part of the half-elf's experience. As a memory, it was no longer false.
"Who was she?"
There'd be no apologies or explanations, no pleas for understanding or compassion; such notions had no place in Hamanu's life. "Call her Dorean. She was... would have been my wife." He wrenched himself away from the memory they shared. It was difficult, but he was the Lion-King. "And I have been a fool. Rajaat must not escape," he said as if Dorean weren't still bleeding in his mind. "Last time we needed a dragon. This time—"
"A dragon? Is that why you're here? You want me to help you replace Borys. You're no different than Tithian—"
"I'm very different than Tithian or Borys, dear lady. I want to preserve and protect my city and yours. I want—I need—to find a way to keep Rajaat in his prison that doesn't require me—or anyone else—replacing the Dragon of Tyr. I needed to be certain that we agreed—"
"We agree about nothing!" Sadira shouted, then she winced again. Another false memory.
Hamanu didn't skim the image from her mind. Whether she beheld Windreaver or another horror from his own past, he saw that he'd blundered badly when he'd hammered his memories into hers. He shouldn't have done it, and wouldn't have, if he hadn't strangled his rage after she cast her spell. His rage would have killed her, if Windreaver hadn't wished otherwise.
"I have made a mistake. I took a friend's—" He stopped short: friends, that was the greatest mistake of all. Rajaat's champions weren't friends, not toward themselves or anyone, and they didn't attract the friendship of others. "Your spells are failing, dear lady. Rajaat's essence is loose in the world. He says that Nibenay and Gulg and Giustenal dance to his tune. He says they'll destroy the world we know in three days' time. He lies, dear lady. The War-Bringer lies. I'll repair your spells, or replace them. I'll set them right, as they must be set right. You needn't fear—"
"Need not fear what?" she demanded. "You'll set my spells right? You can't make anything right—"
"Woman!" Hamanu shouted. "Curb your tongue, if you value your life!"
Sadira wasn't interested in his warnings. "I've seen how you set everything right for Dorean!"
Hamanu didn't need mind-bending to sense the invective brewing on the back of her tongue. Sadira had a champion's knack for cruelty. He'd given her the measure of his weakness, and she would grind salt in the wound until it killed her—and who knew how many others? Hamanu heard gongs clanging everywhere and pounding footfalls racing closer. Between screams and shouts, half the estate knew the sorceress was locked in a dangerous argument.
The human glamour faded from Hamanu's hand. Black talons absorbed the sunlight as he raised them between himself and Sadira's face. A threatening gesture, for certain—but threat and gesture only: he intended to slash an opening into the netherworld and leave this place before he had even more to regret.
Sadira responded with a head-down lunge at his midsection. Regardless of illusion, the Lion-King carried the weight and strength of his true, metamorphic self. Sadira's attack accomplished nothing—except to increase his anger and confusion. He backhanded her, mildly by a champion's standards, but hard enough to fling her across the room. She hit the doorjamb headfirst, loosening plaster from the walls and ceiling. Her head lolled forward.
Stunned, Hamanu told himself, as he strained his ears, listening for the sound of her heart. Her heart skipped, and her breathing was shallow. A single stride, and he was on one knee beside her. Illusion was restored as he pressed human fingertips against her neck. He found her pulse and steadied it.
"Get away from her!"
With his concentration narrowed, Hamanu hadn't sensed anyone in the doorway until he heard a young man's voice, which he ignored. He hadn't come to the Asticles estate to kill anyone; he wasn't leaving until Sadira was on her feet and cursing him again.
"I said: Get away from her!"
Hamanu felt the air move as a fist was cocked. The blow struck his temple, doing no more damage than Sadira's whole body lunge had done. He raised his head and saw a human-dwarf mul in the doorway.
"I know you," he muttered.
The Lion-King wasn't good when it came to putting children together with their proper identities, and the mul, cocking his fist for another try, was still several years short of maturity. Children were changeable, both in their bodies and their thoughts, but there were only two muls Hamanu associated with Sadira. One was Rikus, who was old enough to know better when he'd led a cohort of Tyrian gladiators in a foolish assault against Urik over ten years ago. The other had been a half-grown boy when he wielded the sun spell that had separated Rajaat's essence from the substance of his shadow.
"Rkard," Hamanu said, flushing the name of Borys's ancient enemy out of his memory. "Rkard, go away. There's nothing for you to do here."
The youth blinked and lowered his fist. Confusion wrinkled his handsome face. It seemed, for a moment, that he'd simply do as he'd been told. But that moment passed, and he laid his hand rudely on Hamanu's shoulder.
Hamanu lowered the sorceress gently to the floor. She, Rikus, and the rest of the Tyrian hotheads had raised the young man staring intently at him. He had a fair idea what was going to happen once Rkard recognized him.
"Rkard, don't do it."
The warning came too late. Three separate streams of fire, one orange, one gold, and the third the same color as the sun, grew out of the young mul's sun-scarred hands. As Rkard cried out—sun magic exacted a fearsome price on its initiates—the fire-streams braided together and bridged the gap between them.
Hamanu cried out as well. The sun's power was real. His flesh burned within his illusion, but it could burn for a long time before he'd be seriously injured. Hamanu could have brushed the sun-spell aside but, almost certainly, it would have gone to ground in Sadira's defenseless flesh.
He tried to reason with the mul and got no further than his name, "Rkard—"
Rkard howled again as he evoked greater power from his element. The braided flames became brighter, hotter. Hamanu's illusion wavered in the heat; he ceased to resemble a human man. He retreated toward the open window. The mul followed, a smile—a foolish, ignorant smile— twisting his lips.
"Let it go, Rkard, before someone gets hurt."
The mul couldn't talk while he cast his sun-spell. He let his hands speak for him, clenching his fists until the tricolored flame was a white-hot spear impaling a tawny-skinned human man against a wall.
