Hunyadi let loose another battle cry, his voice almost gone. He rushed at one of the Battle Swine, drove his blade into the softness of its throat, and the beast fell. Atlantean soldiers moved on him and the king rose, battling them off. The rest of his royal guard surrounded him, and soon the Atlanteans had begun to withdraw.
“Push them back into the ocean!” Hunyadi called, hoarse.
The soldier beside him—Aghi Koh—fell to her knees and clutched at her throat, which bulged with purple bruises. Her eyes began to bleed, and then oily black fluid jetted from her mouth. She bent, vomiting tarry stuff onto the ground. What followed was water—only water—but it stank of the sea.
Two other members of his royal guard—loyal soldiers, loyal friends—fell and began to vomit as well. Things squirmed in the water they threw up. Aghi fell dead, her wide eyes turning black. Crimson blood seeped from her ears, streaked with black. The others who surrounded Hunyadi suffered the same fate.
Grieving and enraged, the king spun around, searching for his enemy. He spotted the sorcerer, twenty feet away, standing amidst the soldiers of Atlantis. His skin had the chalky greenish hue of his people, but he was an ancient thing with gossamer silver hair; his beard was thick and had several heavy iron rings tied into its length.
King Hunyadi recognized him as Ru’Lem, one of the High Councilors of Atlantis.
“Now, little monarch,” the sorcerer sneered, “this war is over.”
His spindly fingers scratched at the air, casting his spell anew, and Hunyadi fell to his knees, just as his royal guard had done. He hunched over, losing sight of the sorcerer.
Ru’Lem strode toward him, perhaps craving the satisfaction of watching, up close, as the king died.
“You are hardier than your—” he began.
Hunyadi sprang upward, driving his sword into the robes of the ancient sorcerer. Anything but a heart-strike would not do, but he felt the blade slide against bone, felt the resistance of thick muscle and gristle, and knew that his aim had struck true.
Ru’Lem’s eyes widened and a hiss of air escaped his lips with a burble of greenish-black blood. A question. Hunyadi knew it could only be one question.
“Old fool,” he rasped. “Did you think I wouldn’t prepare for you and your kind, that I wouldn’t have had the Mazikeen place a dozen protective wards around me? Had you struck me down with a blade or had a Swine break my bones, you might’ve killed me. But magic is a coward’s weapon. When a warrior kills…”
King Hunyadi stared into Ru’Lem’s eyes, gripped the sword in both hands, and gave it a powerful twist, destroying the sorcerer’s heart.
“…he does it in close.”
The High Councilor dropped to the ground, corpse sliding from the king’s sword. Hunyadi spun as a Battle Swine rushed at him, but a Harvest god struck it from the side, a massive stag, trampling it underfoot. A shadow fell over them and he glanced up to see the Titan, Cronus—whom Kitsune had brought from Perinthia—arriving as well.
Then Coyote and his own soldiers charged past him, sweeping into combat against Atlanteans and Battle Swine. The Jokao were joined by Harvest gods and Borderkind and legends. An ogre wielding a war-hammer clapped the king on the back with a booming laugh, then rushed into the fight.
The ground began to tremble and up from the blood-soaked battlefield came creatures of dirt and rock and clay, first one and then several more in quick succession. Their eyes gleamed a dreadful yellow, even with the sunlight upon them. King Hunyadi stepped back and raised his sword, staring in horror at these monstrous things, thinking that the sorcerers of Atlantis had unleashed some new abomination upon them.
But the creatures began to attack the Atlanteans instead. Swords plunged through them. Arrows lodged in them but did not slow them at all. They flowed over their victims and brought the enemy soldiers down, smothering them, breaking them, in some cases scouring all flesh from the bone. It was a hideous way to die, and he gave a prayer of thanks to whatever gods might be listening—thanks that these monsters were on his side.
“The tide is turning,” a voice said beside him.
Hunyadi turned and looked into the dark eyes of Damia Beck. She seemed almost unscathed, save that her clothes were coated with dirt and blood and had torn in several places. The sight of her lifted his spirits. If he’d had a crisis of faith, even for a moment, during the battle, Damia restored it. She carried herself like a queen or a legend unto herself.
“What are they, Damia?”
