Authors: Troy Denning
A white globe appeared in the black grotto that was the mind of King Tithian I, casting a
brilliant light over the warped spires and gloomy depths of the cave's snarled terrain.
Sable-winged bats and ebon-feathered birdsÑdark thoughts given form by his mindÑfluttered
away into murky nooks and alcoves, angrily screeching and chirping.
“I've done it!” Tithian reported.
You've done nothing until you project it,
came the answer, echoing inside the king's mind.
Tithian opened his eyes. Before him sat the disembodied heads who were tutoring him in the
elusive art of the Way. One was sallow-skinned and sunken-featured, with cracked lips that
looked like shriveled leather. The other was grotesquely bloated, with puffy cheeks and
eyes swollen to narrow, dark slits. Both wore their coarse hair in long topknots, and the
bottom of their necks had been sewn shut with thick black thread.
“Where?” Tithian asked.
Over the arena,
answered Sacha, the bloated head.
“Yes. It's time your subjects learned to fear you,” agreed Wyan, now speaking aloud.
Being careful to keep the ball glowing inside his mind, Tithian looked toward the stadium.
From his pedestal atop the roof of the Golden Tower, he could see the largest part of the
vast arena, which lay between the tower and the crumbling bricks of the previous king's
ziggurat. Instead of gladiators, the immense fighting pit now swarmed with craftsmen and
free-farmers bartering a wide variety of goods Ñthornberries, sweet lizard meats, ceramic
vessels, and knives and spoons of carved bone. They had all covered their wares with
tattered cloaks and shabby blankets, for a hot driving wind was scouring the field with
sand and dust.
At the sight of the bazaar, the king could not help recalling how the marketplace had come
to exist. At the suggestion of his boyhood friend Agis of Asticles, Tithian had written an
edict converting the stadium to a public market. When he had sent it to the Council of
Advisors for approval, Agis and his fellow councilors had removed mention of the levy the
king wished to impose for selling goods in the stadium. Without advising Tithian of what
it had done, the council had then issued the edict across the entire city. By the time the
king had seen a copy of the edict “he” had issued, the field had been filled with cheering
Agitated by the memory, Tithian's dark thoughts took to their wings and fluttered about
his mind. He pinched his eyes closed, desperately trying to brighten the light and force
the errant beasts back to their nests. It was a losing battle, for angry thoughts teemed
out of their black holes in countless numbers. They swarmed the light, shrieking and
screeching in frenzied hatred. Tithian fought back, summoning as much energy as he could.
A stream of warmth rose from deep within his body and flowed into the glowing ball.
A brilliant glow erupted from the king's eyelids and a deafening clap of thunder blasted
the Golden Tower, shaking it from the foundations to the merlons. The boom reverberated
through Tithian's chest like a drum and set his ears to ringing.
“Did I do that?” he gasped, opening his eyes again.
Sacha rolled his eyes. “We're having a storm.”
The king looked up and saw that the day had grown as dark as his mood. A black haze of
wind-borne silt hung over the city, reducing the crimson disk of the sun to a pink shadow
of itself. The billowing mass of darkness reminded Tithian of the rainstorm he had seen
ten years ago, but he knew better than to hope a downpour would quench the thirst of his
city today. The thunderclouds overhead were filled with dust, not water.
“You couldn't get a spark from striking steel, much less create a lightning bolt,” added
Wyan. “Your meditations are pathetic.”
Tithian closed his eyes again. The ball of light inside his mind had disappeared entirely.
All that remained in that black grotto was a whirl of dark thoughts.
“Don't bother trying again,” said Sacha.
“You're about to receive a messenger,” explained Wyan.
“When you hear his report, your pitiful mind will neglect the ball of light anyway,”
finished Sacha, his snarl revealing a set of broken yellow teeth.
Knowing that the malicious heads would not reveal the messenger's news even if he asked,
Tithian unfolded his aching legs and slipped his gaunt body, clothed only in a
breechcloth, off the pedestal. Regretting the laziness that had kept him from mastering
the Way of the Unseen as a youth, the king asked, “Am I really so hopeless?”
“Completely,” answered Wyan.
“Absolutely,” added Sacha.
The king grabbed his two confidants by their topknots and walked toward the edge of the
“What are you doing?” demanded Wyan.
