16 March, 2017 21:37

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Steven Erikson is an archaeologist and anthropologist and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The first six novels in his Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence – Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice, House of Chains, Midnight Tides and The Bonehunters – have met with widespread international acclaim and established him as a major voice in the world of fantasy fiction. The thrilling seventh instalment in this remarkable story, Reaper’s Gale, is now available from Bantam Press. Steven Erikson lives in Canada.


Acclaim for Steven Erikson’s

The Malazan Book of the Fallen:

‘Steven Erikson is an extraordinary writer … My advice to anyone who might listen to me is: treat yourself Stephen R. Donaldson

‘Give me the evocation of a rich, complex and yet ultimately unknowable other world, with a compelling suggestion of intricate history and mythology and lore. Give me mystery amid the grand narrative … Give me the world in which every sea hides a crumbled Atlantis, every ruin has a tale to tell, every broken blade is a silent legacy of struggles unknown. Give me in other words, the fantasy work of Steven Erikson … a master of lost and forgotten epochs, a weaver of ancient epics’ Salon.com

‘I stand slack-jawed in awe of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. This masterwork of the imagination may be the high watermark of epic fantasy’ Glen Cook

‘Truly epic in scope, Erikson has no peer when it comes to action and imagination, and joins the ranks of Tolkien and Donaldson in his mythic vision and perhaps then goes one better’ SF Site

‘Rare is the writer who so fluidly combines a sense of mythic power and depth of world with fully realized characters and thrilling action, but Steven Erikson manages it spectacularly’ Michael A. Stackpole

‘Like the archaeologist that he is, Erikson continues to delve into the history and ruins of the Malazan Empire, in the process revealing unforeseen riches and annals that defy expectation … this is true myth in the making, a drawing upon fantasy to recreate histories and legends as rich as any found within our culture’ Interzone

‘Gripping, fast-moving, delightfully dark … Erikson brings a punchy, mesmerizing writing style into the genre of epic fantasy, making an indelible impression. Utterly engrossing’ Elizabeth Hayden

‘Everything we have come to expect from this most excellent of fantasy writers; huge in scope, vast in implication and immensely, utterly entertaining’ alienonline

‘One of the most promising new writers of the past few years, he has more than proved his right to A-list status’ Bookseller

‘Erikson’s strengths are his grown-up characters and his ability to create a world every bit as intricate and messy as our own’ J. V. Jones

‘An author who never disappoints on delivering stunning and hard-edged fantasy is Steven Erikson … a master of modern fantasy’ WBQ magazine

‘Wondrous voyages, demons and gods abound … dense and complex … ultimately rewarding’ Locus

‘Erikson … is able to create a world that is both absorbing on a human level and full of magical sublimity … A wonderfully grand conception … splendidly written … fiendishly readable’ Adam Roberts

‘A multi-layered tale of magic and war, loyalty and betrayal. Complexly drawn characters occupy a richly detailed world in this panoramic saga’ Library Journal

‘Epic in every sense of the word … Erikson shows a masterful control of an immense plot … the worlds of mortals and gods meet in what is a truly awe-inspiring clash’ Enigma

By Steven Erikson








The Bonehunters

A Tale of the

Malazan Book of the Fallen


Table of Contents

Title Page

































To Courtney Welch.

Keep the music coming, friend.


Thanks to the usual suspects, including my early-draft readers Chris, Mark, Rick, Courtney, and Bill Hunter who has proved invaluable on the mechanics and full listing of variants of the Deck of Dragons – but listen, Bill, no more walking miles through the rain, right? Cam Esslemont for a most diligent read-through – I’m glad at least one of us has got the timeline right. Clare and Bowen, as always. To the staff at Bar Italia for seeing me through another one – three novellas and four novels and twenty-two thousand lattes, that was quite a run, wasn’t it? Steve, Perry and Ross Donaldson, for the friendship. Simon Taylor, Patrick Walsh and Howard Morhaim, for the good work done each and every time.



Empress Laseen, ruler of the Malazan Empire

Adjunct Tavore, commander of the Fourteenth Army

Fist Keneb, division commander

Fist Blistig, division commander

Fist Tene Baralta, division commander

Fist Temul, division commander

Nil, a Wickan warlock

Nether, a Wickan witch

T’amber, Tavore’s aide

Lostara Yil, aide to Pearl

Pearl, a Claw

Nok, Admiral of the Imperial Fleet

Banaschar, an ex-priest of D’rek

Hellian, a sergeant in the city guard of Kartool

Urb, a city guard in Kartool

Brethless, a city guard in Kartool

Touchy, a city guard in Kartool

Quick Ben, High Mage in the Fourteenth Army

Kalam Mekhar, an assassin

Grub, a foundling


Captain Kindly, Ashok Regiment

Lieutenant Pores, Ashok Regiment

Captain Faradan Sort

Sergeant Fiddler/Strings

Corporal Tarr





Sergeant Gesler

Corporal Stormy

Master Sergeant Braven Tooth






Sergeant Balm

Corporal Deadsmell


Masan Gilani


Barathol Mekhar, a blacksmith

Kulat, a villager

Nulliss, a villager

Hayrith, a villager

Chaur, a villager

Noto Boil, company cutter (healer) in Onearm’s Host

Hurlochel, an outrider in Onearm’s Host

Captain Sweetcreek, an officer in Onearm’s Host

Corporal Futhgar, an officer in Onearm’s Host

Fist Rythe Bude, an officer in Onearm’s Host

Ormulogun, artist

Gumble, his critic

Apsalar, an assassin

Telorast, a spirit

Curdle, a spirit

Samar Dev, a witch of Ugarat

Karsa Orlong, a Teblor warrior

Ganath, a Jaghut

Spite, a Soletaken and sister to Lady Envy

Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas

Leoman of the Flails, last leader of the rebellion

Captain Dunsparrow, Y’Ghatan city guard

Karpolan Demesand, Trygalle Trade Guild

Torahaval Delat, a priestess of Poliel

Cutter, once Crokus of Darujhistan

Heboric Ghost Hands, Destraint of Treach

Scillara, refugee from Raraku

Felisin the Younger, refugee from Raraku

Greyfrog, a demon

Mappo Runt, a Trell

Icarium, a Jhag

Iskaral Pust, a priest of Shadow

Mogora, a D’ivers

Taralack Veed, a Gral and agent of the Nameless Ones

Dejim Nebrahl, a D’ivers T’rolbarahl of the First Empire

Trull Sengar, a Tiste Edur

Onrack the Broken, an unbound T’lan Imass

Ibra Gholan, a T’lan Imass

Monok Ochem, a T’lan Imass Bonecaster

Minala, commander of the Company of Shadow

Tomad Sengar, a Tiste Edur

Feather Witch, a Letherii slave

Atri-Preda Yan Tovis (Twilight), commander of Letherii forces

Captain Varat Taun, officer under Twilight’s Command

Taxilian, an interpreter

Ahlrada Ahn, a Tiste Andii spy among the Tiste Edur

Sathbaro Rangar, Arapay warlock

For all that is made real

In this age descending

Where heroes leave naught

But the iron ring of their names

From bardic throats

I stand in this silent heart

Yearning the fading beat

Of lives fallen to dust

And the sifting whisper

Proclaims glory’s passing

As the songs fail

In dwindling echoes

For all that is made real

The chambers and halls

Yawn empty to my cries –

For someone must

Give answer

Give answer

To all of this


The Age Descending

Torbora Fethena


1164 Burn’s Sleep

Istral’fennidahn, the season of D’rek, Worm of Autumn

Twenty-four days since the Execution of Sha’ik in Raraku

The webs between the towers were visible in glistening sheets far overhead, and the faint wind coming in from the sea shivered the vast threads so that a mist of rain descended on Kartool City, as it did every morning in the Clear Season.

Most things a person could get used to, eventually, and since the yellow-banded paralt spiders had been the first to occupy the once infamous towers following the Malazan conquest of the island, and that was decades past now, there had been plenty of time to become inured to such details. Even the sight of gulls and pigeons suspended motionless between the score of towers every morning, before the fist-sized spiders emerged from their upper-floor dens to retrieve their prey, yielded little more than faint revulsion among the citizens of Kartool City.

Sergeant Hellian of the Septarch District city guard, alas, was an exception to this. There were gods, she suspected, convulsed in perpetual hilarity at her wretched fate, for which they were no doubt responsible. Born in the city, cursed with a fear of all manner of spiders, she had lived the entirety of her nineteen years in unrelieved terror.

Why not just leave? A question asked by comrades and acquaintances more times than she cared to count. But it wasn’t that simple. It was impossible, in fact. The murky waters of the harbour were fouled with moult-skins and web-fragments and sodden, feather-tufted carcasses bobbing here and there. Inland, things got even worse. The young paralt, upon escaping their elders in the city, struggled to maturity among the limestone cliffs ringing Kartool. And though young, they were no less aggressive or virulent. While traders and farmers told her that one could walk the trails and roads all day without encountering a single one, Hellian didn’t care. She knew the gods were waiting. Just like the spiders.

When sober, the sergeant noticed things, in a proper and diligent manner suited to a city guard. And while she was not consistently drunk, cold sobriety was an invitation to hysteria, so Hellian endeavoured to proceed steadily on the wobbly rope of not-quite-drunk. Accordingly, she had not known of the odd ship now moored in the Free Docks, that had arrived before sunrise, its pennons indicating that it had come from Malaz Island.

Ships hailing from Malaz Island were not of themselves unusual or noteworthy; however, autumn had arrived, and the prevailing winds of the Clear Season made virtually all lanes to the south impossible to navigate for at least the next two months.

Were things less bleary, she might also have noticed – had she taken the time to head down to the docks, which perhaps could have been managed at sword-point – that the ship was not the usual barque or trader, nor a military dromon, but a sleek, gracile thing, styled in a manner not employed in the past fifty years by any shipbuilders of the empire. Arcane carvings adorned the blade-like prow, minuscule shapes detailing serpents and worms, the panels sweeping back along the gunnels almost halfway down the length of the ship. The stern was squared and strangely high, with a side-mounted steering oar. The crew numbered about a dozen, quiet for sailors, and disinclined to leave the ship as it lolled alongside the dock. A lone figure had disembarked as soon as the gangplank had settled, shortly before dawn.

For Hellian, these details came later. The runner that found her was a local brat who, when he wasn’t breaking laws, loitered around the docks in the hopes of being hired as a guide for visitors. The fragment of parchment he handed her was, she could feel, of some quality. On it was written a terse message, the contents of which made her scowl.

‘All right, lad, describe the man gave this to you.’

‘I can’t.’

Hellian glanced back at the four guards standing behind her on the street corner. One of them stepped behind the boy and picked him up, one-handed, gripping the back of the ratty tunic. A quick shake.

‘Loosed your memory some?’ Hellian asked. ‘I hope so, because I ain’t paying coin.’

‘I can’t remember! I looked right into his face, Sergeant! Only … I can’t remember what it looked like!’

She studied the boy for a moment, then grunted and turned away.

The guard set the lad down but did not release his grip.

‘Let him go, Urb.’

The lad scampered away.

With a vague gesture for her guards to follow, she set off.

The Septarch District was the city’s most peaceful area, not through any particular diligence on Hellian’s part, however. There were few commercial buildings, and those residences that existed served to house acolytes and support staff of the dozen temples commanding the district’s main avenue. Thieves who wanted to stay alive did not steal from temples.

She led her squad onto the avenue, noting once again how decrepit many of the temples had become. The paralt spiders liked the ornate architecture and the domes and lesser towers, and it seemed the priests were losing the battle. Chitinous rubbish crackled and crunched underfoot as they walked.

Years ago, the first night of Istral’fennidahn, just past, would have been marked with an island-wide fete, filled with sacrifices and propitiations to Kartool’s patron goddess, D’rek, the Worm of Autumn, and the archpriest of the Grand Temple, the Demidrek, would lead a procession through the city on a carpet of fecund rubbish, his bared feet sweeping through maggot- and worm-ridden refuse. Children would chase lame dogs down the alleys, and those they cornered they would stone to death whilst shrieking their goddess’s name. Convicted criminals sentenced to execution would have their skins publicly flailed, their long-bones broken, then the hapless victims would be flung into pits aswarm with carrion beetles and red fireworms, that would devour them over the course of four or five days.

All of this was before the Malazan conquest, of course. The Emperor’s principal target had been the cult of D’rek. He’d well understood that the heart of Kartool’s power was the Grand Temple, and the island’s master sorcerers were the priests and priestesses of D’rek, ruled over by the Demidrek. Further, it was no accident that the night of slaughter that preceded the naval battle and the subsequent invasion, a night led by the infamous Dancer and Surly, Mistress of the Claw, had so thoroughly obliterated the cult’s sorcerers, including the Demidrek. For the archpriest of the Grand Temple had only recently gained his eminence via an internal coup, and the ousted rival had been none other than Tayschrenn, the Emperor’s new – at the time – High Mage.

Hellian had but heard tales of the celebrations, since they had been outlawed as soon as the Malazan occupiers settled the imperial mantle upon the island, but she had been told often enough about those glorious days of long ago, when Kartool Island had been at the pinnacle of civilization.

The present sordid condition was the fault of the Malazans, everyone agreed. Autumn had in truth arrived upon the island and its morose inhabitants. More than the cult of D’rek had been crushed, after all. Slavery was abolished, the execution pits had been scoured clean and permanently sealed. There was even a building hosting a score of misguided altruists who adopted lame dogs.

They passed the modest temple of the Queen of Dreams and, squatting on the opposite side, the much-hated Temple of Shadows. There had once been but seven religions permitted upon Kartool, six subservient to D’rek – hence the district’s name. Soliel, Poliel, Beru, Burn, Hood and Fener. Since the conquest, more had arrived – the two aforementioned, along with Dessembrae, Togg and Oponn. And the Grand Temple of D’rek, still the largest of all the structures in the city, was in a pathetic state of disrepair.

The figure standing before the broad-stepped entrance wore the garb of a Malazan sailor, faded waterproofed leathers, a worn shirt of thin, ragged linen. His dark hair was in a queue, hanging down between his shoulders and otherwise unadorned. As he turned at their approach, the sergeant saw a middle-aged face with even, benign features, although there was something odd about the man’s eyes, something vaguely fevered.

Hellian drew a deep breath to help clear her sodden thoughts, then raised the parchment between them. ‘This is yours, I presume?’

The man nodded. ‘You are the guard commander in this district?’

She smiled. ‘Sergeant Hellian. The captain died last year of a septic foot. We’re still waiting for a replacement.’

Brows rose with irony. ‘Not a promotion, Sergeant? One presumes, therefore, that sobriety would be a decisive virtue for a captain.’

‘Your note said there’s trouble at the Grand Temple,’ Hellian said, ignoring the man’s rudeness and turning to study the massive edifice. The double doors, she noted with a frown, were closed. On this day of all days, this was unprecedented.

‘I think so, Sergeant,’ the man said.

‘Had you come to pay your respects to D’rek?’ Hellian asked him, as faint unease struggled through the alcoholic haze. ‘Are the doors locked? What’s your name and where are you from?’

‘I am named Banaschar, from Malaz Island. We arrived this morning.’

A grunt from one of the guards behind her, and Hellian thought about it. Then she shot Banaschar a more careful look. ‘By ship? At this time of year?’

‘We made what haste we could. Sergeant, I believe we need to break into the Grand Temple.’

‘Why not just knock?’

‘I have tried,’ Banaschar replied. ‘No-one comes.’

Hellian hesitated. Break into the Grand Temple? The Fist will have my tits on a fry pan for this.

‘There are dead spiders on the steps,’ Urb said suddenly.

They turned.

‘Hood’s blessing,’ Hellian muttered, ‘lots of them.’ Curious now, she walked closer. Banaschar followed, and after a moment the squad fell in.

‘They look …’ She shook her head.

‘Decayed,’ Banaschar said. ‘Rotting. Sergeant, the doors, please.’

Still she hesitated. A thought occurred to her and she glared at the man. ‘You said you made all haste to get here. Why? Are you an acolyte of D’rek? – You don’t look it. What brought you here, Banaschar?’

‘A presentiment, Sergeant. I was … many years past … a priest of D’rek, in the Jakatakan temple on Malaz Island.’

‘A presentiment brought you all the way to Kartool? Do you take me for a fool?’

Anger flashed in the man’s eyes. ‘Clearly you’re too drunk to smell what I can smell.’ He eyed the guards. ‘Do you share your sergeant’s failings, or am I alone in this matter?’

Urb was frowning, then he said, ‘Sergeant, we should kick in these doors, I think.’

‘So do it then, damn you!’

She watched as her guards battered away at the door. The noise attracted a crowd, and Hellian saw, threading to the forefront, a tall, robed woman who was clearly a priestess from one of the other temples. Oh, now what?

But the woman’s eyes were fixed on Banaschar, who had in turn noted her approach and stared steadily back, his expression setting hard.

‘What are you doing here?’ the woman demanded.

‘Have you sensed nothing, High Priestess? Complacency is a disease fast spreading, it seems.’

The woman’s gaze shifted to the guards kicking at the doors. ‘What has happened?’

The door on the right splintered, then was knocked back by a final kick.

Hellian gestured for Urb to enter then followed, Banaschar behind her.

The stench was overwhelming, and in the gloom was visible great splashes of blood on the walls, fragments of meat scattered on the polished tiles, and pools of bile, blood and faeces, as well as scraps of clothing and clumps of hair.

Urb had taken no more than two steps and now stood, staring down at what he was standing in. Hellian edged past him, her hand of its own accord reaching for the flask tucked in her belt. Banaschar’s hand stayed her. ‘Not in here,’ he said.

She roughly shook him off. ‘Go to Hood,’ she growled, pulling the flask loose and tugging free the stopper. She drank three quick mouthfuls. ‘Corporal, go find Commander Charl. We’ll need a detachment to secure the area. Have word sent to the Fist, I want some mages down here.’

‘Sergeant,’ said Banaschar, ‘this is a matter for priests.’

‘Don’t be an idiot.’ She waved at her remaining guards. ‘Conduct a search. See if there’s any survivors—’

‘There are none,’ Banaschar pronounced. ‘The High Priestess of the Queen of Dreams has already left, Sergeant. Accordingly, all of the temples will be informed. Investigations will begin.’

‘What sort of investigations?’ Hellian demanded.

He grimaced. ‘Priestly sorts.’

‘And what of you?’

‘I have seen enough,’ he said.

‘Don’t even think of going anywhere, Banaschar,’ she said, scanning the scene of slaughter. ‘First night of the Clear Season in the Grand Temple, that used to involve an orgy. Looks like it got out of hand.’ Two more quick swallows from the flask, and blessed numbness beckoned. ‘You’ve a lot of questions you need to answer—’

Urb’s voice cut in, ‘He’s gone, Sergeant.’

Hellian swung about. ‘Damn! Weren’t you keeping an eye on the bastard, Urb?’

The big man spread his hands. ‘You was talking away to ‘im, Sergeant. I was eyeing the crowd out front. He didn’t get past me, that’s for sure.’

‘Get a description out. I want him found.’

Urb frowned. ‘Uh, I can’t remember what he looked like.’

‘Damn you, neither can I.’ Hellian walked over to where Banaschar had been standing. Squinted down at his footprints in the blood. They didn’t lead anywhere.

Sorcery. She hated sorcery. ‘You know what I’m hearing right now, Urb?’


‘I’m hearing the Fist. Whistling. You know why he’s whistling?’

‘No. Listen, Sergeant—’

‘It’s the fry pan, Urb. It’s that nice, sweet sizzle that makes him so happy.’


‘Where will he send us, do you think? Korel? That one’s a real mess. Maybe Genabackis, though that’s quieted down some. Seven Cities, maybe.’ She drained the last of the pear brandy in the flask. ‘One thing’s for sure, we’d better set stones to our swords, Urb.’

The tramp of heavy boots sounded in the street beyond. A half-dozen squads at the very least.

‘Don’t get many spiders on ships, right, Urb?’ She glanced over, fought the bleariness and studied the miserable expression on his face. ‘That’s right, isn’t it? Tell me I’m right, damn you.’

A hundred or so years ago, lightning had struck the huge guldindha tree, the white fire driving like a spear down its heartwood and splitting wide the ancient trunk. The blackened scorch-marks had long since bleached away as the desert sun burned its unceasing light upon the wormriven wood. Swaths of bark had peeled back and now lay heaped over the bared roots that were wrapped about the hill’s summit like a vast net.

The mound, misshapen where once it had been circular, commanded the entire basin. It stood alone, an island profoundly deliberate in the midst of a haphazard, random landscape. Beneath the jumbled boulders, sandy earth and snaking dead roots, the capstone that had once protected a slab-walled burial chamber had cracked, collapsing to swallow the space beneath, and in so doing settling an immense weight upon the body interred within.

The tremor of footfalls reaching down to that body were a rare enough occurrence – perhaps a handful of times over the past countless millennia – that the long-slumbering soul was stirred into wakefulness, then intense awareness, upon the sensation of not one set of feet, but a dozen, ascending the steep, rough slopes and assembling at last around the shattered tree.

The skein of wards embracing the creature was twisted and tangled, yet persistent in its multi-layered power. The one who had imprisoned it had been thorough, fashioning rituals of determined permanence, blood-traced and chaosfed. They were intended to last for ever.

Such intentions were a conceit, asserted in the flawed belief that mortals would one day be without malice, or desperation. That the future was a safer place than the brutal present, and that all that was once past would never again be revisited. The twelve lean figures, bodies swathed in ragged, stained linen, their heads hooded and faces hidden behind grey veils, well understood the risks entailed when driven to precipitous acts. Alas, they also understood desperation.

All were destined to speak at this gathering, the order specified by the corresponding position of various stars, planets and constellations, all unseen behind blue sky yet the locations known nonetheless. Upon taking their positions, a long moment of stillness passed, then the first of the Nameless Ones spoke.

‘We stand once more before necessity. These are the patterns long ago foreseen, revealing all our struggles to have been for naught. In the name of the Warren of Mockra, I invoke the ritual of release.’

At these words, the creature within the barrow felt a sudden snap, and the awakened awareness all at once found its own identity. Its name was Dejim Nebrahl. Born on the eve of the death of the First Empire, when the streets of the city beyond burned and screams announced unrelieved slaughter. For the T’lan Imass had come.

Dejim Nebrahl, born into fullest knowledge, a child with seven souls, climbing blood-smeared and trembling from his mother’s cooling body. A child. An abomination.

T’rolbarahl, demonic creations by the hand of Dessimbelackis himself, long before the Dark Hounds took shape in the Emperor’s mind. T’rolbarahl, misshapen errors in judgement, had been expunged, exterminated at the Emperor’s own command. Blood-drinkers, eaters of human flesh, yet possessing depths of cunning even Dessimbelackis could not have imagined. And so, seven T’rolbarahl had managed to elude their hunters for a time, sufficient to impart something of their souls to a mortal woman, widowed by the Trell Wars and without family, a woman whom none would notice, whose mind could be broken, whose body could be made into a feeding vessel, a M’ena Mahybe, for the seven-faced D’ivers T’rolbarahl child swiftly growing within her.

Born into a night of terror. The T’lan Imass, had they found Dejim, would have acted without hesitation: dragging forth those seven demonic souls, binding them into an eternity of pain, their power bled out, slowly and incrementally, to feed the T’lan bonecasters in their unceasing wars against the Jaghut.

But Dejim Nebrahl had escaped. His power growing as he fed, night after night through the ruins of the First Empire. Always hidden, even from those few Soletaken and D’ivers that had survived the Great Slaughter, for even they would not abide Dejim’s existence. He fed on some of them as well, for he was smarter than they, and quicker, and had not the Deragoth stumbled onto his trail …

The Dark Hounds had a master in those days, a clever master, who excelled in ensnaring sorceries and, once decided upon a task, he would not relent.

A single mistake, and Dejim’s freedom was ended. Binding upon binding, taking away his self-awareness, and with it all sense of having once been … otherwise.

Yet now … awake once more.

The second Nameless One, a woman, spoke: ‘There stands a plain west and south of Raraku, vast and level for leagues in all directions. When the sands blow away, the shards of a million broken pots are exposed, and to cross the plain barefooted is to leave a trail of blood. In this scene are found unmitigated truths. On the trail out of savagery … some vessels must needs break. And for the sojourner, a toll in blood must be paid. By the power of the Warren of Telas, I invoke the ritual of release.’

Within the barrow, Dejim Nebrahl became aware of his body. Battered flesh, straining bone, sharp gravel, sifting sands, the immense weight lying upon him. Agony.

‘As we fashioned this dilemma,’ the third priest said, ‘so we must initiate its resolution. Chaos pursues this world, and every world beyond this one. In the seas of reality can be found a multitude of layers, one existence flowing upon another. Chaos threatens with storms and tides and wayward currents, sending all into dread tumult. We have chosen one current, a terrible, unchained force – chosen to guide it, to shape its course unseen and unchallenged. We intend to drive one force upon another, and so effect mutual annihilation. We assume a terrible responsibility in this, yet the only hope of success lies with us, with what we do here on this day. In the name of the Warren of Denul, I invoke the ritual of release.’

Pain faded from Dejim’s body. Still trapped and unable to move, the D’ivers T’rolbarahl felt his flesh heal.

The fourth Nameless One said, ‘We must acknowledge grief for the impending demise of an honourable servant. It must, alas, be a short-lived grief, and so unequal to the measure of the unfortunate victim. This, of course, is not the only grief demanded of us. Of the other, I trust we have all made our peace, else we would not be here. In the name of the Warren of D’riss, I invoke the ritual of release.’

Dejim Nebrahl’s seven souls became distinct from one another. D’ivers, yet far more so, not seven who are one – although that could be said to be true – but seven separate in identity, independent yet together.

‘We do not yet understand every facet of this trail,’ the fifth, a priestess, said, ‘and to this our absent kin must not relent in their pursuit. Shadowthrone cannot – must not – be underestimated. He possesses too much knowledge. Of the Azath. Perhaps, too, of us. He is not yet our enemy, but that alone does not make him our ally. He … perturbs. And I would we negate his existence at the earliest opportunity, although I recognize that my view is in the minority within our cult. Yet, who else is more aware than I, of the Realm of Shadow and its new master? In the name of the Warren of Meanas, I invoke the ritual of release.’

And so Dejim came to comprehend the power of his shadows, seven spawned deceivers, his ambushers in the necessary hunt that sustained him, that gave him so much pleasure, far beyond that of a filled belly and fresh, warm blood in his veins. The hunt delivered … domination, and domination was exquisite.

The sixth Nameless One spoke, her accent strange, otherworldly: ‘All that unfolds in the mortal realm gives shape to the ground upon which the gods walk. Thus, they are never certain of their stride. It falls to us to prepare the footfalls, to dig the deep, deadly pits, the traps and snares that shall be shaped by the Nameless Ones, for we are the hands of the Azath, we are the shapers of the will of the Azath. It is our task to hold all in place, to heal what is torn asunder, to lead our enemies into annihilation or eternal imprisonment. We shall not fail. I call upon the power of the Shattered Warren, Kurald Emurlahn, and invoke the ritual of release.’

There were favoured paths through the world, fragment paths, and Dejim had used them well. He would do so again. Soon.

‘Barghast, Trell, Tartheno Toblakai,’ said the seventh priest, his voice a rumble, ‘these are the surviving threads of Imass blood, no matter their claims to purity. Such claims are inventions, yet inventions have purpose. They assert distinction, they redirect the path walked before, and the path to come. They shape the emblems upon the standards in every war, and so give justification to slaughter. Their purpose, therefore, is to assert convenient lies. By the Warren of Tellann, I invoke the ritual of release.’

Fire in the heart, a sudden drumming of life. Cold flesh grew warm.

‘Frozen worlds hide in darkness,’ came the rasping words of the eighth Nameless One, ‘and so hold the secret of death. The secret is singular. Death arrives as knowledge. Recognition, comprehension, acceptance. It is this and nothing more and nothing less. There shall come a time, perhaps not too far off, when death discovers its own visage, in a multitude of facets, and something new will be born. In the name of Hood’s Warren, I invoke the ritual of release.’

Death. It had been stolen from him by the master of the Dark Hounds. It was, perhaps, something to be longed for. But not yet.

The ninth priest began with a soft, lilting laugh, then said, ‘Where all began, so it will return in the end. In the name of the Warren of Kurald Galain, of True Darkness, I invoke the ritual of release.’

‘And by the power of Rashan,’ the tenth Nameless One hissed with impatience, ‘I invoke the ritual of release!’

The ninth priest laughed again.

‘The stars are wheeling,’ the eleventh Nameless One said, ‘and so the tension burgeons. There is justice in all that we do. In the name of the Warren of Thyrllan, I invoke the ritual of release.’

They waited. For the twelfth Nameless One to speak. Yet she said nothing, instead reaching out a slim, rust-red, scaled hand that was anything but human.

And Dejim Nebrahl sensed a presence. An intelligence, cold and brutal, seeping down from above, and the D’ivers was suddenly afraid.

‘Can you hear me, T’rolbarahl?’


‘We would free you, but you must pay us for that release. Refuse to pay us, and we shall send you once more into mind-less oblivion.’

Fear became terror. What is this payment you demand of me?

‘Do you accept?’

I do.

She explained to him, then, what was required. It seemed a simple thing. A minor task, easily achieved. Dejim Nebrahl was relieved. It would not take long, the victims were close by, after all, and once it was done the D’ivers would be freed of all obligation, and could do as he pleased.

The twelfth and last Nameless One, who had once been known as Sister Spite, lowered her hand. She knew that, of the twelve gathered here, she alone would survive the emergence of this fell demon. For Dejim Nebrahl would be hungry. Unfortunate, and unfortunate too the shock and dismay of her comrades upon witnessing her escape – in the brief moment before the T’rolbarahl attacked. She had her reasons, of course. First and foremost being the simple desire to stay among the living, for a while longer, anyway. As for the other reasons, they belonged to her and her alone.

She said, ‘In the name of the Warren of Starvald Demelain, I invoke the ritual of release.’ And from her words descended, through dead tree root, through stone and sand, dissolving ward after ward, a force of entropy, known to the world as otataral.

And Dejim Nebrahl rose into the world of the living.

Eleven Nameless Ones began invoking their final prayers. Most of them never finished.

Some distance away, seated cross-legged before a small fire, a tattooed warrior cocked his head at the sound of distant screams. He looked southward and saw a dragon rising heavily from the hills lining the horizon, mottled scales glimmering in the sun’s dying light. Watching it climb ever higher, the warrior scowled.

‘Bitch,’ he muttered. ‘I should’ve guessed.’

He settled back down, even as the screams faded in the distance. The lengthening shadows among the rock out-crop surrounding his camp were suddenly unpleasant, thick and smeared.

Taralack Veed, a Gral warrior and the last survivor of the Eroth bloodline, gathered a mouthful of phlegm and spat it onto the palm of his left hand. He brought both hands together to spread the mucus evenly, which he then used to flatten down his swept-back black hair in an elaborate gesture that startled the mass of flies crawling through it, momentarily, before they settled once again.

After a time, he sensed that the creature had finished feeding, and was on the move. Taralack straightened. He pissed on the fire to douse it, then collected his weapons and set off to find the demon’s trail.

There were eighteen residents living in the scatter of hovels at the crossroads. The track running parallel to the coast was Tapur Road, and three days’ trek north was the city of Ahol Tapur. The other road, little more than a rutted trail, crossed the Path’Apur Mountains far inland, then stretched eastward, past this hamlet, for another two days of travel, where it finally reached the coast road alongside the Otataral Sea.

Four centuries ago a village had thrived in this place. The ridge to the south had been clothed in hardwood trees with a distinctive, feathery foliage, trees now extinct on the subcontinent of Seven Cities. Appropriately, the wood from these trees had been used to carve sarcophagi, and the village had become renowned in cities as far away as Hissar to the south, Karashimesh to the west, and Ehrlitan to the northwest. The industry died with the last tree. Lowgrowth vanished into the gullets of goats, the topsoil blew away and the village shrank within a single generation to its present decrepit state.

The eighteen residents who remained now provided services growing ever less in demand, supplying water to passing caravans, repairing tack and such. A Malazan official had been through once, two years back, muttering something about a new raised road, and a garrisoned out-post, but this had been motivated by the illegal trade in raw otataral, which, through other imperial efforts, had since dried up.

The recent rebellion had barely brushed the collective awareness of the residents, apart from the occasional rumour arriving with a messenger or outlaw riding through, but even they no longer came to the hamlet. In any case, rebellions were for other people.

Thus it was that the appearance of five figures, standing on the nearest rise of the inland track, shortly after midday, was quickly noticed, and word soon reached the nominal head of the community, the blacksmith, whose name was Barathol Mekhar, and who was the only resident who had not been born there. Of his past in the world beyond, little was known except what was self-evident – his deep, almost onyx black skin marked him as from a tribe of the south-western corner of the subcontinent, hundreds, perhaps thousands of leagues distant. And the curled scarification on his cheeks looked martial, as did the skein of blade-cuts puckering his hands and forearms. He was known as a man of few words and virtually no opinions – at least none he cared to share – and so was well-suited as the hamlet’s unofficial leader.

Trailed by a half-dozen adults who still professed to curiosity, Barathol Mekhar walked up the only street until he came to the hamlet’s edge. The buildings to either side were ruined, long abandoned, their roofs caved in and walls crumbling and sand-heaped. Sixty or so paces away stood the five figures, motionless, barring the ripple of the ragged strips of their fur cloaks. Two held spears, the other three carrying long two-handed swords slung across their backs. Some of them appeared to be missing limbs.

Barathol’s eyes were not as sharp as they once had been. Even so … ‘Jhelim, Filiad, go to the smithy. Walk, don’t run. There’s a trunk behind the hide bolts. It’s got a lock – break it. Take out the axe and shield, and the gauntlets, and the helm – never mind the chain – there’s no time for that. Now, go.’

In the eleven years that Barathol had lived among them, he had never spoken so many words in a row to anyone. Jhelim and Filiad both stared in shock at the blacksmith’s broad back, then, sudden fear filling their guts, they turned about and walked, stiffly, with awkward, overlong strides, back down the street.

‘Bandits,’ whispered Kulat, the herder who’d butchered his last goat in exchange for a bottle of liquor from a caravan passing through seven years ago, and had done nothing since. ‘Maybe they just want water – we ain’t got nothing else.’ The small round pebbles he kept in his mouth clicked as he spoke.

‘They don’t want water,’ Barathol said. ‘The rest of you, go find weapons – anything – no, never mind that. Just go to your homes. Stay there.’

‘What are they waiting for?’ Kulat asked, as the others scattered.

‘I don’t know,’ the blacksmith admitted.

‘Well, they look to be from a tribe I ain’t never seen before.’ He sucked on the stones for a moment, then said, ‘Those furs – ain’t it kind of hot for furs? And those bone helmets—’

‘They’re bone? Your eyes are better than mine, Kulat.’

‘Only things still working, Barathol. Squat bunch, eh? You recognize the tribe, maybe?’

The blacksmith nodded. From the village behind them, he could now hear Jhelim and Filiad, their breaths loud as they hurried forward. ‘I think so,’ Barathol said in answer to Kulat’s question.

‘They going to be trouble?’

Jhelim stepped into his view, struggling beneath the weight of the double-bladed axe, the haft encased in strips of iron, a looping chain at the weighted pommel, the Aren steel of the honed edges gleaming silver. A three-pronged punch-spike jutted from the top of the weapon, edged like a crossbow quarrel-head. The young man was staring down at it as if it were the old Emperor’s sceptre.

Beside Jhelim was Filiad, carrying the iron-scaled gauntlets, a round-shield and the camailed, grille-faced helm.

Barathol collected the gauntlets and tugged them on. The rippling scales reached up his forearms to a hinged elbow-cup, and the gauntlets were strapped in place just above the joint. The underside of the sleeves held a single bar, the iron black and notched, reaching from wrist to cup. He then took the helm, and scowled. ‘You forgot the quilted under-padding.’ He handed it back. ‘Give me the shield – strap it on my arm, damn you, Filiad. Tighter. Good.’

The blacksmith then reached out for the axe. Jhelim needed both arms and all his strength to raise the weapon high enough for Barathol’s right hand to slip through the chain loop, twisting twice before closing about the haft, and lifting it seemingly effortlessly from Jhelim’s grasp. To the two men, he said, ‘Get out of here.’

Kulat remained. ‘They’re coming forward now, Barathol.’

The blacksmith had not pulled his gaze from the figures. ‘I’m not that blind, old man.’

‘You must be, to stay standing here. You say you know the tribe – have they come for you, maybe? Some old vendetta?’

‘It’s possible,’ Barathol conceded. ‘If so, then the rest of you should be all right. Once they’re done with me, they’ll leave.’

‘What makes you so sure?’

‘I’m not.’ Barathol lifted the axe into readiness. ‘With T’lan Imass, there’s no way to tell.’



I walked the winding path down into the valley,

Where low stone walls divided the farms and holds

And each measured plot had its place in the scheme

That all who lived there well understood,

To guide their travels and hails in the day

And lend a familiar hand in the darkest night

Back to home’s door and the dancing dogs.

I walked until called up short by an old man

Who straightened from work in challenge,

And smiling to fend his calculation and judgement,

I asked him to tell me all he knew

Of the lands to the west, beyond the vale,

And he was relieved to answer that there were cities,

Vast and teeming with all sorts of strangeness,

And a king and feuding priesthoods and once,

He told me, he saw a cloud of dust flung up

By the passing of an army, off to battle

Somewhere, he was certain, in the chilly south,

And so I gleaned all that he knew, and it was not much,

Beyond the vale he had never been, from birth

Until now, he had never known and had,

Truth to tell, never been for thus it is

That the scheme transpires for the low kind

In all places in all times and curiosity lies unhoned

And pitted, although he gave breath enough to ask

Who I was and how had I come here and where

My destination, leaving me to answer with fading smile,

That I was bound for the teeming cities yet must needs

Pass first through here and had he yet noticed

That his dogs were lying still on the ground,

For I had leave to answer, you see, that I am come,

Mistress of Plague and this, alas, was proof

Of a far grander scheme.

Poliel’s Leave

Fisher kel Tath


The streets are crowded with lies these days.

High Mage Tayschrenn, Empress Laseen’s Coronation

Recorded by Imperial Historian Duiker

1164 Burn’s Sleep

Fifty-eight days after the Execution of Sha’ik

Wayward winds had stirred the dust into the air earlier that day, and all who came into Ehrlitan’s eastern inland gate were coated, clothes and skin, with the colour of the red sandstone hills. Merchants, pilgrims, drovers and travellers appeared before the guards as if conjured, one after another, from the swirling haze, heads bent as they trudged into the gate’s lee, eyes slitted behind folds of stained linen. Rust-sheathed goats stumbled after the drovers, horses and oxen arrived with drooped heads and rings of gritty crust around their nostrils and eyes, wagons hissed as sand sifted down between weathered boards in the beds. The guards watched on, thinking only of the end of their watch, and the baths, meals and warm bodies that would follow as proper reward for duties upheld.

The woman who came in on foot was noted, but for all the wrong reasons. Sheathed in tight silks, head wrapped and face hidden beneath a scarf, she was nonetheless worth a second glance, if only for the grace of her stride and the sway of her hips. The guards, being men and slavish to their imaginations, provided the rest.

She noted their momentary attention and understood it well enough to be unconcerned. More problematic had one or both of the guards been female. They might well have wondered that she was entering the city by this particular gate, having come down, on foot, this particular road, which wound league upon league through parched, virtually lifeless hills, then ran parallel to a mostly uninhabited scrub forest for yet more leagues. An arrival, then, made still more unusual since she was carrying no supplies, and the supple leather of her moccasins was barely worn. Had the guards been female, they would have accosted her, and she would have faced some hard questions, none of which she was prepared to answer truthfully.

Fortunate for the guards, then, that they had been male. Fortunate, too, the delicious lure of a man’s imagination as those gazes followed her into the street, empty of suspicion yet feverishly disrobing her curved form with every swing of her hips, a motion she only marginally exaggerated.

Coming to an intersection she turned left and moments later was past their lines of sight. The wind was blunted here in the city, although fine dust continued to drift down to coat all in a monochrome powder. The woman continued through the crowds, her route a gradual, inward spiral towards the Jen’rahb, Ehrlitan’s central tel, the vast multi-layered ruin inhabited by little more than vermin, of both the four-legged and two-legged kind. Arriving at last within sight of the collapsed buildings, she found a nearby inn, modest in presentation and without ambition to be other than a local establishment housing a few whores in the second-floor rooms and a dozen or so regulars in the groundfloor tavern.

Beside the tavern’s entrance was an arched passage leading into a small garden. The woman stepped into that passage to brush the dust from her clothing, then walked on to the shallow basin of silty water beneath a desultorily trickling fountain, where she unwound the scarf and splashed her face, sufficient to take the sting from her eyes.

Returning through the passage, the woman then entered the tavern.

Gloomy, the smoke from fires, oil lanterns, durhang, itralbe and rustleaf drifting beneath the low plaster ceiling, three-quarters full and all of the tables occupied. A youth had preceded her by a few moments, and was now breathlessly expounding on some adventure barely survived. Noting this as she walked past the young man and his listeners, the woman allowed herself a faint smile that was, perhaps, sadder than she had intended.

She found a place at the bar and beckoned the tender over. He stopped opposite and studied her intently while she ordered, in unaccented Ehrlii, a bottle of rice wine.

At her request he reached under the counter and she heard the clink of bottles as he said, in Malazan, ‘Hope you’re not expecting anything worth the name, lass.’ He straightened, brushing dust from a clay bottle then peering at the stopper. ‘This one’s at least still sealed.’

‘That will do,’ she said, still speaking the local dialect, laying out on the bar-top three silver crescents.

‘Plan on drinking all of it?’

‘I’d need a room upstairs to crawl into,’ she replied, tugging the stopper free as the barman set down a tin goblet. ‘One with a lock,’ she added.

‘Then Oponn’s smiling on you,’ he said. ‘One’s just become available.’


‘You attached to Dujek’s army?’ the man asked.

She poured out a full draught of the amber, somewhat cloudy wine. ‘No. Why, is it here?’

‘Tail ends,’ he replied. ‘The main body marched out six days ago. Left a garrison, of course. That’s why I was wondering—’

‘I belong to no army.’

Her tone, strangely cold and flat, silenced him. Moments later, he drifted away to attend to another customer.

She drank. Steadily working through the bottle as the light faded outside, and the tavern grew yet more crowded, voices getting louder, elbows and shoulders jostling against her more often than was entirely necessary. She ignored the casual groping, eyes on the liquid in the goblet before her.

At last she was done, and so she turned about and threaded her way, unsteadily, through the press of bodies to arrive finally at the stairs. She made her ascent cautiously, one hand on the flimsy railing, vaguely aware that someone was, unsurprisingly, following her.

At the landing she set her back against a wall.

The stranger arrived, still wearing a stupid grin – that froze on his face as the point of a knife pressed the skin beneath his left eye.

‘Go back downstairs,’ the woman said.

A tear of blood trickled down the man’s cheek, gathered thick along the ridge of his jaw. He was trembling, wincing as the point slipped in ever deeper. ‘Please,’ he whispered.

She reeled slightly, inadvertently slicing open the man’s cheek, fortunately downward rather than up into his eye. He cried out and staggered back, hands up in an effort to stop the flow of blood, then stumbled his way down the stairs.

Shouts from below, then a harsh laugh.

The woman studied the knife in her hand, wondering where it had come from, and whose blood now gleamed from it.

No matter.

She went in search of her room, and, eventually, found it.

The vast dust storm was natural, born out on the Jhag Odhan and cycling widdershins into the heart of the Seven Cities subcontinent. The winds swept northward along the east side of the hills, crags and old mountains ringing the Holy Desert of Raraku – a desert that was now a sea – and were drawn into a war of lightning along the ridge’s breadth, visible from the cities of Pan’potsun and G’danisban. Wheeling westward, the storm spun out writhing arms, one of these striking Ehrlitan before blowing out above the Ehrlitan Sea, another reaching to the city of Pur Atrii. As the main body of the storm curled back inland, it gathered energy once more, battering the north side of the Thalas Mountains, engulfing the cities of Hatra and Y’Ghatan before turning southward one last time. A natural storm, one final gift, perhaps, from the old spirits of Raraku.

The fleeing army of Leoman of the Flails had embraced that gift, riding into that relentless wind for days on end, the days stretching into weeks, the world beyond reduced to a wall of suspended sand all the more bitter for what it reminded the survivors of – their beloved Whirlwind, the hammer of Sha’ik and Dryjhna the Apocalyptic. Yet, even in bitterness, there was life, there was salvation.

Tavore’s Malazan army still pursued, not in haste, not with the reckless stupidity shown immediately following the death of Sha’ik and the shattering of the rebellion. Now, the hunt was a measured thing, a tactical stalking of the last organized force opposed to the empire. A force believed to be in possession of the Holy Book of Dryjhna, the lone artifact of hope for the embattled rebels of Seven Cities.

Though he possessed it not, Leoman of the Flails cursed that book daily. With almost religious zeal and appalling imagination, he growled out his curses, the rasping wind thankfully stripping the words away so that only Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas, riding close alongside his commander, could hear. When tiring of that tirade, Leoman would concoct elaborate schemes to destroy the tome once it came into his hands. Fire, horse piss, bile, Moranth incendiaries, the belly of a dragon … until Corabb, exhausted, pulled away to ride in the more reasonable company of his fellow rebels.

Who would then ply him with fearful questions, casting uneasy glances Leoman’s way. What was he saying?

Prayers, Corabb would answer. Our commander prays to Dryjhna all day. Leoman of the Flails, he told them, is a pious man.

About as pious as could be expected. The rebellion was collapsing, whipped away on the winds. Cities had capitulated, one after another, upon the appearance of imperial armies and ships. Citizens turned on neighbours in their zeal to present criminals to answer for the multitude of atrocities committed during the uprising. Once-heroes and petty tyrants alike were paraded before the reoccupiers, and blood-lust was high. Such grim news reached them from caravans they intercepted as they fled ever onward. And with each tatter of news, Leoman’s expression darkened yet further, as if it was all he could do to bind taut the rage within him.

It was disappointment, Corabb told himself, punctuating the thought each time with a long sigh. The people of Seven Cities so quickly relinquished the freedom won at the cost of so many lives, and this was indeed a bitter truth, a most sordid comment on human nature. Had it all been for nothing, then? How could a pious warrior not experience soul-burning disappointment? How many tens of thousands of people had died? For what?

And so Corabb told himself he understood his commander. Understood that Leoman could not let go, not yet, perhaps never. Holding fast to the dream gave meaning to all that had gone before.

Complicated thoughts. It had taken Corabb many hours of frowning regard to reach them, to make that extraordinary leap into the mind of another man, to see through his eyes, if only for a moment, before reeling back in humble confusion. He had caught a glimpse, then, of what made great leaders, in battle, in matters of state. The facility of their intelligence in shifting perspectives, in seeing things from all sides. When, for Corabb, it was all he could manage, truth be told, to cling to a single vision – his own – in the midst of so much discord as the world was wont to rear up before him.

If not for his commander, Corabb well knew, he would be lost.

A gloved hand, gesturing, and Corabb kicked his mount forward until he was at Leoman’s side.

The hooded, cloth-wrapped face swung close, leatherclad fingers tugging the stained silk away from the mouth, and words shouted so that Corabb could hear them: ‘Where in Hood’s name are we?’

Corabb stared, squinted, then sighed.

Her finger provided the drama, ploughing a traumatic furrow across the well-worn path. The ants scurried in confusion, and Samar Dev watched them scrabbling fierce with the insult, the soldiers with their heads lifted and mandibles opened wide as if they would challenge the gods. Or, in this case, a woman slowly dying of thirst.

She was lying on her side in the shade of the wagon. It was just past midday, and the air was still. The heat had stolen all strength from her limbs. It was unlikely she could continue her assault on the ants, and the realization gave her a moment of regret. The deliverance of discord into otherwise predictable, truncated and sordid lives seemed a worthwhile thing. Well, perhaps not worthwhile, but certainly interesting. God-like thoughts, then, to mark her last day among the living.

Motion caught her attention. The dust of the road, shivering, and now she could hear a growing thunder, reverberating like earthen drums. The track she was on was not a well-traversed one here on the Ugarat Odhan. It belonged to an age long past, when the caravans plied the scores of routes between the dozen or more great cities of which ancient Ugarat was the hub, and all those cities, barring Kayhum on the banks of the river and Ugarat itself, were dead a thousand years or more.

Still, a lone rider could as easily be one too many as her salvation, for she was a woman with ample womanly charms, and she was alone. Sometimes, it was said, bandits and raiders used these mostly forgotten tracks as they made their way between caravan routes. Bandits were notoriously ungenerous.

The hoofs approached, ever louder, then the creature slowed, and a moment later a sultry cloud of dust rolled over Samar Dev. The horse snorted, a strangely vicious sound, and there was a softer thud as the rider slipped down. Faint footfalls drew nearer.

What was this? A child? A woman?

A shadow slid into view beyond that cast by the wagon, and Samar Dev rolled her head, watching as the figure strode round the wagon and looked down on her.

No, neither child nor woman. Perhaps, she considered, not even a man. An apparition, tattered white fur riding the impossibly broad shoulders. A sword of flaked flint strapped to his back, the grip wrapped in hide. She blinked hard, seeking more details, but the bright sky behind him defeated her. A giant of a man who walked quiet as a desert cat, a nightmare vision, a hallucination.

And then he spoke, but not, it was clear, to her. ‘You shall have to wait for your meal, Havok. This one still lives.’

‘Havok eats dead women?’ Samar asked, her voice ragged. ‘Who do you ride with?’

‘Not with,’ the giant replied. ‘On.’ He moved closer and crouched down beside her. There was something in his hands – a waterskin – but she found she could not pull her gaze from his face. Even, hard-edged features, broken and crazed by a tattoo of shattered glass, the mark of an escaped slave. ‘I see your wagon,’ he said, speaking the language of the desert tribes yet oddly accented, ‘but where is the beast that pulled it?’

‘In the bed,’ she replied.

He set the skin at her side and straightened, walked over and leaned in for a look. ‘There’s a dead man in there.’

‘Yes, that’s him. He’s broken down.’

‘He was pulling this wagon? No wonder he’s dead.’

She reached over and managed to close both hands around the waterskin’s neck. Tugged the stopper free and tilted it over her mouth. Warm, delicious water. ‘Do you see those double levers beside him?’ she asked. ‘Work those and the wagon moves. It’s my own invention.’

‘Is it hard work? Then why hire an old man to do it?’

‘He was a potential investor. Wanted to see how it would work for himself.’

The giant grunted, and she saw him studying her. ‘We were doing fine,’ she said. ‘At first. But then it broke. The linkage. We were only planning half a day, but he’d taken us too far out before dropping dead. I thought to walk, but then I broke my foot—’


‘Kicking the wheel. Anyway, I can’t walk.’

He continued staring down at her, like a wolf eyeing a lame hare. She sipped more water. ‘Are you planning on being unpleasant?’ she asked.

‘It is blood-oil that drives a Teblor warrior to rape. I have none. I have not taken a woman by force in years. You are from Ugarat?’


‘I must enter that city for supplies. I want no trouble.’

‘I can help with that.’

‘I want to remain beneath notice.’

‘I’m not sure that’s possible,’ she said.

‘Make it possible and I will take you with me.’

‘Well, that’s not fair. You are half again taller than a normal man. You are tattooed. You have a horse that eats people – assuming it is a horse and not an enkar’al. And you seem to be wearing the skin of a white-furred bear.’

He turned away from the wagon.

‘All right!’ she said hastily. ‘I’ll think of something.’

He came close again, collected the waterskin, slung it over a shoulder, and then picked her up by the belt, one-handed. Pain ripped through her right leg as the broken foot dangled. ‘Seven Hounds!’ she hissed. ‘How undignified do you have to make this?’

Saying nothing, the warrior carried her over to his waiting horse. Not an enkar’al, she saw, but not quite a horse either. Tall, lean and pallid, silver mane and tail, with eyes red as blood. A single rein, no saddle or stirrups. ‘Stand on your good leg,’ he said, lifting her straight. Then he picked up a loop of rope and vaulted onto the horse.

Gasping, leaning against the horse, Samar Dev tracked the double strands of the rope the man held, and saw that he had been dragging something while he rode. Two huge rotted heads. Dogs or bears, as oversized as the man himself.

The warrior reached down and unceremoniously pulled her up until she was settled behind him. More waves of pain, darkness threatening.

‘Beneath notice,’ he said again.

Samar Dev glanced back at those two severed heads. ‘That goes without saying,’ she said.

Musty darkness in the small room, the air stale and sweaty. Two slitted, rectangular holes in the wall just beneath the low ceiling allowed the cool night air to slip inside in fitful gusts, like sighs from a waiting world. For the woman huddled on the floor beside the narrow bed, that world would have to wait a little longer. Arms closed about her drawn-up knees, head lowered, sheathed in black hair that hung in oily strands, she wept. And to weep was to be inside oneself, entirely, an inner place far more unrelenting and unforgiving than anything that could be found outside.

She wept for the man she had abandoned, fleeing the pain she had seen in his eyes, as his love for her kept him stumbling in her wake, matching each footfall yet unable to come any closer. For that she could not allow. The intricate patterns on a hooded snake held mesmerizing charms, but the bite was no less deadly for that. She was the same. There was nothing in her – nothing that she could see – worth the overwhelming gift of love. Nothing in her worthy of him.

He had blinded himself to that truth, and that was his flaw, the flaw he had always possessed. A willingness, perhaps a need, to believe in the good, where no good could be found. Well, this was a love she could not abide, and she would not take him down her path.

Cotillion had understood. The god had seen clearly into the depths of this mortal darkness, as clearly as had Apsalar. And so there had been nothing veiled in the words and silences exchanged between her and the patron god of assassins. A mutual recognition. The tasks he set before her were of a nature suited to his aspect, and to her particular talents. When condemnation had already been pronounced, one could not be indignant over the sentence. But she was no god, so far removed from humanity as to find amorality a thing of comfort, a refuge from one’s own deeds. Everything was getting … harder, harder to manage.

He would not miss her for long. His eyes would slowly open. To other possibilities. He travelled now with two other women, after all – Cotillion had told her that much. So. He would heal, and would not be alone for long, she was certain of that.

More than sufficient fuel to feed her self-pity.

Even so, she had tasks set before her, and it would not do to wallow overlong in this unwelcome self-indulgence. Apsalar slowly raised her head, studied the meagre, grainy details of the room. Trying to recall how she had come to be here. Her head ached, her throat was parched. Wiping the tears from her cheeks, she slowly stood. Pounding pain behind her eyes.

From somewhere below she could hear tavern sounds, a score of voices, drunken laughter. Apsalar found her silklined cloak, reversed it and slipped the garment over her shoulders, then she walked over to the door, unlocked it, and stepped out into the corridor beyond. Two wavering oil-lamps set in niches along the wall, a railing and stairs at the far end. From the room opposite hers came the muffled noise of love-making, the woman’s cries too melodramatic to be genuine. Apsalar listened a moment longer, wondering what it was about the sounds that disturbed her so, then she moved through the flicker of shadows, reaching the steps, and made her way down.

It was late, probably well after the twelfth bell. Twenty or so patrons occupied the tavern, half of them in the livery of caravan guards. They were not regulars, given the unease with which they were regarded by the remaining denizens, and she noted, as she approached the counter, that three were Gral, whilst another pair, both women, were Pardu. Both rather unpleasant tribes, or so Cotillion’s memories informed her in a subtle rustle of disquiet. Typically raucous and overbearing, their eyes finding and tracking her progress to the bar; she elected caution and so kept her gaze averted.

The barman walked over as she arrived. ‘Was beginning to think you’d died,’ he said, as he lifted a bottle of rice wine into view and set it before her. ‘Before you dip into this, lass, I’d like to see some coin.’

‘How much do I owe you so far?’

‘Two silver crescents.’

She frowned. ‘I thought I’d paid already.’

‘For the wine, aye. But then you spent a night and a day and an evening in the room – and I have to charge you for tonight as well, since it’s too late to try renting it out now. Finally,’ he gestured, ‘there’s this bottle here.’

‘I didn’t say I wanted it,’ she replied. ‘But if you’ve any food left …’

‘I’ve some.’

She drew out her coin pouch and found two crescents. ‘Here. Assuming this is for tonight’s room as well.’

He nodded. ‘You don’t want the wine, then?’

‘No. Sawr’ak beer, if you please.’

He collected the bottle and headed off.

A figure pushed in on either side of her. The Pardu women. ‘See those Gral?’ one asked, nodding to a nearby table. ‘They want you to dance for them.’

‘No they don’t,’ Apsalar replied.

‘No,’ the other woman said, ‘they do. They’ll even pay. You walk like a dancer. We could all see that. You don’t want to upset them—’

‘Precisely. Which is why I won’t dance for them.’

The two Pardu were clearly confused by that. In the interval the barman arrived with a tankard of beer and a tin bowl of goat soup, the layer of fat on the surface sporting white hairs to give proof of its origin. He added a hunk of dark bread. ‘Good enough?’

She nodded. ‘Thank you.’ Then turned to the woman who had first spoken. ‘I am a Shadow Dancer. Tell them that, Pardu.’

Both women backed off suddenly, and Apsalar leaned on the counter, listening to the hiss of words spreading out through the tavern. All at once she found she had some space around her. Good enough.

The bartender was regarding her warily. ‘You’re full of surprises,’ he said. ‘That dance is forbidden.’

‘Yes, it is.’

‘You’re from Quon Tali,’ he said in a quieter voice. ‘Itko Kan, I’d guess, by the tilt of your eyes and that black hair. Never heard of a Shadow Dancer out of Itko Kan.’ He leaned close. ‘I was born just outside Gris, you see. Was regular infantry in Dassem’s army, took a spear in the back my first battle and that was it for me. I missed Y’Ghatan, for which I daily give thanks to Oponn. You understand. Didn’t see Dassem die and glad for it.’

‘But you still have stories aplenty,’ Apsalar said.

‘That I have,’ he said with an emphatic nod. Then his gaze sharpened on her. After a moment he grunted and moved away.

She ate, sipped ale, and her headache slowly faded.

Some time later, she gestured to the barman and he approached. ‘I am going out,’ she said, ‘but I wish to keep the room so do not rent it out to anyone else.’

He shrugged. ‘You’ve paid for it. I lock up at fourth bell.’

She straightened and made her way towards the door. The caravan guards tracked her progress, but none made move to follow – at least not immediately.

She hoped they would heed the implicit warning she’d given them. She already intended to kill a man this night, and one was enough, as far as she was concerned.

Stepping outside, Apsalar paused for a moment. The wind had died. The stars were visible as blurry motes behind the veil of fine dust still settling in the storm’s wake. The air was cool and still. Drawing her cloak about her and slipping her silk scarf over the lower half of her face, Apsalar swung left down the street. At the juncture of a narrow alley, thick with shadows, she slipped suddenly into the gloom and was gone.

A few moments later the two Pardu women padded towards the alley. They paused at its mouth, looking down the twisted track, seeing no-one.

‘She spoke true,’ one hissed, making a warding sign. ‘She walks the shadows.’

The other nodded. ‘We must inform our new master.’

They headed off.

Standing within the warren of Shadow, the two Pardu looking ghostly, seeming to shiver into and out of existence as they strode up the street, Apsalar watched them for another dozen heartbeats. She was curious as to who their master might be, but that was a trail she would follow some other night. Turning away, she studied the shadow-wrought world she found herself in. On all sides, a lifeless city. Nothing like Ehrlitan, the architecture primitive and robust, with gated lintel-stone entrances to narrow passageways that ran straight and high-walled. No-one walked those cobbled paths. The buildings to either side of the passageways were all two storeys or less, flat-roofed, and no windows were visible. High narrow doorways gaped black in the grainy gloom.

Even Cotillion’s memories held no recognition of this manifestation in the Shadow Realm, but this was not unusual. There seemed to be uncounted layers, and the fragments of the shattered warren were far more extensive than one might expect. The realm was ever in motion, bound to some wayward force of migration, scudding ceaseless across the mortal world. Overhead, the sky was slate grey – what passed for night in Shadow, and the air was turgid and warm.

One of the passageways led in the direction of Ehrlitan’s central flat-topped hill, the Jen’rahb, once the site of the Falah’d Crown, now a mass of rubble. She set off down it, eyes on the looming, near-transparent wreckage of tumbled stone. The path opened out onto a square, each of the four walls lined with shackles. Two sets still held bodies. Desiccated, slumped in the dust, skin-wrapped skulls sunk low, resting on gracile-boned chests; one was at the end opposite her, the other at the back of the left-hand wall. A portal broke the line of the far wall near the right-side corner.

Curious, Apsalar approached the nearer figure. She could not be certain, but it appeared to be Tiste, either Andii or Edur. The corpse’s long straight hair was colourless, bleached by antiquity. Its accoutrements had rotted away, leaving only a few withered strips and corroded bits of metal. As she crouched before it, there was a swirl of dust beside the body, and her brows lifted as a shade slowly rose into view. Translucent flesh, the bones strangely luminescent, a skeletal face with black-pitted eyes.

‘The body’s mine,’ it whispered, bony fingers clutching the air. ‘You can’t have it.’

The language was Tiste Andii, and Apsalar was vaguely surprised that she understood it. Cotillion’s memories and the knowledge hidden within them could still startle her on occasion. ‘What would I do with the body?’ she asked. ‘I have my own, after all.’

‘Not here. I see naught but a ghost.’

‘As do I.’

It seemed startled. ‘Are you certain?’

‘You died long ago,’ she said. ‘Assuming the body in chains is your own.’

‘My own? No. At least, I don’t think so. It might be. Why not? Yes, it was me, once, long ago. I recognize it. You are the ghost, not me. I’ve never felt better, in fact. Whereas you look … unwell.’

‘Nonetheless,’ Apsalar said, ‘I have no interest in stealing a corpse.’

The shade reached out and brushed the corpse’s lank, pale hair. ‘I was lovely, you know. Much admired, much pursued by the young warriors of the enclave. Perhaps I still am, and it is only my spirit that has grown so … tattered. Which is more visible to the mortal eye? Vigour and beauty moulding flesh, or the miserable wretch hiding beneath it?’

Apsalar winced, looked away. ‘Depends, I think, on how closely you look.’

‘And how clear your vision. Yes, I agree. And beauty, it passes so quickly, doesn’t it just? But misery, ah, misery abides.’

A new voice hissed from where the other corpse hung in its chains. ‘Don’t listen to her! Treacherous bitch, look where we ended up! My fault? Oh no, I was the honest one. Everyone knew that – and prettier besides, don’t let her tell you otherwise! Come over here, dear ghost, and hear the truth!’

Apsalar straightened. ‘I am not the ghost here—’

‘Dissembler! No wonder you prefer her to me!’

She could see the other shade now, a twin to the first one, hovering over its own corpse, or at least the body it claimed as its own. ‘How did you two come to be here?’ she asked.

The second shade pointed at the first. ‘She’s a thief!’

‘So are you!’ the first one retorted.

‘I was only following you, Telorast! “Oh, let’s break into Shadowkeep! There’s no-one there, after all! We could make off with uncounted riches!” Why did I believe you? I was a fool—’

‘Well,’ cut in the other, ‘that’s something we can agree on, at least.’

‘There is no purpose,’ Apsalar said, ‘to the two of you remaining here. Your corpses are rotting away, but those shackles will never release them.’

‘You serve the new master of Shadow!’ The second shade seemed most agitated with its own accusation. ‘That miserable, slimy, wretched—’

‘Quiet!’ hissed the first shade, Telorast. ‘He’ll come back to taunt us some more! I, for one, have no desire ever to see him again. Nor those damned Hounds.’ The ghost edged closer to Apsalar. ‘Most kind servant of the wondrous new master, to answer your question, we would indeed love to leave this place. Alas, where would we go?’ It gestured with one filmy, bony hand. ‘Beyond the city, there are terrible creatures. Deceitful, hungry, numerous! Now,’ it added in a purr, ‘had we an escort …’

‘Oh yes,’ cried the second shade, ‘an escort, to one of the gates – a modest, momentary responsibility, yet we would be most thankful.’

Apsalar studied the two creatures. ‘Who imprisoned you? And speak the truth, else you’ll receive no help from me.’

Telorast bowed deeply, then seemed to settle even lower, and it was a moment before Apsalar realized it was grovelling. ‘Truth to tell. We would not lie as to this. No clearer recollection and no purer integrity in relating said recollection will you hear in any realm. ‘Twas a demon lord—’

‘With seven heads!’ the other interjected, bobbing up and down in some ill-contained excitement.

Telorast cringed. ‘Seven heads? Were there seven? There might well have been. Why not? Yes, seven heads!’

‘And which head,’ Apsalar asked, ‘claimed to be the lord?’

‘The sixth!’

‘The second!’

The two shades regarded each other balefully, then Telorast raised a skeletal finger. ‘Precisely! Sixth from the right, second from the left!’

‘Oh, very good,’ crooned the other.

Apsalar faced the shade. ‘Your companion’s name is Telorast – what is yours?’

It flinched, bobbed, then began its own grovelling, raising minute clouds of dust. ‘Prince – King Cruel, the Slayer of All Foes. The Feared. The Worshipped.’ It hesitated, then, ‘Princess Demure? Beloved of a thousand heroes, bulging, stern-faced men one and all!’ A twitch, low muttering, a brief clawing at its own face. ‘A warlord, no, a twenty-two-headed dragon, with nine wings and eleven thousand fangs. Given the chance …’

Apsalar crossed her arms. ‘Your name.’



‘I do not last long.’

‘Which is what brought us to this sorry demise in the first place,’ Telorast said. ‘You were supposed to watch the path – I specifically told you to watch the path—’

‘I did watch it!’

‘But failed to see the Hound Baran—’

‘I saw Baran, but I was watching the path.’

‘All right,’ Apsalar said, sighing, ‘why should I provide you two with an escort? Give me a reason, please. Any reason at all.’

‘We are loyal companions,’ Telorast said. ‘We will stand by you no matter what horrible end you come to.’

‘We’ll guard your torn-up body for eternity,’ Curdle added, ‘or at least until someone else comes along—’

‘Unless it’s Edgewalker.’

‘Well, that goes without saying, Telorast,’ Curdle said. ‘We don’t like him.’

‘Or the Hounds.’

‘Of course—’

‘Or Shadowthrone, or Cotillion, or an Aptorian, or one of those—’

‘All right!’ Curdle shrieked.

‘I will escort you,’ Apsalar said, ‘to a gate. Whereupon you may leave this realm, since that seems to be your desire. In all probability, you will then find yourselves walking through Hood’s Gate, which would be a mercy to everyone, except perhaps Hood himself.’

‘She doesn’t like us,’ Curdle moaned.

‘Don’t say it out loud,’ Telorast snapped, ‘or she’ll actually realize it. Right now she’s not sure, and that’s good for us, Curdle.’

‘Not sure? Are you deaf? She just insulted us!’

‘That doesn’t mean she doesn’t like us. Not necessarily. Irritated with us, maybe, but then, we irritate everyone. Or, rather, you irritate everyone, Curdle. Because you’re so unreliable.’

‘I’m not always unreliable, Telorast.’

‘Come along,’ Apsalar said, walking towards the far portal. ‘I have things to do this night.’

‘But what about these bodies?’ Curdle demanded.

‘They stay here, obviously.’ She turned and faced the two shades. ‘Either follow me, or don’t. It’s up to you.’

‘But we liked those bodies—’

‘It’s all right, Curdle,’ Telorast said in a soothing tone. ‘We’ll find others.’

Apsalar shot Telorast a glance, bemused by the comment, then she set off, striding into the narrow passageway.

The two ghosts scurried and flitted after her.

The basin’s level floor was a crazed latticework of cracks, the clay silts of the old lake dried by decades of sun and heat. Wind and sands had polished the surface so that it gleamed in the moonlight, like tiles of silver. A deep-sunk well, encircled by a low wall of bricks, marked the centre of the lake-bed.

Outriders from Leoman’s column had already reached the well, dismounting to inspect it, while the main body of the horse-warriors filed down onto the basin. The storm was past, and stars glistened overhead. Exhausted horses and exhausted rebels made a slow procession over the broken, webbed ground. Capemoths flitted over the heads of the riders, weaving and spinning to escape the hunting rhizan lizards that wheeled in their midst like miniature dragons. An incessant war overhead, punctuated by the crunch of carapaced armour and the thin, metallic deathcries of the capemoths.

Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas leaned forward on his saddle, the hinged horn squealing, and spat to his left. Defiance, a curse to these clamouring echoes of battle. And to get the taste of grit from his mouth. He glanced over at Leoman, who rode in silence. They had been leaving a trail of dead horses, and almost everyone was on their second or third mount. A dozen warriors had surrendered to the pace this past day, older men who had dreamed of a last battle against the hated Malazans, beneath the blessed gaze of Sha’ik, only to see that opportunity torn away by treachery. There were more than a few broken spirits in this tattered regiment, Corabb knew. It was easy to understand how one could lose hope during this pathetic journey.

If not for Leoman of the Flails, Corabb himself might have given up long ago, slipping off into the blowing sands to seek his own destiny, discarding the trappings of a rebel soldier, and settling down in some remote city with memories of despair haunting his shadow until the Hoarder of Souls came to claim him. If not for Leoman of the Flails.

The riders reached the well, spreading out to create a circle encampment around its life-giving water. Corabb drew rein a moment after Leoman had done so, and both dismounted, boots crunching on a carpet of bones and scales from long-dead fish.

‘Corabb,’ Leoman said, ‘walk with me.’

They set off in a northerly direction until they were fifty paces past the outlying pickets, standing alone on the cracked pan. Corabb noted a depression nearby in which sat half-buried lumps of clay. Drawing his dagger, he walked over and crouched down to retrieve one of the lumps. Breaking it open to reveal the toad curled up within it, he dug the creature out and returned to his commander’s side. ‘An unexpected treat,’ he said, pulling off a withered leg and tearing at the tough but sweet flesh.

Leoman stared at him in the moonlight. ‘You will have strange dreams, Corabb, eating those.’

‘Spirit dreams, yes. They do not frighten me, Commander. Except for all the feathers.’

Making no comment on that, Leoman unstrapped his helm and pulled it off. He stared up at the stars, then said, ‘What do my soldiers want of me? Am I to lead us to an impossible victory?’

‘You are destined to carry the Book,’ Corabb said around a mouthful of meat.

‘And the goddess is dead.’

‘Dryjhna is more than that goddess, Commander. The Apocalyptic is as much a time as it is anything else.’

Leoman glanced over. ‘You do manage to surprise me still, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas, after all these years.’

Pleased by this compliment, or what he took for a compliment, Corabb smiled, then spat out a bone and said, ‘I have had time to think, Commander. While we rode. I have thought long and those thoughts have walked strange paths. We are the Apocalypse. This last army of the rebellion. And I believe we are destined to show the world the truth of that.’

‘Why do you believe that?’

‘Because you lead us, Leoman of the Flails, and you are not one to slink away like some creeping meer-rat. We journey towards something – I know, many here see this as a flight, but I do not. Not all the time, anyway.’

‘A meer-rat,’ Leoman mused. ‘That is the name for those lizard-eating rats in the Jen’rahb, in Ehrlitan.’

Corabb nodded. ‘The long-bodied ones, with the scaly heads, yes.’

‘A meer-rat,’ Leoman said again, oddly thoughtful. ‘Almost impossible to hunt down. They can slip through cracks a snake would have trouble with. Hinged skulls …’

‘Bones like green twigs, yes,’ Corabb said, sucking at the skull of the toad, then flinging it away. Watching as it sprouted wings and flew off into the night. He glanced over at his commander’s feather-clad features. ‘They make terrible pets. When startled, they dive for the first hole in sight, no matter how small. A woman died with a meer-rat halfway up her nose, or so I heard. When they get stuck, they start chewing. Feathers everywhere.’

‘I take it no-one keeps them as pets any more,’ Leoman said, studying the stars once again. ‘We ride towards our Apocalypse, do we? Yes, well.’

‘We could leave the horses,’ Corabb said. ‘And just fly away. It’d be much quicker.’

‘That would be unkind, wouldn’t it?’

‘True. Honourable beasts, horses. You shall lead us, Winged One, and we shall prevail.’

‘An impossible victory.’

‘Many impossible victories, Commander.’

‘One would suffice.’

‘Very well,’ Corabb said. ‘One, then.’

‘I don’t want this, Corabb. I don’t want any of this. I’m of a mind to disperse this army.’

‘That will not work, Commander. We are returning to our birthplace. It is the season for that. To build nests on the rooftops.’

‘I think,’ Leoman said, ‘it is time you went to sleep.’

‘Yes, you are right. I will sleep now.’

‘Go on. I will remain here for a time.’

‘You are Leoman of the Feathers, and it shall be as you say.’ Corabb saluted, then strode back towards the encampment and its host of oversized vultures. It was not so bad a thing, he mused. Vultures survived because other things did not, after all.

Now alone, Leoman continued studying the night sky. Would that Toblakai rode with him now. The giant warrior was blind to uncertainty. Alas, also somewhat kicking in subtlety. The bludgeon of Karsa Orlong’s reasoning would permit no disguising of unpleasant truths.

A meer-rat. He would have to think on that.

‘You can’t come in here with those!’

The giant warrior looked back at the trailing heads, then he lifted Samar Dev clear of the horse, set her down, and slipped off the beast himself. He brushed dust from his furs, walked over to the gate guard. Picked him up and threw him into a nearby cart.

Someone screamed – quickly cut short as the warrior swung round.

Twenty paces up the street, as dusk gathered the second guard was in full flight, heading, Samar suspected, for the blockhouse to round up twenty or so of his fellows. She sighed. ‘This hasn’t started well, Karsa Orlong.’

The first guard, lying amidst the shattered cart, was not moving.

Karsa eyed Samar Dev, then said, ‘Everything is fine, woman. I am hungry. Find me an inn, one with a stable.’

‘We shall have to move quickly, and I for one am unable to do that.’

‘You are proving a liability,’ Karsa Orlong said.

Alarm bells began ringing a few streets away. ‘Put me back on your horse,’ Samar said, ‘and I will give you directions, for all the good that will do.’

He approached her.

‘Careful, please – this leg can’t stand much more jostling.’

He made a disgusted expression. ‘You are soft, like all children.’ Yet he was less haphazard when he lifted her back onto the horse.

‘Down this side track,’ she said. ‘Away from the bells. There’s an inn on Trosfalhadan Street, it’s not far.’ Glancing to her right, she saw a squad of guards appear further down the main street. ‘Quickly, warrior, if you don’t want to spend this night in a gaol cell.’

Citizens had gathered to watch them. Two had walked over to the dead or unconscious guard, crouching to examine the unfortunate man. Another stood nearby, complaining about his shattered cart and pointing at Karsa – although only when the huge warrior wasn’t looking.

They made their way down the avenue running parallel to the ancient wall. Samar scowled at the various bystanders who had elected to follow them. ‘I am Samar Dev,’ she said loudly. ‘Will you risk a curse from me? Any of you?’ People shrank back, then quickly turned away.

Karsa glanced back at her. ‘You are a witch?’

‘You have no idea.’

‘And had I left you on the trail, you would have cursed me?’

‘Most certainly.’

He grunted, said nothing for the next ten paces, then turned once again. ‘Why did you not call upon spirits to heal yourself?’

‘I had nothing with which to bargain,’ she replied. ‘The spirits one finds in the wastelands are hungry things, Karsa Orlong. Covetous and not to be trusted.’

‘You cannot be much of a witch, then, if you need to bargain. Why not just bind them and demand that they heal your leg?’

‘One who binds risks getting bound in return. I will not walk that path.’

He made no reply to that.

‘Here is Trosfalhadan Street. Up one avenue, there, see that big building with the walled compound beside it? Inn of the Wood, it’s called. Hurry, before the guards reach this corner.’

‘They will find us nonetheless,’ Karsa said. ‘You have failed in your task.’

‘I wasn’t the one who threw that guard into a cart!’

‘He spoke rudely. You should have warned him.’

They reached the double gates at the compound.

From the corner behind them came shouts. Samar twisted round on the horse and watched the guards rush towards them. Karsa strode past her, drawing free the huge flint sword. ‘Wait!’ she cried. ‘Let me speak with them first, warrior, else you find yourself fighting a whole city’s worth of guards.’

He paused. ‘They are deserving of mercy?’

She studied him a moment, then nodded. ‘If not them, then their families.’

‘You are under arrest!’ The shout came from the rapidly closing guards.

Karsa’s tattooed face darkened.

Samar edged down from the horse and hobbled to place herself between the giant and the guards, all of whom had drawn scimitars and were fanning out on the street. Beyond, a crowd of onlookers was gathering. She held up her hands. ‘There has been a misunderstanding.’

‘Samar Dev,’ one man said in a growl. ‘Best you step aside – this is no affair of yours—’

‘But it is, Captain Inashan. This warrior has saved my life. My wagon broke down out in the wastes, and I broke my leg – look at me. I was dying. And so I called upon a spirit of the wild-lands.’

The captain’s eyes widened as he regarded Karsa Orlong. ‘This is a spirit?’

‘Most assuredly,’ Samar replied. ‘One who is of course ignorant of our customs. That gate guard acted in what this spirit perceived as a hostile manner. Does he still live?’

The captain nodded. ‘Knocked senseless, that is all.’ The man then pointed towards the severed heads. ‘What are those?’

‘Trophies,’ she answered. ‘Demons. They had escaped their own realm and were approaching Ugarat. Had not this spirit killed them, they would have descended upon us with great slaughter. And with not a single worthy mage left in Ugarat, we would have fared poorly indeed.’

Captain Inashan narrowed his gaze on Karsa. ‘Can you understand my words?’

‘They have been simple enough thus far,’ the warrior replied.

The captain scowled. ‘Does she speak the truth?’

‘More than she realizes, yet even so, there are untruths in her tale. I am not a spirit. I am Toblakai, once bodyguard to Sha’ik. Yet this woman bargained with me as she would a spirit. More, she knew nothing of where I came from or who I was, and so she might well have imagined I was a spirit of the wild-lands.’

Voices rose among both guards and citizens at the name Sha’ik, and Samar saw a dawning recognition in the captain’s expression. ‘Toblakai, companion to Leoman of the Flails. Tales of you have reached us.’ He pointed with his scimitar at the fur riding Karsa’s shoulders. ‘Slayer of a Soletaken, a white bear. Executioner of Sha’ik’s betrayers in Raraku. It is said you slew demons the night before Sha’ik was killed,’ he added, eyes on the rotted, flailed heads. ‘And, when she had been slain by the Adjunct, you rode out to face the Malazan army – and they would not fight you.’

‘There is some truth in what you have spoken,’ Karsa said, ‘barring the words I exchanged with the Malazans—’

‘One of Sha’ik’s own,’ Samar quickly said, sensing the warrior was about to say something unwise, ‘how could we of Ugarat not welcome you? The Malazan garrison has been driven from this city and is even now starving in Moraval Keep on the other side of the river, besieged with no hope of succour.’

‘You are wrong in that,’ Karsa said.

She wanted to kick him. Then again, look how that had turned out the last time? All right, you ox, go and hang yourself.

‘What do you mean?’ Captain Inashan asked.

‘The rebellion is broken, the Malazans have retaken cities by the score. They will come here, too, eventually. I suggest you make peace with the garrison.’

‘Would that not put you at risk?’ Samar asked.

The warrior bared his teeth. ‘My war is done. If they cannot accept that, I will kill them all.’

An outrageous claim, yet no-one laughed. Captain Inashan hesitated, then he sheathed his scimitar, his soldiers following suit. ‘We have heard of the rebellion’s failure,’ he said. ‘For the Malazans in the keep, alas, it might well be too late. They have been trapped in there for months. And no-one has been seen on the walls for some time—’

‘I will go there,’ Karsa said. ‘Gestures of peace must be made.’

‘It is said,’ Inashan muttered, ‘that Leoman still lives. That he leads the last army and has vowed to fight on.’

‘Leoman rides his own path. I would place no faith in it, were I you.’

The advice was not well received. Arguments rose, until Inashan turned on his guards and silenced them with an upraised hand. ‘These matters must be brought to the Falah’d.’ He faced Karsa again. ‘You will stay this night at the Inn of the Wood?’

‘I shall, although it is not made of wood, and so it should be called Inn of the Brick.’

Samar laughed. ‘You can bring that up with the owner, Toblakai. Captain, are we done here?’

Inashan nodded. ‘I will send a healer to mend your leg, Samar Dev.’

‘In return, I bless you and your kin, Captain.’

‘You are too generous,’ he replied with a bow.

The squad headed off. Samar turned to regard the giant warrior. ‘Toblakai, how have you survived this long in Seven Cities?’

He looked down at her, then slung the stone sword once more over his shoulder. ‘There is no armour made that can withstand the truth …’

‘When backed by that sword?’

‘Yes, Samar Dev. I find it does not take long for children to understand that. Even here in Seven Cities.’ He pushed open the gates. ‘Havok will require a stable away from other beasts … at least until his hunger is appeased.’

‘I don’t like the looks of that,’ Telorast muttered, nervously shifting about.

‘It is a gate,’ Apsalar said.

‘But where does it lead?’ Curdle asked, indistinct head bobbing.

‘It leads out,’ she replied. ‘Onto the Jen’rahb, in the city of Ehrlitan. It is where I am going.’

‘Then that is where we are going,’ Telorast announced. ‘Are there bodies there? I hope so. Fleshy, healthy bodies.’

She regarded the two ghosts. ‘You intend to steal bodies to house your spirits? I am not sure that I can permit that.’

‘Oh, we wouldn’t do that,’ Curdle said. ‘That would be possession, and that’s difficult, very difficult. Memories seep back and forth, yielding confusion and inconsistency.’

‘True,’ Telorast said. ‘And we are most consistent, are we not? No, my dear, we just happen to like bodies. In proximity. They … comfort us. You, for example. You are a great comfort to us, though we know not your name.’


‘She’s dead!’ Curdle shrieked. To Apsalar: ‘I knew you were a ghost!’

‘I am named after the Mistress of Thieves. I am not her in the flesh.’

‘She must be speaking the truth,’ Telorast said to Curdle. ‘If you recall, Apsalar looked nothing like this one. The real Apsalar was Imass, or very nearly Imass. And she wasn’t very friendly—’

‘Because you stole from her temple coffers,’ Curdle said, squirming about in small dust-clouds.

‘Even before then. Decidedly unfriendly, where this Apsalar, this one here, she’s kind. Her heart is bursting with warmth and generosity—’

‘Enough of that,’ Apsalar said, turning to the gate once more. ‘As I mentioned earlier, this gate leads to the Jen’rahb … for me. For the two of you, of course, it might well lead into Hood’s Realm. I am not responsible for that, should you find yourselves before Death’s Gate.’

‘Hood’s Realm? Death’s Gate?’ Telorast began moving from side to side, a strange motion that Apsalar belatedly realized was pacing, although the ghost had sunk part-way into the ground, making it look more like wading. ‘There is no fear of that. We are too powerful. Too wise. Too cunning.’

‘We were great mages, once,’ Curdle said. ‘Necromancers, Spiritwalkers, Conjurers, Wielders of Fell Holds, Masters of the Thousand Warrens—’

‘Mistresses, Curdle. Mistresses of the Thousand Warrens.’

‘Yes, Telorast. Mistresses indeed. What was I thinking? Beauteous mistresses, curvaceous, languid, sultry, occasionally simpering—’

Apsalar walked through the gate.

She stepped onto broken rubble alongside the foundations of a collapsed wall. The night air was chill, stars sharp overhead.

‘—and even Kallor quailed before us, isn’t that right, Telorast?’

‘Oh yes, he quailed.’

Apsalar looked down to find herself flanked by the two ghosts. She sighed. ‘You evaded Hood’s Realm, I see.’

‘Clumsy grasping hands,’ Curdle sniffed. ‘We were too quick.’

‘As we knew we’d be,’ Telorast added. ‘What place is this? It’s all broken—’

Curdle clambered atop the foundation wall. ‘No, you are wrong, Telorast, as usual. I see buildings beyond. Lit windows. The very air reeks of life.’

‘This is the Jen’rahb,’ Apsalar said. ‘The ancient centre of the city, which collapsed long ago beneath its own weight.’

‘As all cities must, eventually,’ Telorast observed, trying to pick up a brick fragment. But its hand slipped ineffectually through the object. ‘Oh, we are most useless in this realm.’

Curdle glanced down at its companion. ‘We need bodies—’

‘I told you before—’

‘Fear not, Apsalar,’ Curdle replied in a crooning tone, ‘we will not unduly offend you. The bodies need not be sentient, after all.’

‘Are there the equivalent of Hounds here?’ Telorast asked.

Curdle snorted. ‘The Hounds are sentient, you fool!’

‘Only stupidly so!’

‘Not so stupid as to fall for our tricks, though, were they?’

‘Are there imbrules here? Stantars? Luthuras – are there luthuras here? Scaly, long grasping tails, eyes like the eyes of purlith bats—’

‘No,’ Apsalar said. ‘None of those creatures.’ She frowned. ‘Those you have mentioned are of Starvald Demelain.’

A momentary silence from the two ghosts, then Curdle snaked along the top of the wall until its eerie face was opposite Apsalar. ‘Really? Now, that’s a peculiar coincidence—’

‘Yet you speak the language of the Tiste Andii.’

‘We do? Why, that’s even stranger.’

‘Baffling,’ Telorast agreed. ‘We, uh, we assumed it was the language you spoke. Your native language, that is.’

‘Why? I am not Tiste Andii.’

‘No, of course not. Well, thank the Abyss that’s been cleared up. Where shall we go from here?’

‘I suggest,’ Apsalar said after a moment’s thought, ‘that you two remain here. I have tasks to complete this night, and they are not suited to company.’

‘You desire stealth,’ Telorast whispered, crouching low. ‘We could tell, you know. There’s something of the thief about you. Kindred spirits, the three of us, I think. A thief, yes, and perhaps something darker.’

‘Well of course darker,’ Curdle said from the wall. ‘A servant of Shadowthrone, or the Patron of Assassins. There will be blood spilled this night, and our mortal companion will do the spilling. She’s an assassin, and we should know, having met countless assassins in our day. Look at her, Telorast, she has deadly blades secreted about her person—’

‘And she smells of stale wine.’

‘Stay here,’ Apsalar said. ‘Both of you.’

‘And if we don’t?’ Telorast asked.

‘Then I shall inform Cotillion that you have escaped, and he will send the Hounds on your trail.’

‘You bind us to servitude! Trap us with threats! Curdle, we have been deceived!’

‘Let’s kill her and steal her body!’

‘Let’s not, Curdle. Something about her frightens me. All right, Apsalar who is not Apsalar, we shall stay here … for a time. Until we can be certain you are dead or worse, that’s how long we’ll stay here.’

‘Or until you return,’ Curdle added.

Telorast hissed in a strangely reptilian manner, then said, ‘Yes, idiot, that would be the other option.’

‘Then why didn’t you say so?’

‘Because it’s obvious, of course. Why should I waste breath mentioning what’s obvious? The point is, we’re waiting here. That’s the point.’

‘Maybe it’s your point,’ Curdle drawled, ‘but it’s not necessarily mine, not that I’ll waste my breath explaining anything to you, Telorast.’

‘You always were too obvious, Curdle.’

‘Both of you,’ Apsalar said. ‘Be quiet and wait here until I return.’

Telorast slumped down against the wall’s foundation stones and crossed its arms. ‘Yes, yes. Go on. We don’t care.’

Apsalar quickly made her way across the tumbled stone wreckage, intending to put as much distance between herself and the two ghosts as possible, before seeking out the hidden trail that would, if all went well, lead her to her victim. She cursed the sentimentality that left her so weakened of resolve that she now found herself shackled with two insane ghosts. It would not do, she well knew, to abandon them. Left to their own devices, they would likely unleash mayhem upon Ehrlitan. They worked too hard to convince her of their harmlessness, and, after all, they had been chained in the Shadow Realm for a reason – a warren rife with eternally imprisoned creatures, few of whom could truly claim injustice.

There was no distinct Azath House in the warren of Shadow, and so, accordingly, more mundane methods had been employed in the negation of threats. Or so it seemed to Apsalar. Virtually every permanent feature in Shadow was threaded through with unbreakable chains, and bodies lay buried in the dust, shackled to those chains. Both she and Cotillion had come across menhirs, tumuli, ancient trees, stone walls and boulders, all home to nameless prisoners – demons, ascendants, revenants and wraiths. In the midst of one stone circle, three dragons were chained, to all outward appearances dead, yet their flesh did not wither or rot, and dust sheathed eyes that remained open. That dread place had been visited by Cotillion, and some faint residue of disquiet clung to the memory – there had been more to that encounter, she suspected, but not all of Cotillion’s life remained within the grasp of her recollection.

She wondered who had been responsible for all those chainings. What unknown entity possessed such power as to overwhelm three dragons? So much of the Shadow Realm defied her understanding. As it did Cotillion’s, she suspected.

Curdle and Telorast spoke the language of the Tiste Andii. Yet betrayed intimate knowledge of the draconean realm of Starvald Demelain. They had met the Mistress of Thieves, who had vanished from the pantheon long ago, although, if the legends of Darujhistan held any truth, she had reappeared briefly less than a century past, only to vanish a second time.

