“Frost! Li! It’s coming down!”
The winter man burst into nothing but ice and snow, and that blizzard blew across the stones, sweeping up the dead blue bird as it went. Oliver ran to where Kitsune lay, still a fox—why had she not returned to her human form?—and bent to lift her in his arms. She was alarmingly light and she whimpered in pain, but her heart still beat. Her blood felt sticky on his hands, smeared on her fur.
Frost took form again beside the fallen Grin and Cheval.
Oliver ran toward them with the fox in his arms, but he saw the way the winter man stared past him and he paused, turned.
Li had not run. The Great Library of Atlantis melted and collapsed, entropy taking hold, all that held it together now undone by Oliver’s hands. The Guardian of Fire stood his ground. A phalanx of soldiers rushed toward him, even as the last of the jellyfish erupted from the collapsing library. A sorcerer threw himself out of an upper floor, falling end over end toward his death. Two octopuses and several razor-fish aimed themselves at the lone figure still in the shadow of the library.
His hands came up. The fire in him erupted in one final, volcanic explosion. The heat seared Oliver’s exposed skin and the blast blew him off his feet. He went down, cradling Kitsune in his arms, his elbows hitting the stones before he rolled, careful not to crush her.
When he knelt, his first sight was of Frost. Half of the winter man’s face had melted off in the blast of heat. Snow and ice whirled around and tried to reconstruct it, but between the tropical sun and the heat from Li’s fire, it would take time. Frost had been badly weakened. He staggered a little but managed to remain standing.
Oliver saw that Grin still lived. The boggart had a bloody, ragged, abdominal wound, but clapped one hand over it as he drew himself up to cradle the corpse of Cheval Bayard in his other arm.
The Nagas had never gotten out of the library.
That left only Li.
He had incinerated dozens of soldiers and perhaps hundreds of the ocean monsters that patrolled the skies above Atlantis, but one look at Li told Oliver that the Guardian of Fire was through. He still stood, hands raised, pointed toward the remains of those he’d just burned, where the stones were blackened and cracked.
Yet all that remained of Li was ash, standing in the shape of a man. As Oliver looked, the last of the fire flickered out. A pile of gray ash, looking like a statue, stood there in the plaza. The wind kicked up and began to pull the figure apart. Cinders blew away, Li quickly eroding, every ashen particle coming apart as though Oliver had unmade him as well. But he hadn’t done this. The Guardian of Fire had burned out at last.
The upper part of the library toppled down onto the spot where Li had stood, and then he was only a memory.
Oliver swore under his breath.
“Good-bye, my friend,” Frost said, and Oliver couldn’t be sure if he spoke to the ashes of Li that blew on the wind or to the dead blue bird he now held in his frozen grasp.
The fox shifted in Oliver’s arms. Grin hissed in pain, tears running down his face.
The killers of Atlantis—soldier and sorcerer and monster—surrounded them and began to close the circle.
Oliver and Frost exchanged another look. The winter man nodded.
Shifting Kitsune into the crook of his left arm, Oliver knelt on one knee and reached down with his right hand. He splayed his fingers on the stones of the central plaza. The treachery had to stop. The conquerors had to be prevented from fulfilling their dark dreams.
Steadying his breathing, Oliver let himself feel the stones, and the soil beneath them, and the bedrock of the island. His muscles stiffened painfully and he strained, throwing his head back. At his touch, all cohesion began to unravel.
The ground began to quake. Fissures opened in the plaza, cracks running jagged across the stones. Frost called out his name, urging him on. Wayland Smith had marooned them on this island, had left them to die, but Oliver wouldn’t abandon the cause that had brought them here. They could not save the life of Prince Tzajin, could not bring about the end of the war that way. So he would end the war another way.
He would unmake Atlantis.
Buildings cracked. Glass shattered and fell. The plaza buckled and the stones they stood upon sank several feet, surged up slightly, then sank another seven or eight feet. All around them, the structures started to fail, collapsing in upon themselves.
Soldiers broke ranks, fleeing. Sorcerers tried to use their magic to keep buildings from falling, to no avail. Then the water began to flow, rushing in from the harbor and surging up from the foundations of buildings, quickly starting to flood the plaza.
Oliver stood. The damage was done. It had all begun to fall apart.
Atlantis had begun to sink.