Her dark eyes narrowed. “I don’t know, really. The closest I’ve ever seen were things at the Sandman’s castle, things he created. But the Sandman’s dead, and if he weren’t, he certainly wouldn’t be our friend. But they’re deadly, and magic doesn’t seem to faze them. The Sandmen have tipped the scales.”
“All right. Watch them carefully,” the king said. “Report.”
“Yes, sir. The Yucatazcans withdrew nearly an hour ago,” she said. “We have a prisoner who claims that unrest in Palenque and doubts about their Atlantean allies have caused them to retreat. Those few Yucatazcan Borderkind who were fighting against us have defected to our cause. And the Atlanteans…”
“Yes, Commander Beck?” he said, his ragged voice a growl.
“We’ve got Atlantis on the run, Your Majesty.”
The world blurred around Julianna. Sounds seemed to run together. She whipped around, catching sight of trees and the sun-baked rocks. Collette rushed up and planted a hand between her shoulder blades, and Julianna stumbled. Her legs caught up to her momentum and she ran uphill, toward the top of the ridge with Collette at her side, propelling her along. Both of them were staggering, mouths drawn back in pain as they ignored the wounds the Atlantean assassin had given them.
Run or die. Julianna knew that no third choice existed.
“You won’t get far!” the assassin shouted after them.
Julianna could feel him in pursuit. She did not dare turn to look. Sound washed over her, but in its midst she felt sure she heard his boots pounding the hill, closing in. Collette seemed almost to be falling uphill.
A numbness came over Julianna. Cold certainty that she would not be alive when and if Oliver returned.
Somehow that woke her. Her pulse thundered in her ears and her throat closed with dust and heat and fear. Collette faltered, nearly fell, but Julianna grabbed her hand and hauled her up and onward. She slid a hand behind Collette’s back and practically dragged her over the top of the ridge.
She had a glimpse of the Euphrasian encampment, of the colors flying over King Hunyadi’s tent, and of the battlefield far below. Then she turned her ankle, struggled to catch herself, but fell, and she and Collette were crashing to the ground again together, tumbling. Sharp, dry grass prickled her skin and jabbed the wounds on her face and throat. White lights exploded at the corners of her vision and for a moment the world blurred again and she thought she would pass out.
Then the assassin fell upon her. Julianna wished she still had the ogre’s hammer, and room to swing it. But the assassin sneered at her and grabbed a fistful of her hair, dragging her upward. She cried out and struggled to stand, so that her scalp would not tear.
“Ty’Lis said nothing about killing you,” the Atlantean said. “But you hurt me, and I pay what’s due.”
Collette started to rise, moving toward him. Julianna saw her out of the corner of her eye. The assassin seemed not to notice, or care.
Shouts went up from the encampment. They were fifty yards from the wounded soldiers, and those not so badly injured began to rise, painfully, intent upon stopping the inevitable. There simply wasn’t time.
As the echo carried across the camp, something else moved at the edge of her vision, too close and too swift to be Collette. With a fistful of her hair, the assassin clasped the other hand around her throat and began to choke her.
The shadow became solid.
A hand thrust past Julianna, gripped the assassin by the neck, and hoisted him off the ground. He let go of her hair as he twisted and fought, kicking at the tall figure in its dark hood and cloak. His fingers pulled away the hood and Julianna knew what she would see—the hideous, lemon eyes of the Sandman.
How it could be, she did not know. Kitsune had warned them, but she had seen the Sandman and his brother, the Dustman, die with Ted Halliwell.
The Sandman pulled the struggling assassin to him and put the other hand over his face, smothering him. His palm sealed the assassin’s mouth—he clawed at the hand suffocating him, to no avail. Sand spilled from the assassin’s nostrils. His eyes were wide and frantic, but in seconds his struggles slowed and then ceased completely.
The monster let the assassin’s corpse fall to the ground. Then the Sandman bent, grabbed his head in both hands, and twisted it, breaking his neck with the snap of dry kindling.
“Julianna, run!” Collette shouted.
But she could not. At best, she had time to stagger back a few steps before the monster murdered her as well. Yet when the Sandman turned toward her, he made no move to attack.