She sought to steal the moon. One of the first stories Crokus had told her, following Cotillion’s sudden departure from her mind. A tale with local flavour to bolster the cult in the region, perhaps. She admitted to some curiosity. The goddess was her namesake, after all. An Imass? There are no iconic representations of the Mistress – which is odd enough, possibly a prohibition enforced by the temples. What are her symbols? Oh, yes. Footprints. And a veil. She resolved to question the ghosts more on this subject.

In any case, she was fairly certain that Cotillion would not be pleased that she had freed those ghosts. Shadowthrone would be furious. All of which might have spurred her motivation. I was possessed once, but no longer. I still serve, but as it suits me, not them.

Bold claims, but they were all that remained that she might hold on to. A god uses, then casts away. The tool is abandoned, forgotten. True, it appeared that Cotillion was not as indifferent as most gods in this matter, but how much of that could she trust?

Beneath moonlight, Apsalar found the secret trail winding through the ruins. She made her way along it, silent, using every available shadow, into the heart of the Jen’rahb. Enough of the wandering thoughts. She must needs concentrate, lest she become this night’s victim.

Betrayals had to be answered. This task was more for Shadowthrone than Cotillion, or so the Patron of Assassins had explained. An old score to settle. The schemes were crowded and confused enough as it was, and that situation was getting worse, if Shadowthrone’s agitation of late was any indication. Something of that unease had rubbed off on Cotillion. There had been mutterings of another convergence of powers. Vaster than any that had occurred before, and in some way Shadowthrone was at the centre of it. All of it.

She came within sight of the sunken temple dome, the only nearly complete structure this far into the Jen’rahb. Crouching behind a massive block whose surfaces were crowded with arcane glyphs, she settled back and studied the approach. There were potential lines of sight from countless directions. It would be quite a challenge if watchers had been positioned to guard the hidden entrance to that temple. She had to assume those watchers were there, secreted in cracks and fissures on all sides.

As she watched, she caught movement, coming out from the temple and moving furtively away to her left. Too distant to make out any details. In any case, one thing was clear. The spider was at the heart of its nest, receiving and sending out agents. Ideal. With luck, the hidden sentinels would assume she was one of those agents, unless, of course, there were particular paths one must use, a pattern altered each night.

Another option existed. Apsalar drew out the long, thin scarf known as the telab, and wrapped it about her head until only her eyes were left exposed. She unsheathed her knives, spent twenty heartbeats studying the route she would take, then bolted forward. A swift passage held the element of the unexpected, and made her a more difficult target besides. As she raced across the rubble, she waited for the heavy snap of a crossbow, the whine of the quarrel as it cut through the air. But none came. Reaching the temple, she saw the fissured crack that served as the entrance and made for it.

She slipped into the darkness, then paused.

The passageway stank of blood.

Waiting for her eyes to adjust, she held her breath and listened. Nothing. She could now make out the sloping corridor ahead. Apsalar edged forward, halted at the edge of a larger chamber. A body was lying on the dusty floor, amidst a spreading pool of blood. At the chamber’s opposite end was a curtain, drawn across a doorway. Apart from the body, a few pieces of modest furniture were visible in the room. A brazier cast fitful, orange light. The air was bitter with death and smoke.

She approached the body, eyes on the curtained doorway. Her senses told her there was no-one behind it, but if she was in error then the mistake could prove fatal. Reaching the crumpled figure, she sheathed one knife, then reached out with her hand and pulled the body onto its back. Enough to see its face.

Mebra. It seemed that someone had done her work for her.

A flit of movement in the air behind her. Apsalar ducked and rolled to her left as a throwing star flashed over her, punching a hole through the curtain. Regaining her feet in a crouch, she faced the outside passage.

Where a figure swathed in tight grey clothing stepped into the chamber. Its gloved left hand held another iron star, the multiple edges glittering with poison. In its right hand was a kethra knife, hooked and broad-bladed. A telab hid the assassin’s features, but around its dark eyes was a mass of white-etched tattoos against black skin.

The killer stepped clear of the doorway, eyes fixed on Apsalar. ‘Stupid woman,’ hissed a man’s voice, in accented Ehrlii.

‘South Clan of the Semk,’ Apsalar said. ‘You are far from home.’

‘There were to be no witnesses.’ His left hand flashed.

Apsalar twisted. The iron star whipped past to strike the wall behind her.

The Semk rushed in behind the throw. He chopped down and crossways with his left hand to bat aside her knife-arm, then thrust with the kethra, seeking her abdomen, whereupon he would tear the blade across in a disembowelling slash. None of which succeeded.

Even as he swung down with his left arm, Apsalar stepped to her right. The heel of his hand cracked hard against her hip. Her movement away from the kethra forced the Semk to attempt to follow with the weapon. Long before he could reach her, she had driven her knife between ribs, the point piercing the back of his heart.

With a strangled groan, the Semk sagged, slid off the knife-blade, and pitched to the floor. He sighed out his last breath, then was still.

Apsalar cleaned her weapon across the man’s thigh, then began cutting away his clothing. The tattoos continued, covering every part of him. A common enough trait among warriors of the South Clan, yet the style was not Semk. Arcane script wound across the assassin’s brawny limbs, similar to the carving she had seen in the ruins outside the temple.

The language of the First Empire.

With growing suspicion, she rolled the body over to reveal the back. And saw a darkened patch, roughly rectangular, over the Semk’s right shoulder-blade. Where the man’s name had once been, before it had been ritually obscured.

This man had been a priest of the Nameless Ones.

Oh, Cotillion, you won’t like this at all.


Telorast glanced up. ‘Well what?’

‘She is a pretty one.’

‘We’re prettier.’

Curdle snorted. ‘At the moment, I’d have to disagree.’

‘All right. If you like the dark, deadly type.’

‘What I was asking, Telorast, is whether we stay with her.’

‘If we don’t, Edgewalker will be very unhappy with us, Curdle. You don’t want that, do you? He’s been unhappy with us before, or have you forgotten?’

‘Fine! You didn’t have to bring that up, did you? So it’s decided. We stay with her.’

‘Yes,’ Telorast said. ‘Until we can find a way to get out of this mess.’

‘You mean, cheat them all?’

‘Of course.’

‘Good,’ Curdle said, stretching out along the ruined wall and staring up at the strange stars. ‘Because I want my throne back.’

‘So do I.’

Curdle sniffed. ‘Dead people. Fresh.’

‘Yes. But not her.’

‘No, not her.’ The ghost was silent a moment, then added, ‘Not just pretty, then.’

‘No,’ Telorast glumly agreed, ‘not just pretty.’


It must be taken as given that a man who happens to be the world’s most powerful, most terrible, most deadly sorcerer, must have a woman at his side. But it does not follow, my children, that a woman of similar proportions requires a man at hers.

Now then, who wants to be a tyrant?

Mistress Wu

Malaz City School of Waifs and Urchins

1152 Burn’s Sleep

Insubstantial, fading in and out of sight, smoky and wisp-threaded, Ammanas fidgeted on the ancient Throne of Shadow. Eyes like polished haematite were fixed on the scrawny figure standing before it. A figure whose head was hairless except for a wild curly grey and black tangle over the ears and round the back of the subtly misshapen skull. And twin eyebrows that rivalled the fringe in chaotic waywardness, beetling and knotting to match the baffling and disquieting melee of emotions on the wrinkled face beneath them.

The subject was muttering, not quite under his breath, ‘He’s not so frightening, is he? In and out, off and on, here and elsewhere, a wavering apparition of wavering intent and perhaps wavering intellect – best not let him read my thoughts – look stern, no, attentive, no, pleased! No, wait. Cowed. Terrified. No, in awe. Yes, in awe. But not for long, that’s tiring. Look bored. Gods, what am I thinking? Anything but bored, no matter how boring this might be, what with him looking down on me and me looking up at him and Cotillion over there with his arms crossed, leaning against that wall and smirking – what kind of audience is he? The worst kind, I say. What was I thinking? Well, at least I was thinking. I am thinking, in fact, and one might presume that Shadowthrone is doing the same, assuming of course that his brain hasn’t leaked away, since he’s nothing but shadows so what holds it in? The point is, I am well advised to remind myself, as I am now doing, the point is, he summ
oned me. And so here I am. Rightful servant. Loyal. Well, more or less loyal. Trustworthy. Most of the time. Modest and respectful, always. To all outward appearances, and what is outward in appearance is all that matters in this and every other world. Isn’t it? Smile! Grimace. Look helpful. Hopeful. Harried, hirsute, happenstance. Wait, how does one look happenstance? What kind of expression must that one be? I must think on that. But not now, because this isn’t happenstance, it’s circumstance—’


‘My lord? I said nothing. Oh, best glance away now, and think on this. I said nothing. Silence. Perhaps he’s making an observation? Yes, that must be it. Look back, now, deferentially, and say aloud: Indeed, my lord. Silence. There. How does he react? Is that growing apoplexy? How can one tell, with all those shadows? Now, if I sat on that throne—’

‘Iskaral Pust!’

‘Yes, my lord?’

‘I have decided.’

‘Yes, my lord? Well, if he’s decided something, why doesn’t he just say it?’

‘I have decided, Iskaral Pust—’

‘He’s doing some more! Yes, my lord?’

‘That you …’ Shadowthrone paused and seemed to pass a hand over his eyes. ‘Oh my …’ he added in a murmur, then straightened. ‘I have decided that you will have to do.’

‘My lord? Flick eyes away! This god is insane. I serve an insane god! What kind of expression does that warrant?’

‘Go! Get out of here!’

Iskaral Pust bowed. ‘Of course, my lord. Immediately!’ Then he stood, waiting. Looking around, one pleading glance to Cotillion. ‘I was summoned! I can’t leave until this foaming idiot on the throne releases me! Cotillion understands – that might be amusement in those horribly cold eyes – oh, why doesn’t he say something? Why doesn’t he remind this blathering smudge on this throne—’

A snarl from Ammanas, and the High Priest of Shadow, Iskaral Pust, vanished.

Shadowthrone then sat motionless for a time, before slowly turning his head to regard Cotillion. ‘What are you looking at?’ he demanded.

‘Not much,’ Cotillion replied. ‘You have become rather insubstantial of late.’

‘I like it this way.’ They studied each other for a moment. ‘All right, I’m a little stretched!’ The shriek echoed away, and the god subsided. ‘Do you think he’ll get there in time?’


‘Do you think, if he does, he’ll be sufficient?’


‘Who asked you! ?’

Cotillion watched as Ammanas seethed, fidgeted and squirmed on the throne. Then the Lord of Shadow fell still, and slowly raised a single, spindly finger. ‘I have an idea.’

‘And I shall leave you to it,’ Cotillion said, pushing himself from the wall. ‘I am going for a walk.’

Shadowthrone did not reply.

Glancing over, Cotillion saw that he had vanished. ‘Oh,’ he murmured, ‘that was a good idea.’

Emerging from Shadowkeep, he paused to study the landscape beyond. It was in the habit of changing at a moment’s notice, although not when one was actually looking, which, he supposed, was a saving grace. A line of forested hills to the right, gullies and ravines directly ahead, and a ghostly lake to the left, on which rode a half-dozen grey-sailed ships in the distance. Artorallah demons, off to raid the Aptorian coastal villages, he suspected. It was rare to find the lake region appearing so close to the keep, and Cotillion felt a moment of unease. The demons of this realm seemed to do little more than bide their time, paying scant attention to Shadowthrone, and more or less doing as they pleased. Which generally involved feuds, lightning attacks on neighbours and pillaging.

Ammanas could well command them, if he so chose. But he hardly ever did, perhaps not wanting to test the limits of their loyalty. Or perhaps just preoccupied with some other concern. With his schemes.

Things were not well. A little stretched, are you, Ammanas? I am not surprised. Cotillion could sympathize, and almost did. Momentarily, before reminding himself that Ammanas had invited most of the risks upon himself. And, by extension, upon me as well.

The paths ahead were narrow, twisted and treacherous. Requiring utmost caution with every measured step.

So be it. After all, we have done this before. And succeeded. Of course, far more was at stake this time. Too much, perhaps.

Cotillion set off for the broken grounds opposite him. Two thousand paces, and before him was a trail leading into a gully. Shadows roiled between the rough rock walls. Reluctant to part as he walked the track, they slid like seaweed in shallows around his legs.

So much in this realm had lost its rightful … place. Confusion triggered a seething tumult in pockets where shadows gathered. Faint cries whispered against his ears, as if from a great distance, the voice of multitudes drowning. Sweat beaded Cotillion’s brow, and he quickened his pace until he was past the sinkhole.

The path sloped upward and eventually opened out onto a broad plateau. As he strode into the clear, eyes fixed on a distant ring of standing stones, he felt a presence at his side, and turned to see a tall, skeletal creature, bedecked in rags, walking to match his pace. Not close enough to reach out and touch, but too close for Cotillion’s comfort nonetheless. ‘Edgewalker. It has been some time since I last saw you.’

‘I cannot say the same of you, Cotillion. I walk—’

‘Yes, I know,’ Cotillion cut in, ‘you walk paths unseen.’

‘By you. The Hounds do not share your failing.’

Cotillion frowned at the creature, then glanced back, to see Baran thirty paces back, keeping its distance. Massive head low to the ground, eyes glowing bruised crimson. ‘You are being stalked.’

‘It amuses them, I imagine,’ Edgewalker said.

They continued on for a time, then Cotillion sighed. ‘You have sought me out?’ he asked. ‘What do you want?’

‘From you? Nothing. But I see your destination, and so would witness.’

‘Witness what?’

‘Your impending conversation.’

Cotillion scowled. ‘And if I’d rather you did not witness?’

The skeletal face held a permanent grin, but in some way it seemed to broaden slightly. ‘There is no privacy in Shadow, Usurper.’

Usurper. I’d have long since killed this bastard if he wasn’t already dead. Long since.

‘I am not your enemy,’ Edgewalker said, as if guessing Cotillion’s thoughts. ‘Not yet.’

‘We have more than enough enemies as it is. Accordingly,’ Cotillion continued, ‘we have no wish for more. Unfortunately, since we have no knowledge as to your purpose, or your motivations, we cannot predict what might offend you. So, in the interests of peace between us, enlighten me.’

‘That I cannot do.’

‘Cannot, or will not?’

‘The failing is yours, Cotillion, not mine. Yours, and Shadowthrone’s.’

‘Well, that is convenient.’

Edgewalker seemed to consider Cotillion’s sardonic observation for a moment, then he nodded. ‘Yes, it is.’

Long since …

They approached the standing stones. Not a single lintel left to bridge the ring, just rubble scattered about down the slopes, as if some ancient detonation at the heart of the circle had blasted the massive structure – even the upright stones were all tilted outward, like the petals of a flower.

‘This is an unpleasant place,’ Edgewalker said as they swung right to take the formal approach, an avenue lined with low, rotted trees, each standing upended with the remnant roots clutching the air.

Cotillion shrugged. ‘About as unpleasant as virtually anywhere else in this realm.’

‘You might believe that, given you have none of the memories I possess. Terrible events, long, long ago, yet the echoes remain.’

‘There is little residual power left here,’ Cotillion said as they neared the two largest stones, and walked between them.

‘That is true. Of course, that is not the case on the surface.’

‘The surface? What do you mean?’

‘Standing stones are always half-buried, Cotillion. And the makers were rarely ignorant of the significance of that. Overworld and underworld.’

Cotillion halted and glanced back, studying the upended trees lining the avenue. ‘And this manifestation we see here is given to the underworld?’

‘In a manner of speaking.’

‘Is the overworld manifestation to be found in some other realm? Where one might see an inward-tilting ring of stones, and right-side-up trees?’

‘Assuming they are not entirely buried or eroded to nothing by now. This circle is very old.’

Cotillion swung round again and observed the three dragons opposite them, each at the base of a standing stone, although their massive chains reached down into the rough soil, rather than into the weathered rock. Shackled at the neck and at the four limbs, with another chain wrapped taut behind the shoulders and wings of each dragon. Every chain drawn so tight as to prevent any movement, not even a lifting of the head. ‘This,’ Cotillion said in a murmur, ‘is as you said, Edgewalker. An unpleasant place. I’d forgotten.’

‘You forget every time,’ Edgewalker said. ‘Overcome by your fascination. Such is the residual power in this circle.’

Cotillion shot him a quick look. ‘I am ensorcelled?’

The gaunt creature shrugged in a faint clatter of bones. ‘It is a magic without purpose beyond what it achieves. Fascination … and forgetfulness.’

‘I have trouble accepting that. All sorcery has a desired goal.’

Another shrug. ‘They are hungry, yet unable to feed.’

After a moment, Cotillion nodded. ‘The sorcery belongs to the dragons, then. Well, I can accept that. Yet, what of the circle itself? Has its power died? If so, why are these dragons still bound?’

‘Not dead, simply not acting in any manner upon you, Cotillion. You are not its intent.’

‘Well enough.’ He turned as Baran padded into view, swinging wide to avoid Edgewalker’s reach, then fixing its attention on the dragons. Cotillion saw its hackles stiffen. ‘Can you answer me this,’ he said to Edgewalker, ‘why will they not speak with me?’

‘Perhaps you have yet to say anything worth a reply.’

‘Possibly. What do you think the response will be, then, if I speak of freedom?’

‘I am here,’ said Edgewalker, ‘to discover that for myself.’

‘You can read my thoughts?’ Cotillion asked in a low voice.

Baran’s huge head slowly swung round to regard Edgewalker. The Hound took a single step closer to the creature.

‘I possess no such omniscience,’ Edgewalker calmly replied, seeming to take no notice of Baran’s attention. ‘Although to one such as you, it might appear so. But I have existed ages beyond your reckoning, Cotillion. All patterns are known to me, for they have been played out countless times before. Given what approaches us all, it was not hard to predict. Especially given your uncanny prescience.’ The dead pits that were Edgewalker’s eyes seemed to study Cotillion. ‘You suspect, do you not, that dragons are at the heart of all that will come?’

Cotillion gestured at the chains. ‘They reach through to the overworld presumably? And that warren is what?’

‘What do you think?’ Edgewalker countered.

‘Try reading my mind.’

‘I cannot.’

‘So, you are here because you are desperate to know what I know, or even what I suspect.’

Edgewalker’s silence was answer enough to that question. Cotillion smiled. ‘I think I will make no effort to communicate with these dragons after all.’

‘But you will, eventually,’ Edgewalker replied. ‘And when you do, I will be here. Thus, what does it avail you to remain silent now?’

‘Well, in order to irritate you, I suppose.’

‘I have existed ages beyond your—’

‘So you have been irritated before, yes, I know. And will be again, without question.’

‘Make your effort, Cotillion. Soon if not now. If you wish to survive what is to come.’

‘All right. Provided you tell me the names of these dragons.’

A clearly grudging reply: ‘As you wish—’

‘And why they have been imprisoned here, and by whom.’

‘That I cannot do.’

They studied each other, then Edgewalker cocked its head, and observed, ‘It seems we are at an impasse, Cotillion. What is your decision?’

‘Very well. I will take what I can get.’

Edgewalker faced the three dragons. ‘These are of the pure blood. Eleint. Ampelas, Kalse and Eloth. Their crime was … ambition. It is a common enough crime.’ The creature turned back to Cotillion. ‘Perhaps endemic’

In answer to that veiled judgement, Cotillion shrugged. He walked closer to the imprisoned beasts. ‘I shall assume you can hear me,’ he said in a low voice. ‘A war is coming. Only a few years away. And it will, I suspect, draw into its fray virtually every ascendant from all the realms. I need to know, should you be freed, upon which side shall you fight.’

There was silence for a half-dozen heartbeats, then a voice rasped in Cotillion’s mind. ‘You come here, Usurper, in a quest for allies.’

A second voice cut through, this one distinctly female, ‘Bound by gratitude for freeing us. Were I to bargain from your position, I would be foolish to hope for loyalty, for trust.’

‘I agree,’ said Cotillion, ‘that that is a problem. Presumably, you will suggest I free you before we bargain.’

‘It is only fair,’ the first voice said.

‘Alas, I am not that interested in being fair.’

‘You fear we will devour you?’

‘In the interest of brevity,’ Cotillion said, ‘and I understand that your kind delight in brevity’

The third dragon spoke then, a heavy, deep voice: ‘Freeing us first would indeed spare us the effort of then negotiating. Besides, we are hungry.’

‘What brought you to this realm?’ Cotillion asked.

There was no reply.

Cotillion sighed. ‘I shall be more inclined to free you – assuming I am able – if I have reason to believe your imprisonment was unjust.’

The female dragon asked, ‘And you presume to make that decision?’

‘This hardly seems the right moment to be cantankerous,’ he replied in exasperation. ‘The last person who made that judgement clearly did not find in favour of you, and was able to do something about it. I would have thought that all these centuries in chains might have led you three to reevaluate your motivations. But it seems your only regret is that you were unequal to the last entity that presumed to judge you.’

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘that is a regret. But it is not our only one.’

‘All right. Let’s hear some of the others.’

‘That the Tiste Andii who invaded this realm were so thorough in their destruction,’ the third dragon said, ‘and so absolute in their insistence that the throne remain unclaimed.’

Cotillion drew a slow, long breath. He glanced back at Edgewalker, but the apparition said nothing. ‘And what,’ he asked the dragons, ‘so spurred their zeal?’

‘Vengeance, of course. And Anomandaris.’

‘Ah, I think I can now assume I know who imprisoned the three of you.’

‘He very nearly killed us,’ said the female dragon. ‘An overreaction on his part. After all, better Eleint on the Throne of Shadow than another Tiste Edur, or worse, a usurper.’

‘And how would Eleint not be usurpers?’

‘Your pedantry does not impress us.’

‘Was all this before or after the Sundering of the Realm?’

‘Such distinctions are meaningless. The Sundering continues to this day, and as for the forces that conspired to trigger the dread event, those were many and varied. Like a pack of enkar’al closing on a wounded drypthara. What is vulnerable attracts … feeders.’

‘Thus,’ said Cotillion, ‘if freed, you would once again seek the Shadow Throne. Only this time, someone occupies that throne.’

‘The veracity of that claim is subject to debate,’ the female dragon said.

‘A matter,’ added the first dragon, ‘of semantics. Shadows cast by shadows.’

‘You believe that Ammanas is sitting on the wrong Shadow Throne.’

‘The true throne is not even in this fragment of Emurlahn.’

Cotillion crossed his arms and smiled. ‘And is Ammanas?’

The dragons said nothing, and he sensed, with great satisfaction, their sudden disquiet.

‘That, Cotillion,’ said Edgewalker behind him, ‘is a curious distinction. Or are you simply being disingenuous?’

‘That I cannot tell you,’ Cotillion said, with a faint smile.

The female dragon spoke, ‘I am Eloth, Mistress of Illusions – Meanas to you – and Mockra and Thyr. A Shaper of the Blood. All that K’rul asked of me, I have done. And now you presume to question my loyalty?’

‘Ah,’ Cotillion said, nodding, ‘then I take it you are aware of the impending war. Are you also aware of the rumours of K’rul’s return?’

‘His blood is growing sickly,’ said the third dragon. ‘I am Ampelas, who shaped the Blood in the paths of Emurlahn. The sorcery wielded by the Tiste Edur was born of my will – do you now understand, Usurper?’

‘That dragons are prone to grandiose claims and sententiousness? Yes, I do indeed understand, Ampelas. And I should now presume that for each of the warrens, Elder and new, there is a corresponding dragon? You are the flavours of K’rul’s blood? What of the Soletaken dragons, such as Anomandaris and, more relevantly, Scabandari Bloodeye?’

‘We are surprised,’ said the first dragon after a moment, ‘that you know that name.’

‘Because you killed him so long ago?’

‘A poor guess, Usurper, poorer for that you have revealed the extent of your ignorance. No, we did not kill him. In any case, his soul remains alive, although tormented. The one whose fist shattered his skull and so destroyed his body holds no allegiance to us, nor, we suspect, to anyone but herself

‘You are Kalse, then,’ Cotillion said. ‘And what path do you claim?’

‘I leave the grandiose claims to my kin. I have no need to impress you, Usurper. Furthermore, I delight in discovering how little you comprehend.’

Cotillion shrugged. ‘I was asking about the Soletaken. Scabandari, Anomandaris, Osserc, Olar Ethil, Draconus—’

Edgewalker spoke behind him: ‘Cotillion, surely you have surmised by now that these three dragons sought the Shadow Throne for honourable reasons?’

‘To heal Emurlahn, yes, Edgewalker, I understand that.’

‘And is that not what you seek as well?’

Cotillion turned to regard the creature. ‘Is it?’

Edgewalker seemed taken aback for a moment, then, head cocking slightly, it said, ‘It is not the healing that concerns you, it is who will be sitting on the Throne afterwards.’

‘As I understand things,’ Cotillion replied, ‘once these dragons did what K’rul asked of them, they were compelled to return to Starvald Demelain. As the sources of sorcery, they could not be permitted to interfere or remain active across the realms, lest sorcery cease to be predictable, which in turn would feed Chaos – the eternal enemy in this grand scheme. But the Soletaken proved a problem. They possessed the blood of Tiam, and with it the vast power of the Eleint. Yet, they could travel as they pleased. They could interfere, and they did. For obvious reasons. Scabandari was originally Edur, and so he became their champion—’

‘After murdering the royal line of the Edur!’ Eloth said in a hiss. ‘After spilling draconean blood in the heart of Kurald Emurlahn! After opening the first, fatal wound upon that warren! What did he think gates were?’

‘The Tiste Andii for Anomandaris,’ Cotillion continued. ‘Tiste Liosan for Osserc. The T’lan Imass for Olar Ethil. These connections and the loyalties born of them are obvious. Draconus is more of a mystery, of course, since he has been gone a long time—’

‘The most reviled of them all!” Eloth shrieked, the voice filling Cotillion’s skull so that he winced.

Stepping back, he raised a hand. ‘Spare me, please. I am not really interested in all that, to be honest. Apart from discovering if there was enmity between Eleint and Soletaken. It seems there is, with the possible exception of Silanah—’

‘Seduced by Anomandaris’s charms,’ snapped Eloth. ‘And Olar Ethil’s endless pleadings …’

‘To bring fire to the world of the Imass,’ Cotillion said. ‘For that is her aspect, is it not? Thyr?’

Ampelas observed, ‘He is not so uncomprehending as you believed, Kalse.’

‘Then again,’ Cotillion continued, ‘you too claim Thyr, Eloth. Ah, that was clever of K’rul, forcing you to share power.’

‘Unlike Tiam,’ Ampelas said, ‘when we’re killed we stay dead.’

‘Which brings me to what I truly need to understand. The Elder Gods. They are not simply of one world, are they?’

‘Of course not.’

‘And how long have they been around?’

‘Even when Darkness ruled alone,’ Ampelas replied, ‘there were elemental forces. Moving unseen until the coming of Light. Bound only to their own laws. It is the nature of Darkness that it but rules itself.’

‘And is the Crippled God an Elder?’


Cotillion found he was holding his breath. He had taken a twisted path to this question, and had made discoveries along the way – so much to think about, in fact, that his mind was numb, besieged by all that he had learned. ‘I need to know,’ he said in a slow release of his breath.

‘Why?’ Edgewalker asked.

‘If he is,’ Cotillion said, ‘then another question follows. How does one kill an elemental force?’

‘You would shatter the balance?’

‘It’s already been shattered, Edgewalker! That god was brought down to the surface of a world. And chained. His power torn apart and secreted in minuscule, virtually lifeless warrens, but all of them linked to the world I came from—’

‘Too bad for that world,’ Ampelas said.

The smug disregard in that reply stung Cotillion. He breathed deep and remained silent, until the anger passed. Then he faced the dragons again. ‘And from that world, Ampelas, he is poisoning the warrens. Every warren. Are you capable of fighting that?’

‘Were we freed—’

‘Were you freed,’ Cotillion said, with a hard smile, ‘you would resume your original purpose, and there would be more draconean blood spilled in the Realm of Shadow.’

‘And you and your fellow usurper believe you are capable of that?’

‘You as much as admitted it,’ Cotillion said. ‘You can be killed, and when you have been killed, you stay dead. It is no wonder Anomandaris chained the three of you. In obstinate stupidity you have no equals—’

‘A sundered realm is the weakest realm of all! Why do you think the Crippled God is working through it?’

‘Thank you,’ said Cotillion to Ampelas in a quiet tone. ‘That is what I needed to know.’ He turned away and began walking back down the approach.


‘We will speak again, Ampelas,’ he said over a shoulder, ‘before it all goes to the Abyss.’

Edgewalker followed.

As soon as they were clear of the ring of stones, the creature spoke: ‘I must chide myself. I have underestimated you, Cotillion.’

‘It’s a common enough mistake.’

‘What will you do now?’

‘Why should I tell you?’

Edgewalker did not immediately reply. They continued down the slope, strode out onto the plain. ‘You should tell me,’ the apparition finally said, ‘because I might be inclined to give you assistance.’

‘That would mean more to me if I knew who – what – you are.’

‘You may consider me … an elemental force.’

A dull chill seeped through Cotillion. ‘I see. All right, Edgewalker. It appears that the Crippled God has launched an offensive on multiple fronts. The First Throne of the T’lan Imass and the Throne of Shadow are the ones that concern us the most, for obvious reasons. In these two, we feel we are fighting alone – we cannot even rely upon the Hounds, given the mastery the Tiste Edur seem to hold over them. We need allies, Edgewalker, and we need them now.’

‘You have just walked away from three such allies—’

‘Allies who won’t rip our heads off once the threat’s been negated.’

‘Ah, there is that. Very well, Cotillion, I will give the matter some consideration.’

‘Take your time.’

‘That seems a contrary notion.’

‘If one is lacking a grasp of sarcasm, I imagine it does at that.’

‘You do interest me, Cotillion. And that is a rare thing.’

‘I know. You have existed longer …’ Cotillion’s words died away. An elemental force. I guess he has at that. Dammit.

There were so many ways of seeing this dreadful need, the vast conspiracy of motivations from which all shades and casts of morality could be culled, that Mappo Runt was left feeling overwhelmed, from which only sorrow streamed down, pure and chilled, into his thoughts. Beneath the coarse skin of his hands, he could feel the night’s memory slowly fading from the stone, and soon this rock would know the assault of the sun’s heat – this pitted, root-tracked underbelly that had not faced the sun in countless millennia.

He had been turning over stones. Six since dawn. Roughly chiselled dolomite slabs, and beneath each one he had found a scatter of broken bones. Small bones, fossilized, and though in countless pieces after the interminable crushing weight of the stone, the skeletons were, as far as Mappo could determine, complete.

There were, had been, and would always be, all manner of wars. He knew that, in all the seared, scar-hardened places in his soul, so there was no shock in his discovery of these long-dead Jaghut children. And horror had run a mercifully swift passage through his thoughts, leaving at the last his old friend, sorrow.

Streaming down, pure and chilled.

Wars in which soldier fought soldier, sorcerer clashed with sorcerer. Assassins squared off, knife-blades flickering in the night. Wars in which the lawful battled the wilfully unlawful; in which the sane stood against the sociopath. He had seen crystals growing up in a single night from the desert floor, facet after facet revealed like the petals of an opening flower, and it seemed to him that brutality behaved in a like manner. One incident leading to another, until a conflagration burgeoned, swallowing everyone in its path.

Mappo lifted his hands from the slab’s exposed underside and slowly straightened. To look over at his companion, still wading the warm shallows of the Raraku Sea. Like a child unfolding to a new, unexpected pleasure. Splashing about, running his hands through the reeds that had appeared as if remembered into existence by the sea itself.


My crystal.

When the conflagration consumed children, then the distinction between the sane and the sociopath ceased to exist. It was his flaw, he well knew, to yearn to seek the truth of every side, to comprehend the myriad justifications for committing the most brutal crimes. Imass had been enslaved by deceitful Jaghut tyrants, led down paths of false worship, made to do unspeakable things. Until they had uncovered the deceivers. Unleashing vengeance, first against the tyrants, then against all Jaghut. And so the crystal grew, facet after facet …

Until this … He glanced down once more upon the child’s bones. Pinned beneath dolomite slabs. Not limestone, for dolomite provided a good surface for carving glyphs, and though soft, it absorbed power, making it slower to erode than raw limestone, and so it held those glyphs, faded and soft-edged after all these thousands of years to be sure, but discernible still.

The power of those wards persisted, long after the creature imprisoned by them had died.

Dolomite was said to hold memories. A belief among Mappo’s own people, at least, who in their wanderings had encountered such Imass edifices, the impromptu tombs, the sacred circles, the sight-stones on hill summits – encountered, and then studiously avoided. For the hauntings in these places was a palpable thing.

Or so we managed to convince ourselves.

He sat here, on the edge of Raraku Sea, in the place of an ancient crime, and beyond what his own thoughts conjured, there was nothing. The stone he had set his hands upon seemed possessed of the shortest of memories. The cold of darkness, the heat of the sun. That, and nothing more.

The shortest of memories.

Splashing, and Icarium was striding up onto the shoreline, his eyes bright with pleasure. ‘Such a worthy boon, yes, Mappo? I am enlivened by these waters. Oh, why will you not swim and so be blessed by Raraku’s gift?’

Mappo smiled. ‘Said blessing would quickly wash off this old hide, my friend. I fear the gift would be wasted, and so will not risk disappointing the awakened spirits.’

‘I feel,’ Icarium said, ‘as if the quest begins anew. I will finally discover the truth. Who I am. All that I have done. I will discover, too,’ he added as he approached, ‘the reason for your friendship – that you should always be found at my side, though I lose myself again and again. Ah, I fear I have offended you – no, please, do not look so glum. It is only that I cannot understand why you have sacrificed yourself so. As far as friendships go, this must be a most frustrating one for you.’

‘No, Icarium, there is no sacrifice involved. Nor frustration. This is what we are, and this is what we do. That is all.’

Icarium sighed and turned to look out over the new sea. ‘If only I could be as restful of thought as you, Mappo …’

‘Children have died here.’

The Jhag swung round, his green eyes studying the ground behind the Trell. ‘I saw you pitching rocks. Yes, I see them. Who were they?’

Some nightmare the night before had scoured away Icarium’s memories. This had been happening more often of late. Troubling. And … crushing. ‘Jaghut. From the wars with the T’lan Imass.’

‘A terrible thing to have done,’ Icarium said. The sun was fast drying the water beaded on his hairless, green-grey skin. ‘How is it that mortals can be so cavalier with life? Look at this freshwater sea, Mappo. The new shoreline burgeons with sudden life. Birds, and insects, and all the new plants, there is so much joy revealed, my friend, that my heart feels moments from bursting.’

‘Infinite wars,’ Mappo said. ‘Life’s struggles, each trying to push the other aside, and so win out.’

‘You are grim company this morning, Mappo.’

‘Aye, I am at that. I am sorry, Icarium.’

‘Shall we remain here for a time?’

Mappo studied his friend. Bereft of his upper garments, he looked more savage, more barbaric than usual. The dye with which he had disguised the colour of his skin had mostly faded away. ‘As you like. This journey is yours, after all.’

‘Knowledge is returning,’ Icarium said, eyes still on the sea. ‘Raraku’s gift. We were witness to the rise of the waters, here on this west shore. Further west, then, there will be a river, and many cities—’

Mappo’s gaze narrowed. ‘Only one, now, to speak of,’ he said.

‘Only one?’

‘The others died thousands of years ago, Icarium.’

‘N’karaphal? Trebur? Inath’an Merusin? Gone?’

‘Inath’an Merusin is now called Mersin. It is the last of the great cities lining the river.’

‘But there were so many, Mappo. I recall all their names. Vinith, Hedori Kwil, Tramara …’

‘All practising intensive irrigation, drawing the river’s waters out onto the plains. All clearing forests to build their ships. Those cities are dead now, my friend. And the river, its waters once so clear and sweet, is now heavy with silts and much diminished. The plains have lost their topsoil, becoming the Lato Odhan to the east of the Mersin River, and Ugarat Odhan to the west.’

Icarium slowly raised his hands, set them against his temples, and closed his eyes. ‘That long, Mappo?’ he asked in a frail whisper.

‘Perhaps the sea has triggered such memories. For it was indeed a sea back then, freshwater for the most part, although there was seepage through the limestone escarpment from Longshan Bay – that vast barrier was rotting through, as it will do again, I imagine, assuming this sea reaches as far north as it once did.’

‘The First Empire?’

‘It was falling even then. There was no recovery.’ Mappo hesitated, seeing how his words had wounded his friend. ‘But the people returned to this land, Icarium. Seven Cities – yes, the name derives from old remembrances. New cities have grown from the ancient rubble. We are only forty leagues from one right now. Lato Revae. It is on the coast—’

Icarium turned away suddenly. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I am not yet ready to leave, to cross any oceans. This land holds secrets – my secrets, Mappo. Perhaps the antiquity of my memories will prove advantageous. The lands of my mindscape are the lands of my own past, after all, and they might well yield truths. We shall walk those ancient roads.’

The Trell nodded. ‘I will break camp, then.’


Mappo turned, waited with growing dread.

Icarium’s eyes were fixed on him now, the vertical pupils narrowed to black slivers by the bright sunlight. ‘I have memories of Trebur. I spent time there, in the City of Domes. I did something. An important thing.’ He frowned. ‘I did … something.’

‘It is an arduous journey ahead of us, then,’ Mappo said. ‘Three, maybe four days to the edge of the Thalas Mountains. Ten more at the least to reach the Mersin River’s Wend. The channel has moved from the site of ancient Trebur. A day’s travel west of the river, then, and we will find those ruins.’

‘Will there be villages and such on our route?’

Mappo shook his head. ‘These Odhans are virtually lifeless now, Icarium. Occasionally, Vedanik tribes venture down from the Thalas Mountains, but not at this time of year. Keep your bow at the ready – there are antelope and hares and drolig.’

‘Waterholes, then?’

‘I know them,’ Mappo said.

Icarium walked over to his gear. ‘We have done this before, haven’t we?’

Yes. ‘Not for a long while, my friend.’ Almost eighty years, in fact. But the last time, we stumbled onto it – you remembered nothing. This time, I fear, it will be different. Icarium paused, the horn-rimmed bow in his hands, and looked over at Mappo. ‘You are so patient with me,’ he said, with a faint, sad smile, ‘whilst I wander, ever lost.’

Mappo shrugged. ‘It is what we do.’

The Path’Apur Mountains rimmed the far horizon to the south. It had been almost a week since they had left the city of Pan’potsun, and with each day the number of villages they passed through had dwindled, whilst the distance between them lengthened. Their pace was torturously slow, but that was to be expected, travelling on foot as they did, and with a man in their company who had seemingly lost his mind.

Sun-darkened skin almost olive beneath the dust, the demon Greyfrog clambered onto the boulder and squatted at Cutter’s side.

‘Declaration. It is said that the wasps of the desert guard gems and such. Query. Has Cutter heard such tales? Anticipatory pause.’

‘Sounds more like someone’s bad idea of a joke,’ Cutter replied. Below them was a flat clearing surrounded by massive rock outcroppings. It was the place of their camp. Scillara and Felisin Younger sat in view, tending the makeshift hearth. The madman was nowhere to be seen. Off wandering again, Cutter surmised. Holding conversations with ghosts, or, perhaps more likely, the voices in his head. Oh, Heboric carried curses, the barbs of a tiger on his skin, the benediction of a god of war, and those voices in his head might well be real. Even so, break a man’s spirit enough times …

‘Belated observation. Grubs, there in the dark reaches of the nest. Nest? Bemused. Hive? Nest.’

Frowning, Cutter glanced over at the demon. Its flat, hairless head and broad, four-eyed face were lumpy and swollen with wasp stings. ‘You didn’t. You did.’

‘Irate is their common state, I now believe. Breaking open their cave made them more so. We clashed in buzzing disagreement. I fared the worse, I think.’

‘Black wasps?’

‘Tilt head, query. Black? Dreaded reply, why yes, they were. Black. Rhetorical, was that significant?’

‘Be glad you’re a demon,’ Cutter said. ‘Two or three stings from those will kill a grown man. Ten will kill a horse.’

‘A horse – we had those – you had them. I was forced to run. Horse. Large four-legged animal. Succulent meat.’

‘People tend to ride them,’ Cutter said. ‘Until they drop. Then we eat them.’

‘Multiple uses, excellent and unwasteful. Did we eat yours? Where can we find more such creatures?’

‘We have not the money to purchase them, Greyfrog. And we sold ours for food and supplies in Pan’potsun.’

‘Obstinate reasonableness. No money. Then we should take, my young friend. And so hasten this journey to its muchawaited conclusion. Latter tone indicating mild despair.’

‘Still no word from L’oric?’

‘Worriedly. No. My brother is silent.’

Neither spoke for a time. The demon was picking the serrated edges of its lips, where, Cutter saw upon a closer look, grey flecks and crushed wasps were snagged. Greyfrog had eaten the wasp nest. No wonder the wasps had been irate. Cutter rubbed at his face. He needed a shave. And a bath. And clean, new clothes.

And a purpose in life. Once, long ago, when he had been Crokus Younghand of Darujhistan, his uncle had begun preparing the way for a reformed Crokus. A youth of the noble courts, a figure of promise, a figure inviting to the young, wealthy, pampered women of the city. A shortlived ambition, in every way. His uncle dead, and dead, too, Crokus Younghand. No heap of ashes left to stir.

What I was is not what I am. Two men, identical faces, but different eyes. In what they have seen, in what they reflect upon the world.

‘Bitter taste,’ Greyfrog said in his mind, long tongue slithering out to collect the last fragments. A heavy, gusty sigh. ‘Yet oh so filling. Query. Can one burst from what one has inside?’

I hope not. ‘We’d best find Heboric, if we are to make use of this day.’

‘Noted earlier. Ghost Hands was exploring the rocks above. The scent of a trail led him onward and upward.’

‘A trail?’

‘Water. He sought the source of the spring we see pooling below near the fleshy women who, said jealously, so adore you.’

Cutter straightened. ‘They don’t seem so fleshy to me, Greyfrog.’

‘Curious. Mounds of flesh, water storage vessels, there on the hips and behind. On the chest—’

‘All right. That kind of fleshy. You are too much the carnivore, demon.’

‘Yes. Fullest delicious agreement. Shall I go find Ghost Hands?’

‘No, I will. I think those riders who passed us yesterday on the track are not as far away as they should be, and I would be relieved to know you are guarding Scillara and Felisin.’

‘None shall take them away,’ Greyfrog said.

Cutter looked down at the squatting demon. ‘Scillara and Felisin are not horses.’

Greyfrog’s large eyes blinked slowly, first the two side-by-side, then the pair above and below. Tongue darted. ‘Blithe. Of course not. Insufficient number of legs, worthily observed.’

Cutter edged to the back of the boulder, then leapt across to another one tucked deeper into the talus-heaped cliff-side. He grasped a ledge and pulled himself up. Little different from climbing a balcony, or an estate wall. Adore me, do they? He had trouble believing that. Easier to rest eyes upon, he imagined, than an old man and a demon, but that was not adoration. He could make no sense of those two women. Bickering like sisters, competing over everything in sight, and over things Cutter couldn’t see or comprehend. At other times, unaccountably close, as if sharing a secret. Both fussed over Heboric Ghost Hands, Destriant of Treach.

Maybe war needs nurturers. Maybe the god is happy with this. The priest needs acolytes, after all. That might have been expected with Scillara, since Heboric had drawn her out of a nightmarish existence, and indeed had healed her in some as-yet unspecified way – if Cutter had surmised correctly from the meagre comments overheard now and then. Scillara had a lot to be grateful for. And for Felisin, there had been something about revenge, delivered to her satisfaction against someone who had done her a terrible wrong. It was complicated. So, a moment’s thought, and it’s obvious they do possess secrets. Too many of them. Oh, what do I care? Women are nothing but a mass of contradictions surrounded by deadly pitfalls. Approach at your own risk. Better yet, approach not at all.

He reached a chimney in the cliff-side and began working his way up it. Water trickled down vertical cracks in the rock. Flies and other winged insects swarmed him; the corners of the chimney were thickly webbed by opportunistic spiders. By the time he climbed free of it, he had been thoroughly bitten and was covered in thick, dusty strands. He paused to brush himself off, then looked around. A rough trail continued upward, winding between collapsed shelves of stone. He headed up the path.

At their meandering, desultory pace, they were months from the coast, as far as he could determine. Once there, they would have to find a boat to take them across to Otataral Island. A forbidden journey, and Malazan ships patrolled those waters diligently – or at least they did before the uprising. It might be that they were yet to fully reorganize such things.

They would begin the passage at night, in any case.

Heboric had to return something. Something found on the island. It was all very vague. And for some reason Cotillion had wanted Cutter to accompany the Destriant. Or, rather, to protect Felisin Younger. A path to take, when before there had been none. Even so, it was not the best of motivations. A flight from despair was pathetic, especially since it could not succeed.

Adore me, do they? What is here to adore?

A voice ahead: ‘All that is mysterious is as a lure to the curious. I hear your steps, Cutter. Come, see this spider.’

Cutter stepped round an outcrop and saw Heboric, kneeling beside a stunted scrub oak.

‘And where there is pain and vulnerability bound into the lure, it becomes all the more attractive. See this spider? Below this branch, yes? Trembling on its web, one leg dismembered, thrashing about as if in pain. Its quarry, you see, is not flies, or moths. Oh no, what she hunts is fellow spiders.’

‘Who care nothing for pain or mystery, Heboric,’ Cutter said, crouching down to study the creature. The size of a child’s hand. ‘That’s not one of its legs. It’s a prop.’

‘You are assuming other spiders can count. She knows better.’

‘All very interesting,’ Cutter said, straightening, ‘but we must get going.’

‘We’re all watching this play out,’ Heboric said, leaning back and studying the strangely pulsing, taloned hands that flitted in and out of existence at the ends of his wrists.

We? Oh, yes, you and your invisible friends. ‘I wouldn’t think there’d be many ghosts in these hills.’

‘Then you would be wrong. Hill tribes. Endless warfare – it’s those who fall in battle that I see, only those who fall in battle.’ The hands flexed. ‘The mouth of the spring is just ahead. They fought over control of it.’ His toad-like features twisted. ‘There’s always a reason, or reasons. Always.’

Cutter sighed, studied the sky. ‘I know, Heboric’

‘Knowing means nothing.’

‘I know that, too.’

Heboric rose. ‘Treach’s greatest comfort, understanding that there are infinite reasons for waging war.’

‘And are you comforted by that, too?’

The Destriant smiled. ‘Come. That demon who speaks in our heads is obsessing about flesh at the moment, with watering mouth.’

They made their way down the trail. ‘He won’t eat them.’

‘I am not convinced that is the nature of his appetite.’

Cutter snorted. ‘Heboric, Greyfrog is a four-handed, four-eyed, oversized toad.’

‘With a surprisingly boundless imagination. Tell me, how much do you know of him?’

‘Less than you.’

‘It has not occurred to me, until now,’ Heboric said, as he led Cutter onto a path offering a less precarious climb – but more roundabout – than the one the Daru had used, ‘that we know virtually nothing of who Greyfrog was, and what he did, back in his home realm.’

This was proving an unusually long lucid episode for Heboric. Cutter wondered if something had changed – he hoped it would stay this way. ‘Then we could ask him.’

‘I shall’

In the camp, Scillara kicked sand over the few remaining coals of the cookfire. She walked over to her pack and sat down, settling her back against it as she pushed more rustleaf into her pipe and drew hard until smoke streamed from it. Across from her, Greyfrog squatted in front of Felisin, making strange whimpering sounds.

She had seen so little for so long. Drugged insensate by durhang, filled with infantile thoughts by her old master, Bidithal. And now she was free, and still wide-eyed with the complexities of the world. The demon lusted after Felisin, she believed. Either to mate with or to devour – it was hard to tell. While Felisin regarded Greyfrog as if it was a dog better to stroke than kick. Which might in turn be giving the demon the wrong notions.

It spoke with the others in their minds, but had yet to do so with Scillara. Out of courtesy to her, the ones the demon addressed replied out loud, although of course they did not have to – and perhaps didn’t more often than not. There was no way for Scillara to tell. She wondered why she had been set apart – what did Greyfrog see within her that so affected its apparent loquaciousness?

Well, poisons do linger. I may be … unpalatable. In her old life, she might have felt some resentment, or suspicion, assuming she felt anything at all. But now, it appeared to her that she didn’t much care. Something had taken shape within her, and it was self-contained and, oddly enough, self-assured.

Perhaps that came with being pregnant. Just beginning to show, and that would only get worse. And this time there would be no alchemies to scour the seed out of her. Although other means were possible, of course. She was undecided on whether to keep the child, whose father was probably Korbolo Dom but could have been one of his officers, or someone else. Not that that mattered, since whoever he had been he was probably dead now, a thought that pleased her.

The constant nausea was wearying, although the rustleaf helped. There was the ache in her breasts, and the weight of them made her back ache, and that was unpleasant. Her appetite had burgeoned, and she was getting heavier, especially on the hips. The others had simply assumed that such changes were coming with her returning health – she hadn’t coughed in over a week, and all this walking had strengthened her legs – and she did not disabuse them of their assumptions.

A child. What would she do with it? What would it expect of her? What was it mothers did anyway? Sell their babies, mostly. To temples, to slavers, to the harem merchants if it’s a girl. Or keep it and teach it to beg. Steal. Sell its body. This, born of sketchy observations and the stories told by the waifs of Sha’ik’s encampment. Meaning, a child was an investment of sorts, which made sense. A return on nine months of misery and discomfort.

She supposed she could do something like that. Sell it. Assuming she let it live that long.

It was a dilemma indeed, but she had plenty of time to think on it. To make her decision.

Greyfrog’s head twisted round, looking past Scillara’s position. She turned to see four men emerge and halt at the edge of the clearing. The fourth one was leading horses. The riders who had passed them yesterday. One was carrying a loaded crossbow, the weapon trained on the demon.

‘Be sure,’ the man said in a growl to Felisin, ‘that you keep that damned thing away from us.’

The man on his right laughed. ‘A four-eyed dog. Yes, woman, get a leash on it … now. We don’t want any blood spilled. Well,’ he added, ‘not much.’

‘Where are the two men you were with?’ the man with the crossbow asked.

Scillara set down her pipe. ‘Not here,’ she said, rising and tugging at her tunic. ‘Just do what you’ve come here to do and then leave.’

‘Now that’s accommodating. You, with the dog, are you going to be as nice as your friend here?’

Felisin said nothing. She had gone white.

‘Never mind her,’ Scillara said. ‘I’m enough for all of you.’

‘But maybe you ain’t enough, as far as we’re concerned,’ the man said, smiling.

It wasn’t even an ugly smile, she decided. She could do this. ‘I plan on surprising you, then.’

The man handed the crossbow over to one of his comrades and unclasped the belt of his telaba. ‘We’ll see about that. Guthrim, if that dog-thing moves, kill it.’

‘It’s a lot bigger than most dogs I’ve seen,’ Guthrim replied.

‘Quarrel’s poisoned, remember? Black wasp.’

‘Maybe I should just kill it now.’

The other man hesitated, then nodded. ‘Go ahead.’

The crossbow thudded.

Greyfrog’s right hand intercepted the quarrel, plucking it out of the air, then the demon studied it, and slithered out its tongue to lick the poison.

‘The Seven take me!’ Guthrim whispered in disbelief.

‘Oh,’ Scillara said to Greyfrog, ‘don’t make a mess of this. There’s no problem here—’

‘He disagrees,’ Felisin said, her voice thin with fear.

‘Well, convince him otherwise.’ I can do this. Just like it was before. Doesn’t matter, they’re just men.

‘I can’t, Scillara.’

Guthrim was reloading the crossbow, whilst the first man and the one not holding the reins of the horses both drew scimitars.

Greyfrog bounded forward, appallingly fast, and leapt upward, mouth opening wide. That mouth clamped onto Guthrim’s head. The demon’s lower jaw slipped out from its hinges and the man’s head disappeared. Greyfrog’s momentum and weight toppled him. Horrific crunching sounds, Guthrim’s body spasming, spraying fluids, then sagging limp.

Greyfrog’s jaws closed with a scraping, then snapping sound, then the demon clambered away, leaving behind a headless corpse.

The remaining three men had stared in shock during this demonstration. But now they acted. The first one cried out, a strangled, terror-filled sound, and rushed forward, raising his scimitar.

Spitting out a mangled, crushed mess of hair and bone, Greyfrog jumped to meet him. One hand caught the man’s sword-arm, twisted hard until the elbow popped, flesh tore, and blood spurted. Another hand closed on his throat and squeezed, crushing cartilage. The man’s scream never reached the air. Eyes bulging, face rushing to a shade of dark grey, tongue jutting like some macabre creature trying to climb free, he collapsed beneath the demon. A third hand held the other arm. Greyfrog used the fourth one to reach back and scratch itself.

The remaining swordsman fled to where the fourth man was already scrabbling onto his horse.

Greyfrog leapt again. A fist cracked against the back of the swordsman’s head, punching the bone inward. He sprawled, weapon flying. The demon’s charge caught the last man with one leg in the stirrup.

The horse shied away with a squeal, and Greyfrog dragged the man down, then bit his face.

A moment later this man’s head vanished into the demon’s maw as had the first one. More crunching sounds, more twitching kicks, grasping hands. Then, merciful death.

The demon spat out shattered bone still held in place by the scalp. It fell in such a way that Scillara found herself looking at the man’s face – no flesh, no eyes, just the skin, puckered and bruised. She stared at it a moment longer, then forced herself to look away.

At Felisin, who had backed up as far as she could against the stone wall, knees drawn up, hands covering her eyes.

‘It’s done,’ Scillara said. ‘Felisin, it’s over.’

The hands lowered, revealing an expression of terror and revulsion.

Greyfrog was dragging bodies away, round behind a mass of boulders, moving with haste. Ignoring the demon for the moment, Scillara walked over to crouch in front of Felisin. ‘It would have been easier my way,’ she said. ‘At least a lot less messy.’

Felisin stared at her. ‘He sucked out their brains.’

‘I could see that.’

‘Delicious, he said.’

‘He’s a demon, Felisin. Not a dog, not a pet. A demon.’

‘Yes.’ The word was whispered.

‘And now we know what he can do.’

A mute nod.

‘So,’ Scillara said quietly, ‘don’t get too friendly.’ She straightened, and saw Cutter and Heboric clambering down from the ridge.

‘Triumph and pride! We have horses!’

Cutter slowed. ‘We heard a scream—’

‘Horses,’ Heboric said as he walked towards the skittish animals. ‘That’s a bit of luck.’

‘Innocent. Scream? No, friend Cutter. Was Grey frog … breaking wind.’

‘Really. And did these horses just wander up to you?’

‘Bold. Yes! Most curious!’

Cutter headed over to study some odd stains in the scuffled dust. Greyfrog’s palm-prints were evident in the effort to clean up the mess. ‘Some blood here …’

‘Shock, dismay … remorse.’

‘Remorse. At what happened here, or at being found out?’

‘Sly. Why, the former, of course, friend Cutter.’

Grimacing, Cutter glanced over at Scillara and Felisin, studied their expressions. ‘I think,’ he said slowly, ‘that I am glad I was not here to see what you two saw.’

‘Yes,’ Scillara replied. ‘You should be.’

‘Best keep your distance from these beasts, Greyfrog,’ Heboric called out. ‘They may not like me, much, but they really don’t like you.’

‘Confident. They just don’t know me yet.’

‘I wouldn’t feed this to a rat,’ Smiles said, picking desultorily at the fragments of meat on the tin plate resting in her lap. ‘Look, even the flies are avoiding it.’

‘It’s not the food they’re avoiding,’ Koryk said. ‘It’s you.’

She sneered across at him. ‘That’s called respect. A foreign word to you, I know. Seti are just failed Wickans. Everybody knows that. And you, you’re a failed Seti.’ She took her plate and sent it skidding across the sand towards Koryk. ‘Here, stick it in your half-blood ears and save it for later.’

‘She’s so sweet after a day’s hard riding,’ Koryk said to Tarr, with a broad, white smile.

‘Keep baiting her,’ the corporal replied, ‘and you’ll probably regret it.’ He too was eyeing what passed for supper on his plate, his normally placid expression wrinkling into a slight scowl. ‘It’s horse, I’m sure of it.’

‘Dug up from some horse cemetery,’ Smiles said, stretching out her legs. ‘I’d kill for some grease-fish, baked in clay over coals down on the beach. Yellow-spiced, weedwrapped. A jug of Meskeri wine and some worthy lad from the inland village. A farm-boy, big—’

‘Hood’s litany, enough!’ Koryk leaned forward and spat into the fire. ‘You rounding up some pig-swiller with fluff on his chin is the only story you know, that much is obvious. Dammit, Smiles, we’ve heard it all a thousand times. You crawling out of Father’s estate at night to get your hands and knees wet down on the beach. Where was all this again? Oh, right, little-girl dream-land, I’d forgotten—’

A knife thudded into Koryk’s right calf. Bellowing, he scrambled back, then sank down to clutch at his leg.

Soldiers from nearby squads looked over, squinting through the dust that suffused the entire camp. A moment’s curiosity, quickly fading.

As Koryk loosed a stream of indignant curses, both hands trying to stem the bleeding, Bottle sighed and rose from where he sat. ‘See what happens when the old men leave us to play on our own? Hold still, Koryk,’ he said as he approached. ‘I’ll get you mended – won’t take long—’

‘Make it soon,’ the half-blood Seti said in a growl, ‘so I can slit that bitch’s throat.’

Bottle glanced over at the woman, then leaned in close to Koryk. ‘Easy. She’s looking a little pale. A bad throw—’

‘Oh, and what was she aiming at?’

Corporal Tarr climbed to his feet. ‘Strings won’t be happy with you, Smiles,’ he said, shaking his head.

‘He moved his leg—’

‘And you threw a knife at him.’

‘It was that little-girl thing. I was provoked.’

‘Never mind how it started. You might try apologizing – maybe Koryk will leave it at that—’

‘Sure,’ Koryk said. ‘The day Hood climbs into his own grave.’

‘Bottle, you stopped the bleeding yet?’

‘Pretty much, Corporal.’ Bottle tossed the knife over towards Smiles. It landed at her feet, the blade slick.

‘Thanks, Bottle,’ Koryk said. ‘Now she can try again.’

The knife thudded into the ground between the halfblood’s boots.

All eyes snapped to stare at Smiles.

Bottle licked his lips. That damned thing had come all too close to his left hand.

‘That’s where I was aiming,’ Smiles said.

‘What did I tell you?’ Koryk asked, his voice strangely high.

Bottle drew a deep breath to slow his pounding heart.

Tarr walked over and pulled the knife from the ground. ‘I’ll keep this for a while, I think.’

‘I don’t care,’ Smiles said. ‘I got plenty more.’

‘And you will keep them sheathed.’

‘Aye, Corporal. So long as no-one provokes me.’

‘She’s insane,’ Koryk muttered.

‘She’s not insane,’ Bottle replied. ‘Just lonely for …’

‘Some farm-boy from the inland village,’ Koryk finished, grinning.

‘Probably a cousin,’ Bottle added, low so that only Koryk heard.

The man laughed.

There. Bottle sighed. Another hairy moment on this endless march passed by, with only a little blood spilled. The Fourteenth Army was tired. Miserable. It didn’t like itself, much. Deprived of delivering fullest vengeance upon Sha’ik and the murderers, rapists and cut-throats who followed her, and now in slow pursuit of the last remnant of that rebel army, along crumbling, dusty roads in a parched land, through sandstorms and worse, the Fourteenth still waited for a resolution. It wanted blood, but so far most of the blood spilled had been its own, as altercations turned into feuds and things got ugly.

The Fists were doing their best to keep things under control, but they were as worn down as everyone else. It didn’t help that there were very few captains worthy of the rank in the companies.

And we don’t have one at all, now that Keneb got moved. There was the rumour of a new contingent of recruits and officers disembarking at Lato Revae and now somewhere behind them, hurrying to catch up, but that rumour had begun ten days ago. The fools should have caught them by now.

Messengers had been coming and going in the last two days, pelting along the track from their wake, then back again. Dujek Onearm and the Adjunct were doing a lot of talking, that much was clear. What wasn’t was what they were talking about. Bottle had thought about eavesdropping on the command tent and its occupants, as he had done many times before, between Aren and Raraku, but the presence of Quick Ben made him nervous. A High Mage. If Quick turned over a rock and found Bottle under it, there’d be Hood to pay.

The damned bastards fleeing ahead of them could run for ever, and probably would if their commander had any brains. He could have chosen a last stand at any time. Heroic and inspiring in its pointlessness. But it seemed he was too clever for that. Westward, ever westward, out into the wastes.

Bottle returned to where he had been sitting, collecting handfuls of sand to scrub Koryk’s blood from his fingers and palms. We’re just getting on each other’s nerves. That’s all. His grandmother would know what to do about this situation, but she was long dead and her spirit was anchored to the old farm outside Jakata, a thousand leagues from here. He could almost see her, shaking her head and squinting in that half-crazed genius way she’d had. Wise in the ways of mortals, seeing through to every weakness, every flaw, reading unconscious gestures and momentary expressions, cutting through the confused surface to lay bare the bones of truth. Nothing was hidden from her.

He could not talk with her, however.

But there’s another woman … isn’t there? Despite the heat, Bottle shivered. She still haunted his dreams, that Eres’al witch. Still showed him the ancient hand-axes spread out over this land like the stone leaves of a world-encompassing tree, scattered by the winds of countless passing ages. He knew, in fact, that fifty or so paces south of this track, there was a basin cluttered with the damned things. Out there, a short walk, waiting for him.

I see them, but I do not yet understand their significance. That’s the problem. I’m not equal to this.

His eyes caught movement down by his boots and he saw a locust, swollen with eggs and crawling slowly. Bottle leaned forward and picked it up by pinching together its folded wings. With his other hand he reached into his pack, and removed a small black wooden box, its lid and sides pierced through with small holes. He flicked open the clasp and lifted the lid.

Joyful Union, their prized Birdshit scorpion. In the sudden light, the creature’s tail lifted as it backed into a corner.

Bottle tossed the locust into the box.

The scorpion had known what was coming, and it darted forward, and moments later was feeding on the still-kicking insect.

‘Simple for you, isn’t it?’ Bottle said under his breath.

Something thumped into the sand beside him – a karybral fruit, round and dusty-lime-coloured. Bottle looked up to find Cuttle standing over him.

The sapper had an armful of the fruit. ‘A treat,’ he said.

Grimacing, Bottle closed the lid on Joyful Union. ‘Thanks. Where did you get them?’

‘Went for a walk.’ Cuttle nodded southward. ‘A basin, karybral vines everywhere.’ He started tossing them to the others in the squad.

A basin. ‘Plenty of hand-axes, too, right?’

Cuttle squinted. ‘Didn’t notice. Is that dried blood on your hands?’

‘That would be mine,’ Koryk said in a growl, already husking the fruit.

The sapper paused, studied the rough circle of soldiers around him, finishing on Corporal Tarr, who shrugged. This seemed sufficient, as Cuttle flung the last karybral globe over to Smiles.

Who caught it on a knife.

The others, Cuttle included, watched as she proceeded to slice the skin away with deft strokes.

The sapper sighed. ‘Think I’ll go find the sergeant.’

‘Good idea,’ Bottle said.

‘You should let Joyful out for the occasional walk,’ Cuttle said. ‘Stretch the old legs. Maybe and Lutes have found a new scorpion – never seen its like before. They’re talking re-match.’

‘Scorpions can’t stretch their legs,’ Bottle replied.

‘A figure of speech.’


‘Anyway,’ Cuttle said, then ambled off.

Smiles had managed to remove the entire husk in one strip, which she lobbed in Koryk’s direction. He had been looking down, and he jumped at the motion in the edge of his vision.

She snorted. ‘There you go. Add it to your collection of charms.’

The half-Seti set down his karybral and slowly stood, then winced and threw Bottle a glare. ‘I thought you healed this damned thing.’

‘I did. It’s still going to be sore, though.’

‘Sore? I can barely stand.’

‘It’ll get better.’

‘She’s liable to run,’ Tarr observed. ‘It should be amusing, Koryk, seeing you hobbling after her.’

The big man subsided. ‘I’m patient enough,’ he said, sitting back down.

‘Ooh,’ Smiles said, ‘I’m all in a sweat.’

Bottle climbed to his feet. ‘I’m going for a walk,’ he said. ‘Nobody kill anybody until I get back.’

‘If someone gets killed,’ Tarr pointed out, ‘your healing skills won’t be much help.’

‘I wasn’t thinking about healing, just watching.’

They had ridden north, out of sight of the encamped column, over a low ridge and onto a flat, dusty plain. Three guldindha trees rose from a low knoll two hundred paces distant, and they had reined in beneath the shade of the leathery, broad leaves, unpacking food and a jug of Gredfalan ale Fiddler had procured from somewhere, and there they awaited the High Mage’s arrival.

Something of Fiddler’s old spirit had been dampened, Kalam could see. More grey in the russet beard, a certain far-off look in his pale blue eyes. True, the Fourteenth was an army filled with resentful, bitter soldiers, the glory of an empire’s vengeance stolen from them the very night before battle; and this march wasn’t helping. These things alone could suffice to explain Fiddler’s condition, but Kalam knew better.

Tanno song or no, Hedge and the others were dead. Ghosts on the other side. Then again, Quick Ben had explained that the official reports were slightly inaccurate. Mallet, Picker, Antsy, Blend, Spindle, Bluepearl … there were survivors, retired and living soft in Darujhistan. Along with Captain Ganoes Paran. So, some good news, and it had helped. A little.

Fiddler and Hedge had been as close as brothers. When together, they had been mayhem. A conjoined mindset more dangerous than amusing most of the time. As legendary as the Bridgeburners themselves. It had been a fateful decision back there on the shoreline of Lake Azur, their parting. Fateful for all of us, it turns out.

Kalam could make little sense of the ascendancy. This Spiritwalker’s blessing on a company of soldiers, the parting of the fabric at Raraku. He was both comforted and uneasy with the notion of unseen guardians – Fiddler’s life had been saved by Hedge’s ghost … but where was Whiskeyjack? Had he been there as well?

That night in the camp of Sha’ik had been nightmarish. Too many knives to count had been unsheathed in those dark hours. And he had seen some of those ghosts with his own eyes. Bridgeburners long dead, come back grim as a hangover and as ugly as they had been in life. If he ever met that Tanno Spiritwalker Fid had talked to …

The sapper was pacing in the shade of the trees.

Crouching, Kalam Mekhar studied his old friend. ‘All right, Fid, out with it.’

‘Bad things,’ the sapper muttered. ‘Too many to count. Like storm-clouds, gathering on every horizon.’

‘No wonder you’ve been miserable company.’

Fiddler squinted over at him. ‘You ain’t been much better.’

The assassin grimaced. ‘Pearl. He’s keeping out of my sight, but he’s hovering nonetheless. You’d think that Pardu woman – what’s her name?’

‘Lostara Yil.’

‘Her. You’d think she’d have unhorsed him by now.’

‘The game those two play is all their own,’ Fiddler said, ‘and they’re welcome to it. Anyway, it’s clear he’s still here because the Empress wants someone close to Tavore.’

‘That was always her problem,’ Kalam said, sighing.


Kalam regarded the sapper. ‘You’ve marched with Tavore since Aren. Any sense of her? Any at all?’

‘I’m a sergeant, Kalam.’

‘Exactly.’ The assassin waited.

Fiddler scratched his beard, tugged at the strap of his battered helm, then unclasped it and tossed it to one side. He continued pacing, kicking at the leaves and nutshells in the sand. He waved at an errant bloodfly hovering in front of his face. ‘She’s cold iron, Kalam. But it’s untested. Can she think in battle? Can she command on the run? Hood knows, her favoured Fist, that old man Garnet, he couldn’t.

Which doesn’t bode well for her judgement.’

‘She knew him from before, didn’t she?’

‘Someone she trusted, aye, there’s that. He was worn out, that’s all. I ain’t as generous as I used to be.’

Kalam grinned, looking away. ‘Oh yes, generous, that’s Fid all right.’ He gestured at the finger bones hanging from the sapper’s belt. ‘What about those?’

‘She walked straight with that, it’s true. Oponn’s shove, maybe.’

‘Or maybe not.’

Fiddler shrugged. His hand snapped out and closed on the bloodfly. He smeared it to death between his palms with evident satisfaction.

Looking older, true enough, but fast and mean as ever. A wash of gritty, dead air sent the leaves scrabbling over the sand, the air audibly splitting a few paces away, and Quick Ben emerged from a warren. Coughing.

Kalam collected the jug of ale and walked over. ‘Here.’

The wizard drank, coughed once more, then spat. ‘Gods below, that imperial warren is awful.’ He swallowed another mouthful.

‘Send me in there,’ Fiddler said, striding over, ‘then I can drink some of that, too.’

‘Glad to see your mood’s improved,’ Quick Ben said, handing the jug over. ‘We will be having some company in a short while … after we eat, that is,’ he added, spying the wrapped foodstuffs and heading over. ‘I’m so hungry I could eat bloodflies.’

‘Lick my palm,’ Fiddler said.

The wizard halted, looked over. ‘You’ve lost your mind. I’d sooner lick the hand of a camel-dung hawker.’ He began unwrapping the leaves protecting the food.

‘How was your meeting with Tavore?’ Kalam asked, joining him.

‘Your guess is as good as mine,’ Quick Ben replied. ‘I’ve seen people under siege before, but she’s raised walls so thick and so high I doubt a dozen irate dragons would get through … and not an enemy in sight, either.’

‘You might be wrong there,’ the assassin said. ‘Was Pearl around?’

‘Well, one curtain moved a bit.’

Fiddler snorted. ‘He ain’t that obvious. Was probably T’amber.’

‘I wasn’t being literal, Fid. Somebody in a warren, close and watchful.’

‘Tavore wasn’t wearing her sword, then,’ Kalam said.

‘No, she never does when talking with me, thank the gods.’

‘Ah, considerate, then!’

The wizard shot a dark glare at Kalam. ‘Doesn’t want to suck everything out of her High Mage, you mean.’

‘Stop,’ Fiddler said. ‘I don’t like the images popping into my head. Hand me a chunk of that sepah bread – no, not the one you’ve taken a bite out of, Quick, thanks anyway. There – oh, never mind.’ He reached across.

‘Hey, you’re raining sand on my food!’

Kalam settled back on his haunches. Fiddler was looking younger by the minute. Especially with that scowl. This break away from the army and all that went with it was long overdue.

‘What?’ Fiddler demanded. ‘Worried you’ll wear your teeth down? Better stop chewing on that bread, then.’

‘It’s not that hard,’ the wizard replied in a mouth-full muffle.

‘No, but it’s full of grit, Quick Ben. From the millstones. Anyway, I’m always raining sand these days. I got sand in places you wouldn’t imagine—’

‘Stop, images popping into my head and all that.’

‘After this,’ Fiddler continued remorselessly, ‘a year’s worth of sitting sweet in Darujhistan and I’ll still be shitting gritty bricks—’

‘Stop, I said!’

Kalam’s eyes narrowed on the sapper. ‘Darujhistan? Planning on joining the others, then?’

The sapper’s gaze shied away. ‘Some day …’

‘Some day soon?’

‘I ain’t planning on running, Kalam.’

The assassin met Quick Ben’s eyes, just a flicker of contact, and Kalam cleared his throat. ‘Well … maybe you should, Fid. If I was giving advice—’

‘If you’re giving advice then I know we’re all doomed. Thanks for ruining my day. Here, Quick, some more of that ale, please, I’m parched.’

Kalam subsided. All right, at least that’s cleared up.

Quick Ben brushed crumbs from his long-fingered hands and sat back. ‘She has ideas about you, Kalam …’

‘I’ve got one wife too many as it is.’

‘Maybe she wants you to put together a squad of assassins?’

‘A what? From this lot?’

‘Hey,’ Fiddler growled, ‘I know this lot.’


‘And you’re right, is all. They’re a mess.’

‘Even so,’ the wizard said, shrugging. ‘And she probably wants you to do it on the sly—’

‘With Pearl listening in on your conversation, right.’

‘No, that was later. The second half of our meetings is for our audience. The first half, before Pearl and whoever else arrives, is when we talk privately. She makes these meetings as impromptu as possible. Uses Grub as a messenger.’ The wizard made a warding gesture.

‘Just a foundling,’ Fiddler said.

But Quick Ben simply shook his head.

‘So she wants her own cadre of assassins,’ Kalam said. ‘Unknown to the Claw. Oh, I don’t like where this is going, Quick.’

‘Whoever is hiding behind those walls might be scared, Kal, but stupid it ain’t.’

‘This whole thing is stupid,’ Fiddler pronounced. ‘She crushed the rebellion – what more does Laseen want?’

‘Strong, when it comes to dealing with our enemies,’ Kalam said. ‘And weak when it comes to popularity.’

‘Tavore ain’t the popular sort of person, so what’s the problem?’

‘She might get popular. A few more successes – ones where it’s clear it’s not dumb luck. Come on, Fid, you know how fast an army can turn round.’

‘Not this army,’ the sapper said. ‘It barely got up off the ground to start with. We’re a damned shaky bunch – Quick Ben, does she have any idea of that?’

The wizard considered for a time, then he nodded. ‘I think so. But she doesn’t know what to do about it, beyond catching Leoman of the Flails and obliterating him and his army. Thoroughly.’

Fiddler grunted. ‘That’s what Cuttle is afraid of. He’s convinced we’re all going to end up wearing Ranal before this is done.’

‘Ranal? Oh, right.’

‘He’s being a right pain about it, too,’ Fiddler went on. ‘Keeps talking about the cusser he’s holding back, the one he’ll sit on when the doom descends on us all. You should see the look on the recruits’ faces when he goes on like that.’

‘Sounds like Cuttle needs a talking to.’

‘He needs a fist in the face, Kal. Believe me, I’ve been tempted …’

‘But sappers don’t do that to each other.’

‘I’m a sergeant, too.’

‘But you need him still on your side.’

Glumly, ‘Aye.’

‘All right,’ Kalam said, ‘I’ll put him right.’

‘Careful, he might toss a sharper at your feet. He don’t like assassins.’

‘Who does?’ Quick Ben commented.

Kalam frowned. ‘And here I thought I was popular … at least with my friends.’

‘We’re only playing it safe, Kalam.’

‘Thanks, Quick, I’ll remember that.’

The wizard rose suddenly. ‘Our guests are about to arrive …’

Fiddler and Kalam stood as well, turning to see the imperial warren open once more. Four figures strode out.

The assassin recognized two of them, and felt both tension and pleasure rising within him; the sudden hackles for High Mage Tayschrenn, and the genuine pleasure at seeing Dujek Onearm. Flanking Tayschrenn were two bodyguards, one an aged Seti with a waxed moustache – vaguely familiar in some distant way, as if Kalam had perhaps seen him once before, long ago. The other was a woman somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five, lithe and athletic beneath tight silks. The eyes were soft and dark brown, watchful; her hair was cut short in the imperial fashion around her heart-shaped face.

‘Relax,’ Quick Ben murmured low beside Kalam. ‘Like I said before, Tayschrenn’s role in … things past … was misunderstood.’

‘So you say.’

‘And he did try to protect Whiskeyjack.’

‘But was too late.’


‘All right, I’ll be civil. Is that Seti his old bodyguard – from the days of the Emperor?’


‘Miserable bastard? Never said anything?’

‘That’s him.’

‘Looks like he’s mellowed some.’

Quick Ben snorted.

‘Something amusing you, High Mage?’ Dujek asked as the group approached.

‘Welcome, High Fist,’ Quick Ben said, straightening, adding a slightly deferential bow to Tayschrenn.

‘Colleague …’

Tayschrenn’s thin, almost hairless brows rose. ‘A field promotion, wasn’t it? Well, perhaps long overdue. Nonetheless, I do not believe the Empress has sanctioned that title as yet.’

Quick Ben offered him a broad, white smile. ‘Do you recall, High Mage, a certain other High Mage, sent by the Emperor, early on in the Blackdog Campaign? Kribalah Rule?’

‘Rule the Rude? Yes, he died after a month or so—’

‘In a horrible conflagration, aye. Well, that was me. Thus, I’ve been a High Mage before, colleague …’

Tayschrenn was frowning, clearly thinking back, then the frown became a scowl. ‘And the Emperor knew this? He must have, having sent you – unless, of course, he didn’t send you at all.’

‘Well, granted, there were some improprieties involved, and had one set out on that particular trail they might well have been noted. But you did not feel the need to do so, evidently, since, although briefly, I more than held my own – pulling you out of trouble once, I seem to recall … something about Tiste Andii assassin-mages—’

‘When I lost a certain object containing a demon lord …’

‘You did? Sorry to hear that.’

‘The same demon that later died by Rake’s sword in Darujhistan.’

‘Oh, how unfortunate.’

Kalam leaned close to Quick Ben. ‘I thought,’ he said in a whisper, ‘you told me to relax.’

‘Long ago and far away,’ Dujek Onearm said gruffly, ‘and I’d slap my hands together if I had more than one. Tayschrenn, rein in that Seti before he does something stupid. We have things to discuss here. Let’s get on with it.’

Kalam glanced across at Fiddler and winked. Just like old times …

Lying flat at the crest of the ridge, Pearl grunted. ‘That’s Dujek Onearm out there,’ he said. ‘He’s supposed to be in G’danisban right now.’

Beside him, Lostara Yil hissed and began slapping about her body. ‘Chigger fleas, damn you. They’re swarming this ridge. I hate chigger fleas—’

‘Why not jump up and dance about, Captain?’ Pearl asked. ‘Just to make certain they know we’re here.’

‘Spying is stupid. I hate this, and I am rediscovering my hatred for you, too, Claw.’

‘You say the sweetest things. Anyway, the bald one’s Tayschrenn, with Hattar and Kiska this time, meaning he’s serious about the risks. Oh, why did they have to do this, now?’

‘Do what now?’

‘Whatever it is they’re doing, of course.’

‘So run back to Laseen like the eager puppy you are, Pearl, and tell her all about it.’

He edged back down the side of the ridge, twisted round and sat up. ‘No need for haste. I have to think.’

Lostara clambered down the slope until she could stand. She began scratching under her armour. ‘Well, I’m not waiting around for that. I need a milk bath, with escura leaves, and I need it now.’

He watched her stalk away, back towards the encampment. A nice walk, apart from the sudden twitches.

A simple cantrip, keeping the fleas away from his body. Perhaps he should have extended the courtesy to her.

No. This is much better.

Gods, we’re made for each other.


Yareth Ghanatan, the city stands still

First and last and where the old causeway

Curves in its half-circle there are towers

Of sand seething with empires and

Marching armies, broken wing banners

And the dismembered lining the walkways

Are soon the bones of the edifices, warriors

And builders both, the city ever stands

To house insect hordes, oh those towers

Rear so proud, rising as dreams on the

Heated breath of the sun, Yareth Ghanatan.

The city is the empress, wife and lover,

Crone and child of the First Empire,

And I yet remain, with all my kin,

The bones in the walls, the bones

Beneath the floor, the bones that cast

Down this gentle shade – first and last,

I see what comes, all that has gone,

And the clay of my flesh has felt your hands

The old warmth of life, for the city,

My city, it stands still, and it stands,

Stands ever still.

Bones in the Walls

(stela fragment, circa First Empire)

Author unknown

‘I can be this urn.’

‘You don’t want to be that urn.’

‘It’s got legs.’

‘Stubby ones, and I don’t think they move. They’re just for show. I remember things like that.’

‘But it’s pretty.’

‘And she pees in it.’

‘Pees? Are you sure? Have you seen her pee in it?’

‘Take a look, Curdle. That’s her pee in it. You don’t want to be that urn. You want something alive. Really alive, with legs that work. Or wings …’

They were still whispering when Apsalar removed the last bar in the window and set it down. She climbed onto the sill, twisting sideways to reach up to the nearest roof-post.

‘Where are you going?’ Telorast demanded.

‘To the roof.’

‘Shall we join you?’


Apsalar pulled herself upward and moments later was crouched on the sun-baked clay, the stars glistening overhead. Dawn was not far off, and the city below was silent and motionless like a thing dead in the night. Ehrlitan. The first city they had come to in this land, the city where this particular journey had begun, a group fated to break apart beneath a host of burdens. Kalam Mekhar, Fiddler, Crokus and herself. Oh, Crokus had been so angry to discover that their companions had come with hidden motives – not just escorting her home, not just righting an old wrong. He had been so naive.

She wondered how he was faring, thought to ask Cotillion the next time the god visited, then decided she would not do so. It would not do to let herself continue to care about him; even to think on him, achieving little more than loosing the flood-gates of yearning, desire and regret.

Other, more immediate issues demanded her thought. Mebra. The old spy was dead, which was what Shadowthrone had wanted, although the why of it escaped Apsalar. Granted, Mebra had been working all sides, serving the Malazan Empire at one moment, Sha’ik’s cause the next. And … someone else. That someone else’s identity was important, and, she suspected, it was the true reason for Shadowthrone’s decision.

The Nameless Ones? Had the Semk assassin been sent to cover a trail? Possible, and it made sense. No witnesses, the man had said. To what? What service could Mebra have provided the Nameless Ones? Hold off pursuing an answer to that. Who else?

Adherents to the old cult of Shadow in Seven Cities no doubt remained, survivors of the purges that had accompanied the conquest. Another possible employer of Mebra’s many skills, and more likely to have caught Shadowthrone’s attention, as well as his ire.

She had been told to kill Mebra. She had not been told why, nor had she been told to initiate any investigations on her own. Suggesting Shadowthrone felt he knew enough. The same for Cotillion. Or, conversely, they were both woefully ignorant, and Mebra had simply switched sides once too often.

There were more targets on her list, a random collection of names, all of which could be found in Cotillion’s memories. She was expected simply to proceed from one to the next, with the final target the most challenging of all … but that one was in all likelihood months away, and she would need to do some deft manoeuvring to get close enough to strike, a slow, careful stalking of a very dangerous individual. For whom she felt no enmity.

This is what an assassin does. And Cotillion’s possession has made me an assassin. That and nothing else. I have killed and will continue to kill. I need think of nothing else. It is simple. It should be simple.

And so she would make it so.

Still, what made a god decide to kill some lowly mortal? The minor irritation of a stone in a moccasin. The slap of a branch on a wooded trail. Who thinks twice plucking that stone out and tossing it away? Or reaching out and snapping that branch? It seems I do, for I am that god’s hand in this.

Enough. No more of this weakness … this … uncertainty. Complete the tasks, then walk away. Vanish. Find a new life.

Only … how does one do that?

There was someone she could ask – he was not far off, she knew, having culled his identity from Cotillion’s memories.

She had moved to sit with her legs dangling on the roof’s edge. Someone now sat at her side.

‘Well?’ Cotillion asked.

‘A Semk assassin of the Nameless Ones completed my mission for me.’

‘This very night?’

‘I met him, but was unable to question him.’

The god slowly nodded. ‘The Nameless Ones again. This is unexpected. And unwelcome.’

‘So they were not the reason for killing Mebra.’

‘No. Some stirrings of the old cult. Mebra was positioning himself to become a High Priest. The best candidate – we’re not worried about the others.’

‘Cleaning house.’

‘Necessary, Apsalar. We’re in for a scrap. A bad one.’

‘I see.’

They were silent for a time, then Cotillion cleared his throat. ‘I have not yet had time to check on him, but I know he is hale, although understandably dispirited.’

‘All right.’

He must have sensed she wanted it left at that, for, after a pause, he then said, ‘You freed two ghosts …’

She shrugged.

Sighing, Cotillion ran a hand through his dark hair. ‘Do you know what they once were?’

‘Thieves, I think.’

‘Yes, that.’

‘Tiste Andii?’

‘No, but they lingered long over those two bodies and so … absorbed certain essences.’


‘They are now agents of Edgewalker. I am curious to see what they will do.’

‘For the moment they seem content to accompany me.’

‘Yes. I think Edgewalker’s interests include you, Apsalar, because of our past … relationship.’

‘Through me, to you.’

‘I seem to warrant his curiosity.’

‘Edgewalker. That apparition seems a rather passive sort,’ she observed.

‘We first met him,’ Cotillion said slowly, ‘the night we ascended. The night we made passage into the realm of Shadow. He made my spine crawl right then, and it’s been crawling ever since.’

She glanced over at him. ‘You are so unsuited to be a god, Cotillion, did you know that?’

‘Thank you for the vote of confidence.’

She reached up with one hand and brushed the line of his jaw, the gesture close to a caress. She caught the sudden intake of his breath, the slight widening of his eyes, but he would not look at her. Apsalar lowered her hand. ‘I’m sorry. Another mistake. It’s all I seem to make these days.’

‘It’s all right,’ he replied. ‘I understand.’

‘You do? Oh, of course you do.’

‘Complete your mission, and all that is asked of you will end. You will face no more demands from me. Or Shadowthrone.’

There was something in his tone that gave her a slight shiver. Something like … remorse. ‘I see. That is good. I’m tired. Of who I am, Cotillion.’

‘I know.’

‘I was thinking of a detour. Before my next task.’


‘The coastal road, east. Just a few days by Shadow.’

He looked across at her, and she saw his faint smile and was unaccountably pleased by it. ‘Ah, Apsalar … that should be fun. Send him my greetings.’


‘Absolutely. He needs a little shaking up.’ He straightened. ‘I must leave. It’s almost dawn. Be careful, and do not trust those ghosts.’

‘They are bad liars.’

‘Well, I know a High Priest who employs a similar tactic to confound others.’

Iskaral Pust. Now it was Apsalar who smiled, but she said nothing, for Cotillion was gone.

The east horizon was in flames with the rising of the sun.

‘Where did the darkness go?’ Curdle demanded.

Apsalar stood near the bed, running through her assortment of concealed weapons. She would need to sleep soon – perhaps this afternoon – but first she would make use of the daylight. There was something important hidden within the killing of Mebra by the Semk. Cotillion had been shaken by that detail. Although he had not asked her to pursue it, she would nonetheless, for a day or two at least. ‘The sun has risen, Curdle.’

‘The sun? By the Abyss, there’s a sun in this world? Have they gone mad?’

Apsalar glanced over at the cowering ghost. It was dissolving in the grainy light. Huddled in a shadow nearby, Telorast looked on, mute with terror. ‘Has who gone mad?’ Apsalar asked Curdle.

‘Well, them! The ones who created this place!’

‘We’re fading!’ Telorast hissed. ‘What does it mean? Will we cease to exist?’

‘I don’t know,’ Apsalar replied. ‘Probably you will lose some substance, assuming you have any, but it will be temporary. Best you two remain here, and be silent. I will be back before dusk.’

‘Dusk! Yes, excellent, we will wait here for dusk. Then night and all that darkness, and the shadows, and things to possess. Yes, fearful woman, we shall wait here.’

She headed down, paid for another night, then emerged onto the dusty street. The market-bound citizens were already on the move, hawkers dragging burdened mules, carts crowded with caged songbirds or slabs of salted meat or casks of oil or honey. Old men laboured beneath bundles of firewood, baskets of clay. Down the centre of the street strode two Red Blades – feared sentinels of order and law once again now that the empire’s presence had been emphatically reasserted. They were headed in the same direction as Apsalar – and indeed as most of the people – towards the vast sprawl of caravan camps beyond the city wall just south of the harbour.

The Red Blades were provided a wide berth, and the swagger of their stride, their gauntleted hands resting on the grips of their sheathed but not peace-strapped tulwars, made of their arrogance a deliberate, provocative affront. Yet they passed unchallenged.

Moments before she caught up with them, Apsalar swung left down a side passage. There was more than one route to the caravan camps.

A merchant employing Pardu and Gral guards, and appearing to display unusual interest in the presence of a Shadow Dancer in the city, made him or herself in turn the subject of interest. It might simply be that the merchant was a buyer and seller of information, but even that could prove useful to Apsalar – not that she was prepared to pay for any information she gleaned. The tribal guards suggested extensive overland travel, between distant cities and the rarely frequented tracks linking them. That merchant would know things.

And so, indeed, might those guards.

She arrived at the outskirts of the first camp. If seen from the sky, the caravan city would look pockmarked, as merchants came and went in a steady stream of wagons, horse-warriors, herd dogs and camels. The outer edges were home to lesser merchants, their positions fixed according to some obscure hierarchy, whilst the high-status caravans occupied the centre.

Entering the main thoroughfare from a side path between tents, Apsalar began the long search.

At midday she found a tapu-hawker and sat at one of the small tables beneath an awning eating the skewered pieces of fruit and meat, the grease running hot tracks down her hands. She had noted a renewed energy among the merchant camps she had visited so far. Insurrection and strife were bad for business, obviously. The return of Malazan rule was a blessing on trade in all its normal avaricious glory, and she had seen the exultation on all sides. Coins were flowing in a thousand streams.

Three figures caught her eye. Standing before the entrance to a large tent and arguing, it seemed, over a cage of puppies. The two Pardu women and one of the Gral tribesmen she had seen at the tavern. They were too preoccupied to have spied her, she hoped. Wiping her hands on her thighs, Apsalar rose and walked, keeping to the shadier areas, out from under the awning and away from the guards and the merchant’s tent.

It was enough to have found them, for now. Before she would endeavour to interrogate the merchant, or the guards, another task awaited her.

The long walk back to the inn was uneventful, and she climbed the stairs and made her way to her room. It was midafternoon, and her mind was filled with thoughts of sleep.

‘She’s back!’

The voice, Curdle’s, came from under the wood-framed cot.

‘Is it her?’ asked Telorast from the same place.