“If I have no hope of mastering the Way, then I'll never become a sorcerer-king,” Tithian
growled. “That means I have no need of you two!” He heaved the two heads off the tower
Instead of falling into the gauzy moss-trees at the base of the palace, the heads simply
hung in the air, a dozen feet from the roof. Tithian's jaw fell slack, for he had never
seen Sacha or Wyan levitate. Still, he suspected that he should have known they would not
be destroyed so easily. The pair could not have survived a thousand years by being as
helpless as they seemed.
“Quite amusing,” said Wyan, baring his gray teeth at Tithian.
“Kalak would have gotten an axe and hacked us to pieces,” added Sacha. “You're not brutal
“That can be remedied,” Tithian warned.
Wyan returned. “You're a coward at heart.”
Before Tithian could rebut Wyan, Sacha added, “You've ruled Tyr for six months, and the
Golden Tower's treasury is emptier than when you killed Kalak!”
Tithian could not deny Sacha's charge. Instead, he spun away and looked toward the city's
bustling Merchant District. Now that the iron mine had been reopened, Tyr was once again
doing a booming mercantile business, but the Council of Advisors was using every coin of
the caravan levy to fund the pauper farms surrounding the city. Of course, that was Agis's
doingÑas were all of the programs diverting the treasures that should have been filling
the king's vault.
Reading the king's thoughts, Wyan suggested, “Assassinate him.”
Despite his past relationship with Agis, it was not friendship that made Tithian hesitate.
“That would only make things worse,” he growled. “Rikus, Neeva, and Sadira would take
Agis's place in an instant. A self-righteous noble is bad enough, but slaves ...” Letting
his sentence trail off, the king turned back to the heads and saw that they were drifting
toward the roof.
“Kill all four,” said Wyan.
“You can't believe things are that simple,” Tithian growled. “Half of Tyr saw Rikus wound
Kalak, and it's common knowledge that Agis and the others finished the task. If I execute
them, the city will rise against me.”
“I have the names
adept with poisons,” offered Wyan, his sunken eyes burning with a murderous light. “Kalak
often used them to good effect.”
“All four dying of mysterious illnesses? How stupid do you assume the citizens of Tyr to
be?” Tithian snorted. “I'll find another way.”
Tithian's chamberlain climbed onto the roof, putting an end to the debate. She was a blond
woman of statuesque proportions, with icy blue eyes and a humorless mouth. Like most of
Tithian's bureaucracy, she had been recruited from the ranks of the templars who had
previously served Kalak.
Behind the chamberlain came a haggard young man wearing dusty riding leathers. Though he
was covered with grime, Tithian could see that his clothes were well-made and his hair
neatly trimmed. He had a patrician nose and a proud jawline that was slack with amazement
at the sight of the floating heads.
“I present Taiy of Ramburt, second son to Lord Ramburt,” said the chamberlain, raising a
brow at the floating heads.
“How dare you come before us in such rags,” Sacha snarled. “And did your father not teach
you to bow before your king?”
“Kill him!” spat Wyan.
The color drained from Taiy's face. “I beg your forbearance, Honored King,” the youth
“You have itÑfor now,” Tithian replied, amused by the youth's anxiety. “Let us hope your
news justifies my patience.”
Swallowing hard, Taiy stood upright. “Honored King, I have just returned from hunting in
the Dragon's Bowl.”
“That's near Urik, is it not?” Tithian asked, scowling.
“Which is the point of my visit,” Taiy answered. “As my party was returning to the road,
we saw a great cloud of dust approaching from the horizon. When I investigated, I found an
army, complete with siege engines, a war argosy, halfling scouts, and five hundred
half-giants. They were marching under the banner of the lion that walks like a man.”
“King Hamanu's crest!” hissed Wyan.
“He's coveted our iron mines for five centuries,” added Sacha, sneering at Tithian. “How
will you defend the city? You've an empty treasure vault and no army.”
Tithian cursed, barely keeping himself from lashing out at the young noble who had brought
him this disastrous news. He would not have bothered to restrain himself, except that his
subjects credited him with Agis's endless stream of reforms, and Tithian wanted to
cultivate his reputation as a noble ruler.