The sand of his features re-formed itself, flowing and sifting. His cloak became a jacket. Julianna shook her head in disbelief. The Sandman and Dustman had destroyed one another, the substance of their bodies merged forever on that eastern mountain plateau with the bones of Ted Halliwell.
But she stared, now, into Halliwell’s face. Sculpted of sand, yes, and with the bowler hat and thick mustache of the Dustman, but she would know the detective anywhere. They had spent weeks together, searching for Oliver, searching for answers, trying to find a way home. Sometimes they had been friends, and sometimes strangers. But she knew him.
The eyes were his.
This Halliwell—the creature of dust and sand—nodded.
“Julianna?” Collette ventured, coming closer, moving around to stand almost beside her, staring. When she inhaled sharply, Julianna knew she had recognized him as well.
“How?” Julianna asked.
The Dustman shrugged. “Some things are impossible. Doesn’t mean they aren’t real. We learned that one, didn’t we?”
A hand fluttered to her mouth. A kind of giddy relief went through her, despite all the horror that continued there in that place of war. Ted Halliwell had died before her eyes, but somehow he lived.
He lifted his gaze to her and one side of his mouth lifted in an odd grin, twitching his mustache. “I made it home. I saw her. I can go to Sara any time I want, now.”
Bittersweet tears threatened at the corners of her eyes. She felt so happy for him, but a sour knot twisted in her gut. Ted had died, but somehow it had freed him of this place. Julianna could never leave. And if dying was the price, she didn’t think she could pay.
“That’s wonderful,” she said.
But his eyes narrowed. He saw her pain, and understood.
“I wanted to come back, though. Had to make sure you were all right. That Hunyadi didn’t lose his throne.”
Collette glanced down at the assassin’s corpse. “That’s what you came back for? Justice?”
“Once a cop…” the Dustman replied, with Ted Halliwell’s voice.
Footsteps came from behind them. Julianna and Collette turned to see a wounded man come around the side of King Hunyadi’s tent. He had a hand over his stomach, blood soaking his bandages. In the other hand he carried a long dagger.
“Justice?” the man said, the word barely more than a grunt. “What does a monster know of justice?”
Collette grabbed Julianna’s arm, tried to pull her back. “Who the hell is this?”
Julianna blinked. The grim man’s face was familiar, but it took her a moment to place him. It seemed like a lifetime ago that she and Halliwell had sat on the patio at the café in Twillig’s Gorge, where they’d met Ovid Tsing for the first time.
Ovid stalked toward Halliwell. He pointed with the dagger.
“You murdered my mother, detective.”
Halliwell flinched. “The Sandman—”
“No!” Ovid snapped. “I saw your face. I remembered you. You plucked out her eyes, and you ate them, and you smiled at me!”
The Dustman shook his head, and the sand sifted again, and now he was just Ted Halliwell. Still made of sand, but no bowler, no mustache, no coat. Just that cantankerous, aging cop who loved his daughter with his whole being.
Halliwell did not move. He let the dagger come.
“No!” Julianna screamed, putting herself between them.
She felt Collette grab at her arm, trying to stop her, but the dagger plunged into her abdomen. All the breath rushed from her in a hiss of air and her body went rigid. Her eyes widened and she stared into Ovid Tsing’s face in surprise, then fell to her knees.
A flash of regret was the only sign that Ovid even noticed he had stabbed her.
Collette screamed her name and went to her, lifting up her head and talking to her. Julianna could barely hear the words. Collette pressed a hand against the knife wound, trying to stanch the bleeding, and then she began tearing at Julianna’s shirt.
But Julianna only stared at Ovid, the man who’d done it to her, and who advanced on the Dustman yet again.
Halliwell let him come.
“I’m sorry,” Ted said with sorrowful eyes. “I couldn’t stop him. I was…the Sandman kept me trapped inside and I couldn’t get out. I’m so sorry.”
He kept apologizing even as Ovid plunged the dagger into him again and again, stabbing his chest and neck and even his face. The blade slid in and out of the sand with a dry shushing. Ovid screamed and stabbed harder, gripping the dagger in both hands.
Halliwell had become the Dustman again, but still had those grieving eyes.
Ovid fell to the ground, the wound in his abdomen leaking blood badly now. Julianna saw that he had stabbed her in almost the precise spot where he himself had been injured.