‘I recognize the moccasins, see the sewn-in ridges of iron? Not like the other one.’

Apsalar paused her removing of her leather gloves. ‘What other one?’

‘The one who was here earlier, a bell ago—’

‘A bell?’ Telorast wondered. ‘Oh, those bells, now I understand. They measure the passing of time. Yes, Not- Apsalar, a bell ago. We said nothing. We were silent. That one never knew we were here.’

‘The innkeeper?’

‘Boots, stirrup-worn and threaded with bronze scales, they went here and there – and crouched to look under here, but saw naught of us, of course, and naught of anything else, since you have no gear for him to rifle through—’

‘It was a man, then.’

‘Didn’t we say earlier? Didn’t we, Curdle?’

‘We must have. A man, with boots on, yes.’

‘How long did he stay?’ Apsalar asked, looking around the room. There was nothing there for the thief to steal, assuming he had been a thief.

‘A hundred of his heartbeats.’

‘Hundred and six, Telorast.’

‘Hundred and six, yes.’

‘He came and went by the door?’

‘No, the window – you removed the bars, remember? Down from the roof, isn’t that right, Telorast?’

‘Or up from the alley.’

‘Or maybe from one of the other rooms, thus from the side, right or left.’

Apsalar frowned and crossed her arms. ‘Did he come in by the window at all?’


‘By warren, then.’


‘And he wasn’t a man,’ Curdle added. ‘He was a demon. Big, black, hairy, with fangs and claws.’

‘Wearing boots,’ Telorast said.

‘Exactly. Boots.’

Apsalar pulled off her gloves and slapped them down on the bed-stand. She sprawled on the cot. ‘Wake me if he returns.’

‘Of course, Not-Apsalar. You can depend upon us.’

When she awoke it was dark. Cursing, Apsalar rose from the cot. ‘How late is it?’

‘She’s awake!’ The shade of Telorast hovered nearby, a smeared body-shape in the gloom, its eyes dully glowing.

‘Finally!’ Curdle whispered from the window sill, where it crouched like a gargoyle, head twisted round to regard Apsalar still seated on the cot. ‘It’s two bells after the death of the sun! We want to explore!’

‘Fine,’ she said, standing. ‘Follow me, then.’

‘Where to?’

‘Back to the Jen’rahb.’

‘Oh, that miserable place.’

‘I won’t be there long.’


She collected her gloves, checked her weapons once more – a score of aches from knife pommels and scabbards attested that they remained strapped about her person – and headed for the window.

‘Shall we use the causeway?’

Apsalar stopped, studied Curdle. ‘What causeway?’

The ghost moved to hug one edge of the window and pointed outward. ‘That one.’

A shadow manifestation, something like an aqueduct, stretched from the base of the window out over the alley and the building beyond, then curving – towards the heart of the Jen’rahb. It had the texture of stone, and she could see pebbles and pieces of crumbled mortar along the path. ‘What is this?’

‘We don’t know.’

‘It is from the Shadow Realm, isn’t it? It has to be. Otherwise I would be unable to see it.’

‘Oh yes. We think. Don’t we, Telorast?’

‘Absolutely. Or not.’

‘How long,’ Apsalar asked, ‘has it been here?’

‘Fifty-three of your heartbeats. You were stirring to wakefulness, right, Curdle? She was stirring.’

‘And moaning. Well, one moan. Soft. A half-moan.’

‘No,’ Telorast said, ‘that was me.’

Apsalar clambered up onto the sill, then, still gripping the edges of the wall, she stepped out onto the causeway. Solid beneath her feet. ‘All right,’ she muttered, more than a little shaken as she released her hold on the building behind her. ‘We might as well make use of it.’

‘We agree.’

They set out, over the alley, the tenement, a street and then the rubble of the ruins. In the distance rose ghostly towers. A city of shadow, but this one thoroughly unlike the one of the night before. Vague structures lay over the wreckage below – canals, the glimmer of something like water. Lower bridges spanned these canals. A few thousand paces distant, to the southeast, rose a massive domed palace, and beyond it what might have been a lake, or a wide river. Ships plied those waters, square-sailed and sleek, the wood midnight black. She saw tall figures crossing a bridge fifty paces away.

Telorast hissed. ‘I recognize them!’

Apsalar crouched low, suddenly feeling terribly vulnerable here on this high walkway.

‘Tiste Edur!’

‘Yes,’ she half-breathed.

‘Oh, can they see us?’

I don’t know. At least none walked the causeway they were on … not yet. ‘Come on, it’s not far. I want us away from this place.’

‘Agreed, oh yes, agreed.’

Curdle hesitated. ‘Then again …’

‘No,’ Apsalar said. ‘Attempt nothing, ghost.’

‘Oh all right. It’s just that there’s a body in the canal below.’

Damn this. She edged to the low wall and looked down. ‘That’s not Tiste Edur.’

‘No,’ Curdle confirmed. ‘It most certainly isn’t, Not-Apsalar. It is like you, yes, like you. Only more bloated, not long dead – we want it—’

‘Don’t expect help if trying for it attracts attention.’

‘Oh, she has a point, Curdle. Come on, she’s moving away from us! Wait! Don’t leave us here!’

Reaching a steep staircase, Apsalar quickly descended. As soon as she stepped onto the pale dusty ground, the ghostly city vanished. In her wake the two shades appeared, sinking towards her.

‘A most dreadful place,’ Telorast said.

‘But there was a throne,’ Curdle cried. ‘I sensed it! A most delicious throne!’

Telorast snorted. ‘Delicious? You have lost your mind. Naught but pain. Suffering. Affliction—’

‘Quiet,’ Apsalar commanded. ‘You will tell me more about this throne you two sensed, but later. Guard this entrance.’

‘We can do that. We’re very skilled guards. Someone died down there, yes? Can we have the body?’

‘No. Stay here.’ Apsalar entered the half-buried temple.

The chamber within was not as she had left it. The Semk’s corpse was gone. Mebra’s body had been stripped of its clothing, the clothing itself cut apart. What little furnishings occupied the room had been methodically dismantled. Cursing under her breath, Apsalar walked to the doorway leading to the inner chamber – the curtain that had covered it had been torn away. In the small room beyond – Mebra’s living quarters – the searcher or searchers had been equally thorough. Indifferent to the absence of light, she scanned the detritus. Someone had been looking for something, or deliberately obscuring a trail.

She thought about the Semk assassin’s appearance last night. She had assumed he’d somehow seen her sprint across the rubble and so was compelled to return. But now she wondered. Perhaps he’d been sent back, his task only half-completed. In either case, he had not been working alone that night. She had been careless, thinking otherwise.

From the outer chamber came a wavering whisper, ‘Where are you?’

Apsalar stepped back through the doorway. ‘What are you doing here, Curdle? I told you to—’

‘Two people are coming. Women, like you. Like us, too. I forgot. Yes, we’re all women here—’

‘Find a shadow and hide,’ Apsalar cut in. ‘Same for Telorast.’

‘You don’t want us to kill them?’

‘Can you?’


‘Hide yourselves.’

‘A good thing we decided to guard the door, isn’t it?’

Ignoring the ghost, Apsalar positioned herself beside the outer entrance. She drew her knives, set her back against the sloping stone, and waited.

She heard their quick steps, the scuffing as they halted just outside, their breathing. Then the first one stepped through, in her hands a shuttered lantern. She strode in further as she flipped back one of the hinged shutters, sending a shaft of light against the far wall. Behind her entered the second woman, a scimitar unsheathed and held out.

The Pardu caravan guards.

Apsalar stepped close and drove the point of one dagger into the woman’s elbow joint on the sword-arm, then swung the other weapon, pommel-forward, into the woman’s temple.

She dropped, as did her weapon.

The other spun round.

A high swinging kick caught her above the jaw. She reeled, lantern flying to crack against the wall.

Sheathing her knives, Apsalar closed in on the stunned guard. A punch to the solar plexus doubled her over. The guard dropped to her knees, then fell onto one side, curling up around the pain.

‘This is convenient,’ Apsalar said, ‘since I was intending to question you anyway.’

She walked back to the first woman and checked on her condition. Unconscious, and likely would remain so for some time. Even so, she kicked the scimitar into a corner, then stripped her of the knives she found hidden under her arms. Walking back to the other Pardu, she looked down on the groaning, motionless woman for a moment, then crouched and dragged her to her feet.

She grasped the woman’s right arm, the one she used to hold a weapon, and, with a sharp twist, dislocated it at the elbow.

The woman cried out.

Apsalar closed a hand on her throat and slammed her against the wall, the head cracking hard. Vomit spilled onto the assassin’s glove and wrist. She held the Pardu there. ‘Now you will answer my questions.’


‘No pleading. Pleading only makes me cruel. Answer me to my satisfaction and I might let you and your friend live. Do you understand?’

The Pardu nodded, her face smeared with blood and an elongated bump swelling below her right eye where the iron-embedded moccasin had struck.

Sensing the arrival of the two ghosts, Apsalar glanced over her shoulder. They were hovering over the body of the other Pardu.

‘One of us might take her,’ Telorast whispered.

‘Easy,’ agreed Curdle. ‘Her mind is addled.’


‘Lost in the Abyss.’

Apsalar hesitated, then said, ‘Go ahead.’

‘Me!’ hissed Curdle.

‘No, me!’ snarled Telorast.


‘I got to her first!’

‘You did not!’

‘I choose,’ said Apsalar. ‘Acceptable?’


‘Oh yes, you choose, dearest Mistress—’

‘You’re grovelling again!’

‘Am not!’

‘Curdle,’ Apsalar said. ‘Possess her.’

‘I knew you’d pick her!’

‘Patience, Telorast. This night’s not yet done.’

The Pardu woman before her was blinking, a wild look in her eyes. ‘Who are you talking to? What language is that? Who’s out there – I can’t see—’

‘Your lantern’s out. Never mind. Tell me about your master.’

‘Gods below, it hurts—’

Apsalar reached down and twisted the dislocated arm again.

The woman shrieked, then sagged, unconscious.

Apsalar let her slide down the wall until the woman was roughly in a sitting position. Then she drew out a flask and splashed water into the Pardu’s face.

The eyes opened, comprehension returned, and with it, terror.

‘I don’t want to hear about what hurts,’ Apsalar said. ‘I want to hear about the merchant. Your employer. Now, shall we try again?’

The other Pardu was sitting up near the entrance, making grunting noises, then coughing, until she spat out bloody phlegm. ‘Ah!’ Curdle cried. ‘Better! Oh, everything aches, oh, the arm!’

‘Be quiet,’ Apsalar commanded, then fixed her attention once more on the woman in front of her. ‘I am not a patient person.’

‘Trygalle Trade Guild,’ the woman said in a gasp.

Apsalar slowly leaned back on her haunches. A most unexpected answer. ‘Curdle, get out of that body.’



‘Just as well, she was all broken. Ah, free of pain again! This is better – I was a fool!’

Telorast’s laughter was a rasp. ‘And you still are, Curdle. I could have told you, you know. She wasn’t right for you.’

‘No more talking,’ Apsalar said. She needed to think on this. The Trygalle Trade Guild’s centre of operations was Darujhistan. It had been a long time since they’d visited the fragment of the Shadow Realm with munitions for Fiddler, assuming it was the same caravan – and she suspected it was. As purveyors of items and information, it now seemed obvious that more than one mission had brought them to Seven Cities. On the other hand, perhaps they were doing little more than recovering here in the city – given their harrowing routes through the warrens – and the merchant-mage had instructed his guards to deliver any and all unusual information. Even so, she needed to be certain. ‘The Trygalle merchant – what brought him or her here to Ehrlitan?’

The swelling was closing the Pardu’s right eye. ‘Him.’

‘His name?’

‘Karpolan Demesand.’

At that, Apsalar allowed herself a faint nod.

‘We, uh, we were making a delivery – us guards, we’re shareholders—’

‘I know how the Trygalle Trade Guild works. A delivery, you said.’

‘Yes, to Coltaine. During the Chain of Dogs.’

‘That was some time ago.’

‘Yes. I’m sorry, the pain, it hurts to talk.’

‘It’ll hurt more if you don’t.’

The Pardu grimaced, and it was a moment before Apsalar realized it had been a smile. ‘I do not doubt you, Shadow Dancer. Yes, there was more. Altar stones.’


‘Cut stones, to line a holy pool …’

‘Here in Ehrlitan?’

The woman shook her head, winced, then said, ‘No. Y’Ghatan.’

‘Are you on your way there, or returning?’

‘Returning. Outward journeys are through warrens. We’re … uh … resting.’

‘So Karpolan Demesand’s interest in a Shadow Dancer is just passing.’

‘He likes to know … everything. Information buys us advantages. No-one likes rearguard on the Ride.’

‘The Ride.’

‘Through the warrens. It’s … hairy.’

I imagine it would be. ‘Tell your master,’ Apsalar said, ‘that this Shadow Dancer does not appreciate the attention.’

The Pardu nodded.

Apsalar straightened. ‘I am done with you.’

The woman flinched back, up against the wall, her left forearm rising to cover her face.

The assassin looked down on the guard, wondering what had set her off.

‘We understand that language now,’ Telorast said. ‘She thinks you are going to kill her, and you are, aren’t you?’

‘No. That should be obvious, if she’s to deliver a message to her master.’

‘She’s not thinking straight,’ Curdle said. ‘Besides, what better way to deliver your message than with two corpses?’

Apsalar sighed, said to the Pardu, ‘What brought you to this place? To Mebra’s?’

Muffled from behind the forearm, the woman replied, ‘Purchasing information … but he’s dead.’

‘What information?’

‘Any. All. Comings and goings. Whatever he was selling. But you’ve killed Mebra—’

‘No, I did not. By way of peace between me and your master, I will tell you this. An assassin of the Nameless Ones murdered Mebra. There was no torture involved. A simple assassination. The Nameless Ones weren’t looking for information.’

The Pardu’s lone visible eye, now above the guarding wrist, was fixed on her. ‘The Nameless Ones? Seven Holies protect us!’

‘Now,’ Apsalar said, drawing her knife, ‘I need some time.’ With that she struck the woman with the pommel of her knife, hard against the temple, and watched the Pardu’s eye roll up, the body slump over.

‘Will she live?’ Telorast demanded, slinking closer.

‘Leave her alone.’

‘She may wake up not remembering anything you told her.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Apsalar replied, sheathing her knife. ‘Her master will glean all he needs to know anyway.’

‘A sorcerer. Ah, they travel the warrens, they said. Risky. This Karpolan Demesand must be a formidable wielder of magic – you have made a dangerous enemy.’

‘I doubt he will pursue this, Telorast. I let his shareholders live, and I have provided him with information.’

‘And what of the tablets?’ Curdle asked.

Apsalar turned. ‘What tablets?’

‘The ones hidden under the floor.’

‘Show me.’

The shade drifted towards Mebra’s naked corpse. ‘Under him. A secret cache, beneath this pavestone. Hard clay, endless lists, they probably mean nothing.’

Apsalar rolled the body over. The stone was easily pried loose, and she wondered at the carelessness of the searchers. Then again, perhaps Mebra had had some control over where he would die. He had been lying directly over it. A rough pit had been excavated, and it was crowded with clay tablets. In one corner sat a damp burlap sack filled with soft clay, and a half-dozen bone scribers bound in twine.

She rose and retrieved the lantern. When it had struck the wall, the shutter had closed – the flame within remained. She pulled the top ring to draw up the hinged shutters part-way. Returning to the secret cache, she collected the topmost dozen tablets then sat cross-legged beside the pit within the small circle of light, and began reading.

Attending the Grand Meeting of the Cult of Rashan was Bridthok of G’danisban, Septhune Anabhin of Omari, Sradal Purthu of Y’Ghatan, and Torahaval Delat of Karashimesh. Fools and charlatans one and all, although it must be said, Sradal is a dangerous fool. Torahaval is a bitch, with nothing of the humour of her cousin, nor his deadliness. She plays at this and nothing more, but she will make a fine head-piece, a High Priestess with seductive charms and so the acolytes shall flock. Of Septhune and Bridthok, the latter is my nearest rival, leaning heavily on his bloodline to that madman Bidithal, but I know well his weaknesses now and soon he shall be eliminated from the final vote by misfortune. Septhune is a follower and no more need be said of him.

Two of these cultists numbered among Apsalar’s targets for assassination. She memorized the other names, in case the opportunity arose.

The second, third and fourth tablets contained lists of contacts made in the past week, with notes and observations that made it plain that Mebra had been busy weaving his usual web of extortion among a host of dimwitted victims. Merchants, soldiers, amorous wives, thieves and thugs.

The fifth tablet proved interesting.

Sribin, my most trusted agent, has confirmed it. The outlawed Gral, Taralack Veed, was in Ehrlitan one month past. Truly a man to be feared, the most secret dagger of the Nameless Ones. This only reinforces my suspicion that they have done something, an unleashing of some ancient, terrible demon. Even as the Khundryl wanderer said, and so it was no lie, that harrowing tale of the barrow and the fleeing dragon. A hunt has begun. Yet, who is the prey? And what role has Taralack Veed in all this? Oh, the name alone, scribed here in damp clay, fills my bones with ice. Dessimbelackis curse the Nameless Ones. They never play fair.

‘How much longer are you going to do that?’ Curdle demanded beside her.

Ignoring the shade, Apsalar continued working her way through the tablets, now seeking the name of Taralack Veed. The ghosts wandered about, sniffing every now and then at the two unconscious Pardu, slipping outside occasionally then returning, muttering in some unknown language.

There were thirty-three tablets in the pit, and as she removed the last one, she noted something odd about the pit’s base. She brought the lantern closer. Shattered pieces of dried clay. Fragments of writing in Mebra’s hand. ‘He destroys them,’ she said under her breath. ‘Periodically.’ She studied the last tablet in her hand. It was dustier by far than all the others, the script more faded by wear. ‘But he saved this one.’ Another list. Only, in this one she recognized names. Apsalar began reading aloud: ‘Duiker has finally freed Heboric Light Touch. Plan ruined by the rebellion, and Heboric lost. Coltaine marches with his refugees, yet there are vipers among the Malazans. Kalam Mehkar sent to Sha’ik, the Red Blades following. Kalam will deliver the Book into Sha’ik’s hands. The Red Blades will kill the bitch. I am well pleased.’ The next few lines had been carved into the clay after it had hardened, the script looking ragged and hurried. ‘Heboric is with Sha’ik. Known now as Ghost
Hands, and in those hands is the power to destroy us all. This entire world. And none can stop him.’

Written in terror and panic. Yet … Apsalar glanced over at the other tablets. Something must have happened to have eased his mind. Was Heboric now dead? She did not know. Had someone else stumbled on the man’s trail, someone aware of the threat? And how in Hood’s name had Heboric – a minor historian of Unta – ended up in Sha’ik’s company?

Clearly the Red Blades had failed in their assassination attempt. After all, the Adjunct Tavore had killed the woman, hadn’t she? In front of ten thousand witnesses.

‘This woman is waking up.’

She looked over at Telorast. The shade was hovering over the Pardu guard lying near the entrance. ‘All right,’ Apsalar said, pushing the heap of tablets back into the pit and replacing the stone. ‘We’re leaving.’

‘Finally! It’s almost light outside!’

‘No causeway?’

‘Nothing but ruin, Not-Apsalar. Oh, this place looks too much like home.’

Curdle hissed. ‘Quiet, Telorast, you idiot! We don’t talk about that, remember?’


‘When we reach my room,’ Apsalar said, ‘I want you two to tell me about that throne.’

‘She remembered.’

‘I don’t,’ Curdle said.

‘Me neither,’ Telorast said. ‘Throne? What throne?’

Apsalar studied the two ghosts, the faintly luminous eyes peering up at her. ‘Oh, never mind.’

The Falah’d was a head shorter than Samar Dev – and she was of barely average height – and he likely weighed less than would one of her legs cut clean away at the hip. An unpleasant image, she allowed, but one frighteningly close to reality. A fierce infection had set in the broken bones and it had taken four witches to draw the malign presence out. That had been the night before and she still felt weak and light-headed, and standing here in this blistering sun wasn’t helping.

However short and slight the Falah’d was, he worked hard at presenting a noble, imposing figure, perched there atop his long-legged white mare. Alas, the beast was trembling beneath him, flinching every time Karsa Orlong’s Jhag stallion tossed its head and rolled its eyes menacingly in the mare’s direction. The Falah’d gripped the saddle horn with both hands, his thin dark lips pinched and a certain timidity in his eyes. His ornate, jewel-studded telaba was dishevelled, and the round, silken and padded hat on his head was askew as he looked on the one known to all as Toblakai, once-champion of Sha’ik. Who, standing beside his horse, was still able, had he so chosen, to look down on the ruler of Ugarat.

Fifty palace guards accompanied the Falah’d, none of them – nor their mounts – at ease.

Toblakai was studying the massive edifice known as Moraval Keep. An entire flat-topped mesa had been carved hollow, the rock walls shaped into imposing fortifications. A deep, steep-walled moat surrounded the keep. Moranth munitions or sorcery had destroyed the stone bridge spanning it, and the doors beyond, battered and scorched, were of solid iron. A few scattered windows were visible, high up and unadorned, each sealed by iron doors barbed with angled arrow-slits.

The besieging encampment was squalid, a few hundred soldiers sitting or standing near cookfires and looking on with vaguely jaded interest. Off to one side, just north of the narrow road, sprawled a rough cemetery of a hundred or so makeshift, shin-high wooden platforms, each holding a cloth-wrapped corpse.

Toblakai finally turned to the Falah’d. ‘When last was a Malazan seen at the battlements?’

The young ruler started, then scowled. ‘I am to be addressed,’ he said in his piping voice, ‘in a manner due my authority as Holy Falah’d of Ugarat—’

‘When?’ Toblakai demanded, his expression darkening.

‘Well, uh, well – Captain Inashan, answer this barbarian!’

With a quick salute, the captain walked over to the soldiers in the encampment. Samar watched him speaking with a half-dozen besiegers, saw the various shrugs in answer to his question, saw Inashan’s back straighten and heard his voice get louder. The soldiers started arguing amongst themselves.

Toblakai made a grunting sound. He pointed at his horse. ‘Stay here, Havok. Kill nothing.’ Then the warrior strode to the edge of the moat.

Samar Dev hesitated, then followed.

He glanced at her when she stopped at his side. ‘I will assault this keep alone, witch.’

‘You certainly will,’ she replied. ‘I’m just here for a closer look.’

‘I doubt there will be much to see.’

‘What are you planning, Toblakai?’

‘I am Karsa Orlong, of the Teblor. You know my name and you will use it. To Sha’ik I was Toblakai. She is dead. To Leoman of the Flails, I was Toblakai, and he is as good as dead. To the rebels I was—’

‘All right, I understand. Only dead or nearly dead people called you Toblakai, but you should know, it is only that name that has kept you from rotting out the rest of your life in the palace pits.’

‘That pup on the white horse is a fool. I could break him under one arm—’

‘Yes, that likely would break him. And his army?’

‘More fools. I am done speaking, witch. Witness.’

And so she did.

Karsa clambered down into the moat. Rubble, broken weapons, siege-stones and withered bodies. Lizards scampered on the rocks, capemoths rising like pale leaves caught in an updraught. He made his way to a point directly beneath the two massive iron doors. Even with his height he could barely reach the narrow ledge at their base. He scanned the wreckage of the bridge around him, then began piling stones, choosing the larger fragments and fashioning rough steps.

Some time later he was satisfied. Drawing his sword, he climbed the steps, and found himself at the same level as the broad, riveted locking mechanism. Raising his stone sword in both hands, he set the point in the join, in front of where he judged the lock to be. He waited a moment, until the position of his arms and the angle of the blade was set in his mind, then he lifted the sword away, edged back as far as he could on the makeshift platform of rubble, drew the weapon back, and swung.

The blow was true, the unbreakable chalcedony edge driving into the join between the doors. Momentum ceased with a snapping sound as the blade jammed in an unseen, solid iron bar, the reverberations pounding through Karsa’s arms and into his shoulders.

He grunted, waited until the pain ebbed, then tugged the weapon free in a screech of metal. And took aim once again.

He both felt and heard the crack of the bar.

Karsa pulled the sword loose then threw his shoulder against the doors.

Something fell with a loud clang, and the door on the right swung back.

On the other side of the moat, Samar Dev stared. She had just witnessed something … extraordinary.

Captain Inashan came up alongside her. ‘The Seven Holies protect us,’ he whispered. ‘He just cut through an iron door.’

‘Yes, he did.’

‘We need …’

She glanced over. ‘We need what, Captain?’

‘We need to get him out of Ugarat. Away, as soon as possible.’

Darkness in the funnel within – angled walls, chutes and arrow-slits. Some mechanism had lowered the arched ceiling and narrowed the walls – he could see that they were suspended, perhaps a finger’s width from contact with each other and with the paved floor. Twenty murderous paces to an inner gate, and that gate was ajar.

Karsa listened but heard nothing. The air smelled rank, bitter. He squinted at the arrow-slits. They were dark, the hidden chambers to either side unlit.

Readying the sword in his hands, Karsa Orlong entered the keep.

No hot sand from the chutes, no arrows darting out from the slits, no boiling oil. He reached the gate. A courtyard beyond, one third sharply bathed in white sunlight. He strode forward until he was past the gate and then looked up. The rock had been hollowed out indeed – above was a rectangle of blue sky, the fiery sun filling one corner. The walls on all four sides were tiered with fortified landings and balconies, countless windows. He could make out doorways on those balconies, some yawning black, others closed. Karsa counted twenty-two levels on the wall opposite him, eighteen on the one to his left, seventeen to the right, and behind him – the outer wall – twelve in the centre flanked by projections each holding six more. The keep was a veritable city.

And, it seemed, lifeless.

A gaping pit, hidden in the shadow in one comer of the courtyard, caught his attention. Pavestones lifted clear and piled to the sides, an excavated shaft of some sort, reaching down into the foundations. He walked over.

The excavators had cleared the heavy pavestones to reach what looked to be bedrock but had proved to be little more than a cap of stone, perhaps half an arm’s length thick, covering a hollowed-out subterranean chamber. That stank.

A wooden ladder led down into the vault.

A makeshift cesspit, he suspected, since the besiegers had likely blocked the out-drains into the moat, in the hopes of fostering plague or some such thing. The stench certainly suggested that it had been used as a latrine. Then again, why the ladder? ‘These Malazans have odd interests,’ he muttered. In his hands he could feel a tension building in the stone sword – the bound spirits of Bairoth Gild and Delum Thord were suddenly restive. ‘Or a chance discovery,’ he added. ‘Is this what you warn me of, kindred spirits?’

He eyed the ladder. ‘Well, as you say, brothers, I have climbed into worse.’ Karsa sheathed his sword and began his descent.

Excrement smeared the walls, but not, fortunately, the rungs of the ladder. He made his way past the broken shell of stone, and what little clean air drifted down from above was overwhelmed by a thick, pungent reek. There was more to it than human waste, however. Something else …

Reaching the floor of the chamber, Karsa waited, ankledeep in shit and pools of piss, for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. Eventually, he could make out the walls, rounded, the stones bearing horizontal undulations but otherwise unadorned. A beehive tomb, then, but not in a style Karsa had seen before. Too large, for one thing, and there was no evidence of platforms or sarcophagi. No grave-goods, no inscriptions.

He could see no formal entranceway or door revealed on any of the walls. Sloshing through the sewage for a closer look at the stonework, Karsa almost stumbled as he stepped off an unseen ledge – he had been standing on a slightly raised dais, extending almost out to the base of the walls. Back-stepping, he edged carefully along its circumference. In the process he discovered six submerged iron spikes, driven deep into the stone in two sets of three. The spikes were massive, thicker across than Karsa’s wrists.

He made his way back to the centre, stood near the base of the ladder. Were he to lie down with the middle spike of either set under his head, he could not have reached the outer ones with arms outstretched. Half again as tall and he might manage it. Thus, if something had been pinned here by these spikes, it had been huge.

And, unfortunately, it looked as if the spikes had failed—

A slight motion through the heavy, turgid air, a shadowing of the faint light leaking down. Karsa reached for his sword.

An enormous hand closed on his back, a talon lancing into each shoulder, two beneath his ribs, one larger one stabbing down and around, just under his left clavicle. The fingers clenched and he was being hauled straight up, the ladder passing in a blur. The sword was pinned against his back. Karsa reached up with both hands and they closed about a scaled wrist thicker than his upper arm.

He cleared the hole in the capstone, and the tugs and tearing in his muscles told him the beast was clambering up the side of the pit, nimble as a bhok’aral. Something heavy and scaled slithered across his arms.

Then into bright sunlight.

The beast flung the Teblor across the courtyard. He landed hard, skidding until he crashed up against the keep’s outer wall.

Spitting blood, every bone in his back feeling out of place, Karsa Orlong pushed himself to his feet, reeled until he could lean against the sun-heated stone.

Standing beside the pit was a reptilian monstrosity, twolegged, the hanging arms oversized and overlong, talons scraping the pavestones. It was tailed, but that tail was stunted and thick. The broad-snouted jaws were crowded with interlocking rows of dagger-long fangs, above them flaring cheekbones and brow-ridges protecting deep-set eyes that glistened like wet stones on a strand. A serrated crest bisected the flat, elongated skull, pale yellow above the dun green hide. The beast reared half again as tall as the Toblakai.

Motionless as a statue, it studied him, blood dripping from the talons of its left hand.

Karsa took a deep breath, then drew his sword and flung it aside.

The creature’s head twitched, a strange sideways tilt, then it charged, leaning far over as the massive legs propelled it forward.

And Karsa launched himself straight at it.

Clearly, an unanticipated response, as he found himself inside those raking hands and beneath the snapping jaws. He flung his head straight up, cracking hard against the underside of the beast’s jaw, then ducked back down, sliding his right arm between the legs, wrapping it about the creature’s right one. Shoulder pounding into its belly, his hands closing tight on the other side of the captured leg. Then lifting, a bellow escaping him as he heaved the beast up until it tottered on one leg.

The taloned hands hammered down on his back, slicing through the bear fur, ravaging his flesh in a frenzy.

Karsa planted his right leg behind the beast’s left one, then pushed hard in that direction.

It crashed down and he heard bones snap.

The short tail whipped round, struck him in his midsection. Air exploded from Karsa’s four lungs, and once more he was spinning through the air, striking the pavestones and leaving most of the skin of his right shoulder and hip on the hard stone as he skidded another four paces—

Over the edge of the pit. Down, cracking hard against one edge of the capstone, breaking it further, then landing face first in the pool of sewage in the tomb, rubble splashing on all sides.

He lifted himself, twisting into a half-seated position, spitting out foul fluids even as he tried to draw air into his lungs. Coughing, choking, he crawled towards one side of the tomb, away from the hole in the ceiling.

Moments later he managed to restore his breathing. Shaking the muck from his head, he peered at the shaft of sunlight reaching down around the ladder. The beast had not come after him … or had not seen him fall.

He rose and made his way to the ladder. Looked straight up, and saw nothing but sunlight.

Karsa climbed. As he drew level with the pit’s edge, he slowed, then lifted himself until he could just see the courtyard. The creature was nowhere in sight. He clambered quickly onto the pavestones. Spitting again, he shook himself, then made his way towards the keep’s inner entrance. Hearing no screams from beyond the moat, he assumed that the beast had not gone in that direction. Which left the keep itself.

The double doors were ajar. He entered a broad chamber, its floor tiled, the walls bearing the ghosts of long-faded murals.

Pieces of mangled armour and bits of blood-crusted clothing lay scattered about. Nearby stood a boot, twin bones jutting from it.

Directly opposite, twenty paces away, was another doorway, both doors battered down and smashed. Karsa padded towards it, then froze upon hearing the scrape of claws on tile in the gloom beyond. From his left, close by the entrance. He backed up ten paces, then sprinted forward. Through the doorway. Hands slashed down in his wake, and he heard a frustrated hiss – even as he collided with a low divan, propelling him forward, down onto a low table. The wooden legs exploded beneath his weight. He rolled onward, sending a high-backed chair cartwheeling, then sliding on a rug, the thump and click of the creature’s clawed feet grew louder as it lunged in pursuit.

Karsa got his feet under him and he dove sideways, once more evading the descending claws. Up against another chair, this one massive. Grasping the legs, Karsa heaved it into the path of the creature – it had launched itself into the air. The chair caught both its outstretched legs, snapped them out to the side.

The beast crashed down, cracking its head, broken tiles flying.

Karsa kicked it in the throat.

The beast kicked him in the chest, and he was pitched backward once more, landing on a discarded helmet that rolled, momentarily, sending him back further, up against a wall.

Pain thundering in his chest, the Toblakai climbed to his feet.

The beast was doing the same, slowly, wagging its head from side to side, its breath coming in rough wheezes punctuated by sharp, barking coughs.

Karsa flung himself at it. His hands closed on its right wrist and he ducked under, twisting the arm as he went, then spun round yet again, turning the arm until it popped at the shoulder.

The creature squealed.

Karsa clambered onto its back, his fists hammering on the dome of its skull. Each blow shook the beast’s bones. Teeth snapped, the head driven down at each blow, springing back up in time to meet the next one. Staggering beneath him, the right arm hanging limp, the left one attempting to reach up to scrape him off, the creature careened across the room.

Karsa continued swinging, his own hands numbed by the impacts.

Finally, he heard the skull crack.

A rattling gasp of breath – from him or the beast, he wasn’t sure which – then the creature dropped and rolled.

Most of its immense weight settled for a brief moment between Karsa’s thighs, and a roar burst from his throat as he clenched the muscles of his legs to keep that ridged spine away from his crotch. Then the reptile pitched sideways, pinning his left leg. He reached up to wrap an arm around its thrashing neck.

Rolling further, it freed its own left arm, scythed it up and around. Talons sank into Karsa’s left shoulder. A surge of overpowering strength dragged the Toblakai off, sending him tumbling into the wreckage of the collapsed table.

Karsa’s grasping hand found one of the table legs. He scrambled up and swung it hard against the beast’s outstretched arm.

The leg shattered, and the arm was snatched back with a squeal.

The beast reared upright once more.

Karsa charged again.

Was met by a kick, high on his chest.

Sudden blackness.

His eyes opened. Gloom. Silence. The stink of faeces and blood and settling dust. Groaning, he sat up.

A distant crash. From somewhere above.

He studied his surroundings, until he spied the side doorway. He rose, limped towards it. A wide hallway beyond, leading to a staircase.

‘Was that a scream, Captain?’

‘I am not sure, Falah’d.’

Samar Dev squinted in the bright light at the soldier beside her. He had been muttering under his breath since Toblakai’s breach of the iron doors. Stone swords, iron and locks seemed to have been the focus of his private monologue, periodically spiced with some choice curses. That, and the need to get the giant barbarian as far away from Ugarat as possible.

She wiped sweat from her brow, returned her attention to the keep’s entrance. Still nothing.

‘They’re negotiating,’ the Falah’d said, restless on the saddle as servants stood to either side, alternately sweeping the large papyrus fans to cool Ugarat’s beloved ruler.

‘It did sound like a scream, Holy One,’ Captain Inashan said after a moment.

‘Then it is a belligerent negotiation, Captain. What else can be taking so long? Were they all starved and dead, that barbarian would have returned. Unless, of course, there’s loot. Hah, am I wrong in that? I think not! He’s a savage, after all. Cut loose from Sha’ik’s leash, yes? Why did he not die protecting her?’

‘If the tales ate true,’ Inashan said uncomfortably, ‘Sha’ik sought a personal duel with the Adjunct, Falah’d.’

‘Too much convenience in that tale. Told by the survivors, the ones who abandoned her. I am unconvinced by this Toblakai. He is too rude.’

‘Yes, Falah’d,’ Inashan said, ‘he is that.’

Samar Dev cleared her throat. ‘Holy One, there is no loot to be found in Moraval Keep.’

‘Oh, witch? And how can you be so certain?’

‘It is an ancient structure, older even than Ugarat itself. True, alterations have been made every now and then – all the old mechanisms were beyond our understanding, Falah’d, even to this day, and all we have now from them is a handful of pieces. I have made long study of those few fragments, and have learned much—’

‘You bore me, now, witch. You have still not explained why there is no loot.’

‘I am sorry, Falah’d. To answer you, the keep has been explored countless times, and nothing of value has ever been found, barring those dismantled mechanisms—’

‘Worthless junk. Very well, the barbarian is not looting. He is negotiating with the squalid, vile Malazans – whom we shall have to kneel before once again. I am betrayed into humiliation by the cowardly rebels of Raraku. Oh, one can count on no-one these days.’

‘It would seem not, Falah’d,’ Samar Dev murmured.

Inashan shot her a look.

Samar wiped another sheath of sweat from her brow.

‘Oh!’ the Falah’d cried suddenly. ‘I am melting!’

‘Wait!’ Inashan said. ‘Was that a bellow of some sort?’

‘He’s probably raping someone!’

He found the creature hobbling down a corridor, its head wagging from side to side, pitching into one wall then the other. Karsa ran after it.

It must have heard him, for it wheeled round, jaws opening in a hiss, moments before he closed. Battering a raking hand aside, the Toblakai kneed the beast in the belly. The reptile doubled over, chest-ridge cracking down onto Karsa’s right shoulder. He drove his thumb up under its left arm, where it found doeskin-soft tissue. Puncturing it, the thumb plunging into meat, curling round ligaments. Closing his hand, Karsa yanked on those ligaments.

Dagger-sharp teeth raked the side of his head, slicing a flap of skin away. Blood gushed into Karsa’s right eye. He pulled harder, throwing himself back.

The beast plunged with him. Twisting to one side, Karsa narrowly escaped the crashing weight, and was close enough to see the unnatural splaying of its ribs at the impact.

It struggled to rise, but Karsa was faster. Straddling it once more. Fists hammering down on its skull. With each blow the lower jaws cracked against the floor, and he could feel a sagging give in the plates of the skull’s bones beneath his fists. He kept pounding.

A dozen wild heartbeats later and he slowed, realizing the beast was no longer moving beneath him, the head flat on the floor, getting wider and flatter with each impact of his battered fists. Fluids were leaking out. Karsa stopped swinging. He drew in a ragged, agony-filled breath, held it against the sudden waves of darkness thundering through his brain, then released it steady and long. Another mouthful of bloody phlegm to spit out, onto the dead beast’s shattered skull.

Lifting his head, Karsa glared about. A doorway on his right. In the room beyond, a long table and chairs. Groaning, he slowly rose, stumbled into the chamber.

A jug of wine sat on the table. Cups were lined up in even rows down both sides, each one opposite a chair. Karsa swept them from the table, collected the jug, then lay down on the stained wood surface. He stared up at the ceiling, where someone had painted a pantheon of unknown gods, all looking down.

Mocking expressions one and all.

Karsa pushed the flap of loose skin back against his temple, then sneered at the faces on the ceiling, before lifting the jug to his lips.

Blessed cool wind, now that the sun was so close to the horizon. Silence for a while now, too, since that last bellow. A number of soldiers, standing for bell after bell all afternoon, had passed out and were being tended to by the lone slave the Falah’d had relinquished from his entourage.

Captain Inashan had been assembling a squad to lead into the keep for some time now.

The Falah’d was having his feet massaged and bathed in mint-leaves chewed in mouthfuls of oil by the slaves. ‘You are taking too long, Captain!’ he said. ‘Look at that demonic horse, the way it eyes us! It will be dark by the time you storm the keep!’

‘Torches are being brought along, Falah’d,’ Inashan said. ‘We’re almost ready.’

His reluctance was almost comical, and Samar Dev dared not meet his eye again, not after the expression her wink earlier had elicited.

A shout from the besiegers’ encampment.

Toblakai had appeared, climbing down from the ledge, back onto the makeshift steps. Samar Dev and Inashan made their way to the moat, arriving in time to see him emerge. The bear fur was in ribbons, dark with blood. He had tied a strip of cloth about his head, holding the skin in place over one temple. Most of his upper clothing had been torn away, revealing countless gouges and puncture wounds.

And he was covered in shit.

From the Falah’d twenty paces behind them came a querulous enquiry: ‘Toblakai! The negotiations went well?’

In a low voice, Inashan said, ‘No Malazans left, I take it?’

Karsa Orlong scowled. ‘Didn’t see any.’ He strode past them.

Turning, Samar Dev flinched at the horror of the warrior’s ravaged back. ‘What happened in there?’ she demanded.

A shrug that jostled the slung stone sword. ‘Nothing important, witch.’

Not slowing, not turning, he continued on.

A smudge of light far to the south, like a cluster of dying stars on the horizon, marked the city of Kayhum. The dust of the storm a week past had settled and the night sky was bright with the twin sweeps of the Roads of the Abyss. There were scholars, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas had heard, who asserted that those broad roads were nothing more than stars, crowded in multitudes beyond counting, but Corabb knew that was folly. They could be naught but celestial roads, the paths walked by the dragons of the deep, and Elder Gods and the blacksmiths with suns for eyes who hammered stars into life; and the worlds spinning round those stars were simply dross, cast-offs from the forges, pale and smudged, on which crawled creatures preening with conceit.

Preening with conceit. An old seer had told him that once, and for some reason the phrase lodged in Corabb’s mind, allowing him to pull it free every now and then to play with, his inner eye bright with shining wonder. People did that, yes. He had seen them, again and again. Like birds. Obsessed with self-importance, thinking themselves tall, as tall as the night sky. That seer had been a genius, to have seen so clearly, and to manage so much in three simple words. Not that conceit was a simple thing, and Corabb recalled having to ask an old woman what the word meant, and she had cackled and reached under his tunic to tug on his penis, which had been unexpected and, instinctive response notwithstanding, unwelcome. A faint wave of embarrassment accompanied the recollection, and he spat into the fire flickering before him.

Leoman of the Flails sat opposite him, a hookah filled with wine-soaked durhang at the man’s side, at his thin lips the mouthpiece of hard wood carved into the semblance of a woman’s nipple and stained magenta to add to the likeness. His leader’s eyes glistened dark red in the fire’s light, the lids low, the gaze seemingly fixed on the licking flames.

Corabb had found a piece of wood the length of his arm, light as a woman’s breath – telling him that a birit slug dwelt within – and he had just dug it out with the point of his knife. The creature squirmed on the blade’s tip, and it had been the sight of this that had, alas, reminded him of the debacle with his penis. Feeling morose, he bit the slug in half and began chewing, juices spurting down into his beard. ‘Ah,’ he said around the mouthful, ‘she has roe. Delicious.’

Leoman looked over, then he drew once more on the mouthpiece. ‘We’re running out of horses,’ he said.

Corabb swallowed. The other half of the slug was writhing on the knife tip, threads of pink eggs dangling like tiny pearls. ‘We’ll make it, Commander,’ he said, then poked out his tongue to lap up the roe, following up by inserting the rest of the slug into his mouth. He chewed, then swallowed. ‘Four, five days, I would judge.’

Leoman’s eyes glittered. ‘You know, then.’

‘Where we’re going? Yes.’

‘Do you know why?’

Corabb tossed the piece of wood onto the fire. ‘Y’Ghatan. The First Holy City. Where Dassem Ultor, curse his name, died in betrayal. Y’Ghatan, the oldest city in the world. Built atop the forge of a blacksmith of the Abyss, built on his very bones. Seven Y’Ghatans, seven great cities to mark the ages we have seen, the one we see now crouched on the bones of the other six. City of the Olive Groves, city of the sweet oils—’ Corabb paused, frowned. ‘What was your question, Commander?’


‘Oh, yes. Do I know why you have chosen Y’Ghatan? Because we invite a siege. It is a difficult city to conquer. The fool Malazans will bleed themselves to death attempting to storm its walls. We shall add their bones to all the others, to Dassem Ultor’s very own—’

‘He didn’t die there, Corabb.’

‘What? But there were witnesses—’

‘To his wounding, yes. To the assassination … attempt. But no, my friend, the First Sword did not die, and he lives still.’

‘Then where is he?’

‘Where doesn’t matter. You should ask: Who is he? Ask that, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas, and I will give you answer.’

Corabb thought about that. Even swimming in the fumes of durhang, Leoman of the Flails was too smart for him. Clever, able to see all that Corabb could not. He was the greatest commander Seven Cities had ever produced. He would have defeated Coltaine. Honourably. And, had he been left to it, he would have crushed Adjunct Tavore, and then Dujek Onearm. There would have been true liberation, for all Seven Cities, and from here the rebellion against the damned empire would have rippled outward, until the yoke was thrown off by all. This was the tragedy, the true tragedy. ‘Blessed Dessembrae hounds our heels …’

Leoman coughed a cloud of smoke. He doubled over, still coughing.

Corabb reached for a skin of water and thrust it into his leader’s hands. The man finally drew breath, then drank deep. He leaned back with a gusty sigh, and then grinned. ‘You are a wonder, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas! To answer you, I certainly hope not!’

Corabb felt sad. He said, ‘You mock me, Commander.’

‘Not at all, you Oponn-blessed madman – my only friend left breathing – not at all. It is the cult, you see. The Lord of Tragedy. Dessembrae. That is Dassem Ultor. I don’t doubt you understood that, but consider this – for there to be a cult, a religion, with priests and such, there must be a god. A living god.’

‘Dassem Ultor is ascended?’

‘I believe so, although he is a reluctant god. A denier, like Anomander Rake of the Tiste Andii. And so he wanders, in eternal flight, and in, perhaps, eternal hunt as well.’

‘For what?’

Leoman shook his head. Then said, ‘Y’Ghatan. Yes, my friend. There, we will make our stand, and the name shall be a curse among the Malazans, for all time, a curse, bitter on their tongues.’ His eyes hardened suddenly on Corabb. ‘Are you with me? No matter what I command, no matter the madness that will seem to afflict me?’

Something in his leader’s gaze frightened Corabb, but he nodded. ‘I am with you, Leoman of the Flails. Do not doubt that.’

A wry smile. ‘I shall not hold you to that. But I thank you for your words nonetheless.’

‘Why would you doubt them?’

‘Because only I know what I intend to do.’

‘Tell me.’

‘No, my friend. This burden is mine.’

‘You lead us, Leoman of the Flails. We shall follow. As you say, you carry all of us. We are the weight of history, of liberty, and yet you are not bowed—’

‘Ah, Corabb …’

‘I only say what is known but has never before been said aloud, Commander.’

‘There is mercy in silence, my friend. But no mind. It is done, you have indeed spoken.’

‘I have assailed you further. I am sorry, Leoman of the Flails.’

Leoman drank again from the waterskin, then spat into the fire. ‘We need say no more of it. Y’Gh. an. This shall be our city. Four, five days. It is just past crushing season, yes?’

‘The olives? Yes, we shall arrive when the grovers have gathered. A thousand merchants will be there, and workers out on the road leading to the coast, setting new stones. And potters, and barrel-makers, and wagoners and caravans. The air shall be gold with dust and dusted with gold—’

‘You are a poet indeed, Corabb. Merchants, and their hired guards. Tell me, will they bow to my authority, do you think?’

‘They must.’

‘Who is the city’s Falah’d?’


‘Which one?’

‘The ferret-faced one, Leoman. His fish-faced brother was found dead in his lover’s bed, the whore nowhere to be found, but likely rich and in hiding or in a shallow grave. It’s the old story among the Fala’dhan.’

‘And we are certain Vedor continues to deny the Malazans?’

‘No fleet or army could have reached them yet. You know this, Leoman of the Flails.’

The man slowly nodded, eyes once more on the flames.

Corabb looked up at the night sky. ‘One day,’ he said, ‘we shall walk the Roads to the Abyss. And so witness all the wonders of the universe.’

Leoman squinted upward. ‘Where the stars are thick as veins?’

‘They are roads, Leoman. Surely you do not believe those insane scholars?’

‘All scholars are insane, yes. They say nothing worth believing. The roads, then. The trail of fire.’

‘Of course,’ Corabb continued, ‘that shall be many years from now …’

‘As you say, friend. Now, best get some sleep.’

Corabb rose, bones cracking. ‘May you dream of glory this night, Commander.’

‘Glory? Oh, yes, my friend. Our trail of fire …’

‘Aai, that slug has given me indigestion. It was the roe.’

‘The bastard’s heading for Y’Ghatan.’

Sergeant Strings glanced over at Bottle. ‘You’ve been thinking, haven’t you? That’s not good, soldier. Not good at all.’

‘Can’t help it.’

‘That’s even worse. Now I have to keep an eye on you.’

Koryk was on his hands and knees, head lowered as he sought to breathe life back into the bed of coals from the night just past. He suddenly coughed as he inhaled a cloud of ashes and ducked away, blinking and hacking.

Smiles laughed. ‘The wise plainsman does it again. You were asleep, Koryk, but I should tell you, Tarr pissed that fire out last night.’


‘She’s lying,’ Tarr said from where he crouched beside his pack, repairing a strap. ‘Even so, it was a good one. You should have seen your expression, Koryk.’

‘How can anyone, with that white mask he’s wearing? Shouldn’t you be painting death lines through that ash, Koryk? Isn’t that what Seti do?’

‘Only when going into battle, Smiles,’ the sergeant said. ‘Now, leave off, woman. You’re as bad as that damned Hengese lapdog. It bit a Khundryl’s ankle last night and wouldn’t let go.’

‘Hope they skewered it,’ Smiles said.

‘Not a chance. Bent was standing guard. Anyway, they had to get Temul to pry the thing off. My point is, Smiles, you ain’t got a Wickan cattle-dog to guard your back, so the less you snipe the safer you’ll be.’

No-one mentioned the knife Koryk had taken in the leg a week past.

Cuttle came wandering into the camp. He’d found a squad that had already brewed some foul-smelling tea and was sipping from his tin cup. ‘They’re here,’ he said.

‘Who?’ Smiles demanded.

Bottle watched as their sergeant settled back down, leaning against his pack. ‘All right,’ Strings said, sighing. ‘March will be delayed. Someone help Koryk get the fire going – we’re going to have a real breakfast. Cuttle the cook.’

‘Me? All right, just don’t blame me.’

‘For what?’ Strings asked with an innocent smile.

Cuttle walked over to the hearth, reaching into a pouch. ‘Got some sealed Flamer dust—’

Everyone scattered, Strings included. Suddenly, Cuttle was alone, looking round bemusedly at his fellow soldiers, now one and all at least fifteen paces distant. He scowled. ‘A grain or two, nothing more. Damn, do you think I’m mad?’

Everyone looked to Strings, who shrugged. ‘Instinctive reaction, Cuttle. Surprised you ain’t used to it by now.’

‘Yeah? And how come you were the first belting out of here, Fid?’

‘Who’d know better than me?’

Cuttle crouched down beside the hearth. ‘Well,’ he muttered, ‘I’m absolutely crushed.’ He withdrew a small clay disk from the pouch. It was a playing piece for the board-game called Troughs, the game being Cuttle’s favourite pastime. The sapper spat on it, then tossed it into the coals. And quickly backed away.

No-one else moved.

‘Hey,’ Koryk said, ‘that wasn’t a real Troughs piece, was it?’

Cuttle glanced over. ‘Why wouldn’t it be?’

‘Because those things get thrown around!’

‘Only when I lose,’ the sapper replied.

A burst of ash, sudden flames. Cuttle walked back and began flinging pieces of dung on the fire. ‘All right, somebody tend to this. I’ll get what passes for food around here and figure something out.’

‘Bottle has some lizards,’ Smiles said.

‘Forget it,’ Bottle shot back. ‘They’re my, uh, friends.’ He flinched as the other squad members turned to regard him.

‘Friends?’ Strings asked. He scratched his beard, studying his soldier.

‘What,’ Smiles said, ‘the rest of us too smart for you, Bottle? All these confounding words we use? The fact we can read those squiggly etchings on clay and wax tablets and scrolls? Well, except for Koryk, of course. Anyway. Feeling insufficient, Bottle? I don’t mean physically – that goes without saying. But, mentally, right? Is that the problem?’

Bottle glared at her. ‘You’ll regret all that, Smiles.’

‘Oh, he’s going to send his lizard friends after me! Help!’

‘That’s enough, Smiles,’ Strings said in a warning growl.

She rose, ran her hands through her still-unbound hair. ‘Well, I’m off to gossip with Flashwit and Uru Hela. Flash said she saw Neffarias Bredd a couple of days ago. A horse had died and he carried it back to his squad’s camp. They roasted it. Nothing but bones left.’

‘The squad ate an entire horse?’ Koryk snorted. ‘How come I’ve never seen this Neffarias Bredd, anyway? Has anybody here seen him?’

‘I have,’ Smiles replied.

‘When?’ Koryk demanded.

‘A few days ago. I’m bored talking to you. Your fire’s going out.’ She walked off.

The sergeant was still tugging at his beard. ‘Gods below, I need to hack this thing off,’ he muttered.

‘But the chicks ain’t left the nest yet,’ Cuttle said, settling down with an armful of foodstuffs. ‘Who’s been collecting snakes?’ he asked, letting the various objects drop. He picked up a long, rope-like thing. ‘They stink—’

‘That’s the vinegar,’ Koryk said. ‘It’s an old Seti delicacy. The vinegar cooks the meat, you see, for when you ain’t got the time to smoke it slow.’

‘What are you doing killing snakes?’ Bottle demanded. ‘They’re useful, you know.’

Strings rose. ‘Bottle, walk with me.’

Oh damn. I’ve got to ham to say nothing. ‘Aye, Sergeant.’

They crossed the ditch and headed onto the broken sweep of the Lato Odhan, the mostly level, dusty ground home to a scattering of shattered rock, no piece larger than a man’s head. Somewhere far to the southwest was the city of Kayhum, still out of sight, whilst behind them rose the Thalas Mountains, treeless for centuries and now eroded like rotting teeth. No cloud relieved the bright morning sun, already hot.

‘Where do you keep your lizards?’ Strings asked.

‘In my clothes, out of the sun, during the day, I mean. They wander at night.’

‘And you wander with them.’

Bottle nodded.

‘That’s a useful talent,’ the sergeant commented, then went on, ‘especially for spying. Not on the enemy, of course, but on everyone else.’

‘So far. I mean, we haven’t been close enough to the enemy—’

‘I know. And that’s why you ain’t told nobody yet about it. So, you’ve listened in on the Adjunct much? I mean, since that time you learned about the fall of the Bridgeburners.’

‘Not much, to tell the truth.’ Bottle hesitated, wondering how much he should say.

‘Out with it, soldier.’

‘It’s that Claw …’


‘Aye, and, well, uh, the High Mage.’

‘Quick Ben.’

‘Right, and now there’s Tayschrenn, too—’

Strings grasped Bottle’s arm and pulled him round. ‘He left. He was only here for a few bells, and that was a week ago—’

‘Aye, but that doesn’t mean he can’t come back, at any time, right? Anyway, all these powerful, scary mages, well, they make me nervous.’

‘You’re making me nervous, Bottle!’


The sergeant squinted at him, then let go of his arm and resumed walking.

‘Where are we going?’ Bottle demanded.

‘You tell me.’

‘Not that way.’


‘Uh. Nil and Nether, just the other side of that low rise.’

Strings loosed a half-dozen dockside curses. ‘Hood take us! Listen, soldier, I ain’t forgotten anything, you know. I remember you playing dice with Meanas, making dolls of Hood and the Rope. Earth-magic and talking with spirits – gods below, you’re so much like Quick Ben it makes my hair stand on end. Oh, right, it all comes from your grandmother – but you see, I know where Quick got his talents!’

Bottle frowned at the man. ‘What?’

‘What do you mean what?’

‘What are you talking about, Sergeant? You’ve got me confused.’

‘Quick’s got more warrens to draw on than any mage I’ve ever heard about. Except,’ he added in a frustrated snarl, ‘except maybe you.’

‘But I don’t even like warrens!’

‘No, you’re closer to Nil and Nether, aren’t you? Spirits and stuff. When you’re not playing with Hood and Shadow, that is!’

‘They’re older than warrens, Sergeant.’

‘Like that! What do you mean by that?’

‘Well. Holds. They’re holds. Or they were. Before warrens. It’s old magic, that’s what my grandmother taught me. Real old. Anyway, I’ve changed my mind about Nil and Nether. They’re up to something and I want to see it.’

‘But you don’t want them to see us.’

Bottle shrugged. ‘Too late for that, Sergeant. They know we’re here.’

‘Fine, lead on, then. But I want Quick Ben to meet you. And I want to know all about these holds you keep talking about.’

No you don’t. ‘All right.’ Quick Ben. A meeting. That was bad. Maybe I could run away. No, don’t be an idiot. You can’t run away, Bottle. Besides, what were the risks of talking with the High Mage? He wasn’t doing anything wrong, exactly. Not really. Not so anybody would know, anyway. Except a sneaky bastard like Quick Ben. Abyss, what if he finds out who’s walking in my shadow? Well, it’s not like I asked for the company, is it?

‘Whatever you’re thinking,’ Strings said in a growl, ‘it’s got my skin crawling.’

‘Not me. Nil and Nether. They’ve begun a ritual. I’ve changed my mind again – maybe we should go back.’


They began ascending the gentle slope.

Bottle felt sudden sweat trickling beneath his clothes. ‘You’ve got some natural talent, haven’t you, Sergeant? Skin crawling and all that. You’re sensitive to … stuff.’

‘I had a bad upbringing.’

‘Where’s Gesler’s squad gone?’

Strings shot him a glance. ‘You’re doing it again.’


‘They’re escorting Quick and Kalam – they’ve gone ahead. So, your dreaded meeting with Quick is still some time off, you’ll be glad to know.’

‘Gone ahead. By warren? They shouldn’t be doing that, you know. Not now. Not here—’


‘Well. Because.’

‘For the first time in my career as a soldier of the Malazan Empire, I truly want to strangle a fellow soldier.’


‘Stop saying that name!’

‘It’s not a name. It’s a word.’

The sergeant’s battered hands clenched into fists.

Bottle fell silent. Wondering if Strings might actually strangle him.

They reached the crest. Thirty paces beyond, the Wickan witch and warlock had arranged a circle of jagged stones and were seated within it, facing each other. ‘They’re travelling,’ Bottle said. ‘It’s a kind of Spiritwalking, like the Tanno do. They’re aware of us, but only vaguely.’

‘I assume we don’t step within that ring.’

‘Not unless we need to pull them out.’

Strings looked over.

‘Not unless I need to pull them out, I mean. If things go wrong. If they get in trouble.’

They drew nearer. ‘What made you join the army, Bottle?’

She insisted. ‘My grandmother thought it would be a good idea. She’d just died, you see, and her spirit was, um, agitated a little. About something.’ Oh, steer away from this, Bottle. ‘I was getting bored. Restless. Selling dolls to pilots and sailors on the docks—’



‘What kind of dolls?’

‘The kind the Stormriders seem to like. Appeasement.’

‘Stormriders? Gods below, Bottle, I didn’t think anything worked with them lately. Not for years.’

‘The dolls didn’t always work, but they sometimes did, which was better than most propitiations. Anyway, I was making good coin, but it didn’t seem enough—’

‘Are you feeling cold all of a sudden?’

Bottle nodded. ‘It makes sense, where they’ve gone.’

‘And where is that?’

‘Through Hood’s Gate. It’s all right, Sergeant. I think. Really. They’re pretty sneaky, and so long as they don’t attract the wrong attention …’

‘But … why?’

Bottle glanced over. The sergeant was looking pale. Not surprising. Those damned ghosts at Raraku had rattled him. ‘They’re looking for … people. Dead ones.’

‘Sormo E’nath?’

‘I guess. Wickans. Ones who died on the Chain of Dogs. They’ve done this before. They don’t find them—’ He stopped as a gust of bitter cold wind swirled up round the circle of stones. Sudden frost limned the ground. ‘Oh, that’s not good. I’ll be right back, Sergeant.’

Bottle ran forward, then leapt into the ring.

And vanished.

Or, he assumed he had, since he was no longer on the Lato Odhan, but ankle-deep in rotting, crumbling bones, a sickly grey sky overhead. Someone was screaming. Bottle turned at the sound and saw three figures thirty paces away. Nil and Nether, and facing them, a horrific apparition, and it was this lich that was doing the screaming. The two young Wickans were flinching before the tirade.

A language Bottle did not understand. He walked closer, bone-dust puffing with each step.

The lich suddenly reached out and grasped both Wickans, lifting them into the air, then shaking them.

Bottle ran forward. And what do I do when I get there?

The creature snarled and flung Nil and Nether to the ground, then abruptly disappeared amidst the clouds of dust.

He reached them as they were climbing to their feet. Nether was swearing in her native tongue as she brushed dust from her tunic. She glared over at Bottle as he arrived. ‘What do you want?’

‘Thought you were in trouble.’

‘We’re fine,’ Nil snapped, yet there was a sheepish expression on his adolescent face. ‘You can lead us back, mage.’

‘Did the Adjunct send you?’ Nether demanded. ‘Are we to have no peace?’

‘Nobody sent me. Well, Sergeant Strings – we were just out walking—’

‘Strings? You mean Fiddler.’

‘We’re supposed to—’

‘Don’t be an idiot,’ Nether said. ‘Everybody knows.’

‘We’re not idiots. It clearly hasn’t occurred to either of you that maybe Fiddler wants it that way. Wants to be called Strings, now, because his old life is gone, and with the old name comes bad memories, and he’s had enough of those.’

Neither Wickan replied.

After a few more strides, Bottle asked, ‘So, was that a Wickan lich? One of the dead you were looking for?’

‘You know too much.’

‘Was it?’

Nil cursed under his breath, then said, ‘Our mother.’

‘Your …’ Bottle fell silent.

‘She was telling us to stop moping and grow up,’ Nil added.

‘She was telling you that,’ Nether retorted. ‘She told me to—’

‘To take a husband and get pregnant.’

‘That was just a suggestion.’

‘Made while she was shaking you?’ Bottle asked.

Nether spat at his feet. ‘A suggestion. Something I should maybe think about. Besides, I don’t have to listen to you, soldier. You’re Malazan. A squad mage.’

‘He’s also the one,’ pointed out Nil, ‘who rides lifesparks.’

‘Small ones. The way we did as children.’

Bottle smiled at her remark.

She caught it. ‘What’s so amusing?’

‘Nothing. Sorry.’

‘I thought you were going to lead us back.’

‘I thought so, too,’ Bottle said, halting and looking round. ‘Oh, I think we’ve been noticed.’

‘It’s your fault, mage!’ Nil accused.


Nether hissed and pointed.

Another figure had appeared, and to either side padded dogs. Wickan cattle dogs. Nine, ten, twelve. Their eyes gleamed silver. The man in their midst was clearly Wickan, greying and squat and bow-legged. His face was savagely scarred.

‘It is Bult,’ Nether whispered. She stepped forward.

The dogs growled.

‘Nil, Nether, I have been searching for you,’ the ghost named Bult said, halting ten paces away, the dogs lining up on either side. ‘Hear me. We do not belong here. Do you understand? We do not belong.’ He paused and pulled at his nose in a habitual gesture. ‘Think hard on my words.’ He turned away, then paused and glanced back over a shoulder, ‘And Nether, get married and have babies.’

The ghosts vanished.

Nether stamped her foot. Dust rose up around her. ‘Why does everyone keep telling me that! V

‘Your tribe’s been decimated,’ Bottle said reasonably. ‘It stands to reason—’

She advanced on him.

Bottle stepped back—

And reappeared within the stone circle.

A moment later gasps came from Nil and Nether, their crosslegged bodies twitching.

‘I was getting worried,’ Strings said behind him, standing just outside the ring.

The two Wickans were slow in getting to their feet.

Bottle hurried to his sergeant’s side. ‘We should get going,’ he said. ‘Before she comes fully round, I mean.’


Bottle started walking. ‘She’s mad at me.’

The sergeant snorted, then followed. ‘And why is she mad at you, soldier? As if I need ask.’

‘Just something I said.’

‘Oh, I am surprised.’

‘I don’t want to go into it, Sergeant. Sorry.’

‘I’m tempted to throw you down and pin you for her.’

They reached the crest. Behind them, Nether began shouting curses. Bottle quickened his pace. Then he halted and crouched down, reaching under his shirt, and gingerly drew out a placid lizard. ‘Wake up,’ he murmured, then set it down. It scampered off.

Strings watched. ‘It’s going to follow them, isn’t it?’

‘She might decide on a real curse,’ Bottle explained. ‘And if she does, I need to counter it.’

‘Hood’s breath, what did you say to her?’

‘I made a terrible mistake. I agreed with her mother.’

‘We should be getting out of here. Or …’

Kalam glanced over. ‘All right, Quick.’ He raised a hand to halt the soldiers flanking them and the one trailing behind, then uttered a low whistle to alert the huge, redbearded corporal on point.

The squad members drew in to surround the assassin and the High Mage.

‘We’re being followed,’ Sergeant Gesler said, wiping sweat from his burnished brow.

‘It’s worse than that,’ Quick Ben said.

The soldier named Sands muttered, ‘Isn’t it just.’

Kalam turned and studied the track behind them. He could see nothing in the colourless swirl. ‘This is still the Imperial Warren, isn’t it?’

Quick Ben rubbed at his neck. ‘I’m not so sure.’

‘But how can that happen?’ This from the corporal, Stormy, his forehead buckling and small eyes glittering as though he was about to fly into a berserk rage at any moment. He was holding his grey flint sword as if expecting some demon to come bursting into existence right in front of them.

The assassin checked his long-knives, and said to Quick Ben, ‘Well?’

The wizard hesitated, then nodded. ‘All right.’

‘What did you two just decide?’ Gesler asked. ‘And would it be so hard explaining it to us?’

‘Sarcastic bastard,’ Quick Ben commented, then gave the sergeant a broad, white smile.

‘I’ve punched a lot of faces in my day,’ Gesler said, returning the smile, ‘but never one belonging to a High Mage before.’

‘You might not be here if you had, Sergeant.’

‘Back to business,’ Kalam said in a warning rumble.

‘We’re going to wait and see what’s after us, Gesler. Quick doesn’t know where we are, and that in itself is troubling enough.’

‘And then we leave,’ the wizard added. ‘No heroic stands.’

‘The Fourteenth’s motto,’ Stormy said, with a loud sigh.

‘Which?’ Gesler asked. ‘And then we leave or No heroic stands?’

‘Take your pick.’

Kalam studied the squad, first Gesler, then Stormy, then the lad, Truth, and Pella and the minor mage, Sands. What a miserable bunch.

‘Let’s just go kill it,’ Stormy said, shifting about. ‘And then we can talk about what it was.’

‘Hood knows how you’ve lived this long,’ Quick Ben said, shaking his head.

‘Because I’m a reasonable man, High Mage.’

Kalam grunted. All right, they might grow on me at that. ‘How far away is it, Quick?’

‘Closing. Not it. Them.’

Gesler unslung his crossbow and Pella and Truth followed suit. They loaded quarrels, then fanned out.

‘Them, you said,’ the sergeant muttered, glaring over at Quick Ben. ‘Would that be two? Six? Fifty thousand?’

‘It’s not that,’ Sands said in a suddenly shaky voice. ‘It’s where they’ve come from. Chaos. I’m right, ain’t I, High Mage?’

‘So,’ Kalam said, ‘the warrens really are in trouble.’

‘I did tell you that, Kal.’

‘You did. And you told the Adjunct the same thing. But she wanted us to get to Y’Ghatan before Leoman. And that means the warrens.’

‘There!’ Truth hissed, pointing.

Emerging from the grey gloom, something massive, towering, black as a storm-cloud, filling the sky. And behind it, another, and another …

‘Time to go,’ Quick Ben said.


All that K’rul created, you understand, was born of the Elder God’s love of possibility. Myriad paths of sorcery spun out a multitude of strands, each wild as hairs in the wind, hackled to the wandering beast. And K’rul was that beast, yet he himself was a parody of life, for blood was his nectar, the spilled gift, red tears of pain, and all that he was, was defined by that singular thirst.

For all that, thirst is something we all share, yes?

Brutho and Nullit speak on Nullit’s Last Night

Brutho Parlet

The land was vast, but it was not empty. Some ancient cataclysm had torn through the scoured bedrock, splitting it with fissures in a chaotic crisscross skein over the plain. If sand had once covered this place, even filling the chasms, wind or water had swept away the very last grain. The stone looked polished and the sun’s light bounced from it in a savage glare.

Squinting, Mappo Runt studied the tormented landscape in front of them. After a time, he shook his head. ‘I have never seen this place before, Icarium. It seems as though something has just peeled back the skin of the world. Those cracks … how can they run in such random directions?’

The half-blood Jaghut standing at his side said nothing for a moment, his pallid eyes scanning the scene as if seeking a pattern. Then he crouched down and picked up a piece of broken bedrock. ‘Immense pressures,’ he murmured. ‘And then … violence.’ He straightened, tossing the rock aside. ‘The fissures follow no fault lines – see that nearest one? It cuts directly across the seams in the stone. I am intrigued, Mappo.’

The Trell set down his burlap sack. ‘Do you wish to explore?’

‘I do.’ Icarium glanced at him and smiled. ‘None of my desires surprise you, do they? It is no exaggeration that you know my mind better than I. Would that you were a woman.’

‘Were I a woman, Icarium, I would have serious concerns about your taste in women.’

‘Granted,’ the Jhag replied, ‘you are somewhat hairy. Bristly, in fact. Given your girth, I believe you capable of wrestling a bull bhederin to the ground.’

‘Assuming I had reason to … although none comes to mind.’

‘Come; let us explore.’

Mappo followed Icarium out onto the blasted plain. The heat was vicious, desiccating. Beneath their feet, the bedrock bore twisted swirls, signs of vast, contrary pressures. No lichen clung to the stone. ‘This has been long buried.’

‘Yes, and only recently exposed.’

They approached the sharp edge of the nearest chasm.

The sunlight reached down part-way to reveal jagged, sheer walls, but the floor was hidden in darkness.

‘I see a way down,’ Icarium said.

‘I was hoping you had missed it,’ Mappo replied, having seen the same chute with its convenient collection of ledges, cracks for hand- and foot-holds. ‘You know how I hate climbing.’

‘Until you mentioned it, no. Shall we?’

‘Let me retrieve my pack,’ Mappo said, turning about. ‘We’ll likely be spending the night down there.’ He made his way back towards the edge of the plain. The rewards of curiosity had diminished for Mappo, over the years since he had vowed to walk at Icarium’s side. It was now a sentiment bound taut with dread. Icarium’s search for answers was not a hopeless one, alas. And if truth was discovered, it would be as an avalanche, and Icarium would not, could not, withstand the revelations. About himself. And all that he had done. He would seek to take his own life, if no-one else dared grant the mercy.

That was a precipice they had both clung to not so long ago. And I betrayed my vow. In the name of friendship. He had been broken, and it shamed him still. Worse, to see the compassion in Icarium’s eyes, that had been a sword through Mappo’s heart, an unhealed wound still haunting him.

But curiosity was a fickle thing, as well. Distractions devoured time, drew Icarium from his relentless path. Yes, time. Delays. Follow where he will lead, Mappo Runt. You can do naught else. Until … until what? Until he finally failed. And then, another would come, if it was not already too late, to resume the grand deceit.

He was tired. His very soul was weary of the whole charade. Too many lies had led him onto this path, too many lies held him here to this day. I am no friend. I broke my vow – in the name of friendship? Another lie. No. Simple, brutal self-interest, the weakness of my selfish needs.

Whilst Icarium called him friend. Victim of a terrible curse, yet he remained, trusting, honourable, filled with the pleasure of living. And here I am, happily leading him astray, again and again. Oh, the word for it was indeed shame.

He found himself standing before his pack. How long he had stood there, unseeing, unmoving, he did not know. Ah, now that is just, that I begin to lose myself. Sighing, he picked it up and slung it over a shoulder. Pray we cross no-one’s path. No threat. No risk. Pray we never find a way out of the chasm. But to whom was he praying? Mappo smiled as he made his way back. He believed in nothing, and would not presume the conceit of etching a face on oblivion. Thus, empty prayers, uttered by an empty man.

‘Are you all right, my friend?’ Icarium asked as he arrived.

‘Lead on,’ Mappo said. ‘I must secure my pack first.’

A flash of something like concern in the Jhag’s expression, then he nodded and walked over to where the chute debouched, slipped over the edge, and vanished from sight.

Mappo tugged a small belt-pouch free and loosened the drawstrings. He pulled another pouch from the first one and unfolded it, revealing that it was larger than the one it had been stored in. From this second pouch he withdrew another, again larger once unfolded. Mappo then, with some effort, pushed the shoulder pack into this last one. Tightened the strings. He stuffed that pouch into the next smaller and followed by forcing that one into the small belt-pouch, which he tied at his waist. Inconvenient, though temporary. He would have no quick access to his weapons should some calamity arise, at least for the duration of the descent. Not that he could fight clinging like a drunk goat to the cliff-side in any case.

He made his way to the chute and looked over the edge. Icarium was making swift progress, already fifteen or more man-heights down.

What would they find down there? Rocks. Or something that should have remained buried for all time.

Mappo began his descent.

Before long, the passage of the sun swept all light from the crevasse. They continued in deep gloom, the air cool and stale. There was no sound, barring the occasional scrape of Icarium’s scabbard against stone from somewhere below, the only indication that the Jhag still lived, that he had not fallen, for, had he lost his grip and plummeted, Mappo knew that he would make no outcry.

The Trell’s arms were getting tired, the calves of his legs aching, his fingers growing numb, but he maintained his steady pace, feeling strangely relentless, as if this was a descent with no end and he was eager to prove it, the only possible proof being to continue on. For ever. There was something telling in that desire, but he was not prepared to be mindful of it.

The air grew colder. Mappo watched the plumes of his breath frosting the stone face opposite him, sparkling in some faint, sourceless illumination. He could smell old ice, somewhere below, and a whisper of unease quickened his breathing.

A hand on the heel of his left, down-reaching foot startled him.

‘We are here,’ Icarium murmured.

‘Abyss take us,’ Mappo gasped, pushing away from the wall and landing with sagging legs on a slick, slanted floor. He flung his arms out to regain balance, then straightened. ‘Are you certain? Perhaps this slope is but a ledge, and should we lose our footing—’

‘We will get wet. Come, there is a lake of some sort.’

‘Ah, I see it. It … glows

They edged down until the motionless sweep of water was before them. A vague, greenish-blue illumination, coming from below, revealed the lake’s depth. They could see to the bottom, perhaps ten man-heights down, rough and studded with rotted tree stumps or broken stalagmites, pale green and limned in white.

‘We descended a third of a league for this?’ Mappo asked, his voice echoing, then he laughed.

‘Look further in,’ Icarium directed, and the Trell heard excitement in his companion’s tone.

The stumps marched outward four or five paces, then stopped. Beyond, details indistinct, squatted a massive, blockish shape. Vague patterns marked its visible sides, and its top. Odd, angular projections reached out from the far side, like spider’s legs. The breath hissed from Mappo. ‘Does it live?’ he asked.

‘A mechanism of some sort,’ Icarium said. ‘The metal is very nearly white, do you see? No corrosion. It looks as if it had been built yesterday … but I believe, my friend, that it is ancient.’

Mappo hesitated, then asked, ‘Is it one of yours?’

Icarium glanced at him, eyes bright. ‘No. And that is the wonder of it.’

‘No? Are you sure? We have found others—’

‘I am certain. I do not know how, but there is no doubt in my mind. This was constructed by someone else, Mappo.’

The Trell crouched down and dipped his hand into the water, then snatched it back. ‘Gods, that’s cold!’

‘No obstacle to me,’ Icarium said, smiling, the polished lower tusks sliding into view.

‘You mean to swim down and examine it? Never mind, the answer is plain. Very well, I shall seek out some level ground, and pitch our camp.’

The Jhag was tugging off his clothes.

Mappo set off along the slope. The gloom was sufficiently relieved by the glowing water that he was able to make certain of each step he took, moving up until his left hand was brushing the cold stone wall. After fifteen or so paces that hand slipped into a narrow crack, and, upon regaining contact, immediately noted a change of texture and shape in the surface under his blunt fingertips. The Trell halted and began a closer examination along its length.

This stone was basalt, ragged, bulging out until the slope beneath his feet dwindled, then disappeared. Sharp cracks emanated out across the angled floor and into the lake, the black fissures reappearing on the lake’s bottom. The basalt was some kind of intrusion, he concluded. Perhaps the entire crevasse had been created by its arrival.

Mappo retreated until he had room to sit, perched with his back against the rock, eyes on the now rippled surface of the lake. He drew out a reed and began cleaning his teeth as he considered the matter. He could not imagine a natural process creating such an intrusion. Contrary as earth pressures were, far beneath the land’s surface, there was no colliding escarpment shaping things in this part of the subcontinent.

No, there had been a gate, and the basalt formation had come through it. Catastrophically. From its realm … into solid bedrock on this world.

What was it? But he knew.

A sky keep.

Mappo rose and faced the ravaged basalt once more. And that which Icarium now studies at the bottom of the lake … it came from this. So it follows, does it not, that there must be some sort of portal. A way in. Now he was curious indeed. What secrets lay within? Among the rituals of inculcation the Nameless Ones had intoned in the course of Mappo’s vow were tales of the sky keeps, the dread K’Chain Che’Malle fortresses that floated like clouds in the air. An invasion of sorts, according to the Nameless Ones, in the ages before the rise of the First Empire, when the people who would one day found it did little more than wander in small bands – not even tribes, little different, in fact, from mortal Imass. An invasion that, in this region at least, failed. The tales said little of who or what had opposed them. Jaghut, perhaps. Or Forkrul Assail, or the Elder Gods themselves.

He heard splashing and peered through the gloom to see Icarium pull himself, awkwardly, onto the strand. Mappo rose and approached.

‘Dead,’ Icarium gasped, and Mappo saw that his friend was racked with shivers.

‘The mechanism?’

The Jhag shook his head. ‘Omtose Phellack. This water … dead ice. Dead … blood.’

Mappo waited for Icarium to recover. He studied the now swirling, agitated surface of the lake, wondering when last that water had known motion, the heat of a living body. For the latter, it had clearly been thirsty.

‘There is a corpse inside that thing,’ the Jhag said after a time.

‘K’Chain Che’Malle.’

‘Yes. How did you know?’

‘I have found the sky keep it emerged from. Part of it remains exposed, extruding from the wall.’

‘A strange creature,’ Icarium muttered. ‘I have no memory of ever seeing one before, yet I knew its name.’

‘As far as I know, friend, you have never encountered them in your travels. Yet you hold knowledge of them, nonetheless.’

‘I need to think on this.’


‘Strange creature,’ he said again. ‘So reptilian. Desiccated, of course, as one would expect. Powerful, I would think. The hind limbs, the forearms. Huge jaws. Stubby tail—’

Mappo looked up. ‘Stubby tail. You are certain of that?’

‘Yes. The beast was reclined, and within reach were levers – it was a master of the mechanism’s operation.’

‘There was a porthole you could look through?’

‘No. The white metal became transparent wherever I cast my gaze.’

‘Revealing the mechanism’s inner workings?’

‘Only the area where the K’Chain Che’Malle was seated. A carriage of some sort, I believe, a means of transportation and exploration … yet not intended to accommodate being submerged in water; nor was it an excavating device – the jointed arms would have been insufficient for that. No, the unveiling of Omtose Phellack caught it unawares. Devoured, trapped in ice. A Jaghut arrived, Mappo, to make certain that none escaped.’

Mappo nodded. Icarium’s descriptions had led him to conclude much the same sequence of events. Like the sky keep itself, the mechanism was built to fly, borne aloft by some unknown sorcery. ‘If we are to find level ground,’ he said, ‘it shall have to be within the keep.’

The Jhag smiled. ‘Is that a glimmer of anticipation in your eyes? I am beginning to see the Mappo of old, I suspect. Memory or no, you are no stranger to me, and I have been much chagrined of late, seeing you so forlorn. I understood it, of course – how could I not? I am what haunts you, friend, and for that I grieve. Come, shall we find our way inside this fell keep?’

Mappo watched Icarium stride past, and slowly turned to follow him with his eyes.

Icarium, the Builder of Mechanisms. Where did such skills come from? He feared they were about to find out.

The monastery was in the middle of parched, broken wasteland, not a village or hamlet within a dozen leagues in either direction along the faint tracks of the road. On the map Cutter had purchased in G’danisban, its presence was marked with a single wavy line of reddish-brown ink, upright, barely visible on the worn hide. The symbol of D’rek, Worm of Autumn.

A lone domed structure stood in the midst of a lowwalled, rectangular compound, and the sky over it was dotted with circling vultures.

Beside him and hunched in the saddle, Heboric Ghost Hands spat, then said, ‘Decay. Rot. Dissolution. When what once worked suddenly breaks. And like a moth the soul flutters away. Into the dark. Autumn awaits, and the seasons are askew, twisting to avoid all the unsheathed knives. Yet the prisoners of the jade, they are forever trapped. There, in their own arguments. Disputes, bickering, the universe beyond unseen – they care not a whit, the fools. They wear ignorance like armour and wield spite like swords. What am I to them? A curio. Less. So it’s a broken world, why should I care about that? I did not ask for this, for any of this …’

He went on, but Cutter stopped listening. He glanced back at the two women trailing them. Listless, uncaring, brutalized by the heat. The horses beneath them walked with drooped heads; their ribs were visible beneath dusty, tattered hide. Off to one side clambered Greyfrog, looking fat and sleek as ever, circling the riders with seemingly boundless energy.

‘We should visit that monastery,’ Cutter said. ‘Make use of the well, and if there’s any foodstuffs—’

‘They’re all dead,’ Heboric croaked.

Cutter studied the old man, then grunted. ‘Explains the vultures. But we still need water.’

The Destriant of Treach gave him an unpleasant smile.

Cutter understood the meaning of that smile. He was becoming heartless, inured to the myriad horrors of this world. A monastery filled with dead priests and priestesses was as … nothing. And the old man could see it, could see into him. His new god is the Tiger of Summer, Lord of War. Heboric Ghost Hands, the High Priest of strife, he sees how cold I have become. And is … amused.

Cutter guided his horse up the side track leading to the monastery. The others followed. The Daru reined in in front of the gates, which were closed, and dismounted. ‘Heboric, do you sense any danger to us?’

‘I have that talent?’

Cutter studied him, said nothing.

The Destriant clambered down from his horse. ‘Nothing lives in there. Nothing.’

‘No ghosts?’

‘Nothing. She took them.’


‘The unexpected visitor, that’s who.’ He laughed, raised his hands. ‘We play our games. We never expect … umbrage. Outrage. I could have told them. Warned them, but they wouldn’t have listened. The conceit consumes all. A single building can become an entire world, the minds crowding and jostling, then clawing and gouging. All they need do is walk outside, but they don’t. They’ve forgotten that outside exists. Oh, all these faces of worship, none of which is true worship. Never mind the diligence, it does naught but serve the demon hatreds within. The spites and fears and malice. I could have told them.’

Cutter walked to the wall, leading his horse. He climbed onto its back, perched on the saddle, then straightened until he was standing. The top of the wall was within easy reach. He pulled himself up. In the compound beyond, bodies. A dozen or so, black-skinned, mostly naked, lying here and there on the hard-packed, white ground. Cutter squinted. The bodies looked to be … boiling, frothing, melting. They roiled before his eyes. He pulled his gaze away from them. The domed temple’s doors were yawning open. To the right was a low corral surrounding a low, long structure, the mud-bricks exposed for two thirds of the facing wall. Troughs with plaster and tools indicated a task never to be completed. Vultures crowded the flat roof, yet none ventured down to feast on the corpses.

Cutter dropped down into the compound. He walked to the gates and lifted the bar clear, then pulled the heavy doors open.

Greyfrog was waiting on the other side. ‘Dispirited and distraught. So much unpleasantness, Cutter, in this fell place. Dismay. No appetite.’ He edged past, scuttled warily towards the nearest corpse. ‘Ah! They seethe! Worms, aswarm with worms. The flesh is foul, foul even for Greyfrog. Revulsed. Let us be away from this place!’

Cutter spied the well, in the corner between the outbuilding and the temple. He returned to where the others still waited outside the gate. ‘Give me your waterskins. Heboric, can you check that outbuilding for feed?’

Heboric smiled. ‘The livestock were never let out. It’s been days. The heat killed them all. A dozen goats, two mules.’

‘Just see if there’s any feed.’

The Destriant headed towards the outbuilding.

Scillara dismounted, lifted clear the waterskins from Felisin Younger’s saddle and, with her own thrown over a shoulder, approached Cutter. ‘Here.’

He studied her. ‘I wonder if this is a warning.’

Her brows lifted fractionally, ‘Are we that important, Cutter?’

‘Well, I don’t mean us, specifically. I meant, maybe we should take it as a warning.’

‘Dead priests?’

‘Nothing good comes of worship.’

She gave him an odd smile, then held out the skins.

Cutter cursed himself. He rarely made sense when trying to talk with this woman. Said things a fool would say. It was the mocking look in her eyes, the expression ever anticipating a smile as soon as he opened his mouth to speak. Saying nothing more, he collected the waterskins and walked back into the compound.

Scillara watched him for a moment, then turned as Felisin slipped down from her horse. ‘We need the water.’

The younger woman nodded. ‘I know.’ She reached up and tugged at her hair, which had grown long. ‘I keep seeing those bandits. And now, more dead people. And those cemeteries the track went right through yesterday, that field of bones. I feel we’ve stumbled into a nightmare, and every day we go further in. It’s hot, but I’m cold all the time and getting colder.’

‘That’s dehydration,’ Scillara said, repacking her pipe.

‘That thing’s not left your mouth in days,’ Felisin said.

‘Keeps the thirst at bay.’


‘No, but that is what I keep telling myself.’

Felisin looked away. ‘We do that a lot, don’t we?’


She shrugged. ‘Tell ourselves things. In the hope that it’ll make them true.’

Scillara drew hard on the pipe, blew a lungful of smoke upward, watching as the wind took it away.

‘You look so healthy,’ Felisin said, eyes on her once more. ‘Whilst the rest of us wither away.’

‘Not Greyfrog.’

‘No, not Greyfrog.’

‘Does he talk with you much?’

Felisin shook her head. ‘Not much. Except when I wake up at night, after my bad dreams. Then he sings to me.’


‘Yes, in his people’s language. Songs for children. He says he needs to practise them.’

Scillara shot her a glance. ‘Really? Did he say why?’


‘How old were you, Felisin, when your mother sold you off?’

Another shrug. ‘I don’t remember.’

That might have been a lie, but Scillara did not pursue it.

Felisin stepped closer. ‘Will you take care of me, Scillara?’


‘I feel as if I am going backwards. I felt … older. Back in Raraku. Now, with every day, I feel more and more like a child. Smaller, ever smaller.’

Uneasy, Scillara said, ‘I have never been much good at taking care of people.’

‘I don’t think Sha’ik was, either. She had … obsessions …’

‘She did fine by you.’

‘No, it was mostly Leoman. Even Toblakai. And Heboric, before Treach claimed him. She didn’t take care of me, and that’s why Bidithal …’

‘Bidithal is dead. He got his own balls shoved down his scrawny throat.’

‘Yes,’ a whisper. ‘If what Heboric says really happened. Toblakai …’

Scillara snorted. ‘Think on that, Felisin. If Heboric had said that L’oric had done it, or Sha’ik, or even Leoman, well, you might have some reason to doubt. But Toblakai? No, you can believe it. Gods below, how can you not?’

The question forced a faint smile from Felisin and she nodded. ‘You are right. Only Toblakai would have done that. Only Toblakai would have killed him … in that way. Tell me, Scillara, do you have a spare pipe?’

‘A spare pipe? How about a dozen? Want to smoke them all at once?’

Felisin laughed. ‘No, just one. So, you’ll take care of me, won’t you?’

‘I will try.’ And maybe she would. Like Greyfrog. Practice. She went looking for that pipe.

Cutter lifted the bucket clear and peered at the water. It looked clean, smelling of nothing in particular. Nonetheless, he hesitated.

Footsteps behind him. ‘I found feed,’ Heboric said. ‘More than we can carry.’

‘Think this water is all right? What killed those priests?’

‘It’s fine. I told you what killed them.’

You did? ‘Should we look in the temple?’

‘Greyfrog’s already in there. I told him to find money, gems, food that hasn’t spoiled yet. He wasn’t happy about it, so I expect he’ll be quick.’

‘All right.’ Cutter walked to a trough and dumped the water into it, then returned to the well. ‘Think we can coax the horses in here?’

‘I’ll try.’ But Heboric made no move to do so.

Cutter glanced over at him, saw the old man’s strange eyes fixed on him. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing, I think. I was noticing something. You have certain qualities, Cutter. Leadership, for one.’

The Daru scowled. ‘If you want to be in charge, fine, go ahead.’

‘I wasn’t twisting a knife, lad. I meant what I said. You have taken command, and that’s good. It’s what we need. I have never been a leader. I’ve always followed. It’s my curse. But that’s not what they want to hear. Not from me. No, they want me to lead them out. Into freedom. I keep telling them, I know nothing of freedom.’

‘Them? Who? Scillara and Felisin?’

‘I’ll get the horses,’ Heboric said, turning about and walking off in his odd, toad-like gait.

Cutter refilled the bucket and poured the water into the trough. They would feed the horses here with what they couldn’t take with them. Load up on water. And, even now, loot the temple. Well, he had been a thief once, long ago. Besides, the dead cared nothing for wealth, did they?

A splitting, tearing sound from the centre of the compound behind him. The sound of a portal opening. Cutter spun round, knives in his hands.

