FIFTY-THREE

THE GROUND rumbled and trembled under their feet, and the crowd in the temple yard screamed in terror as the ground shifted, cracking paving stones and tearing great gaping rents in the earth. The crevice which had opened beneath the broken altar spread toward the temple. Heedless of all else, Quentin flew to the temple steps shouting, “Theido! Ronsard! Hurry!” He reached Toli’s body, now crumpled upon the steps, and bent over it, plucking the cruel dagger from his chest and flinging it away.

From above him on the steps there came a rattling laughter. He glanced up and saw Nimrood standing over them, his head thrown back, the hateful sound bubbling up from his throat like the shriek of a carrion crow. Ronsard reached Quentin first. “Take Toli to safety,” the King ordered. He leaped to his feet and flew up the temple steps.

“Sire! Come back! It is falling!” cried the knight The fissure in the earth had now reached the steps and split them. The air trembled with the sound of churning earth and shattering stone. Roof tiles rained down, smashing on the flagging. The pillars swayed dangerously as the lintels cracked and gave way, sending huge chunks of stone careening downward. Quentin scrambled up the heaving steps, the sword bright in his hand. Nimrood saw him and screeched, “Stay back!” He whirled away and Quentin raced after him, catching the sorcerer by a trailing edge of his priest’s robe.

“Ach!” Nimrood fought to free himself from the robes, but only entangled himself further. Quentin held on with all his might and yanked, jerking the wizard off his feet. Desperately the old sorcerer writhed, squirming on the tilting floor like a snake. “Save me!” he hissed. “I will do anything-anything you ask. I can give you wealth, bring you glory! I will destroy your enemies! Save me!”

The blade flashed in Quentin’s hand, and the Shining One sang in the air, descending in a deadly arc, striking down upon the sorcerer’s neck. With one last shriek he fell back into a shriveled heap and lay still. Nimrood the Necromancer was dead.

Now stones and brickwork tumbled, and the pillars groaned as pieces of the roof caved in. Quentin could hear the thunderous roar as the heavy stone slabs collapsed, and the foundation beneath. His feet shook with the cataclysm. The great heart of stone on which the High Temple stood shuddered and convulsed.

Those inside the temple fell on their faces before the sacred rock and called upon the gods of old to save them: Ariel! Azrael! Zoar! Heoth! But the names fell from their lips dead and devoid of power. The floor rolled under them, and they watched in horror as a seam opened in the anointed face of the sacred rock. The stone splintered and popped as it crumbled before their eyes. The priests wailed and prostrated themselves, covering their heads with their robes.

In the temple yard the terrified populace swept through the gates and streamed down the winding trail to safety in the valley below. Dodging broken flags, Quentin ran back across the courtyard to where Toli’s body had been removed.

Theido and Ronsard looked on as Quentin sank to his knees beside the body of his friend. “Toli, forgive me!” he cried, snatching up a lifeless hand and clutching it to him. “I drove you from me. I blamed you for all that happened, and it was not your fault I have wronged you, my friend. I am sorry!” The King wept, tears flooding his eyes and splashing freely down his face.

The others came to stand by him; he felt Bria’s hands on his shoulders. “He is gone!” sobbed Quentin. “And I am to blame!”

Esme knelt down beside Quentin and laid a hand on his sleeve. “In Dekra I had a vision-a vision of what would happen here today.”

“You knew?” The King raised sorrowful eyes to the Lady beside him. “You saw all and did not try to prevent it?”

“Not all. I saw the temple brought down-but not the fate of Toli and Gerin,” she said. Quentin only stared sadly at the body of his friend. “The Most High showed me what would come, and I did not see the death of our friend. That was never in his purpose.”

“That may be,” said Theido. “But many things happen in this world contrary to the Most High’s purpose. It is the way of the world.”

“Aye,” agreed Ronsard, nodding sadly. “No man rises from the bed of death.”

“Why not,” Esme asked, “if it pleases the god?”

Just then another tremor shook the yard, and all turned to see the last remnants of the High Temple come crashing down in a thunderous roar. Smoke and dust climbed toward the sun in a thick gray-white column. “You see this?” said Esme. “The temple is destroyed just as it was revealed to me. It is gone, and its evil is destroyed with it”

They looked on in wonder as Esme, her face illumined with a glowing inner light, stretched her hands over Toli’s body. She touched the crimson wound in his chest with her palm, then pulled back his tunic. The cloth around the wound was sticky with blood and ragged where the dagger had slashed into the flesh. But though the skin was stained a deep red from the flowing blood, there was now no wound to be seen.

“Look!” said Queen Bria, who was clutching at her mother’s sleeve. “Toli is awaking!”

“He is alive!” shouted Gerin happily. “Toli?” said Quentin, peering into his friend’s face. Toli’s eyelids flickered and opened, revealing quick black eyes which gazed upward at the ring of faces above him. “Toli, you are alive! Alive!” Quentin fell upon him and lifted him in a powerful embrace.

Theido and Ronsard stared in disbelief at the scene before them, then leapt forward to pound Toli on the back. Bria and Alinea wept, their eyes filling with happy tears. Gerin jumped and whooped for joy.

“What did I do to deserve all this?” asked Toli when they released him at last.

“I would not have believed it if I had not been standing here to see it!” Ronsard shook his head in amazement.

“I am not sure I believe it yet,” added Theido.

Esme threw her arms around Toli’s neck and kissed him. “How do you feel?”

“Feel? I feel…” He paused and glanced around him at the ruin of the temple, and then down at his own blood-soaked clothing, “I feel as if I have missed out on something… Nimrood! Is he-”

“Dead. They are all dead,” said Quentin. “But you have rejoined the living.”

“Did Nimrood do this to me?”

“A mortal wound, sir,” said Theido. “I saw him strike you down. Do you remember it?”

Toli shook his head dazedly. “I remember knocking Gerin free and falling backward. I remember his face above me… then nothing-until I woke up here.”

“The Most High has restored your life to us, Toli,” declared Alinea. “Great is the Most High!” They all joined in praising the god and thanking him for raising up Toli. Their joyous cries rang in the empty yard and echoed among the heaps of fallen stone as they started down the winding trail to the valley below. Above them the smoke and dust still ascended from the ruin, drifting and fading on the wind as the clouds rolled away to reveal a sky of sparkling blue.

By the time they reached the valley and passed before the wondering stares of the people lining the trail, word was already winging throughout Mensandor proclaiming the triumph of the Dragon King and the power of the new god, the Most High, the only true god, who caused altars to crumble, temples to fall, and dead men to rise up and walk.

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