The Sandman appeared on the battlefield in a whirling cloud of dust. As it settled, blowing away, and he was revealed, soldiers on both sides shouted in fear and moved away from him, their war for the moment forgotten. Halliwell shuddered, hating that he wore the hood of the Sandman rather than the Dustman’s coat, but his arrival garnered the response he had hoped for.
He strode through the battle. With regret, he moved between fallen men and women, unable to pause to help them. Others would reach them. Not that they would have accepted help from him in his current guise. Even those with the worst injuries, with open wounds and missing limbs, tried to drag themselves away from him.
Like a ghost, he haunted the field of battle, drifting, the sand rising around him. There were Yucatazcan warriors amongst the bloodied, screaming soldiers, but most were Euphrasian or Atlantean. His mind had touched the Dustman’s. They were still two spirits, but now had full access to the thoughts of the other. Halliwell had become the Dustman. The Dustman had become Detective Ted Halliwell. It was strangely calming.
Giants walked amongst the combatants, but only a handful. There were Stonecoats and tall warriors who could only be what the Dustman thought of as gods. A massive stag—perhaps fifteen feet tall or more—kicked its hooves at Atlantean soldiers and thrashed a Peryton from the air with its antlers. The stag was made entirely of plants, tree branches, wheat and cornstalks. It smelled wonderfully of fruit.
The Sandman smiled. Halliwell smiled. The Dustman smiled.
An octopus drifted above the soldiers. A dead woman, half-naked and missing one leg, dangled broken from its tentacles. It unfurled other tentacles and snatched up a Euphrasian soldier wearing the colors of King Hunyadi. The soldier screamed as his bones shattered. A god in black armor, red eyes burning from within his helm, charged up from a pile of corpses he had created and swung his sword toward the octopus, but the cowardly thing moved away. It would only hunt the easy prey.
Halliwell wanted to kill it. But not now.
A moment later, a Peryton took his choices away. Broad wings threw their shadow down upon him, blotting out the sun. He glanced up with the lemon eyes of the Sandman, glaring at the Atlantean Hunter. It dove down at him, talons hooked and antlers lowered, intent upon tearing him apart.
Halliwell let it come. The Peryton’s talons sank into his cloak and dug into the shifting sand and dust and ground bone of his body, harmless. He reached up and grabbed the antlers of the Peryton in one hand and twisted, snapping its neck. His free hand darted at its face and before he realized what he was doing, his knifelike fingers pried one of the Hunter’s glazed eyes from its socket and raised it to his lips. His tongue reached, yearning, for the dripping, bloody eye.
The Sandman began to shudder.
The Dustman crushed the eyeball in his hand, felt it pop.
Halliwell let the corpse of the Peryton fall to the battlefield and wiped the viscous remains of its eye on his cloak. Disgust coiled serpentine through his heart, his shared soul.
With Sara, back in the ordinary world, he could be himself more easily. Sand, yes, and a legend. A monster. But still Ted Halliwell. Here, in this place, he had to hold the reins more tightly to make sure the little voice of the Sandman down deep inside of him did not rise again. The Dustman helped. Together they could stifle the Sandman forever, perhaps destroy him. But vigilance would be necessary.
We must help Hunyadi’s army.
You know what must be done, the Dustman replied.
Is it difficult?
Not at all. It is part of our magic. What we are.
Halliwell went down on one knee, thrusting the long, narrow fingers of both hands into the blood-soaked dirt. For a moment, he wondered what would happen, and then he knew. All he needed to do was visualize. In his mind’s eye—in the Dustman’s mind—they could see the constructs.
The earth churned nearby. From deeper, where there was dry, rough soil, a hand thrust up from underground. Quickly, the warrior dug itself out. It rose, clad in armor of its own, and drew its sword. But the warrior was only dirt and sand and stone, as were its armor and sword. A construct.
The construct turned, opened its mouth in a silent battle cry—for it had no voice, no life or mind—and it ran into battle. A Euphrasian cavalryman had been toppled from his horse. The animal was dying, bleeding. A warrior of Atlantis stood over the fallen man, more than eight feet tall and splashed with the blood of others. A deadly enemy.
The sand creature brought its sword around—a blade whose edge was as sharp as diamond—and cleaved the Atlantean in half at the torso. Both halves of his body hit the ground together.