A rider emerged from the magical gate at full gallop. Reining in hard, hoofs skidding in clouds of dust, the dark grey horse a monstrous apparition, the hide worn away in places, exposing tendons, dried muscle and ligaments. Its eyes were empty pits, its mane long and greasy, whipping as the beast tossed its head. Seated in a high-backed saddle, the rider was, if anything, even more alarming in appearance. Black, ornate armour, patched with verdigris, a dented, gouged helm, open-faced to reveal mostly bone, a few strips of flesh hanging from the cheek ridges, tendons binding the lower jaw, and a row of blackened, filed teeth.

In the brief moment as the horse reared, dust exploding outward, Cutter saw more weapons on the rider than he could count. Swords at his back, throwing axes, sheathed handles jutting upward from the saddle, something like a boar-spitter, the bronze point as long as a short sword, gripped in the gauntleted left hand. A long bow, a short bow, knives—

‘Where is he!?’ The voice was a savage, enraged roar.

Pieces of armour bounced on the ground as the figure twisted round, searching the compound. ‘Damn you, Hood! I was on the trail!’ He saw Cutter and was suddenly silent, motionless. ‘She left one alive? I doubt it. You’re no whelp of D’rek. Drink deep that water, mortal, it matters not. You’re dead anyway. You and every damned blood-swishing living thing in this realm and every other!’

He pulled his horse around to face the temple, where Greyfrog had appeared, arms heaped with silks, boxes, foodstuffs and cooking utensils. ‘A toad who likes to cook in comfort! The madness of the Grand Ending is upon us! Come any closer, demon, and I’ll spit your legs and roast them over a fire – do you think I no longer eat? You are right, but I will roast you in vicious spite, drooling with irony – ah! You liked that, didn’t you?’ He faced Cutter once more. ‘Is this what he wanted me to see? He pulled me from the trail … for this?’

Cutter sheathed his knives. Through the gates beyond came Heboric Ghost Hands, leading the horses. The old man paused upon seeing the rider, head cocking, then he continued on. ‘Too late, Soldier,’ he said. ‘Or too early!’ He laughed.

The rider lifted the spear high. ‘Treach made a mistake, I see, but I must salute you nonetheless.’

Heboric halted. ‘A mistake, Soldier? Yes, I agree, but there is little I can do about it. I acknowledge your reluctant salute. What brings you here?’

‘Ask Hood if you want the answer to that!’ He upended the spear and drove it point first into the ground, then swung down from the saddle, more fragments of the rotting armour falling away. ‘I expect I must look around, as if I cannot already see all there is to see. The pantheon is riven asunder, what of it?’

Heboric pulled the nervous horses towards the trough, giving the warrior a wide berth. As he approached Cutter he shrugged. ‘The Soldier of Hood, High House Death. He’ll not trouble us, I think.’

‘He spoke to me in Daru,’ Cutter said. ‘At first. And Malazan with you.’


The Soldier was tall, and Cutter now saw something hanging from a knife-studded belt. An enamel mask, cracked, smudged, with a single streak of red paint along one cheek. The Daru’s eyes widened. ‘Beru fend,’ he whispered. ‘A Seguleh!’

At that the Soldier turned, then walked closer. ‘Daru, you are far from home! Tell me, do the Tyrant’s children still rule Darujhistan?’

Cutter shook his head.

‘You look crazed, mortal, what ails you?’

‘I – I’d heard, I mean – Seguleh usually say nothing – to anyone. Yet you …’

‘The fever zeal still grips my mortal kin, does it? Idiots! The Tyrant’s army still holds sway in the city, then?’

‘Who? What? Darujhistan is ruled by a council. We have no army—’

‘Brilliant insanity! No Seguleh in the city?’

‘No! Just … stories. Legends, I mean.’

‘So where are my masked stick-pivoting compatriots hiding?’

‘An island, it’s said, far to the south, off the coast, beyond Morn—’

‘Morn! Now the sense of it comes to me. They are being held in readiness. Darujhistan’s council – mages one and all, yes? Undying, secretive, paranoid mages! Crouching low, lest the Tyrant returns, as one day he must! Returns, looking for his army! Hah, a council!’

‘That’s not the council, sir,’ Cutter said. ‘If you are speaking of mages, that would be the T’orrud Cabal—’

‘T’orrud! Yes, clever. Outrageous! Barukanal, Derudanith, Travalegrah, Mammoltenan? These names strike your soul, yes? I see it.’

‘Mammot was my uncle—’

‘Uncle! Hah! Absurd!’ He spun round. ‘I have seen enough! Hood! I am leaving! She’s made her position clear as ice, hasn’t she? Hood, you damned fool, you didn’t need me for this! Now I must seek out his trail all over again, damn your hoary bones!’ He swung back onto the undead horse.

Heboric called out from where he stood by the trough, ‘Soldier! May I ask – who do you hunt?’

The sharpened teeth lifted and lowered in a silent laugh. ‘Hunt? Oh yes, we all hunt, but I was closest! Piss on Hood’s bony feet! Pluck out the hairs of his nose and kick his teeth in! Drive a spear up his puckered behind and set him on a windy mountain top! Oh, I’ll find him a wife some day, lay coin on it! But first, I hunt!’

He collected the reins, pulled the horse round. The portal opened. ‘Skinner! Hear me, you damned Avowed! Cheater of death! I am coming for you! Now!’ Horse and rider plunged into the rent, vanished, and a moment later the gate disappeared as well.

The sudden silence rang like a dirge in Cutter’s head. He took a ragged breath, then shook himself. ‘Beru fend,’ he whispered again. ‘He was my uncle …’

‘I will feed the horses, lad,’ Heboric said. ‘Go out to the women. They’ve likely been hearing shouting and don’t know what’s going on. Go on, Cutter.’

Nodding, the Daru began walking. Barukanal. Mammoltenan … What had the Soldier revealed? What ghastly secret hid in the apparition’s words? What do Baruk and the others have to do with the Tyrant? And the Seguleh? The Tyrant is returning? ‘Gods, I’ve got to get home.’

Outside the gates, Felisin and Scillara were seated on the track. Both puffing rustleaf, and although Felisin looked sickly, there was a determined, defiant look in her eyes.

‘Relax,’ Scillara said. ‘She’s not inhaling.’

‘I’m not?’ Felisin asked her. ‘How do you do that?’

‘Don’t you have any questions?’ Cutter demanded.

They looked at him. ‘About what?’ Scillara asked.

‘Didn’t you hear?’

‘Hear what?’

They didn’t hear. They weren’t meant to. But we were. Why? Had the Soldier been mistaken in his assumptions? Sent by Hood, not to see the dead priests and priestesses of D’rek … but to speak with us.

The Tyrant shall return. This, to a son of Darujhistan. ‘Gods,’ he whispered again, ‘I’ve got to get home.’

Greyfrog’s voice shouted in his skull, ‘Friend Cutter! Surprise and alarm!’

‘What now?’ he asked, turning to see the demon bounding into view.

‘The Soldier of Death. Wondrous. He left his spear!’

Cutter stared, with sinking heart, at the weapon clutched between the demon’s teeth. ‘Good thing you don’t need your mouth to talk.’

‘Solemn agreement, friend Cutter! Query. Do you like these silks?’

The portal into the sky keep required a short climb. Mappo and Icarium stood on the threshold, staring into a cavernous chamber. The floor was almost level. A faint light seemed to emanate from the walls of stone. ‘We can camp here,’ the Trell said.

‘Yes,’ Icarium agreed. ‘But first, shall we explore?’

‘Of course.’

The chamber housed three additional mechanisms, identical to the one submerged in the lake, each positioned on trestles like ships in dry-dock. The hatches yawned open, revealing the padded seats within. Icarium walked to the nearest one and began examining its interior.

Mappo untied the pouch at his belt and began removing the larger one within. A short time later he laid out the bedrolls, food and wine. Then he drew out from his pack an iron-banded mace, not his favourite one, but another, expendable since it possessed no sorcerous virtues.

Icarium returned to his side. ‘They are lifeless,’ he said. ‘Whatever energy was originally imbued within the machinery has ebbed away, and I see no means of restoring it.’

‘That is not too surprising, is it? I suspect this keep has been here a long time.’

‘True enough, Mappo. But imagine, were we able to enliven one of these mechanisms! We could travel at great speed and in comfort! One for you and one for me, ah, this is tragic. But look, there is a passageway. Let us delve into the greater mystery this keep offers.’

Carrying only his mace, Mappo followed Icarium into the broad corridor.

Storage rooms lined the passage, whatever they had once held now nothing more than heaps of undisturbed dust.

Sixty paces in, they reached an intersection. An arched barrier was before them, shimmering like a vertical pool of quicksilver. Corridors went to the right and left, both appearing to curve inward in the distance.

Icarium drew out a coin from the pouch at his belt, and Mappo was amused to see that it was of a vintage five centuries old.

‘You are the world’s greatest miser, Icarium.’

The Jhag smiled, then shrugged. ‘I seem to recall that no-one ever accepts payment from us, no matter how egregious the expense of the service provided. Is that an accurate memory, Mappo?’

‘It is.’

‘Well, then, how can you accuse me of being niggardly?’ He tossed the coin at the silver barrier. It vanished. Ripples rolled outward, went beyond the stone frame, then returned.

‘This is a passive manifestation,’ Icarium said. ‘Tell me, did you hear the coin strike anything beyond?’

‘No, nor did it make a sound upon entering the … uh, the door.’

‘I am tempted to pass through.’

‘That might prove unhealthy.’

Icarium hesitated, then drew a skinning-knife and inserted the blade into the barrier. Gentler ripples. He pulled it out. The blade looked intact. None of the substance had adhered to it. Icarium ran a fingertip along the iron. ‘No change in temperature,’ he observed.

‘Shall I try a finger I won’t miss much?’ Mappo asked, holding up his left hand.

‘And which one would that be, friend?’

‘I don’t know. I expect I’d miss any of them.’

‘The tip?’

‘Sound caution.’ Making a fist, barring the last, smallest finger, Mappo stepped close, then dipped the finger up to the first knuckle into the shimmering door. ‘No pain, at least. It is, I think, very thin.’ He drew his hand back and examined the digit. ‘Hale.’

‘With the condition of your fingers, Mappo, how can you tell?’

‘Ah, I see a change. No dirt left, not even crusted under the nail.’

‘To pass through is to be cleansed. Do you think?’

Mappo reached in with his whole hand. ‘I feel air beyond. Cooler, damper.’ He withdrew his hand and peered at it. ‘Clean. Too clean. I am alarmed.’


‘Because it makes me realize how filthy I’ve become, that’s why.’

‘I wonder, will it do the same with our clothes?’

‘That would be nice, although it may possess some sort of threshold. Too filthy, and it simply annihilates the offending material. We might emerge on the other side naked.’

‘Now I am alarmed, friend.’

‘Yes. Well, what shall we do, Icarium?’

‘Do we have any choice?’ With that, the Jhag strode through the barrier.

Mappo sighed, then followed.

Only to be clutched at the shoulder and pulled back from a second step – which, he saw, would have been into empty air.

The cavern before them was vast. A bridge had once connected the ledge they stood on to an enormous, towering fortress floating in space, a hundred or more paces opposite them. Sections of that stone span remained, seemingly unsupported, but others had broken away and now floated, motionless, in the air.

Far below, dizzyingly far, the cavern was swallowed in darkness. Above them, a faintly glittering dome of black rough-hewn stone, like a night sky. Tiered buildings rose along the inner walls, rows of dark windows but no balconies. Dust and rubble clouded the air, none of it moving. Mappo said nothing, he was too stunned by the vista before them.

Icarium touched his shoulder, then pointed to something small hovering directly before them. The coin, but not motionless as it had first seemed. It was drifting away, slowly. The Jhag reached out and retrieved it, returning it to the pouch at his waist. ‘A worthy return on my investment,’ he murmured. ‘Since there is momentum, we should be able to travel. Launch ourselves from this ledge. Over to the fortress.’

‘Sound plan,’ Mappo said, ‘but for all the obstacles in between.’

‘Ah, good point.’

‘There may be an intact bridge, on the opposite side. We could take one of the side passages behind us. If such a bridge exists, likely it will be marked with a silver barrier as this one was.’

‘Have you never wished you could fly, Mappo?’

‘As a child, perhaps, I am sure I did.’

‘Only as a child?’

‘It is where dreams of flight belong, Icarium. Shall we explore one of the corridors behind us?’

‘Very well, although I admit I hope we fail in finding a bridge.’

Countless rooms, passages and alcoves along the wide, arched corridor, the floors thick with dust, odd, faded symbols etched above doorways, possibly a numerical system of some sort. The air was stagnant, faintly acrid. No furnishings remained in the adjoining chambers. Nor, Mappo realized, any corpses such as the one Icarium had discovered in the mechanism resting on the lake-bed. An orderly evacuation? If so, where had the Short-Tails gone?

Eventually, they came upon another silver door. Cautiously passing through it, they found themselves standing on the threshold of a narrow bridge. Intact, leading across to the floating fortress, which hovered much closer on this, the opposite side from whence they had first seen it. The back wall of the island keep was much rougher, the windows vertical slashes positioned seemingly haphazardly on the misshapen projections, crooked insets and twisted towers.

‘Extraordinary,’ Icarium said in a low voice. ‘What, I wonder, does this hidden face of madness reveal of the makers? These K’Chain Che’Malle?’

‘A certain tension, perhaps?’


‘Between,’ Mappo said, ‘order and chaos. An inner dichotomy, conflicting impulses …’

‘The contradictions evident in all intelligent life,’ Icarium said, nodding. He stepped onto the span, then, arms wheeling, began drifting away.

Mappo reached out and just managed to grasp the Jhag’s flailing foot. He pulled Icarium back down onto the threshold. ‘Well,’ he said, grunting, ‘that was interesting. You weighed nothing, when I had you in my grip. As light as a mote of dust.’

Slowly, tentatively, the Jhag clambered upright once more. ‘That was most alarming. It seems we may have to fly after all.’

‘Then why build bridges?’

‘I have no idea. Unless,’ he added, ‘whatever mechanism invokes this weightlessness is breaking down, losing its precision.’

‘So the bridges should have been exempted? Possibly. In any case, see the railings, projecting not up but out to either side? Modest, but sufficient for handholds, were one to crawl.’

‘Yes. Shall we?’

The sensation, Mappo decided as he reached the midway point, Icarium edging along ahead of him, was not a pleasant one. Nausea, vertigo, a strange urge to pull one’s grip loose due to the momentum provided by one’s own muscles. All sense of up and down had vanished, and at times Mappo was convinced they were climbing a ladder, rather than snaking more or less horizontally across the span of the bridge.

A narrow but tall entranceway gaped ahead, where the bridge made contact with the fortress. Fragments of the door it had once held floated motionless before it. Whatever had shattered it had come from within.

Icarium reached the threshold and climbed to his feet. Moments later Mappo joined him. They peered into the darkness.

‘I smell … vast … death.’

Mappo nodded. He drew out his mace, looked down at the spiked ball of iron, then slipped the handle back through the leather loop at his belt.

Icarium in the lead, they entered the fortress.

The corridor was as narrow as the doorway itself, the walls uneven, black basalt, wet with condensation, the floor precarious with random knobs and projections, and depressions slick with ice that cracked and shifted underfoot. It ran more or less straight for forty paces. By the time they reached the opening at the end their eyes had adjusted to the gloom.

Another enormous chamber, as if the heart of the keep had been carved out. A massive cruciform of bound, black wood filled the cavern, and on it was impaled a dragon. Long dead, once frozen but now rotting. An iron spike as thick around as Mappo’s torso had been driven into the dragon’s throat, just above the breast bones. Aquamarine blood had seeped down from the wound and still dripped heavy and turgid onto the stone floor in slow, steady, fistsized drops.

‘I know this dragon,’ Icarium whispered.

How? No, ask not.

‘I know this dragon,’ Icarium said again. ‘Sorrit. Its aspect was … Serc. The warren of the sky.’ He lifted both hands to his face. ‘Dead. Sorrit has been slain …’

‘A most delicious throne. No, not delicious. Most bitter, foul, ill-tasting, what was I thinking?’

‘You don’t think, Curdle. You never think. I can’t remember any throne. What throne? There must be some mistake. Not-Apsalar heard wrong, that much is obvious. Completely wrong, an absolute error. Besides, someone’s sitting in it.’


‘I told you, there was no throne—’

The conversation had been going on for half the night, as they travelled the strange paths of Shadow, winding across a ghostly landscape that constantly shifted between two worlds, although both were equally ravaged and desolate. Apsalar wondered at the sheer extent of this fragment of the Shadow Realm. If her recollection of Cotillion’s memories was accurate, the realm wandered untethered to the world Apsalar called her own, and neither the Rope nor Shadowthrone possessed any control over its seemingly random peregrinations. Even stranger, it was clear that roads of a sort stretched out from the fragment, twisting and wending vast distances, like roots, or tentacles, and sometimes their motions proved independent of the larger fragment.

As with the one they now traversed. More or less following the eastern road leading out from Ehrlitan, skirting the thin ribbon of cedars on their left, beyond which was the sea. And as the traders’ track began to curve northward to meet the coastline, the Shadow Road joined with it, narrowing until it was barely the width of the track itself.

Ignoring the ceaseless nattering from the two ghosts flitting behind her, Apsalar pushed on, fighting the lack of sleep and eager to cover as much ground as possible before the sun’s rise. Her control of the Shadow Road was growing more tenuous – it vanished with every slip of her concentration. Finally, she halted.

The warren crumbled around them. The sky to the east was lightening. They stood on the traders’ track at the base of a winding climb to the coastal ridge, rhizan darting through the air around them.

‘The sun returns! Not again! Telorast, we need to hide! Somewhere!’

‘No we don’t, you idiot. We just get harder to see, that’s all, unless you’re not mindful. Of course, Curdle, you are incapable of being mindful, so I look forward to your wailing dissolution. Peace, at last. For a while, at least—’

‘You are evil, Telorast! I’ve always known it, even before you went and used that knife on—’

‘Be quiet! I never used that knife on anyone.’

‘And you’re a liar!’

‘Say that again and I’ll stick you!’

‘You can’t! I’m dissolving!’

Apsalar ran a hand across her brow. It came away glistening with sweat. ‘That thread of Shadow felt … wrong,’ she said.

‘Oh yes,’ Telorast replied, slipping round to crouch before her in a miasma of swirling grey. ‘It’s sickly. All the outer reaches are. Poisoned, rotting with chaos. We blame Shadowthrone.’

‘Shadowthrone? Why?’

‘Why not? We hate him.’

‘And that is sufficient reason?’

‘The sufficientest reason of all.’

Apsalar studied the climbing track. ‘I think we’re close.’

‘Good. Excellent. I’m frightened. Let’s stop here. Let’s go back, now.’

Stepping through the ghost, Apsalar began the ascent.

‘That was a vicious thing to do,’ Telorast hissed behind her. ‘If I possessed you I wouldn’t do that to me. Not even to Curdle, I wouldn’t. Well, maybe, if I was mad. You’re not mad at me, are you? Please don’t be mad at me. I’ll do anything you ask, until you’re dead. Then I’ll dance on your stinking, bloated corpse, because that’s what you would want me to do, isn’t it? I would if I was you and you were dead and I lingered long enough to dance on you, which I would do.’

Reaching the crest, Apsalar saw that the track continued along the ridge another two hundred paces before twisting back down onto the lee side. Cool morning wind plucked the sweat from her face, sighing in from the vast, dark cape that was the sea on her left. She looked down to see a narrow strand of beach fifteen or so man-heights below, cluttered with driftwood. Along the track to her right, near the far end, a stand of stunted trees rose from a niche in the cliff-side, and in their midst stood a stone tower. White plaster covered its surface for most of its height, barring the uppermost third, where the rough-cut stones were still exposed.

She walked towards it as the first spears of sunlight shot over the horizon.

Heaps of slate filled the modest enclosure surrounding the tower. No-one was visible, and Apsalar could hear nothing from within as she strode across to halt in front of the door.

Telorast’s faint whisper came to her: ‘This isn’t good. A stranger lives here. Must be a stranger, since we’ve never met. And if not a stranger then somebody I know, which would be even worse—’

‘Be quiet,’ Apsalar said, reaching up to pound on the door – then stopped, and stepping back, stared up at the enormous reptilian skull set in the wall above the doorway. ‘Hood’s breath!’ She hesitated, Telorast voicing minute squeals and gasps behind her, then thumped on the weathered wood with a gloved fist.

The sounds of something falling over, then of boots crunching on grit and gravel. A bolt was tugged aside, and the door swung open in a cloud of dust.

The man standing within filled the doorway. Napan, massive muscles, blunt face, small eyes. His scalp shaved and white with dust, through which a few streaks of sweat ran down to glisten in his thick, wiry eyebrows.

Apsalar smiled. ‘Hello, Urko.’

The man grunted, then said, ‘Urko drowned. They all drowned.’

‘It’s that lack of imagination that gave you away,’ she replied.

‘Who are you?’


‘No you’re not. Apsalar was an Imass—’

‘Not the Mistress of Thieves. It is simply the name I chose—’

‘Damned arrogant of you, too.’

‘Perhaps. In any case, I bring greetings from Dancer.’

The door slammed in her face.

Coughing in the dust gusting over her, Apsalar stepped back and wiped grit from her eyes.

‘Hee hee,’ said Telorast behind her. ‘Can we go now?’

She pounded on the door again.

After a long moment, it opened once more. He was scowling. ‘I once tried to drown him, you know.’

‘No, yes, I recall. You were drunk.’

‘You couldn’t have recalled anything – you weren’t there. Besides, I wasn’t drunk.’

‘Oh. Then … why?’

‘Because he irritated me, that’s why. Just like you’re doing right now.’

‘I need to talk to you.’

‘What for?’

She suddenly had no answer to give him.

His eyes narrowed. ‘He really thought I was drunk? What an idiot.’

‘Well, I suppose the alternative was too depressing.’

‘I never knew he was such a sensitive soul. Are you his daughter? Something … in the way you stand …’

‘May I come in?’

He moved away from the door. Apsalar entered, then halted once more, her eyes on the enormous headless skeleton commanding the interior, reaching all the way up to the tower’s ceiling. Bipedal, long-tailed, the bones a burnished brown colour. ‘What is this?’

Urko said, ‘Whatever it was, it could swallow a bhederin in one bite.’

‘How?’ Telorast asked Apsalar in a whisper. ‘It has no head.’

The man heard the question, and he now scowled. ‘You have company. What is it, a familiar or something? I can’t see it, and that I don’t like. Not at all.’

‘A ghost.’

‘You should banish it to Hood,’ he said. ‘Ghosts don’t belong here, that’s why they’re ghosts.’

‘He’s an evil man!’ Telorast hissed. ‘What are those?’

Apsalar could just make out the shade as it drifted towards a long table to the right. On it were smaller versions of the skeletal behemoth, three of them crowsized, although instead of beaks the creatures possessed long snouts lined with needle-like teeth. The bones had been bound together with gut and the figures were mounted so that they stood upright, like sentry meer-rats.

Urko was studying Apsalar, an odd expression on his blunt, strong-featured face. Then he seemed to start, and said, ‘I have brewed some tea.’

‘That would be nice, thank you.’

He walked over to the modest kitchen area and began a search for cups. ‘It’s not that I don’t want visitors … well, it is. They always bring trouble. Did Dancer have anything else to say?’

‘No. And he now calls himself Cotillion.’

‘I knew that. I’m not surprised he’s the Patron of Assassins. He was the most feared killer in the empire. More than Surly, who was just treacherous. Or Topper, who was just cruel. I suppose those two still think they won. Fools. Who now strides among the gods, eh?’ He brought a clay cup over. ‘Local herbs, mildly toxic but not fatal. Antidote to buther snake bites, which is a good thing, since the bastards infest the area. Turns out I built my tower near a breeding pit.’

One of the small skeletons on the tabletop fell over, then jerkily climbed back upright, the tail jutting out, the torso angling almost horizontal.

‘One of my ghost companions has just possessed that creature,’ Apsalar said.

A second one lurched into awkward motion.

‘Gods below,’ whispered Urko. ‘Look how they stand! Of course! It has to be that way. Of course!’ He stared up at the massive fossil skeleton. ‘It’s all wrong! They lean forward – for balance!’

Telorast and Curdle were quickly mastering their new bodies, jaws snapping, hopping about on the tabletop.

‘I suspect they won’t want to relinquish those skeletons,’ Apsalar said.

‘They can have them – as reward for this revelation!’ He paused, looked round, then muttered, ‘I’ll have to knock down a wall …’

Apsalar sighed. ‘I suppose we should be relieved one of them did not decide on the big version.’

Urko looked over at her with slightly wide eyes, then he grunted. ‘Drink your tea – the toxicity gets worse as it cools.’

She sipped. And found her lips and tongue suddenly numb.

Urko smiled. ‘Perfect. This way the conversation stays brief and you can be on your way all the sooner.’


‘It wears off.’ He found a stool and sat down facing her. ‘You’re Dancer’s daughter. You must be, although I see no facial similarities – your mother must have been beautiful. It’s in your walk, and how you stand there. You’re his beget, and he was selfish enough to teach you, his own child, the ways of assassination. I can see how that troubles you. It’s there in your eyes. The legacy haunts you – you’re feeling trapped, caged in. There’s already blood on your hands, isn’t there? Is he proud of that?’ He grimaced, then spat. ‘I should’ve drowned him then and there. Had I been drunk, I would have.’

‘You are wong.’

‘Wong? Wrong, you mean? Am I?’

She nodded, fighting her fury at his trickery. She had come with the need to talk, and he had stolen from her the ability to shape words. ‘Nnnoth th-aughther. Mmothethed.’

He frowned.

Apsalar pointed at the two reptilian skeletons now scuttling about on the stone-littered floor. ‘Mmothethion.’

‘Possession. He possessed you? The god possessed you? Hood pluck his balls and chew slow!’ Urko heaved himself to his feet, hands clenching into fists. ‘Here, hold on, lass. I have an antidote to the antidote.’ He found a dusty beaker, rubbed at it until a patch of the glazed reddish earthenware was visible. ‘This one, aye.’ He found another cup and poured it full. ‘Drink.’

Sickly sweet, the taste then turning bitter and stinging. ‘Oh. That was … fast.’

‘My apologies, Apsalar. I’m a miserable sort most of the time, I admit it. And I’ve talked more since you arrived than I have in years. So I’ll stop now. How can I help you?’

She hesitated, then looked away. ‘You can’t, really. I shouldn’t have come. I still have tasks to complete.’

‘For him?’

She nodded.


‘Because I gave my word.’

‘You owe him nothing, except maybe a knife in his back.’

‘Once I am done … I wish to disappear.’

He sat down once more. ‘Ah. Yes, well.’

‘I think an accidental drowning won’t hold any longer, Urko.’

A faint grin. ‘It was our joke, you see. We all made the pact … to drown. Nobody got it. Nobody gets it. Probably never will.’

‘I did. Dancer does. Even Shadowthrone, I think.’

‘Not Surly. She never had a sense of humour. Always obsessing on the details. I wonder, are people like that ever happy? Are they even capable of it? What inspires their lives, anyway? Give ’em too much and they complain. Give ’em too little and they complain some more. Do it right and half of them complain it’s too much and the other half too little.’

‘No wonder you gave up consorting with people, Urko.’

‘Aye, I prefer bones these days. People. Too many of them by far, if you ask me.’

She looked round. ‘Dancer wanted you shaken up some. Why?’

The Napan’s eyes shifted away, and he did not answer.

Apsalar felt a tremor of unease. ‘He knows something, doesn’t he? That’s what he’s telling you by that simple greeting.’

‘Assassin or not, I always liked Dancer. Especially the way he could keep his mouth shut.’

The two reptilian skeletons were scrabbling at the door. Apsalar studied them for a moment. ‘Disappearing … from a god.’

‘Aye, that won’t be easy.’

‘He said I could leave, once I’m done. And he won’t come after me.’

‘Believe him, Apsalar. Dancer doesn’t lie, and I suspect even godhood won’t change that.’

I think that is what I needed to hear. ‘Thank you.’ She headed towards the door.

‘So soon?’ Urko asked.

She glanced back at him. ‘Too much or too little?’

He narrowed his gaze, then grunted a laugh. ‘You’re right. It’s about perfect – I need to be mindful about what I’m asking for.’

‘Yes,’ she said. And that is also what Dancer wanted to remind you about, isn’t it?

Urko looked away. ‘Damn him, anyway.’

Smiling, Apsalar opened the door. Telorast and Curdle scurried outside. She followed a moment later.

Thick spit on the palms of the hands, a careful rubbing together, then a sweep back through the hair. The outlawed Gral straightened, kicked sand over the small cookfire, then collected his pack and slung it over his shoulders. He picked up his hunting bow and strung it, then fitted an arrow. A final glance around, and he began walking.

The trail was not hard to follow. Taralack Veed continued scanning the rough, broken scrubland. A hare, a desert grouse, a mamlak lizard, anything would do; he was tired of the sun-dried strips of bhederin and he’d eaten the last date two nights previously. No shortage of tubers, of course, but too much and he’d spend half the day squatting over a hastily dug hole.

The D’ivers demon was closing on its quarry, and it was vital that Taralack remain in near proximity, so that he could make certain of the outcome. He was being well paid for the task ahead and that was all that mattered. Gold, and with it, the clout to raise a company of mercenaries. Then back to his village, to deliver well-deserved justice upon those who had betrayed him. He would assume the mantle of warleader then, and lead the Gral to glory. His destiny lay before him, and all was well.

Dejim Nebrahl revealed no digressions, no detours in its path. The D’ivers was admirably singular, true to its geas. There would be no deviation, for it lusted for the freedom that was the reward for the task’s completion. This was the proper manner in which to make bargains, and Taralack found himself admiring the Nameless Ones. No matter how dread-filled the tales he had heard of the secret cult, his own dealings with them had been clean, lucrative and straightforward.

It had survived the Malazan conquest, and that was saying something. The old Emperor had displayed uncanny skill at infiltrating the innumerable cults abounding in Seven Cities, then delivering unmitigated slaughter upon the adherents.

That, too, was worthy of admiration.

This distant Empress, however, was proving far less impressive. She made too many mistakes. Taralack could not respect such a creature, and he ritually cursed her name with every dawn and every dusk, with as much vehemence as he cursed the seventy-four other avowed enemies of Taralack Veed.

Sympathy was like water in the desert. Hoarded, reluctantly meted out in the barest of sips. And he, Taralack Veed, could walk a thousand deserts on a single drop.

Such were the world’s demands. He knew himself well enough to recognize that his was a viper’s charm, alluring and mesmerizing and ultimately deadly. A viper made guest in a nest-bundle of meer-rats, how could they curse him for his very nature? He had killed the husband, after all, in service to her heart, a heart that had swallowed him whole. He had never suspected that she would then cast him out, that she would have simply made use of him, that another man had been waiting in the hut’s shadow to ease the tortured spirit of the grieving widow. He had not believed that she too possessed the charms of a viper.

He halted near a boulder, collected a waterskin from his pack and removed the broad fired-clay stopper. Tugging his loincloth down he squatted and peed into the waterskin. There were no rock-springs for fifteen or more leagues in the direction the D’ivers was leading him. That path would eventually converge on a traders’ track, of course, but that was a week or more away. Clearly, the D’ivers Dejim Nebrahl did not suffer the depredations of thirst.

The rewards of singular will, he well knew. Worthy of emulation, as far as was physically possible. He straightened, tugged the loincloth back up. Replacing the stopper, Taralack Veed slung the skin over a shoulder and resumed his measured pursuit.

Beneath glittering stars and a pale smear in the east, Scillara knelt on the hard ground, vomiting the last of her supper and then nothing but bile as heave after heave racked through her. Finally the spasms subsided. Gasping, she crawled away a short distance, then sat with her back to a boulder.

The demon Greyfrog watched from ten paces away, slowly swaying from side to side.

Watching him invited a return of the nausea, so she looked away, pulled out her pipe and began repacking it. ‘It’s been days,’ she muttered. ‘I thought I was past this. Dammit …’

Greyfrog ambled closer, approached the place where she had been sick. It sniffed, then pushed heaps of sand over the offending spot.

With a practised gesture, Scillara struck a quick series of sparks down into the pipe’s bowl with the flint and iron striker. The shredded sweet-grass mixed in with the rustleaf caught, and moments later she was drawing smoke. ‘That’s good, Toad. Cover my trail … it’s a wonder you’ve not told the others. Respecting my privacy?’

Greyfrog, predictably, did not reply.

Scillara ran a hand along the swell of her belly. How could she be getting fatter and fatter when she’d been throwing back one meal in three for weeks? There was something diabolical about this whole pregnancy thing. As if she possessed her own demon, huddled there in her belly. Well, the sooner it was out the quicker she could sell it to some pimp or harem master. There to be fed and raised and to learn the trade of the supplicant.

Most women who bothered stopped at two or three, she knew, and now she understood why. Healers and witches and midwives and sucklers kept the babies healthy enough, and the world remained to teach them its ways. The misery lay in the bearing, in carrying this growing weight, in its secret demands on her reserves.

And something else was happening as well. Something that proved the child’s innate evil. She’d been finding herself drifting into a dreamy, pleasant state, inviting a senseless smile that, quite simply, horrified Scillara. What was there to be happy about? The world was not pleasant. It did not whisper contentment. No, the poisonous seduction stealing through her sought delusion, blissful stupidity – and she had had enough of that already. As nefarious as durhang, this deadly lure.

Her bulging belly would soon be obvious, she knew. Unless she tried to make herself even fatter. There was something comforting about all that solid bulk – but no, that was the delusional seduction all over again, finding a new path into her brain.

Well, it seemed the nausea was fully past, now. Scillara regained her feet and made her way back to the encampment. A handful of coals in the hearth, drifting threads of smoke, and three recumbent figures wrapped in blankets. Greyfrog appeared in her wake, moving past her to squat near the hearth. It snapped a capemoth out of the air and stuffed it into its broad mouth. Its eyes were a murky green as it studied Scillara.

She refilled her pipe. Why was it just women that had babies, anyway? Surely some ascendant witch could have made some sorcerous adjustment to the inequity by now? Or was it maybe not a flaw at all, but an advantage of some sort? Not that any obvious advantages came to mind. Apart from this strange, suspicious bliss constantly stealing through her. She drew hard on the rustleaf. Bidithal had made the cutting away of pleasure the first ritual among girls in his cult. He had liked the notion of feeling nothing at all, removing the dangerous desire for sensuality. She could not recall if she had ever known such sensations.

Bidithal had inculcated religious rapture, a state of being, she now suspected, infinitely more selfish and self-serving than satisfying one’s own body. Being pregnant whispered of a similar kind of rapture, and that made her uneasy.

A sudden commotion. She turned to see that Cutter had sat up.

‘Something wrong?’ she asked in a low voice.

He faced her, his expression indistinct in the darkness, then sighed shakily. ‘No. A bad dream.’

‘It’s nearing dawn,’ Scillara said.

‘Why are you awake?’

‘No particular reason.’

He shook off the blanket, rose and walked over to the hearth. Crouched, tossing a handful of tinder onto the glowing coals, waited until it flared to life, then began adding dung chips.

‘Cutter, what do you think will happen on Otataral Island?’

‘I’m not sure. That old Malazan’s not exactly clear on the matter, is he?’

‘He is Destriant to the Tiger of Summer.’

Cutter glanced across at her. ‘Reluctantly.’

She added more rustleaf to her pipe. ‘He doesn’t want followers. And if he did, it wouldn’t be us. Well, not me, nor Felisin. We’re not warriors. You,’ she added, ‘would be a more likely candidate.’

He snorted. ‘No, not me, Scillara. It seems I follow another god.’

‘It seems?’

She could just make out his shrug. ‘You fall into things,’ he said.

A woman. Well, that explains a lot. ‘As good a reason as any other,’ she said behind a lungful of smoke.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean, I don’t see much reason behind following any god or goddess. If you’re worth their interest, they use you. I know about being used, and most of the rewards are anything but, even if they look good at the time.’

‘Well,’ he said after a moment, ‘someone’s rewarded you.’

‘Is that what you call it?’

‘Call what? You’re looking so … healthy. Full of life, I mean. And you’re not as skinny as before.’ He paused, then hastily added, ‘Which is good. Half-starved didn’t suit you – doesn’t suit anyone, of course. You, included. Anyway, that’s all.’

She sat, smoking, watching him in the growing light. ‘We are quite a burden to you, aren’t we, Cutter?’

‘No! Not at all! I’m to escort you, a task I happily accepted. And that hasn’t changed.’

‘Don’t you think Greyfrog is sufficient to protect us?’

‘No, I mean, yes, he probably is. Even so, he is a demon, and that complicates things – it’s not as if he can just amble into a village or city, is it? Or negotiate supplies and passage or stuff like that.’

‘Felisin can. So can I, in fact.’

‘Well. You’re saying you don’t want me here?’

‘I’m saying we don’t need you. Which isn’t the same as saying we don’t want you, Cutter. Besides, you’ve done well leading this odd little company, although it’s obvious you’re not used to doing that.’

‘Listen, if you want to take over, that’s fine by me.’

Ah, a woman who wouldn’t follow, then. ‘I see no reason to change anything,’ she said offhandedly.

He was staring at her as she in turn regarded him, her gaze as level and as unperturbed as she could manage. ‘What is the point of all this?’ he demanded.

‘Point? No point. Just making conversation, Cutter. Unless … is there something in particular you would like to talk about?’

She watched him pull back in every way but physically, as he said, ‘No, nothing.’

‘You don’t know me well enough, then, is that it? Well, we’ll have plenty of time.’

‘I know you … I think. I mean, oh, you’re right, I don’t know you at all. I don’t know women, is what I really mean. And how could I? It’s impossible, trying to follow your thoughts, trying to make sense out of what you say, what is hidden behind your words—’

‘Would that be me, specifically, or women in general?’

He threw more dung on the fire. ‘No,’ he muttered, ‘nothing in particular I’d like to talk about.’

‘All right, but I have a few topics …’

He groaned.

‘You were given the task,’ she said. ‘To escort us, correct? Who gave you that task?’

‘A god.’

‘But not Heboric’s god.’


‘So there’s at least two gods interested in us. That’s not good, Cutter. Does Ghost Hands know about this? No, he wouldn’t, would he? No reason to tell him—’

‘It’s not hard to figure out,’ Cutter retorted. ‘I was waiting for you. In Iskaral Pust’s temple.’

‘Malazan gods. Shadowthrone or Cotillion. But you’re not Malazan, are you?’

‘Really, Scillara,’ Cutter said wearily, ‘do we have to discuss this right now?’

‘Unless,’ she went on, ‘your lover was. Malazan, that is. The original follower of those gods.’

‘Oh, my head hurts,’ he mumbled, hands up over his eyes, the fingers reaching into his hair, then clenching as if to begin tearing it out. ‘How – no, I don’t want to know. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care.’

‘So where is she now?’

‘No more.’

Scillara subsided. She pulled out a narrow-bladed knife and began cleaning her pipe.

He suddenly rose. ‘I’ll start on breakfast.’

A sweet boy, she decided. Like damp clay in a woman’s hands. A woman who knew what she was doing, that is. Now the question is, should I be doing this? Felisin adored Cutter, after all. Then again, we could always share.

‘Smirking observation. Soft-curved, large-breasted woman wants to press flesh with Cutter.’

Not now, Greyfrog, he replied without speaking aloud as he removed food from the pack.

‘Alarm. No, not now indeed. The others are wakening from their uneasy dreams. Awkward and dismay to follow, especially with Felisin Younger.’

Cutter paused. What? Why – but she’s barely of age! No, this can’t be. Talk her out of it, Greyfrog!

‘Greyfrog’s own advances unwelcome. Despondent sulk. You, Cutter, of seed-issuing capacity, capable of effecting beget. Past revelation. Human women carry breeding pond in bellies. But one egg survives, only one. Terrible risk! You must fill pond as quickly as possible, before rival male appears to steal your destiny. Greyfrog will defend your claim. Brave self-sacrifice, such as Sentinel Circlers among own kind. Altruistic enlightenment of reciprocity and protracted slant reward once or even many times removed. Signifier of higher intelligence, acknowledgement of community interests. Greyfrog is already Sentinel Circler to soft-curved, large-breasted goddess-human.’

Goddess? What do you mean, goddess?

‘Lustful sigh, is worthy of worship. Value signifiers in male human clouding the pond’s waters in Greyfrog’s mind. Too long association. Happily. Sexual desires long withheld. Unhealthy.’

Cutter set a pot of water on the fire and tossed in a handful of herbs. What did you say earlier about uneasy dreams, Greyfrog?

‘Observation, skimming the mind ponds. Troubled. Approaching danger. There are warning signs.’

What warning signs?

‘Obvious. Uneasy dreams. Sufficient unto themselves.’

Not always, Greyfrog. Sometimes it’s things from me past that haunt us. That’s all.

‘Ah. Greyfrog will think on this. But first, pangs. Greyfrog is hungry.’

The grey haze of the heat and the dust made the distant walls barely visible. Leoman of the Flails rode at the head of the ragged column, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas at his side, as a company of riders approached from Y’Ghatan’s gates.

‘There,’ Corabb said, ‘front rider on the right of the standard-bearer, that is Falah’d Vedor. He looks …


‘He’d best begin making peace with that sentiment,’ Leoman said in a growl. He raised a gloved hand and the column behind him slowed to a halt.

They watched the company close.

‘Commander, shall you and I meet them halfway?’ Corabb asked.

‘Of course not,’ Leoman snapped.

Corabb said nothing more. His leader was in a dark mood. A third of his warriors were riding double. A muchloved old healer witch had died this very morning, and they’d pinned her corpse beneath a slab of stone lest some wandering spirit find her. Leoman himself had spat in the eight directions to hallow the ground, and spilled drops of his own blood from a slash he opened on his left hand onto the dusted stone, voicing the blessing in the name of the Apocalyptic. Then he had wept. In front of all his warriors, who had stood silent, awestruck by the grief and the love for his followers Leoman had revealed in that moment.

The Falah’d and his soldiers approached, then drew to a halt five paces in front of Leoman and Corabb.

Corabb studied Vedor’s sallow, sunken face, murky eyes, and knew him for an addict of d’bayang poppy. His thickveined hands trembled on the saddle horn, and, when it became evident that Leoman would not be the first to speak, he scowled and said, ‘I, Falah’d Vedor of Y’Ghatan, the First Holy City, do hereby welcome you, Leoman of the Flails, refugee of Sha’ik’s Fall in Raraku, and your broken followers. We have prepared secure barracks for your warriors, and the tables wait, heaped with food and wine. You, Leoman, and your remaining officers shall be the Falah’d’s guests in the palace, for as long as required for you to reprovision your army and recover from your flight. Inform us of your final destination and we shall send envoys in advance to proclaim your coming to each and every village, town and city on your route.’

Corabb found he was holding his breath. He watched as Leoman nudged his horse forward, until he was positioned side by side with the Falah’d.

‘We have come to Y’Ghatan,’ Leoman said, in a low voice, ‘and it is in Y’Ghatan that we shall stay. To await the coming of the Malazans.’

Vedor’s stained mouth worked for a moment without any sound issuing forth, then he managed a hacking laugh. ‘Like a knife’s edge, your sense of humour, Leoman of the Flails! It is as your legend proclaims!’

‘My legend? Then this, too, will not surprise you.’ The kethra knife was a blinding flash, sweeping to caress Vedor’s throat. Blood spurted, and the Falah’d’s head rolled back, thumped on the rump of the startled horse, then down to bounce and roll in the dust of the road. Leoman reached out to steady the headless corpse still seated in the saddle, and wiped the blade on the silken robes.

From the company of city soldiers, not a sound, not a single motion. The standard-bearer, a youth of perhaps fifteen years, stared open-mouthed at the headless body beside him.

‘In the name of Dryjhna the Apocalyptic,’ Leoman said, ‘I now rule the First Holy City of Y’Ghatan. Who is the ranking officer here?’

A woman pushed her horse forward. ‘I am. Captain Dunsparrow.’

Corabb squinted at her. Solid features, sun-darkened, light grey eyes. Twenty-five years of age, perhaps. The glint of a chain vest was just visible beneath her plain telaba. ‘You,’ Corabb said, ‘are Malazan.’

The cool eyes fixed on him. ‘What of it?’

‘Captain,’ Leoman said, ‘your troop will precede us. Clear the way to the palace for me and my warriors. The secure barracks spoken of by the late Falah’d will be used to house those soldiers in the city garrison and from the palace who might be disinclined to follow my orders. Please ensure that they are indeed secured. Once you have done these things, report to me in the palace for further orders.’

‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I am of insufficient rank to do as you ask—’

‘No longer. You are now my Third, behind Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas.’

Her gaze briefly flicked back to Corabb, revealing nothing. ‘As you command, Leoman of the Flails, Falah’d of Y’Ghatan.’

Dunsparrow twisted in her saddle and bellowed out to her troops, ‘About face! Smartly now, you damned pigherders! We advance the arrival of the new Falah’d!’

Vedor’s horse turned along with all the others, and began trotting, the headless body pitching about in its saddle.

Corabb watched as, twenty paces along, the dead Falah’d’s mount came up alongside the captain. She noted it and with a single straight-armed shove sent the corpse toppling.

Leoman grunted. ‘Yes. She is perfect.’

A Malazan. ‘I have misgivings, Commander.’

‘Of course you have. It’s why I keep you at my side.’ He glanced over. ‘That, and the Lady’s tug. Come now, ride with me into our new city.’

They kicked their horses into motion. Behind them followed the others.

‘Our new city,’ Corabb said, grinning. ‘We shall defend it with our lives.’

Leoman shot him an odd look, but said nothing.

Corabb thought about that. Commander, I have more misgivings …


The first cracks appeared shortly after the execution of Sha’ik. None could know the mind of Adjunct Tavore. Not her closest officers, and not the common soldier under her command. But there were distant stirrings, to be sure, more easily noted in retrospect, and it would be presumptuous and indeed dismissive to claim that the Adjunct was ignorant of the growing troubles, not only in her command, but at the very heart of the Malazan Empire. Given that, the events at Y’Ghatan could have been a fatal wound. Were someone else in command, were that someone’s heart any less hard, any less cold.

This, more than at any other time beforehand, gave brutal truth to the conviction that Adjunct Tavore was cold iron, thrust into the soul of a raging forge …

‘None to Witness’

(The Lost History of the Bonehunters)

Duiker of Darujhistan

‘Put that down,’ Samar Dev said wearily from where she sat near the window.

‘Thought you were asleep,’ Karsa Orlong said. He returned the object to the tabletop. ‘What is it?’

‘Two functions. The upper beaker contains filters for the water, removing all impurities. The water gathering in the lower beaker is flanked by strips of copper, which livens the water itself through a complicated and mysterious process. A particular ethereal gas is released, thus altering the air pressure above the water, which in turn—’

‘But what do you use it for?’

Samar’s eyes narrowed. ‘Nothing in particular.’

He moved away from the table, approached the work benches and shelves. She watched him examining the various mechanisms she had invented, and the long-term experiments, many of which showed no evident alteration of conditions. He poked. Sniffed, and even sought to taste one dish filled with gelatinous fluid. She thought to stop him, then decided to remain quiet. The warrior’s wounds had healed with appalling swiftness, with no signs of infection. The thick liquid he was licking from his finger wasn’t particularly healthy to ingest, but not fatal. Usually.

He made a face. ‘This is terrible.’

‘I am not surprised.’

‘What do you use it for?’

‘What do you think?’

‘Rub it into saddles. Leather.’

‘Saddles? Indirectly, I suppose. It is an ointment, for the suppurating wounds that sometimes arise on the lining of the anus—’

He grunted loudly, then said, ‘No wonder it tasted awful,’ and resumed his examination of the room’s contents.

She regarded him thoughtfully. Then said, ‘The Falah’d sent soldiers into the keep. They found signs of past slaughter – as you said, not one Malazan left alive. They also found a demon. Or, rather, the corpse of a demon, freshly killed. They have asked me to examine it, for I possess a little knowledge of anatomy and other, related subjects.’

He made no reply, peering into the wrong end of a spyglass.

‘If you come to the window, and look through the other end, Karsa, you will see things far away drawn closer.’

He scowled at her, and set the instrument down. ‘If something is far away, I simply ride closer.’

‘And if it is at the top of a cliff? Or a distant enemy encampment and you want to determine the picket lines?’

He retrieved the spyglass and walked over. She moved her chair to one side to give him room. ‘There is a falcon’s nest on the ledge of that tower, the copper-sheathed one.’

He held up the glass. Searched until he found the nest. ‘That is no falcon.’

‘You are right. It’s a bokh’aral that found the abandoned nest to its liking. It carries up armfuls of rotting fruit and it spends the morning dropping them on people in the streets below.’

‘It appears to be snarling …’

‘That would be laughter. It is forever driven to bouts of hilarity.’

‘Ah – no, that wasn’t fruit. It was a brick.’

‘Oh, unfortunate. Someone will be sent to kill it, now. After all, only people are allowed to throw bricks at people.’

He lowered the spyglass and studied her. ‘That is madness. What manner of laws do you possess, to permit such a thing?’

‘Which thing? Stoning people or killing bokh’arala?’

‘You are strange, Samar Dev. But then, you are a witch, and a maker of useless objects—’

‘Is that spyglass useless?’

‘No, I now understand its value. Yet it was lying on a shelf…’

She leaned back. ‘I have invented countless things that would prove of great value to many people. And that presents me with a dilemma. I must ask myself, with each invention, what possible abuses await such an object? More often than not, I conclude that those abuses outweigh the value of the invention. I call this Dev’s First Law of Invention.’

‘You are obsessed with laws.’

‘Perhaps. In any case, the law is simple, as all true laws must be—’

‘You have a law for that, too?’

‘Founding principle, rather than law. In any case, ethics are the first consideration of an inventor following a particular invention.’

‘You call that simple?’

‘The statement is, the consideration is not.’

‘Now that sounds more like a true law.’

She closed her mouth after a moment, then rose and walked over to the scriber’s desk, sat and collected a stylus and a wax tablet. ‘I distrust philosophy,’ she said as she wrote. ‘Even so, I will not turn away from the subject … when it slaps me in the face. Nor am I particularly eloquent as a writer. I am better suited to manipulating objects than words. You, on the other hand, seem to possess an unexpected talent for … uh … cogent brevity.’

‘You talk too much.’

‘No doubt.’ She finished recording her own unexpectedly profound words – profound only in that Karsa Orlong had recognized a far vaster application than she had intended. She paused, wanting to dismiss his genius as blind chance, or even the preening false wisdom of savage nobility. But something whispered to her that Karsa Orlong had been underestimated before, and she vowed not to leap into the same pit. Setting the stylus down, she rose to her feet. ‘I am off to examine the demon you killed. Will you accompany me?’

‘No, I had a close enough examination the first time.’

She collected the leather satchel containing her surgical instruments. ‘Stay inside, please, and try not to break anything.’

‘How can you call yourself an inventor if you dislike breaking things?’

At the door, she paused and glanced back at him. His head was brushing the ceiling in this, the highest chamber in her tower. There was something … there in his eyes. ‘Try not to break any of my things.’

‘Very well. But I am hungry. Bring more food.’

The reptilian corpse was lying on the floor of one of the torture chambers situated in the palace crypts. A retired Avower had been given the task of standing guard. Samar Dev found him asleep in one comer of the room. Leaving him to his snores, she stationed around the huge demon’s body the four lit lanterns she had brought down from above, then settled onto her knees and untied the flap of her satchel, withdrawing a variety of polished surgical instruments. And, finally, her preparations complete, she swung her attention to the corpse.

Teeth, jaws, forward-facing eyes, all the makings of a superior carnivore, likely an ambush hunter. Yet, this was no simple river lizard. Behind the orbital ridges the skull swept out broad and long, with massive occipital bulges, the sheer mass of the cranial region implying intelligence. Unless, of course, the bone was absurdly thick.

She cut away the torn and bruised skin to reveal broken fragments of that skull. Not so thick, then. Indentations made it obvious that Karsa Orlong had used his fists. In which, it was clear, there was astonishing strength, and an equally astonishing will. The brain beneath, marred with broken vessels and blood leakage and pulped in places by the skull pieces, was indeed large, although arranged in a markedly different manner from a human’s. There were more lobes, for one thing. Six more, in all, positioned beneath heavy ridged projections out to the sides, including two extra vessel-packed masses connected by tissue to the eyes. Suggesting these demons saw a different world, a more complete one, perhaps.

Samar extracted one mangled eye and was surprised to find two lenses, one concave, the other convex. She set those aside for later examination.

Cutting through the tough, scaled hide, she opened the neck regions, confirming the oversized veins and arteries necessary to feed an active brain, then continued on to reveal the chest region. Many of the ribs were already broken. She counted four lungs and two proto-lungs attached beneath them, these latter ones saturated with blood.

She cut through the lining of the first of three stomachs, then moved quickly back as the acids poured out. The blade of her knife sizzled and she watched as pitting etched into the iron surface. More hissing sounds, from the stone floor. Her eyes began watering.

Movement from the stomach, and Samar rose and took a step back. Worms were crawling out. A score, wriggling then dropping to the muddy stone. The colour of blued iron, segmented, each as long as an index finger. She glanced down at the crumbling knife in her hand and dropped the instrument, then collected wooden tongs from her satchel, moved to the edge of the acid pool, reached down and retrieved one of the worms.

Not a worm. Hundreds of legs, strangely finned, and, even more surprising, the creatures were mechanisms. Not living at all, the metal of their bodies somehow impervious to the acids. The thing twisted about in the grip of the tongs, then stopped moving. She shook it, but it had gone immobile, like a crooked nail. An infestation? She did not think so. No, there were many creatures that worked in concert. The pond of stomach acid had been home to these mechanisms, and they in turn worked in some fashion to the demon’s benefit.

A hacking cough startled her, and she turned to see the Avower stumble to his feet. Hunched, twisted with arthritis, he shambled over. ‘Samar Dev, the witch! What’s that smell? Not you, I hope. You and me, we’re the same sort, aren’t we just?’

‘We are?’

‘Oh yes, Samar Dev.’ He scratched at his crotch. ‘We strip the layers of humanity, down to the very bones, but where does humanity end and animal begin? When does pain defeat reason? Where hides the soul and to where does it flee when all hope in the flesh is lost? Questions to ponder, for such as you and me. Oh how I have longed to meet you, to share knowledge—’

‘You’re a torturer.’

‘Someone has to be,’ he said, offended. ‘In a culture that admits the need for torture, there must perforce be a torturer. A culture, Samar Dev, that values the acquisition of truths more than it does any single human life. Do you see? Oh,’ he added, edging closer to frown down at the demon’s corpse, ‘the justifications are always the same. To save many more lives, this one must be surrendered. Sacrificed. Even the words used disguise the brutality. Why are torture chambers in the crypts? To mask the screams? True enough, but there’s more. This,’ he said, waving one gnarled hand, ‘is the nether realm of humanity, the rotted heart of unpleasantness.’

‘I am seeking answers from something already dead. It is not the same—’

‘Details. We are questioners, you and I. We slice back the armour to uncover the hidden truth. Besides, I’m retired. They want me to train another, you know, now that the Malazan laws have been struck down and torture’s popular once more. But, the fools they send me! Ah, what is the point? Now, Falah’d Krithasanan, now he was something – you were likely just a child, then, or younger even. My, how he liked torturing people. Not for truths – he well understood that facile rubbish for what it was – facile rubbish. No, the greater questions interested him. How far along can a soul be dragged, trapped still within its broken body, how far? How far until it can no longer crawl back? This was my challenge, and oh how he appreciated my artistry!’

Samar Dev looked down to see that the rest of the mechanisms had all ceased to function. She placed the one she had retrieved in a small leather pouch, then repacked her kit, making sure to include the eye lenses. She’d get them to burn the rest of the body – well away from the city, and upwind.

‘Will you not dine with me?’

‘Alas, I cannot. I have work to do.’

‘If only they’d bring your guest down here. Toblakai. Oh, he would be fun, wouldn’t he?’

She paused. ‘I doubt I could talk him into it, Avower.’

‘The Falah’d has been considering it, you know.’

‘No, I didn’t know. I think it would be a mistake.’

‘Well, those things are not for us to question, are they?’

‘Something tells me Toblakai would be delighted to meet you, Avower. Although it would be a short acquaintance.’

‘Not if I have my way, Samar Dev!’

‘Around Karsa Orlong, I suspect, only Karsa Orlong has his way.’

She returned to find the Teblor warrior poring over her collection of maps, which he’d laid out on the floor in the hallway. He had brought in a dozen votive candles, now lit and set out around him. He held one close as he perused the precious parchments. Without looking up, he said, ‘This one here, witch. The lands and coast west and north … I was led to believe the Jhag Odhan was unbroken, that the plains ran all the way to the far-lands of Nemil and the Trell, yet here, this shows something different.’

‘If you burn holes in my maps,’ Samar Dev said, ‘I will curse you and your bloodline for all eternity.’

‘The Odhan sweeps westward, it seems, but only in the south. There are places of ice marked here. This continent looks too vast. There has been a mistake.’

‘Possibly,’ she conceded. ‘Since that is the one direction I have not travelled, I can make no claim as to the map’s accuracy. Mind you, that one was etched by Othun Dela Farat, a century ago. He was reputed to be reliable.’

‘What of this region of lakes?’ he asked, pointing to the northerly bulge along the coast, west of Yath Alban.

She set her equipment down, then, sighing, she crouched at his side. ‘Difficult to cross. The bedrock is exposed there, badly folded, pocked with lakes and only a few, mostly impassable rivers. The forest is spruce, fir and pine, with low-lying thickets in the basins.’

‘How do you know all that if you have never been there?’

She pointed. ‘I am reading Dela’s notes, there, along the border. He also says he found signs suggesting there were people living there, but no contact was ever made. Beyond lies the island kingdom of Sepik, now a remote subject of the Malazan Empire, although I would be surprised if the Malazans ever visited. The king was clever enough to send delegates proposing conditions of surrender, and the Emperor simply accepted.’

‘The mapmaker hasn’t written that much.’

‘No, some of that information was mine. I have heard, now and then, certain odd stories about Sepik. There are, it seems, two distinct populations, one the subject of the other.’ She shrugged at his blank look. ‘Such things interest me.’ Then frowned, as it became obvious that the distant expression on the giant’s tattooed visage was born of something other than indifference. ‘Is something wrong?’

Karsa Orlong bared his teeth. ‘Tell me more of this Sepik.’

‘I am afraid I have exhausted my knowledge.’

Scowling at her answer, he hunched down over the map once more. ‘I shall need supplies. Tell me, is the weather the same as here?’

‘You are going to Sepik?’

‘Yes. Tell the Falah’d that I demand equipment, two extra horses, and five hundred crescents in silver. Dried foods, more waterskins. Three javelins and a hunting bow with thirty arrows, ten of them bird-pointed. Six extra bowstrings and a supply of fletching, a brick of wax—’

‘Wait! Wait, Karsa Orlong. Why would the Falah’d simply gift you all these things?’

‘Tell him, if he does not, I will stay in this city.’

‘Ah, I see.’ She considered for a time, then asked, ‘Why are you going to Sepik?’

He began rolling up the map. ‘I want this one—’

‘Sorry, no. It is worth a fortune—’

‘I will return it.’

‘No, Karsa Orlong.’ She straightened. ‘If you are prepared to wait, I will copy it – on hide, which is more resilient—’

‘How long will that take?’

‘I don’t know. A few days …’

‘Very well, but I am getting restless, witch.’ He handed her the rolled-up map and walked into the other chamber.

‘And hungry.’

She stooped once more to gather in the other maps. The candles she left alone. Each one was aspected to a local, minor god, and the flames had, one and all, drawn the attention of the host of spirits. This hallway was crowded with presences, making the air taut, bridling, since many of them counted others as enemies. Yet, she suspected, it had been more than just the flickering flames that had earned the regard of the spirits. Something about Toblakai himself …

There were mysteries, she believed, swirling in Karsa Orlong’s history. And now, the spirits drawn close, close and … frightened …

‘Ah,’ she whispered, ‘I see no choice in the matter. None at all …’ She drew out a belt-knife, spat on the blade, then began waving the iron through the flame of each candle.

The spirits howled in her mind, outraged at this unexpected, brutal imprisonment. She nodded. ‘Yes, we mortals are cruel …’

‘Three leagues,’ Quick Ben said under his breath.

Kalam scratched at the stubble on his chin. Some old wounds – that enkar’al at the edge of the Whirlwind’s wall had torn him up pretty bad – were aching after the long forced march back towards the Fourteenth Army. After what they had seen in the warren, no-one was in the mood to complain, however. Even Stormy had ceased his endless griping. The squad was hunkered down behind the assassin and the High Mage, motionless and virtually invisible in the darkness.

‘So,’ Kalam mused, ‘do we wait for them here, or do we keep walking?’

‘We wait,’ Quick Ben replied. ‘I need the rest. In any case, we all more or less guessed right, and the trail isn’t hard to follow. Leoman’s reached Y’Ghatan and that’s where he’ll make his stand.’

‘And us with no siege equipment to speak of.’

The wizard nodded. ‘This could be a long one.’

‘Well, we’re used to that, aren’t we?’

‘I keep forgetting, you weren’t at Coral.’

Kalam settled down with his back against the ridge’s slope and pulled free a flask. He drank then handed it to the High Mage. ‘As bad as the last day at Pale?’

Quick Ben sipped, then made a face. ‘This is water.’

‘Of course it is.’

‘Pale … we weren’t fighting anyone. Just collapsing earth and raining rocks.’

‘So, the Bridgeburners went down fighting.’

‘Most of Onearm’s Host went down fighting,’ Quick Ben said. ‘Even Whiskeyjack,’ he added. ‘His leg gave out under him. Mallet won’t forgive himself for that, and I can’t say I’m surprised.’ He shrugged in the gloom. ‘It was messy. A lot went wrong, as usual. But Kallor turning on us … that we should have foreseen.’

‘I’ve got a space on my blade for a notch in his name,’ Kalam said, retrieving the flask.

‘You’re not the only one, but he’s not an easy man to kill.’

Sergeant Gesler edged into view. ‘Saw you two passing something.’

‘Just water,’ Kalam said.

‘The last thing I wanted to hear. Well, don’t mind me.’

‘We were discussing the siege to come,’ the assassin said. ‘Could be a long one.’

‘Even so,’ Gesler said with a grunt, ‘Tavore’s a patient woman. We know that much about her, anyway.’

‘Nothing else?’ Quick Ben asked.

‘You’ve talked with her more than any of us, High Mage. She keeps her distance. No-one really seems to know what she is, behind the title of Adjunct. noble-born, aye, and from Unta. From House Paran.’

Kalam and Quick Ben exchanged glances, then the assassin pulled out a second flask. ‘This one ain’t water,’ he said, tossing it to the sergeant. ‘We knew her brother. Ganoes Paran. He was attached to the Bridgeburners, rank as captain, just before we infiltrated Darujhistan.’

‘He led the squads into Coral,’ Quick Ben said.

‘And died?’ Gesler asked after pulling at the flask.

‘Most everyone died,’ answered the High Mage. ‘At any rate, he wasn’t an embarrassment as far as officers go. As for Tavore, well, I’m in the dark as much as the rest of you. She’s all edges, but they’re for keeping people away, not cutting them. At least from what I’ve seen.’

‘She’s going to start losing soldiers at Y’Ghatan,’ Kalam said.

No-one commented on that observation. Different commanders reacted in different ways to things like that. Some just got stubborn and threw more and more lives away. Others flinched back and if nothing then happened, the spirit of the army drained away. Sieges were battles of will, for the most part, along with cunning. Leoman had shown a capacity for both in this long pursuit west of Raraku. Kalam wasn’t sure what Tavore had shown at Raraku – someone else had done most of the killing for her, for the entire Fourteenth, in fact.

Ghosts. Bridgeburners … ascended. Gods, what a chilling thought. They were all half-mad when alive, and now … ‘Quick,’ Kalam said, ‘those ghosts at Raraku … where are they now?’

‘No idea. Not with us, though.’

‘Ghosts,’ Gesler said. ‘So the rumours were true – it wasn’t no sorcerous spell that slaughtered the Dogslayers. We had unseen allies – who were they?’ He paused, then spat. ‘You both know, don’t you, and you’re not telling. Fiddler knows, too, doesn’t he? Never mind. Everybody’s got secrets and don’t bother asking me to share mine. So that’s that.’ He handed the flask back. ‘Thanks for the donkey piss, Kalam.’

They listened as he crawled back to rejoin his squad.

‘Donkey piss?’ Quick Ben asked.

‘Ground-vine wine, and he’s right, it tastes awful. I found it at the Dogslayer camp. Want some?’

‘Why not? Anyway, when I said the ghosts weren’t with us, I think I was telling the truth. But something is following the army.’

‘Well, that’s just great.’

‘I’m not—’

‘Hush! I hear—’

Figures rose from behind the ridge. Gleaming, ancient armour, axes and scimitars, barbaric, painted faces – Khundryl Burned Tears. Swearing, Kalam settled back down, re -sheathing his long-knives. ‘That was a stupid move, you damned savages—’

One spoke: ‘Come with us.’

Three hundred paces up the road waited a number of riders, among them the Adjunct Tavore. Flanked by the troop of Khundryl Burned Tears, Kalam, Quick Ben and Gesler and his squad approached the group.

The misshapen moon now cast down a silvery light on the land – it was looking rougher round the edges, Kalam realized, as if the surrounding darkness was gnawing at it – he wondered that he’d not noticed before. Had it always been like that?

‘Good evening, Adjunct,’ Quick Ben said as they arrived.

‘Why have you returned?’ she demanded. ‘And why are you not in the Imperial Warren?’

With Tavore were the Fists, the Wickan Temul, Blistig, Keneb and Tene Baralta, as well as Nil and Nether. They looked, one and all, to have been recently roused from sleep, barring the Adjunct herself.

Quick Ben shifted uneasily. ‘The warren was being used … by something else. We judged it unsafe, and we concluded you should be told of that as soon as possible. Leoman is now in Y’Ghatan.’

‘And you believe he will await us there?’

‘Y’Ghatan,’ Kalam said, ‘is a bitter memory to most Malazans – those that care to remember, anyway. It is where the First—’

‘I know, Kalam Mekhar. You need not remind me of that. Very well, I shall assume your assessment is correct. Sergeant Gesler, please join the Khundryl pickets.’

The marine’s salute was haphazard, his expression mocking.

Kalam watched Tavore’s eyes follow the sergeant and his squad as they headed off. Then she fixed her gaze on Quick Ben once more.

‘High Mage.’

He nodded. ‘There were … Moon’s Spawns in the Imperial Warren. Ten, twelve came into sight before we retreated.’

‘Hood take us,’ Blistig muttered. ‘Floating fortresses? Has that white-haired bastard found more of them?’

‘I don’t think so, Fist,’ Quick Ben said. ‘Anomander Rake has settled in Black Coral, now, and he abandoned Moon’s Spawn, since it was falling to pieces. No, I believe the ones we saw in the warren have their, uh, original owners inside.’

‘And who might they be?’ Tavore asked.

‘K’Chain Che’Malle, Adjunct. Long-Tails or Short-Tails. Or both.’

‘And why would they be using the Imperial Warren?’

‘I don’t know,’ Quick Ben admitted. ‘But I have some notions.’

‘Let us hear them.’

‘It’s an old warren, effectively dead and abandoned, although, of course, not nearly as dead or abandoned as it first seems. Now, there is no known warren attributed to the K’Chain Che’Malle, but that does not mean one never existed.’

‘You believe the Imperial Warren was originally the K’Chain Che’Malle warren?’

The High Mage shrugged. ‘It’s possible, Adjunct.’

‘What else?’

‘Well, wherever the fortresses are going, they don’t want to be seen.’

‘Seen by whom?’

‘That I don’t know.’

The Adjunct studied the High Mage for a long moment, then she said, ‘I want you to find out. Take Kalam and Gesler’s squad. Return to the Imperial Warren.’

The assassin slowly nodded to himself, not at all surprised at this insane, absurd command. Find out? Precisely how?

‘Have you any suggestions,’ Quick Ben asked, his voice now strangely lilting, as it always was when he struggled against speaking his mind, ‘on how we might do that?’

‘As High Mage, I am certain you can think of some.’

‘May I ask, why is this of particular importance to us, Adjunct?’

‘The breaching of the Imperial Warren is important to all who would serve the Malazan Empire, would you not agree?’

‘I would, Adjunct, but are we not engaged in a military campaign here? Against the last rebel leader in Seven Cities? Are you not about to lay siege to Y’Ghatan, wherein the presence of a High Mage, not to mention the empire’s most skilled assassin, might prove pivotal to your success?’

‘Quick Ben,’ Tavore said coolly, ‘the Fourteenth Army is quite capable of managing this siege without your assistance, or that of Kalam Mekhar.’

All right, that clinches it. She knows about our clandestine meeting with Dujek Onearm and Tayschrenn. And she does not trust us. Probably with good reason.

‘Of course,’ Quick Ben said, with a modest bow. ‘I trust the Burned Tears can resupply our soldiers, then. I request we be permitted to rest until dawn.’


The High Mage turned away, his eyes momentarily meeting Kalam’s own. Aye, Quick, she wants me as far away from her back as possible. Well, this was the Malazan Empire, after all. Laseen’s empire, to be more precise. But Tavore, it’s not me you have to worry about …

At that moment a figure emerged from the darkness, approaching from one side of the road. Green silks, graceful motion, a face very nearly ethereal in the moonlight. ‘Ah, a midnight assignation! I trust all matters of grave import have already been addressed.’

Pearl. Kalam grinned at the man, one hand making a gesture that only another Claw would understand.

Seeing it, Pearl winked.

Soon, you bastard.

Tavore wheeled her horse round. ‘We are done here.’

‘Might I ride double with one of you?’ Pearl asked the assembled Fists.

None replied, and moments later they were cantering up the road.

Pearl coughed delicately in the dust. ‘How rude.’

‘You walked out here,’ Quick Ben said, ‘you can walk back in, Claw.’

‘It seems I have no choice.’ A fluttering wave of a gloved hand. ‘Who knows when we’ll meet again, my friends. But until then … good hunting …’ He walked off.

Now how much did he hear? Kalam took a half-step forward, but Quick Ben reached out and restrained him.

‘Relax, he was just fishing. I sensed him circling closer – you had him very nervous, Kal.’


‘Not really. It means he isn’t stupid.’

‘True. Too bad.’

‘Anyway,’ Quick Ben said, ‘you and me and Gesler have to come up with a way to hitch a ride on one of those fortresses.’

Kalam turned his head. Stared at his friend. ‘That wasn’t a joke, was it?’

‘I’m afraid not.’

Joyful Union was basking in the sun as it dined, ringed in by stones, with Bottle lying close by and studying the way it fed as the scorpion snipped apart the capemoth he had given it for breakfast, when a military issue boot crunched down on the arachnid, the heel twisting.

Bottle jerked back in dumbfounded horror, stared up at the figure standing over him, a surge of murderous intent filling his being.

Backlit by the morning light, the figure was little more than a silhouette.

‘Soldier,’ the voice was a woman’s, the accent Korelri, ‘which squad is this?’

Bottle’s mouth opened and closed a few times, then he said in a low tone, ‘This is the squad that will start making plans to kill you, once they find out what you’ve just done.’

‘Allow me,’ she said, ‘to clarify matters for you, soldier. I am Captain Faradan Sort, and I cannot abide scorpions. Now, I want to see how well you manage a salute while lying down.’

‘You want a salute, Captain? Which one? I have plenty of salutes to choose from. Any preference?’

‘The salute that tells me you have just become aware of the precipice I am about to kick your ass over. After I shove the sack of bricks up it, of course.’

Oh. ‘Standard salute, then. Of course, Captain.’ He arched his back and managed to hold the salute for a few heartbeats … waiting for her to respond, which she did not. Gasping, he collapsed back down, inhaling a mouthful of dust.

‘We will try that again later, soldier. Your name?’

‘Uh, Smiles, sir.’

‘Well, I doubt I will see many of those on your ugly face, will I?’

‘No, sir.’

She then walked on.

Bottle stared down at the mashed, glittering pulp that had been Joyful Union and half a capemoth. He wanted to cry.


Strings glanced up, noted the torc on the arm, and slowly climbed to his feet. He saluted, studying the tall, straightbacked woman standing before him. ‘Sergeant Strings, Captain. Fourth Squad.’

‘Good. You are mine, now. My name is Faradan Sort.’

‘I was wondering when you’d show up, sir. The replacements have been here for days, after all.’

‘I was busy. Do you have a problem with that, Sergeant?’

‘No, sir, not one.’

‘You are a veteran, I see. You might think that fact yields some relief on my part. It does not. I do not care where you have been, who you served under, or how many officers you knifed in the back. All I care about is how much you know about fighting.’

‘Never knifed a single officer, sir … in the back. And I don’t know a damned thing about fighting, except surviving it.’

‘That will do. Where are the rest of my squads?’

‘Well, you’re missing one. Gesler’s. They’re on a reconnaissance mission, no idea when they’ll be back. Borduke’s squad is over there.’ He pointed. ‘With Cord’s just beyond. The rest you’ll find here and there.’

‘You do not bivouac together?’

‘As a unit? No.’

‘You will from now on.’

‘Yes sir.’

She cast her eyes over the soldiers still sprawled in sleep around the hearth. ‘The sun is up. They should be awake, fed and equipped for the march by now.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘So … wake them.’

‘Yes sir.’

She started to walk off, then turned and added, ‘You have a soldier named Smiles in your squad, Sergeant Strings?’

‘I have.’

‘Smiles is to carry a double load today.’


‘You heard me.’

He watched her leave, then swung about and looked down at his soldiers. All were awake, their eyes on him.

‘What did I do?’ Smiles demanded.

Strings shrugged. ‘She’s a captain, Smiles.’


‘So, captains are insane. At least, this one is, which proves my claim. Wouldn’t you agree, Cuttle?’

‘Oh yes, Strings. Raving wide-eyed insane.’

‘A double load!’

Bottle stumbled into the camp, in his cupped hands a mangled mess. ‘She stepped on Joyful Union!’

‘Well, that settles it,’ Cuttle said, grunting as he sat up. ‘She’s dead.’

Fist Keneb strode into his tent, unstrapping his helm and pulling it free to toss it on the cot, then paused upon seeing a tousled head lift clear of the opened travel trunk at the back wall. ‘Grub! What were you doing in there?’

‘Sleeping. She is not stupid, no. They are coming, to await the resurrection.’ He clambered out of the trunk, dressed, as ever, in ragged leathers, Wickan in style yet badly worn. The childish roundness of his cheeks had begun to thin, hinting at the man he would one day become.

‘She? Do you mean the Adjunct? Who is coming? What resurrection?’

‘They will try to kill her. But that is wrong. She is our last hope. Our last hope. I’m going to find something to eat, we’re marching to Y’Ghatan.’ He rushed past Keneb. Outside the tent, dogs barked. The Fist pulled the flap aside and stepped out to see Grub hurrying down the aisle between the tents, flanked by the Wickan cattle-dog, Bent, and the Hengese lapdog, Roach. Soldiers deferentially moved aside to let them pass.

The Fist headed back inside. A baffling child. He sat down on the cot, stared at nothing in particular.

A siege. Ideally, they needed four or five thousand more soldiers, five or six Untan catapults and four towers. Ballistae, mangonels, onagers, scorpions, wheeled rams and ladders. Perhaps a few more units of sappers, with a few wagons loaded with Moranth munitions. And High Mage Quick Ben.

Had it been just a matter of pride, sending the wizard away? The meetings with Dujek Onearm had been strained. Tavore’s refusal of assistance beyond a contingent of replacements from Quon Tali made little sense. Granted, Dujek had plenty to occupy himself and his Host, reinforcing garrisons and pacifying recalcitrant towns and cities. Then again, the arrival of Admiral Nok and a third of the imperial fleet in the Maadil Sea had done much to quell rebellious tendencies among the locals. And Keneb suspected that the anarchy, the horrors, of the rebellion itself was as much a force for pacification as any military presence.

A scratch against the outer wall of his tent. ‘Enter.’

Blistig ducked under the flap. ‘Good, you’re alone. Tene Baralta has been speaking with Warleader Gall. Look, we knew a siege was likely—’

‘Blistig,’ Keneb cut in, ‘this isn’t right. The Adjunct leads the Fourteenth Army. She was commanded to crush the rebellion, and she is doing just that. Fitting that the final spark should be snuffed out at Y’Ghatan, the mythical birthplace of the Apocalypse—’

‘Aye, and we’re about to feed that myth.’

‘Only if we fail.’

‘Malazans die at Y’Ghatan. That city burned to the ground that last siege. Dassem Ultor, the company of the First Sword. The First Army, the Ninth. Eight, ten thousand soldiers? Y’Ghatan drinks Malazan blood, and its thirst is endless.’

‘Is this what you’re telling your officers, Blistig?’

The man walked over to the trunk, tipped down the lid, and sat. ‘Of course not. Do you think me mad? But, gods, man, can’t you feel this growing dread?’

‘The same as when we were marching on Raraku,’ Keneb said, ‘and the resolution was frustrated, and that is the problem. The only problem, Blistig. We need to blunt our swords, we need that release, that’s all.’

‘She should never have sent Quick Ben and Kalam away. Who gives a rhizan’s squinting ass what’s going on in the Imperial Warren?’

Keneb looked away, wishing he could disagree. ‘She must have her reasons.’

‘I’d like to hear them.’

‘Why did Baralta speak with Gall?’

‘We’re all worried, is why, Keneb. We want to corner her, all the Fists united on this, and force some answers. Her reasons for things, some real sense of how she thinks.’

‘No. Count me out. We haven’t even reached Y’Ghatan yet. Wait and see what she has in mind.’

Blistig rose with a grunt. ‘I’ll pass your suggestions along, Keneb. Only, well, it ain’t just the soldiers who are frustrated.’

‘I know. Wait and see.’

After he had left, Keneb settled back on the cot. Outside, he could hear the sounds of tents being struck, equipment packed away, the distant lowing of oxen. Shouts filled the morning air as the army roused itself for another day of marching. Burned Tears, Wickans, Seti, Malazans. What can this motley collection of soldiers do? We are facing Leoman of the Flails, dammit. Who’s already bloodied our noses. Mind you, hit-and-run tactics are one thing, a city under siege is another. Maybe he’s as worried as we are.

A comforting thought. Too bad he didn’t believe a word of it.

The Fourteenth had been kicked awake and was now swarming with activity. Head pounding, Sergeant Hellian sat on the side of the road. Eight days with this damned miserable army and that damned tyrant of a captain, and now she was out of rum. The three soldiers of her undersized squad were packing up the last of their kits, none daring to address their hungover, murderously inclined sergeant.

Bitter recollections of the event that had triggered all this haunted Hellian. A temple of slaughter, the frenzy of priests, officials and investigators, and the need to send all witnesses as far away as possible, preferably into a situation they would not survive. Well, she couldn’t blame them – no, wait, of course she could. The world was run by stupid people, that was the truth of it. Twenty-two followers of D’rek had been butchered in their own temple, in a district that had been her responsibility – but patrols were never permitted inside any of the temples, so she could have done nothing to prevent it in any case. But no, that wasn’t good enough. Where had the killers gone, Sergeant Hellian? And why didn’t you see them leave? And what about that man who accompanied you, who then vanished?

Killers. There weren’t any. Not natural ones. A demon, more likely, escaped from some secret ritual, a conjuration gone awry. The fools killed themselves, and that was the way of it. The man had been some defrocked priest from another temple, probably a sorcerer. Once he figured out what had happened, he’d hightailed it out of there, leaving her with the mess.

Not fair, but what did fairness have to do with anything?

Urb lowered his massive bulk in front of her. ‘We’re almost ready, Sergeant.’

‘You should’ve strangled him.’

‘I wanted to. Really.’

‘Did you? Truth?’


‘But then he slipped away,’ Hellian said. ‘Like a worm.’

‘Captain wants us to join the rest of the squads in her company. They’re up the road some. We should get going before the march begins.’

She looked over at the other two soldiers. The twins, Brethless and Touchy. Young, lost – well, maybe not young in years, but young anyway. She doubted they could fight their way out of a midwives’ picnic – though, granted, she’d heard those could be rough events, especially if some fool pregnant woman wandered in. Oh, well, that was Kartool, city of spiders, city that crunched underfoot, city of webs and worse. They were a long way from any midwives’ picnic.

Out here, spiders floated in the air, but at least they were tiny, easily destroyed with a medium-sized stone. ‘Abyss below,’ she groaned. ‘Find me something to drink.’

Urb handed her a waterskin.

‘Not that, idiot.’

‘Maybe in the company we’re joining …’

She looked up, squinted at him. ‘Good idea. All right, help me up – no, don’t help me up.’ She staggered upright.

‘You all right, Sergeant?’

‘I will be,’ she said, ‘after you take my skull in your hands and crush it flat.’

He frowned. ‘I’d get in trouble if I did that.’

‘Not with me you wouldn’t. Never mind. Touchy, take point.’

‘We’re on a road, Sergeant.’

‘Just do it. Practice.’

‘I won’t be able to see anything,’ the man said. ‘Too many people and things in the way.’

Oh, gods crawling in the Abyss, just let me live long enough to kill that man. ‘You got any problem with taking point, Brethless?’

‘No, Sergeant. Not me.’

‘Good. Do it and let’s get going.’

‘Want me out on flank?’ Touchy asked.

‘Yeah, somewhere past the horizon, you brain-stunted cactus.’

‘It’s not your average scorpion,’ Maybe said, peering close but not too close.

‘It’s damned huge,’ Lutes said. ‘Seen that type before, but never one so … huge.’

‘Could be a freak, and all its brothers and sisters were tiny. Making it lonely and that’s why it’s so mean.’

Lutes stared across at Maybe. ‘Yeah, could be it. You got a real brain in that skull. All right, now, you think it can kill Joyful Union? I mean, there’s two of those …’

‘Well, maybe we need to find another one just like this one.’

‘But I thought all its brothers and sisters were tiny.’

‘Oh, right. Could be it’s got an uncle, or something.’

‘Who’s big.’

‘Huge. Huger than this one.’

‘We need to start looking.’

‘I wouldn’t bother,’ Bottle said from where he sat in the shadow of a boulder, five paces away from the two soldiers of Borduke’s squad.

They started, then Lutes hissed and said, ‘He’s been spying!’

‘Not spying. Grieving.’

‘What for?’ Maybe demanded. ‘We ain’t even arrived at Y’Ghatan yet.’

‘Met our new captain?’

The two looked at each other, then Lutes said, ‘No. Knew one was coming, though.’

‘She’s here. She killed Joyful Union. Under her heel. Crunch!’

Both men jumped. ‘That murderer!’ Maybe said in a growl. He looked down at the scorpion ringed in by stones at his feet. ‘Oh yes, let’s see her try with Sparkle here – he’d get her ankle for sure, right through the boot leather—’

‘Don’t be a fool,’ Bottle said. ‘Anyway, Sparkle’s not a boy. Sparkle’s a girl.’

‘Even better. Girls are meaner.’

‘The smaller ones you always see are the boys. Not as many girls around, but that’s just the way of it. They’re coy. Anyway, you’d better let her go.’

‘Why?’ Lutes demanded. ‘Ain’t no prissy captain going to—’

‘She’d be the least of your problems, Lutes. The males will pick up her distress scent. You’ll have hundreds following you. Then thousands, and they’ll be damned aggressive, if you get my meaning.’

Maybe smiled. ‘Interesting. You sure of that, Bottle?’

‘Don’t get any stupid ideas.’

‘Why not? We’re good at stupid ideas. I mean, uh, well—’

‘What Maybe means,’ Lutes said, ‘is we can think things through. Right through, Bottle. Don’t you worry about us.’

‘She killed Joyful Union. There won’t be any more fights – spread the word, all those squads with new scorpions – let the little ones go.’

‘All right,’ Lutes said, nodding.

Bottle studied the two men. ‘That includes the one you got there.’

‘Sure. We’ll just look at her a while longer, that’s all.’ Maybe smiled again.

Climbing to his feet, Bottle hesitated, then shook his head and walked off, back towards the squad’s camp. The army was almost ready to resume the march. With all the desultory lack of enthusiasm one might expect of an army about to lay siege to a city.

A sky without clouds. Again. More dust, more heat, more sweat. Bloodflies and chigger fleas, and the damned vultures wheeling overhead – as they had been doing since Raraku – but this, he knew, would be the last day of that march. The old road ahead, a few more abandoned hamlets, feral goats in the denuded hills, distant riders tracking them from the ridge.

The others in the squad were on their feet and waiting when he arrived. Bottle saw that Smiles was labouring under two packs. ‘What happened to you?’ he asked her.

The look she turned on him was filled with abject misery. ‘I don’t know. The new captain ordered it. I hate her.’

‘I’m not surprised,’ Bottle said, collecting his own gear and shrugging into the pack’s straps. ‘Is that Strings’s kit you got there?’

‘Not all of it,’ she said. ‘He won’t trust me with the Moranth munitions.’

Thank Oponn for that. ‘The captain been by since?’

‘No. The bitch. We’re going to kill her, you know.’

‘Really. Well, I won’t shed any tears. Who is this “we” anyway?’

‘Me and Cuttle. He’ll distract her, I’ll stick a knife in her back. Tonight.’

‘Fist Keneb will have you strung up, you know.’

‘We’ll make it look like an accident.’

Distant horns sounded. ‘All right, everyone,’ Strings said from the road. ‘Let’s move.’

Groaning wagon wheels, clacking and thumping on the uneven cobbles, rocking in the ruts, the lowing of oxen, thousands of soldiers lurching into motion, the sounds a rising clatter and roar, the first dust swirling into the air.

Koryk fell in alongside Bottle. ‘They won’t do it,’ he said.

‘Do what? Kill the captain?’

‘I got a long look at her,’ he said. ‘She’s not just from Korelri. She’s from the Stormwall.’

Bottle squinted at the burly warrior. ‘How do you know that?’

‘There’s a silver tracing on her scabbard. She was a section commander.’

‘That’s ridiculous, Koryk. First, standing the Wall isn’t something you can just resign from, if what I’ve heard is true. Besides, this woman’s a captain, in the least-prepared Malazan army in the entire empire. If she’d commanded a section against the Stormriders, she’d rank as Fist at the very least.’

‘Only if she told people, Bottle, but that tracing tells another story.’

Two strides ahead of them, Strings turned his head to regard them. ‘So, you saw it too, Koryk.’

Bottle swung round to Smiles and Cuttle. ‘You two hearing this?’

‘So?’ Smiles demanded.

‘We heard,’ Cuttle said, his expression sour. ‘Maybe she just looted that scabbard from somewhere … but I don’t think that’s likely. Smiles, lass, we’d best put our plans on a pyre and strike a spark.’

‘Why?’ she demanded. ‘What’s this Stormwall mean, anyway? And how come Koryk thinks he knows so much? He doesn’t know anything, except maybe the back end of a horse and that only in the dark. Look at all your faces – I’m saddled with a bunch of cowards!’

‘Who plan on staying alive,’ Cuttle said.

‘Smiles grew up playing in the sand with farm boys,’ Koryk said, shaking his head. ‘Woman, listen to me. The Stormwall is leagues long, on the north coast of Korelri. It stands as the only barricade between the island continent and the Stormriders, those demonic warriors of the seas between Malaz Island and Korelri – you must have heard of them?’

‘Old fishers’ tales.’

‘No, all too real,’ Cuttle said. ‘I seen them myself, plying those waters. Their horses are the waves. They wield lances of ice. We slit the throats of six goats to paint the water in appeasement.’

‘And it worked?’ Bottle asked, surprised.

‘No, but tossing the cabin boy over the side did.’

‘Anyway,’ Koryk said after a moment of silence, ‘only chosen warriors are given the task of standing the Wall. Fighting those eerie hordes. It’s an endless war, or at least it was …’

‘It’s over?’

The Seti shrugged.

‘So,’ Smiles said, ‘what’s she doing here? Bottle’s right, it doesn’t make sense.’

‘You could ask her,’ Koryk replied, ‘assuming you survive this day’s march.’

‘This isn’t so bad,’ she sniffed.

‘We’ve gone a hundred paces, soldier,’ Strings called back. ‘So best save your breath.’

Bottle hesitated, then said to Smiles. ‘Here, give me that – that captain ain’t nowhere about, is she?’

‘I never noticed nothing,’ Strings said without turning round.

‘I can do this—’

‘We’ll spell each other.’

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously, then she shrugged. ‘If you like.’

He took the second pack from her.

‘Thanks, Bottle. At least someone in this squad’s nice to me.’

Koryk laughed. ‘He just doesn’t want a knife in his leg.’

‘We got to stick together,’ Bottle said, ‘now that we got ourselves a tyrant officer over us.’

‘Smart lad,’ Strings said.

‘Still,’ Smiles said, ‘thanks, Bottle.’

He smiled sweetly at her.

‘They’ve stopped moving,’ Kalam muttered. ‘Now why would that be?’

‘No idea,’ Quick Ben said at his side.

They were lying flat on the summit of a low ridge. Eleven Moon’s Spawns hovered in an even row above another rise of hills two thousand paces distant. ‘So,’ the assassin asked, ‘what passes for night in this warren?’

‘It’s on its way, and it isn’t much.’

Kalam twisted round and studied the squad of soldiers sprawled in the dust of the slope behind them. ‘And your plan, Quick?’