Instead, Tithian bit his lips and stared out over the city. At last, a wicked smile
crossed his lips. He still had no idea of how to stop Hamanu's army, but he had bit upon a
way to remove the problem of Agis and the three slaves without resorting to Wyan's
Tithian dismissed Taiy with a wave of his hand, simultaneously addressing his chamberlain.
“Summon the freed slaves Rikus, Neeva, and Sadira, as well as Agis of Asticles.” The king
felt a pang of regret as he spoke his old friend's name, but he shrugged off the feeling
and continued with the business at hand. “Tell them the safety of Tyr hangs upon their
swift arrival in my audience chamber.”
Rikus looked down the steep slope to where his warriors waited in the shadow of the
sandstone bluff. The two thousand Tyrians stood in a quiet column, their thoughts fixed on
the coming battle. There were humans, half-elves, dwarves, half-giants, tareks, and other
races, most of them gladiators who had fought in Tyr's arena until being freed by King
Tithian's First Edict. In their hands, they carried double-bladed axes, sabers of serrated
bone, fork-headed lances, double-ended spears, and a variety of deadly arms as infinite as
man's desire to murder.
Rikus was certain they would make a fine legion.
He stood and waved his arm over his head to signal the attack. His warriors roared their
battle cries, then charged forward in a single screaming mass.
“What are you doing?” demanded Agis, stepping to Rikus's side. The noble was robust for a
man of his class, with a strong build and square, handsome features. He had long black
hair, probing brown eyes, and a straight, patrician nose. “We need a plan!”
“I have a plan,” Rikus answered simply.
He looked to the base of the hill. There, in the sandy valley, stood a single rank of
Urikite half-giants, all wearing red tunics that bore the crest of Hamanu's yellow lion.
They cradled huge battle-axes with obsidian blades, and their only pieces of armor were
bone bucklers strapped to their enormous forearms.
“Attack!” Rikus shouted.
With that, he rushed over the crest of the hill. Discovering that the sandstone slope was
too steep to descend gracefully, Rikus fell to his back and continued his drop in a
Had he been a full human, he might have reconsidered his method of descent, for only a
hemp breechcloth protected his bronzed skin from the grating surface of the sandstone. But
Rikus gave the scouring little thought. He was a mul, a human-dwarf crossbreed created to
live and die as a gladiatorial slave, and he was as inured to pain as he was to death.
From his dwarven father he had inherited a heavy-boned face of rugged features, pointed
ears set close to the head, and a powerful physique that seemed nothing but knotted sinew
and thick bone. His human mother had bestowed upon him a proud straight nose, a balance of
limb and body that made him handsome by the standards of either race, and a supple,
six-foot frame as agile as that of an elven rope dancer.
Rikus had descended only a few feet before Neeva, his long-time fighting partner, slid
into place at his side. Although a full human, she was protected from the abrasive stone
by the lizard-scale cloak she wore to protect her fair skin from the sun. In her hands the
big blond held a steel battle-axe nearly as large as those carried by the half-giants
below. Most women could not have lifted the weapon, but Neeva was almost as heavily
muscled as Rikus and, as a freed gladiator, more than capable of swinging the mighty
blade. Despite her powerful build, she retained a distinctly feminine figure, full red
lips, and eyes as green as emeralds.
“Our legion is outsized five times over!” she exclaimed.
Rikus knew that she referred not to the hundreds of half-giants directly below, but to the
thousands of Urikite regulars in the valley beyond. The long column of soldiers was
already past the point of the Tyrian attack and was continuing onward at a steady pace,
relying on the half-giants to protect their rear. Following close behind the regulars came
dozens of siege engines, carried on the backs of massive war-lizards called driks. The
rear of the long file was brought up by the lumbering mass of an argosy, a mammoth
fortress-wagon full of weapons, supplies, and water.
Her eyes fixed on the long procession, Neeva demanded, “What can you be thinking?”
“One Tyrian gladiator is worth five Urikite soldiers,” Rikus responded, fixing his gaze on
the half-giants below. The huge soldiers were cradling their battle-axes and glaring
defiantly toward the side of the bluff, where the Tyrian mob now approached in a tumult of
wild screams. “Besides, this is the king's doing, not mine. Tithian's the one who would
give me only two-thousand warriors.”