Hamanu closed his eyes. A thousand years evaporated in the heat. In his mind, he was a man again, with his back to a mekillot rib as Myron Troll-Scorcher assailed him with the eyes of fire, only now he could fight back. The sun behind him and the shadow at his feet were both his to command. All he had to do was open his eyes and his tormentor would be ash.
Hamanu did open his eyes but, rather than quicken any of the myriad destructive sorceries lurking in his memory, he thrust his hand into Rkard's incendiary sun-spell, then closed his fingers around it. The white fire consumed his illusion. To keep his fist where it needed to remain, Hamanu folded his spindly, metamorph's legs beneath him. He hunched his shoulders and crooked his neck. All the while, the bloody sun's might was held captive in the Lion-King's fist.
Hamanu squeezed tighter. He transcended pain and found triumph where he least expected it.
The spells of sorcery, the formulas of the magic that Rajaat had discovered, mastered, and bequeathed to Athas before he decided to cleanse it, had to be quickened before they could be cast. Something had to be sacrificed before sorcery kept its promise. The dilemma facing any sorcerer, from the most self-righteous member of the Veiled Alliance to Rajaat's last champion, was—at its simplest—what to destroy?
Preservers strove to limit the sacrifice by extracting a few motes of life's essence from many sources, destroying none of them; defilers didn't care. Those who could used obsidian to quicken their spells with the essences of animals as well as plants. Champions could hoard the life essence of the dead. A few—Hamanu, Sadira, and Rajaat's shadow-minions—quickened spells by transforming sunlight, the ultimate essence of all life, into shadow.
The Dark Lens intensified a spell after it was cast, but no sorcerer—including Hamanu and Sadira—could use the Dark Lens as Rkard had used it against Rajaat: focusing the bloody sun's light first inside the Lens, then letting it out again, letting it consume the War-Bringer's shadow. And not even Rkard could duplicate that uncanny feat: Sadira had buried the Lens and Rajaat had almost certainly found a better hiding place for his own life essence than his shadow.
But when he seized the white-hot stream and contained Rkard's sun-spell within his fist, Hamanu found that the young mul was a living lens who concentrated the sun's quickening energy before a spell was cast. With Rkard beside him, Hamanu could seal Rajaat's bones and the Dark Lens in a cyst the size of a mountain. He could counter anything his fellow champions threw at Urik, be it spells or armies of the living or the undead. And, for the first time in a thousand years, Hamanu thought it might be possible to thwart a champion's metamorphosis.
Hamanu appealed to the mul with thought and words,
"The sun is stronger than both of us, Rkard. Together, we can forge spells that mill imprison Rajaat forever, but only if you relent now. Persist, and the sun will destroy you long before it destroys me. Save yourself, Rkard—"
"Never! Betrayer! Deceiver! You die first, or we die together and forever."
Hamanu remembered himself on the dusty plain, a young man consumed by hate and purpose. He opened his fist. The sun-spell engulfed his arm; the obscene bliss of the eyes of fire threatened to overwhelm him. He remade his fist; the threat receded but didn't disappear.
Sunlight, Hamanu thought. Blocking the sun and casting his own shadow over Rkard might break the spell. He straightened his legs, bursting the room's walls and ceiling.
Somewhere outside the white fire, a woman screamed.
Still catching the sun-spell in his fist, Hamanu edged sideways. Rkard collapsed when the fringe of the champion's shadow touched him. The white fire darkened to pale yellow; tiny flames danced on the youth's arms. While Hamanu hesitated, Rkard wrenched free of shadow. The sun-spell whitened. The youth would not relent—no more than Manu would have relented a thousand years ago.
Hamanu's short-lived dreams crumbled: the chance of finding another young mul already hardened to the bloody sun's merciless might—of finding one in time—was incalculably remote. He prepared to take the larger step that would center his black shadow over Rkard and his spell.
The woman screamed again, this time the mul's name, "Rkard!"
A red-haired streak shot through Hamanu's shadow. It wrapped itself around the enthralled youth and heaved him sideways. The spell broke free, a diminutive sun hovering an arm's length above the mosaic. In a heartbeat, it had begun to strengthen. In another, Hamanu had thrown himself on top of it. The ground shuddered. For an instant, Hamanu was freed from his black-boned body. Then the instant was gone, and he was himself again, reforming the flawless illusion of a tawny-skinned man.
Sadira cradled the mul's head and shoulders in her lap. He was exhausted, unable to speak or move, but otherwise unmarked, unhurt. Hamanu's spirits soared.
"It could be done! We could do it. We could go to Ur Draxa and repair your ward-spells. We could save Urik. Together nothing could stand against—"
The sorceress's eyes narrowed. She wrapped her arms protectively over Rkard. "Stand with you?" Her expression said the rest: I'll kill him myself before I let that happen.
Hamanu tried to explain what had happened when Rkard's sun-spell struck him. Sadira listened; he perceived the spirals of her thoughts as she considered everything he said, but none of her conclusions included helping a champion save his city.
"I took the sun-spell inside, into my heart and spirit. Your shadow-sorcery doesn't go that deep," he warned. "You'd be consumed."
"So you say, but I don't believe you. Dragons lie, and you're a dragon. You'd deceive us and betray us. While even one of your kind exists, Athas can never be free."
"Free," Hamanu muttered. He had a thousand arguments against such foolishness, and none of them would sway her. Better to let her learn the hard way, though she wouldn't survive the lesson, and there was no guarantee Rkard would cooperate afterward. "For Athas, then, and your precious freedom—go carefully to Ur Draxa, look at what's happened to the lake where you sealed Rajaat's bones beside the Dark Lens. Look, then come to Urik at dawn, three days from now. I'll be waiting for you."