‘We make use of it, of course. Sneak up under one—’

‘Sneak up? There’s no cover, there’s nothing to even throw shadows!’

‘That’s what makes it so brilliant, Kalam.’

The assassin reached out and cuffed Quick Ben.

‘Ow. All right, so the plan stinks. You got a better one?’

‘First off, we send this squad behind us back to the Fourteenth. Two people sneaking up is a lot better than eight. Besides, I’ve no doubt they can fight but that won’t be much use with a thousand K’Chain Che’Malle charging down on us. Another thing – they’re so cheery it’s a struggle to keep from dancing.’

At that, Sergeant Gesler threw him a kiss.

Kalam rolled back round and glared at the stationary fortresses.

Quick Ben sighed. Scratched his smooth-shaven jaw. ‘The Adjunct’s orders …’

‘Forget that. This is a tactical decision, it’s in our purview.’

Gesler called up from below, ‘She don’t like us around either, Kalam.’

‘Oh? And why’s that?’

‘She keeps cracking up in our company. I don’t know. We was on the Silanda, you know. We went through walls of fire on that ship.’

‘We’ve all led hard lives, Gesler …’

‘Our purview?’ Quick Ben asked. ‘I like that. You can try it on her, later.’

‘Let’s send them back.’


‘Fine with us. I wouldn’t follow you two into a latrine, begging your sirs’ pardon.’

Stormy added, ‘Just hurry up about it, wizard. I’m getting grey waiting.’

‘That would be the dust, Corporal.’

‘So you say.’

Kalam considered, then said, ‘We could take the hairy Falari with us, maybe. Care to come along, Corporal? As rearguard?’

‘Rearguard? Hey, Gesler, you were right. They are going into a latrine. All right, assuming my sergeant here won’t miss me too much.’

‘Miss you?’ Gesler sneered. ‘Now at least I’ll get women to talk to me.’

‘It’s the beard puts them off,’ Stormy said, ‘but I ain’t changing for nobody.’

‘It’s not the beard, it’s what lives in the beard.’

‘Hood take us,’ Kalam breathed, ‘send them away, Quick Ben, please.’

Four leagues north of Ehrlitan, Apsalar stood facing the sea. The promontory on the other side of A’rath Strait was just visible, rumpling the sunset’s line on the horizon. Kansu Reach, which stretched in a long, narrow arm westward to the port city of Kansu. At her feet prowled two gut-bound skeletons, pecking at grubs in the dirt and hissing in frustration as the mangled insects they attempted to swallow simply fell out beneath their jaws.

Even bone, or the physical remembrance of bone, held power, it seemed. The behaviour patterns of the lizard-birds the creatures once were had begun to infect the ghost spirits of Telorast and Curdle. They now chased snakes, leapt into the air after rhizan and capemoths, duelled each other in dominance contests, strutting, spitting and kicking sand. She believed they were losing their minds.

No great loss. They had been murderous, vile, entirely untrustworthy in their lives. And, perhaps, they had ruled a realm. As usurpers, no doubt. She would not regret their dissolution.

‘Not-Apsalar! Why are we waiting here? We dislike water, we have discovered. The gut bindings will loosen. We’ll fall apart.’

‘We are crossing this strait, Telorast,’ Apsalar said. ‘Of course, you and Curdle may wish to stay behind, to leave my company.’

‘Do you plan on swimming?’

‘No, I intend to use the warren of Shadow.’

‘Oh, that won’t be wet.’

‘No,’ Curdle laughed, prancing around to stand before Apsalar, head bobbing. ‘Not wet, oh, that’s very good. We’ll come along, won’t we, Telorast?’

‘We promised! No, we didn’t. Who said that? We’re just eager to stand guard over your rotting corpse, Not-Apsalar, that’s what we promised. I don’t understand why I get so confused. You have to die eventually. That’s obvious. It’s what happens to mortals, and you are mortal, aren’t you? You must be, you have been bleeding for three days – we can smell it.’

‘Idiot!’ Curdle hissed. ‘Of course she’s mortal, and besides, we were women once, remember? She bleeds because that’s what happens. Not all the time, but sometimes. Regularly. Or not. Except just before she lays eggs, which would mean a male found her, which would mean …’

‘She’s a snake?’ Telorast asked in a droll tone.

‘But she isn’t. What were you thinking, Telorast?’

The sun’s light was fading, the waters of the strait crimson. A lone sail from a trader’s carrack was cutting a path southward into the Ehrlitan Sea. ‘The warren feels strong here,’ Apsalar said.

‘Oh yes,’ Telorast said, bony tail caressing Apsalar’s left ankle. ‘Fiercely manifest. This sea is new.’

‘That is possible,’ she replied, eyeing the jagged cliffs marking the narrows. ‘Are there ruins beneath the waves?’

‘How would we know? Probably. Likely, absolutely. Ruins. Vast cities. Shadow Temples.’

Apsalar frowned. ‘There were no Shadow Temples in the time of the First Empire.’

Curdle’s head dipped, then lifted suddenly. ‘Dessimbelackis, a curse on his multitude of souls! We speak of the time of the Forests. The great forests that covered this land, long before the First Empire. Before even the T’lan Imass—’

‘Shhh!’ Telorast hissed. ‘Forests? Madness! Not a tree in sight, and those who were frightened of shadows never existed. So why would they worship them? They didn’t, because they never existed. It’s a natural ferocity, this shadow power. It’s a fact that the first worship was born of fear. The terrible unknown—’

‘Even more terrible,’ Curdle cut in, ‘when it becomes known! Wouldn’t you say, Telorast?’

‘No I wouldn’t. I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ve been babbling too many secrets, none of which are true in any case. Look! A lizard! It’s mine!’

‘No, mine!’

The two skeletons scrambled along the rocky ledge. Something small and grey darted away.

A wind was picking up, sweeping rough the surface of the strait, carrying with it the sea’s primal scent to flow over the cliff where she stood. Crossing stretches of water, even through a warren, was never a pleasant prospect. Any waver of control could fling her from the realm, whereupon she would find herself leagues from land in dhenrabi-infested waters. Certain death.

She could, of course, choose the overland route. South from Ehrlitan, to Pan’potsun, then skirting the new Raraku Sea westward. But she knew she was running out of time. Cotillion and Shadowthrone had wanted her to take care of a number of small players, scattered here and there inland, but something within her sensed a quickening of distant events, and with it the growing need – a desperate insistence – that she be there without delay. To cast her dagger, to affect, as best she could, a host of destinies.

She assumed Cotillion would understand all of this. That he would trust her instincts, even if she was, ultimately, unable to explain them.

She must … hurry.

A moment’s concentration. And the scene before her was transformed. The cliff now a slope, crowded with collapsed trees, firs, cedars, their roots torn loose from dark earth, the boles flattened as if the entire hillside had been struck by some unimaginable wind. Beneath a leaden sky, a vast forested valley clothed in mist stretched out across what had moments before been the waters of the strait.

The two skeletons pattered up to crowd her feet, heads darting.

‘I told you there’d be a forest,’ Telorast said.

Apsalar gestured at the wreckage on the slope immediately before them. ‘What happened here?’

‘Sorcery,’ Curdle said. ‘Dragons.’

‘Not dragons.’

‘No, not dragons. Telorast is right. Not dragons.’


‘Yes, terrible demons whose very breath is a warren’s gate, oh, don’t jump down those throats!’

‘No breath, Curdle,’ Telorast said. ‘Just demons. Small ones. But lots of them. Pushing trees down, one by one, because they’re mean and inclined to senseless acts of destruction.’

‘Like children.’

‘Right, as Curdle says, like children. Children demons. But strong. Very strong. Huge, muscled arms.’

‘So,’ Apsalar said, ‘dragons fought here.’

‘Yes,’ Telorast said.

‘In the Shadow Realm.’


‘Presumably, the same dragons that are now imprisoned within the stone circle.’


Apsalar nodded, then began making her way down. ‘This will be hard going. I wonder if I will save much time traversing the forest.’

‘Tiste Edur forest,’ Curdle said, scampering ahead. ‘They like their forests.’

‘All those natural shadows,’ Telorast added. ‘Power in permanence. Blackwood, bloodwood, all sorts of terrible things. The Eres were right to fear.’

In the distance a strange darkness was sliding across the treetops. Apsalar studied it. The carrack, casting an ethereal presence into this realm. She was seeing both worlds, a common enough occurrence. Yet, even so … someone is on that carrack. And that someone is important …

T’rolbarahl, ancient creature of the First Empire of Dessimbelackis, Dejim Nebrahl crouched at the base of a dead tree, or, rather, flowed like a serpent round the bleached, exposed roots, seven-headed, seven-bodied and mottled with the colours of the ground, the wood and the rocks. Fresh blood, slowly losing its heat, filled the D’ivers’ stomachs. There had been no shortage of victims, even in this wasteland. Herders, salt-miners, bandits, desert wolves, Dejim Nebrahl had fed continuously on this journey to the place of ambush.

The tree, thick-boled, squat, with only a few twisted branches surviving the centuries since it had died, rose from a crack in the rock between a flat stretch that marked the trail and an upthrust tower of pitted, wind-worn stone. The trail twisted at this point, skirting the edge of a cliff, the drop below ten or more man-heights to boulders and jagged rubble.

On the other side of the trail, more rocks rose, heaped, the stone cracked and shelved.

The D’ivers would strike here, from both sides, lifting free of the shadows.

Dejim Nebrahl was content. Patience easily purchased by fresh meat, the echoing screams of death, and now it need but await the coming of the victims, the ones the Nameless Ones had chosen.

Soon, then.

Plenty of room between the trees, a cathedral of shadows and heavy gloom, the flow of damp air like water against her face as Apsalar jogged onward, flanked by the darting forms of Telorast and Curdle. To her surprise, she was indeed making good time. The ground was surprisingly level and tree-falls seemed nonexistent, as if no tree in this expanse of forest ever died. She had seen no wildlife, had come upon no obvious game trail, yet there had been glades, circular sweeps of moss tightly ringed by evenly spaced cedars, or, if not cedar, then something much like it, the bark rough, shaggy, black as tar. The circles were too perfect to be natural, although no other evidence of intent or design was visible. In these places, the power of shadow was, as Telorast had said, fierce.

Tiste Edur, Kurald Emurlahn, their presence lingered, but only in the same manner as memories clung to graveyards, tombs and barrows. Old dreams snarled and fading in the grasses, in the twist of wood and the crystal latticework of stone. Lost whispers in the winds that ever wandered across such death-laden places. The Edur were gone, but their forest had not forgotten them.

A darkness ahead, something reaching down from the canopy, straight and thin. A rope, as thick round as her wrist, and, resting on the needle-strewn humus of the floor, an anchor.

Directly in her path. Ah, so even as I sensed a presence, so it in turn sensed me. This is, I think, an invitation.

She approached the rope, grasped it in both hands, then began climbing.

Telorast hissed below, ‘What are you doing? No, dangerous intruder! Terrible, terrifying, horrible, cruel-faced stranger! Don’t go up there! Oh, Curdle, look, she’s going.’

‘She’s not listening to us!’

‘We’ve been talking too much, that’s the problem.’

‘You’re right. We should say something important, so she starts listening to us again.’

‘Good thinking, Curdle. Think of something!’

‘I’m trying!’

Their voices faded away as Apsalar continued climbing. Among thick-needled branches now, old cobwebs strung between them, small, glittering shapes scampering about. The leather of her gloves was hot against her palms and her calves were beginning to ache. She reached the first of a series of knots and, planting her feet on it, she paused to rest. Glancing down, she saw nothing but black boles vanishing into mist, like the legs of some giant beast. After a few moments, she resumed her climb. Knots, now, every ten or so arm-lengths. Someone was being considerate.

The ebon hull of the carrack loomed above, crusted with barnacles, glistening. Reaching it, she planted her boots against the dark planks and climbed the last two manheights to where the anchor line ran into a chute in the gunnel. Clambering over the side, she found herself near the three steps leading to the aft deck. Faint smudges of mist, slightly glowing, marked where mortals stood or sat: here and there, near rigging, at the side-mounted steering oar, one perched high among the shrouds. A far more substantial, solid figure was standing before the mainmast.

Familiar. Apsalar searched her memory, her mind rushing down one false trail after another. Familiar … yet not.

With a faint smile on his clean-shaven, handsome face, he stepped forward and held up both hands. ‘I’m not sure which name you go by now. You were little more than a child – was it only a few years ago? Hard to believe.’

Her heart was thudding hard against her chest, and she wondered at the sensation within her. Fear? Yes, but more than that. Guilt. Shame. She cleared her throat. ‘I have named myself Apsalar.’

A quick nod. Recognition, then his expression slowly changed. ‘You do not remember me, do you?’

‘Yes. No, I’m not sure. I should – I know that much.’

‘Difficult times, back then,’ he said, lowering his hands, but slowly, as if unsure how he would be received as he said, ‘Ganoes Paran.’

She drew off her gloves, driven by the need to be doing something, and ran the back of her right hand across her brow, was shocked to see it come away wet, the sweat beading, trickling, suddenly cold on her skin. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘I might ask you the same. I suggest we retire to my cabin. There is wine. Food.’ He smiled again. ‘In fact, I am sitting there right now.’

Her eyes narrowed. ‘It seems you have come into some power, Ganoes Paran.’

‘In a manner of speaking.’

She followed him to the cabin. As he closed the door behind her, his form faded, and she heard movement from the other side of the map-table. Turning, she saw a far less substantial Ganoes Paran. He was pouring wine, and when he spoke the words seemed to come from a vast distance. ‘You had best emerge from your warren now, Apsalar.’

She did so, and for the first time felt the solid wood beneath her, the pitch and sway of a ship at sea.

‘Sit,’ Paran said, gesturing. ‘Drink. There’s bread, cheese, salted fish.’

‘How did you sense my presence?’ she asked, settling into the bolted-down chair nearest her. ‘I was travelling through a forest—’

‘A Tiste Edur forest, yes. Apsalar, I don’t know where to begin. There is a Master of the Deck of Dragons, and you are sharing a bottle of wine with him. Seven months ago I was living in Darujhistan, in the Finnest House, in fact, with two eternally sleeping house-guests and a Jaghut manservant … although he’d likely kill me if he heard that word ascribed to him. Raest is not the most pleasant company.’

‘Darujhistan,’ she murmured, looking away, the glass of wine forgotten in her hand. Whatever confidence she felt she had gained since her time there was crumbling away, assailed by a swarm of disconnected, chaotic memories. Blood, blood on her hands, again and again. ‘I still do not understand …’

‘We are in a war,’ Paran said. ‘Oddly enough, there was something one of my sisters once said to me, when we were young, pitching toy armies against each other. To win a war you must come to know all the players. All of them. Living ones, who will face you across the field. Dead ones, whose legends are wielded like weapons, or held like eternally beating hearts. Hidden players, inanimate players – the land itself, or the sea, if you will. Forests, hills, mountains, rivers. Currents both seen and unseen – no, Tavore didn’t say all that; she was far more succinct, but it’s taken me a long time to fully understand. It’s not “know your enemy”. That’s simplistic and facile. No, it’s “know your enemies”. There’s a big difference, Apsalar, because one of your enemies could be the face in the silver mirror.’

‘Yet now you call them players, rather than enemies,’ she said. ‘Suggesting to me a certain shift in perspective – what comes, yes, of being the Master of the Deck of Dragons?’

‘Huh, I hadn’t thought about that. Players. Enemies. Is there a difference?’

‘The former implies … manipulation.’

‘And you would understand that well.’


‘Does Cotillion haunt you still?’

‘Yes, but not as … intimately.’

‘And now you are one of his chosen servants, an agent of Shadow. An assassin, just like the assassin you once were.’

She levelled her gaze on him. ‘What is your point?’

‘I’m not sure. I’m just trying to find my feet, regarding you, and whatever mission you are on right now.’

‘If you want details of that, best speak with Cotillion yourself.’

‘I am considering it.’

‘Is that why you have crossed an ocean, Ganoes Paran?’

‘No. As I said, we are at war. I was not idle in Darujhistan, or in the weeks before Coral. I was discovering the players … and among them, true enemies.’

‘Of you?’

‘Of peace.’

‘I trust you will kill them all.’

He seemed to wince, looked down at the wine in his glass. ‘For a short time, Apsalar, you were innocent. Naive, even.’

‘Between the possession of a god and my awakening to certain memories.’

‘I was wondering, who created in you such cynicism?’

‘Cynicism? You speak of peace, yet twice you have told me we are at war. You have spent months learning the lie of the battle to come. But I suspect that even you do not comprehend the vastness of the coming conflict, the conflict we are in right now.’

‘You are right. Which is why I wanted to speak with you.’

‘It may be we are on different sides, Ganoes Paran.’

‘Maybe, but I don’t think so.’

She said nothing.

Paran refilled their glasses. ‘The pantheon is splitting asunder. The Crippled God is finding allies.’


‘What? Well … I don’t really know. Compassion?’

‘And is that something the Crippled God has earned?’

‘I don’t know that, either.’

‘Months of study?’ Her brows rose.

He laughed, a response that greatly relieved her.

‘You are likely correct,’ she said. ‘We are not enemies.’

‘By “we” I take it you include Shadowthrone and Cotillion.’

‘As much as is possible, which isn’t as much as I would like. None can fathom Shadowthrone’s mind. Not even Cotillion, I suspect. Certainly not me. But he has shown … restraint.’

‘Yes, he has. Quite surprising, if you think about it.’

‘For Shadowthrone, the pondering of the field of battle has consumed years, maybe decades.’

He grunted, a sour expression on his face. ‘Good point.’

‘What role do you possess, Paran? What role are you seeking to play?’

‘I have sanctioned the Crippled God. A place in the Deck of Dragons. A House of Chains.’

She considered for a time, then nodded. ‘I can see the reason in that. All right, what has brought you to Seven Cities?’

He stared at her, then shook his head. ‘A decision I chewed on for what seemed forever, and you grasp my motives in an instant. Fine. I am here to counter an enemy. To remove a threat. Only, I am afraid I will not get there in time, in which case I will clean up the mess as best I can, before moving on—’

‘To Quon Tali.’

‘How – how did you know that?’

She reached for the brick of cheese, produced a knife from her sleeve and sliced off a piece. ‘Ganoes Paran, we are going to have a rather long conversation now. But first, where do you plan to make landfall?’


‘Good, this will make my journey quicker. Two minuscule companions of mine are even now clambering onto the deck, having ascended via the trees. They will any moment begin hunting rats and other vermin, which should occupy them for some time. As for you and me, let us settle to this meal.’

He slowly leaned back in his chair. ‘We will reach port in two days. Something tells me those two days will fly past like a gull in a gale.’

For me as well, Ganoes Paran.

Ancient memories whispered through Dejim Nebrahl, old stone walls lit red with reflected fire, the cascade of smoke down streets filled with the dead and the dying, the luscious flow of blood in the gutters. Oh, there was a grandness to the First Empire, that first, rough flowering of humanity. The T’rolbarahl were, in Dejim’s mind, the culmination of truly human traits, blended with the strength of beasts. Savagery, the inclination towards vicious cruelty, the cunning of a predator that draws no boundaries and would sooner destroy one of its own kind than another. Feeding the spirit on the torn flesh of children. That stunning exercise of intelligence that could justify any action, no matter how abhorrent.

Mated with talons, dagger-long teeth and the D’ivers gift of becoming many from one … we should have survived, we should have ruled. We were born masters and all humanity were rightly our slaves. If only Dessimbelackis had not betrayed us. His own children.

Well, even among T’rolbarahl, Dejim Nebrahl was supreme. A creation beyond even the First Emperor’s most dread nightmare. Domination, subjugation, the rise of a new empire, this is what awaited Dejim, and oh how he would feed. Bloated, sated by human blood. He would make the new, fledgling gods kneel before him.

Once his task was complete, the world awaited him. No matter its ignorance, its blind disregard. That would all change, so terribly change.

Dejim’s quarry neared, drawn ever so subtly onto this deadly track. Not long now.

The seashell vest glimmered white in the morning light. Karsa Orlong had drawn it from his pack to replace the shredded remnants of the padded leather he had worn earlier. He sat on his tall, lean horse, the blood-spattered, stitched white fur cloak sweeping down from his broad shoulders. Bare-headed, with a lone, thick braid hanging down the right side of his chest, the dark hair knotted with fetishes: finger bones, strips of gold-threaded silk, bestial canines. A row of withered human ears was sewn onto his belt. The huge flint sword was strapped diagonally across his back. Two bone-handled daggers, each as long and broad-bladed as a short sword, were sheathed in the high moccasins that reached to just below his knees.

Samar Dev studied the Toblakai a moment longer, gaze lifting to fix on his tattooed face. The warrior was facing west, his expression unreadable. She turned back to check the tethers of the packhorses once more, then drew herself up and into the saddle. She settled the toes of her boots into the stirrups and gathered the reins. ‘Contrivances,’ she said, ‘that require no food or water, that do not tire or grow lame, imagine the freedom of such a world as that would bring, Karsa Orlong.’

The eyes he set upon her were those of a barbarian, revealing suspicion and a certain animal wariness. ‘People would go everywhere. What freedom in a smaller world, witch?’

Smaller? ‘You do not understand—’

‘The sound of this city is an offence to peace,’ Karsa Orlong said. ‘We leave it, now.’

She glanced back at the palace gate, closed with thirty soldiers guarding it. Hands restless near weapons. ‘The Falah’d seems disinclined for a formal leavetaking. So be it.’

The Toblakai in the lead, they met few obstacles passing through the city, reaching the west gate before the morning’s tenth bell. Initially discomforted by the attention they received from virtually every citizen, on the street and at windows of flanking buildings, Samar Dev had begun to see the allure of notoriety by the time they rode past the silent guards at the gate, enough to offer one of the soldiers a broad smile and a parting wave with one gloved hand.

The road they found themselves on was not one of the impressive Malazan feats of engineering linking the major cities, for the direction they had chosen led … nowhere. West, into the Jhag Odhan, the ancient plains that defied the farmer’s plough, the mythical conspiracy of land, rain and wind spirits, content only with the deep-rooted natural grasses, eager to wither every planted crop to blackened stalks, the soil blown into the sky. One could tame such land for a generation or two, but in the end the Odhan would reclaim its wild mien, fit for naught but bhederin, jackrabbits, wolves and antelope.

Westward, then, for a half-dozen or so days. Whereupon they would come to a long-dead river-bed wending northwestward, the valley sides cut and gnawed by the seasonal run-off from countless centuries past, gnarled now with sage brush and cacti and grey-oaks. Dark hills on the horizon where the sun set, a sacred place, the oldest maps noted, of some tribe so long extinct their name meant nothing.

Out onto the battered road, then, the city falling away behind them. After a time, Karsa glanced back and bared his teeth at her. ‘Listen. That is better, yes?’

‘I hear only the wind.’

‘Better than ten thousand tireless contrivances.’

He turned back, leaving Samar to mull on his words. Inventions cast moral shadows, she well knew, better than most, in fact. But … could simple convenience prove so perniciously evil? The action of doing things, laborious things, repetitive things, such actions invited ritual, and with ritual came meaning that expanded beyond the accomplishment of the deed itself. From such ritual selfidentity emerged, and with it self-worth. Even so, to make life easier must possess some inherent value, mustn’t it?

Easier. Nothing earned, the language of recompense fading away until as lost as that ancient tribe’s cherished tongue. Worth diminished, value transformed into arbitrariness, oh gods below, and I was so bold as to speak of freedom! She kicked her horse forward until she came alongside the Toblakai. ‘But is that all? Karsa Orlong! I ask you, is that all?’

‘Among my people,’ he said after a moment, ‘the day is filled, as is the night.’

‘With what? Weaving baskets, trapping fish, sharpening swords, training horses, cooking, eating, sewing, fucking—’

‘Telling stories, mocking fools who do and say foolish things, yes, all that. You must have visited there, then?’

‘I have not.’

A faint smile, then gone. ‘There are things to do. And, always, witch, ways of cheating them. But no-one truly in their lives is naive.’

‘Truly in their lives?’

‘Exulting in the moment, witch, does not require wild dancing.’

‘And so, without those rituals …’

‘The young warriors go looking for war.’

‘As you must have done.’

Another two hundred paces passed before he said, ‘Three of us, we came to deliver death and blood. Yoked like oxen, we were, to glory. To great deeds and the heavy shackles of vows. We went hunting children, Samar Dev.’


He grimaced. ‘Your kind. The small creatures who breed like maggots in rotting meat. We sought – no, I sought – to cleanse the world of you and your kin. You, the cutters of forests, the breakers of earth, the binders of freedom. I was a young warrior, looking for war.’

She studied the escaped slave tattoo on his face. ‘You found more than you bargained for.’

‘I know all about small worlds. I was born in one.’

‘So, experience has now tempered your zeal,’ she said, nodding. ‘No longer out to cleanse the world of humanity.’

He glanced across and down at her. ‘I did not say that.’

‘Oh. Hard to manage, I would imagine, for a lone warrior, even a Toblakai warrior. What happened to your companions?’

‘Dead. Yes, it is as you say. A lone warrior cannot slay a hundred thousand enemies, even if they are children.’

‘A hundred thousand? Oh, Karsa, that’s barely the population of two Holy Cities. Your enemy does not number in the hundreds of thousands, it numbers in the tens of millions.’

‘That many?’

‘Are you reconsidering?’

He shook his head slowly, clearly amused. ‘Samar Dev, even tens of millions can die, one city at a time.’

‘You will need an army.’

‘I have an army. It awaits my return.’

Toblakai. An army of Toblakai, now that would be a sight to loosen the bladder of the Empress herself. ‘Needless to say, Karsa Orlong, I hope you never make it home.’

‘Hope as you like, Samar Dev. I shall do what needs doing in my own time. None can stop me.’

A statement, not a boast. The witch shivered in the heat.

They approached a range of cliffs marking the Turul’a Escarpment, the sheer face of the limestone pocked with countless caves. Cutter watched Heboric Ghost Hands urge his mount into a canter, drawing ahead, then reining in sharply, the reins cutting into his wrists, a flare of greenish fire blossoming at his hands.

‘Now what?’ the Daru asked under his breath.

Greyfrog bounded forward and halted at the old man’s side.

‘They sense something,’ Felisin Younger said behind Cutter. ‘Greyfrog says the Destriant is suddenly fevered, a return of the jade poison.’

‘The what?’

‘Jade poison, the demon says. I don’t know.’

Cutter looked at Scillara, who rode at his side, head lowered, almost sleeping in the saddle. She’s getting fat. Gods, on the meals we cook? Incredible.

‘His madness returns,’ Felisin said, her voice fearful. ‘Cutter, I don’t like this—’

‘The road cuts through, there.’ He pointed. ‘You can see the notch, beside that tree. We’ll camp just up ahead, at the base, and make the climb tomorrow.’

Cutter in the lead, they rode forward until they reached Heboric Ghost Hands. The Destriant was glaring at the cliff rearing before them, muttering and shaking his head. ‘Heboric?’

A quick, fevered glance. ‘This is the war,’ he said. Green flames flickered across his barbed hands. ‘The old belong to the ways of blood. The new proclaim their own justice.’ The old man’s toadlike face stretched into a ghastly grimace. ‘These two cannot – cannot – be reconciled. It is so simple, do you see? So simple.’

‘No,’ Cutter replied, scowling. ‘I do not see. What war are you talking about? The Malazans?’

‘The Chained One, perhaps he was once of the old kind. Perhaps, yes, he was that. But now, now he is sanctioned. He is of the pantheon. He is new. But then, what are we? Are we of the blood? Or do we bow to the justice of kings, queens, emperors and empresses? Tell me, Daru, is justice written in blood?’

Scillara asked, ‘Are we going to camp or not?’

Cutter looked at her, watched as she pushed rustleaf into the bowl of her pipe. Struck sparks.

‘They can talk all they want,’ Heboric said. ‘Every god must choose. In the war to come. Blood, Daru, bums with fire, yes? Yet … yet, my friend, it tastes of cold iron. You must understand me. I am speaking of what cannot be reconciled. This war – so many lives, lost, all to bury the Elder Gods once and for all. That, my friends, is the heart of this war. The very heart, and all their arguing means nothing. I am done with them. Done with all of you. Treach has chosen. He has chosen. And so must you.’

‘I don’t like choosing,’ Scillara said behind a wreath of smoke. ‘As for blood, old man, that’s a justice you can never put to sleep. Now, let us find a camp site. I’m hungry, tired and saddlesore.’

Heboric slipped down from his horse, gathered the reins, and made his way towards a side track. ‘There’s a hollow in the wall,’ he said. ‘People have camped there for millennia, why not us? One day,’ he added as he continued on, ‘the jade prison shall shatter, and the fools will stumble out, coughing in the ashes of their convictions. And on that day, they will realize that it’s too late. Too late to do a damned thing.’

More sparks and Cutter glanced over to see Felisin Younger lighting her own pipe. The Daru ran a hand through his hair, squinting in the glare of the sun’s light reflecting off the cliff-side. He dismounted. ‘All right,’ he said, leading his horse. ‘Let’s camp.’

Greyfrog bounded after Heboric, clambering over the rock like a bloated lizard.

‘What did he mean?’ Felisin asked Cutter as they made their way along the trail. ‘Blood and Elder Gods – what are Elder Gods?’

‘Old ones, mostly forgotten ones. There’s a temple dedicated to one in Darujhistan, must have stood there a thousand years. The god was named K’rul. The worshippers vanished long ago. But maybe that doesn’t matter.’

Tugging her own horse along in their wake, Scillara stopped listening to Cutter as he went on. Elder gods, new gods, blood and wars, it made little difference to her. She just wanted to rest her legs, ease the aches in her lower back, and eat everything they still had in the saddle-packs.

Heboric Ghost Hands had saved her, drawn her back into life, and that had lodged something like mercy in her heart, stifling her inclination to dismiss the mad old man outright. He was haunted in truth, and such things could drag the sanest mind into chaos. But what value could be found in trying to make sense of all that he said?

The gods, old or new, did not belong to her. Nor did she belong to them. They played their ascendancy games as if the outcome mattered, as if they could change the hue of the sun, the voice of the wind, as if they could make forests grow in deserts and mothers love their children enough to keep them. The rules of mortal flesh were all that mattered, the need to breathe, to eat, drink, to find warmth in the cold of night. And, beyond these struggles, when the last breath had been taken inside, well, she would be in no condition to care about anything, about what happened next, who died, who was born, the cries of starving children and the vicious tyrants who starved them – these were, she understood, the simple legacies of indifference, the consequences of the expedient, and this would go on in the mortal realm until the last spark winked out, gods or no gods.

And she could make peace with that. To do otherwise would be to rail at the inevitable. To do otherwise would be to do as Heboric Ghost Hands did, and look where it took him. Into madness. The truth of futility was the hardest truth of all, and for those clear-eyed enough to see it, there was no escape.

She had been to oblivion, after all, and had returned, and so she knew there was nothing to fear in that dreamthick place.

True to Heboric’s words, the rock shelter revealed the signs of countless generations of occupation. Boulder-lined hearths, red ochre paintings on the bleached walls, heaps of broken pottery and fire-split, charred bones. The clay floor of the hollow was packed hard as stone by countless passings. Nearby was the sound of trickling water, and Scillara saw Heboric crouched there, before a spring-fed pool, his glowing hands held over the placid, dark-mirror surface, as if hesitating to plunge them down into the coolness. White-winged butterflies danced in the air around him.

He journeyed with the gift of salvation. Something to do with the green glow of his hands, and the ghosts haunting him. Something to do with his past, and what he saw of the future. But he belonged to Treach now, Tiger of Summer. No reconciliation.

She spied a flat rock and walked over to sit, stretching out her weary legs, noting the bulge of her belly as she leaned back on her hands. Staring down upon it, cruel extrusion on what had once been a lithe form, forcing an expression of disgust on her features.

‘Are you with child?’

She glanced up, studied Cutter’s face, amused at his dawning revelation as it widened his eyes and filled them with alarm.

‘Bad luck happens,’ she said. Then, ‘I blame the gods.’


Paint a line with blood and, standing over it, shake a nest of spiders good and hard. They fall to this side of the divide. They fall to that side of the divide. Thus did the gods fall, taut-legged and ready, as the heavens trembled, and in the scattering rain of drifting web – all these dread cut threads of scheming settling down – skirling now in the winds that roared sudden, alive and vengeful, to pronounce in tongues of thunder, the gods were at war.

Slayer of Magic

A history of the Host of Days


Through slitted eyes, in the bar of shadow cast by the great helm’s ridged brow, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas studied the woman.

Harried aides and functionaries rushed past her and Leoman of the Flails, like leaves in a torrential flood. And the two, standing there, like stones. Boulders. Like things … rooted, yes, rooted to bedrock. Captain Dunsparrow, now Third Dunsparrow. A Malazan.

A woman, and Leoman … well, Leoman liked women.

So they stood, oh yes, discussing details, finalizing the preparations for the siege to come. The smell of sex a heady smugness enveloping the two like a poisonous fog. He, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas, who had ridden at Leoman’s side through battle after battle, who had saved Leoman’s life more than once, who had done all that had ever been asked of him, was loyal. But she, she is desirable.

He told himself it made no difference. There had been other women. He’d had a few himself from time to time, although not the same ones as Leoman had known, of course. And, one and all, they had been nothing before the faith, withering into insignificance in the face of hard necessity. The voice of Dryjhna the Apocalyptic overwhelmed with its descending squall of destruction. This was as it should be.

Dunsparrow. Malazan, woman, distraction and possible corrupter. For Leoman of the Rails was hiding something from Corabb, and that had never before happened. Her fault. She was to blame. He would have to do something about her, but what?

He rose from the Falah’d’s old throne, that Leoman had so contemptuously discarded, and walked to the wide, arched window overlooking the inner keep compound. More chaotic scurrying below, dust twisting in the sunspeared air. Beyond the palace wall, the bleached rooftops of Y’Ghatan, clothes drying in the sun, awnings rippling in the wind, domes and the cylindrical, flat-topped storage buildings called maethgara that housed in vast containers the olive oil for which the city and its outlying groves were renowned. In the very centre of the city rose the eightsided, monstrously buttressed Temple of Scalissara, with its inner dome a mottled hump of remnant gold-leaf and green copper tiles liberally painted by bird droppings.

Scalissara, Matron Goddess of Olives, the city’s own, cherished protector, now in abject disrepute. Too many conquests she could not withstand, too many gates battered down, walls pounded into rubble. While the city itself seemed capable of ever rising again from the dust of destruction, Scalissara had revealed a more finite number of possible resurrections. And, following the last conquest, she did not return to pre-eminence. Indeed, she did not return at all.

Now, the temple belonged to the Queen of Dreams.

A foreign goddess. Corabb scowled. Well, maybe not entirely foreign, but still …

The great statues of Scalissara that once rose from the corners of the city’s outer fortifications, marble arms plump and fleshy, upraised, an uprooted olive tree in one hand, a newborn babe in the other, the umbilical cord wrapped snake-like up her forearm, then across and down, into her womb – the statues were gone. Destroyed in the last conflagration. Now, on three of the four corners, only the pedestal remained, bare feet broken clean above the ankles, and on the fourth even that was gone.

In the days of her supremacy, every foundling child was named after her if female, and, male or female, every abandoned child was taken into the temple to be fed, raised and schooled in the ways of the Cold Dream, a mysterious ritual celebrating a kind of divided spirit or something – the esoterica of cults were not among Corabb’s intellectual strengths, but Leoman had been one such foundling child, and had spoken once or twice of such things, when wine and durhang loosened his tongue. Desire and necessity, the war within a mortal’s spirit, this was at the heart of the Cold Dream. Corabb did not understand much of that. Leoman had lived but a few years under the guidance of the temple’s priestesses, before his wild indulgences saw him expelled into the streets. And from the streets, out into the Odhans, to live among the desert tribes, and so to be forged by the sun and blowing sands of Raraku into the greatest warrior Seven Cities had ever beheld. At least in Corabb’s lifetime. Th
e Fala’dhan of the Holy Cities possessed grand champions in their day, of course, but they were not leaders, they had nothing of the wiles necessary for command. Besides, Dassem Ultor and his First Sword had cut them down, every one of them, and that was that.

Leoman had sealed Y’Ghatan, imprisoning within its new walls an emperor’s ransom in olive oil. The maethgara were filled to bursting and the merchants and their guilds were shrieking their outrage, although less publicly since Leoman, in a fit of irritation, had drowned seven representatives in the Grand Maeth attached to the palace.

Drowned them in their very own oil. Priests and witches were now petitioning for beakers of that fell amber liquid.

Dunsparrow had been given command of the city garrison, a mob of drunken, lazy thugs. The first tour of the barracks had revealed the military base as little more than a raucous harem, thick with smoke and pool-eyed, prepubescent boys and girls staggering about in a nightmare world of sick abuse and slavery. Thirty officers were executed that first day, the most senior one by Leoman’s own hand. The children had been gathered up and redistributed among the temples of the city with the orders to heal the damage and purge what was possible of their memories. The garrison soldiers had been given the task of scouring clean every brick and tile of the barracks, and Dunsparrow had then begun drilling them to counter Malazan siege tactics, with which she seemed suspiciously familiar.

Corabb did not trust her. It was as simple as that. Why would she choose to fight against her own people? Only a criminal, an outlaw, would do that, and how trustworthy was an outlaw? No, there were likely horrific murders and betrayals crowding her sordid past, and now here she was, spreading her legs beneath Falah’d Leoman of the Flails, the known world’s most feared warrior. He would have to watch her carefully, hand on the grip of his new cutlass, ready at a moment’s notice to cut her clean in half, head to crotch, then across, diagonally, twice – swish swish! – right shoulder to left hip, left shoulder to right hip, and watch her part ways. A duty-bound execution, yes. At the first hint of betrayal.

‘What has so lightened your expression, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas?’

Stiffening, he turned, to find Dunsparrow standing at his side. ‘Third,’ he said in sour grunt of greeting. ‘I was thinking, uh, of the blood and death to come.’

‘Leoman says you are the most reasonable of the lot. I now dread closer acquaintance with his other officers.’

‘You fear the siege to come?’

‘Of course I do. I know what Imperial Armies are capable of. There is said to be a High Mage among them, and that is the most disturbing news of all.’

‘The woman commanding them is simple-minded,’ Corabb said. ‘No imagination, or none that she’s bothered showing.’

‘And that is my point on that issue, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas.’

He frowned. ‘What do you mean?’

‘She’s had no need, as yet, to display the extent of her imagination. Thus far, it’s been easy for her. Little more than marching endless leagues in Leoman’s dust.’

‘We are her match, and better,’ said Corabb, straightening, chest swelling. ‘Our spears and swords have already drawn their foul Malazan blood, and shall do so again. More of it, much more.’

‘That blood,’ she said after a moment, ‘is as red as yours, warrior.’

‘Is it? Seems to me,’ he continued, looking out upon the city once more, ‘that betrayal is a dark taint upon it, to so easily twist one of its own into switching sides.’

‘As with, for example, the Red Blades?’

‘Corrupted fools!’

‘Of course. Yet … Seven Cities born, yes?’

‘They have severed their own roots and now flow on the Malazan tide.’

‘Nice image, Corabb. You do stumble on those often, don’t you?’

‘You’d be amazed at the things I stumble on, woman. And I will tell you this, I guard Leoman’s back, as I have always done. Nothing has changed that. Not you and your … your—’


‘Wiles. I have marked you, Third, and best you be mindful of that.’

‘Leoman has done well to have such a loyal friend.’

‘He shall lead the Apocalypse—’

‘Oh, he will at that.’

‘—for none but he is equal to such a thing. Y’Ghatan shall be a curse name in the Malazan Empire for all time—’

‘It already is.’

‘Yes, well, it shall be more so.’

‘What is it about this city, I wonder, that has driven so deep a knife into the empire? Why did the Claw act here against Dassem Ultor? Why not somewhere else? Somewhere less public, less risky? Oh yes, they made it seem like a wayward accident of battle, but no-one was fooled. I admit to a fascination with this city, indeed, it is what brought me here in the first place.’

‘You are an outlaw. The Empress has a price on your head.’

‘She does? Or are you just guessing?’

‘I am certain of it. You fight against your own people.’

‘My own people. Who are they, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas? The Malazan Empire has devoured many peoples, just as it has done those of Seven Cities. Now that the rebellion is over, are your kin now Malazan? No, that thought is incomprehensible to you, isn’t it? I was born on Quon Tali, but the Malazan Empire was born on Malaz Island. My people too were conquered, just as yours have been.’

Corabb said nothing, too confused by her words. Malazans were … Malazans, dammit. All of a kind, no matter the hue of their skin, the tilt of their eyes, no matter all the variations within that Hood-cursed empire. Malazans! ‘You will get no sympathy from me, Third.’

‘I did not ask for it.’


‘Now, will you accompany us?’

Us? Corabb slowly turned. Leoman stood a few paces behind them, arms crossed, leaning against the map-table. In his eyes a sly, amused expression.

‘We are going into the city,’ Leoman said. ‘I wish to visit a certain temple.’

Corabb bowed. ‘I shall accompany you, sword at the ready, Warleader.’

Leoman’s brows lifted fractionally. ‘Warleader. Is there no end of titles you will bestow upon me, Corabb?’

‘None, Hand of the Apocalypse.’

He flinched at that honorific, then turned away. A halfdozen officers stood waiting at one end of the long table, and to these warriors, Leoman said, ‘Begin the evacuation. And no undue violence! Kill every looter you catch, of course, but quietly. Ensure the protection of families and their possessions, including livestock—’

One of the warriors started. ‘But Commander, we shall need—’

‘No, we shall not. We have all we need. Besides, those animals are the only wealth most of the refugees will have to take with them. I want escorts on the west road.’ He glanced over at Dunsparrow. ‘Have the messengers returned from Lothal?’

‘Yes, with delighted greetings from the Falah’d.’

‘Delighted that I am not marching on to his city, you mean.’

Dunsparrow shrugged.

‘And so he is dispatching troops to manage the road?’

‘He is, Leoman.’

Ah.’ She is already beyond titles! Corabb struggled to keep the snarl from his voice. ‘He is Warleader to you, Third. Or Commander, or Falah’d—’

‘Enough,’ cut in Leoman. ‘I am pleased enough with my own name to hear it used. From now on, friend Corabb, we shall dispense with titles when only officers are present.’

As I thought, the corruption has begun. He glared at Dunsparrow, but she was paying him no attention, her eyes settled possessively on Leoman of the Flails. Corabb’s own gaze narrowed. Leoman the Fallen.

No track, alley or street in Y’Ghatan ran straight for more than thirty paces. Laid upon successive foundations, rising, it was likely, from the very first maze-wound fortress city built here ten thousand years or more past, the pattern resembled a termite mound with each twisting passageway exposed to the sky, although in many cases that sky was no more than a slit, less than an arm’s length wide, overhead.

To look upon Y’Ghatan, and to wander its corridors, was to step into antiquity. Cities, Leoman had once told Corabb, were born not of convenience, nor lordship, nor markets and their babbling merchants. Born not even of harvest and surplus. No, said Leoman, cities were born from the need for protection. Fortresses, that and nothing more, and all that followed did just that: follow. And so, cities were always walled, and indeed, walls were often all that remained of the oldest ones.

And this was why, Leoman had explained, a city would always build upon the bones of its forebears, for this lifted its walls yet higher, and made of the place a more formidable protection. It was the marauding tribes, he had said, laughing, that forced the birth of cities, of the very cities capable of defying them and, ultimately, conquering them. Thus did civilization arise from savagery.

All very well, Corabb mused as they walked towards this city’s heart, and possibly even true, but already he longed for the open lands of the Odhans, the desert’s sweet whispering wind, the sultry heat that could bake a man’s brain inside his helmet until he dreamed raving that he was being pursued by herds of fat aunts and leathery grandmothers who liked to pinch cheeks.

Corabb shook his head to dispel the recollection and all its attendant terrors. He walked at Leoman’s left, cutlass drawn and a scowl of belligerence ready for any suspicious-looking citizen. Third Dunsparrow was to Leoman’s right, the two brushing arms every now and then and exchanging soft words, probably grim with romance, that Corabb was pleased he could not overhear. That, or they were talking about ways of doing away with him.

‘Oponn pull me, push her,’ he said under his breath.

Leoman’s head turned. ‘You said something, Corabb?’

‘I was cursing this damned rat path, Avenger.’

‘We’re almost there,’ Leoman said, uncharacteristically considerate, which only deepened Corabb’s foul mood. ‘Dunsparrow and I were discussing what to do with the priesthood.’

‘Were you now? That’s nice. What do you mean, what to do with them?’

‘They are resisting the notion of leaving.’

‘I am not surprised.’

‘Nor am I, but leave they shall.’

‘It’s all the wealth,’ Corabb said. ‘And their reliquaries and icons and wine cellars – they fear they will be set upon on the road, raped and robbed and their hair all unbunned.’

Both Leoman and Dunsparrow peered over at him with odd expressions.

‘Corabb,’ Leoman said, ‘I think it best you remove that new great helm of yours.’

‘Yes,’ Dunsparrow added. ‘There are streams of sweat pouring down your face.’

‘I am fine,’ Corabb said in growl. ‘This was the Champion’s helm. But Leoman would not take it. He should have. In truth, I am only carrying it for him. At the appropriate time, he will discover the need to tear it from my head and don it himself, and the world shall right itself once more, may all the yellow and blue gods be praised.’


‘I am fine, although we had better do something about all those old women following us. I will spit myself on my own sword before I let them get me. Ooh what a nice little boy! Enough of that, I say.’

‘Give me that helm,’ Leoman said.

‘It’s about time you recognized your destiny, Adjunct Slayer.’

Corabb’s head was pounding by the time they reached the Temple of Scalissara. Leoman had elected not to wear the great helm, even with its sodden quilted under-padding removed – without which it would have been too loose in any case. At least the old women were gone; in fact, the route they had taken was almost deserted, although they could hear the chaotic sounds of crowds in the main thoroughfares, being driven from the city, out onto the west road that led to Lothal on the coast. Panic rode the sweltering currents, yet it was clear that most of the four thousand soldiers now under Leoman’s command were out in the streets, maintaining order.

Seven lesser temples, each dedicated to one of the Seven Holies, encircled the octagonal edifice now sanctified in the name of the Queen of Dreams. The formal approach was spiral, wending through these smaller domed structures. The flanking compound walls had been twice defaced, first with rededication to Malazan gods soon after the conquest; then again with the rebellion, when the temples and their new foreign priesthoods had been assailed, the sanctuaries sundered and hundreds slaughtered. Friezes and metopes, caryatids and panels were all ruined now, entire pantheons defiled and made incomprehensible.

All, that is, but the temple of the Queen of Dreams, its impressive fortifications making it virtually impregnable. There were in any case mysteries surrounding the Queen, Corabb knew, and it was generally believed that her cult had not originated in the Malazan Empire. The Goddess of Divinations cast a thousand reflections upon a thousand peoples, and no one civilization could claim her as exclusively its own. So, having battered futilely at the temple’s walls for six days, the rebels had concluded that the Queen was not their enemy after all, and had thereafter left her in peace. Desire and necessity, Leoman had said, laughing, upon hearing the tale.

Nonetheless, as far as Corabb was concerned, the goddess was … foreign.

‘What business do we have,’ Corabb asked, ‘visiting this temple?’

Leoman replied with a question of his own: ‘Do you recall, old friend, your vow to follow me no matter what seeming madness I undertake?’

‘I do, Warleader.’

‘Well, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas, you shall find yourself sorely tested in that promise. For I intend to speak with the Queen of Dreams.’

‘The High Priestess—’

‘No, Corabb,’ said Leoman, ‘with the goddess herself.’

‘It is a difficult thing, killing dragons.’

Blood the colour of false dawn continued to spread across the buckled pavestones. Mappo and Icarium remained beyond its reach, for it would not do to make contact with that dark promise. The Jhag was seated on a stone block that might have once been an altar but had been pushed up against the wall to the left of the entrance. The warrior’s head was in his hands, and he had said nothing for some time.

Mappo alternated his attention between his friend and the enormous draconean corpse rearing over them. Both scenes left him distraught. There was much worthy of grieving in this cavern, in the terrible ritual murder that had taken place here, and in the fraught torrent of memories unleashed within Icarium upon its discovery.

‘This leaves naught but Osserc,’ Mappo said. ‘And should he fall, the warren of Sere shall possess no ruler. I believe, Icarium, that I am beginning to see a pattern.’

‘Desecration,’ the Jhag said in a whisper, not looking up.

‘The pantheon is being made vulnerable. Fener, drawn into this world, and now Osserc – the very source of wer under assault. How many other gods and goddesses are under siege, I wonder? We have been away from things too long, my friend.’

‘Away, Mappo? There is no away.’

The Trell studied the dead dragon once more. ‘Perhaps you are right. Who could have managed such a thing? Within the dragon is the heart of the warren itself, its wellfount of power. Yet … someone defeated Sorrit, drove her down into the earth, into this cavern within a sky keep, and spiked her to Blackwood – how long ago, do you think? Would we not have felt her death?’ With no answers forthcoming from Icarium, Mappo edged closer to the blood pool and peered upward, focusing on that massive iron, rust-streaked spike. ‘No,’ he murmured after a moment, ‘that is not rust. Otataral. She was bound by otataral. Yet, she was Elder – she should have been able to defeat that eager entropy. I do not understand this …’

‘Old and new,’ Icarium said, his tone twisting the words into a curse. He rose suddenly, his expression ravaged and eyes hard. ‘Speak to me, Mappo. Tell me what you know of spilled blood.’

He turned away. ‘Icarium—’

‘Mappo, tell me.’

Gaze settling on the aquamarine pool, the Trell was silent as emotions warred within him. Then he sighed. ‘Who first dipped their hands into this fell stream? Who drank deep and so was transformed, and what effect did that otataral spike have upon that transformation? Icarium, this blood is fouled—’


‘Very well. All blood spilled, my friend, possesses power. Beasts, humans, the smallest bird, blood is the life-force, the soul’s own stream. Within it is locked the time of living, from beginning to end. It is the most sacred force in existence. Murderers with their victims’ blood staining their hands feed from that force, whether they choose to or not. Many are sickened, others find a new hunger within themselves, and so become slaves to the violence of slaying. The risk is this: blood and its power become tainted by such things as fear and pain. The stream, sensing its own demise, grows stressed, and the shock is as a poison.’

‘What of fate?’ Icarium asked in a heavy voice.

Mappo flinched, his eyes still on the pool. ‘Yes,’ he whispered, ‘you cut to the matter’s very heart. What does anyone take upon themselves when such blood is absorbed, drawn into their own soul? Must violent death be in turn delivered upon them? Is there some overarching law, seeking ever to redress the imbalance? If blood feeds us, what in turn feeds it, and is it bound by immutable rules or is it as capricious as we are? Are we creatures on this earth the only ones free to abuse our possessions?’

‘The K’Chain Che’Malle did not kill Sorrit,’ Icarium said. ‘They knew nothing of it.’

‘Yet this creature here was frozen, so it must have been encompassed in the Jaghut’s ritual of Omtose Phellack – how could the K’Chain Che’Malle not have known of this? They must have, even if they themselves did not slay Sorrit.’

‘No, they are innocent, Mappo. I am certain of it.’

‘Then … how?’

‘The crucifix, it is Blackwood. From the realm of the Tiste Edur. From the Shadow Realm, Mappo. In that realm, as you know, things can be in two places at once, or begin in one yet find itself eventually manifesting in another. Shadow wanders, and respects no borders.’

‘Ah, then … this … was trapped here, drawn from Shadow—’

‘Snared by the Jaghut’s ice magic – yet the spilled blood, and perhaps the otataral, proved too fierce for Omtose Phellack, thus shattering the Jaghut’s enchantment.’

‘Sorrit was murdered in the Shadow Realm. Yes. Now the pattern, Icarium, grows that much clearer.’

Icarium fixed bright, fevered eyes upon the Trell. ‘Is it? You would blame the Tiste Edur?’

‘Who else holds such command of Shadow? Not the Malazan pretender who now sits on the throne!’

The Jhag warrior said nothing. He walked along the pool’s edge, head down as if seeking signs from the battered floor. ‘I know this Jaghut. I recognize her work. The carelessness in the unleashing of Omtose Phellack. She was … distraught. Impatient, angry, weary of the endless paths the K’Chain Che’Malle employed in their efforts to invade, to establish colonies on every continent. She cared nothing for the civil war afflicting the K’Chain Che’Malle. These Short-Tails were fleeing their kin, seeking a refuge. I doubt she bothered asking questions.’

‘Do you think,’ Mappo asked, ‘that she knows of what has happened here?’

‘No, else she would have returned. It may be that she is dead. So many are …’

Oh, Icarium, would that such knowledge remained lost to you.

The Jhag halted and half-turned. ‘I am cursed. This is the secret you ever keep from me, isn’t it? There are … recollections. Fragments.’ He lifted a hand as if to brush his brow, then let it fall. ‘I sense… terrible things …’

‘Yes. But they do not belong to you, Icarium. Not to the friend standing before me now.’

Icarium’s deepening frown tore at Mappo’s heart, but he would not look away, would not abandon his friend at this tortured moment.

‘You,’ Icarium said, ‘are my protector, but that protection is not as it seems. You are at my side, Mappo, to protect the world. From me.’

‘It is not that simple.’

‘Isn’t it?’

‘No. I am here to protect the friend I look upon now, from the … the other Icarium …’

‘This must end, Mappo.’


Icarium faced the dragon once more. ‘Ice,’ he said in murmur. ‘Omtose Phellack.’ He turned to Mappo. ‘We shall leave here now. We travel to the Jhag Odhan. I must seek out kin of my blood. Jaghut.’

To ask for imprisonment. Eternal ice, sealing you from all life. But they will not trust that. No, they will seek to kill you. Let Hood deal with you. And this time, they will be right. For their hearts do not fear judgement, and their blood … their blood is as cold as ice.

Sixteen barrows had been raised half a league south of Y’Ghatan, each one a hundred paces long, thirty wide, and three man-heights high. Rough-cut limestone blocks and internal columns to hold up the curved roofs, sixteen eternally dark abodes, home to Malazan bones. Newly cut, stone-lined trenches reached out to them from the distant city, carrying Y’Ghatan’s sewage in turgid flows swarming with flies. Sentiments, Fist Keneb reflected sourly, could not be made any clearer.

Ignoring the stench as best he could, Keneb guided his horse towards the central barrow, which had once been surmounted by a stone monument honouring the empire’s fallen. The statue had been toppled, leaving only the broad pedestal. Standing on it now were two men and two dogs, all facing Y’Ghatan’s uneven, whitewashed walls.

The Barrow of Dassem Ultor and his First Sword, which held neither Dassem nor any of his guard who had fallen outside the city all those years ago. Most soldiers knew the truth of that. The deadly, legendary fighters of the First Sword had been buried in unmarked graves, to keep them from desecration, and Dassem’s own grave was believed to be somewhere outside Unta, on Quon Tali.

Probably empty.

The cattle-dog, Bent, swung its huge head to watch Keneb push his horse up the steep slope. Red-rimmed eyes, set wide in a nest of scars, a regard that chilled the Malazan, reminding him yet again that he but imagined his own familiarity with that beast. It should have died with Coltaine. The animal looked as though pieced together from disparate, unidentifiable parts, only roughly approximating a dog’s shape. Humped, uneven shoulder muscles, a neck as thick round as a grown man’s thigh, misshapen, muscle-knitted haunches, a chest deep as a desert lion’s. Beneath the empty eyes the creature was all jaw, overwide, the snout misaligned, the three remaining canines visible even when Bent’s fierce mouth was closed, for most of the skin covering them had been torn away at the Fall, and nothing had replaced it. One shorn ear, the other healed flat and out to the side.

The stub that was all that was left of Bent’s tail did not wag as Keneb dismounted. Had it done so, Keneb allowed the possibility that he would have been shocked to death.

The mangy, rat-like Hengese dog, Roach, trotted up to sniff at Keneb’s left boot, whereupon it squatted ladylike and urinated against the leather. Cursing, the Malazan stepped away, cocking one foot for a savage kick, then halting the motion at a deep growl from Bent.

Warleader Gall rumbled a laugh. ‘Roach but claims this heap of stones, Fist. Hood knows, there’s no-one below to get offended.’

‘Too bad one cannot say the same for the other barrows,’ Keneb said, drawing off his riding gloves.

‘Ah, but that insult belongs at the feet of the citizens of Y’Ghatan.’

‘Roach should have displayed more patience, then, Warleader.’

‘Hood take us, man, she’s a damned dog. Besides, you think she’ll run out of piss any time soon?’

If I had my way, she’d run out of a lot more besides. ‘Not likely, I’ll grant you. That rat has more malign fluids in it than a rabid bhederin bull.’

‘Poor diet.’

Keneb addressed the other man: ‘Fist Temul, the Adjunct wishes to know if your Wickan scouts have ridden round the city.’

The young warrior was a child no longer. He had grown two hand’s-widths since Aren. Lean, hawk-faced, with far too many losses pooled in his black eyes. The Crow clan warriors who had so resented his command at Aren were silent these days. Gaze fixed on Y’Ghatan, he gave no indication of having heard Keneb’s words.

More and more like Coltaine with every passing day, Gall says. Keneb knew enough to wait.

Gall cleared his throat. ‘The west road shows signs of an exodus, no more than a day or two before we arrived. A half-dozen old Crow horse-warriors demanded that they pursue and ravage the fleeing refugees.’

‘And where are they now?’ Keneb asked.

‘Guarding the baggage train, hah!’

Temul spoke. ‘Inform the Adjunct that all gates are sealed. A trench has been dug at the base of the tel, cutting through the ramped roads on all sides, to a depth of nearly a man’s height. Yet, this trench is but two paces wide – clearly the enemy ran out of time.’

Out of time. Keneb wondered at that. With pressed workers, Leoman could have had a far broader barrier excavated within the span of a single day. ‘Very well. Did your scouts report any large weapons mounted on the walls or on the roofs of the corner towers?’

‘Malazan-built ballistae, an even dozen,’ Temul replied, ‘ranged about at equal intervals. No sign of concentrations.’

‘Well,’ Keneb said with a grunt, ‘foolish to suppose that Leoman would give away his perceived weak-points. And those walls were manned?’

‘Yes, crowds, all shouting taunts to my warriors.’

‘And showing their naked backsides,’ Gall added, turning to spit.

Roach trotted over to sniff at the gleaming phlegm, then licked it up.

Nauseous, Keneb looked away, loosening the chin-strap of his helm. ‘Fist Temul, have you made judgement as to our surest approach?’

Temul glanced over, expressionless. ‘I have.’


‘And what, Fist? The Adjunct cares nothing for our opinions.’

‘Perhaps not, but I would like to hear your thoughts in any case.’

‘Ignore the gates. Use Moranth munitions and punch right through a wall midway between tower and gate. Any side will do. Two sides would be even better.’

‘And how will the sappers survive camping out at the base of a wall?’

‘We attack at night.’

‘That is a risky thing to do.’

Temul scowled, and said nothing.

Gall turned to regard Keneb, his tear-etched face mildly incredulous. ‘We begin a siege, man, not a Hood-damned fly dance.’

‘I know. But Leoman must have mages, and night will not hide sappers from them.’

‘They can be countered,’ Gall retorted. ‘It’s what our mages are for. But we waste our breaths with such things. The Adjunct will do as she chooses.’

Keneb faced right and studied the vast encampment of the Fourteenth Army, arrayed to fend off a sortie, should Leoman prove so foolish. The investiture would be a careful, measured exercise, conducted over two or three days. The range of the Malazan ballistae on the walls was well known, so there would be no surprises there. Even so, encirclement would stretch their lines appallingly thin. They would need advance emplacements to keep an eye on the gates, and Temul’s Wickans and Seti, as well as Gall’s Khundryl horse-warriors, divided into companies and positioned to respond should Leoman surprise them.

The Fist shook his head. ‘This is what I do not understand. Admiral Nok’s fleet is even now sailing for Lothal with five thousand marines on board, and once Dujek forces the last city to capitulate he will begin a fast march to join us. Leoman must know his position is hopeless. He cannot win, even should he maul us. We will still be able to keep this noose knotted tight round Y’Ghatan, whilst we wait for reinforcements. He is finished. So why does he continue to resist?’

‘Aye,’ said Gall. ‘He should have carried on riding west, out into the odhan. We would never have caught him out there, and he could begin rebuilding, drawing warriors to his cause.’

Keneb glanced over. ‘So, Warleader, you are as nervous about this as I am.’

‘He means to bleed us, Keneb. Before he falls, he means to bleed us.’ A rough gesture. ‘More barrows to ring this cursed city. And he will die fighting, and so will become yet another martyr.’

‘So, the killing of Malazans is sufficient cause to fight. What have we done to deserve this?’

‘Wounded pride,’ Temul said. ‘It is one thing to suffer defeat on a field of battle, it is another to be crushed when your foe has no need even to draw a sword.’

‘Humiliated in Raraku,’ Gall said, nodding. ‘The growing cancer in their souls. This cannot be carved out. The Malazans must be made to know pain.’

‘That is ridiculous,’ Keneb said. ‘Was not the Chain of Dogs glory enough for the bastards?’

‘The first casualty among the defeated is recalling their own list of crimes, Fist,’ Temul said.

Keneb studied the young man. The foundling Grub was often in Temul’s company, and among the strange lad’s disordered host of peculiar observations, Grub had hinted of glory, or perhaps infamy, bound to Temul’s future. Of course, that future could be tomorrow. Besides, Grub might be no more than a brain-addled waif … all right, I don’t believe that – he seems to know too much. If only half the things he said made any sense … Well, in any case, Temul still managed to startle Keneb with statements more suited to some veteran campaigner. ‘Very well, Fist Temul. What would you do, were you in Leoman’s place?’

Silence, then a quick look at Keneb, something like surprise in Temul’s angular features. A moment later the expressionless mask returned, and he shrugged.

‘Coltaine walks in your shadow, Temul,’ Gall said, running his fingers down his own face as if to mimic the tears tattooed there. ‘I see him, again and again—’

‘No, Gall. I have told you before. You see naught but the ways of the Wickans; all else is but your imagination. Coltaine sent me away; it is not to me that he will return.’

He haunts you still, Temul. Coltaine sent you with Duiker to keep you alive, not to punish or shame you. Why won’t you accept that?

‘I have seen plenty of Wickans,’ Gall said in a growl.

This had the sound of an old argument. Sighing, Keneb walked over to his horse. ‘Any last words for the Adjunct? Either of you? No? Very well.’ He swung up into the saddle and gathered the reins.

The cattle-dog Bent watched him with its sand-coloured, dead eyes. Nearby, Roach had found a bone and was lying sprawled on its belly, legs spread out as it gnawed with the mindless concentration unique to dogs.

Halfway down the slope, Keneb realized where that bone had likely come from. A kick, all right, hard enough to send that rat straight through Hood’s Gate.

Corporal Deadsmell, Throatslitter and Widdershins were sitting round a game of Troughs, black stones bouncing off the rudder and rolling in the cups, as Bottle walked up.

‘Where’s your sergeant?’ he asked.

Deadsmell glanced up, then back down. ‘Mixing paint.’

‘Paint? What kind of paint?’

‘It’s what Dal Honese do,’ said Widdershins, ‘death-mask paint.’

‘Before a siege?’

Throatslitter hissed – what passed for laughter, Bottle supposed – and said, ‘Hear that? Before a siege. That’s very cute, very cute, Bottle.’

‘It’s a death mask, idiot,’ Widdershins said to Bottle. ‘He paints it on when he thinks he’s about to die.’

‘Great attitude for a sergeant,’ Bottle said, looking around. The other two soldiers of the Ninth Squad, Galt and Lobe, were feuding over what to put in a pot of boiling water. Both held handfuls of herbs, and as each reached to toss the herbs in the other soldier pushed that hand away and sought to throw in his own. Again and again, over the boiling water. Neither spoke. ‘All right, where is Balm finding his paint?’

‘There’s a local cemetery north of the road,’ Deadsmell said. ‘I’d guess maybe there.’

‘If I don’t find him,’ Bottle said, ‘the captain wants a meeting with all the sergeants in her company. Dusk.’


‘The sheep pen back of the farm south of the road, the one with the caved-in roof.’

Over by the hearth the pot had boiled dry and Galt and Lobe were fighting over water jugs.

Bottle moved on to the next encampment. He found Sergeant Moak sprawled with his back resting on a heap of bedrolls. The Falari, copper-haired and bearded, was picking at his overlarge teeth with a fish spine. His soldiers were nowhere in sight.

‘Sergeant. Captain Faradan Sort’s called a meeting—’

‘I heard. I ain’t deaf.’

‘Where’s your squad?’

‘Got the squats.’

‘All of them?’

‘I cooked last night. They got weak stomachs, that’s all.’ He belched, and a moment later Bottle caught a whiff of something like rotting fish guts.

‘Hood take me! Where’d you find anywhere to catch fish on this trail?’

‘Didn’t. Brought it with me. Was a bit high, it’s true, but nothing a real soldier couldn’t handle. There’s some scrapings in the pot – want some?’


‘No wonder the Adjunct’s in trouble, what with a whole damn army of cowardly whiners.’

Bottle stepped past to move on.

‘Hey,’ Moak called out, ‘tell Fid the wager’s still on as far as I’m concerned.’

‘What wager?’

‘Between him and me and that’s all you got to know.’


He found Sergeant Mosel and his squad dismantling a broken wagon in the ditch. They had piled up the wood and Flashwit and Mayfly were prying nails, studs and fittings from the weathered planks, whilst Taffo and Uru Hela struggled with an axle under the sergeant’s watchful eye.

Mosel glanced over. ‘Bottle, isn’t it? Fourth Squad, Fid’s, right? If you’re looking for Neffarias Bredd you just missed him. A giant of a man, must have Fenn blood in him.’

‘No, I wasn’t, Sergeant. You saw Bredd?’

‘Well, not me, I’ve just come back, but Flashwit …’

At mention of her name the burly woman looked up. ‘Yah. I heard he was just by here. Hey, Mayfly, who was it said he was just by?’


‘Neffarias Bredd, you fat cow, who else would we be talking ’bout?’

‘I don’t know who said what. I was only half listening, anyway. I think it was Smiles, was it Smiles? Might have been. Anyway, I’d like to roll in the blankets with that man—’

‘Smiles isn’t a man—’

‘Not her. Bredd, I mean.’

Bottle asked, ‘You want to bed Bredd?’

Mosel stepped closer, eyes narrowing. ‘You making fun of my soldiers, Bottle?’

‘I’d never do that, Sergeant. Just came to tell there’s a meeting—’

‘Oh, yes, I heard.’

‘From who?’

The lean man shrugged. ‘Can’t remember. Does it matter?’

‘It does if it means I’m wasting my time.’

‘You ain’t got time to waste? Why, what makes you unique?’

‘That axle doesn’t look broken,’ Bottle observed.

‘Who said it was?’

‘Then why are you taking the wagon apart?’

‘We been eating its dust so long we just took revenge.’

‘Where’s the wagoner, then? The load crew?’

Flashwit laughed an ugly laugh.

Mosel shrugged again, then gestured further down the ditch. Four figures, bound and gagged, were lying motionless in the yellow grass.

The two squads of sergeants Sobelone and Tugg were gathered round a wrestling match between, Bottle saw as he pushed his way in for a better look, Saltlick and Shortnose. Coins were being flung down, puffing the dust of the road, as the two heavy infantrymen strained and heaved in a knot of arm and leg holds. Saltlick’s massive, round face was visible, red, sweaty and streaked with dust, the expression fixed in its usual cow-like, uninterested incomprehensibility. He blinked slowly, and seemed to be concentrating on chewing something.

Bottle nudged Toles, the soldier on his right. ‘What are they fighting over?’

Toles looked down on Bottle, his thin, pallid face twitching. ‘It’s very simple. Two squads, marching in step, one behind the other, then the other in front of the one that had been in front beforehand, proving the mythical camaraderie to be no more than some epic instigator of bad poetry and bawdy songs designed to appease lowbrows, in short, a lie. Culminating at the last in this disreputable display of animal instincts—’

‘Saltlick bit Shortnose’s ear off,’ cut in Corporal Reem, standing on Bottle’s left.

‘Oh. Is that what he’s chewing?’

‘Yeah. Taking his time with it, too.’

‘Do Tugg and Sobelone know about the captain’s meeting?’


‘So, Shortnose who got his nose tip cut off now has only one ear, too.’

‘Yeah. He’ll do anything to spite his face.’

‘Is he the one who got married last week?’

‘Yeah, to Hanno there. She’s the one betting against him. Anyway, from what I hear, it ain’t his face that she adores, if you know what I mean.’

Bottle caught sight of a low hill on the north side of the road on which stood a score of twisted, hunched guldindha trees. ‘Is that the old cemetery?’

‘Looks like it, why?’

Without answering, Bottle pushed his way back through the crowd and set off for the burial ground. He found Sergeant Balm in a looter’s pit, face streaked with ash, making a strange monotonous nasal groaning sound as he danced in tight circles.

‘Sergeant, captain wants a meeting—’

‘Shut up, I’m busy.’

‘Dusk, in the sheep pen—’

‘Interrupt a Dal Honese death dirge and you’ll know a thousand thousand lifetimes of curses, your bloodlines for ever. Hairy old women will steal your children and your children’s children and chop them up and cook them with vegetables and tubers and a few precious threads of saffron—’

‘I’m done, Sergeant. Orders delivered. Goodbye.’

‘—and Dal Honese warlocks wearing snake girdles will lie with your woman and she’ll birth venomous worms all covered in curly black hair—’

‘Keep it up, Sergeant, and I’ll make a doll of you—’

Balm leapt from the pit, eyes suddenly wide. ‘You evil man! Get away from me! I never done nothing to you!’ He spun about and ran away, gazelle-skins flapping.

Bottle turned and began the long walk back to the camp.

He found Strings assembling his crossbow, Cuttle watching with avid interest. A crate of Moranth munitions was to one side, the lid pried loose and the grenados lying like turtle eggs in nests of padding. The others of the squad were sitting some distance away, looking nervous.

The sergeant glanced up. ‘Bottle, you found them all?’


‘Good. So, how are the other squads holding up?’

‘Just fine,’ Bottle replied. He regarded the others on the far side of the hearth. ‘What’s the point?’ he asked. ‘If that box goes up, it’ll knock down Y’Ghatan’s wall from here, and you and most of this army will be red hail.’

Sudden sheepish expressions. Grunting, Koryk rose, deliberately casual. ‘I was already sitting here,’ he said. ‘Then Tarr and Smiles crawled over to huddle in my shadow.’

‘The man lies,’ Smiles said. ‘Besides, Bottle, why did you volunteer to go wandering with the captain’s orders?’

‘Because I’m not stupid.’

‘Yeah?’ Tarr said. ‘Well, you’re back now, aren’t you?’

‘I thought they’d be finished by now.’ He waved a fly away that had been buzzing in front of his face, then walked over to sit downwind of the hearth. ‘So, Sergeant, what do you figure the captain’s got to say?’

‘Sappers and shields,’ Cuttle said in a growl.


‘Aye. We scurry in hunched low and the rest of you shield us from all the arrows and rocks until we’re done planting the mines, then whoever’s left runs back out, as fast as they can and it won’t be fast enough.’

‘A one-way trip, then.’

Cuttle grinned.

‘It’ll be more elaborate than that,’ Strings said. ‘I hope.’

‘She goes straight in, that’s what she does.’

‘Maybe, Cuttle. Maybe not. She wants most of her army still breathing when the dust’s settled.’

‘Minus a few hundred sappers.’

‘We’re getting rare enough as it is,’ Strings said. ‘She won’t want to waste us.’

‘That’d be a first for the Malazan Empire.’

The sergeant looked over at Cuttle. ‘Tell you what, why don’t I just kill you now and be done with it?’

‘Forget it. I want to take the rest of you sorry humpers with me.’

Nearby, Sergeant Gesler and his squad had appeared and were making their camp. Corporal Stormy, Bottle noted, wasn’t with them. Gesler strode over. ‘Fid.’

‘Kalam and Quick back, too?’

‘No, they went on, with Stormy.’

‘On? Where?’

Gesler crouched opposite Strings. ‘Let’s just say I’m actually glad to see your ugly face, Fid. Maybe they’ll make it back, maybe they won’t. I’ll tell you about it later. Spent the morning with the Adjunct. She had lots of questions.’

‘About what?’

‘About the stuff I’ll tell you about later. So we’ve got a new captain.’

‘Faradan Sort.’


Strings nodded. ‘Stood the Wall, we think.’

‘So she can probably take a punch.’

‘Then punch back, aye.’

‘Well that’s just great.’

‘She wants all the sergeants for a meeting tonight.’

‘I think I’ll go back and answer a few more of the Adjunct’s questions.’

‘You can’t avoid meeting her for ever, Gesler.’

‘Oh yeah? Watch me. So, where did they move Captain Kindly to?’

Strings shrugged. ‘To some company that needs pulling into shape, I’d imagine.’

‘And we don’t?’

‘Harder terrifying us than most in this army, Gesler. I think he’d already given up on us, in any case. I’m not sorry to see the miserable bastard on his way. This meeting tonight will likely be about what we’ll be doing in the siege. Either that or she just wants to waste our time with some inspiring tirade.’

‘For the glory of the empire,’ Gesler said, grimacing.

‘For vengeance,’ Koryk said from where he sat tying fetishes onto his baldric.

‘Vengeance is glorious, so long as it’s us delivering it, soldier.’

‘No it’s not,’ said Strings. ‘It’s sordid, no matter how you look at it.’

‘Ease up, Fid. I was only half serious. You’re so tense you’d think we was heading into a siege or something. Anyway, why ain’t there a few hands of Claw to do the dirty work? You know, infiltrate the city and the palace and stick a knife in Leoman and be done with it. Why do we have to get messed up with a real fight? What kind of empire are we, these days?’

No-one spoke for a time. Bottle watched his sergeant. Strings was testing the pull on the crossbow, but Bottle could see that he was thinking.

Cuttle said, ‘Laseen’s pulled ’em in. Close and tight.’

The regard Gesler fixed on the sapper was level, gauging. ‘That the rumour, Cuttle?’

‘One of ’em. What do I know? Maybe she caught something on the wind.’

‘You certainly have,’ Strings muttered as he examined the case of quarrels.

‘Only that the few veteran companies still on Quon Tali were ordered to Unta and Malaz City.’

Strings finally looked up. ‘Malaz City? Why there?’

‘The rumour weren’t that specific, Sergeant. Just the where, not the why. Anyway, there’s something going on.’

‘Where’d you catch all this?’ Gesler asked.

‘That new sergeant, Hellian, from Kartool.’

‘The drunk one?’

‘That’s her.’

‘Surprised she noticed anything,’ Strings observed. ‘What got her shipped out here?’

‘That she won’t talk about. In the wrong place at the wrong time, I figure, from the way her face twists all sour on the subject. Anyway, she went to Malaz City first, then joined up with the transports at Nap, then on to Unta. She never seems so drunk she can’t keep her eyes open.’

‘You trying to get your hand on her thigh, Cuttle?’

‘A bit too young for me, Fid, but a man could do worse.’

‘A bleary-eyed wife,’ Smiles said with a snort. ‘That’s probably the best you could manage, Cuttle.’

‘When I was a lad,’ the sapper said, reaching out to collect a grenado – a sharper, Bottle noted with alarm as Cuttle began tossing it up in the air and catching it onehanded – ‘every time I said something disrespectful of my betters, my father’d take me out back and slap me halfunconscious. Something tells me, Smiles, your da was way too indulgent when it came to his little girl.’

‘You just try it, Cuttle, and I’ll stick a knife in your eye.’

‘If I was your da, Smiles, I’d have long ago killed myself.’

She went pale at that, although no-one else seemed to notice, since their eyes were following the grenado up and down.

‘Put it away,’ Strings said.

An ironic lifting of the brows, then, smiling, Cuttle returned the sharper to the crate. ‘Anyway, it looks like Hellian’s got a capable corporal, which tells me she’d held onto good judgement, despite drinking brandy like water.’

Bottle rose. ‘Actually, I forgot about her. Where are they camped, Cuttle?’

‘Near the rum wagon. But she already knows about the meeting.’

Bottle glanced over at the crate of munitions. ‘Oh. Well, I’m going for a walk in the desert.’

‘Don’t stray too far,’ the sergeant said, ‘could be some of Leoman’s warriors out there.’


A short while later he came within sight of the intended meeting place. Just beyond the collapsed building was an overgrown rubbish heap, misshapen with tufts of yellow grass sprouting from the barrow-sized mound. There was no-one in sight. Bottle made his way towards the midden, the sounds of the encampment dwindling behind him. It was late afternoon but the wind remained hot as the breath of a furnace.

Chiselled wall and foundation stones, shattered idols, lengths of splintered wood, animal bones and broken pottery. Bottle clambered up the side, noting the most recent leavings – Malazan-style pottery, black-glazed, squat, fragmented images of the most common motifs: Dassem Ultor’s death outside Y’Ghatan, the Empress on her throne, the First Heroes and the Quon pantheon. The local style, Bottle had seen from the villages they had passed through, was much more elegant, elongated with cream or white glazing on the necks and rims and faded red on the body, adorned with full-toned and realistic images. Bottle paused at seeing one such shard, a body-piece, on which had been painted the Chain of Dogs. He picked it up, wiped dust from the illustrated scene. Part of Coltaine was visible, affixed to the cross of wood, overhead a wild flurry of black crows. Beneath him, dead Wickans and Malazans, and a cattle-dog impaled on a spear. A chill whispered along his spine and he let the shard dro p.

Atop the mound, he stood for a time, studying the sprawl of the Malazan army along the road and spilling out to the sides. The occasional rider wending through carrying messages and reports; carrion birds, capemoths and rhizan wheeling overhead like swarming flies.

He so disliked omens.

Drawing off his helm, Bottle wiped sweat from his brow and turned to face the odhan to the south. Once fertile, perhaps, but now a wasteland. Worth fighting for? No, but then, there wasn’t much that was. The soldier at your side, maybe – he’d been told that enough times, by old veterans with nothing left but that dubious companionship. Such bonds could only be born of desperation, a closing in of the spirit, down to a manageable but pitiful area containing things and people one could care about. For the rest, pure indifference, twisting on occasion into viciousness.

Gods, what am I doing here?

Stumbling into ways of living didn’t seem a worthy path to take. Barring Cuttle and the sergeant, the squad was made up of people no different from Bottle. Young, eager for a place to stand that didn’t feel so isolated and lonely, or filling oneself with bravado to mask the fragile self hiding within. But all that was no surprise. Youth was headlong, even when it felt static, stagnant and stifling. It liked its emotions extreme, doused in fiery spices, enough to burn the throat and set flame to the heart. The future was not consciously rushed into – it was just the place you suddenly ended up in, battered and weary and wondering how in Hood’s name you got there. Well. He could see that. He didn’t need the echoes of his grandmother’s ceaseless advice whispering through his thoughts.

Assuming, of course, that voice belonged to his grandmother. He had begun to suspect otherwise.

Bottle crossed the heap, moved down onto the south side. At the base here the desiccated ground was pitted, revealing much older leavings of rubbish – red-glazed sherds with faded images of chariots and stilted figures wearing ornate headdresses and wielding strange hookbladed weapons. The massive olive-oil jars common to this region retained these old forms, clinging to a mostly forgotten antiquity as if the now lost golden age was any different from the present one.

His grandmother’s observations, those ones. She’d had nothing good to say about the Malazan Empire, but even less about the Untan Confederacy, the Li Heng League and all the other despotic rulers of the pre-empire days on Quon Tali. She had been a child through all the Itko Kan–Cawn Por wars, the Seti Tide, the Wickan migrations, the Quon attempt at hegemony. All blood and stupidity, she used to say. All prod and pull. The old with their ambitions and the young with their eager mindless zeal. At least the Emperor put an end to all that – a knife in the back for those grey tyrants and distant wars for the young zealots. It ain’t right but nothing ever is. Ain’t right, as I said, but better than worst, and I remember the worst.

Now here he was, in the midst of one of those distant wars. Yet there had been no zeal in his motivations. No, something far more pathetic. Boredom was a poor reason to do anything. Better to hold high some raging brand of righteousness, no matter how misguided and lacking in subtlety.

Cuttle talks of vengeance. But he makes his trying to feed us something too obvious, and we’re not swelling with rage like we’re supposed to. He couldn’t be sure of it, but this army felt lost. At its very core was an empty place, waiting to be filled, and Bottle feared it would wait for ever.

He settled down onto the ground, began a silent series of summonings. Before long, a handful of lizards scampered across the dusty earth towards him. Two rhizan settled down onto his right thigh, their wings falling still. An arch spider, big as a horse’s hoof and the colour of green glass, leapt from a nearby rock and landed light as a feather on his left knee. He studied his array of companions and decided they would do. Gestures, the stroke of fingers, silent commands, and the motley servants hurried off, making one and all towards the sheep pen where the captain would address the sergeants.

It paid to know just how wide Hood’s Gate was going to be come the assault.

And then something else was on its way.

Sudden sweat on Bottle’s skin.

She appeared from the heat haze, moving like an animal – prey, not predator, in her every careful, watchful motion – fine-furred, deep brown, a face far more human than ape, filled with expression – or at least its potential, for the look she fixed upon him now was singular in its curiosity. As tall as Bottle, lean but heavy-breasted, belly distended. Skittish, she edged closer.

She is not real. A manifestation, a conjuration. A memory sprung from the dust of this land.

He watched her crouch to collect a handful of sand, then fling it at him, voicing a loud barking grunt. The sand fell short, a few pebbles bouncing off his boots.

Or maybe I am the conjured, not her. In her eyes the wonder of coming face to face with a god, or a demon. He looked past her, and saw the vista of a savannah, thick with grasses, stands of trees and wildlife. Nothing like it should have been, only what it once was, long ago. Oh, spirits, why won’t you leave me alone?

She had been following. Following them all. The entire army. She could smell it, see the signs of its passing, maybe even hear the distant clack of metal and wooden wheels punching down the sides of stones in the road as they rocked along. Driven on by fear and fascination, she had followed, not understanding how the future could echo back to her world, her time. Not understanding? Well, he couldn’t either. As if all is present, as if every moment co-exists. And here we two are, face to face, both too ignorant to partition our faith, our way of seeing the world – and so we see them all, all at once, and if we’re not careful it will drive us mad.

But there was no turning back. Simply because back did not exist.

He remained seated and she came closer, chattering now in some strange glottal tongue filled with clicks and stops. She gestured at her own belly, ran an index figure along it as if drawing a shape on the downy, paler pelt.

Bottle nodded. Yes, you carry a child. I understand that much. Still, what is that to me?

She threw more sand at him, most of it striking below his chest. He waved at the cloud in front of his stinging eyes.

A lunge forward, surprisingly swift, and she gripped his wrist, drew his arm forward, settled his hand on her belly.

He met her eyes, and was shaken to his very core. This was no mindless creature. Eres’al. The yearning in those dark, stunningly beautiful eyes made him mentally reel.

‘All right,’ he whispered, and slowly sent his senses questing, into that womb, into the spirit growing within it.

For every abomination, there must emerge its answer. Its enemy, its counterbalance. Here, within this Eres’al, is such an answer. To a distant abomination, the corruption of a once-innocent spirit. Innocence must be reborn. Yet … I can see so little … not human, not even of this world, barring what the Eres’al herself brought to the union. Thus, an intruder. From another realm, a realm bereft of innocence. To make them part of this world, one of their kind must be born … in this way. Their blood must be drawn into this world’s flow of blood.

But why an Eres’al? Because … gods below … because she is the last innocent creature, the last innocent ancestor of our line. After her … the degradation of spirit begins. The shifting of perspective, the separation from all else, the carving of borders – in the ground, in the mind’s way of seeing. After her, there’s only … us.

The realization – the recognition – was devastating. Bottle pulled his hand away. But it was too late. He knew too many things, now. The father … Tiste Edur. The child to come … the only pure candidate for a new Throne of Shadow – a throne commanding a healed realm.

And it would have so many enemies. So many …

‘No,’ he said to the creature, shaking his head. ‘You cannot pray to me. Must not. I’m not a god. I’m only a …’

Yet … to her I must seem just that. A vision. She is spirit-questing and she barely knows it. She’s stumbling, as much as we all are, but within her there’s a kind of … certainty. Hope. Gods … faith.

Humbled beyond words, filling with shame, Bottle pulled away, clawing up the slope of the mound, amidst the detritus of civilization, potsherds and fragments of mortar, rusted pieces of metal. No, he didn’t want this. Could not encompass this … this need in her. He could not be her … her faith.

She drew yet closer, hands closing round his neck, and dragged him back. Teeth bared, she shook him.

Unable to breathe, Bottle flailed in her grip.

She threw him down, straddled him, released his neck and raised two fists as if to batter him.

‘You want me to be your god?’ he gasped, ‘Fine, then! Have it your way!’ He stared up at her eyes, at the fists lifted high, framed by bright, blinding sunlight.

So, is this how a god feels?

A flash of glare, as if a sword had been drawn, an eager hiss of iron filling his head. Something like a fierce challenge—

Blinking, he found himself staring up at the empty sky, lying on the rough scree. She was gone, but he could still feel the echo of her weight on his hips, and the appalling erection her position had triggered in him.

Fist Keneb walked into the Adjunct’s tent. The map-table had been assembled and on it was an imperial map of Y’Ghatan that had been delivered a week earlier by a rider from Onearm’s Host. It was a scholar’s rendition drawn shortly after Dassem’s fall. Standing at Tavore’s side was Tene Baralta, busy scrawling all over the vellum with a charcoal stick, and the Red Blade was speaking.

‘… rebuilt here, and here, in the Malazan style of sunk columns and counter-sunk braces. The engineers found the ruins beneath the streets to be a maze of pockets, old rooms, half-buried streets, wells and inside-wall corridors. It should all have been flattened, but at least one age of construction was of a stature to rival what’s possible these days. Obviously, that gave them problems, which is why they gave up on the fourth bastion.’

‘I understand,’ the Adjunct said, ‘however, as I stated earlier, Fist Baralta, I am not interested in assailing the fourth bastion.’

Keneb could see the man’s frustration, but he held his tongue, simply tossing down the charcoal stick and stepping away from the table.

Over in the corner sat Fist Blistig, legs sprawled out in a posture bordering on insubordination.

‘Fist Keneb,’ Tavore said, eyes still on the map, ‘have you met with Temul and Warleader Gall?’

‘Temul reports the city has been evacuated – an exodus of citizens on the road to Lothal. Clearly, Leoman is planning for a long siege, and is not interested in feeding anyone but soldiers and support staff.’

‘He wants room to manoeuvre,’ said Blistig from where he sat. ‘Panic in the streets won’t do. We shouldn’t read too much into it, Keneb.’

‘I suspect,’ Tene Baralta said, ‘we’re not reading enough into it. I am nervous, Adjunct. About this whole damned situation. Leoman didn’t come here to defend the last rebel city. He didn’t come to protect the last believers – by the Seven Holies, he has driven them from their very homes, from their very own city! No, his need for Y’Ghatan was tactical, and that’s what worries me, because I can make no sense of it.’

The Adjunct spoke: ‘Did Temul have anything else to say, Keneb?’

‘He had thoughts of a night attack, with sappers, taking out a section of wall. Presumably, we would then follow through in strength, into that breach, thrusting deep into Y’Ghatan’s heart. Cut through far enough and we can isolate Leoman in the Falah’d’s palace …’

‘Too risky,’ Tene Baralta said in a grumble. ‘Darkness won’t cover those sappers from their mages. They’d get slaughtered—’

‘Risks cannot be avoided,’ Tavore said.

Keneb’s brows rose. ‘Temul said much the same, Adjunct, when the danger was discussed.’

‘Tene Baralta,’ Tavore continued after a moment, ‘you and Blistig have been directed as to the disposition of your companies. Best you begin preparations. I have spoken directly with Captain Faradan Sort on what will be required of her and her squads. We shall not waste time on this. We move tonight. Fist Keneb, remain, please. The rest of you are dismissed.’

Keneb watched Blistig and Baralta leave, reading in an array of small signs – posture, the set of their shoulders and the stiffness of their gaits – the depth of their demoralization.

‘Command does not come from consensus,’ the Adjunct said, her tone suddenly hard as she faced Keneb. ‘I deliver the orders, and my officers are to obey them. They should be relieved that is the case, for all responsibility lies with me and me alone. No-one else shall have to answer to the Empress.’

Keneb nodded, ‘As you say, Adjunct. However, your officers do feel responsible – for their soldiers—’

‘Many of whom will die, sooner or later, on some field of battle. Perhaps even here in Y’Ghatan. This is a siege, and sieges are messy. I do not have the luxury of starving them out. The longer Leoman resists, the greater the risk of flareups all over Seven Cities. High Fist Dujek and I are fully agreed on this.’

‘Then why, Adjunct, did we not accept his offer of more troops?’

She was silent for a half-dozen heartbeats, then, ‘I am aware of the sentiments among the squads of this army, none of whom, it seems, are aware of the true condition of Onearm’s Host.’

‘The true condition?’

She stepped closer. ‘There’s almost nothing left, Keneb. The core – the very heart – of Onearm’s Host – it’s gone.’

‘But – Adjunct, he has received replacements, has he not?’

‘What was lost cannot be replaced. Recruits: Genabarii, Nathii, half the Pale Garrison, oh, count the boots and they look to be intact, up to full complement, but Keneb, know this – Dujek is broken. And so is the Host.’