Halliwell and the Dustman willed it, and more constructs began to rise. Six. Eleven. Nineteen. At twenty-seven, he could do no more. To extend himself any further could have led to a loss of control, and Halliwell could not risk it. In his mind, the Dustman began to manipulate the constructs, controlling them from afar, a puppeteer.
But Halliwell didn’t mind. What he did next would be for him, and the Dustman did not need to be involved.
The sand of his body shifted and resculpted itself, and now he wore the bowler hat and mustache and greatcoat of the Dustman again. He went to the fallen soldier and held out a hand to help him up.
The horseman stared at him, eyes wide with terror.
“Get up, pal,” Halliwell said, aware of the incongruity of his voice, his words, coming from the mouth of a legend. A monster.
The horseman shook his head once, slowly.
“Suit yourself,” Halliwell said, dropping his hand. In the chaos of war, with shouts of fury and screams of agony and the clashing of weapons, somehow his own voice and the breathing of the downed horseman were louder than anything.
“Julianna Whitney. Bascombe’s fiancée. Is she here?”
Suspicion clouded the soldier’s eyes. A sadness came over Halliwell as he realized that, once again, he would need to use fear to achieve his ends. Fear was always swiftest.
The sand ran like mercury, shaping itself again, and now the cloak returned and his vision became jaundice-yellow. He saw the soldier through the Sandman’s lemon eyes.
Finger-knives reached down for the terrified horseman, snatched his arm and dragged him up to his feet…off his feet. Halliwell dangled him off the ground.
“Is Julianna here?”
The horseman nodded. He pointed up the slope toward the tents at the top of the hill in the distance. The king’s encampment.
“Helping the wounded,” the soldier said, his eyes and voice desperate.
“Of course she is.” Halliwell smiled. With the Sandman’s face, the expression was enough to make the soldier begin to cry.
Halliwell dropped him and started away from the battle, up the hill, leaving his constructs to aid Hunyadi’s defense against the invaders. He would see to Julianna’s safety through the end of this battle. He owed her that. And then he would go home, where Sara waited for him, and he would be her dad again. Whatever else he had become, he was still that.
Sunlight glared upon Ovid Tsing’s face, but his eyes were closed. Half-conscious, he stared at the inside of his closed eyelids, at the bright red glow of the sun. His lids fluttered. He wanted to wake. But he winced at the glare and pressed them closed again, let his head loll to one side. Beads of sweat dripped and ran across his scalp and along his neck before falling. His clothes were damp and sticky, but he felt sure sweat did not get so heavy.
He shifted, trying to move onto his side. Pain lanced the left side of his abdomen and a trickle of something traced his skin. Might have been sweat, but he doubted that. Blood ought to have been warmer, but as hot as it was outside, perhaps his skin had become hotter than blood.
His blood felt cold on his skin.
Ovid wished for a breeze. The wind had not died. He heard a tent flapping nearby. His body strained as though he could catch the wind if only he were more attentive. It took some time before he realized that the tent itself was acting as a wind-break, keeping any breeze from reaching him.
Darkness claimed his thoughts. When again he became aware of the heat on his face, the glare on his eyes, his side felt tight. Gingerly, he managed to reach down and touch the place where the Yucatazcan spear had punctured his flesh, and he found a bandage there. A sigh of relief escaped him. They’d taken the time to bandage him—probably to stitch him up as well. Ovid interpreted that to mean the field surgeon didn’t think he was going to die today.
Carefully, he tried to sit up. Pain surged through him again and he faltered. The darkness threatened, but did not overcome him. He lay back with his eyes pressed closed, hissing air through his teeth, waiting to feel the trickle of a freshly reopened wound on his side, but no blood flowed.
From far off, he heard the echoes of combat, the shouts of men and women, gods and monsters, the clang of weapons. He wondered how the King’s Volunteers were faring without him, and imagined they were probably doing just fine. His lieutenants were well trained, and they had heart. They had come here with only victory in their minds. Nothing else would do, save death. Ovid only hoped it would not come to that.
Ovid frowned, eyes still closed. Had he heard a voice in the cacophony of battle or in the flap of the nearby tent? Perhaps someone inside of the tent.
In his mind’s eye, horrid memory played out against the red-flare curtain of his eyelids. He saw again the broken corpse of his mother in the grasp of the Sandman, the gore-encrusted holes where her eyes had been. He saw, all too clearly, the face of the monster—the face of Ted Halliwell, the man who’d come to Twillig’s Gorge searching for Oliver Bascombe.