Shaken, Keneb turned away. He unstrapped his helm and drew the battered iron from his head, then ran a hand through his matted, sweaty hair. ‘Hood take us, the last great imperial army …’

‘Is now the Fourteenth, Fist.’

He stared at her.

She began pacing. ‘Of course Dujek offered, for he is, well, he is Dujek. Besides, the ranking High Fist could do no less. But he – they – have suffered enough. Their task now is to make the imperial presence felt – and we should all pray to our gods that they do not find their mettle tested, by anyone.’

‘That is why you are in such a hurry.’

‘Leoman must be taken down. Y’Ghatan must fall. Tonight.’

Keneb said nothing for a long moment, then he asked, ‘Why, Adjunct, are you telling me this?’

‘Because Garnet is dead.’

Garnet? Oh, I see.

‘And T’amber is not respected by any of you. Whereas,’ she glanced at him, with an odd expression, ‘you are.’

‘You wish for me to inform the other Fists, Adjunct?’

‘Regarding Dujek? Decide that for yourself, but I advise you, Fist, to think very carefully before reaching that decision.’

‘But they should be told! At least then they will understand …’

‘Me? Understand me? Perhaps. But that is not the most important issue here.’

He did not comprehend. Not at once. Then, a growing realization. ‘Their faith, beyond you, beyond the Fourteenth, lies with Dujek Onearm. So long as they believe he is there, poised behind us and ready to march to our aid, they will do as you command. You do not want to take that away from them, yet by your silence you sacrifice yourself, you sacrifice the respect they would accord you—’

‘Assuming such respect would be granted, Fist, and of that I am not convinced.’ She returned to the map-table. ‘The decision is yours, Fist.’

He watched her studying the map, then, concluding he had been dismissed, Keneb left the tent.

He felt sick inside. The Host – broken? Was that simply her assessment? Maybe Dujek was just tired … yet, who might know better? Quick Ben, but he wasn’t here. Nor that assassin, Kalam Mekhar. Leaving … well, one man. He paused outside the tent, studied the sun’s position. There might be time, before Sort spoke to them all, if he hurried.

Keneb set out towards the camps of the marines.

‘What do you want me to say, Fist?’ The sergeant had laid out a half-dozen heavy quarrels. He had already tied sharpers to two of them and was working on a third.

Keneb stared at the clay-ball grenado in Strings’s hands. ‘I don’t know, but make it honest.’

Strings paused and looked over at his squad, eyes narrowing. ‘Adjunct’s hoping for reinforcements if things go bad?’ He was speaking in a low voice.

‘That’s just it, Sergeant. She isn’t.’

‘So, Fist,’ Strings said, ‘she thinks Dujek’s finished. And so’s the Host. Is that what she thinks?’

‘Yes. You know Quick Ben, and the High Mage was there, after all. At Coral. He’s not here for me to ask him, so I’m asking you. Is the Adjunct right?’

He resumed affixing the grenado to the quarrel head.

Keneb waited.

‘Seems,’ the sergeant muttered, ‘I misjudged the Adjunct.’

‘In what way?’

‘She’s better at reading signs than I thought,’

Hood’s balls, I really did not want to hear that.

‘You are looking well, Ganoes Paran.’

His answering smile was wry. ‘My new life of ease, Apsalar.’

Shouts from the sailors on the deck as the carrack swung towards the harbour of Kansu, the sound of gulls a muted accompaniment to the creak of cordage and timber. A cool breeze rode the salty air coming through the cabin’s round window portside, smelling of the shore.

Apsalar studied the man seated across from her a moment longer, then returned to her task of roughing with a pumice stone the grip of one of her in-fighting knives. Polished wood was pretty, but far too slick in a sweaty hand. Normally she used leather gloves, but it never hurt to consider less perfect circumstances. For an assassin, the ideal situation was choosing when and where to fight, but such luxuries were not guaranteed.

Paran said, ‘I see that you’re as methodical as ever. Although at least now, there’s more animation in your face. Your eyes …’

‘You’ve been at sea too long, Captain.’

‘Probably. Anyway, I’m not a captain any more. My days as a soldier are done.’


He shrugged. ‘Some. I was never where I wanted to be with them. Until me very end, and then,’ he paused, ‘well, it was too late.’

‘That might have been for the better,’ Apsalar said. ‘Less … sullied.’

‘Odd, how the Bridgeburners mean different things for us. Memories, and perspectives. I was treated well enough among the survivors—’

‘Survivors. Yes, there’s always survivors.’

‘Picker, Antsy, Blend, Mallet, a few others. Proprietors of K’rul’s Bar, now, in Darujhistan.’

‘K’rul’s Bar?’

‘The old temple once sanctified to that Elder God, aye.

It’s haunted, of course.’

‘More than you realize, Paran.’

‘I doubt that. I’ve learned a lot, Apsalar, about a lot of things.’

A heavy thud to starboard, as the harbour patrol arrived to collect the mooring fees. The slap of lines. More voices.

‘K’rul played a very active role against the Pannion Domin,’ Paran went on. ‘Since that time, I’ve grown less easy with his presence – the Elder Gods are back in the game—’

‘Yes, you’ve already said something to that effect. They are opposing the Crippled God, and one cannot find fault in that.’

‘Are they? Sometimes I’m convinced … other times,’ he shook his head. Then rose. ‘We’re pulling in. I need to make arrangements.’

‘What kind of arrangements?’




‘Are you now ascended?’

His eyes widened. ‘I don’t know. Nothing feels different. I admit I’m not even sure what ascendancy means.’

‘Means you’re harder to kill.’


‘You have stumbled onto power, of a personal nature, and with it, well, power draws power. Always. Not the mundane kind, but something other, a force in nature, a confluence of energies. You begin to see things differently, to think differently. And others take notice of you – that’s usually bad, by the way.’ She sighed, studying him, and said, ‘Perhaps I don’t need to warn you, but I will. Be careful, Paran; of all the lands in this world, there are two more dangerous than all others—’

‘Your knowledge, or Cotillion’s?’

‘Cotillion’s for one, mine for the other. Anyway, you’re about to set foot on one of those two. Seven Cities, Paran, is not a healthy place to be, especially not for an ascendant.’

‘I know. I can feel that … what’s out there, what I have to deal with.’

‘Get someone else to do your fighting for you, if possible.’

His gaze narrowed on her. ‘Now that’s a clear lack of faith.’

‘I killed you once—’

‘And you were possessed by a god, by the Patron of Assassins himself, Apsalar.’

‘Who played by the rules. There are things here that do not.’

‘I’ll give that some consideration, Apsalar. Thank you.’

‘And remember, bargain from strength or don’t bargain at all.’

He gave her a strange smile, then headed topside.

A skittering sound from one corner, and Telorast and Curdle scampered into view, bony feet clattering on the wooden floor.

‘He is dangerous, Not-Apsalar! Stay away, oh, you’ve spent too long with him!’

‘Don’t worry about me, Telorast.’

‘Worry? Oh, we have worries, all right, don’t we, Curdle?’

‘Endless worries, Telorast. What am I saying? We’re not worried.’

Apsalar said, ‘The Master of the Deck knows all about you two, no doubt compounding those worries.’

‘But he told you nothing!’

‘Are you so certain of that?’

‘Of course!’ The bird-like skeleton bobbed and weaved in front of its companion. ‘Think on it, Curdle! If she knew she’d step on us! Wouldn’t she?’

‘Unless she has a more devious betrayal in mind, Telorast! Have you thought of that? No, you haven’t, have you? I have to do all the thinking.’

‘You never think! You never have!’

Apsalar rose. ‘They’ve dropped the gangplank. Time to leave.’

‘Hide us under your cloak. You have to. There are dogs out there, in the streets!’

She sheathed the knife. ‘All right, but no squirming.’

A squalid port, four of the six piers battered into treacherous hulks by Nok’s fleet a month earlier, Kansu was in no way memorable, and Apsalar was relieved as they rode past the last sprawl of shanties on the inland road and saw before them a scattering of modest stone buildings, marking the herders, the pens and the demon-eyed goats gathered beneath guldindha trees. And beyond that, tharok orchards with their silvery, thread-like bark prized for rope-making, the uneven rows looking ghostly with their boles shimmering in the wind.

There had been something odd in the city behind them, the crowds smaller than was normal, the voices more muted. A number of merchant shops had been shut, and this during peak market time. The modest garrison of Malazan soldiers was present only at the gates and down at the docks, where at least four trader ships had been denied berths. And no-one seemed inclined to offer explanations to outsiders.

Paran had spoken quietly with the horse trader and Apsalar had watched as more coin than was necessary changed hands, but the ex-captain had said nothing during their ride out.

Reaching a crossroads, they drew rein.

‘Paran,’ Apsalar said, ‘did you note anything strange about Kansu?’

He grimaced. ‘I don’t think we need worry,’ he said. ‘You’ve been possessed by a god, after all, and as for me, well, as I said, there’s no real cause for worry.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Plague. Hardly surprising, given all the unburied corpses following this rebellion. It began a week or so ago, somewhere east of Ehrlitan. Any ships that made port or hail from there are being turned away.’

Apsalar said nothing for a time. Then she nodded. ‘Poliel.’


‘And not enough healers left to intercede.’

‘The horse trader said officials went to the Temple of D’rek, in Kansu. The foremost healers are found there, of course. They found everyone within slaughtered.’

She glanced over at him.

‘I take the south track,’ Paran said, fighting with his edgy gelding.

Yes, there is nothing more to be said, is there. The gods are indeed at war. ‘The west for us,’ Apsalar replied, already uncomfortable with the Seven Cities style of saddle. Neither she nor Cotillion had ever had much success with horses, but at least the mare beneath her seemed a docile beast. She opened her cloak and dragged out Telorast, then Curdle, tossing them both onto the ground, where they raced ahead, long tails flicking.

‘All too short,’ Paran said, meeting her eyes.

She nodded. ‘But just as well, I think.’

Her comment was not well received. ‘I am sorry to hear you say that.’

‘I do not mean to offend, Ganoes Paran. It’s just that, well, I was rediscovering … things.’

‘Like comradeship?’


‘And that is something you feel you cannot afford.’

‘Invites carelessness,’ she said.

‘Ah, well. For what it is worth, Apsalar, I believe we will see each other again.’

She allowed that sentiment, and nodded. ‘I will look forward to that.’

‘Good, then there’s hope for you yet.’

She watched him ride away, his two packhorses trailing. Changes came to a man in ways few could imagine. He seemed to have let go of so much … she was envious of that. And already, she realized with a faint stab of regret, already she missed him. Too close, too dangerous by far. Just as well.

As for plague, well, he was probably right. Neither he nor Apsalar had much to fear. Too bad for everyone else, though.

The broken remnants of the road made for an agonized traverse up the limestone hillside, rocks tumbling and skittering down in clouds of dust. A flash flood had cut through the passage unknown years or decades past, revealing countless layers of sediments on the channel’s steep-cut walls. Leading her horse and the pack-mules by the reins, Samar Dev studied those multi-hued layers. ‘Wind and water, Karsa Orlong, without end. Time’s endless dialogue with itself.’

Three paces ahead, the Toblakai warrior did not reply. He was nearing the summit, taking the down-flow path of the past flood, ragged, gnawed rock rising to either side of him. The last hamlet was days behind them now; these lands were truly wild. Reclaimed, since surely this road must have led somewhere, once, but there were no other signs of past civilization. In any case, she was less interested in what had gone before. What was to come was her fascination, the wellspring of all her inventions, her inspirations.

‘Sorcery, Karsa Orlong, that is the heart of the problem.’

‘What problem now, woman?’

‘Magic obviates the need for invention, beyond certain basic requirements, of course. And so we remain eternally stifled—’

‘To the Faces with stifled, witch. There is nothing wrong with where we are, how we are. You spit on satisfaction, leaving you always unsettled and miserable. I am a Teblor – we live simply enough, and we see the cruelty of your so-called progress. Slaves, children in chains, a thousand lies to make one person better than the next, a thousand lies telling you this is how things should be, and there’s no stopping it. Madness called sanity, slavery called freedom. I am done talking now.’

‘Well, I’m not. You’re no different, calling ignorance wisdom, savagery noble. Without striving to make things better, we’re doomed to repeat our litany of injustices—’

Karsa reached the summit and turned to face her, his expression twisting. ‘Better is never what you think it is, Samar Dev.’

‘What does that mean?’

He raised a hand, suddenly still. ‘Quiet. Something’s not right.’ He slowly looked round, eyes narrowing. ‘There’s a … smell.’

She joined him, dragging the horse and mules onto level ground. High rocks to either side, the edge of a gorge just beyond – the hill they were on was a ridge, blade-edged, with more jagged rock beyond. A twisted ancient tree squatting on the summit. ‘I don’t smell anything …’

The Toblakai drew his stone sword. ‘A beast has laired here, nearby, I think. A hunter, a killer. And I think it is close …’

Eyes widening, Samar Dev scanned the area, her heart pounding hard in her chest. ‘You may be right. There are no spirits here …’

He grunted. ‘Fled.’

Fled. Oh.

Like a mass of iron filings, the sky was slowly lowering on all sides, a heavy mist that was dry as sand. Not that that made any sense, Kalam Mekhar allowed, but this was what came of sustained terror, the wild pathetic conjurations of a beleaguered imagination. He was clinging with every part of his body that was capable of clinging to the sheer, battered underside of a sky keep, the wind or whatever it was moaning in his ears, a trembling stealing the strength from his limbs as he felt the last of Quick Ben’s magic seep away.

Unanticipated, this sudden repudiation of sorcery – he could see no otataral, nothing veined through this brutal, black basalt. No obvious explanation. Leather gloves cut through, blood slicking his hands, and above, a mountain to climb, with this dry silver mist closing in around him. Somewhere far below crouched Quick Ben and Stormy, the former wondering what had gone wrong and, hopefully, trying to come up with an idea for dealing with it. The latter likely scratching his armpits and popping lice with his fingernails.

Well, there was no point in waiting for what might not come, when what was going to come was inevitable. Groaning with the effort, Kalam began pulling himself along the rock.

The last sky keep he had seen had been Moon’s Spawn, and its pocked sides had been home to tens of thousands of Great Ravens. Fortunately, this did not seem to be the case here. A few more man-heights’ worth of climbing and he would find himself on a side, rather than virtually upside-down as he was now. Reach there, he knew, and he would be able to rest.

Sort of.

That damned wizard. That damned Adjunct. Damned everybody, in fact, since not one of them was here, and of course they weren’t, since this was madness and nobody else was this stupid. Gods, his shoulders were on fire, the insides of his thighs a solid ache edging towards numbness. And that wouldn’t be good, would it?

Too old for this by far. Men his age didn’t reach his age falling for stupid plans like this one. Was he getting soft? Soft-brained.

He pulled himself round a chiselled projection, scrabbled with his feet for a moment, then edged over, drew himself up and found ledges that would take his weight. A whimper escaped him, sounding pathetic even to his own ears, as he settled against the stone.

A while later, he lifted his head and began looking round, searching for a suitable outcrop or knob of rock that he could loop his rope over.

Quick Ben’s rope, conjured out of nothing. Will it even work here, or will it just vanish? Hood’s breath, I don’t know enough about magic. Don’t even know enough about Quick, and I’ve known the bastard for bloody ever. Why isn’t he the one up here?

Because, if the Short-Tails noticed the gnat on their hide, Quick was better backup, even down there, than Kalam could have been. A crossbow quarrel would be spent by the time it reached this high – you could just pluck it out of the air. As for Stormy – a whole lot more expendable than me, as far as I’m concerned – the man swore he couldn’t climb, swore that as a babe he never once made it out of his crib without help.

Hard imagining that hairy-faced miserable hulk ever fitting into a crib in the first place.

Regaining control of his breathing, Kalam looked down.

To find Quick Ben and Stormy nowhere in sight. Gods below, now what? The modest features of the ash-laden plain beneath offered little in the way of cover, especially from this height. Yet, no matter where he scanned, he saw no-one. The tracks they had made were faintly visible, leading to where the assassin had left them, and at that location there was … something dark, a crack in the ground. Difficult to determine scale, but maybe … maybe big enough to swallow both of the bastards.

He resumed his search for projections for the rope. And could see none. ‘All right, I guess it’s time. Cotillion, consider this a sharp tug on your rope. No excuses, you damned god, I need your help here.’

He waited. The moan of the wind, the slippery chill of the mist.

‘I don’t like this warren.’

Kalam turned his head to find Cotillion alongside him, one hand and one foot holding the god in place. He held an apple in the other hand, from which he now took a large bite.

‘You think this is funny?’ Kalam demanded.

Cotillion chewed, then swallowed. ‘Somewhat.’

‘In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re clinging to a sky keep, and it’s got companions, a whole damned row of them.’

‘If you needed a ride,’ the god said, ‘you’d be better off with a wagon, or a horse.’

‘It’s not moving. It stopped. And I’m trying to break into this one. Quick Ben and a marine were waiting below, but they’ve just vanished.’

Cotillion examined the apple, then took another bite.

‘My arms are getting tired.’

Chewing. Swallowing. ‘I’m not surprised, Kalam. Even so, you will have to be patient, since I have some questions. I’ll start with the most obvious one. Why are you trying to break into a fortress filled with K’Chain Che’Malle?’

‘Filled? Are you sure?’


‘Then what are they doing here?’

‘Waiting, looks like. Anyway, I’m the one asking questions.’

‘Fine. Go ahead, I’ve got all day.’

‘Actually, I think that was my only question. Oh, wait, there’s one more. Would you like me to return you to solid ground, so we can resume our conversation in more comfort?’

‘You’re enjoying this way too much, Cotillion.’

‘The opportunities for amusement grow ever rarer. Fortunately, we’re in something like this keep’s shadow, so our descent will be relatively easy.’

‘Any time.’

Cotillion tossed the apple aside, then reached out to grasp Kalam’s upper arm. ‘Step away and leave the rest to me.’

‘Hold on a moment. Quick Ben’s spells were dispelled – that’s how I ended up stuck here—’

‘Probably because he’s unconscious.’

‘He is?’

‘Or dead. We should confirm things either way, yes?’

You sanctimonious blood-lapping sweat-sucking—

‘Risky,’ Cotillion cut in, ‘making your cursing sound like praying.’ A sharp tug, and Kalam bellowed as he was snatched out from the rockface. And was held, suspended in the air by Cotillion’s grip on his arm. ‘Relax, you damned ox, “easy” is a relative term.’

Thirty heartbeats later their feet touched ground. Kalam pulled his arm away and headed over to the fissure gaping in the place where Quick and Stormy had been waiting. He approached the edge carefully. Called down into the dark. ‘Quick! Stormy!’ No answer.

Cotillion was at his side. ‘Stormy? That wouldn’t be Adjutant Stormy, would it? Pig-eyed, hairy, scowling—’

‘He’s now a corporal,’ Kalam said. ‘And Gesler’s a sergeant.’

A snort from the god, but no further comment.

The assassin leaned back and studied Cotillion. ‘I didn’t really think you’d answer my prayer.’

‘I am a god virtually brimming with surprises.’

Kalam’s gaze narrowed. ‘You came damned fast, too. As if you were … close by.’

‘An outrageous assumption,’ Cotillion said. ‘Yet, oddly enough, accurate.’

The assassin drew the coil of rope from his shoulder, then looked around, and swore.

Sighing, Cotillion held out one hand.

Kalam gave him one end of the rope. ‘Brace yourself,’ he said, as he tumbled the coil down over the pit’s edge. He heard a distant snap.

‘Don’t worry about that,’ Cotillion said. ‘I’ll make it as long as you need.’

Hood-damned gods. Kalam worked his way over the edge, then began descending through the gloom. Too much climbing today. Either that or I’m gaining weight. His moccasins finally settled on stone. He stepped away from the rope.

From overhead a small globule of light drifted down, illuminating the nearest wall, vertical, man-made, featuring large painted panels, the images seeming to dance in the descending light. For a moment, Kalam simply stared. No idle decoration, this, but a work of art, a master’s hand exuberantly displayed in each and every detail. Heavily clothed, more or less human in form, the figures were in positions of transcendence, arms upraised in worship or exaltation, faces filled with joy. Whilst, crowding their feet, dismembered body parts had been painted, blood-splashed and buzzing with flies. The mangled flesh continued down to the chamber’s floor, then on out, and Kalam saw now that the bloody scene covered the entire expanse of floor, as far as he could see in every direction.

Pieces of rubble were scattered here and there, and, less than a half-dozen paces away, two motionless bodies.

Kalam headed over.

Both men lived, he was relieved to discover, though it was difficult to determine the extent of their injuries, beyond the obvious. Stormy had broken both legs, one above the knee, the other both bones below the knee. The back of his helm was dented, but he breathed evenly, which Kalam took for a good sign. Quick Ben seemed physically intact – nothing obviously shattered, at least, nor any blood. For both of them, however, internal injuries were another matter. Kalam studied the wizard’s face for a moment, then slapped it.

Quick’s eyes snapped open. He blinked, looked round, coughed, then sat up. ‘One half of my face is numb – what happened?’

‘No idea,’ Kalam said. ‘You and Stormy fell through a hole. The Falari’s in rough shape. But somehow you made it unscathed – how did you do that?’

‘Unscathed? I think my jaw’s broken.’

‘No it isn’t. Must have hit the floor – looks a little puffy but you wouldn’t be talking if it was broke.’

‘Huh, good point.’ He climbed to his feet and approached Stormy. ‘Oh, those legs look bad. We need to set those before I can do any healing.’

‘Healing? Dammit, Quick, you never did any healing in the squad.’

‘No, that was Mallet’s task. I was the brains, remember?’

‘Well, as I recall, that didn’t take up much of your time.’

‘That’s what you think.’ The wizard paused and looked round. ‘Where are we? And where did that light come from?’

‘Compliments of Cotillion, who is on the other end of that rope.’

‘Oh. Well, he can do the healing, then. Get him down here.’

‘Then who will hold the rope?’

‘We don’t need it. Hey, weren’t you climbing the Moon’s Spawn? Ah, that’s why your god is here. Right.’

‘To utter the demon’s name is to call him,’ Kalam said, looking up to watch Cotillion’s slow, almost lazy descent.

The god settled near Stormy and Quick Ben. A brief nod to the wizard, one eyebrow lifting, then Cotillion crouched beside the marine. ‘Adjutant Stormy, what has happened to you?’

‘That should be obvious,’ Kalam said. ‘He broke his legs.’

The god rolled the marine onto his back, pulled at each leg, drawing the bones back in line, then rose. ‘That will do, I think.’


‘Adjutant Stormy,’ Cotillion said, ‘is not quite as mortal as he might seem. Annealed in the fires of Thyrllan. Or Kurald Liosan. Or Tellann. Or all three. In any case, as you can see, he’s mending already. The broken ribs are completely healed, as is the failing liver and shattered hip. And the cracked skull. Alas, nothing can be done for the brain within it.’

‘He’s lost his mind?’

‘I doubt he ever had one,’ the god replied. ‘He’s worse than Urko. At least Urko has interests, peculiar and pointless as they are.’

A groan from Stormy.

Cotillion walked over to the nearest wall. ‘Curious,’ he said. ‘This is a temple to an Elder God. Not sure which one. Kilmandaros, maybe. Or Grizzin Farl. Maybe even K’rul.’

‘A rather bloody kind of worship,’ Kalam muttered.

‘The best kind,’ Quick Ben said, brushing dust from his clothes.

Kalam noted Cotillion’s sly regard of the wizard and wondered at it. Ben Adaephon Delat, Cotillion knows something about you, doesn’t he? Wizard, you’ve got too many secrets by far. The assassin then noticed the rope, still dangling from the hole far above. ‘Cotillion, what did you tie the rope to?’

The god glanced over, smiled. ‘A surprise. I must be going. Gentlemen …’ And he faded, then was gone.

‘Your god makes me nervous, Kalam,’ Quick Ben said as Stormy groaned again, louder this time.

And you in turn make him nervous. And now … He looked down at Stormy. The rips in the leggings were all that remained of the ghastly compound fractures. Adjutant Stormy. Annealed in holy fires. Still scowling.

High rock, the sediments stepped and ragged, surrounded their camp, an ancient tree to one side. Cutter sat near the small dung-fire they had lit, watching as Greyfrog circled the area, evincing ever more agitation. Nearby, Heboric Ghost Hands looked to be dozing, the hazy green emanations at the ends of his wrists dully pulsing. Scillara and Felisin Younger were packing their pipes for their new sharing of a post-meal ritual. Cutter’s gaze returned to the demon.

Greyfrog, what’s ailing you?

‘Nervous. I have intimations of tragedy, swiftly approaching. Something … worried and uncertain. In the air, in the sands. Sudden panic. We should leave here. Turn back. Flee.’

Cutter felt sweat bead his skin. He had never heard the demon so … frightened. ‘We should get off this ridge?’

The two women looked up at his spoken words. Felisin Younger glanced at Greyfrog, frowned, then paled. She rose. ‘We’re in trouble,’ she said.

Scillara straightened and walked over to Heboric, nudged him with a boot. ‘Wake up.’

The Destriant of Treach blinked open his eyes, then sniffed the air and rose in a single, fluid motion.

Cutter watched all this in growing alarm. Shit. He kicked sand over the fire. ‘Collect your gear, everyone.’

Greyfrog paused in his circling and watched them. ‘So imminent? Uncertain. Troubled, yes. Need for panic? Changing of mind? Foolishness? Uncertain.’

‘Why take chances?’ Cutter asked. ‘There’s enough light – we’ll see if we can find a more defensible place to camp.’

‘Appropriate compromise. Nerves easing their taut sensitivity. Averted? Unknown.’

‘Usually,’ Heboric said in a rough voice, pausing to spit. ‘Usually, running from one thing throws you into the path of another.’

‘Well, thanks for that, old man.’

Heboric gave Cutter an unpleasant smile. ‘My pleasure.’

The cliff-face was pocked with caves which had, over countless centuries, seen use as places of refuge, as crypts for internment of the dead, as storage chambers, and as sheltered panels for rock-paintings. Detritus littered the narrow ledges that had been used as pathways; here and there a dark sooty stain marred overhangs and crevasses where fires had been lit, but nothing looked recent to Mappo’s eye, and he recognized the funerary ceramics as belonging to the First Empire era.

They were approaching the summit of the escarpment, Icarium scrambling up towards an obvious notch cut into the edge by past rains. The lowering sun on their left was red behind a curtain of suspended dust that had been raised by the passing of a distant storm. Bloodflies buzzed the air around the two travellers, frenzied by the storm’s brittle, energized breath.

Icarium’s drive had become obsessive, a barely restrained ferocity. He wanted judgement, he wanted the truth of his past revealed to him, and when that judgement came, no matter how harsh, he would stand before it and raise not a single hand in his own defence.

And Mappo could think of nothing to prevent it, short of somehow incapacitating his friend, of striking him into unconsciousness. Perhaps it would come to that. But there were risks to such an attempt. Fail and Icarium’s rage would burgeon into life, and all would be lost.

He watched as the Jhag reached the notch and clambered through, then out of sight. Mappo quickly followed. Reaching the summit, he paused, wiping grit from his hands. The old drainage channel had carved a channel through the next tiers of limestone, creating a narrow, twisting track flanked by steep walls. A short distance beyond, Mappo could see the edge of another drop-off, towards which Icarium was heading.

Thick shadows within the channel, insects swarming in the few shafts of sunlight spearing through a gnarled tree. Three strides from reaching Icarium’s side, and the gloom seemed to explode around the Trell. He caught a momentary glimpse of something closing on Icarium from the pinnacle of stone to the Jhag’s right, then figures swarmed him.

The Trell lashed out, felt his fist connect with flesh and bone to his left, the sound solid and crunching. A spatter of blood and phlegm.

A brawny arm snaked round from behind to close on his neck, twisting his head back, the glistening skin of that limb sliding as if oiled before the arm locked tight. Another figure plunged into view from the front, long-taloned hands snapping out, puncturing Mappo’s belly. He bellowed in agony as the claws raked across in an eviscerating slash.

That failed, for the Trell’s hide was thicker than the leather armour covering it. Even so, blood sprayed. The creature behind him tightened its stranglehold. He could feel something of its immense weight and size. Unable to draw a weapon, Mappo pivoted, then flung himself backward into a rock wall. The crunch of bone and skull behind him, a gasp from the beast that rose into a screech of pain.

The creature with its claws in Mappo’s belly had been dragged closer by the Trell’s backward lunge. He closed his hands round its squat, bony skull, flexed, then savagely twisted the head to one side. The neck snapped. Another scream, this time seeming to come from all sides.

Roaring, Mappo staggered forward, grasping at the forearm drawn across his neck. The beast’s weight slammed into him, sent him stumbling.

He caught a glimpse of Icarium, collapsing beneath a swarm of dark, writhing creatures.

Too late he felt his leading foot pitch down over the crumbled edge of the cliff-side, down into … open air. The creature’s weight pushed him further forward, then, as it saw the precipice they were both about to plunge over, the forearm loosened.

But Mappo held fast, twisting to drag the beast with him as he fell.

Another shriek, and he finally caught full sight of the thing. Demonic, mouth opened wide, needle-like fangs fully locked in their hinges, each as long as Mappo’s thumb, glistening black eyes, the pupils vertical and the hue of fresh blood.



He saw its rage, its horror, as they both plummeted from the cliff.


Falling …

Gods, this was—



In darkness he came, this brutal slayer of kin, discharged and unleashed, when all but ghosts fled the wild dishevelled swagger – oh he knew pain, twin fires of vast oblivion burning his soul— and so the ghosts did gather, summoned by one who would stand, mortal and feckless, in the terrible slayer’s path, would stand, this precious fool, and gamble all in the clasping of hand, warm to cold, and be led to the place long vanished, and beasts long vanquished would at his word awaken once more.

And who was there to warn him? Why, no-one, and what found its way free was no friend to the living. When you play horror against horror, dear listener, leave all hope behind— and ride a fast horse.

Master Blind

Saedevar of the Widecut Jhag


Never bargain with a man who has nothing to lose.

Sayings of the Fool

Thenys Bule

Leoman of the Flails staggered from the inner sanctum, a sheen of sweat on his face. In a hoarse voice he asked, ‘Is it night yet?’

Corabb rose quickly, then sat back down on the bench as blackness threatened to engulf him – he had been sitting too long, watching Dunsparrow attempt to pace a trench in the stone floor. He opened his mouth to reply, but the Malazan woman spoke first.

‘No, Leoman, the sun rides the horizon.’

‘Movement yet from the Malazan camps?’

‘The last runner reported half a bell ago. Nothing at that time.’

There was a strange, triumphant gleam in Leoman’s eyes that troubled Corabb, but he had no time to ask as the great warrior strode past. ‘We must hurry. Back to the palace – some final instructions.’

The enemy was attacking this very night? How could Leoman be so certain? Corabb stood once again, more slowly this time. The High Priestess had forbidden witnesses to the ritual, and when the Queen of Dreams manifested, even the High Priestess and her acolytes had left the chamber with discomfited expressions, leaving Leoman alone with the goddess. Corabb fell in two steps behind his leader, prevented from drawing closer by that damned woman, Dunsparrow.

‘Their mages will make detection difficult,’ the Third was saying as they headed out of the temple.

‘No matter,’ Leoman snapped. ‘It’s not like we have any worthy of the name anyway. Even so, we need to make it look as if we’re trying.’

Corabb frowned. Trying? He did not understand any of this. ‘We need soldiers on the walls!’ he said. ‘As many as can be mustered!’

‘We can’t hold the walls,’ Dunsparrow said over her shoulder. ‘You must have realized that, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas.’

‘Then – then, why are we here?’

The sky overhead was darkening, the bruise of dusk only moments away.

Through empty streets, the three of them rushed along. Corabb’s frown deepened. The Queen of Dreams. Goddess of divination and who knew what else. He despised all gods, except, of course, for Dryjhna the Apocalyptic. Meddlers, deceivers, murderers one and all. That Leoman would seek one out … this was troubling indeed.

Dunsparrow’s fault, he suspected. She was a woman. The Queen’s priesthood was mostly women – at least, he thought it was – there’d been a High Priestess, after all, a blurry-eyed matron swimming in the fumes of durhang and likely countless other substances. Just to stand near her was to feel drunk. Too seductive by far. Nothing good was going to come of this, nothing at all.

They approached the palace and, finally, some signs of activity. Warriors moving about, weapons clanking, shouts from the fortifications. So, the outer walls would be breached – no other reason for all this preparation. Leoman expected a second siege, here at the palace itself. And soon.

‘Warleader!’ Corabb said, shouldering Dunsparrow aside. ‘Give me command of the palace gates! We shall hold against the Malazan storm in the name of the Apocalypse!’

Leoman glanced back at him, considering, then he shook his head. ‘No, friend. I need you for a far more important task.’

‘What will that be, Great Warrior? I am equal to it.’

‘You’d better be,’ Leoman said.

Dunsparrow snorted.

‘Command me, Commander.’

This time she laughed outright. Corabb scowled at her.

Leoman replied, ‘Your task this night is this, my friend. Guard my back.’

‘Ah, we shall be leading the fight, then, in the very frontmost ranks! Glorious, we shall deliver unto the Malazan dogs a judgement they shall never forget.’

Leoman slapped him on the shoulder. ‘Aye, Corabb,’ he said. ‘That we shall.’

They continued on, into the palace.

Dunsparrow was still laughing.

Gods, how Corabb hated her.

Lostara Yil swept back the tent-flap and marched inside. She found Pearl lounging on looted silk pillows, a hookah of wine-flavoured durhang settled like a bowl in his lap. Through the smoke haze, he met her fury with a lazy, fume-laden regard, which of course made her even angrier.

‘I see you’ve planned out the rest of this night, Pearl. Even as this damned army prepares to assault Y’Ghatan.’

He shrugged. ‘The Adjunct doesn’t want my help. I could have snuck into the palace by now, you know – they have no mages to speak of. I could be at this very moment sliding a knife across Leoman’s throat. But no, she won’t have it. What am I to do?’

‘She doesn’t trust you, Pearl, and to be honest, I’m not surprised.’

His brows lifted. ‘Darling, I am offended. You, more than anyone else, know the sacrifices I have made to protect the Adjunct’s fragile psyche. Needless to say,’ he added, pausing for a lungful of the cloying smoke, ‘I have of late been tempted to shatter that psyche with the truth about her sister, just out of spite.’

‘Your restraint impresses me,’ Lostara said. ‘Of course, if you did something as cruel as that, I’d have to kill you.’

‘What a relief, knowing how you endeavour to protect the purity of my soul.’

‘Purity is not the issue,’ she replied. ‘Not yours, at least.’

He smiled. ‘I was attempting to cast myself in a more favourable light, my sweet.’

‘It is clear to me, Pearl, that you imagined our brief romance – if one could call it that – as indicative of genuine feelings. I find that rather pathetic. Tell me, do you plan on ever returning me to my company in the Red Blades?’

‘Not quite yet, I’m afraid.’

‘Has she given us another mission?’

‘The Adjunct? No, but as you may recall, what we did for Tavore was a favour. We work for the Empress.’

‘Fine. What does our Empress command?’

His eyes were heavy-lidded as they studied her for a moment. ‘Wait and see.’

‘She commands us to wait and see?’

‘All right, since you insist, you are temporarily detached from me, a notion that should give you untold satisfaction. Go join the marines, or the sappers, or whoever in Hood’s name is attacking tonight. And if you get a limb lopped off don’t come crawling back to me – gods, I can’t believe I just said that. Of course you can come crawling back to me, just be sure to bring the limb along.’

‘You don’t possess High Denul, Pearl, so what point in bringing back the limb?’

‘I’d just like to see it, that’s all.’

‘If I do come crawling back, Pearl, it will be to stick a knife in your neck.’

‘With those cheery words you can go now, dear.’

She wheeled and marched from the tent.

Fist Keneb joined Tene Baralta in the mustering area just inside the north pickets. Moths and biting flies were swarming in the crepuscular air. Heaps of rocky earth rose like modest barrows where the soldiers had dug their trenches. As yet, few squads had assembled, so as not to reveal the army’s intentions too early, although Keneb suspected that Leoman and his warriors already knew all that needed to be known. Even so, the Fist noted as he stared at the distant, uneven wall, topmost among the tiers of earth and rubble, there seemed to be no activity. Y’Ghatan was deathly quiet, virtually unlit as darkness spread its cloak.

Tene Baralta was in full armour: scaled vest, chain skirt and camail, greaves and vambraces of beaten bronze rimmed with iron. He was adjusting the straps of his helm as Keneb came to his side.

‘Blistig is not happy,’ Keneb said.

Baralta’s laugh was low. ‘Tonight belongs to you and me, Keneb. He only moves in if we get in trouble. Temul was wondering … this plan, it matches his own. Did you advise the Adjunct?’

‘I did. Inform Temul that she was pleased that his strategy matched her own in this matter.’


‘Have your company’s mages begun?’ Keneb asked.

A grunt, then, ‘They say there’s no-one there, no-one waiting to counter them. Nil and Nether have made the same discovery. Could Leoman have lost all his mages, do you think?’

‘I don’t know. Seems unlikely.’

‘I trust you’ve heard the rumours, Keneb.’

‘About what?’

‘Plague. From the east. It has swept through Ehrlitan. If we fail tonight and find ourselves bogged down outside this city …’

Keneb nodded. ‘Then we must succeed, Tene Baralta.’

A rider was galloping on the road behind and to their right, fast approaching. Both men turned as the pounding hoofs reverberated through the ground at their feet. ‘An urgent message?’ Keneb wondered, squinting to make out the grey-cloaked figure, face hidden by a hood. A longsword at his side, the scabbard banded in white enamel. ‘I do not recog—’

The rider rode straight for them. Bellowing in anger, Tene Baralta leapt to one side. Keneb followed, then spun as the rider flew past, his white horse reaching the trenches, and launching itself over. The picket guards shouted. A crossbow discharged, the quarrel striking the stranger on the back, then caroming off into the night. Still riding at full gallop, the figure now leaning forward over the horse’s neck, they sailed over the narrow inside trench, then raced for the city.

Where a gate cracked open, spilling muted lantern light.

‘Hood’s breath!’ Tene Beralta swore, regaining his feet. ‘An enemy rides right through our entire army!’

‘We’ve no exclusive claim on bravery,’ Keneb said. ‘And I admit to a grudging admiration – I am glad to have witnessed it.’

‘A rider to bring word to Leoman—’

‘Nothing he doesn’t already know, Tene Baralta. Consider this a lesson, a reminder—’

‘I need none, Keneb. Look at this, my helm’s full of dirt. Light grey cloak, white horse and white-banded sword. A tall bastard. I will find him, I swear it, and he will pay for his temerity.’

‘We’ve enough concerns ahead of us this night,’ Keneb said. ‘If you go off hunting one man, Tene Baralta …’

He emptied the dirt from the helm. ‘I hear you. Pray to Treach, then, that the bastard crosses my path one more time this night.’

Treach, is it! Fener … gone so quickly from men’s minds. A message no god would dare to heed, I think.

Lieutenant Pores stood with Captain Kindly and the Korelri Faradan Sort, within sight of their respective companies. Word of a spy in the army’s midst, boldly riding into Y’Ghatan, had everyone more on edge than they already were, given that at any moment would come the order to move. Sappers in the lead, of course, disguised within gloomy magic.

Magic. It’s all gloomy. Worse than sappers, in fact. In combination, well, this night was headed straight into the Abyss, as far as Pores was concerned. He wondered where old Ebron was, and if he was participating in the rituals – he missed his old squad. Limp, Bell, and that new lass, Sinn – now there was a scary creature. Well, maybe he didn’t miss them all that much. Dangerous, one and all, and mostly to each other.

Captain Kindly had been trying to take the measure of the woman standing beside him – a choice of phrase that brought a small smile to the lieutenant’s mouth. Take her measure. But ain’t nobody’s got that close, from what I hear. In any case, it was frustrating being unable to get a sense of a fellow officer. Cold iron, probably – you don’t stand the Wall long enough to survive without something icy, brutal and calculated wrapped round the soul – but this one was cold in every other way besides. Rarest of all, a woman of few words. He smiled again.

‘Wipe that grin off your face, Lieutenant,’ Kindly said, ‘or I’ll conclude you’ve lost your mind and promote you.’

‘Apologies, Captain, I promise I won’t do it again. Please don’t promote me.’

‘You two are idiots,’ Faradan Sort said.

Well, that’s one way to halt a conversation.

Sergeant Hellian looked on the wavering scene, comforted by an overwhelming sense of propriety, although the way everyone was swaying was making her nauseous. Corporal Urb separated himself from the squad and came up to her.

‘You ready for this, Sergeant?’

‘Ready for what?’ she demanded. Then scowled, all sense of propriety vanishing. ‘If that bastard hadn’t disappeared the way he did, I wouldn’t be trading my sword for a jug of that local rot, would I?’ She reached down for the weapon, her hand groping as it found only air, then the empty scabbard. ‘Why didn’t you stop me, Urb? I mean, it was my sword, after all. What am I s’posed to use?’

He shifted nervously, then leaned closer. ‘Get a new one from the armoury, Sergeant.’

‘And that’ll get back to the captain and we’ll get shipped off somewhere even worse.’

‘Worse? Where is worse than this, Sergeant?’

‘Korel. Theftian Penins’la. Black Coral, under the empty eyes of the Tiste Andii. The Wreckers’ Coast on North Assail—’

‘Ain’t no Malazan forces there.’

‘No, but it’s worse than this.’

‘One story from some addled sailor in Kartool and you’re now convinced that Hood himself strides the shadows—’

‘He’s stridin’ our shallows – shadows, I mean.’

‘Listen, Sergeant, we’re about to head into battle—’

‘Right, where’s that jug?’ She looked round, found it lying on its side near somebody’s bedroll. ‘Hey, who in my squad ain’t packed up their kit?’

‘That’s yours, Sergeant,’ Urb said.

‘Oh.’ Collecting the jug, she gave it a shake and was pleased at the sloshing sounds within. She glanced over to stare at her … squad. There were two soldiers. Two. Some squad. Captain had said something about a few newcomers on the way. ‘Well, where are they?’

‘Who?’ Urb asked. ‘Your squad? They’re right in front of you.’

‘Touchy and Brethless.’

‘That’s right.’

‘Well, where are the rest? Didn’t we have more?’

‘Had four marching with us the last day, but they were reassigned.’

‘So my squad is a corporal and two soljers.’

‘Twins, Sergeant,’ Touchy said. ‘But I’m older, as I’m sure you can tell.’

‘And mentally underdeveloped, Sergeant,’ Brethless said. ‘Those last few minutes were obviously crucial, as I’m sure you can tell.’

Hellian turned away. ‘They look the same to me, Urb. All right, has the word come yet? We s’posed to be mustering somewhere right now?’

‘Sergeant, you might want to pass that jug around – we’re about to get in a fight and I don’t know about you and them two, but I joined the local city guard so’s I wouldn’t have to do any of this. I been to the latrines four times since supper and I’m still all squishy inside.’

At Urb’s suggestion Hellian clutched the jug tight to her chest. ‘Getyerown.’


‘All right, a couple mouthfuls each, then I get the rest. I see anybody take more’n two swallows and I cut ’em down where they stand.’

‘With what?’ Urb asked as he pulled the jug from her reluctant hands.

Hellian frowned. With what? What was he talking about? Oh, right. She thought for a moment, then smiled. ‘I’ll borrow your sword, of course.’ There, what a pleasing solution.

Sergeant Balm squatted in the dirt, studying the array of pebbles, stone discs and clay buttons resting on the elongated Troughs board. He muttered under his breath, wondering if this was a dream, a nightmare and he was still asleep. He glanced across at Sergeant Moak, then looked back down at the game-board.

Something was wrong. He could make no sense of the pieces. He’d forgotten how to play the game. Straws, discs, buttons, pebbles – what were they all about? What did they signify? Who was winning? ‘Who’s playing this damned game?’ he demanded.

‘You and me, you Dal Honese weasel,’ Moak said.

‘I think you’re lying. I never seen this game before in my life.’ He glared round at all the faces, the soldiers all looking down to watch, all looking at him now. Strange expressions – had he ever seen any of them before? He was a sergeant, wasn’t he? ‘Where’s my damned squad? I’m supposed to be with my damned squad. Has the call come? What am I doing here?’ He shot upright, making sure one foot toppled the game-board. Pieces flew, soldiers jumping back.

‘Bad omen!’ one hissed, backing away.

Growling, Moak rose, reaching for the knife at his belt. ‘Swamp scum, you’ll pay for that. I was winning—’

‘No you weren’t! Those pieces were a mess! A jumble! They didn’t make sense!’ He reached up and scratched at his face. ‘What – this is clay! My face is covered in clay! A death mask! Who did this to me?’

A familiar but musty-smelling man stepped close to Balm. ‘Sergeant, your squad’s right here. I’m Deadsmell—’

‘I’ll say.’

‘Corporal Deadsmell. And that’s Throatslitter, and Widdershins, Galt and Lobe—’

‘All right, all right, be quiet, I ain’t blind. When’s the call coming? We should’ve heard something by now.’

Moak closed in. ‘I wasn’t finished with you – that was a curse, what you did, Balm, on me and my squad – since I was winning the game. You cursed us, you damned warlock—’

‘I did not! It was an accident. Come on, Deadsmell, let’s make our way to the pickets, I’m done waiting here.’

‘You’re headed the wrong way, Sergeant!’

‘Lead on, then! Who designed this damned camp, anyway? None of it makes any sense!’

Behind them, Sergeant Moak made to step after them, but his corporal, Stacker, pulled him back. ‘It’s all right, Sergeant. I heard about this from my da. It’s the Confusion. Comes to some before a battle. They lose track – of everything. It should settle down once the fighting starts – but sometimes it don’t, and if that’s the case with Balm, then it’s his squad that’s doomed, not us.’

‘You sure about all that, Stacker?’

‘Yeah. Remember Fist Garnet? Listen. It’s all right. We should check our weapons, one last time.’

Moak sheathed his knife. ‘Good idea, get them on it, then.’

Twenty paces away, Deadsmell fell in step alongside his sergeant. ‘Smart, all that back there. You was losing bad. Faking the Confusion, well, Sergeant, I’m impressed.’

Balm stared at the man. Who was he again? And what was he blathering on about? What language was the fool speaking, anyway?

‘I got no appetite,’ Lutes said, tossing the chunk of bread away. A camp dog closed in, collected the food and scampered off. ‘I feel sick,’ the soldier continued.

‘You ain’t the only one,’ Maybe said. ‘I’m in there first, you know. Us sappers. Rest of you got it easy. We got to set charges, meaning we’re running with cussers and crackers over rough ground, climbing rubble, probably under fire from the walls. Then, down at the foot of the wall and Hood knows what’s gonna pour down on us. Boiling water, oil, hot sand, bricks, offal, barrack-buckets. So it’s raining down. Set the munitions. Acid on the wax – too much and we all go up right there and then. Dozens of sappers, and any one of ’em makes a mistake, or some piece of rock drops smack onto a munition. Boom! We’re as good as dead already, if you ask me. Bits of meat. Tomorrow morning the crows will come down and that’s that. Send word to my family, will you? Maybe was blown to bits at Y’Ghatan, that’s all. No point in going into the gory details – hey, where you going? Gods below, Lutes, do your throwing up outa my sight, will you? Hood take us, that’s awful. Hey, Balgrid! Look! Our sq uad healer’s heaving his guts out!’

Gesler, Strings, Cuttle, Truth and Pella sat around the dying coals of a hearth, drinking tea.

‘They’re all losing their minds with this waiting,’ Gesler said.

‘I get just as bad before every battle,’ Strings admitted. ‘Cold and loose inside, if you know what I mean. It never goes away.’

‘But you settle once it’s begun,’ Cuttle said. ‘We all do, ’cause we’ve done this before. We settled, and we know we settle. Most of these soldiers, they don’t know nothing of the sort. They don’t know how they’ll be once the fighting starts. So they’re all terrified they’ll curl up into cringing cowards.’

‘Most of them probably will,’ Gesler said.

‘I don’t know about that, Sergeant,’ Pella said. ‘Saw plenty of soldiers just like these ones at Skullcup. When the rebellion hit, well, they fought and they fought well, all things considered.’



‘So they died.’

‘Most of them.’

‘That’s the thing with war,’ Gesler said. ‘Ain’t nearly as many surprises, when all’s said and done, as you might think. Or hope. Heroic stands usually end up with not a single hero left standing. Held out longer than expected, but the end was the same anyway. The end’s always the same.’

‘Abyss below, Gesler,’ Strings said, ‘ain’t you a cheery one.’

‘Just being realistic, Fid. Damn, I wish Stormy was here, now it’s up to me to keep an eye on my squad.’

‘Yes,’ Cuttle said, ‘that’s what sergeants do.’

‘You suggesting Stormy should’ve been sergeant and me corporal?’

‘Now why would I do that?’ the sapper asked. ‘You’re both just as bad as each other. Now Pella here …’

‘No thanks,’ Pella said.

Strings sipped his tea. ‘Just make sure everybody sticks together. Captain wants us on the tip of the spear, as fast and as far in as we can get – the rest will just have to catch up. Cuttle?’

‘Once the wall’s blown I’ll pull our sappers together and we meet you inside the breach. Where’s Borduke right now?’

‘Went for a walk. Seems his squad got into some kind of sympathetic heaves. Borduke got disgusted and stormed off.’

‘So long as everybody’s belly is empty by the time we get the call,’ Cuttle said. ‘Especially Maybe.’

‘Especially maybe,’ Gesler said, with a low laugh. ‘That’s a good one. You’ve made my day, Cuttle.’

‘Believe me, it wasn’t intentional.’

Seated nearby, hidden from the others in a brush-bordered hollow, Bottle smiled. So that’s how the veterans get ready for a fight. Same as everyone else. That did indeed comfort him. Mostly. Well, maybe not. Better had they been confident, brash and swaggering. This – what was coming – sounded all too uncertain.

He had just returned from the mage gathering. Magical probes had revealed a muted presence in Y’Ghatan, the priestly kind, for the most part, and what there was of that was confused, panicked. Or strangely quiescent. For the sappers’ advance, Bottle would be drawing upon Meanas, rolling banks of mist, tumbling darkness on all sides. Easily dispelled, if a mage of any skill was on the wall, but there didn’t seem to be any. Most troubling of all, Bottle would need all his concentration to work Meanas, thus preventing him from using spirit magic. Leaving him as blind as those few enemy soldiers on the wall.

He admitted to a bad run of nerves – he hadn’t been nearly so shaky at Raraku. And with Leoman’s ambush in the sandstorm, well, it was an ambush, wasn’t it – there’d been no time for terror. In any case, he didn’t like this feeling.

Rising into a crouch, he moved away, up and out of the hollow, straightening and walking casually into the squad’s camp. It seemed Strings didn’t mind leaving his soldiers alone for a while before things heated up, letting them chew on their own thoughts, then – hopefully – reining everyone in at the last moment.

Koryk was tying yet more fetishes onto the various rings and loops in his armour, strips of coloured cloth, bird bones and chain-links to add to the ubiquitous finger bones that now signified the Fourteenth Army. Smiles was flipping her throwing-knives, the blades slapping softly on the leather of her gloves. Tarr stood nearby, shield already strapped on his left arm, short sword in his gauntleted right hand, most of his face hidden by his helm’s cheek-guards.

Turning, Bottle studied the distant city. Dark – there seemed not a single lantern glowing from that squat, squalid heap. He already hated Y’Ghatan.

A low whistle in the night. Sudden stirring. Cuttle appeared. ‘Sappers, to me. It’s time.’

Gods below, so it is.

Leoman stood in the Falah’d’s throne room. Eleven warriors were arrayed before him, glassy-eyed, their leather armour webbed in harnesses with straps and loops dangling. Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas studied them – familiar faces one and all, yet now barely recognizable beneath the blood and strips of skin. Deliverers of the Apocalypse, sworn now to fanaticism, sworn not to see the coming dawn, bound to death this night. The very sight of them, with their drugsoaked eyes, chilled Corabb.

‘You know what is asked of you this night,’ Leoman said to his chosen warriors. ‘Leave now, my brothers and sisters, under the pure eyes of Dryjhna, and we shall meet again at Hood’s Gate.’

They bowed and headed off.

Corabb watched until the last of them vanished beyond the great doors, then faced Leoman. ‘Warleader, what is to happen? What have you planned? You spoke of Dryjhna, yet this night you have bargained with the Queen of Dreams. Speak to me, before I begin to lose faith.’

‘Poor Corabb,’ Dunsparrow murmured.

Leoman shot her a glare, then said, ‘No time, Corabb, but I tell you this – I have had my fill of fanatics, through this lifetime and a dozen others, I have had my fill—’

Boots sounded on the floor in the hallway beyond, and they turned as a tall, cloaked warrior strode in, drawing his hood back. Corabb’s eyes widened, and hope surged through him as he stepped forward. ‘High Mage L’oric! Truly, Dryjhna shines bright in the sky tonight!’

The tall man was massaging one shoulder, wincing as he said, ‘Would that I could have arrived within the damned city walls – too many mages stirring in the Malazan camp. Leoman, I did not know you had the power to summon – I tell you, I was headed elsewhere—’

‘The Queen of Dreams, L’oric’

‘Again? What does she want?’

Leoman shrugged. ‘You were part of the deal, I’m afraid.’

‘What deal?’

‘I will explain later. In any case, we need you this night. Come, we climb to the South Tower.’

Another surge of hope. Corabb knew he could trust Leoman. The Holy Warrior possessed a plan, a diabolical, brilliant plan. He had been a fool to doubt. He set off in the wake of Dunsparrow, High Mage L’oric and Leoman of the Flails.

L’oric. Now we can fight the Malazans on equal terms. And in such a contest, we can naught but win!

In the dark, beyond the rough ground of the pickets, Bottle crouched a few paces away from the handful of sappers he had been assigned to protect. Cuttle, Maybe, Crump, Ramp and Widdershins. Nearby was a second group being covered by Balgrid: Taffo, Able, Gupp, Jump and Bowl. People he knew from the march, now revealed as sappers or would-be sappers. Insane. Never knew there were so many in our company. Strings was in neither group; he would be leading the rest of the squads into the breach before the smoke and dust settled.

Y’Ghatan’s walls were a mess, tiered with older efforts, the last series Malazan-built in the classic sloping style, twenty paces thick at its base. As far as anyone knew, this would be the first time the sappers would challenge the engineering of imperial fortifications – he could see the gleam in their eyes.

Someone approached from his right and Bottle squinted through the gloom as the man arrived to crouch down beside him. ‘Ebron, isn’t it?’

‘Aye, Ashok Regiment.’

Bottle smiled. ‘They don’t exist no more, Ebron.’

He tapped his chest, then said, ‘You got a squad-mate of mine in your group.’

‘The one named Crump.’

‘Aye. Just thought you should know – he’s dangerous.’

‘Aren’t they all?’

‘No, this one especially. He was tossed out of the Mott Irregulars back on Genabackis.’

‘Sorry, that don’t mean nothing to me, Ebron.’

‘Too bad. Anyway, consider yourself warned. Might think about mentioning it to Cuttle.’

‘All right, I will.’

‘Oponn’s pull on you this night, lad.’

‘And on you, Ebron.’

The man vanished into the darkness once more.

More waiting. No lights visible along the city’s wall, nor the flanking corner bastions. No movement among the battlements.

A low whistle. Bottle met Cuttle’s eyes, and the sapper nodded.

Meanas, the warren of shadows, illusion and deception. He fashioned a mental image of the warren, a swirling wall before him, then began focusing his will, watched as a wound formed, lurid red at first, then a hole burning through. Power poured into him. Enough! No more. Gods, why is it so strong? Faint sound, something like movement, a presence, there, on the other side of the warren’s wall …

Then … nothing.

Of course there was no wall. That had been simply a construct, a fashioning in Bottle’s mind to manifest an idea into something physical. Something that he could then breach.

Simple, really. Just incredibly dangerous. We damned mages must be mad, to play with this, to persist in the conceit that it can be managed, shaped, twisted by will alone.

Power is blood.

Blood is power.

And this blood, it belongs to an Elder God …

A hiss from Cuttle. He blinked, then nodded as he began shaping the sorcery of Meanas. Mists, shot through with inky gloom, spreading out across the rough ground, snaking among the rubble, and the sappers set out, plunged into it, and moved on, unseen.

Bottle followed a few paces behind. The soldiers hiding in that magic could see. Nothing of the illusion confounded their senses. Illusions were usually one- or at best two-sided; seen from the other sides, well, there was nothing to see. True masters, of course, could cheat light in all directions, could fashion something that looked physically real, that moved as it should, casting its own shadow, even scuffing up illusional dust. Bottle’s level of skill was nowhere near that. Balgrid had managed it – barely, it was true, but still … impressive.

But I hate this kind of sorcery. Sure, it’s fascinating. Fun to play with, on occasion, but not like tonight, not when it’s suddenly life and death.

They threw wagon-planks across the narrow moat Leoman’s soldiers had dug, then drew closer to the wall.

Lostara Yil came to Tene Baralta’s side. They were positioned at the picket line, behind them the massed ranks of soldiery. Her former commander’s face revealed surprise as he looked upon her.

‘I did not think to see you again, Captain.’

She shrugged. ‘I was getting fat and lazy, Commander.’

‘That Claw you were with is not a popular man. The decision was made that he was better off staying in his tent – indefinitely.’

‘I have no objection to that.’

Through the gloom they could see swirling clouds of deeper darkness, rolling ominously towards the city’s wall.

‘Are you prepared, Captain,’ Baralta asked, ‘to bloody your sword this night?’

‘More than you could imagine, Commander.’

Waves of vertigo rippled through Sergeant Hellian, nausea threatening as she watched the magics draw ever closer to Y’Ghatan. It was Y’Ghatan, wasn’t it? She turned to the sergeant standing beside her. ‘What city is that? Y’Ghatan. I know about that city. It’s where Malazans die. Who are you? Who’s undermining the walls? Where are the siege weapons? What kind of siege is this?’

‘I’m Strings, and you look to be drunk.’

‘So? I hate fighting. Strip me of my command, throw me in chains, find a dungeon – only, no spiders. And find that bastard, the one who disappeared, arrest him and chain him within reach. I want to rip out his throat.’

The sergeant was staring at her. She stared back – at least he wasn’t weaving back and forth. Not much, anyway.

‘You hate fighting, and you want to rip out someone’s throat?’

‘Stop trying to confuse me, Stirrings. I’m confused ‘nough as it is.’

‘Where’s your squad, Sergeant?’


‘Where is your corporal? What is his name?’

‘Urb? I don’t know.’

‘Hood’s breath.’

Pella sat watching his sergeant, Gesler, talking with Borduke. The sergeant of the Sixth Squad had only three soldiers left under his command – Lutes, Ibb and Corporal Hubb – the others either magicking or sapping. Of course, there were only two left to Gesler’s Fifth Squad – Truth and Pella himself. The plan was to link up after the breach, and that had Pella nervous. They might have to grab anyone close by and to Hood with real squads.

Borduke was tugging at his beard as if he wanted to yank it off. Hubb stood close to his sergeant, a sickly expression on his face.

Gesler looked damn near bored.

Pella thought about his squad. Something odd about all three of them. Gesler, Stormy and Truth. Not just that strangely gold skin, either … Well, he’d stick close to Truth – that lad still seemed too wide-eyed for all of this, despite what he’d already gone through. That damned ship, Silanda, which had been commandeered by the Adjunct and was now likely north of them, somewhere in the Kansu Sea or west of it. Along with the transport fleet and a sizeable escort of dromons. The three had sailed it, sharing the deck with still-alive severed heads and a lot worse below-decks.

Pella checked his sword one more time. He’d tied new leather strapping round the grip’s tang – not as tight as he would have liked. He hadn’t soaked it yet, either, not wanting the grip still wet when he went into battle. He drew the crossbow from his shoulder, kept a quarrel in hand, ready for a quick load once the order came to advance.

Bloody marines. Should’ve volunteered for plain old infantry. Should’ve gotten a transfer. Should’ve never joined up at all. Skullcup was more than enough for me, dammit. Should’ve run, that’s what I should’ve done.

Night wind whistling about them, Corabb, Leoman, L’oric, Dunsparrow and a guard stood on the gently swaying platform atop the palace tower. The city spread out in all directions, frighteningly dark and seeming lifeless.

‘What are we here to see, Leoman?’ L’oric asked.

‘Wait, my friend – ah, there!’ He pointed to the rooftop of a distant building near the west wall. On its flat top flickered muted lantern-light. Then … gone.

‘And there!’

Another building, another flash of light.

‘Another! More, they are all in place! Fanatics! Damned fools! Dryjhna take us, this is going to work!’

Work? Corabb frowned, then scowled. He caught Dunsparrow’s gaze on him – she mouthed a kiss. Oh how he wanted to kill her.

Heaps of rubble, broken pots, a dead, bloated dog, and animal bones, there wasn’t a single stretch of even ground at the base of the wall. Bottle had followed on the heels of the sappers, up the first tier, brick fragments spilling away beneath their boots, then cries of pain and cursing as someone stumbled over a wasp nest – darkness alone had saved them from what could have been a fatal few moments – the wasps were sluggish – Bottle was astonished they had come out at all, until he saw what the soldier had managed. Knocking over one rock, then thumping his entire foot down the nest’s maw.

He’d momentarily relinquished Meanas, then, to slip into the swarming soul-sparks of the wasps, quelling their panic and anger. Devoid of disguising magic for the last two tiers, the sappers had scrambled like terrified beetles – the rock they had hidden under suddenly vanishing – and made the base of the wall well ahead of the others. Where they crouched, unlimbering their packs of munitions.

Bottle scampered up to crouch at Cuttle’s side. ‘The gloom’s back,’ he whispered. ‘Sorry about that – good thing they weren’t black wasps – Maybe’d be dead by now.’

‘Not to mention yours truly,’ Cuttle said. ‘It was me who stepped in the damned thing.’

‘How many stings?’

‘Two or three, right leg’s numb, but that’s better than it was fifteen heartbeats ago.’

‘Numb? Cuttle, that’s bad. Find Lutes fast as you can once we’re done here.’

‘Count on it. Now, shut up, I got to concentrate.’

Bottle watched him lift out from his pack a bundle of munitions – two cussers strapped together, looking like a pair of ample breasts. Affixed to them at the base were two spike-shaped explosives – crackers. Gingerly setting the assemblage on the ground beside him, Cuttle then turned his attention to the base of the wall. He cleared bricks and rocks to make an angled hole, large and deep enough to accommodate the wall-breaker.

That was the easy part, Bottle reminded himself as he watched Cuttle place the explosive into the hole. Now comes the acid on the wax plug. He glanced up and down the length of wall, saw other sappers doing the very same thing Cuttle had just done. ‘Don’t get ahead of the rest,’ Bottle said.

‘I know what needs knowing, mage. Stick to your spells and leave me alone.’

Miffed, Bottle looked away again. Then his eyes widened. ‘Hey, what’s he doing – Cuttle, what’s Crump doing?’

Cursing, the veteran glanced over. ‘Gods below—’

The sapper from Sergeant Cord’s squad had prepared not one wall-breaker, but three, the mass of cussers and crackers filling his entire pack. His huge teeth were gleaming, eyes glittering as he wrestled it loose and, lying on his back, head closest to the wall, settled it on his stomach and began crawling until there was the audible crunch of the back of his skull contacting the rearing stonework.

Cuttle scrambled over. ‘You!’ he hissed. ‘Are you mad? Take those damned things apart!’

The man’s grin collapsed. ‘But I made it myself!’

‘Keep your voice down, idiot!’

Crump rolled and shoved the mass of munitions up against the wall. A small glittering vial appeared in his right hand. ‘Wait till you see this!’ he whispered, smiling once more.

‘Wait! Not yet!’

A sizzle, threads of smoke rising—

Cuttle was on his feet, and, dragging a leg, he began running. And he began screaming. ‘Everyone! Back! Run, you fools! Run!’

Figures pelting away on all sides, Bottle among them.

Crump raced past as if the mage had been standing still, the man’s absurdly long legs pumping high and wild, knobby knees and huge boots scything the air. Munitions had been left against the wall but unset, others remained a pace or more back. Sacks of sharpers, smokers and burners left behind – gods below, this is going to be bad—

Shouts from atop the wall, now, voices raised in alarm. A ballista thumped as a missile was loosed at the fleeing sappers. Bottle heard the crack and skitter as it struck the ground.

Faster— He glanced over his shoulder, and saw Cuttle hobbling along in his wake. Hood take us! Bottle skidded to a halt, turned and ran back to the sapper’s side.

‘Fool!’ Cuttle grunted. ‘Just go!’

‘Lean on my shoulder—’

‘You’ve just killed yourself—’

Cuttle was no lightweight. Bottle sagged with his weight as they ran.

‘Twelve!’ the sapper gasped.

The mage scanned the ground ahead in growing panic. Some cover—


A shelf of old foundation, solid limestone, there, ten, nine paces—


Five more paces – it was looking good – a hollow on the other side—


Two paces, then down, as Cuttle screamed: ‘Eight!’

The night vanished, flinging stark shadows forward as the two men tumbled down behind the shelf of limestone, into a heap of rotting vegetation. The ground lifted to meet them, a god’s uppercut, driving the air from Bottle’s lungs.

Sound, like a collapsing mountain, then a wall of stone, smoke, fire, and a rain filled with flames—

The concussion threw Lostara Yil from her feet moments after she’d stared, uncomprehending, at the squads of marines arrayed beyond the picket line – stared, as they were one and all flattened, rolling back before an onrushing wave – multiple explosions now, rapid-fire, marching along the wall to either side – then she was hammered in the chest, flung to the ground amidst other soldiers.

Rocks arrived in an almost-horizontal hail, fast as sling-stones, cracking off armour, thudding deep into exposed flesh – bones snapping, screams—

—the light dimmed, wavered, then contracted to a knot of flames, filling an enormous gap in Y’Ghatan’s wall, almost dead-centre, and as Lostara – propped on one elbow, braving the hail of stones – watched, she saw the flanks of that huge gap slowly crumble, and, beyond, two three-storey tenements folding inward, flames shooting up like fleeing souls—

Among the slowing rain, now, body-parts.

Atop the palace tower, Corabb and the others had been thrown down – the guard who had accompanied them cartwheeling over the platform’s low wall and vanishing with a dwindling scream, barely heard as the tower swayed, as the roar settled around them like the fury of a thousand demons, as huge stones slammed into the tower’s side, others ricocheting off to crash among the buildings below, and, now, a terrible cracking, popping sound that sent Corabb clawing across the pavestones towards the hatch.

‘It’s going down!’ he screamed.

Two figures reached the hatch before him – Leoman and Dunsparrow.

Cracking, sagging, the platform starting its inexorable pitch. Clouds of choking dust. Corabb reached the hatch and pulled himself into it headfirst, joining Leoman and the Malazan woman as they slithered like snakes down the winding steps. Corabb’s left heel connected with a jaw and he heard L’oric’s grunt of pain, then cursing in unknown languages.

That explosion – the breach of the wall – gods below, he had never seen anything like it. How could one challenge these Malazans? With their damned Moranth munitions, their gleeful disregard of the rules of honourable war.

Tumbling, rolling, sprawling out onto a scree of rubble on the main floor of the palace – chambers to their left had vanished beneath the section of tower that had broken off. Corabb saw a leg jutting from the collapsed ceiling, strangely unmarred, free even of blood or dust.

Coughing, Corabb clambered upright, eyes stinging, countless bruises upon his body, and stared at Leoman, who was already on his feet and brushing mortar dust from his clothes. Near him, L’oric and Dunsparrow were also pulling themselves free of bricks and shards of wood.

Glancing over, Leoman of the Flails said, ‘Maybe the tower wasn’t such a good idea after all. Come on, we need to saddle our horses – if they still live – and ride to the Temple!’

The Temple of Scadissara? But— what— why?

The rattle of gravel, the thump of larger chunks, and gusts of smoky, dusty heat. Bottle opened his eyes. Sebar husks, hairy and leathery, crowded his vision, his nose filling with the pungent overripe scent of sebar pulp. The fruit’s juice was considered a delicacy – the reek was nauseating – he knew he’d never be able to drink the stuff again. A groan from the rubbish somewhere to his left. ‘Cuttle? That you?’

‘The numb feeling’s gone. Amazing what a shot of terror can do to a body.’

‘You sure the leg’s still there?’


‘You counted down to eight!’


‘You said eight! Then – boom!’

‘Had to keep your hopes up, didn’t I? Where in Hood’s pit are we, anyway?’

Bottle began clawing his way free, amazed that he seemed uninjured – not even a scratch. ‘Among the living, sapper.’ His first view of the scene on the killing ground made no sense. Too much light – it had been dark, hadn’t it? Then he saw soldiers amidst the rubble, some writhing in pain, others picking themselves up, covered in dust, coughing in the foul air.

The breach on Y’Ghatan’s south wall ran a full third of its length, fifty paces in from the southwest bastion to well beyond the centre gate fortifications. Buildings had collapsed, whilst those that remained upright, flanking the raging flames of the gap, were themselves burning, although it seemed that most of that had come from the innumerable burners among the sapper-kits left behind. The fires danced on cracked stone as if seeking somewhere to go before the fuel vanished.

The light cast by the aftermath of the detonation was dimming, shrouded by descending dust. Cuttle appeared at his side, plucking scraps of rotted fruit from his armour. ‘We can head into that gap soon – gods, when I track down Crump—’

‘Get in line, Cuttle. Hey, I see Strings … and the squad …’

Horns sounded, soldiers scrambling to form up. Darkness was closing in once more, as the last of the fires dwindled in the breach. The rain of dust seemed unending as Fist Keneb moved to the rally position, his officers drawing round him and bellowing orders. He saw Tene Baralta and Captain Lostara Yil at the head of a narrow column that had already begun moving.

The sappers had messed up. That much was clear. And some of them had not made it back. Damned fools, and they weren’t even under fire.

He saw the fires guttering out in the gap, although webs of flame clung stubbornly to the still-upright buildings to either side. ‘First, second and third squads,’ Keneb said to Captain Faradan Sort. ‘The heavies lead the way into the breach.’

‘The marines are already through, Fist.’

‘I know, Captain, but I want backup close behind them if things get hairy. Get them moving.’

‘Aye, Fist.’

Keneb glanced back to the higher ground on the other side of the road and saw a row of figures watching. The Adjunct, T’amber, Nil and Nether. Fist Blistig and Warleader Gall. Fist Temul was likely out with his horsewarriors, ranging round the city on the other sides. There was always a chance Leoman would leave his followers to their grisly fate and attempt to escape on his own. Such things were not unknown.

‘Sergeant Cord!’

The soldier strolled up. Keneb noted the sigil of the Ashok Regiment on the man’s battered leather armour, but elected to ignore it. For now. ‘Lead the mediums in, seventh through twelfth squads.’

‘Aye, Fist, we’re dogging the heavies’ heels.’

‘Good. This will be street and alley fighting, Sergeant, assuming the bastards don’t surrender outright.’

‘I’d be surprised if they did that, Fist.’

‘Me too. Get going, Sergeant.’

Finally, some motion among the troops of his company. The waiting was over. The Fourteenth was heading into battle. Hood look away from us this night. Just look away.

Bottle and Cuttle rejoined their squad. Sergeant Strings carried his lobber crossbow, a cusser quarrel slotted and locked.

‘There’s a way through the flames,’ Strings said, wiping sweat from his eyes, then spitting. ‘Koryk and Tarr up front. Cuttle to the rear and keep a sharper in your hand. Behind the front two, me and Smiles. You’re a step behind us, Bottle.’

‘You want more illusions, Sergeant?’

‘No, I want your other stuff. Ride the rats and pigeons and bats and spiders and whatever in Hood’s name else is in there. I need eyes you can look through into places we can’t see.’

‘Expecting a trap?’ Bottle asked.

‘There’s Borduke and his squad, dammit. First into the breach. Come on, on their heels!’

They sprinted forward across the uneven, rock-littered ground. Moonlight struggled through the dust haze. Bottle quested with his senses, seeking life somewhere ahead, but what he found was in pain, dying, trickling away beneath mounds of rubble, or stunned insensate by the concussions. ‘We have to get past the blast area,’ he said to Strings.

‘Right,’ the sergeant replied over a shoulder. ‘That’s the idea.’

They reached the edge of the vast, sculpted crater created by Crump’s munitions. Borduke and his squad were scrambling up the other side, and Bottle saw that the wall they climbed was tiered with once-buried city ruins, ceilings and floors compressed, cracked, collapsed, sections of wall that had slid out and down into the pit itself, taking with them older layers of floor tiles. He saw that both Balgrid and Maybe had survived the explosion, but wondered how many sappers and squad mages they had lost. Some gut instinct told him Crump had survived.

Borduke and his squad were having a hard time of it.

‘To the right,’ Strings said. ‘We can skirt it and get through before them!’

Borduke heard and twisted round from where he clung to the wall, three quarters of the way up. ‘Bastards! Balgrid, get that fat butt of yours moving, damn you!’

Koryk found a way round the crater, clambering over the rubble, and Bottle and the others followed. Too distracted for the moment by the effort of staying on his feet, Bottle did not attempt to sense the myriad, minuscule life beyond the blast area, in the city itself. Time for that later, he hoped.

The half-blood Seti’s progress halted suddenly, and the mage looked up to see that Koryk had encountered an obstacle, a broad crack in a sharply angled, subterranean floor, a man’s height below ground-level. Dust-smeared tiles revealed the painted images of yellow birds in flight, all seeming to be heading deep underground with the slanting pitch of the floor.

Koryk glanced back at Strings. ‘Saw the whole slab move, Sergeant. Not sure how solid our footing will be.’

‘Hood take us! All right, get the ropes out, Smiles—’

‘I tossed ’em,’ she said, scowling. ‘On the run in here. Too damned heavy—’

‘And I picked them up,’ Cuttle interjected, tugging the coils from his left shoulder and flinging them forward.

Strings reached out and rapped a knuckle against Smiles’s chin – her head snapped back, eyes widening in shock, then fury. ‘You carry what I tell you to carry, soldier,’ the sergeant said.

Koyrk collected one end of the rope, backed up a few paces, then bolted forward and leapt over the fissure. He landed clean, although with very little room to spare. There was no way Tarr or Cuttle could manage such a long jump.

Strings cursed, then said, ‘Those who can do what Koryk just did, go to it. And nobody leave gear behind, either.’

Moments later both Bottle and Smiles crouched at Koryk’s side, helping anchor the rope as the sergeant, twin sacks of munitions dangling from him, crossed hand over hand, the bags swinging wild but positioned so that they never collided with one another. Bottle released the rope and moved forward to help, once Strings found footing on the edge.

Cuttle followed. Then Tarr, with the rope wrapped about himself, made his way down onto the slanted floor and was dragged quickly across as it shifted then slid away beneath his weight. Armour and weapons clanking, the rest of the squad pulled the corporal onto level ground.

‘Gods,’ Cuttle gasped. ‘The man weighs as much as a damned bhederin!’

Koryk re-coiled the rope and handed it, grinning, to Smiles.

They set off once more, up over a ridge of wreckage from some kind of stall or lean-to that had abutted the inner wall, then more rubble, beyond which was a street.

And Borduke and his squad were just entering it, spread out, crossbows at the ready. The bearded sergeant was in the lead, Corporal Hubb on his right and two steps behind. Ibb was opposite the corporal, and two paces behind the pair were Tavos Pond and Balgrid, followed by Lutes, with the rear drawn up by the sapper Maybe. Classic marine advance formation.

The buildings to the sides were dark, silent. Something odd about them, Bottle thought, trying to work out what it might be … no shutters on the windows – they’re all open. So are the doors … every door, in fact— ‘Sergeant—’

The arrows that suddenly sped down from flanking windows, high up, were loosed at the precise moment that a score of figures rushed out from nearby buildings, screaming, spears, scimitars and shields at the ready. Those arrows had been fired without regard to the charging warriors, and two cried out as iron-barbed points tore into them.

Bottle saw Borduke spin round, saw the arrow jutting from his left eye socket, saw a second arrow transfixing his neck. Blood was spraying as he staggered, clawing and clutching at his throat and face. Behind him, Corporal Hubb curled up round an arrow in his gut, then sank to the cobbles. Ibb had taken an arrow in the left shoulder, and he was plucking at it, swearing, when a warrior rushed in on him, scimitar swinging to strike him across the side of his head. Bone and helm caved in, a gush of blood, and the soldier fell.

Strings’s squad arrived, intercepting a half-dozen warriors. Bottle found himself in the midst of a vicious exchange, Koryk on his left, the half-Seti’s longsword batting away a scimitar, then driving point first into the man’s throat. A screaming visage seemed to lunge at Bottle, as if the warrior was seeking to tear into his neck with bared teeth, and Bottle recoiled at the madness in the man’s eyes, then reached in with his mind, into the warrior’s fierce maelstrom of thoughts – little more than fractured images and black rage – and found the most primitive part of his brain; a burst of power and the man’s coordination vanished. He crumpled, limbs twitching.

Cold with sweat, Bottle backed away another step, wishing he had a weapon to draw, beyond the bush-knife in his right hand.

Fighting on all sides. Screams, the clash of metal, snapping of chain links, grunts and gasps.

And still arrows rained down.

One cracked into the back of Strings’s helm, pitching him down to his knees. He twisted round, lifting his crossbow, glaring at the building opposite – its upper windows crowded with archers.

Bottle reached out and grasped Koryk’s baldric. ‘Back! Fid’s cusser! Everyone! Back!’

The sergeant raised the crossbow to his shoulder, aimed towards an upper window—

There were heavy infantry among them now, and Bottle saw Taffo, from Mosel’s squad, wading into a crowd of warriors, now ten paces from the building – from Strings’s target—

—as the crossbow thunked, the misshapen quarrel flying out, up, into the maw of the window.

Bottle threw himself flat, arms covering his head—

The upper floor of the building exploded, huge sections of wall bulging, then crashing down into the street. The cobbles jumped beneath Bottle.

Someone rolled up against him and he felt something flop heavy and slimy onto his forearm, twitching and hot. A sudden reek of bile and faeces.

The patter of stones, piteous moans, the lick of flames. Then another massive crash, as what remained of the upper floor collapsed into the level below. The groan of the nearest wall preceded its sagging dissolution. Then, beyond the few groans, silence.

Bottle lifted his head. To find Corporal Harbyn lying beside him. The lower half of the soldier’s body was gone, entrails spilled out. Beneath the helm’s ridge, eyes stared sightlessly. Pulling away, Bottle leaned back on his hands and crabbed across the rock-strewn street. Where Taffo had been fighting a mob of warriors, there was now nothing but a heap of rubble and a few dust-sheathed limbs jutting from beneath it, all motionless.

Koryk moved past him, stabbing down at stunned figures with his sword. Bottle saw Smiles cross the half-Seti’s path, her two knives already slick with blood.

Bodies in the street. Figures slowly rising, shaking their heads, spitting blood. Bottle twisted round onto his knees, dipped his head, and vomited onto the cobbles.

‘Fiddler – you bastard!’

Coughing, but stomach quiescent for the moment, Bottle looked over to see Sergeant Mosel advancing on Strings.

‘We had them! We were rushing the damned building!’

‘Then rush that one!’ Strings snapped, pointing at the tenement on the other side of the street. ‘They just been knocked back, that’s all – any moment now and another rain of arrows—’

Cursing, Mosel gestured at the three heavies left – Mayfly, Flashwit and Uru Hela – and they lumbered into the building’s doorway.

Strings was fitting another quarrel into his crossbow, this one loaded with a sharper. ‘Balgrid! Who’s left in your squad?’

The portly mage staggered over. ‘What?’ he shouted. ‘I can’t hear you! What?’

‘Tavos Pond!’

‘Here, Sergeant. We got Maybe, uhm, Balgrid – but he’s bleeding out from his ears. Lutes is down, but he should live – with some healing. We’re out of this—’

‘To Hood you are. Pull Lutes clear – there’s a squad coming up – the rest of you are with me—’

‘Balgrid’s deaf!’

‘Better he was mute – we got hand signals, remember? Now remind the bastard of that! Bottle, help Tarr out. Cuttle, take Koryk to that corner up ahead and wait there for us. Smiles, load up on quarrels – I want that weapon of yours cocked and your eyes sharp on everything from rooftops on down.’

Bottle climbed to his feet and made his way to where Tarr was struggling to clamber free of rubble – a part of the wall had fallen on him, but it seemed his armour and shield had withstood the impact. Lots of swearing, but nothing voiced in pain. ‘Here,’ Bottle said, ‘give me your arm—’

‘I’m fine,’ the corporal said, grunting as he kicked his feet clear. He still gripped his shortsword, and snagged on its tip was a hairy piece of scalp, coated in dust and dripping from the underside. ‘Look at that,’ he said, gesturing up the street with his sword, ‘even Cuttle’s shut up now.’

‘Fid had no choice,’ Bottle said. ‘Too many arrows coming down—’

‘I ain’t complaining, Bottle. Not one bit. See Borduke go down? And Hubb? That could’ve been us, if we’d reached here first.’

‘Abyss take me, I hadn’t thought of that.’

He glanced over as a squad of medium infantry arrived – Sergeant Cord’s – Ashok Regiment and all that. ‘What in Hood’s name happened?’

‘Ambush,’ Bottle said. ‘Sergeant Strings had to take a building down. Cusser.’

Cord’s eyes widened. ‘Bloody marines,’ he muttered, then headed over to where Strings crouched. Bottle and Tarr followed.

‘You formed up again?’ Cord asked their sergeant. ‘We’re bunching up behind you—’

‘We’re ready, but send word back. There’ll be ambushes aplenty. Leoman means us to buy every street and every building with blood. Fist Keneb might want to send the sappers ahead again, under marine cover, to drop buildings – it’s the safest way to proceed.’

Cord looked round. ‘Safest way? Gods below.’ He turned. ‘Corporal Shard, you heard Fid. Send word back to Keneb.’

‘Aye, Sergeant.’

‘Sinn,’ Cord added, speaking to a young girl nearby, ‘put that knife away – he’s already dead.’

She looked up, even as her blade cut through the base of the dead warrior’s right index finger. She held it up for display, then stuffed it into a belt pouch.

‘Nice girl you got there,’ Strings said. ‘Had us one of those, once.’

‘Shard! Hold back there! Send Sinn with the message, will you?’

‘I don’t want to go back!’ Sinn shouted.

‘Too bad,’ Cord said. Then, to Strings: ‘We’ll link up with Mosel’s heavies behind you.’

Strings nodded. ‘All right, squad, let’s try out the next street, shall we?’

Bottle swallowed back another surge of nausea, then he joined the others as they scrambled towards Koryk and Cuttle. Gods, this is going to be brutal.

Sergeant Gesler could smell it. Trouble in the night. Unrelieved darkness from gaping windows, yawning doorways, and on flanking streets, where other squads were moving, the sounds of pitched battle. Yet, before them, no movement, no sound – nothing at all. He raised his right hand, hooked two fingers and made a downward tugging motion. Behind him he heard boots on the cobbles, one padding off to his left, the other to his right, away, halting when the soldiers reached the flanking buildings. Truth on his left, Pella on his right, crossbows out, eyes on opposite rooftops and upper windows.

Another gesture and Sands came up from behind to crouch at his side. ‘Well?’ Gesler demanded, wishing for the thousandth time that Stormy was here.

‘It’s bad,’ Sands said. ‘Ambushes.’

‘Right, so where’s ours? Go back and call up Moak and his squad, and Tugg’s – I want those heavies clearing these buildings, before it all comes down on us. What sappers we got with us?’

‘Thom Tissy’s squad’s got some,’ Sands said. ‘Able, Jump and Gupp, although they just decided to become sappers tonight, a bell or so ago.’

‘Great, and they got munitions?’

‘Aye, Sergeant.’

‘Madness. All right. Get Thom Tissy’s squad up here, too. I heard one cusser go off already – might be the only way to do this.’

‘Okay, Sergeant. I’ll be right back.’

Under-strength squads and a night engagement in a strange, hostile city. Had the Adjunct lost her mind?

Twenty paces away, Pella crouched low, his back against a mud-brick wall. He thought he’d caught movement in a high window opposite, but he couldn’t be certain – not enough to call out the alarm. Might well have been a curtain or something, plucked by the wind.

Only … there ain’t much wind.

Eyes fixed on that particular window, he slowly raised his crossbow.

Nothing. Just darkness.

Distant detonations – sharpers, he guessed, somewhere to the south. We’re supposed to be pushing in hard and fast, and here we are, bogged down barely one street in from the breach. Gesler’s gotten way too cautious, I think.

He heard the clank of weapons, armour and the thud of footfalls as more squads came up. Flicking his gaze away from the window, he watched as Sergeant Tugg led his heavies towards the building opposite. Three soldiers from Thorn Tissy’s squad padded up to the doorway of the building Pella was huddled against. Jump, Gupp and Able. Pella saw sharpers in their hands – and nothing else. He crouched lower, then returned his attention to the distant window, cursing under his breath, waiting for one of them to toss a grenado in through the doorway.

On the other side of the street, Tugg’s squad plunged into the building – there was a shout from within, the clang of weapons, sudden screams—

Then more shrieking, this time from the building at Pella’s back, as the three sappers rushed inside. Pella cringed – no, you fools! You don’t carry them inside – you throw them!

A sharp crack, shaking dust from the wall behind Pella, grit raining down onto the back of his neck, then screams. Another concussion – ducking still lower, Pella looked back up at the opposite window—

To see, momentarily, a single flash—

—to feel the shock of surprise—

—as the arrow sped at him. A hard, splintering cracking sound. Pella’s head was thrown back, helm crunching against the wall. Something, wavering, at the upper edge of his vision, but those edges were growing darker. He heard his crossbow clatter to the cobbles at his feet, then distant pain as his knees struck the stones, the jolt peeling skin away – he’d done that once, as a child, playing in the alley. Stumbling, knees skidding on gritty, filthy cobbles—

So filthy, the murk of hidden diseases, infections – his mother had been so angry, angry and frightened. They’d had to go to a healer, and that had cost money – money they had been saving for a move. To a better part of the slum. The dream … put away, all because he’d skinned his knees.

Just like now. And darkness closing in.

Oh Momma, I skinned my knees. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I skinned my knees …

As mayhem was exploding in the buildings to either side, Gesler crouched lower. He glanced over to his right and saw Pella. An arrow was jutting from his forehead. He was on his knees for a moment, his weapon falling, then he sank down to the side.

Sharpers going off in that building, then something worse – a burner, the flare of red flame bursting through the ground-floor windows. Shrieks – someone stumbled outside, wreathed in flames – a Malazan, running, arms waving, slapping – straight for Moak and his squad—

‘Get away!’ Gesler bellowed, rising and raising his crossbow.

Moak had pulled out his rain-cape – the soldiers were rushing towards the burning man – they didn’t see – the satchel – the munitions—

Gesler fired his crossbow. The quarrel caught the sapper in the midsection, even as the munitions went off.

Flung back, punched in the chest, Gesler sprawled, rolled, then came to his feet.

Moak, Stacker, Rove. Burnt, Guano and Mud. All gone, all pieces of meat and shattered bone. A helm, the head still in it, struck a wall, spun wildly for a moment, then wobbled to a halt.

‘Truth! To me!’ Gesler waved as he ran towards the building the heavies had entered, and where the sounds of fighting had grown fiercer. ‘You see Sands?’ he demanded as he reloaded his crossbow.

‘N-no, Sergeant. Pella—’

‘Pella’s dead, lad.’ He saw Thorn Tissy and what was left of his squad – Tulip and Ramp – heading towards the doorway after Tugg and his heavies. Good, Thorn’s thinking clear—

The building that had swallowed Able, Jump and Gupp was a mass of flames, the heat pouring out like scalding liquid. Gods, what did they set off in there?

He darted through the doorway, skidded to a halt. Sergeant Tugg’s fighting days were over – the soldier had been speared through just below the sternum. He had thrown up a gout of bloody bile before dying. At the inner doorway opposite, leading into a hall, lay Robello, his head caved in. Beyond, out of sight, the rest of the heavies were fighting.

‘Hang back, Truth,’ Gesler said, ‘and use that crossbow to cover our backs. Tissy, let’s go.’

The other sergeant nodded, gesturing towards Tulip and Ramp.

They plunged into the hallway.

Hellian stumbled after Urb, who suddenly halted – it was like hitting a wall – she bounced off, fell on her behind. ‘Ow, you bloody ox!’

All at once there were soldiers around them, pulling back from the street corner, dragging fallen comrades.

‘Who? What?’

A woman dropped down beside her. ‘Hanno. We lost our sergeant. We lost Sobelone. And Toles. Ambush—’

One hand leaning hard on Hanno’s shoulder, Hellian pulled herself upright. She shook her head. ‘Right,’ she said, something cold and hard straightening within her, as if her spine had turned into a sword, or a spear, or whatever else won’t bend, no, it’ll bend, maybe, but not break. Gods, I feel sick. ‘Join up with my squad. Urb, what squad are we?’

‘No idea, Sergeant.’

‘Don’t matter, then, you’re with us, Hanno. Ambush? Fine, let’s go get the bastards. Touchy, Brethless, pull out those grenados you stole—’

The twins faced her – innocence, indignation, both dreadful efforts, then the two pulled out munitions. ‘They’re smokers, Sergeant, and one cracker,’ Touchy said. ‘That’s all—’

‘Smokers? Perfect. Hanno, you’re going to lead us into the building the bastards attacked from. Touchy, you throw yours ahead of her. Brethless, pick the open flank and do the same. We ain’t gonna stand around – we ain’t even going in slow and cautious. I want fast, you all got that? Fast.’


‘What is it, Urb?’

‘Nothing. Only, I’m ready, I guess.’

Well that makes one of us. I knew I’d hate this city. ‘Weapons out, soldiers, it’s time to kill people.’

They set off.

‘We done left everybody behind,’ Galt said.

‘Shut that whining,’ Sergeant Balm snapped, wiping sweat and mud from his eyes. ‘We just made it easier for the rest of ’em.’ He glared at the soldiers in his squad. Breathing hard, a few cuts here and there, but nothing serious. They’d carved through that ambush quick and dirty, like he’d wanted it.

They were on a second floor, in a room filled with bolts of cloth – a fortune’s worth of silks. Lobe had said they’d come from Darujhistan, of all places. A damned fortune’s worth, and now most of it was soaked with blood and bits of human meat.

‘Maybe we should check the top floor,’ Throatslitter said, eyeing the nicks in his long-knives. ‘Thought I heard some scuffing, maybe.’

‘All right, take Widdershins. Deadsmell, go to the stairs—’

‘Leading up? It’s a ladder.’

‘Fine, the Hood-damned fucking ladder, then. You’re backup and mouthpiece, got it? Hear any scrapping upstairs and you join it, but not before letting us know about it. Understood?’

‘Clear as piss, Sergeant.’

‘Good, the three of you go. Galt, stay at the window and keep looking at what’s opposite you. Lobe, do the same at that window. There’s more crap waiting for us and we’re gonna carve right through all of it.’

A short while later, the sound of footfalls padding back and forth from above ceased and Deadsmell called out from the hallway that Throatslitter and Widdershins were coming down the ladder. A dozen heartbeats later and all three entered the silk room. Throatslitter came close to Balm’s side and crouched. ‘Sergeant,’ he said, his voice near a whisper.


‘We found something. Don’t much like the looks of it. We think you should take a look.’

Balm sighed, then straightened. ‘Galt?’

‘They’re there, all right, all three floors.’


‘Same here, including on the roof, some guy with a hooded lantern.’

‘Okay, keep watching. Lead on, Throatslitter. Deadsmell, back into the hallway. Widdershins, do some magic or something.’

He followed Throatslitter back to the ladder. The floor above was low-ceilinged, more of an attic than anything else. Plenty of rooms, the walls thick, hardened clay.

Throatslitter led him up to one such wall. At his feet stood huge urns and casks. ‘Found these,’ he said, reaching down behind one cask and lifting into view a funnel, made from a gourd of some sort.

‘All right,’ Balm said, ‘what about it?’

His soldier kicked one of the casks. ‘These ones are full. But the urns are empty. All of ’em.’

‘Okay …’

‘Olive oil.’

‘Right, this city’s famous for it. Go on.’

Throatslitter tossed the funnel aside, then drew a knife. ‘See these damp spots on these walls? Here.’ He pointed with the knife-tip, then dug into the patch. ‘The clay’s soft, recently plugged. These walls, they’re hollow.’

‘For Fener’s sake, man, what are you going on about?’

‘Just this. I think these walls – the whole building, it’s filled with oil.’

‘Filled? With … with oil?’

Throatslitter nodded.

Filled with oil? What, some kind of piping system to supply it downstairs? No, for Hood’s sake, Balm, don’t be an idiot. ‘Throatslitter, you think other buildings are rigged like this? Is that what you’re thinking?’

‘I think, Sergeant, that Leoman’s turned Y’Ghatan into one big trap. He wants us in here, fighting in the streets, pushing in and in—’

‘But what about his followers?’

‘What about them?’

But … that would mean … He thought back – the faces of the enemy, the fanaticism, the gleam of drugged madness. ‘Abyss take us!’

‘We got to find Fist Keneb, Sergeant. Or the captains. We got—’

‘I know, I know. Let’s get out of here, before that bastard with the lantern throws it!’

It had begun messy, only to get messier still. Yet, from that initial reeling back, as ambushes were unveiled one after another, mauling the advance squads of marines, Fist Keneb’s and Fist Tene Baralta’s companies had rallied, regrouped, then pushed inward, building by building, street by street. Somewhere ahead, Keneb knew, what was left of the marines was penetrating still further, cutting through the fanatic but poorly armed and thoroughly undisciplined warriors of Leoman’s renegade army.

He had heard that those warriors were in a drug-fuelled frenzy, that they fought without regard to injury, and that none retreated, dying where they stood. What he had expected, truth be told. A last stand, a heroic, martyred defence. For that was what Y’Ghatan had been, what it was, and what it would always be.

They would take this city. The Adjunct would have her first true victory. Bloody, brutal, but a victory nonetheless.

He stood one street in from the breach, smouldering rubble behind him, watching the line of wounded and unconscious soldiers being helped back to the healers in camp, watching fresh infantry filing forward, through the secured areas, and ahead to the battle that was the closing of the Malazan fist around Leoman and his followers, around the last living vestiges of the rebellion itself.

He saw that Red Blade officer of Tene Baralta’s, Lostara Yil, leading three squads towards the distant sounds of fighting. And Tene himself stood nearby, speaking with Captain Kindly.

Keneb had sent Faradan Sort ahead, to make contact with the advance squads. There was to be a second rendezvous, near the palace itself, and hopefully everyone was still following the battle plan.

Shouts, then cries of alarm – from behind him. From outside the breach! Fist Keneb spun round, and saw a wall of flame rising in the killing field beyond – where the narrow, deep trench had been dug by Leoman’s warriors. Buried urns filled with olive oil began exploding from the trench, spraying burning liquid everywhere. Keneb saw the line of retreating wounded scatter apart near the trench, figures aflame. Shrieks, the roar of fire—

His horrified gaze caught motion to his right, up on the nearest building’s rooftop, where it faced onto the rubble of the breach. A figure, lantern in one hand, flaring torch in the other – bedecked in web-slung flasks, surrounded by amphorae, at the very edge of the roof, arms outstretched, kicking over the tall clay jars – ropes affixed between them and his ankles, the weight then plunging the figure over the side.

Down into the rubble of the breach.

He struck, vanished from view, then a sudden flaring of flames, rushing out in sheets—

And Keneb saw, upon other rooftops, lining the city’s walls, more figures – flinging themselves down. Down, then the glow of raging fire, rising up, encircling – from the bastions, more flames, billowing out, spreading wild like a flood unleashed.

Heat rushed upon Keneb, driving him back a step. Oil from shattered casks, beneath the wreckage of fallen wall and collapsed buildings, suddenly caught flame. The breach was closing, demonic fire lunging into sight.

Keneb looked about, horror rising within him, and saw the half-dozen signallers of his staff huddled near a fragment of rubble. Bellowing, he ran to them. ‘Sound the recall! Damn you, soldiers, sound the recall!’

Northwest of Y’Ghatan, Temul and a company of Wickans rode up the slope to the Lothal road. They had seen no-one. Not a single soul fleeing the city. The Fourteenth’s horse-warriors had fully encircled it. Wickans, Seti, Burned Tears. There would be no escape.

Temul had been pleased, hearing that the Adjunct’s thinking had followed identical tracks with his own. A sudden strike, hard as a knife pushed into a chest, straight into the heart of this cursed rebellion. They had heard the munitions go off – loud, louder than expected, and had seen the flame-shot black clouds billowing upward, along with most of Y’Ghatan’s south wall.

Reining in on the road, seeing beneath them the signs of the massive exodus that had clogged this route only days earlier.

A flaring of firelight, distant rumbling, as of thunder, and the horse-warriors turned as one to face the city. Where walls of flame rose behind the stone walls, from the bastions, and the sealed gates, then, building after building within, more flames, and more.

Temul stared, his mind battered by what he was seeing, what he now understood.

A third of the Fourteenth Army was in that city by now. A third.

And they were already as good as dead.

Fist Blistig stood beside the Adjunct on the road. He felt sick inside, the feeling rising up from a place and a time he had believed left behind him. Standing on the walls of Aren, watching the slaughter of Coltaine’s army. Hopeless, helpless—

‘Fist,’ the Adjunct snapped, ‘get more soldiers filling in that trench.’

He started, then half-turned and gestured towards one of his aides – the woman had heard the command, for she nodded and hurried off. Douse the trench, aye. But … what’s the point? The breach had found a new wall, this one of flames. And more had risen all round the city, beginning just within the tiered walls, buildings bursting, voicing terrible roars as fiery oil exploded out, flinging mud-bricks that were themselves deadly, burning missiles. And now, further in, at junctures and along the wider streets, more buildings were igniting. One, just beyond the palace, had moments earlier erupted, with geysers of burning oil shooting skyward, obliterating the darkness, revealing the sky filling with tumbling black clouds.

‘Nil, Nether,’ the Adjunct said in a brittle voice, ‘gather our mages – all of them – I want the flames smothered in the breach. I want—’

‘Adjunct,’ Nether cut in, ‘we have not the power.’

‘The old earth spirits,’ Nil added in a dull tone, ‘are dying, fleeing the flames, the baking agony, all dying or fleeing. Something is about to be born …’

Before them, the city of Y’Ghatan was brightening into day, yet a lurid, terrible day.

Coughing, staggering, wounded soldiers half-carried, halfdragged through the press – but there was nowhere to go. Keneb stared – the air burning his eyes – at the mass of his soldiers. Seven, eight hundred. Where were the others? But he knew.

Gone. Dead.

In the streets beyond, he could see naught but fire, leaping from building to building, filling the fierce, hot air, with a voice of glee, demonic, hungry and eager.

He needed to do something. Think of something, but this heat, this terrible heat – his lungs were heaving, desperate despite the searing pain that blossomed with each strained breath. Lungful after lungful, yet it was as if the air itself had died, all life sucked from it, and so could offer him nothing.

His own armour was cooking him alive. He was on his knees, now, with all the others. ‘Armour!’ he rasped, not knowing if anyone could hear him. ‘Get it off! Armour! Weapons!’ Gods below, my chest – the pain—

A blade-on-blade parry, holding contact, two edges rasping against each other, then, as the warrior pushed harder with his scimitar, Lostara Yil ducked low, disengaged her sword downward, slashing up and under, taking him in the throat. Blood poured out. Stepping past, she batted aside another weapon thrusting at her – a spear – hearing splinters from the shaft as she pushed it to one side. In her left hand was her kethra knife, which she punched into her foe’s belly, twisting as she yanked it back out again.

Lostara staggered free of the crumpling warrior, a flood of sorrow shooting through her as she heard him call out a woman’s name before he struck the cobbles.

The fight raged on all sides, her three squads now down to fewer than a dozen soldiers, whilst yet more of the berserk fanatics closed in from the flanking buildings – market shops, shuttered doors kicked down and now billowing smoke, carrying out into the street the reek of overheated oil, spitting, crackling sounds – something went thump and all at once there was fire—


Lostara Yil cried out a warning, even as another warrior rushed her. Parrying with the knife, stop-thrusting with her sword, then kicking the impaled body from her blade, his sagging weight nearly tugging the weapon from her hand.

Terrible shrieks behind her. She whirled.

A flood of burning oil, roaring out from buildings to either side, sweeping among the fighters – their legs, then clothes – telaba, leathers, linens, the flames appearing all over them. Warrior and soldier, the fire held to no allegiance – it was devouring everyone.

She staggered away from that onrushing river of death, stumbled and fell, sprawling, onto a corpse, clambered onto it a moment before fiery oil poured around her, swept past her already burning island of torn flesh—

A building exploded, the fireball expanding outward, plunging towards her. She cried out, throwing up both arms, as the searing incandescence reached out to take her—

A hand from behind, snagging her harness—

Pain – the breath torn from her lungs – then … nothing.

‘Stay low!’ Balm shouted as he led his squad down the twisting alley. After his bellowed advice, the sergeant resumed his litany of curses. They were lost. Pushed back in their efforts to return to Keneb and the breach, they were now being herded. By flames. They had seen the palace a short while earlier, through a momentary break in the smoke, and as far as Balm could determine they were still heading in that direction – but the world beyond had vanished, in fire and smoke, and pursuing in their wake was the growing conflagration. Alive, and hunting them.

‘It’s building, Sergeant! We got to get out of this city!’

‘You think I don’t know that, Widdershins? What in Hood’s name do you think we’re trying to do here? Now be quiet—’

‘We’re gonna run out of air.’

‘We are already, you idiot! Now shut that mouth of yours!’

They reached an intersection and Balm halted his soldiers. Six alley-mouths beckoned, each leading into tracks as twisted and dark as the next. Smoke was tumbling from two of them, on their left. Head spinning, every breath growing more pained, less invigorating, the Dal Honese wiped hot sweat from his eyes and turned to study his soldiers. Deadsmell, Throatslitter, Widdershins, Galt and Lobe. Tough bastards one and all. This wasn’t the right way to die – there were right ones, and this wasn’t one of them. ‘Gods,’ he muttered, ‘I’ll never look at a hearth the same again.’

‘You got that right, Sergeant,’ said Throatslitter, punctuating his agreement with a hacking cough.

Balm pulled off his helm. ‘Strip down, you damned fools, before we bake ourselves. Hold on to your weapons, if you can. We ain’t dying here tonight. You understand me? All of you listen – do you understand me?’

‘Aye, Sergeant,’ Throatslitter said. ‘We hear you.’

‘Good. Now, Widdershins, got any magic to make us a path? Anything at all?’

The mage shook his head. ‘Wish I did. Maybe soon, though.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean a fire elemental’s being born here, I think. A fire spirit, a godling. We got a firestorm on the way, and that will announce its arrival – and that’s when we die if we ain’t dead already. But an elemental is alive. It’s got a will, a mind, damned hungry and eager to kill. But it knows fear, fear because it knows it won’t last long – too fierce, too hot – days at best. And it knows other kinds of fear, too, and that’s where maybe I can do something – illusions. Of water, but not just water. A water elemental.’ He stared round at the others, who were all staring back, then shrugged. ‘Maybe, maybe not. How smart is an elemental? Got to be smart to be fooled, you see. Dog-smart, at least, better if it was smarter. Problem is, not everybody agrees that elementals even exist. I mean, I’m convinced it’s a good theory—’

Balm cracked him across the head. ‘All this on a theory? You wasted all that air on that? Gods below, Widdershins, I’m minded to kill you right now.’ He rose. ‘Let’s get going, while we can. To Hood with the damned palace – let’s take the alley opposite and when the theoretical elemental arrives we can shake its hand and curse it to the nonexistent Abyss. Come on – and you, Widdershins, not another word, got it?’

The soldier returned, wreathed in flames. Running, running from the pain, but there was nowhere to go. Captain Faradan Sort aimed the crossbow and loosed a quarrel. Watched the poor man fall, grow still as the flames leapt all over him, blackening the skin, cracking open the flesh. She turned away. ‘Last quarrel,’ she said, tossing the weapon to one side.

Her new lieutenant, with the mouthful name of Madan’Tul Rada, said nothing – a characteristic Faradan was already used to, and of which she was, most of the time, appreciative.

Except now, when they were about to roast. ‘All right,’ she said, ‘scratch that route – and I’m out of scouts. No back, no forward, and, from the looks of it, no left and no right. Any suggestions?’

Madan’Tul Rada’s expression soured, jaw edging down as tongue probed a likely rotted molar, then he spat, squinted in the smoke, and unslung his round shield to study its charred face. Looked up again, slowly tracking, then: ‘No.’

They could hear a wind above them, shrieking, whirling round and round over the city, drawing the flames up, spinning tails of fire that slashed like giant swords through the convulsing smoke. It was getting harder and harder to breathe.

The lieutenant’s head lifted suddenly, and he faced the wall of flame up the street, then rose.

Faradan Sort followed suit, for she could now see what he had seen – a strange black stain spreading out within the flames, the tongues of fire flickering back, dying, the stain deepening, circular, and out from its heart staggered a figure shedding charred leathers, clasps and buckles falling away to bounce on the street.

Stumbling towards them, flames dancing in the full head of hair – dancing, yet not burning. Closer, and Faradan Sort saw it was a girl, a face she then recognized. ‘She’s from Cord’s Ashok squad. That’s Sinn.’

‘How did she do that?’ Madan’Tul Rada asked.

‘I don’t know, but let’s hope she can do it again. Soldier! Over here!’

An upper level had simply sheared away, down, crashing in an explosion of dust and smoke onto the street. Where Bowl had been crouching. He had not even seen it coming, Hellian suspected. Lucky bastard. She looked back at her squad. Blistered, red as boiled lobsters. Armour shed, weapons flung away – too hot to hold. Marines and heavies. Herself the only sergeant. Two corporals – Urb and Reem – their expressions dulled. Red-eyed all of them, gasping in the dying air, damn near hairless. Not much longer, I think. Gods, what I would do for a drink right now. Something nice. Chilled, delicate, the drunk coming on slow and sly, peaceful sleep beckoning as sweet as the last trickle down my ravaged throat. Gods, I’m a poet when it comes to drink, oh yes. ‘Okay, that way’s blocked now. Let’s take this damned alley—’

‘Why?’ Touchy demanded.

‘Because I don’t see flames down there, that’s why. We keep moving until we can’t move no more, got it?’

‘Why don’t we just stay right here – another building’s bound to land on us sooner or later.’

‘Tell you what,’ Hellian snarled. ‘You do just that, but me, I ain’t waiting for nothing. You want to die alone, you go right ahead.’

She set off.

Everyone followed. There was nothing else to do.

Eighteen soldiers – Strings had carried them through. Three more skirmishes, bloody and without mercy, and now they crouched before the palace gates – which yawned wide, a huge mouth filled with fire. Smoke billowed above the fortification, glowing in the night. Bottle, on his knees, gasping, slowly looked round at his fellow soldiers. A few heavies, the whole of Strings’s squad, and most of Sergeant Cord’s, along with the few marines surviving from Borduke’s squad.

They had hoped, prayed, even, to arrive and find other squads – anyone, more survivors, defying this damned conflagration … this far. Just this far, that’s all. It would have been enough. But they were alone, with no sign anywhere that any other Malazans had made it.

If Leoman of the Flails was in the palace, he was naught but ashes, now.

‘Crump, Maybe, Cuttle, over to me,’ Strings ordered, crouching and setting down his satchel. ‘Any other sappers? No? Anyone carrying munitions? All right, I just checked mine – the wax is way too soft and getting softer – it’s all gonna go up, and that’s the plan. All of it, except the burners – toss those – the rest goes right into the mouth of that palace—’

‘What’s the point?’ Cord demanded. ‘I mean, fine by me if you’re thinking it’s a better way to go.’

‘I want to try and blow a hole in this growing firestorm – knock it back – and we’re heading through that hole, for as long as it survives – Hood knows where it’ll lead. But I don’t see any fire right behind the palace, and that’ll do for me. Problems with that, Cord?’

‘No. I love it. It’s brilliant. Genius. If only I hadn’t tossed my helm away.’

A few laughs. Good sign.

Then hacking coughs. Bad sign.

Someone shrieked, and Bottle turned to see a figure lumbering out from a nearby building, flasks and bottles hanging from him, another bottle in one hand, a torch in the other – heading straight for them. And they had discarded their crossbows.

A bellowing answer from a soldier in Cord’s squad, and the man, Bell, rushed forward to intercept the fanatic.

‘Get back!’ Cord screamed.

Sprinting, Bell flung himself at the man, colliding with him twenty paces away, and both went down.

Bottle dropped flat, rolled away, bumping up against other soldiers doing the same.

A whoosh, then more screams. Terrible screams. And a wave of heat, blistering, fierce as the breath of a forge.

Then Strings was swearing, scrambling with his collection of satchels. ‘Away from the palace! Everyone!’

‘Not me!’ Cuttle growled. ‘You need help.’

‘Fine. Everyone else! Sixty, seventy paces at least! More if you can! Go!’

Bottle climbed upright, watched as Strings and Cuttle ran crab-like towards the palace gates. Then he looked round. Sixty paces? We ain’t got sixty paces – flames were devouring buildings in every direction he could see, now.

Still, as far away as possible. He began running.

And found himself colliding with someone – who gripped his left arm and spun him round.

Gesler. And behind him Thorn Tissy, then a handful of soldiers. ‘What are those fools doing?’ Gesler demanded.

‘Blow – a hole – through the storm—’

‘Puckered gods of the Abyss. Sands – you still got your munitions?’

‘Aye, Sergeant—’

‘Damned fool. Give ’em to me—’

‘No,’ said Truth, stepping in between. ‘I’ll take them. We’ve gone through fire before, right, Sergeant?’ With that he snatched the satchel from Sands’s hands and ran towards the palace gates—

Where Strings and Cuttle had been forced back – the heat too fierce, the flames slashing bright arms out at them.

‘Damn him!’ Gesler hissed. ‘That was a different kind of fire—’

Bottle pulled loose from the sergeant’s grip. ‘We got to get going! Away!’

Moments later all were running – except Gesler, who was heading towards the sappers outside the gate. Bottle hesitated. He could not help it. He had to see—

Truth reached Cuttle and Strings, tugged their bags away, slung them over a shoulder, then shouted something and ran towards the palace gates.

Both sappers leapt to their feet, retreating, intercepting Gesler – who looked determined to follow his young recruit – Cuttle and Strings dragged the sergeant back. Gesler struggled, turning a ravaged face in Truth’s direction—

But the soldier had plunged into the flames.

Bottle ran back, joined with the two sappers to help drag a shrieking Gesler away.


They had managed thirty paces down the street, heading towards a huddled mass of soldiers shying from a wall of flames, when the palace blew up behind them.

And out, huge sections of stone flung skyward.

Batted into the air, tumbling in a savage wind, Bottle rolled in the midst of bouncing rubble, limbs and bodies, faces, mouths opened wide, everyone screaming – in silence. No sound – no … nothing.

Pain in his head, stabbing fierce in his ears, a pressure closing on his temples, his skull ready to implode—

The wind suddenly reversed, pulling sheets of flame after it, closing in from every street. The pressure loosed. And the flames drew back, writhing like tentacles.

Then the air was still.

Coughing, staggering upright, Bottle turned.

The palace’s heart was gone, split asunder, and naught but dust and smoke filled the vast swath of rubble.

‘Now!’ Strings shrieked, his voice sounding leagues away. ‘Go! Everyone! Go!’

The wind returned, sudden, a scream rising to a wail, pushing them onward – onto the battered road between jagged, sagging palace walls.

Dunsparrow had been first to the temple doors, shoving them wide even as explosions of fire lit up the horizon, all round the city … all within the city walls.

Gasping, heart pounding and something like a knifeblade twisting in his gut, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas followed Leoman and the Malazan woman into the Temple of Scalissara, L’oric two paces behind him.

No, not Scalissara – the Queen of Dreams. Scalissara the matron goddess of olive oil would not have … no, she would not have allowed this. Not … this.

And things had begun to make sense. Terrible, awful sense, like chiselled stones fitting together, raising a wall between humanity … and what Leoman of the Flails had become.

The warriors – who had ridden with them, lived with them since the rebellion first began, who had fought at their side against the Malazans, who even now fought like fiends in the streets – they were all going to die. Y’Ghatan, this whole city, it’s going to die.

Hurrying down the central hallway, into the nave, from which gusted a cold, dusty wind, wind that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. Reeking of mould, rot and death.

Leoman spun to L’oric. ‘Open a gate, High Mage! Quickly!’

‘You must not do this,’ Corabb said to his commander. ‘We must die, this night. Fighting in the name of Dryjhna—’

‘Hood take Dryjhna!’ Leoman rasped.

L’oric was staring at Leoman, as if seeing him, understanding him, for the first time. ‘A moment,’ he said.

‘We’ve no time for that!’

‘Leoman of the Flails,’ the High Mage said, unperturbed, ‘you have bargained with the Queen of Dreams. A precipitous thing to do. That goddess has no interest in what’s right and what’s wrong. If she once possessed a heart, she flung it away long ago. And now you have drawn me into this – you have used me, so that a goddess may make use of me in turn. I do not—’

‘The gate, damn you! If you have objections, L’oric, raise them with her!’

‘They are all to die,’ Corabb said, backing away from his commander, ‘so that you can live.’

‘So that we can live, Corabb! There is no other way – do you think that the Malazans would ever leave us be? No matter where or how far we fled? I thank Hood’s dusty feet the Claw hasn’t struck already, but I do not intend to live the rest of my life looking over my shoulder! I was a bodyguard, damn you – it was her cause, not mine!’

‘Your warriors – they expected you to fight at their sides—’

‘They expected nothing of the sort. The fools wanted to die. In Dryjhna’s name.’ He bared his teeth in contempt. ‘Well, let them! Let them die! And best of all, they are going to take half the Adjunct’s army with them. There’s your glory, Corabb!’ He advanced on him, pointing towards the temple doors. ‘You want to join the fools? You want to feel your lungs searing with the heat, your eyes bursting, skin cracking? You want your blood to boil in your veins?’

‘An honourable death, Leoman of the Flails, compared to this.’

He voiced something like a snarl, spun back to L’oric. ‘Open the way – and fear not, I made no promises to her regarding you, beyond bringing you here.’

‘The fire grows into life outside this temple, Leoman,’ L’oric said. ‘I may not succeed.’

‘Your chances diminish with each moment that passes,’ Leoman said in a growl.

There was panic in the man’s eyes. Corabb studied it, the way it seemed so … out of place. There, in the features he thought he knew so well. Knew every expression possible. Anger, cold amusement, disdain, the stupor and lidded eyes within the fumes of durhang. Every expression … except this one. Panic.

Everything was crumbling inside, and Corabb could feel himself drowning. Sinking ever deeper, reaching up towards a light that grew ever more distant, dimmer.

With a hissed curse, L’oric faced the altar. Its stones seemed to glow in the gloom, so new, the marble unfamiliar – from some other continent, Corabb suspected – traced through with purple veins and capillaries that seemed to pulse. There was a circular pool beyond the altar, the water steaming – it had been covered the last time they had visited; he could see the copper panels that had sealed it lying against a side-wall.

The air swirled above the altar.

She was waiting on the other side. A flicker, as if reflected from the pool of water, then the portal opened, engulfing the altar, edges spreading, curling black, then wavering fitfully. L’oric gasped, straining beneath some invisible burden. ‘I cannot hold this long! I see you, Queen!’

From the portal came a languid, cool voice, ‘L’oric, son of Osserc. I seek no geas from you.’

‘Then what do you want?’

A moment, during which the portal wavered, then: ‘Sha’ik is dead. The Whirlwind Goddess is no more. Leoman of the Flails, a question.’ A new tone to her voice, something like irony. ‘Is Y’Ghatan – what you have done here – is this your Apocalypse?’

The desert warrior scowled, then said, ‘Well, yes.’ He shrugged. ‘Not as big as we’d hoped …’

‘But, perhaps, enough. L’oric. The role of Sha’ik, the Seer of Dryjhna, is … vacant. It needs to be filled—’

‘Why?’ L’oric demanded.

‘Lest something else, something less desirable, assume the mantle.’

‘And the likelihood of that?’


Corabb watched the High Mage, sensed a rush of thoughts behind the man’s eyes, as mysterious implications fell into place following the goddess’s words. Then, ‘You have chosen someone.’


‘Someone who needs … protecting.’


‘Is that someone in danger?’

‘Very much so, L’oric. Indeed, my desires have been anticipated, and we may well have run out of time.’

‘Very well. I accept.’

‘Come forward, then. You, and the others. Do not delay – I too am sorely tried maintaining this path.’

His soul nothing but ashes, Corabb watched the High Mage stride into the portal, and vanish within the swirling, liquid stain.

Leoman faced him one more time, his voice almost pleading as he said, ‘My friend …’

Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas shook his head.

‘Did you not hear? Another Sha’ik – a new Sha’ik—’

‘And will you find her a new army as well, Leoman? More fools to lead to their deaths? No, I am done with you, Leoman of the Flails. Take your Malazan wench and be gone from my sight. I choose to die here, with my fellow warriors.’

Dunsparrow reached out and grasped Leoman’s arm. ‘The portal’s crumbling, Leoman.’

The warrior, last commander of Dryjhna, turned away, and, the woman at his side, strode into the gate. Moments later it dissolved, and there was nothing.

Nothing but the strange, swirling wind, skirling dustdevils tracking the inlaid tile floor.

Corabb blinked, looked round. Outside the temple, it seemed the world was ending, voicing a death-cry ever rising in timbre. No … not a death-cry. Something else …

Hearing a closer sound – from a side passage – a scuffle – Corabb drew his scimitar. Approached the curtain barring the corridor. With the tip of his blade, he swung the cloth aside.

To see children. Crouching, huddled. Ten, fifteen – sixteen in all. Smudged faces, wide eyes, all looking up at him. ‘Oh gods,’ he murmured. ‘They have forgotten you.’

They all have. Every single one of them.

He sheathed his weapon and stepped forward. ‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘We shall find us a room, yes? And wait this out.’

Something else … Thunder, the death of buildings, the burgeoning wails of fire, howling winds. This is what is outside, the world beyond, this … spirits below, Dryjhna—

Outside, the birth-cries of the Apocalypse rose still higher.

‘There!’ Throatslitter said, pointing.

Sergeant Balm blinked, the smoke and heat like broken glass in his eyes, and could just make out a half-score figures crossing the street before them. ‘Who?’

‘Malazans,’ Throatslitter said.

From behind Balm: ‘Great, more for the clam-bake, what a night we’re going to have—’

‘When I said be quiet, Widdershins, I meant it. All right, let’s go meet them. Maybe they ain’t as lost as us.’

‘Oh yeah? Look who’s leading them! That drunk, what’s her name? They’re probably trying to find a bar!’

‘I ain’t lying, Widdershins! One more word and I’ll skewer you!’

Urb’s huge hand landed on her arm, gripping hard, turning her round, and Hellian saw a squad stumbling towards them. ‘Thank the gods,’ she said in a ravaged voice, ‘they got to know where they’re going—’

A sergeant approached in a half-crouch. Dal Honese, his face patchy with dried mud. ‘I’m Balm,’ he said. ‘Wherever you’re headed, we’re with you!’

Hellian scowled. ‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Just fall in and we’ll all be rosy in no time.’

‘Got us a way out?’

‘Yeah, down that alley.’

‘Great. What’s down there?’

‘The only place not yet burning, you Dal Honese monkrat!’ She waved at her troop and they continued on. Something was visible ahead. A huge, smudgy dome of some kind. They were passing temples now, the doors swinging wide, banging in the gusting, furnace-hot wind. What little clothes she was still wearing had begun smoking, thready wisps stretching out from the rough weave. She could smell her own burning hair.

A soldier came up alongside her. He was holding twin long-knives in gloved hands. ‘You ain’t got no cause to curse Sergeant Balm, woman. He brought us through this far.’

‘What’s your name?’ Hellian demanded.


‘Nice. Now go and slit your own throat. Nobody’s gotten through nowhere, you damned idiot. Now, unless you got a bottle of chilled wine under that shirt, go find someone else to annoy.’

‘You was nicer drunk,’ he said, falling back.

Yeah, everyone’s nicer drunk.

At the far edge of the collapsed palace, Limp’s left leg was trapped by a sliding piece of stonework, his screams loud enough to challenge the fiery wind. Cord, Shard and a few others from the Ashok squad pulled him free, but it was clear the soldier’s leg was broken.

Ahead was a plaza of some sort, once the site of a market of some kind, and beyond it rose a huge domed temple behind a high wall. Remnants of gold leaf trickled down the dome’s flanks like rainwater. A heavy layer of smoke roiled across the scene, making the dome seem to float in the air, firelit and smeared. Strings gestured for everyone to close in.

‘We’re heading for that temple,’ he said. ‘It likely won’t help – there’s a damned firestorm coming. Never seen one myself, and I’m wishing that was still the case. Anyway,’ he paused to cough, then spit, ‘I can’t think of anything else.’

‘Sergeant,’ Bottle said, frowning, ‘I sense … something. Life. In that temple.’

‘All right, maybe we’ll have to fight to find a place to die. Fine. Maybe there’s enough of ’em to kill us all and that ain’t so bad.’

No, Sergeant. Nowhere close. But never mind.

‘All right, let’s try and get across this plaza.’

It looked easy, but they were running out of air, and the winds racing across the concourse were blistering hot – no cover provided by building walls. Bottle knew they might not make it. Rasping heat tore at his eyes, poured like sand into his throat with every gasping breath. Through blurred pain, he saw figures appear off to his right, racing out of the smoke. Ten, fifteen, then scores, spilling onto the concourse, some of them on fire, others with spears— ‘Sergeant!’

‘Gods below!’

The warriors were attacking. Here, in this square, this … furnace. Burning figures fell away, stumbling, clawing at their faces, but the others came on.

‘Form up!’ Strings bellowed. ‘Fighting retreat – to that temple wall!’

Bottle stared at the closing mass. Form up? Fighting retreat? With what?

One of Cord’s soldiers appeared beside him, and the man reached out, gesturing. ‘You! A mage, right?’

Bottle nodded.

‘I’m Ebron – we got to take these bastards on – with magic – no other weapons left—’

‘All right. Whatever you got, I’ll add to it.’

Three heavy infantry, the women Flashwit, Mayfly and Uru Hela, had drawn knives and were forming up a front line. A heartbeat later, Shortnose joined them, huge hands closed into fists.

The lead score of attackers closed to within fifteen paces, and launched their spears as if they were javelins. In the momentary flash of the shafts crossing the short distance, Bottle saw that the wood had ignited, spinning wreaths of smoke.

Shouted warnings, then the solid impact of the heavy weapons. Uru Hela was spun round, a spear transfixing her left shoulder, the shaft scything into Mayfly’s neck with a cracking sound. As Uru Hela stumbled to her knees, Mayfly staggered, then straightened. Sergeant Strings sprawled, a spear impaling his right leg. Swearing, he pulled at it, his other leg kicking like a thing gone mad. Tavos Pond staggered into Bottle, knocking him down as the soldier, one side of his face slashed away, the eye dangling, stumbled on, screaming.

Moments before the frenzied attackers reached them, a wave of sorcery rose in a wall of billowing, argent smoke, sweeping out to engulf the warriors. Shrieks, bodies falling, skin and flesh blackening, curling away from bones. Sudden horror.

Bottle had no idea what kind of magic Ebron was using, but he unleashed Meanas, redoubling the smoke’s thickness and breadth – illusional, but panic tore into the warriors. Falling, tumbling out of the smoke, hands at their eyes, writhing, vomit gushing onto the cobbles. The attack shattered against the sorcery, and as the wind whipped the poisonous cloud away, they could see nothing but fleeing figures, already well beyond the heap of bodies.

Bodies smouldering, catching fire.

Koryk had reached Strings, who had pulled the spear from his leg, and began stuffing knots of cloth into the puncture wounds. Bottle went to them – no spurting blood from the holes, he saw. Still, lots of blood had smeared the cobbles. ‘Wrap that leg!’ he ordered the half-Seti. ‘We’ve got to get off this plaza!’

Cord and Corporal Tulip were attending to Uru Hela, whilst Scant and Balgrid had chased down and tackled Tavos Pond to the ground. Bottle watched as Scant pushed the dangling eye back into its socket, then fumbled with a cloth to wrap round the soldier’s head.

‘Drag the wounded!’ Sergeant Gesler yelled. ‘Come on, you damned fools! To that wall! We need to find us a way in!’

Numbed, Bottle reached down to help Koryk lift Strings.

He saw that his fingers had turned blue. He was deafened by a roaring in his head, and everything was spinning round him.

Air. We need air.

The wall rose before them, and then they were skirting it. Seeking a way in.

Lying in heaps, dying of asphyxiation. Keneb pulled himself across shattered stone, blistered hands clawing through the rubble. Blinding smoke, searing heat, and now he could feel his mind, starving, disintegrating – wild, disjointed visions – a woman, a man, a child, striding out from the flames.

Demons, servants of Hood.

Voices, so loud, the wail endless, growing – and darkness flowed out from the three apparitions, poured over the hundreds of bodies—

Yes, his mind was dying. For he felt a sudden falling off of the vicious heat, and sweet air filled his lungs. Dying, what else can this be? I have arrived. At Hood’s Gate. Gods, such blessed relief— Someone’s hands pulled at him – spasms of agony from fingers pressing into burnt skin – and he was being rolled over.

Blinking, staring up into a smeared, blistered face. A woman. He knew her.

And she was speaking.

We’re all dead, now. Friends. Gathering at Hood’s Gate—

‘Fist Keneb! There are hundreds here!’


‘Still alive! Sinn is keeping the fire back, but she can’t hold on much longer! We’re going to try and push through! Do you understand me! We need help, we need to get everyone on their feet!’

What? ‘Captain,’ he whispered. ‘Captain Faradan Sort.’

‘Yes! Now, on your feet, Fist!’

A storm of fire was building above Y’Ghatan. Blistig had never seen anything like it. Flames, twisting, spinning, slashing out long tendrils that seemed to shatter the billowing smoke. Wild winds tore into the clouds, annihilating them in flashes of red.

The heat— Gods below, this has happened before. This Hood-damned city …

A corner bastion exploded in a vast fireball, the leaping gouts writhing, climbing—

The wind that struck them from behind staggered everyone on the road. In the besiegers’ camp, tents were torn from their moorings, flung into the air, then racing in wild billows towards Y’Ghatan. Horses screamed amidst curtains of sand and dust rising up, whipping like the fiercest storm.

Blistig found himself on his knees. A gloved hand closed on his cloak collar, pulled him round. He found himself staring into a face that, for a moment, he did not recognize. Dirt, sweat, tears, and an expression buckled by panic – the Adjunct. ‘Pull the camp back! Everyone!’

He could barely hear her, yet he nodded, turned into the wind and fought his way down from the road. Something is about to be born, Nil said. Something …

The Adjunct was shouting. More commands. Blistig, reaching the edge of the road, dragged himself down onto the back slope. Nil and Nether moved past him, towards where the Adjunct still stood on the road.

The initial blast of wind had eased slightly, this time a longer, steadier breath drawn in towards the city and its burgeoning conflagration.

‘There are soldiers!’ the Adjunct screamed. ‘Beyond the breach! I want them out!’

The child Grub clambered up the slope, flanked by the dogs Bent and Roach.

And now other figures were swarming past Blistig. Khundryl. Warlocks, witches. Keening voices, jabbering undercurrents, a force building, rising from the battered earth. Fist Blistig twisted round – a ritual, magic, what were they doing? He shot a glance back at the chaos of the encampment, saw officers amidst scrambling figures – they weren’t fools. They were already pulling back—

Nil’s voice, loud from the road. ‘We can feel her! Someone! Spirits below, such power!’

‘Help her, damn you!’

A witch shrieked, bursting into flames on the road. Moments later, two warlocks huddled near Blistig seemed to melt before his eyes, crumbling into white ash. He stared in horror. Help her? Help who? What is happening? He pulled himself onto the road’s edge once more.

And could see, in the heart of the breach, a darkening within the flames.

Fire flickered round another witch, then snapped out as something rolled over everyone on the road – cool, sweet power – like a merciful god’s breath. Even Blistig, despiser of all things magic, could feel this emanation, this terrible, beautiful will.

Driving the flames in the breach back, opening a swirling dark tunnel.

From which figures staggered.

Nether was on her knees near the Adjunct – the only person on the road still standing – and Blistig saw the Wickan girl turn to Tavore, heard her say, ‘It’s Sinn. Adjunct, that child’s a High Mage. And she doesn’t even know it—’

The Adjunct turned, saw Blistig.

‘Fist! On your feet. Squads and healers forward. Now! They’re coming through – Fist Blistig, do you understand me? They need help!’

He clambered to his knees, but got no further. He stared at the woman. She was no more than a silhouette, the world behind her nothing but flames, a firestorm growing, ever growing. Something cold, riven through with terror, filled his chest.

A vision.

He could only stare.

Tavore snarled, then turned to the scrawny boy standing nearby. ‘Grub! Find some officers down in our camp! We need—’

‘Yes, Adjunct! Seven hundred and ninety-one, Adjunct. Fist Keneb. Fist Tene Baralta. Alive. I’m going to get help now.’

And then he was running past Blistig, down the slope, the dogs padding along in his wake.

A vision. An omen, yes. I know now, what awaits us. At the far end. At the far end of this long, long road. Oh gods …

She had turned about, now, her back to him. She was staring at the burning city, at the pathetic, weaving line of survivors stumbling through the tunnel. Seven hundred and ninety-one. Out of three thousand.

But she is blind. Blind to what I see.

The Adjunct Tavore. And a burning world.

The doors slammed open, pulling in an undercurrent of smoke and heat that swept across Corabb’s ankles, then up and round, the smoke massing in the dome, pulled and tugged by wayward currents. The warrior stepped in front of the huddled children and drew out his scimitar.

He heard voices – Malazan – then saw figures appearing from the hallway’s gloom. Soldiers, a woman in the lead. Seeing Corabb, they halted.

A man stepped past the woman. His blistered face bore the mangled traces of tattooing. ‘I am Iutharal Galt,’ he said in a ragged voice. ‘Pardu—’

‘Traitor,’ Corabb snapped. ‘I am Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas, Second to Leoman of the Flails. You, Pardu, are a traitor.’

‘Does that matter any more? We’re all dead now, anyway.’

‘Enough of this,’ a midnight-skinned soldier said in badly accented Ehrlii. ‘Throatslitter, go and kill the fool—’

‘Wait!’ the Pardu said, then ducked his head and added: ‘Sergeant. Please. There ain’t no point to this—’

‘It was these bastards that led us into this trap, Galt,’ the sergeant said.

‘No,’ Corabb said, drawing their attention once more. ‘Leoman of the Flails has brought us to this. He and he alone. We – we were all betrayed—’

‘And where’s he hiding?’ the one named Throatslitter asked, hefting his long-knives, a murderous look in his pale eyes.


‘Temul will have him, then,’ Iutharal Galt said, turning to the sergeant. ‘They’ve surrounded the city—’

‘No use,’ Corabb cut in. ‘He did not leave that way.’ He gestured behind him, towards the altar. ‘A sorcerous gate. The Queen of Dreams – she took him from here. Him and High Mage L’oric and a Malazan woman named Dunsparrow—’

The doors opened once again and the Malazans whirled, then, as voices approached – cries of pain, coughing, cursing – they relaxed. More brethren, Corabb realized. More of the damned enemy. But the Pardu had been right. The only enemy now was fire. He swung back to look upon the children, flinched at their terror-filled eyes, and turned round once more, for he had nothing to say to them. Nothing worth hearing.

As he stumbled into the hallway, Bottle gasped. Cold, dusty air, rushing past him – where? how? – and then Cuttle pushed the doors shut once more, swearing as he burned his hands.

Ahead, at the threshold leading into the altar chamber, stood more Malazans. Balm and his squad. The Kartoolian drunk, Hellian. Corporal Reem and a few others from Sobelone’s heavies. And, beyond them in the nave itself, a lone rebel warrior, and behind him, children.

But the air – the air …

Koryk and Tarr dragged Strings past him. Mayfly and Flashwit had drawn their meat-knives again, even as the rebel flung his scimitar to one side, the weapon clanging hollowly on the tiled floor. Gods below, one of them has actually surrendered.

Heat was radiating from the stone walls – the firestorm outside would not spare this temple for much longer. The last twenty paces round the temple corner to the front façade had nearly killed them – no wind, the air filled with the crack of exploding bricks, buckling cobblestones, the flames seeming to feed upon the very air itself, roaring down the streets, spiralling upward, flaring like huge hooded snakes above the city. And the sound – he could hear it still, beyond the walls, closing in – the sound … is terrible. Terrible.

Gesler and Cord strode over to Balm and Hellian, and Bottle moved closer to listen in on their conversation.

‘Anybody here worship the Queen of Dreams?’ Gesler asked.

Hellian shrugged. ‘I figure it’s a little late to start.

Anyway, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas – our prisoner over there – he said Leoman’s already done that deal with her. Of course, maybe she ain’t into playing favourites—’

A sudden loud crack startled everyone – the altar had just shattered – and Bottle saw that Crump, the insane saboteur, had just finished pissing on it.

Hellian laughed. ‘Well, scratch that idea.’

‘Hood’s balls,’ Gesler hissed. ‘Someone go kill that bastard, please.’

Crump had noticed the sudden attention. He looked round innocently. ‘What?’

‘Want a word or two with you,’ Cuttle said, rising. “Bout the wall—’

‘It weren’t my fault! I ain’t never used cussers afore!’


‘And that ain’t my name neither, Sergeant Cord. It’s Jamber Bole, and I was High Marshall in the Mott Irregulars—’

‘Well, you ain’t in Mott any more, Crump. And you ain’t Jamber Bole either. You’re Crump, and you better get used to it.’

A voice from behind Bottle: ‘Did he say Mott Irregulars?’

Bottle turned, nodded at Strings. ‘Aye, Sergeant.’

‘Gods below, who recruited him?’

Shrugging, Bottle studied Strings for a moment. Koryk and Tarr had carried him to just within the nave’s entrance, and the sergeant was leaning against a flanking pillar, the wounded leg stretched out in front of him, his face pale. ‘I better get to that—’

‘No point, Bottle – the walls are going to explode – you can feel the heat, even from this damned pillar. It’s amazing there’s air in here …’ His voice fell away, and Bottle saw his sergeant frown, then lay both hands palm-down on the tiles. ‘Huh.’

‘What is it?’

‘Cool air, coming up from between the tiles.’

Crypts? Cellars? But that would be dead air down there … ‘I’ll be back in a moment, Sergeant,’ he said, turning and heading towards the cracked altar. A pool of water steamed just beyond. He could feel that wind, now, the currents rising up from the floor. Halting, he settled down onto his hands and knees.

And sent his senses downward, seeking life-sparks.

Down, through layers of tight-packed rubble, then, movement in the darkness, the flicker of life. Panicked, clambering down, ever down, the rush of air sweeping past slick fur – rats. Fleeing rats.

Fleeing. Where? His senses danced out, through the rubble beneath, brushing creature after creature. Darkness, sighing streams of air. Smells, echoes, damp stone …

‘Everyone!’ Bottle shouted, rising. ‘We need to break through this floor! Whatever you can find – we need to bash through!’

They looked at him as if he’d gone mad.

‘We dig down! This city – it’s built on ruins! We need to find a way down – through them – damn you all – that air is coming from somewhere!’

‘And what are we?’ Cord demanded. ‘Ants?’

‘There’s rats, below – I looked through their eyes – I saw! Caverns, caves – passages!’

‘You did what?’ Cord advanced on him.

‘Hold it, Cord!’ Strings said, twisting round where he sat. ‘Listen to him. Bottle – can you follow one of those rats? Can you control one?’

Bottle nodded. ‘But there are foundation stones, under this temple – we need to get through—’

‘How?’ Cuttle demanded. ‘We just got rid of all our munitions!’

Hellian cuffed one of her soldiers. ‘You, Brethless! Still got that cracker?’

Every sapper in the chamber suddenly closed in on the soldier named Brethless. He stared about in panic, then pulled out a wedge-shaped copper-sheathed spike.

‘Back off him!’ Strings shouted. ‘Everyone. Everyone but Cuttle. Cuttle, you can do this, right? No mistakes.’

‘None at all,’ Cuttle said, gingerly taking the spike from Brethless’s hand. ‘Who’s still got a sword? Anything hard and big enough to break these tiles—’

‘I do.’ The man who spoke was the rebel warrior. ‘Or, I did – it’s over there.’ He pointed.

The scimitar went into the hands of Tulip, who battered the tiles in a frenzy that had inset precious stones flying everywhere, until a rough angular hole had been chopped into the floor.

‘Good enough, back off, Tulip. Everybody, get as close to the outer walls as you can and cover your faces, your eyes, your ears—’

‘How many hands you think each of us has got?’ Hellian demanded.


Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas stared at them all as if they’d lost their minds.

A reverberating crack shuddered through the temple, and dust drifted down. Bottle looked up with all the others to see tongues of fire reaching down through a fissure in the dome, which had begun sagging. ‘Cuttle—’

‘I see it. Pray this cracker don’t bring it all down on us.’

He set the spike. ‘Bottle, which way you want it pointing?’

‘Towards the altar side. There’s a space, two maybe three arm-lengths down.’

‘Three? Gods below. Well, we’ll see.’

The outer walls were oven-hot, sharp cracking sounds filling the air as the massive temple began settling. They could hear the grate of foundation stones sliding beneath shifting pressures. The heat was building.

‘Six and counting!’ Cuttle shouted, scrambling away.

Five … four … three …

The cracker detonated in a deadly hail of stone-chips and tile shards. People cried out in pain, children screamed, dust and smoke filling the air – and then, from the floor, the sounds of rubble falling, striking things far below, bouncing, tumbling down, down …


At Strings’s voice, he crawled forward, towards the gaping hole. He needed to find another rat. Somewhere down below. A rat my soul can ride. A rat to lead us out.

He said nothing to the others of what else he had sensed, flitting among life-sparks in the seeming innumerable layers of dead, buried city below – that it went down, and down, and down – the air rising up stinking of decay, the pressing darkness, the cramped, tortured routes. Down. All those rats, fleeing, downward. None, none within my reach clambering free, into the night air. None.

Rats will flee. Even when there’s nowhere to go.

Wounded, burned soldiers were being carried past Blistig. Pain and shock, flesh cracked open and lurid red, like cooked meat – which, he realized numbly, was what it was. The white ash of hair – on limbs, where eyebrows had once been, on blistered pates. Blackened remnants of clothing, hands melted onto weapon grips – he wanted to turn away, so desperately wanted to turn away, but he could not.

He stood fifteen hundred paces away, now, from the road and its fringes of burning grass, and he could still feel the heat. Beyond, a fire god devoured the sky above Y’Ghatan – Y’Ghatan, crumbling inward, melting into slag – the city’s death was as horrible to his eyes as the file of Keneb and Baralta’s surviving soldiers.

How could he do this? Leoman of the Flails, you have made of your name a curse that will never die. Never.

Someone came to his side and, after a long moment, Blistig looked over. And scowled. The Claw, Pearl. The man’s eyes were red – durhang, it could be nothing else, for he had remained in his tent, at the far end of the encampment, as if indifferent to this brutal night.

‘Where is the Adjunct?’ Pearl asked in a low, rough voice.

‘Helping with the wounded.’

‘Has she broken? Is she on her hands and knees in the blood-soaked mud?’

Blistig studied the man. Those eyes – had he been weeping? No. Durhang. ‘Say that again, Claw, and you won’t stay alive for much longer.’

The tall man shrugged. ‘Look at these burned soldiers, Fist. There are worse things than dying.’

‘The healers are among them. Warlocks, witches, from my company—’

‘Some scars cannot be healed.’

‘What are you doing here? Go back to your tent.’

‘I have lost a friend this night, Fist. I will go wherever I choose.’

Blistig looked away. Lost a friend. What of over two thousand Malazan soldiers? Keneb has lost most of his marines and among them, invaluable veterans. The Adjunct has lost her first battle – oh, the imperial records will note a great victory, the annihilation of the last vestiges of the Sha’ik rebellion. But we, we who are here this night, we will know the truth for the rest of our lives.

And this Adjunct Tavore, she is far from finished. I have seen. ‘Go back to the Empress,’ Blistig said. ‘Tell her the truth of this night—’

‘And what would be the point of that, Fist?’

He opened his mouth, then shut it again.

Pearl said, ‘Word will be sent to Dujek Onearm, and he in turn will report to the Empress. For now, however, it is more important that Dujek know. And understand, as I am sure he will.’

‘Understand what?’

‘That the Fourteenth Army can no longer be counted on as a fighting force on Seven Cities.’

Is that true? ‘That remains to be seen,’ he said. ‘In any case, the rebellion is crushed—’

‘Leoman escaped.’


‘He has escaped. Into the Warren of D’riss, under the protection of the Queen of Dreams – only she knows, I suppose, what use he will be to her. I admit, that part worries me – gods are by nature unfathomable, most of the time, and she is more so than most. I find this detail … troubling.’

‘Stand here, then, and fret.’ Blistig turned away, made for the hastily erected hospital tents. Hood take that damned Claw. The sooner the better. How could he know such things? Leoman… alive. Well, perhaps that could be made to work in their favour, perhaps his name would become a curse among the people of Seven Cities as well. The Betrayer. The commander who murdered his own army.

But it is how we are. Look at High Fist Pormqual, after all. Yet, his crime was stupidity. Leoman’s was … pure evil. If such a thing truly exists.

The storm raged on, unleashing waves of heat that blackened the surrounding countryside. The city’s walls had vanished – for no human-built wall could withstand this demon’s fury. A distant, pale reflection was visible to the east. The sun, rising to meet its child.

His soul rode the back of a small, insignificant creature, fed on a tiny, racing heart, and looked through eyes that cut into the darkness. Like some remote ghost, tethered by the thinnest of chains, Bottle could feel his own body, somewhere far above, slithering through detritus, cut and scraped raw, face gone slack, eyes straining. Battered hands pulled him along – his own, he was certain – and he could hear soldiers moving behind him, the crying of children, the scrape and catch of buckles, leather straps snagging, rubble being pushed aside, clawed at, clambered over.

He had no idea how far they had gone. The rat sought out the widest, highest passages, following the howling, whistling wind. If people remained in the temple, awaiting their turn to enter this tortured tunnel, that turn would never come, for the air itself would have burst aflame by now, and soon the temple would collapse, burying their blackened corpses in melting stone.

Strings would have been among those victims, for the sergeant had insisted on going last, just behind Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas. Bottle thought back to those frantic moments, before the dust-clouds had even cleared, as chunks of the domed ceiling rained down …


‘I’m looking!’ Questing down, through cracks and fissures, hunting life. Warm-blooded life. Brushing then closing in on the muted awareness of a rat, sleek, healthy – but overheating with terror. Overwhelming its meagre defences, clasping hard an iron control about its soul – that faint, flickering force, yet strong enough to reach beyond the flesh and bones that sheltered it. Cunning, strangely proud, warmed by the presence of kin, the rule of the swarm’s master, but now all was in chaos, the drive of survival overpowering all else. Racing down, following spoor, following the rich scents in the air—

And then it turned about, began climbing upwards once more, and Bottle could feel its soul in his grasp. Perfectly still, unresisting now that it had been captured. Observing, curious, calm. There was more, he had always known – so much more to creatures. And so few who understood them the way he did, so few who could reach out and grasp such souls, and so find the strange web of trust all tangled with suspicion, fear with curiosity, need with loyalty.

He was not leading this morsel of a creature to its death. He would not do that, could not, and somehow it seemed to understand, to sense, now, a greater purpose to its life, its existence.

‘I have her,’ Bottle heard himself saying.

‘Get down there, then!’

‘Not yet. She needs to find a way up – to lead us back down—’

‘Gods below!’

Gesler spoke: ‘Start adopting children, soldiers. I want one between everyone behind Cuttle, since Cuttle will be right behind Bottle—’

‘Leave me to the last,’ Strings said.

‘Your leg—’

‘That’s exactly right, Gesler.’

‘We got other injured – got someone guiding or dragging each of ’em. Fid—’

‘No. I go last. Whoever’s right ahead of me, we’re going to need to close up this tunnel, else the fire’ll follow us down—’

‘There are copper doors. They covered the pool.’ That was Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas. ‘I will stay with you. Together, we shall use those panels to seal our retreat.’

‘Second to last?’ someone snarled. ‘You’ll just kill Fid and—’

‘And what, Malazan? No, would I be allowed, I would go last. I stood at Leoman’s side—’

‘I’m satisfied with that,’ Strings said. ‘Corabb, you and I, that will do.’

‘Hold on,’ said Hellian, leaning close to Bottle. ‘I ain’t going down there. Someone better kill me right now—’


‘No way, there’s spiders down there—’

The sound of a fist cracking into a jaw, then a collapsing body.

‘Urb, you just knocked out your own sergeant.’

‘Aye. I known her a long time, you see. She’s a good sergeant, no matter what all of you think.’

‘Huh. Right.’

‘It’s the spiders. No way she’d go down there – now I got to gag her and tie her arms and feet – I’ll drag her myself—’

‘If she’s a good sergeant, Urb, how do you treat bad ones?’

‘Ain’t had any other sergeant, and I mean to keep it that way.’

Below, the broad crevasse that Bottle had sensed earlier, his rat scrambling free, now seeking to follow that wide but shallow crack – too shallow? No, they could scrape through, and there, beneath it, a tilted chamber of some kind, most of the ceiling intact, and the lower half of a doorway – he sent the rat that way, and beyond the doorway … ‘I have it! There’s a street! Part of a street – not sure how far—’

‘Never mind! Lead us down, damn you! I’m starting to blister everywhere! Hurry!’

All right. Why not? At the very least, it’ll purchase us a few more moments. He slithered down into the pit. Behind him, voices, the scrabble of boots, the hissing of pain as flesh touched hot stone.

Faintly: ‘How hot is that water in that pool? Boiling yet? No? Good, those with canteens and skins, fill ’em now—’

Into the crevasse … while the rat scurried down the canted, littered street, beneath a ceiling of packed rubble …

Bottle felt his body push through a fissure, then plunge downward, onto the low-ceilinged section of street. Rocks, mortar and potsherds under his hands, cutting, scraping as he scrabbled forward. Once walked, this avenue, in an age long past. Wagons had rattled here, horse-hoofs clumping, and there had been rich smells. Cooking from nearby homes, livestock being driven to the market squares. Kings and paupers, great mages and ambitious priests. All gone. Gone to dust.

The street sloped sharply, where cobbles had buckled, sagging down to fill a subterranean chamber – no, an old sewer, brick-lined, and it was into this channel his rat had crawled.

Pushing aside broken pieces of cobble, he pulled himself down into the shaft. Desiccated faeces in a thin, shallow bed beneath him, the husks of dead insects, carapaces crunching as he slithered along. A pale lizard, long as his forearm, fled in a whisper into a side crack. His forehead caught strands of spider’s web, tough enough to halt him momentarily before audibly snapping. He felt something alight on his shoulder, race across his back, then leap off.

Behind him Bottle heard Cuttle coughing in the dust in his wake, as it swept over the sapper on the gusting wind. A child had been crying somewhere back there, but was now silent, only the sound of movement, gasps of effort. Just ahead, a section of the tunnel had fallen in. The rat had found a way through, so he knew the barrier was not impassable. Reaching it, he began pulling away the rubble.

Smiles nudged the child ahead of her. ‘Go on,’ she murmured, ‘keep going. Not far now.’ She could still hear the girl’s sniffles – not crying, not yet, anyway, just the dust, so much dust now, with those people crawling ahead. Behind her, small hands touched her blistered feet again and again, lancing vicious stabs of pain up her legs, but she bit back on it, making no outcry. Damned brat don’t know any better, does he? And why they got such big eyes, looking up like that? Like starving puppies. ‘Keep crawling, little one. Not much farther …’

The child behind her, a boy, was helping Tavos Pond, whose face was wrapped in bloody bandages. Koryk was right behind them. Smiles could hear the half-Seti, going on and on with some kind of chant. Probably the only thing keeping the fool from deadly panic. He liked his open savannah, didn’t he. Not cramped, twisting tunnels.

None of this bothered her. She’d known worse. Times, long ago, she’d lived in worse. You learned to only count on what’s in reach, and so long as the way ahead stayed clear, there was still hope, still a chance.

If only this brat of a girl wouldn’t keep stopping. Another nudge. ‘Go on, lass. Not much more, you’ll see …’

Gesler pulled himself along in pitch darkness, hearing Tulip’s heavy grunts ahead of him, Crump’s maddening singing behind him. The huge soldier whose bare feet Gesler’s outstretched hands kept touching was having a hard time, and the sergeant could feel the smears of blood Tulip left behind as he squeezed and pulled himself through the narrow, twisting passage. Thick gasps, coughing – no, not coughing—

‘Abyss take us, Tulip,’ Gesler hissed, ‘what’s so funny?’

‘Tickling,’ the man called back. ‘You. Keep. Tickling.

My. Feet.’

‘Just keep moving, you damned fool!’

Behind him, Crump’s idiotic song continued.

‘and I says oh I says them marsh trees

got soft feet, and moss beards all the way down

and they sway in the smelly breeze

from that swamp water all yella’n’brown

oh we was in the froggy toady dawn

belly-down in the leeches and collectin’ spawn

’cause when you give those worms a squeeze

the blue pinky ropes come slimin’ down—

and don’t they taste sweet!

and don’t they taste sweet!

sweet as peat, oh yes

sweet as peat—’

Gesler wanted to scream, like someone up ahead was doing. Scream, but he couldn’t summon the breath – it was all too close, too fetid, the once cool sliding air rank with sweat, urine and Hood knew what else. Truth’s face kept coming back to him, rising in his mind like dread accusation. Gesler and Stormy, they’d pulled the recruit through so much since the damned rebellion. Kept him alive, showed him the ways of staying alive in this Hood-cursed world.

And what does he do? He runs into a burning palace. With a half-dozen cussers on his back. Gods, he was right on one thing, though, the fire couldn’t take him – he went way in, and that’s what’s saved us … so far. Blew that storm back. Saved us …

Soldiers all round him were blistered, burned. They coughed with every breath drawn into scorched lungs. But not me. He could sense that godling, within that firestorm. Could sense it, a child raging with the knowledge that it was going to die all too soon. Good, you don’t deserve nothing more. Fire couldn’t hurt him, but that didn’t mean he had to kneel before it in prayer, did it? He didn’t ask for any of this. Him and Stormy and Truth – only, Truth was dead, now. He’d never expected …

‘and I says oh I says that ole bridge

got feeta stone, and mortar white as bone

and the badgers dangle from the ledge

swingin’ alla day alla way home

oh we was pullin’ vines from you know where

and stuffin’ our ears with sweety sweet loam

jus t’get them badgers flyin’ outa there

inta them cook pots in the hearthy home—

and don’t they taste sweet!

and don’t they taste sweet!

sweet as peat, oh yes

sweet as peat—’

When he got out of here, he was going to wring Crump’s scrawny neck. High Marshal? Gods below—

‘and I says oh I says that warlock’s tower—’

Corporal Tarr pulled on Balgrid’s arms, ignoring the man’s squeals. How the mage had managed to stay fat through that endless march was baffling. And now, all too likely to prove deadly. Mind you, fat could be squeezed, when muscled bulk couldn’t. That was something, at least.

Balgrid shrieked as Tarr dragged him through the crevasse. ‘You’re tearing my arms off!’

‘You plug up here, Balgrid,’ Tarr said, ‘and Urb behind you’s gonna take out his knife—’

A muted voice from the huge man behind Balgrid: ‘Damn right. I’ll joint you like a pig, mage. I swear it.’

The darkness was the worst of all – never mind the spiders, the scorpions and centipedes, it was the darkness that clawed and chewed on Tarr’s sanity. At least Bottle had a rat’s eyes to look through. Rats could see in the dark, couldn’t they? Then again, maybe they couldn’t. Maybe they just used their noses, their whiskers, their ears. Maybe they were too stupid to go insane.

Or they’re already insane. We’re being led by an insane rat—

‘I’m stuck again, oh gods! I can’t move!’

‘Stop yelling,’ Tarr said, halting and twisting round yet again. Reaching out for the man’s arms. ‘Hear that, Balgrid?’

‘What? What?’

‘Not sure. Thought I heard Urb’s knives coming outa their sheaths.’

The mage heaved himself forward, kicking, clawing.

‘You stop moving again,’ Balm snarled to the child in front of him, ‘and the lizards will get you. Eat you alive. Eat us all alive. Those are crypt lizards, you damned whelp. You know what crypt lizards do? I’ll tell you what they do. They eat human flesh. That’s why they’re called crypt lizards, only they don’t mind if it’s living flesh—’

‘For Hood’s sake!’ Deadsmell growled behind him. ‘Sergeant – that ain’t the way—’

‘Shut your mouth! He’s still moving, ain’t he? Oh yes, ain’t he just. Crypt lizards, runt! Oh yes!’

‘Hope you ain’t nobody’s uncle, Sergeant.’

‘You’re getting as bad as Widdershins, Corporal, with that babbling mouth of yours. I want a new squad—’

‘Nobody’ll have you, not after this—’

‘You don’t know nothing, Deadsmell.’

‘I know if I was that child ahead of you, I’d shit right in your face.’

‘Quiet! You give him ideas, damn you! Do it, boy, and I’ll tie you up, oh yes, and leave you for the crypt lizards—’

‘Listen to me, little one!’ Deadsmell called out, his voice echoing. ‘Them crypt lizards, they’re about as long as your thumb! Balm’s just being a—’

‘I’m going to skewer you, Deadsmell. I swear it!’

Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas dragged himself forward. The Malazan in his wake was gasping – the only indication that the man still followed. They had managed to drop one of the copper panels over the pit, burning their hands – bad burns, the pain wouldn’t go away – Corabb’s palms felt like soft wax, pushed out of shape by the stones they gripped, the ledges they grasped.

He had never felt such excruciating pain before. He was sheathed in sweat, his limbs trembling, his heart hammering like a trapped beast in his chest.

Pulling himself through a narrow space, he sank down onto what seemed to be the surface of a street, although his head scraped stone rubble above. He slithered forward, gasping, and heard the sergeant slip down after him.

Then the ground shook, dust pouring down thick as sand. Thunder, one concussion after another, pounding down from above. A rush of searing hot air swept over them from behind. Smoke, dust—

‘Forward!’ Strings screamed. ‘Before the ceiling goes—’

Corabb reached back, groping, until he clasped one of the Malazan’s hands – the man was half-buried under rubble, his breath straining beneath the settling weight. Corabb pulled, then pulled harder.

A savage grunt from the Malazan, then, amidst clattering, thumping bricks and stones, Corabb tugged the man clear.

‘Come on!’ he hissed. ‘There’s a pit ahead, a sewer – the rest went down there – grab my ankles, Sergeant—’

The wind was beating back the roiling heat.

Corabb pitched headfirst into the pit, dragging Strings with him.

The rat had reached a vertical shaft, rough-walled enough so that she could climb down. The wind howled up it, filled with rotted leaves, dust and insect fragments. The creature was still descending when Bottle pulled himself up to the ledge. The detritus bit at his eyes as he peered down.

Seeing nothing. He pulled free a piece of rubble and tossed it downward, out from the wall. His soul, riding the rat’s own, sensed its passage. Rodent ears pricked forward, waiting. Four human heartbeats later there was a dull, muted crack of stone on stone, a few more, then nothing. Oh gods …

Cuttle spoke behind him. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘A shaft, goes straight down – a long away down.’

‘Can we climb it?’

‘My rat can.’

‘How wide is it?’

‘Not very, and gets narrower.’

‘We got wounded people back here, and Hellian’s still unconscious.’

Bottle nodded. ‘Do a roll call – I want to know how many made it. We also need straps, rope, anything and everything. Was it just me or did you hear the temple come down?’

Cuttle turned about and started the roll call and the request for straps and rope, then twisted round once more. ‘Yeah, it went down all right. When the wind dropped off. Thank Hood it’s back, or we’d be cooking or suffocating or both.’

Well, we’re not through this yet …

‘I know what you’re thinking, Bottle.’

‘You do?’

‘Think there’s a rat god? I hope so, and I hope you’re praying good and hard.’

A rat god. Maybe. Hard to know with creatures that don’t think in words. ‘I think one of us, one of the bigger, stronger ones, could wedge himself across. And help people down.’

‘If we get enough straps and stuff to climb down, aye. Tulip, maybe, or that other corporal, Urb. But there ain’t room to get past anyone.’

I know. ‘I’m going to try and climb down.’

‘Where’s the rat?’

‘Down below. It’s reached the bottom. It’s waiting there. Anyway, here goes.’ Drawing on the Thyr Warren to pierce the darkness, he moved out to the very edge. The wall opposite looked to be part of some monumental structure, the stones skilfully cut and fitted. Patches of crumbling plaster covered parts of it, as did sections of the frieze fronting that plaster. It seemed almost perfectly vertical – the narrowing of the gap was caused by the wall on his side – a much rougher facing, with projections remaining from some kind of elaborate ornamentation. A strange clash of styles, for two buildings standing so close together. Still, both walls had withstood the ravages of being buried, seemingly unaffected by the pressures of sand and rubble. ‘All right,’ he said to Cuttle, who had drawn up closer, ‘this might not be so bad.’

‘You’re what, twenty years old? No wounds, thin as a spear …’

‘Fine, you’ve made your point.’ Bottle pushed himself further out, then drew his right leg round. Stretching it outward, he slowly edged over, onto his stomach. ‘Damn, I don’t think my leg’s long—’

The ledge he leaned on splintered – it was, he suddenly realized, nothing but rotted wood – and he began sliding, falling.

He spun over, kicking out with both legs as he plummeted, throwing both arms out behind and to the sides. Those rough stones tore into his back, one outcrop cracking into the base of his skull and throwing his head forward. Then both feet contacted the stone of the wall opposite.

Flinging him over, headfirst—

Oh Hood—

Sudden tugs, snapping sounds, then more, pulling at him, resisting, slowing his descent.

Gods, webs—

His left shoulder was tugged back, turning him over. He kicked out again and felt the plastered wall under his foot. Reached out with his right arm, and his hand closed on a projection that seemed to sink like sponge beneath his clutching fingers. His other foot contacted the wall, and he pushed with both legs until his back was against rough stone.

And there were spiders, each as big as an outstretched hand, crawling all over him.

Bottle went perfectly still, struggling to slow his breathing.

Hairless, short-legged, pale amber – but there was no light – and he realized that the creatures were glowing, somehow lit from within, like lantern-flame behind thick, gold-tinted glass. They had swarmed him, now. From far above, he heard Cuttle calling down in desperate, frightened tones.

Bottle reached out with his mind, and immediately recoiled at the blind rage building in the spiders. And flashes of memory – the rat – their favoured prey – somehow evading all their snares, climbing down right past them, unseeing, unaware of the hundreds of eyes tracking its passing. And now … this.

Heart thundering in his chest, Bottle quested once more. A hive mind, of sorts – no, an extended family – they would mass together, exchange nutrients – when one fed, they all fed. They had never known light beyond what lived within them, and, until recently, never known wind. Terrified … but not starving, thank Hood. He sought to calm them, flinched once more as all motion ceased, all attention fixed now on him. Legs that had been scrambling over his body went still, tiny claws clasping hard in his skin.

Calm. No reason to fear. An accident, and there will be more – it cannot be helped. Best go away now, all of you. Soon, the silence will return, we will have gone past, and before long, this wind will end, and you can begin to rebuild. Peace … please.

They were not convinced.

The wind paused suddenly, then a gust of heat descended from above.

Flee! He fashioned images of fire in his mind, drew forth from his own memory scenes of people dying, destruction all around—

The spiders fled. Three heartbeats, and he was alone. Nothing clinging still to his skin, nothing but strands of wiry anchor lines, tattered sheets of web. And, trickling down his back, from the soles of his feet, from his arms: blood.

Damn, I’m torn up bad, I think. Pain, now, awakening … everywhere. Too much – Consciousness fled.

From far above: ‘Bottle!’

Stirring … blinking awake. How long had he been hanging here?

‘I’m here, Cuttle! I’m climbing down – not much farther, I think!’ Grimacing against the pain, he started working his feet downward – the space was narrow enough, now, that he could straddle the gap. He gasped as he pulled his back clear of the wall.

Something whipped his right shoulder, stinging, hard, and he ducked – then felt the object slide down the right side of his chest. The strap of a harness.

From above: ‘I’m climbing down!’

Koryk called behind him, ‘Shard, you still with us?’ The man had been gibbering – they’d all discovered an unexpected horror. That of stopping. Moving forward had been a tether to sanity, for it had meant that, somewhere ahead, Bottle was still crawling, still finding a way through. When everyone had come to a halt, terror had slipped among them, closing like tentacles around throats, and squeezing.

Shrieks, panicked fighting against immovable, packed stone and brick, hands clawing at feet. Rising into a frenzy.

Then, voices bellowing, calling back – they’d reached a shaft of some kind – they needed rope, belts, harness straps – they were going to climb down.

There was still a way ahead.

Koryk had, through it all, muttered his chant. The Child Death Song, the Seti rite of passage from whelp into adulthood. A ritual that had, for girl and boy alike, included the grave log, the hollowed-out coffin and the night-long internment in a crypt of the bloodline. Buried alive, for the child to die, for the adult to be born. A test against the spirits of madness, the worms that lived in each person, coiled at the base of the skull, wrapped tight about the spine. Worms that were ever eager to awaken, to crawl, gnawing a path into the brain, whispering and laughing or screaming, or both.

He had survived that night. He had defeated the worms.

And that was all he needed, for this. All he needed.

He had heard those worms, eating into soldiers ahead of him, soldiers behind him. Into the children, as the worms raced out to take them as well. For an adult to break under fear – there could be no worse nightmare for the child that witnessed such a thing. For with that was torn away all hope, all faith.

Koryk could save none of them. He could not give them the chant, for they would not know what it meant, and they had never spent a night in a coffin. And he knew, had it gone on much longer, people would start dying, or the madness would devour their minds, completely, permanently, and that would kill everyone else. Everyone.

The worms had retreated, and now all he could hear was weeping – not the broken kind, but the relieved kind – weeping and gibbering. And he knew they could taste it, could taste what those worms had left behind, and they prayed: not again. No closer, please. Never again. ‘Corporal Shard?’

‘W-what, damn you?’

‘Limp. How is he? I keep kicking at him, hitting what I think is an arm, but he’s not moving. Can you climb ahead, can you check?’

‘He’s knocked out.’

‘How did that happen?’

‘I crawled onto him and pounded his head against the floor until he stopped screaming.’

‘You sure he’s alive?’

‘Limp? His skull’s solid rock, Koryk.’

He heard movement back there, asked, ‘What now?’

‘I’ll prove it to you. Give this broke leg a twist—’

Limp shrieked.

‘Glad you’re back, soldier,’ Shard said.

‘Get away from me, you bastard!’

‘Wasn’t me who panicked. Next time you think about panicking, Limp, just remind yourself I’m here, right behind you.’

‘I’m going to kill you someday, Corporal—’

‘As you like. Just don’t do it again.’

Koryk thought back to the babbling noises he’d heard from Shard, but said nothing.

More scuffling sounds, then a bundle of rope and leather straps – most of them charred – was pushed into Koryk’s hands. He dragged it close, then shoved it out ahead to the small boy huddled behind Tavos Pond. ‘Push it on, lad,’ he said.

‘You,’ the boy said. ‘I heard you. I listened.’

‘And you was all right, wasn’t you?’


‘I’ll teach it to you. For the next time.’


Someone had shouted back instructions, cutting through the frenzy of terror, and people had responded, stripping away whatever could be used as a rope. Chilled beneath a gritty layer of sweat, Tarr settled his forehead onto the stones under him, smelling dust mingled with the remnants of his own fear. When the bundle reached him he drew it forward, then struggled out of what was left of his own harness and added it to the pathetic collection.

Now, at least, they had a reason to wait, they weren’t stopped because Bottle had run out of places to crawl. Something to hold onto. He prayed it would be enough.

Behind him, Balgrid whispered, ‘I wish we was marching across the desert again. That road, all that space on both sides …’

‘I hear you,’ Tarr said. ‘And I also remember how you used to curse it. The dryness, the sun—’

‘Sun, hah! I’m so crisp I’ll never fear the sun again. Gods, I’ll kneel in prayer before it, I swear it. If freedom was a god, Tarr…

If freedom was a god. Now that’s an interesting thought …

‘Thank Hood all that screaming’s stopped,’ Balm said, plucking at whatever was tingling against all his skin, tingling, prickling like some kind of heat rash. Heat rash, that was funny—

‘Sergeant,’ Deadsmell said, ‘it was you doing all that screaming.’

‘Quiet, you damned liar. Wasn’t me, was the kid ahead of me.’

‘Really? I didn’t know he spoke Dal Honese—’

‘I will skewer you, Corporal. Just one more word, I swear it. Gods, I’m itchy all over, like I been rolling in Fool’s pollen—’

‘You get that after you been panicking, Sergeant. Fear sweat, it’s called. You didn’t piss yourself too, did you? I’m smelling—’

‘I got my knife out, Deadsmell. You know that? All I got to do is twist round and you won’t be bothering me no more.’

‘You tossed your knife, Sergeant. In the temple—’

‘Fine! I’ll kick you to death!’

‘Well, if you do, can you do it before I have to crawl through your puddle?’

‘The heat is winning the war,’ Corabb said.

‘Aye,’ answered Strings behind him, his voice faint, brittle. ‘Here.’

Something was pushed against Corabb’s feet. He reached back, and his hand closed on a coil of rope. ‘You were carrying this?’

‘Was wrapped around me. I saw Smiles drop it, outside the temple – it was smouldering, so that’s not a surprise …’

As he drew it over him, Corabb felt something wet, sticky on the rope. Blood. ‘You’re bleeding out, aren’t you?’

‘Just a trickle. I’m fine.’

Corabb crawled forward – there was some space between them and the next soldier, the one named Widdershins. Corabb could have kept up had he been alone back here, but he would not leave the Malazan sergeant behind. Enemy or no, such things were not done.

He had believed them all monsters, cowards and bullies. He had heard that they ate their own dead. But no, they were just people. No different from Corabb himself. The tyranny lies at the feet of the Empress. These – they’re all just soldiers. That’s all they are. Had he gone with Leoman… he would have discovered none of this. He would have held onto his fierce hatred for all Malazans and all things Malazan.

But now … the man behind him was dying. A Falari by birth – just another place conquered by the empire. Dying, and there was no room to get to him, not here, not yet.

‘Here,’ he said to Widdershins. ‘Pass this up.’

‘Hood take us, that’s real rope!’

‘Aye. Move it along fast now.’

‘Don’t order me around, bastard. You’re a prisoner. Remember that.’

Corabb crawled back.

The heat was building, devouring the thin streams of cool air sliding up from below. They couldn’t lie still for much longer. We must move on. From Strings: ‘Did you say something, Corabb?’

‘No. Nothing much.’

From above came sounds of Cuttle making his way down the makeshift rope, his breath harsh, strained. Bottle reached the rubble-filled base of the fissure. It was solidly plugged. Confused, he ran his hands along both walls. His rat? Ah, there – at the bottom of the sheer, vertical wall his left hand plunged into air that swept up and past. An archway. Gods, what kind of building was this? An archway, holding the weight of at least two – maybe three – storeys’ worth of stonework. And neither the wall nor the arch had buckled, after all this time. Maybe the legends are true. Maybe Y’Ghatan was once the first Holy City, the greatest city of all. And when it died, at the Great Slaughter, every building was left standing – not a stone taken. Standing, to be buried by the sands.

He lowered himself to twist feet-first through the archway, almost immediately contacting heaps of something – rubble? – nearly filling the chamber beyond. Rubble that tipped and tilted with clunking sounds, rocked by his kicking feet.

Ahead, his rat roused itself, startled by the loud sounds as Bottle slid into the chamber. Reaching out with his will, he grasped hold of the creature’s soul once more. ‘All right, little one. The work begins again …’ His voice trailed away.

He was lying on row upon row of urns, stacked so high they were an arm’s reach from the chamber’s ceiling. Groping with his hands, Bottle found that the tall urns were sealed, capped in iron, the edges and level tops of the metal intricately incised with swirling patterns. The ceramic beneath was smooth to the touch, finely glazed. Hearing Cuttle shouting that he’d reached the base behind him, he crawled in towards the centre of the room. The rat slipped through another archway opposite, and Bottle sensed it clambering down, alighting on a clear, level stone floor, then waddling ahead.

Grasping the rim of one urn’s iron cap, he strained to pull it loose. The seal was tight, his efforts eliciting nothing. He twisted the rim to the right – nothing – then the left. A grating sound. He twisted harder. The cap slid, pulled loose from its seal. Crumbled wax fell away. Bottle pulled upward on the lid. When that failed, he resumed twisting it to the left, and quickly realized that the lid was rising, incrementally, with every full turn. Probing fingers discovered a canted, spiralling groove on the rim of the urn, crusted with wax. Two more turns and the iron lid came away.

A pungent, cloying smell arose.

I know that smell … honey. These things are filled with honey. For how long had they sat here, stored away by people long since dust? He reached down, and almost immediately plunged his hand into the cool, thick contents. A balm against his burns, and now, an answer to the sudden hunger awakening within him.


‘Through here. I’m in a large chamber under the straight wall. Cuttle, there’s urns here, hundreds of them. Filled with honey.’ He drew his hands free and licked his fingers. ‘Gods, it tastes fresh. When you get in here, salve your burns, Cuttle—’

‘Only if you promise we’re not going to crawl through an ant nest anywhere ahead.’

‘No ants down here. What’s the count?’

‘We got everybody.’


‘Still with us, though the heat’s working its way down.’

‘Enough rope and straps, then. Good.’

‘Aye. So long as they hold. Seems Urb’s proposing to carry Hellian down. On his back.’

‘Is the next one on their way?’

‘Aye. How do these lids come off?’

‘Turn them, widdershins. And keep turning them.’

Bottle listened as the man worked on one of the lids. ‘Can’t be very old, this stuff, to still be fresh.’

‘There’s glyphs on these lids, Cuttle. I can’t see them, but I can feel them. My grandmother, she had a ritual blade she used in her witchery – the markings are the same, I think. If I’m right, Cuttle, this iron work is Jaghut.’


‘But the urns are First Empire. Feel the sides. Smooth as eggshell – if we had light I’d wager anything they’re skyblue. So, with a good enough seal …’

‘I can still taste the flowers in this, Bottle.’

‘I know.’

‘You’re talking thousands and thousands of years.’


‘Where’s your favourite rat?’

‘Hunting us a way through. There’s another chamber opposite, but it’s open, empty, I mean – we should move in there to give the others room …’

‘What’s wrong?’

Bottle shook his head. ‘Nothing, just feeling a little … strange. Cut my back up some … it’s gone numb—’

‘Hood’s breath, there was some kind of poppy in that honey, wasn’t there? I’m starting to feel … gods below, my head’s swimming.’

‘Yeah, better warn the others.’

Though he could see nothing, Bottle felt as if the world around him was shuddering, spinning. His heart was suddenly racing. Shit. He crawled towards the other archway. Reached in, pulled himself forward, and was falling.

The collision with the stone floor felt remote, yet he sensed he’d plunged more than a man’s height. He remembered a sharp, cracking sound, realized it had been his forehead, hitting the flagstones.

Cuttle thumped down on top of him, rolled off with a grunt.

Bottle frowned, pulling himself along the floor. The rat – where was she? Gone. I lost her. Oh no, I lost her.

Moments later, he lost everything else as well.

Corabb had dragged an unconscious Strings down the last stretch of tunnel. They’d reached the ledge to find the rope dangling from three sword scabbards wedged across the shaft, and vague sounds of voices far below. Heat swirled like serpents around him as he struggled to pull the Malazan up closer to the ledge.

Then he reached out and began drawing up the rope.

The last third of the line consisted of knots and straps and buckles – he checked each knot, tugged on each strand, but none seemed on the verge of breaking. Corabb bound the Malazan’s arms, tight at the wrists; then the man’s ankles – one of them sheathed in blood, and, checking for bandages, he discovered none remaining, just the ragged holes left by the spear – and from the rope at the ankles he made a centre knot between the sergeant’s feet. With the rope end looped in one hand, Corabb worked the man’s arms over his head, then down so that the bound wrists were against his sternum. He then pushed his own legs through, so that the Malazan’s bound feet were against his shins. Drawing up the centre-knotted rope he looped it over his head and beneath one arm, then cinched it into a tight knot.

He worked his way into the shaft, leaning hard for the briefest of moments on the wedged scabbards, then succeeding in planting one foot against the opposite wall. The distance was a little too great – he could manage only the tips of his feet on each wall, and as the weight of Strings on his back fully settled, the tendons in his ankles felt ready to snap.

Gasping, Corabb worked his way down. Two manheights, taken in increasing speed, control slipping away with every lurch downward, then he found a solid projection on which he could rest his right foot, and the gap had narrowed enough to let his left hand reach out and ease the burden on that leg.

Corabb rested.

The pain of deep burns, the pounding of his heart. Some time later, he resumed the descent. Easier now, the gap closing, closing.

Then he was at the bottom, and he heard something like laughter from his left, low, which then trailed away.

He searched out that side and found the archway, through which he tossed the rope, hearing it strike a body a little way below.

Everyone’s asleep. No wonder. I could do with that myself.

He untied Strings, then clambered through, found his feet balancing on tight-packed, clunking jars, the sounds of snoring and breathing on all sides and a sweet, cloying smell. He pulled Strings after him, eased the man down.

Honey. Jars and jars of honey. Good for bums, I think. Good for wounds. Finding an opened jar, Corabb scooped out a handful, crawled over to the sergeant and pushed the honey into the puncture wounds. Salved the burns, on Strings and on himself. Then he settled back. Numbing bliss stole through him.

Oh, this honey, it’s Carelbarra. The God Bringer. Oh …

Fist Keneb tottered into the morning light, stood, blinking, looking round at the chaotic array of tents, many of them scorched, and all the soldiers – stumbling, wandering or standing motionless, staring across the blasted landscape towards the city. Y’Ghatan, blurred by waves of rising heat, a misshapen mound melted down atop its ragged hill, fires still flickering here and there, pale orange tongues and, lower down, fierce deep red.

Ash filled the air, drifting down like snow.

It hurt to breathe. He was having trouble hearing – the roar of that firestorm still seemed to rage inside his head, as hungry as ever. How long had it been? A day? Two days? There had been healers. Witches with salves, practitioners of Denul from the army itself. A jumble of voices, chanting, whispers, some real, some imagined.

He thought of his wife. Selv was away from this accursed continent, safe in her family estate back on Quon Tali. And Kesen and Vaneb, his children. They’d survived, hadn’t they? He was certain they had. A memory of that, strong enough to convince him of its truth. That assassin, Kalam, he’d had something to do with that.

Selv. They had grown apart, in the two years before the rebellion, the two years – was it two? – that they had been in Seven Cities, in the garrison settlement. The uprising had forced them both to set aside all of that, for the children, for survival itself. He suspected she did not miss him; although his children might. He suspected she would have found someone else by now, a lover, and the last thing she would want was to see him again.

Well, there could be worse things in this life. He thought back on those soldiers he’d seen with the fiercest burns – gods how they had screamed their pain.

Keneb stared at the city. And hated it with all his soul.

The dog Bent arrived to lie down beside him. A moment later Grub appeared. ‘Father, do you know what will come of this? Do you?’

‘Come of what, Grub?’

The boy pointed at Y’Ghatan with one bare, sootstained arm. ‘She wants us to leave. As soon as we can.’ He then pointed towards the morning sun. ‘It’s the plague, you see, in the east. So. We’re marching west. To find the ships. But I already know the answer. To find what’s inside us, you got to take everything else away, you see?’

‘No, Grub. I don’t see.’

The Hengese lapdog, Roach, scrambled into view, sniffing the ground. Then it began digging, as if in a frenzy. Dust engulfed it.

‘Something’s buried,’ Grub said, watching Roach.

‘I imagine there is.’

‘But she won’t see that.’ The boy looked up at Keneb. ‘Neither will you.’

Grub ran off, Bent loping at his side. The lapdog kept digging, making snuffling, snorting sounds.

Keneb frowned, trying to recall what Grub had said earlier – was it the night of the breach? Before the fated order went out? Had there been a warning hidden in the lad’s words? He couldn’t remember – the world before the fire seemed to have burned away to nothing in his mind. It had been a struggle to conjure up the names of his wife, his children, their faces. I don’t understand. What has happened to me?

In the command tent, the Adjunct stood facing Nil and Nether. Fist Blistig watched from near the back wall, so exhausted he could barely stand. Tavore had placed him in charge of the healing – setting up the hospitals, organizing the Denul healers, the witches and the warlocks. Two days and one or maybe one and a half nights – he was not sure he could count the short chaotic time before the sun rose on the night of the breach. Without his officers that first night, he would have been relieved of command before dawn. His soul had been drowning in the pit of the Abyss.

Blistig was not yet certain he had climbed back out.

Nil was speaking, his voice a monotone, dulled by too long in the sorcery he had grown to hate.’… nothing but death and heat. Those who made it out – their agony deafens me – they are driving the spirits insane. They flee, snapping their bindings. They curse us, for this vast wound upon the land, for the crimes we have committed—’

‘Not our crimes,’ the Adjunct cut in, turning away, her gaze finding Blistig. ‘How many did we lose today, Fist?’

‘Thirty-one, Adjunct, but the witches say that few will follow, now. The worst are dead, the rest will live.’

‘Begin preparations for the march – have we enough wagons?’

‘Provided soldiers pack their own food for a while,’ Blistig said. ‘Speaking of which, some stores were lost – we’ll end up chewing leather unless we can arrange a resupply.’

‘How long?’

‘A week, if we immediately begin rationing. Adjunct, where are we going?’

Her eyes grew veiled for a moment, then she looked away. ‘The plague is proving … virulent. It is the Mistress’s own, I gather, the kiss of the goddess herself. And there is a shortage of healers …’


Nil shook his head. ‘The city has already been struck, Fist.’

‘Sotka,’ said the Adjunct. ‘Pearl has informed me that Admiral Nok’s fleet and the transports have been unable to dock in any city east of Ashok on the Maadil Peninsula, so he has been forced around it, and expects to reach Sotka in nine days, assuming he can draw in for water and food in Taxila or Rang.’

‘Nine days?’ asked Blistig. ‘If the plague’s in Lothal already

‘Our enemy now is time,’ the Adjunct said. ‘Fist, you have orders to break camp. Do it as quickly as possible. The Rebellion is over. Our task now is to survive.’ She studied Blistig for a moment. ‘I want us on the road tonight.’

‘Tonight? Aye, Adjunct. I had best be on my way, then.’ He saluted, then headed out. Outside, he halted, momentarily blinking, then, recalling his orders, he set off.

After Blistig’s footsteps had trailed away, the Adjunct turned to Nether. ‘The Mistress of Plague, Nether. Why now? Why here?’

The Wickan witch snorted. ‘You ask me to fathom the mind of a goddess, Adjunct? It is hopeless. She may have no reason. Plague is her aspect, after all. It is what she does.’ She shook her head, said nothing more.

‘Adjunct,’ Nil ventured, ‘you have your victory. The Empress will be satisfied – she has to be. We need to rest—’

‘Pearl informs me that Leoman of the Flails is not dead.’

Neither Wickan replied, and the Adjunct faced them once more. ‘You both knew that, didn’t you?’

‘He was taken … away,’ Nil said. ‘By a goddess.’

‘Which goddess? Poliel?’

‘No. The Queen of Dreams.’

‘The Goddess of Divination? What possible use could she have for Leoman of the Flails?’

Nil shrugged.

Outside the tent a rider reined in and a moment later Temul, dust-sheathed and dripping blood from three parallel slashes tracking the side of his face, strode in, dragging a dishevelled child with him. ‘Found her, Adjunct,’ he said.


‘Trying to get back into the ruins. She has lost her mind.’

The Adjunct studied the child, Sinn, then said, ‘She had best find it again. I have need of High Mages. Sinn, look at me. Look at me.’

She gave no indication of even hearing Tavore, her head still hanging down, ropes of burnt hair hiding her face.

Sighing, the Adjunct said, ‘Take her and get her cleaned up. And keep her under guard at all times – we will try this again later.’

After they had left, Nil asked, ‘Adjunct, do you intend to pursue Leoman? How? There is no trail to follow – the Queen of Dreams could have spirited him to another continent by now.’

‘No, we shall not pursue, but understand this, Wickan, while he yet lives there will be no victory in the eyes of the Empress. Y’Ghatan will remain as it always has been, a curse upon the empire.’

‘It will not rise again,’ Nil said.

Tavore studied him. ‘The young know nothing of history. I am going for a walk. Both of you, get some rest.’

She left.

Nil met his sister’s eyes, then smiled. ‘Young? How easily she forgets.’

‘They all forget, brother.’

‘Where do you think Leoman has gone?’

‘Where else? Into the Golden Age, Nil. The glory that was the Great Rebellion. He strides the mists of myth, now. They will say he breathed fire. They will say you could see the Apocalypse in his eyes. They will say he sailed from Y’Ghatan on a river of Malazan blood.’

‘The locals believe Coltaine ascended, Nether. The new Patron of Crows—’

‘Fools. Wickans do not ascend. We just … reiterate.’

Lieutenant Pores was awake, and he lifted his good hand to acknowledge his captain as Kindly halted at the foot of the camp cot.

‘They say your hand melted together, Lieutenant.’

‘Yes, sir. My left hand, as you see.’

‘They say they have done all they could, taken away the pain, and maybe one day they will manage to cut each finger free once again. Find a High Denul healer and make your hand look and work like new again.’

‘Yes, sir. And until then, since it’s my shield hand, I should be able to—’

‘Then why in Hood’s name are you taking up this cot, Lieutenant?’

‘Ah, well, I just need to find some clothes, then, sir, and I’ll be right with you.’

Kindly looked down the row of cots. ‘Half this hospital is filled with bleating lambs – you up to being a wolf, Lieutenant? We march tonight. There’s not enough wagons and, even more outrageous, not enough palanquins and no howdahs to speak of – what is this army coming to, I wonder?’

‘Shameful, sir. How does Fist Tene Baralta fare, sir?’

‘Lost that arm, but you don’t hear him whining and fussing and moaning.’


‘Of course not, he’s still unconscious. Get on your feet, soldier. Wear that blanket.’

‘I lost my arm torc, sir—’

‘You got the burn mark where it was, though, haven’t you? They see that and they’ll know you for an officer. That and your ferocious comportment.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Good, now enough of wasting my time. We’ve work to do, Lieutenant.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Lieutenant, if you remain lying there another heartbeat, I will fold that cot up with you in it, do you understand me?’

‘Yes, sir!’

She sat unmoving, limbs limp as a doll’s, while an old Wickan woman washed her down and another cut away most of her hair, and did not look up as Captain Faradan Sort entered the tent.

‘That will do,’ she said, gesturing for the two Wickans to leave. ‘Get out.’

Voicing, in tandem, strings of what the captain took to be curses, the two women left.

Faradan Sort looked down on the girl. ‘Long hair just gets in the way, Sinn. You’re better off without it. I don’t miss mine at all. You’re not talking, but I think I know what is going on. So listen. Don’t say anything. Just listen to me …’

The dull grey, drifting ash devoured the last light of the sun, while dust-clouds from the road drifted down into the cut banks to either side. Remnant breaths of the dead city still rolled over the Fourteenth Army – all that remained of the firestorm, yet reminder enough for the mass of soldiers awaiting the horn blasts that would announce the march.

Fist Keneb lifted himself into the saddle, gathered the reins. All round him he could hear coughing, from human and beast alike, a terrible sound. Wagons, burdened with the cloth-swathed wounded, were lined up on the road like funeral carts, smoke-stained, flame-blackened and reeking of pyres. Among them, he knew, could be found Fist Tene Baralta, parts of his body burned away and his face horribly scarred – a Denul healer had managed to save his eyes, but the man’s beard had caught fire, and most of his lips and nose were gone. The concern now was for his sanity, although he remained, mercifully, unconscious. And there were others, so many others …

He watched Temul and two riders cantering towards him. The Wickan leader reined in, shaking his head. ‘Nowhere to be found, Fist. It’s no surprise – but know this: we’ve had other desertions, and we’ve tracked them all down. The Adjunct has issued the command to kill the next ones on sight.’

Keneb nodded, looked away.

‘From now on,’ Temul continued, ‘my Wickans will not accept counter-orders from Malazan officers.’

The Fist’s head turned back and he stared at Temul. ‘Fist, your Wickans are Malazans.’

The young warrior grimaced, then wheeled his horse. ‘They’re your problem now, Fist. Send out searchers if you like, but the Fourteenth won’t wait for them.’

Even as he and his aides rode away, the horns sounded, and the army lurched into motion.

Keneb rose in his saddle and looked around. The sun was down, now. Too dark to see much of anything. And somewhere out there were Captain Faradan Sort and Sinn. Two deserters. That damned captain. I thought she was … well, I didn’t think she’d do something like this.

Y’Ghatan had broken people, broken them utterly – he did not think many would recover. Ever.

The Fourteenth Army began its march, down the western road, towards the Sotka Fork, in its wake dust and ash, and a destroyed city.

Her head was serpentine, the slitted, vertical eyes lurid green, and Balm watched her tongue slide in and out with fixed, morbid fascination. The wavy, ropy black tendrils of her hair writhed, and upon the end of each was a tiny human head, mouth open in piteous screams.

Witch Eater, Thesorma Raadil, all bedecked in zebra skins, her four arms lifting this way and that, threatening with the four sacred weapons of the Dal Hon tribes. Bola, kout, hook-scythe and rock – he could never understand that: where were the more obvious ones? Knife? Spear? Bow? Who thought up these goddesses anyway? What mad, twisted, darkly amused mind conjured such monstrosities? Whoever it was – is – I hate him. Or her. Probably her. It’s always her. She’s a witch, isn’t she? No, Witch Eater. Likely a man, then, and one not mad or stupid after all. Someone has to eat all those witches.

Yet she was advancing on him. Balm. A mediocre warlock – no, a lapsed warlock – just a soldier, now, in fact. A sergeant, but where in Hood’s name was his squad? The army? What was he doing on the savannah of his homeland? I ran from there, oh yes I did. Herd cattle? Hunt monstrous, vicious beasts and call it a fun pastime? Not for me. Oh no, not Balm. I’ve drunk enough bull blood to sprout horns, enough cow milk to grow udders – ‘so you, Witch Eater, get away from me!’

She laughed, the sound a predictable hiss, and said, ‘I’m hungry for wayward warlocks—’

‘No! You eat witches! Not warlocks!’

‘Who said anything about eating?’

Balm tried to get away, scrabbling, clawing, but there were rocks, rough walls, projections that snagged him. He was trapped. ‘I’m trapped!’

‘Get away from him, you rutting snake!’

A voice of thunder. Well, minute thunder. Balm lifted his head, looked round. A huge beetle stood within arm’s reach – reared up on its hind legs, its wedge-shaped head would have been level with Balm’s knees, could he stand. So, huge in a relative sense. Imparala Ar, the Dung God – ‘Imparala! Save me!’

‘Fear not, mortal,’ the beetle said, antennae and limbs waving about. ‘She’ll not have you! No, I have need of you!’

‘You do? For what?’

‘To dig, my mortal friend. Through the vast dung of the world! Only your kind, human, with your clear vision, your endless appetite! You, conveyor of waste and maker of rubbish! Follow me, and we shall eat our way into the very Abyss itself!’

‘Gods, you stink!’

‘Never mind that, my friend – before too long you too—’

‘Leave him alone, the both of you!’ A third voice, shrill, descending from above and closing fast. ‘It’s the dead and dying who cry out the truth of things!’

Balm looked up. Brithan Troop, the eleven-headed vulture goddess. ‘Oh, leave me alone! All of you!’

From every side, now, a growing clamour of voices. Gods and goddesses, the whole Dal Honese menagerie of disgusting deities.

Oh, why do we have so many of them!

It was her sister, not her. She remembered, as clearly as if it had been yesterday, the night of lies that lumbered into the Itko Kanese village when the seas had been silent, empty, for too long. When hunger, no, starvation, had arrived, and all the civil, modern beliefs – the stately, just gods – were cast off once again. In the name of Awakening, the old grisly rites had returned.

The fish had gone away. The seas were lifeless. Blood was needed, to stir the Awakening, to save them all.

They’d taken her sister. Smiles was certain of it. Yet, here were the rough, salt-gnawed hands of the elders, carrying her drugged, insensate body down onto the wet sands – the tide drawn far back and waiting patiently for this warm gift – whilst she floated above herself, looking on in horror.

All wrong. Not the way it had happened. They’d taken her twin sister – so much power in the Mirror Birth, after all, and so rare in the small village where she’d been born.

Her sister. That was why she’d fled them all. Cursing every name, every face glimpsed that night. Running and running, all the way to the great city to the north – and, had she known what awaited her there …

No, I’d do it again. I would. Those bastards. ‘For the lives of everyone else, child, give up your own. This is the cycle, this is life and death, and that eternal path lies in the blood. Give up your own life, for the lives of all of us.’

Odd how those priests never volunteered themselves for that glorious gift. How they never insisted that they be the ones tied and weighted down to await the tide’s wash, and the crabs, the ever hungry crabs.

And, if it was so damned blissful, why pour durhang oil down her throat, until her eyes were like black pearls and she couldn’t even walk, much less think? Still less comprehend what was happening, what they were planning to do to her?

Drifting above the body of herself, Smiles sensed the old spirits drawing close, eager and gleeful. And, somewhere in the depths beyond the bay, waited the Eldest God. Mael himself, that feeder on misery, the cruel taker of life and hope.

Rage rising within her, Smiles could feel her body straining at the numbing turgid chains – she would not lie unmoving, she would not smile up when her mother kissed her one last time. She would not blink dreamily when the warm water stole over her, into her.

Hear me! All you cursed spirits, hear me! I defy you!

Oh yes, flinch back! You know well enough to fear, because I swear this – I will take you all down with me. I will take you all into the Abyss, into the hands of the demons of chaos. It’s the cycle, you see. Order and chaos, a far older cycle than life and death, wouldn’t you agree?

So, come closer, all of you.

In the end, it was as she had known. They’d taken her sister, and she, well, let’s not be coy now, you delivered the last kiss, dear girl. And no durhang oil to soothe away the excuse, either.

Running away never feels as fast, never as far, as it should.

You could believe in whores. He had been born to a whore, a Seti girl of fourteen who’d been flung away by her parents – of course, she hadn’t been a whore then, but to keep her new son fed and clothed, well, it was the clearest course before her.

And he had learned the ways of worship among whores, all those women knitted close to his mother, sharing fears and everything else that came with the profession. Their touch had been kindly and sincere, the language they knew best.

A half-blood could call on no gods. A half-blood walked the gutter between two worlds, despised by both.

Yet he had not been alone, and in many ways it was the half-bloods who held closest to the traditional ways of the Seti. The full-blood tribes had gone off to wars – all the young lance warriors and the women archers – beneath the standard of the Malazan Empire. When they had returned, they were Seti no longer. They were Malazan.

And so Koryk had been immersed in the old rituals – those that could be remembered – and they had been, he had known even then, godless and empty. Serving only the living, the half-blood kin around each of them.

There was no shame in that.

There had been a time, much later, when Koryk had come upon his own language, protecting the miserable lives of the women from whom he had first learned the art of empty worship. A mindful dialect, bound to no cause but that of the living, of familiar, ageing faces, of repaying the gifts the now unwanted once-whores had given him in his youth. And then watching them one by one die. Worn out, so scarred by so many brutal hands, the indifferent usage by the men and women of the city – who proclaimed the ecstasy of god-worship when it suited them, then defiled human flesh with the cold need of carnivores straddling a kill.

Deep in the sleep of Carelbarra, the God Bringer, Koryk beheld no visitors. For him, there was naught but oblivion.

As for the fetishes, well, they were for something else. Entirely something else.

‘Go on, mortal, pull it.’

Crump glowered, first at Stump Flit, the Salamander God, Highest of High Marshals, then at the vast, gloomy swamp of Mott. What was he doing here? He didn’t want to be here. What if his brothers found him? ‘No.’

‘Go on, I know you want to. Take my tail, mortal, and watch me thrash about, a trapped god in your hands, it’s what you all do anyway. All of you.’

‘No. Go away. I don’t want to talk to you. Go away.’

‘Oh, poor ]amber Bole, all so alone, now. Unless your brothers find you, and then you’ll want me on your side, yes you will. If they find you, oh my, oh my.’

‘They won’t. They ain’t looking, neither.’

‘Yes they are, my foolish young friend—’

‘I ain’t your friend. Go away.’

‘They’re after you, Jamber Bole. Because of what you did—’

‘I didn’t do nothing!’

‘Grab my tail. Go on. Here, just reach out …’

Jamber Bole, now known as Crump, sighed, reached out and closed his hand on the Salamander God’s tail.

It bolted, and he was left holding the end of the tail in his hand.

Stump Flit raced away, laughing and laughing.

Good thing too, Crump reflected. It was the only joke it had.

Corabb stood in the desert, and through the heat-haze someone was coming. A child. Sha’ik reborn, the seer had returned, to lead still more warriors to their deaths. He could not see her face yet – there was something wrong with his eyes. Burned, maybe. Scoured by blowing sand, he didn’t know, but to see was to feel pain. To see her was … terrible.

No, Sha’ik, please. This must end, it must all end. We have had our fill of holy wars – how much blood can this sand absorb? When will your thirst end?

She came closer. And the closer she drew to where he was standing, the more his eyes failed him, and when he heard her halt before him, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas was blind.

Yet not deaf, as she whispered, ‘Help me.’

‘Open your eyes, friend.’

But he didn’t want to. Everybody demanded decisions.

From him, all the time, and he didn’t want to make any more. Never again. The way it was now was perfect. This slow sinking away, the whisperings that meant nothing, that weren’t even words. He desired nothing more, nothing else.

‘Wake up, Fiddler. One last time, so we can talk. We need to talk, friend.’

All right. He opened his eyes, blinked to clear the mists – but they didn’t clear – in fact, the face looking down at him seemed to be made of those mists. ‘Hedge. What do you want?’

The sapper grinned. ‘I bet you think you’re dead, don’t you? That you’re back with all your old buddies. A Bridgeburner, where the Bridgeburners never die. The deathless army – oh, we cheated Hood, didn’t we just. Hah! That’s what you’re thinking, yeah? Okay, then, so where’s Trotts? Where are all the others?’

‘You tell me.’

‘I will. You ain’t dead. Not yet, maybe not for a while either. And that’s my point. That’s why I’m here. You need a kicking awake, Fid, else Hood’ll find you and you won’t see none of us ever again. The world’s been burned through, where you are right now. Burned through, realm after realm, warren after warren. It ain’t a place anybody can claim. Not for a long time. Dead, burned down straight to the Abyss.’

‘You’re a ghost, Hedge. What do you want with me? From me?’

‘You got to keep going, Fid. You got to take us with you, right to the end—’

‘What end?’

‘The end and that’s all I can say—’


“Cause it ain’t happened yet, you idiot! How am I supposed to know? It’s the future and I can’t see no future. Gods, you’re so thick, Fid. You always were.’

‘Me? I didn’t blow myself up, Hedge.’

‘So? You’re lying on a bunch of urns and bleeding out – that’s better? Messing up all that sweet honey with your blood—’

‘What honey? What are you talking about?’

‘You better get going, you’re running outa time.’

‘Where are we?’

‘No place, and that’s the problem. Maybe Hood’ll find you, maybe no-one will. The ghosts of Y’Ghatan – they all burned. Into nothing. Destroyed, all those locked memories, thousands and thousands. Thousands of years … gone, now. You’ve no idea the loss …’

‘Be quiet. You’re sounding like a ghost.’

‘Time to wake up, Fid. Wake up, now. Go on …’

Wildfires had torn across the grasslands, and Bottle found himself lying on blackened stubble. Nearby lay a charred carcass. Some kind of four-legged grass-eater – and around it had gathered a half-dozen human-like figures, fine-furred and naked. They held sharp-edged stones and were cutting into the burnt flesh.

Two stood as sentinels, scanning the horizons. One of them was … her.

My female. Heavy with child, so heavy now. She saw him and came over. He could not look away from her eyes, from that regal serenity in her gaze.

There had been wild apes on Malaz Island once. He remembered, in Jakatakan, when he was maybe seven years old, seeing a cage in the market, the last island ape left, captured in the hardwood forests on the north coast. It had wandered down into a village, a young male seeking a mate – but there were no mates left. Half-starved and terrified, it had been cornered in a stable, clubbed unconscious, and now it crouched in a filthy bamboo cage at the dockside market in Jakatakan.

The seven-year-old boy had stood before it, his eyes level with that black-furred, heavy-browed beast’s own eyes, and there had been a moment, a single moment, when their gazes locked. A single moment that broke Bottle’s heart. He’d seen misery, he’d seen awareness – the glint that knew itself, yet did not comprehend what it had done wrong, what had earned it the loss of its freedom. It could not have known, of course, that it was now alone in the world. The last of its kind. And that somehow, in some exclusively human way, that was its crime.

Just as the child could not have known that the ape, too, was aged seven.

Yet both saw, both knew in their souls – those darkly flickering shapings, not yet solidly formed – that, for this one time, they were each looking upon a brother.

Breaking his heart.

Breaking the ape’s heart, too – but maybe, he’d thought since, maybe he just needed to believe that, a kind of flagellation in recompense. For being the one outside the cage, for knowing that there was blood on the hands of himself and his kind.

Bottle’s soul, broken away … and so freed, gifted or cursed with the ability to travel, to seek those duller lifesparks and to find that, in truth, they were not dull at all, that the failure in fully seeing belonged to himself.

Compassion existed when and only when one could step outside oneself, to suddenly see the bars from inside the cage.

Years later, Bottle had tracked down the fate of that last island ape. Purchased by a scholar who lived in a solitary tower on the wild, unsettled coast of Geni, where there dwelt, in the forests inland, bands of apes little different from the one he had seen; and he liked to believe, now, that that scholar’s heart had known compassion; and that those foreign apes had not rejected this strange, shy cousin. His hope: that there had been a reprieve, for that one, solitary life.

His fear was that the creature’s wired skeleton stood in one of the tower’s dingy rooms, a trophy of uniqueness.

Amidst the smell of ash and charred flesh, the female crouched down before him, reached out to brush hard finger pads across his forehead.

Then that hand made a fist, lifting high, then flashing down—

He flinched, eyes snapping open and seeing naught but darkness. Hard rims and shards digging into his back – the chamber, the honey, oh gods my head aches … Groaning, Bottle rolled over, the shard fragments cutting and crunching beneath him. He was in the room beyond the one containing the urns, although at least one had followed him to shatter on the cold stone floor. He groaned again. Smeared in sticky honey, aches all over him … but the burns, the pain – gone. He drew a deep breath, then coughed. The air was foul. He needed to get everyone going – he needed—

‘Bottle? That you?’

Cuttle, lying nearby. ‘Aye,’ said Bottle. ‘That honey—’

‘Kicked hard, didn’t it just. I dreamed … a tiger, it had died – cut to pieces, in fact, by these giant undead lizards that ran on two feet. Died, yet ascended, only it was the death part it was telling me about. The dying part – I don’t understand. Treach had to die, I think, to arrive. The dying part was important – I’m sure of it, only … gods below, listen to me. This air’s rotten – we got to get moving.’

Yes. But he’d lost the rat, he remembered that, he’d lost her. Filled with despair, Bottle sought out the creature—

—and found her. Awakened by his touch, resisting not at all as he captured her soul once more, and, seeing through her eyes, he led the rat back into the room.

‘Wake the others, Cuttle. It’s time.’

Shouting, getting louder, and Gesler awoke soaked in sweat. That, he decided, was a dream he would never, ever revisit. Given the choice. Fire, of course, so much fire. Shadowy figures dancing on all sides, dancing around him, in fact. Night, snapped at by flames, the drumming of feet, voices chanting in some barbaric, unknown language, and he could feel his soul responding, flaring, burgeoning as if summoned by some ritual.

At which point Gesler realized. They were dancing round a hearth. And he was looking out at them – from the very flame itself. No, he was the flame.

Oh Truth, you went and killed yourself. Damned fool.

Soldiers were awakening on all sides of the chamber – shouts and moans and a chorus of clunking urns.

This journey was not yet done. They would go on, and on, deeper and deeper, until the passage dead-ended, until the air ran out, until a mass of rubble shook loose and crushed them all.

Any way at all, please, except fire.

How long had they been down here? Bottle had no idea. Memories of open sky, of sunlight and the wind, were invitations to madness, so fierce was the torture of recalling all those things one took for granted. Now, the world was reduced to sharp fragments of brick, dust, cobwebs and darkness. Passages that twisted, climbed, dropped away. His hands were a battered, bloody mess from clawing through packed rubble.

And now, on a sharp down-slope, he had reached a place too small to get through. Feeling with his half-numbed hands, he tracked the edges. Some kind of cut cornerstone had sagged down at an angle from the ceiling. Its lowermost corner – barely two hand’s-widths above the rutted, sandy floor – neatly bisected the passage.

Bottle settled his forehead against the gritty floor. Air still flowed past, a faint stirring now, nothing more than that. And water had run down this track, heading somewhere.

‘What’s wrong?’ Cuttle asked behind him.

‘We’re blocked.’

Silence for a moment, then, ‘Your rat gone ahead? Past the block?’

‘Yes. It opens out again – there’s an intersection of some kind ahead, a hole coming down from above, with air pulling down from it and straight into a pit in the floor. But, Cuttle – there’s a big cut stone, no way to squeeze past it. I’m sorry. We have to go back—’

‘To Hood we do, move aside if you can, I want to feel this for myself.’

It was not as easy as it sounded, and it was some time before the two men managed to swap positions. Bottle listened to the sapper muttering under his breath, then cursing.

‘I told you—’

‘Be quiet, I’m thinking. We could try and break it loose, only the whole ceiling might come down with it. No, but maybe we can dig under, into the floor here. Give me your knife.’

‘I ain’t got a knife any more. Lost it down a hole.’

‘Then call back for one.’


‘You ain’t giving up on us, Bottle. You can’t. You either take us through or we’re all dead.’

‘Damn you,’ Bottle hissed. ‘Hasn’t it occurred to you that maybe there’s no way through? Why should there be? Rats are small – Hood, rats can live down here. Why should there be a tunnel big enough for us, some convenient route all the way out from under this damned city? To be honest, I’m amazed we’ve gotten this far. Look, we could go back, right to the temple – and dig our way out—’

‘You’re the one who doesn’t understand, soldier. There’s a mountain sitting over the hole we dropped into, a mountain that used to be the city’s biggest temple. Dig out? Forget it. There’s no going back, Bottle. Only forward; now get me a knife, damn you.’

Smiles drew out one of her throwing-knives and passed it up to the child ahead of her. Something told her that this was it – as far as they would go. Except maybe for the children. The call had come to send the urchins ahead. At the very least, then, they could to go on, find a way out. All this effort – somebody had better live through it.

Not that they’d get very far, not without Bottle. That spineless bastard – imagine, depending on him. The man who could see eye to eye with rats, lizards, spiders, fungi. Matching wits, and it was a tough battle, wasn’t it just.

Still, he wasn’t a bad sort – he’d taken half the load that day on the march, after that bitch of a captain revealed just how psychotic she really was. That had been generous of him. Strangely generous. But men were like that, on occasion. She never used to believe that, but now she had no choice. They could surprise you.

The child behind Smiles was climbing over her, all elbows and knees and running, drippy, smearing nose. It smelled, too. Smelled bad. Awful things, children. Needy, self-centred tyrants, the boys all teeth and fists, the girls all claws and spit. Gathering into snivelling packs and sniffing out vulnerabilities – and woe to the child not cunning enough to hide their own – the others would close in like the grubby sharks they were. Great pastime, savaging someone.

If these runts are the only ones here who survive, I will haunt them. Every one of them, for the rest of their days. ‘Look,’ she snarled after an elbow in the nose, ‘just get your smelly slimy hide out of my face! Go on, you little ape!’

A voice from behind her: ‘Easy there. You was a child once, you know—’

‘You don’t know nothing about me, so shut it!’

‘What, you was hatched? Hah! I believe it! Along with all the other snakes!’

‘Yeah, well, whoever you are, don’t even think of climbing past me.’

‘And get that close? Not a chance.’

She grunted. ‘Glad we’re understood, then.’

If there was no way through – they’d all lose their minds. No doubt of that at all. Well, at least she had a couple knives left – anybody fool enough to come for her and they’d pay.

The children were squirming through – even as Cuttle dug into the floor with the knife – and then huddling on the other side. Weeping, clinging to each other, and Bottle’s heart cried out for them. They would have to find courage, but for the moment, there seemed to be no hope of that.

Cuttle’s grunts and gasps, then his curse as he broke the knife’s point – not very promising sounds. Ahead, the rat circled the edge of the pit, whiskers twitching at the flow of warm air coming from the shaft. She could climb round to the other side, and Bottle was willing the creature to do so – yet it seemed his control was weakening, for the rat was resisting, her head tilted over the edge of the pit, claws gripping the pocked side, the air flowing up over her …

Bottle frowned. From the shaft above, the air had been coming down. And from the pit, flowing up. Conjoining in the tunnel, then drifting towards the children.

But the rat … that air from below. Warm, not cool. Warm, smelling of sunlight.


The sapper halted. ‘What?’

‘We’ve got to get past this! That pit – its edges, they’ve been cut. That shaft, Cuttle, it’s been mined, cut through – someone’s dug into the side of the tel – there’s no other possibility!’

The children’s cries had ceased with Bottle’s words. He went on, ‘That explains this, don’t you see? We ain’t the first ones to use this tunnel – people have been mining the ruins, looking for loot—’

He could hear Cuttle moving about.

‘What are you doing?’

‘I’m gonna kick this block out of the way—’

‘No, wait! You said—’

‘I can’t dig through the damned floor! I’m gonna kick this bastard outa the way!’

‘Cuttle, wait!’

A bellow, then a heavy thump, dust and gravel streaming from above. A second thump, then thunder shook the floor, and the ceiling was raining down. Screams of terror through the dust-clouds. Ducking, covering his head as stones and sherds descended on him, Bottle squeezed his eyes shut – the dust, so bright—


But he couldn’t breathe – he could barely move beneath the weight of rubble atop him.

Muted yells from behind, but the terrible hiss of rubble had ceased.

Bottle lifted his head, gasping, coughing.

To see a white shaft of sunlight, dust-filled, cutting its way down. Bathing Cuttle’s splayed legs, the huge foundation stone between them. ‘Cuttle?’

A cough, then, ‘Gods below, that damned thing – it came down between my legs – just missed my … oh Hood take me, I feel sick—’

‘Never mind that! There’s light, coming down. Sunlight!’

‘Call your rat back – I can’t see … how far up. I think it narrows. Narrows bad, Bottle.’

The rat was clambering over the children, and he could feel its racing heart.

‘I see it – your rat—’

‘Take her in your hands, help her into the shaft over you. Yes, there’s daylight – oh, it’s too narrow – I might make it, or Smiles maybe, but most of the others …’

‘You just dig when you’re up there, make it wider, Bottle. We’re too close, now.’

‘Can the children get back here? Past the block?’

‘Uh, I think so. Tight, but yes.’

Bottle twisted round. ‘Roll call! And listen, we’re almost there! Dig your way free! We’re almost there!’

The rat climbed, closer and closer to that patch of daylight.

Bottle scrambled free of the gravel. ‘All right,’ he gasped as he moved over Cuttle.

‘Watch where you step!’ the sapper said. ‘My face is ugly enough without a damned heel print on it.’

Bottle pulled himself into the uneven shaft, then halted. ‘I got to pull stuff away, Cuttle. Move from directly below …’


Names were being called out … hard to tell how many … maybe most of them. Bottle could not afford to think about it now. He began tugging at outcrops, bricks and rocks, widening the shaft. ‘Stuff coming down!’

As each piece thumped down or bounced off the foundation stone, Cuttle collected it and passed it back.



‘One of the urchins – she fell into the pit – she ain’t making any sound – I think we lost her.’

Shit. ‘Pass that rope ahead – can Smiles get over to them?’

‘I’m not sure. Keep going, soldier – we’ll see what we can do down here.’

Bottle worked his way upward. A sudden widening, then narrowing once more – almost within reach of that tiny opening – too small, he realized, for even so much as his hand. He pulled a large chunk of stone from the wall, dragged himself as close as he could to the hole. On a slight ledge near his left shoulder crouched the rat. He wanted to kiss the damned thing.

But not yet. Things looked badly jammed up around that hole. Big stones. Panic whispered through him.

With the rock in his hand, Bottle struck at the stone. A spurt of blood from one fingertip, crushed by the impact – he barely felt it. Hammering, hammering away. Chips raining down every now and then. His arm tiring – he was running out of reserves, he didn’t have the strength, the endurance for this. Yet he kept swinging.

Each impact weaker than the one before.

No, damn you! No!

He swung again.

Blood spattered his eyes.

Captain Faradan Sort reined in on the ridge, just north of the dead city. Normally, a city that had fallen to siege soon acquired its scavengers, old women and children scrambling about, picking through the ruins. But not here, not yet, anyway. Maybe not for a long time.

Like a cracked pot, the steep sides of Y’Ghatan’s tel had bled out – melted lead, copper, silver and gold, veins and pools filled with accreted stone chips, dust and potsherds.

Offering an arm, Sort helped Sinn slip down from the saddle behind her – she’d been squirming, whimpering and clutching at her, growing more agitated the closer the day’s end came, the light failing. The Fourteenth Army had left the night before. The captain and her charge had walked their lone horse round the tel, not once, but twice, since the sun’s rise.

And the captain had begun to doubt her own reading of the child Sinn, her own sense that this half-mad, now seemingly mute creature had known something, sensed something – Sinn had tried and tried to get back into the ruins before her arrest. There had to be a reason for that.

Or, perhaps not. Perhaps nothing more than an insane grief – for her lost brother.

Scanning the rubble-strewn base below the tel’s north wall one more time, she noted that one scavenger at least had arrived. A child, smeared in white dust, her hair a matted snarl, was wandering perhaps thirty paces from the rough wall.

Sinn saw her as well, then began picking her way down the slope, making strange mewling sounds.

The captain unstrapped her helm and lifted it clear to settle it on the saddle horn. She wiped grimy sweat from her brow. Desertion. Well, it wasn’t the first time, now, was it? If not for Sinn’s magic, the Wickans would have found them. And likely executed them. She’d take a few with her, of course, no matter what Sinn did. People learned that you had to pay to deal with her. Pay in every way. A lesson she never tired of teaching.

She watched as Sinn ran to the city’s cliff-side, ignoring the scavenger, and began climbing it.

Now what?

Replacing the helm, the sodden leather inside-rim momentarily cool against her brow, the strap feeling stretched as she fixed the clasp beneath her jaw, Faradan Sort collected the reins and guided her horse into a slow descent down the scree.

The scavenger was crying, grubby hands pressed against her eyes. All that dust on her, the webs in her hair – this was the true face of war, the captain knew. That child’s face would haunt her memories, joining the many other faces, for as long as she lived.

Sinn was clinging to the rough wall, perhaps two manheights up, motionless.

Too much, Sort decided. The child was mad. She glanced again at the scavenger, who did not seem aware that they had arrived. Hands still pressed against eyes. Red scrapes through the dust, a trickle of blood down one shin. Had she fallen? From where?

The captain rode up to halt her horse beneath Sinn. ‘Come down now,’ she said. ‘We need to make camp, Sinn. Come down, it’s no use – the sun’s almost gone. We can try again tomorrow.’

Sinn tightened her grip on the broken outcrops of stone and brick.

Grimacing, the captain side-stepped the mount closer to the wall, then reached up to pull Sinn from her perch.

Squealing, the girl lunged upward, one hand shooting into a hole—

His strength, his will, was gone. A short rest, then he could begin again. A short rest, the voices below drifting away, it didn’t matter. Sleep, now, the dark, warm embrace – drawing him down, ever deeper, then a blush of sweet golden light, wind rippling yellow grasses—

—and he was free, all pain gone. This, he realized, was not sleep. It was death, the return to the most ancient memory buried in each human soul. Grasslands, the sun and wind, the warmth and click of insects, dark herds in the distance, the lone trees with their vast canopies and the cool shade beneath, where lions dozed, tongues lolling, flies dancing round indifferent, languid eyes …

Death, and this long buried seed. We return. We return to the world …

And she reached for him, then, her hand damp with sweat, small and soft, prying his fingers loose from the rock they gripped, blood sticking – she clutched at his hand, as if filled with fierce need, and he knew the child within her belly was calling out in its own silent language, its own needs, so demanding …

Nails dug into the cuts on his hand—

Bottle jolted awake, eyes blinking – daylight almost gone – and a small hand reaching through from outside, grasping and tugging at his own.

Help. ‘Help – you, outside – help us—’

As she reached up yet further to tug the girl down, Sort saw Sinn’s head snap around, saw something blazing in her eyes as she stared down at the captain.

‘What now—’ And then there came a faint voice, seemingly from the very stones. Faradan Sort’s eyes widened. ‘Sinn?’

The girl’s hand, shoved into that crack – it was holding on to something.


‘Oh, gods below!’

Crunching sounds outside, boots digging into stone, then gloved fingers slipped round one edge beside the child’s forearm, and Bottle heard: ‘You, inside – who? Can you hear me?’

A woman. Accented Ehrlii … familiar? ‘Fourteenth Army,’ Bottle said. ‘Malazans.’ The child’s grip tightened.

‘Oponn’s pull, soldier,’ the woman said in Malazan. ‘Sinn, let go of him. I need room. Make the hole bigger. Let go of him – it’s all right – you were right. We’re going to get them out.’

Sinn? The shouts from below were getting louder. Cuttle, calling up something about a way out. Bottle twisted to call back down. ‘Cuttle! We’ve been found! They’re going to dig us out! Let everyone know!’

Sinn’s hand released his, withdrew.

The woman spoke again. ‘Soldier, move away from the hole – I’m going to use my sword.’

‘Captain? Is that you?’

‘Aye. Now, move back and cover your eyes – what? Oh, where’d all those children come from? Is that one of Fiddler’s squad with them? Get down there, Sinn. There’s another way out. Help them.’

The sword-point dug into the concreted brick and stone. Chips danced down.

Cuttle was climbing up from below, grunting. ‘We gotta widen this some more, Bottle. That runt who dropped down the hole. We sent Smiles after her. A tunnel, angling back up – and out. A looter’s tunnel. The children’re all out—’

‘Good. Cuttle, it’s the captain. The Adjunct, she must have waited for us – sent searchers out to find us.’

‘That makes no sense—’

‘You’re right,’ Faradan Sort cut in. ‘They’ve marched, soldiers. It’s just me, and Sinn.’

‘They left you behind?’

‘No, we deserted. Sinn knew – she knew you were still alive, don’t ask me how.’

‘Her brother’s down here,’ Cuttle said. ‘Corporal Shard.’


‘We think so, Captain. How many days has it been?’

‘Three. Four nights if you count the breach. Now, no more questions, and cover your eyes.’

She chopped away at the hole, tugged loose chunks of brick and stone. The dusk air swept in, cool and, despite all the dust, sweet in Bottle’s lungs. Faradan Sort began work on one large chunk, and broke her sword. A stream of Korelri curses.

‘That your Stormwall sword, Captain? I’m sorry—’

‘Don’t be an idiot.’

‘But your scabbard—’

‘Aye, my scabbard. The sword it belonged to got left behind … in somebody. Now, let me save my breath for this.’ And she began chopping away with the broken sword. ‘Hood-damned piece of Falari junk—’ The huge stone groaned, then slid away, taking the captain with it.

A heavy thump from the ground beyond and below, then more cursing.

Bottle clawed his way into the gap, dragged himself through, then was suddenly tumbling down, landing hard, rolling, winded, onto his stomach.

After a long moment he managed a gasp of air, and he lifted his head – to find himself staring at the captain’s boots. Bottle arched, raised a hand and saluted – briefly.

‘You managed that better the last time, Bottle.’

‘Captain, I’m Smiles—’

‘You know, soldier, it was a good thing you assumed half the load I dumped on Smiles’s back. If you hadn’t done that, well, you likely wouldn’t have lived this long—’

He saw her turn, heard a grunted snarl, then one boot lifted, moved out slightly to the side, hovered—

—above Bottle’s rat—

—then stamped down – as his hand shot out, knocked the foot aside at the last moment. The captain stumbled, then swore. ‘Have you lost your mind—’

Bottle rolled closer to the rat, collected her in both hands and held her against his chest as he settled down onto his back. ‘Not this time, Captain. This is my rat. She saved our lives.’

‘Vile, disgusting creatures.’

‘Not her. Not Y’Ghatan.’

Faradan Sort stared down at him. ‘She is named Y’Ghatan?’

‘Aye. I just decided.’

Cuttle was clambering down. ‘Gods, Captain—’

‘Quiet, sapper. If you’ve got the strength left – and you’d better – you need to help the others out.’

‘Aye, Captain.’ He turned about and began climbing back up.

Still lying on his back, Bottle closed his eyes. He stroked Y’Ghatan’s smooth-furred back. My darling. You’re with me, now. Ah, you’re hungry – we’ll take care of that. Soon you’ll be waddling fat again, I promise, and you and your kits will be … gods, there’s more of you, isn’t there? No problem. When it comes to your kind, there’s never a shortage of food …

He realized Smiles was standing over him. Staring down.

He managed a faint, embarrassed smile, wondering how much she’d heard, how much she’d just put together.

‘All men are scum.’

So much for wondering.

Coughing, crying, babbling, the soldiers were lying or sitting all around Gesler, who stood, trying to make a count – the names, the faces, exhaustion blurred them all together. He saw Shard, with his sister, Sinn, wrapped all around him like a babe, fast asleep, and there was something like shock in the corporal’s staring, unseeing eyes. Tulip was nearby – his body was torn, shredded everywhere, but he’d dragged himself through without complaint and now sat on a stone, silent and bleeding.

Crump crouched near the cliff-side, using rocks to pry loose a slab of melted gold and lead, a stupid grin on his ugly, overlong face. And Smiles, surrounded by children – she looked miserable with all the attention, and Gesler saw her staring up at the night sky again and again, and again, and that gesture he well understood.

Bottle had pulled them through. With his rat. Y’Ghatan. The sergeant shook his head. Well, why not? We’re all rat-worshippers right now. Oh, right, the roll call … Sergeant Cord, with Ebron, Limp and his broken leg. Sergeant Hellian, her jaw swollen in two places, one eye closed up, and blood matting her hair, just now coming round – under the tender ministrations of her corporal, Urb. Tarr, Koryk, Smiles and Cuttle. Tavos Pond, Balgrid, Mayfly, Flashwit, Saltlick, Hanno, Shortnose and Masan Gilani. Bellig Harn, Maybe, Brethless and Touchy. Deadsmell, Galt, Sands and Lobe. The sergeants Thorn Tissy and Balm. Widdershins, Uru Hela, Ramp, Scant and Reem. Throatslitter … Gesler’s gaze swung back to Tarr, Koryk, Smiles and Cuttle.

Hood’s breath.

‘Captain! We’ve lost two!’

Every head turned.

Corporal Tarr shot to his feet, then staggered like a drunk, spinning to face the cliff-wall.

Balm hissed, ‘Fiddler … and that prisoner! The bastard’s killed him and he’s hiding back in there! Waiting for us to leave!’

Corabb had dragged the dying man as far as he could, and now both he and the Malazan were done. Crammed tight in a narrowing of the tunnel, the darkness devouring them, and Corabb was not even sure he was going in the right direction. Had they been turned round? He could hear nothing … no-one. All that dragging, and pushing … they’d turned round, he was sure of it.

No matter, they weren’t going anywhere.

Never again. Two skeletons buried beneath a dead city. No more fitting a barrow for a warrior of the Apocalypse and a Malazan soldier. That seemed just, poetic even. He would not complain, and when he stood at this sergeant’s side at Hood’s Gate, he would be proud for the company.

So much had changed inside him. He was no believer in causes, not any more. Certainty was an illusion, a lie. Fanaticism was poison in the soul, and the first victim in its inexorable, ever-growing list was compassion. Who could speak of freedom, when one’s own soul was bound in chains?

He thought, now, finally, that he understood Toblakai.

And it was all too late. This grand revelation. Thus, I die a wise man, not a fool. Is there any difference? I still die, after all

No, there is. I can feel it. That difference – I have cast off my chains. I have cast them off!

A low cough, then, ‘Corabb?’

‘I am here, Malazan.’

‘Where? Where is that?’

‘In our tomb, alas. I am sorry, all strength has fled. I am betrayed by my own body. I am sorry.’

Silence for a moment, then a soft laugh. ‘No matter. I’ve been unconscious – you should have left me – where are the others?’

‘I don’t know. I was dragging you. We were left behind. And now, we’re lost, and that’s that. I am sorry—’

‘Enough of that, Corabb. You dragged me? That explains all the bruises. For how long? How far?’

‘I do not know. A day, maybe. There was warm air, but then it was cool – it seemed to breathe in and out, past us, but which breath was in and which was out? I do not know. And now, there is no wind.’

‘A day? Are you mad? Why did you not leave me?’

‘Had I done so, Malazan, your friends would have killed me.’

‘Ah, there is that. But, you know, I don’t believe you.’

‘You are right. It is simple. I could not.’

‘All right, that will do.’

Corabb closed his eyes – the effort making no difference. He was probably blind by now. He had heard that prisoners left too long without light in their dungeon cells went blind. Blind before mad, but mad, too, eventually.

And now he heard sounds, drawing nearer … from somewhere. He’d heard them before, a half-dozen times at least, and for a short while there had been faint shouting. Maybe that had been real. The demons of panic come to take the others, one by one. ‘Sergeant, are you named Strings or Fiddler?’

‘Strings for when I’m lying, Fiddler for when I’m telling the truth.’

‘Ah, is that a Malazan trait, then? Strange—’

‘No, not a trait. Mine, maybe.’

‘And how should I name you?’


‘Very well.’ A welcome gift. ‘Fiddler. I was thinking. Here I am, trapped. And yet, it is only now, I think, that I have finally escaped my prison. Funny, isn’t it?’

‘Damned hilarious, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas. What is that sound?’

‘You hear it, too?’ Corabb held his breath, listened. Drawing closer—

Then something touched his forehead.

Bellowing, Corabb tried to twist away.

‘Wait! Damn you, I said wait!’

Fiddler called out, ‘Gesler?’

‘Aye, calm down your damned friend here, will you?’

Heart pounding, Corabb settled back. ‘We were lost, Malazan. I am sorry—’

‘Be quiet! Listen to me. You’re only about seventy paces from a tunnel, leading out – we’re all out, you understand me? Bottle got us out. His rat brought us through. There was a rock fall blocking you up ahead – I’ve dug through—’

‘You crawled back in?’ Fiddler demanded. ‘Gesler—’

‘Believe me, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Now I know – or I think I know – what Truth went through, running into that palace. Abyss take me, I’m still shaking.’

‘Lead us on, then,’ Corabb said, reaching back to grasp Fiddler’s harness once more.

Gesler made to move past him. ‘I can do that—’

‘No. I have dragged him this far.’


‘For Hood’s sake, Gesler, I’ve never been in better hands.’


Sarkanos, Ivindonos and Ganath stood looking down on the heaped corpses, the strewn pieces of flesh and fragments of bone. A field of battle knows only lost dreams and the ghosts clutch futilely at the ground, remembering naught but the last place of their lives, and the air is sullen now that the clangour is past, and the last moans of the dying have dwindled into silence.

While this did not belong to them, they yet stood. Of Jaghut, one can never know their thoughts, nor even their aspirations, but they were heard to speak, then.

‘All told,’ said Ganath. ‘This sordid tale here has ended, and there is no-one left to heave the standard high, and proclaim justice triumphant.’

‘This is a dark plain,’ said Ivindonos, ‘and I am mindful of such things, the sorrow untold, unless witnessed.’

‘Not mindful enough,’ said Sarkanos.

‘A bold accusation,’ said Ivindonos, his tusks bared in anger. ‘Tell me what I am blind to. Tell me what greater sorrow exists than what we see before us.’

And Sarkanos made reply, ‘Darker plains lie beyond.’

Stela Fragment (Yath Alban)


There were times, Captain Ganoes Paran reflected, when a man could believe in nothing. No path taken could alter the future, and the future remained ever unknown, even by the gods. Sensing those currents, the tumult that lay ahead, achieved little except the loss of restful sleep, and a growing suspicion that all his efforts to shape that future were naught but conceit.

He had pushed the horses hard, staying well clear of villages and hamlets where the Mistress stalked, sowing her deadly seeds, gathering to herself the power of poisoned blood and ten thousand deaths by her hand. Before long, he knew, that toll would rise tenfold. Yet for all his caution, the stench of death was inescapable, arriving again and again as if from nowhere, and no matter how great the distance between him and inhabited areas.

Whatever Poliel’s need, it was vast, and Paran was fearful, for he could not understand the game she played here.

Back in Darujhistan, ensconced within the Finnest House, this land known as Seven Cities had seemed so far from the centre of things – or what he believed would soon become the centre of things. And it had been, in part, that mystery that had set him on this path, seeking to discover how what happened here would become enfolded into the greater scheme. Assuming, of course, that such a greater scheme existed.

Equally as likely, he allowed, this war among the gods would implode into a maelstrom of chaos. There had been need, he had once been told, for a Master of the Deck of Dragons. There had been need, he had been told, for him. Paran had begun to suspect that, even then, it was already too late. This web was growing too fast, too snarled, for any single mind to fathom.

Except maybe Kruppe, the famed Eel of Darujhistan … gods, I wish he was here, in my place, right now. Why wasn’t he made the Master of the Deck of Dragons? Or maybe that incorrigible aplomb was naught but bravado, behind which the real Kruppe cowered in terror.

Imagine Raest’s thoughts … Paran smiled, recollecting. It had been early morning when that little fat man knocked on the door of the Finnest House, flushed of face and beaming up at the undead Jaghut Tyrant who opened it wide and stared down upon him with pitted eyes. Then, hands fluttering and proclaiming something about a crucial meeting, Kruppe somehow slid past the Azath guardian, waddling into the main hall and sinking with a delighted sigh of contentment into the plush chair beside the fireplace.

An unexpected guest for breakfast; it seemed even Raest could do nothing about it. Or would not. The Jaghut had been typically reticent on the subject.

And so Paran had found himself seated opposite the famed Defier of Caladan Brood – this corpulent little man in his faded waistcoat who had confounded the most powerful ascendants on Genabackis – and watched him eat. And eat. While somehow, at the same time, talking nonstop.

‘Kruppe knows the sad dilemma, yes indeed, of sad befuddled Master. Twice sad? Nay, thrice sad! Four times sad – ah, how usage of the dread word culminates! Cease now, Sir Kruppe, lest we find ourselves weeping without surcease!’ Lifting one greasy finger. ‘Ah, but Master wonders, does he not, how can one man such as Kruppe know all these things? What things, you would also ask, given the chance, said chance Kruppe hastens to intercept with suitable answer. Had Kruppe such an answer, that is. But lo! He does not, and is that not the true wonder of it all?’

‘For Hood’s sake,’ Paran cut in – and got no further.

‘Yes indeed! For Hood’s sake indeed, oh, you are brilliant and so worthy of the grand title of Master of the Deck of Dragons and Kruppe’s most trusted friend! Hood, at the very centre of things, oh yes, and that is why you must hasten, forthwith, to Seven Cities.’

Paran stared, dumbfounded, wondering what detail in that barrage of words he had missed. ‘What?’

‘The gods, dear precious friend of Kruppe’s! They are at war, yes? Terrible thing, war. Terrible things, gods. The two, together, ah, most terribler!’

‘Terri— what? Oh, never mind.’

‘Kruppe never does.’

‘Why Seven Cities?’

‘Even the gods cast shadows, Master of the Deck. But what do shadows cast?’

‘I don’t know. Gods?’

Kruppe’s expression grew pained. ‘Oh my, a nonsensical reply. Kruppe’s faith in dubious friend lies shaking. No, shaken. Not lies, is. See how Kruppe shakens? No, not gods. How can gods be cast? Do not answer that – such is the nature and unspoken agreement regards rhetoric. Now, where was Kruppe? Oh yes. Most terrible crimes are in the offing off in Seven Cities. Eggs have been laid and schemes have hatched! One particularly large shell is about to be broken, and will have been broken by the time you arrive, which means it is as good as broken right now so what are you waiting for? In fact, foolish man, you are already too late, or will be, by then, and if not then, then soon, in the imminent sense of the word. Soon, then, you must go, despite it being too late – I suggest you leave tomorrow morning and make use of warrens and other nefarious paths of inequity to hasten your hopeless quest to arrive. On time, and in time, and in due time you will indeed arrive, and then you must
walk the singular shadow – between, dare Kruppe utter such dread words – between life and death, the wavy, blurry metaphor so callously and indifferently trespassed by things that should know better. Now, you have worn out Kruppe’s ears, distended Kruppe’s largesse unto bursting his trouser belt, and heretofore otherwise exhausted his vast intellect.’ He rose with a grunt, then patted his tummy. ‘A mostly acceptable repast, although Kruppe advises that you inform your cook that the figs were veritably mummified – from the Jaghut’s own store, one must assume, yes, hmm?’

There had been some sense, Paran had eventually concluded, within that quagmire of verbosity. Enough to frighten him, in any case, leading him to a more intense examination of the Deck of Dragons. Wherein the chaos was more pronounced than it ever had been before. And there, in its midst, the glimmer of a path, a way through – perhaps simply imagined, an illusion – but he would have to try, although the thought terrified him.

He was not the man for this. He was stumbling, halfblind, within a vortex of converging powers, and he found he was struggling to maintain even the illusion of control.

Seeing Apsalar again had been an unexpected gift. A girl no longer, yet, it appeared, as deadly as ever. Nonetheless, something like humanity had revealed itself, there in her eyes every now and then. He wondered what she had gone through since Cotillion had been banished from her outside Darujhistan – beyond what she had been willing to tell him, that is, and he wondered if she would complete her journey, to come out the other end, reborn one more time.

He rose in his stirrups to stretch his legs, scanning the south for the telltale shimmer that would announce his destination. Nothing but heat-haze yet, and rugged, treeless hills rising humped on the pan. Seven Cities was a hot, blasted land, and he decided that even without plague, he didn’t like it much.

One of those hills suddenly vanished in a cloud of dust and flying debris, then a thundering boom drummed through the ground, startling the horses. As he struggled to calm them – especially his own mount, which had taken this opportunity to renew its efforts to unseat him, bucking and kicking – he sensed something else rolling out from the destroyed mound.

Omtose Phellack.

Settling his horse as best he could, Paran collected the reins and rode at a slow, jumpy canter towards the ruined hill.

As he neared, he could hear crashing sounds from within the barrow – for a barrow it was – and when he was thirty paces distant, part of a desiccated body was flung from the hole, skidding in a clatter through the rubble. It came to a stop, then one arm lifted tremulously, dropping back down a moment later. A bone-helmed skull flew into view, ropes of hair twisting about, to bounce and roll in the dust.

Paran reined in, watching as a tall, gaunt figure climbed free of the barrow, slowly straightening. Grey-green skin, trailing dusty cobwebs, wearing a silver-clasped harness and baldric of iron mail from which hung knives in copper scabbards – the various metals blackened or green with verdigris. Whatever clothing had once covered the figure’s body had since rotted away.

A Jaghut woman, her long black hair drawn into a single tail that reached down to the small of her back. Her tusks were silver-sheathed and thus black. She slowly looked round, her gaze finding and settling on him. Vertical pupils set in amber studied Paran from beneath a heavy brow. He watched her frown, then she asked, ‘What manner of creature are you?’

‘A well-mannered one,’ Paran replied, attempting a smile. She had spoken in the Jaghut tongue and he had understood … somehow. One of the many gifts granted by virtue of being the Master? Or long proximity with Raest and his endless muttering? Either way, Paran surprised himself by replying in the same language.

At which her frown deepened. ‘You speak my tongue as would an Imass … had any Imass bothered to learn it. Or a Jaghut whose tusks had been pulled.’

Paran glanced over at the partial corpse lying nearby. ‘An Imass like that one?’

She drew her thin lips back in what he took to be a smile. ‘A guardian left behind – it had lost its vigilance. Undead have a tendency towards boredom, and carelessness.’

‘T’lan Imass.’

‘If others are near, they will come now. I have little time.’

‘T’lan Imass? None, Jaghut. None anywhere close.’

‘You are certain?’

‘I am. Reasonably. You have freed yourself … why?’

‘Freedom needs an excuse?’ She brushed dust and webs from her lean body, then faced west. ‘One of my rituals has been shattered. I must needs repair it.’

Paran thought about that, then asked, ‘A binding ritual? Something, or someone was imprisoned, and, like you just now, it seeks freedom?’

She looked displeased with the comparison. ‘Unlike the entity I imprisoned, I have no interest in conquering the world.’

Oh. ‘I am Ganoes Paran.’

‘Ganath. You look pitiful, like a malnourished Imass – are you here to oppose me?’

He shook his head. ‘I was but passing by, Ganath. I wish you good fortune—’

She suddenly turned, stared eastward, head cocking.

‘Something?’ he asked. T’lan Imass?’

She glanced at him. ‘I am not certain. Perhaps … nothing. Tell me, is there a sea south of here?’

‘Was there one when you were … not yet in your barrow?’


Paran smiled. ‘Ganath, there is indeed a sea just south of here, and it is where I am headed.’

‘Then I shall travel with you. Why do you journey there?’

‘To talk with some people. And you? I thought you were in a hurry to repair that ritual?’

‘I am, yet I find a more pressing priority.’

‘And that is?’

‘The need for a bath.’

Too bloated to fly, the vultures scattered with outraged cries, hopping and waddling with wings crooked, leaving the once-human feast exposed in their wake. Apsalar slowed her steps, not sure whether she wanted to continue walking down this main street, although the raucous chattering and bickering of feeding vultures sounded from the side avenues as well, leading her to suspect that no alternative route was possible.

The villagers had died suffering – there was no mercy in this plague, for it had carved a long, tortured path to Hood’s Gate. Swollen glands, slowly closing the throat, making it impossible to eat solid food, and narrowing the air passages, making every breath drawn agony. And, in the gut, gases distending the stomach. Blocked from any means of escape, they eventually burst the stomach lining, allowing the victim’s own acids to devour them from within. These, alas, were the final stages of the disease. Before then, there was fever, so hot that brains were cooked in the skull, driving the person half-mad – a state from which, even were the disease somehow halted then and there – there was no recovery. Eyes wept mucus, ears bled, flesh grew gelatinous at the joints – this was the Mistress in all her sordid glory.

The two skeletal reptiles accompanying Apsalar had sprinted ahead, entertaining themselves by frightening the vultures and bursting through buzzing masses of flies. Now they scampered back, unmindful of the blackened, halfeaten corpses they clambered over.

‘Not-Apsalar! You are too slow!’

‘No, Telorast,’ cried Curdle, ‘not slow enough!’

‘Yes, not slow enough! We like this village – we want to play!’

Leading her placid horse, Apsalar began picking her way down the street. A score of villagers had crawled out here for some unknown reason, perhaps in some last, pathetic attempt to escape what could not be escaped. They had died clawing and fighting each other. ‘You are welcome to stay as long as you like,’ she said to the two creatures.

‘That cannot be,’ Telorast said. ‘We are your guardians, after all. Your sleepless, ever-vigilant sentinels. We shall stand guard over you no matter how diseased and disgusting you become.’

‘And then we’ll pick out your eyes!’

‘Curdle! Don’t tell her that!’

‘Well, we’ll wait until she’s sleeping, of course. Thrashing in fever.’

‘Exactly. She’ll want us to by then, anyway.’

‘I know, but we’ve walked through two villages now and she still isn’t sick. I don’t understand. All the other mortals are dead or dying, what makes her so special?’

‘Chosen by the usurpers of Shadow – that’s why she can just saunter through with her nose in the air. We may have to wait before we can pick out her eyes.’

Apsalar stepped past the heap of corpses. Just ahead, the village came to an abrupt end and beyond stood the charred remnants of three outlying buildings. A crowhaunted cemetery surmounted a nearby low hill where stood a lone guldindha tree. The black birds crowded the branches in sullen silence. A few makeshift platforms attested to some early efforts at ceremony to attend the dead, but clearly that had been short-lived. A dozen white goats stood in the tree’s shade, watching Apsalar as she continued on down the road, flanked by the skeletons of Telorast and Curdle.

Something had happened, far to the north and west. No, she could be more precise than that. Y’Ghatan. There had been a battle … and the committing of a terrible crime. Y’Ghatan’s lust for Malazan blood was legendary, and Apsalar feared that it had drunk deep once more.

In every land, there were places that saw battle again and again, an endless succession of slaughter, and more often than not such places held little strategic value in any greater scheme, or were ultimately indefensible. As if the very rocks and soil mocked every conqueror foolish enough to lay claim to them. Cotillion’s thoughts, these. He had never been afraid to recognize futility, and the world’s pleasure in defying human grandiosity.

She passed the last of the burned-out buildings, relieved to have left their stench behind – rotting bodies she was used to, but something of that charred reek slipped beneath her senses like a premonition. It was nearing dusk. Apsalar climbed back into the saddle and gathered up the reins.

She would attempt the warren of Shadow, even though she already knew it was too late – something had happened at Y’Ghatan; at the very least, she could look upon the wounds left behind and pick up the trail of the survivors. If any existed.

‘She dreams of death,’ Telorast said. ‘And now she’s angry.’

‘With us?’

‘Yes. No. Yes. No.’

‘Ah, she’s opened a warren! Shadow! Lifeless trail winding through lifeless hills, we shall perish from ennui! Wait, don’t leave us!’

They climbed out of the pit to find a banquet awaiting them. A long table, four high-backed Untan-style chairs, a candelabra in the centre bearing four thick-stemmed beeswax candles, the golden light flickering down on silver plates heaped with Malazan delicacies. Oily santos fish from the shoals off Kartool, baked with butter and spices in clay; strips of marinated venison, smelling of almonds in the northern D’avorian style; grouse from the Seti plains stuffed with bull-berries and sage; baked gourds and fillets of snake from Dal Hon; assorted braised vegetables and four bottles of wine: a Malaz Island white from the Paran Estates, warmed rice wine from Itko Kan, a full-bodied red from Gris, and the orange-tinted belack wine from the Napan Isles.

Kalam stood staring at the bounteous apparition, as Stormy, with a grunt, walked over, boots puffing in the dust, and sat down in one of the chairs, reaching for the Grisian red.

‘Well,’ Quick Ben said, dusting himself off, ‘this is nice. Who’s the fourth chair for, you think?’

Kalam looked up at the looming bulk of the sky keep. ‘I’d rather not think about that.’

Snorting sounds from Stormy as he launched into the venison strips.

‘Do you suspect,’ Quick Ben ventured as he sat down, ‘there is some significance to the selection provided us?’ He collected an alabaster goblet and poured himself a helping of the Paran white. ‘Or is it the sheer decadence that he wants to rub our noses in?’

‘My nose is just fine,’ Stormy said, tipping his head to one side and spitting out a bone. ‘Gods, I could eat all of this myself! Maybe I will at that!’

Sighing, Kalam joined them at the table. ‘All right, at least this gives us time to talk about things.’ He saw the wizard glance suspiciously at Stormy. ‘Relax, Quick, I doubt Stormy can hear us above his own chewing.’

‘Hah!’ the Falari laughed, spitting fragments across the table, one landing with a plop in the wizard’s goblet. ‘As if I give a Hood’s toenail about all your self-important preening! You two want to talk yourselves blue, go right ahead – I won’t waste my time listening.’

Quick Ben found a silver meat-spear and delicately picked the piece of venison from the goblet. He took a tentative sip, made a face, and poured the wine away. As he refilled the goblet, he said, ‘Well, I’m not entirely convinced Stormy here is irrelevant to our conversation.’

The red-bearded soldier looked up, small eyes narrowing with sudden unease. ‘I couldn’t be more irrelevant if I tried,’ he said in a growl, reaching again for the bottle of red.

Kalam watched the man’s throat bob as he downed mouthful after mouthful.

‘It’s that sword,’ said Quick Ben. ‘That T’lan Imass sword. How did you come by it, Stormy?’

‘Huh, santos. In Falar only poor people eat those ugly fish, and the Kartoolii call it a delicacy! Idiots.’ He collected one and began scooping the red, oily flesh from the clay shell. ‘It was given to me,’ he said, ‘for safekeeping.’

‘By a T’lan Imass?’ Kalam asked.


‘So it plans on coming back for it?’

‘If it can, aye.’

‘Why would a T’lan Imass give you its sword? They generally use them, a lot.’

‘Not where it was headed, assassin. What’s this? Some kind of bird?’

‘Yes,’ said Quick Ben. ‘Grouse. So, where was the T’lan Imass headed, then?’

‘Grouse. What’s that, some kind of duck? It went into a big wound in the sky, to seal it.’

The wizard leaned back. ‘Don’t expect it any time soon, then.’

‘Well, it took the head of a Tiste Andii with it, and that head was still alive – Truth was the only one who saw that – the other T’lan Imass didn’t, not even the bonecaster. Small wings – surprised the thing could fly at all. Not very well, hah, since someone caught it!’ He finished the Grisian and tossed away the bottle. It thumped in the thick dust. Stormy then reached for the Napan belack. ‘You know what’s the problem with you two? I’ll tell ya. I’ll tell ya the problem. You both think too much, and you think that by thinking so much you get somewhere with all that thinking, only you don’t. Look, it’s simple. Something you don’t like gets in your way you kill it, and once you kill it you can stop thinking about it and that’s that.’

‘Interesting philosophy, Stormy,’ said Quick Ben. ‘But what if that “something” is too big, or too many, or nastier than you?’

‘Then you cut it down to size, wizard.’

‘And if you can’t?’

‘Then you find someone else who can. Maybe they end up killing each other, and that’s that.’ He waved the half-empty bottle of belack. ‘You think you can make all sortsa plans? Idiots. I squat down and shit on your plans!’

Kalam smiled at Quick Ben. ‘Stormy’s onto something there, maybe.’

The wizard scowled. ‘What, squatting—’

‘No, finding someone else to do the dirty work for us. We’re old hands at that, Quick, aren’t we?’

‘Only, it gets harder.’ Quick Ben gazed up at the sky keep. ‘All right, let me think—’

‘Oh we’re in trouble now!’

‘Stormy,’ said Kalam, ‘you’re drunk.’

‘I ain’t drunk. Two bottlesa wine don’t get me drunk. Not Stormy, they don’t.’

‘The question,’ said the wizard, ‘is this. Who or what defeated the K’Chain Che’Malle the first time round? And then, is that powerful force still alive? Once we work out the answers to those—’

‘Like I said,’ the Falari growled, ‘you talk and talk and talk and you ain’t getting a damned thing.’

Quick Ben settled back, rubbing at his eyes. ‘Fine, then. Go on, Stormy, let’s hear your brilliance.’

‘First, you’re assuming those lizard things are your enemy in the firs’ place. Third, if the legends are true, those lizards defeated themselves, so what in Hood’s soiled trousers are you panicking ’bout? Second, the Adjunct wanted to know all ’bout them and where they’re going and all that. Well, the sky keeps ain’t going nowhere, and we already know what’s inside ’em, so we done our job. You idiots want to break into one – what for? You ain’t got a clue what for. And five, you gonna finish that white wine, wizard? ‘Cause I ain’t touching that rice piss.’

Quick Ben slowly sat forward and slid the bottle towards Stormy.

No better gesture of defeat was possible, Kalam decided. ‘Finish up, everyone,’ he said, ‘so we can get outa this damned warren and back to the Fourteenth.’

‘Something else,’ said Quick Ben, ‘I wanted to talk about.’

‘So go ahead,’ Stormy said expansively, waving a grouse leg. ‘Stormy’s got your answers, yes he does.’

‘I’ve heard stories … a Malazan escort, clashing with a fleet of strange ships off the Geni coast. From the descriptions of the foe, they sound like Tiste Edur. Stormy, that ship of yours, what was it called?’

‘The Silanda. Dead grey-skinned folk, all cut down on the deck, and the ship’s captain, speared right through, pinned to his Hood-damned chair in his cabin – gods below, the arm that threw that …’

‘And Tiste Andii … heads.’

‘Bodies were below, manning the sweeps.’

‘Those grey-skinned folk were Tiste Edur,’ Quick Ben said. ‘I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t put the two together, but something about them makes me nervous. Where did that Tiste Edur fleet come from?’

Kalam grunted, then said, ‘It’s a big world, Quick. They could’ve come from anywhere, blown off course by some storm, or on an exploratory mission of some kind.’

‘More like raiding,’ Stormy said. ‘If they attacked right off” like they did. Anyway, where we found the Silanda in the first place – there’d been a battle there, too. Against Tiste Andii. Messy.’

Quick Ben sighed and rubbed his eyes again. ‘Near Coral, during the Pannion War, the body of a Tiste Edur was found. It had come up from deep water.’ He shook his head. ‘I’ve a feeling we haven’t seen the last of them.’

‘The Shadow Realm,’ Kalam said. ‘It was theirs, once, and now they want it back.’

The wizard’s gaze narrowed on the assassin. ‘Cotillion told you this?’

Kalam shrugged.

‘It keeps coming back to Shadowthrone, doesn’t it? No wonder I’m nervous. That slimy, slippery bastard—’

‘Oh Hood’s balls,’ Stormy groaned, ‘give me that rice piss, if you’re gonna go on and on. Shadowthrone ain’t scary. Shadowthrone’s just Ammanas, and Ammanas is just Kellanved. Just like Cotillion’s Dancer. Hood knows, we knew the Emperor well enough. And Dancer. They up to something? No surprise. They were always up to something, from the very start. I tell you both right now,’ he paused for a swig of rice wine, made a face, then continued, ‘when all the dust’s settled, they’ll be shining like pearls atop a dungheap. Gods, Elder Gods, dragons, undead, spirits and the scary empty face of the Abyss itself – they won’t none a them stand a chance. You want to worry about Tiste Edur, wizard? Go ahead. Maybe they ruled Shadow once, but Shadowthrone’ll take ’em down. Him and Dancer.’ He belched. ‘An’ you know why? I’ll tell you why. They never fight fair. That’s why.’

Kalam looked over at the empty chair, and his eyes slowly narrowed.

Stumbling, crawling, or dragging themselves along through the bed of white ash, they all came to where Bottle sat, the sky a swirl of stars overhead. Saying nothing, not one of those soldiers, but each in turn managing one gentle gesture – reaching out and with one finger, touching the head of Y’Ghatan the rat.

Tender, with great reverence – until she bit that finger, and the hand would be snatched back with a hissed curse.

One after another, Y’Ghatan bit them all.

She was hungry, Bottle explained, and pregnant. So he explained. Or tried to, but no-one was really listening. It seemed that they didn’t even care, that her bite was part of the ritual, now, a price of blood, the payment of sacrifice.

He told those who would listen that she had bitten him too.

But she hadn’t. Not her. Not him. Their souls were inextricably bound, now. And things like that were complicated, profound even. He studied the creature where it was settled in his lap. Profound, yes, that was the word.

He stroked her head. My dear rat. My sweet— ow! Damn you! Bitch!

Black, glittering eyes looked up at him, whiskered nose twitching.

Vile, disgusting creatures.

He set the creature down and it could wander over a precipice for all he cared. Instead, the rat snuggled up against his right foot and curled into sleep. Bottle looked over at the makeshift camp, at the array of dim faces he could see here and there. No-one had lit a fire. Funny, that, in a sick way.

They had come through it. Bottle still found it difficult to believe. And Gesler had gone back in, only to return a while later. Followed by Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas, the warrior dragging Strings into view, then himself collapsing. Bottle could hear the man’s snores that had been going on uninterrupted half the night.

The sergeant was alive. The honey smeared into his wounds seemed to have delivered healing to match High Denul, making it obvious that it had been anything but ordinary honey – as if the strange visions weren’t proof enough of that. Still, even that was unable to replace the blood Strings had lost, and that blood loss should have killed him. Yet now the sergeant slept, too weak to manage much else, but alive.

Bottle wished he was as tired … in that way, at least, the kind that beckoned warm and welcoming. Instead of this spiritual exhaustion that left his nerves frayed, images returning again and again of their nightmare journey among the buried bones of Y’Ghatan. And with them, the bitter taste of those moments when all seemed lost, hopeless.

Captain Faradan Sort and Sinn had stashed away a supply of water-casks and food-packs, which they had since retrieved, but for Bottle no amount of water could wash the taste of smoke and ashes from his mouth. And there was something else that burned still within him. The Adjunct had abandoned them, forcing the captain and Sinn to desert. True enough, it was only reasonable to assume no-one had been left alive. He knew his feeling was irrational, yet it gnawed at him nonetheless.

The captain had talked about the plague, sweeping towards them from the east, and the need to keep the army well ahead of it. The Adjunct had waited as long as she could. Bottle knew all that. Still …

‘We’re dead, you know.’

He looked over at Koryk, who sat cross-legged nearby, a child sleeping beside him. ‘If we’re dead,’ Bottle said, ‘why do we feel so awful?’

‘As far as the Adjunct’s concerned. We’re dead. We can just … leave.’

‘And go where, Koryk? Poliel stalks Seven Cities—’

‘Ain’t no plague gonna kill us. Not now.’

‘You think we’re immortal or something?’ Bottle asked. He shook his head. ‘We survived this, sure, but that doesn’t mean a damned thing. It sure as Hood doesn’t mean that the next thing to come along won’t kill us right and quick. Maybe you’re feeling immune – to anything and everything the world can throw at us, now. But, believe me, we’re not.’

‘Better that than anything else,’ Koryk muttered.

Bottle thought about the soldier’s words. ‘You think some god decided to use us? Pulled us out for a reason?’

‘Either that, Bottle, or your rat’s a genius.’

‘The rat was four legs and a good nose, Koryk. Her soul was bound. By me. I was looking through her eyes, sensing everything she sensed—’

‘And did she dream when you dreamed?’

‘Well, I don’t know—’

‘Did she run away, then?’

‘No, but—’

‘So she waited around. For you to wake back up. So you could imprison her soul again.’

Bottle said nothing.

‘Any god tries to use me,’ Koryk said in a low voice, ‘it’ll regret it.’

‘With all those fetishes you wear,’ Bottle noted, ‘I’d have thought you’d be delighted at the attention.’

‘You’re wrong. What I wear ain’t for seeking blessings.’

‘Then what are they?’


‘All of them?’

Koryk nodded. ‘They make me invisible. To gods, spirits, demons …’

Bottle studied the soldier through the gloom. ‘Well, maybe they don’t work.’

‘Depends,’ he replied.

‘On what?’

‘Whether we’re dead or not.’

Smiles laughed from nearby. ‘Koryk’s lost his mind. No surprise, it being so small, and things being so dark in there …’

‘Not like ghosts and all that,’ Koryk said in a sneering tone. ‘You think like a ten-year-old, Smiles.’

Bottle winced.

Something skittered off a rock close to Koryk and the soldier started. ‘What in Hood’s name?’

‘That was a knife,’ Bottle said, having felt it whip past him. ‘Amazing, she saved one for you.’

‘More than one,’ Smiles said. ‘And Koryk, I wasn’t aiming for your leg.’

‘I told you you weren’t immune,’ Bottle said.

‘I’m – never mind.’

I’m still alive, you were going to say. Then, wisely, decided not to.

Gesler crouched down in front of the captain. ‘We’re a hairless bunch,’ he said, ‘but otherwise pretty well mending. Captain, I don’t know what made you believe in Sinn, enough to run from the army, but I’m damned glad you did.’

‘You were all under my command,’ she said. ‘Then you got too far ahead of me. I did my best to find you, but the smoke, the flames – all too much.’ She looked away. ‘I didn’t want to leave it at that.’

‘How many did the legion lose?’ Gesler asked.

She shrugged. ‘Maybe two thousand. Soldiers were still dying. We were trapped, Fist Keneb and Baralta and about eight hundred, on the wrong side of the breach – until Sinn pushed the fire back – don’t ask me how. They say she’s a High Mage of some kind. There was nothing addled about her that night, Sergeant, and I didn’t think she was addled when she tried getting back into the city.’

Nodding, Gesler was silent for a moment, then he rose. ‘I wish I could sleep … and it looks like I’m not alone in that. I wonder why that is …’

‘The stars, Sergeant,’ said Faradan Sort. ‘They’re glittering down.’

‘Aye, might be that and nothing more.’

‘Nothing more? I would think, more than enough.’

‘Aye.’ He looked down at the small bite on his right index finger. ‘All for a damned rat, too.’

‘All of you fools are probably infected with plague, now.’

He started, then smiled. ‘Let the bitch try.’

Balm rubbed the last crusted mud from his face, then scowled over at his corporal. ‘You, Deadsmell, you think I didn’t hear you praying and gibbering down there? You ain’t fooled me about nothing worth fooling about.’

The man, leaning against a rock, kept his eyes closed as he replied, ‘Sergeant, you keep trying, but we know. We all know.’

‘You all know what?’

‘Why you’re talking and talking and still talking.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘You’re glad to be alive, Sergeant. And you’re glad your squad’s made it through in one piece, the only one barring Fid’s, and maybe Hellian’s, as far as I can tell. We were charmed and that’s all there was to it. Damned charmed, and you still can’t believe it. Well, neither can we, all right?’

Balm spat into the dust. ‘Listen to you mewling on and on. Sentimental tripe, all of it. I’m wondering who cursed me so that I’m still stuck with all of you. Fiddler I can understand. He’s a Bridgeburner. And gods run when they see a Bridgeburner. But you, you ain’t nobody, and that’s what I don’t get. In fact, if I did get it …’

Urb. He’s as bad as the priest who disappeared. The once-priest, what was his name again? What did he look like? Nothing like Urb, that’s for sure. But just as treacherous, treasonous, just as rotten and vile as whatever his name was.

He ain’t my corporal no more, that’s for sure. I want to kill him … oh gods, my head aches. My jaw … my teeth all loose.

Captain says she needs more sergeants. Well, she can have him, and whatever squad he ends up with has my prayers and pity. That’s for sure. Said there were spiders and maybe there were and maybe I wasn’t conscious so’s I couldn’t go crazy, which maybe I woulda done, but that don’t change one truth, and that’s for sure as sure can be that they crawled on me. All over me – I can still feel where their little sticky pointy legs dug into my skin. All over. Everywhere. And he just let ’em do it.

Maybe captain’s got a bottle of something. Maybe if I call her over and talk real sweet, real sane and reasonable, maybe then they’d untie me. I won’t kill Urb. I promise. You can have him, Captain. That’s what I’ll say. And she’ll hesitate – I would – but then nod – the idiot – and cut these ropes. And hand me a bottle and I’ll finish it. Finish it and everybody’ll say, hey, it’s all right, then. She’s back to normal.

And that’s when I’ll go for his throat. With my teeth – no, they’re loose, can’t use ’em for that. Find a knife, that’s what I have to do. Or a sword. I could trade the bottle for a sword. I did it the other way round, didn’t I? Half the bottle. I’ll drink the other half. Half a bottle, half a sword. A knife. Half a bottle for a knife. Which I’ll stick in his throat, then trade back, for the other half of the bottle – if I’m quick that should work fine. I get the knife and the whole bottle.

But first, she should untie me. That’s only fair.

I’m fine, as everyone can see. Peaceful, thoughtful—


‘What is it, Urb?’

‘I think you still want to kill me.’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘The way you growl and gnash your teeth, I guess.’

Not me, that’s for sure.

Oh, that’s why my teeth still hurt so. I’ve made them even looser with all that gnashing. Gods, I used to dream stuff like this, my teeth all coming loose. The bastard punched me. No different from that man who disappeared, what was his name again?

Flashwit levered her bulk further down in the soft bed her weight had impressed in the sand. ‘I wish,’ she said.

Mayfly pursed her lips, then adjusted the nose she’d had broken more times than she could count. Moving it around made clicking sounds that she found, for some reason, vaguely satisfying. ‘You wish what?’

‘I wish I knew things, I guess.’

‘What things?’

‘Well, listen to Bottle there. And Gesler, and Deadsmell. They’re smart. They talk about things and all that other stuff. That’s what I wish.’

‘Yeah, well, all those brains are goin’ t’waste though, ain’t they?’

‘What do you mean?’

Mayfly snorted. ‘You and me, Flashwit, we’re heavy infantry, right? We plant our feet and we make the stand, and it don’t matter what it’s for. None a that don’t matter.’

‘But Bottle—’

‘Waste, Flashwit. They’re soldiers, for Treach’s sake. Soldiers. So who needs brains to soldier? They just get in the way of soldierin’ and it’s no good things gettin’ in the way. They figure things out and that gives ’em opinions and then maybe they don’t want t’fight as much no more.’

‘Why wouldn’t they want to fight no more ’cause of ‘pinions?’

‘It’s simple, Flashwit. Trust me. If soldiers thought too much about what they’re doin’, they wouldn’t fight no more.’

‘So how come I’m so tired, anyway, only I can’t sleep?’

‘That’s simple, too.’

‘It is?’

‘Yeah, an’ it ain’t the stars neither. We’re waitin’ for the sun to come up. We all want to see that sun, because it was looking like we’d never see it no more.’

‘Yeah.’ A long contemplative silence, then, ‘I wish.’

‘Now what do you wish?’

‘Only, that I was smart as you, Mayfly. You’re so smart you got no ‘pinions and that’s pretty smart an’ it makes me wonder if you ain’t goin’ t’waste being a heavy an’ that. A soljer.’

‘I ain’t smart, Flashwit. Trust me on that, an’ you know how I know?’

‘No, how?’

”Cause … down there … you an’ me, an’ Saltlick an’ Shortnose an’ Uru Hela an’ Hanno, us heavies. We didn’t get scared, not one of us, and that’s how I know.’

‘It wasn’t scary. Jus’ dark, an’ it seemed t’go on for ever an’ waitin’ for Bottle to get us through, well that got boring sometimes, you know.’

‘Right, and did the fire get you scared?’

‘Well, burnin’ hurt, didn’t it?’

‘Sure did.’

‘I didn’t like that.’

‘Me neither.’

‘So, what do you think we’re all gonna do now?’

‘The Fourteenth? Don’t know, save the world, maybe.’

‘Yeah. Maybe. I’d like that.’

‘Me too.’

‘Hey, is that the sun comin’ up?’

‘Well, it’s east where it’s getting brighter, so I guess, yeah, it must be.’

‘Great. I bin waiting for this. I think.’

Cuttle found sergeants Thorn Tissy, Cord and Gesler gathered near the base of the slope leading up to the west road. It seemed they weren’t much interested in the rising sun. ‘You’re all looking serious,’ the sapper said.

‘We got a walk ahead of us,’ Gesler said, ‘that’s all.’

‘The Adjunct had no choice,’ Cuttle said. ‘That was a firestorm – there was no way she could have known there’d be survivors – digging under it all that way.’

Gesler glanced at the other two sergeants, then nodded. ‘It’s all right, Cuttle. We know. We’re not contemplating murder or anything.’

Cuttle turned to face the camp. ‘Some of the soldiers are thinking wrong on all of this.’

‘Aye,’ said Cord, ‘but we’ll put ’em straight on it before this day’s out.’

‘Good. Thing is,’ he hesitated, turning back to the sergeants, ‘I’ve been thinking on that. Who in Hood’s name is going to believe us? More like we did our own deal with the Queen of Dreams. After all, we got one of Leoman’s officers with us. And now, with the captain and Sinn going and getting themselves outlawed, well, it could be seen we’re all traitors or something.’

‘We made no deal with the Queen of Dreams,’ Cord said.

‘Are you sure about that?’

All three sergeants looked at him then.

Cuttle shrugged. ‘Bottle, he’s a strange one. Maybe he did make some deal, with somebody. Maybe the Queen of Dreams, maybe some other god.’

‘He’d have told us, wouldn’t he?’ Gesler asked.

‘Hard to say. He’s a sneaky bastard. I’m getting nervous about that damned rat biting every one of us, like it knew what it was doing and we didn’t.’

‘Just a wild rat,’ said Thorn Tissy. ‘Ain’t nobody’s pet, so why wouldn’t it bite?’

Gesler said, ‘Listen, Cuttle, sounds like you’re just finding new things to worry about. What’s the point of doing that? What we’ve got ahead of us right now is a long walk, and us with no armour, no weapons and virtually no clothing – the sun’s gonna bake people crisp.’

‘We need to find a village,’ Cord said, ‘and hope to Hood plague ain’t found it first.’

‘There you go, Cuttle,’ Gesler said, grinning. ‘Now you got another thing to worry about.’

Paran began to suspect that his horse knew what was coming: nostrils flaring, tossing its head as it shied and stamped, fighting the reins all the way down the trail. The freshwater sea was choppy, silty waves in the bay rolling up to batter at sun-bleached limestone crags. Dead desert bushes poked skeletal limbs out of the muddy shallows and insects swarmed everywhere.

‘This is not the ancient sea,’ Ganath said as she approached the shoreline.

‘No,’ Paran admitted. ‘Half a year ago Raraku was a desert, and had been for thousands of years. Then, there was a … rebirth of sorts.’

‘It will not last. Nothing lasts.’

He eyed the Jaghut woman for a moment. She stood looking out on the ochre waves, motionless for a dozen heartbeats, then she made her way down into the shallows. Paran dismounted and hobbled the horses, narrowly evading an attempted bite from the gelding he had been riding. He unpacked his camp kit and set about building a hearth. Plenty of driftwood about, including entire uprooted trees, and it was not long before he had a cookfire lit.

Finished her bathing, Ganath joined him and stood nearby, water streaming down her oddly coloured, smooth skin. ‘The spirits of the deep springs have awakened,’ she said. ‘It feels as if this place is young once again. Young, and raw. I do not understand.’

Paran nodded. ‘Young, aye. And vulnerable.’

‘Yes. Why are you here?’

‘Ganath, it might be safer for you if you left.’

‘When do you begin the ritual?’

‘It’s already begun.’

She glanced away. ‘You are a strange god. Riding a miserable creature that dreams of killing you. Building a fire with which to cook food. Tell me, in this new world, are all gods such as you?’

‘I’m not a god,’ Paran said. ‘In place of the ancient Tiles of the Holds – and I’ll grant you I’m not sure that’s what they were called – in any case, there is now the Deck of Dragons, a fatid containing the High Houses. I am the Master of that Deck—’

‘A Master, in the same manner as the Errant?’


‘The Master of the Holds in my time,’ she replied.

‘I suppose so, then.’

‘He was an ascendant, Ganoes Paran. Worshipped as a god by enclaves of Imass, Barghast and Trell. They kept his mouth filled with blood. He never knew thirst. Nor peace. I wonder how he fell.’

‘I think I’d like to know that detail myself,’ Paran said, shaken by the Jaghut’s words. ‘No-one worships me, Ganath.’

‘They will. You are newly ascended. Even in this world of yours, I am certain that there is no shortage of followers, of those who are desperate to believe. And they will hunt down others and make of them victims. They will cut them and fill bowls with their innocent blood, in your name, Ganoes Paran, and so beseech your intercession, your adherence to whatever cause they righteously fashion. The Errant thought to defeat them, as you might well seek to do, and so he became the god of change. He walked the path of neutrality, yet flavoured it with a pleasure taken in impermanence. The Errant’s enemy was ennui, stagnation. This is why the Forkrul Assail sought to annihilate him. And all his mortal followers.’ She paused, then added, ‘Perhaps they succeeded. The Assail were never easily diverted from their chosen course.’

Paran said nothing. There were truths in her words that even he recognized, and they now weighed upon him, settling heavy and imponderable upon his spirit. Burdens were born from the loss of innocence. Naïveté. While the innocent yearned to lose their innocence, those who had already done so in turn envied the innocent, and knew grief in what they had lost. Between the two, no exchange of truths was possible. He sensed the completion of an internal journey, and Paran found he did not appreciate recognizing that fact, nor the place where he now found himself. It did not suit him that ignorance remained inextricably bound to innocence, and the loss of one meant the loss of the other.

‘I have troubled your mind, Ganoes Paran.’

He glanced up, then shrugged. ‘You have been … timely. Much to my regret, yet still,’ he shrugged again, ‘perhaps all for the best.’

She faced the sea again and he followed her gaze. A sudden calm upon the modest bay before them, whilst white-caps continued to chop the waters beyond. ‘What is happening?’ she asked.

‘They’re coming.’

Some distant clamour, now, rising as if from a deep cavern, and the sunset seemed to have grown sickly, its very fires slave to a chaotic tumult, as if the shades of a hundred thousand sunsets and sunrises now waged celestial war.

Whilst the horizons closed in, flickering with darkness, smoke and racing storms of sand and dust.

A stirring upon the pellucid waters of the bay, silt clouds rising from beneath, and the calm was spreading outward now, south, stilling the sea’s wildness.

Ganath stepped back. ‘What have you done?’

Muted but growing, the scuffle and rumble, the clangour and throat-hum, the sound of marching armies, the echoing of locked shields, the tympanous beat of iron and bronze weapons upon battered rims, of wagons creaking and churning rutted roads, and now the susurration, thrumming collisions, walls of horseflesh hammering into rows of raised pikes, the animal screams filling the air, then fading, only for the collision to repeat, louder this time, closer, and there was a violent patter cutting a swath across the bay, leaving a pale, muddy red road in its wake that bled outward, edges tearing, even as it sank down into the depths. Voices, now, crying out, bellowing, piteous and enraged, a cacophony of enmeshed lives, each one seeking to separate itself, seeking to claim its own existence, unique, a thing with eyes and voice. Fraught minds clutching at memories that tore away like shredded banners, with every gush of lost blood, with every crushing failure – soldiers, dying, ever dying —

Paran and Ganath watched, as colourless, sodden standards pierced the surface of the water, the spears lifting into the air, streaming mud – standards, banners, pikes bearing grisly, rotting trophies, rising along the entire shoreline now.

Raraku Sea had given up its dead.

In answer to the call of one man.

White, like slashes of absence, bone hands gripping shafts of black wood, forearms beneath tattered leather and corroded vambraces, and then, lifting clear of the water, rotted helms and flesh-stripped faces. Human, Trell, Barghast, Imass, Jaghut. The races, and all their race-wars. Oh, could I drag every mortal historian down here, to this shore, so that they could look upon our true roll, our progression of hatred and annihilation.

How many would seek, desperate in whatever zealotry gripped them, to hunt reasons and justifications? Causes, crimes and justices – Paran’s thoughts stuttered to a halt, as he realized that, like Ganath, he had been backing up, step by step, pushed back, in the face of revelation. Oh, these messengers would earn so much … displeasure. And vilification. And these dead, oh how they’d laugh, understanding so well the defensive tactic of all-out attack. The dead mock us, mock us all, and need say nothing …

All those enemies of reason – yet not reason as a force, or a god, not reason in the cold, critical sense. Reason only in its purest armour, when it strides forward into the midst of those haters of tolerance, oh gods below, I am lost, lost in all of this. You cannot fight unreason, and as these dead multitudes will tell you – are telling you even now – certitude is the enemy.

‘These,’ Ganath whispered, ‘these dead have no blood to give you, Ganoes Paran. They will not worship. They will not follow. They will not dream of glory in your eyes. They are done with that, with all of that. What do you see, Ganoes Paran, in these staring holes that once were eyes? What do you see?’

‘Answers,’ he replied.

‘Answers?’ Her voice was harsh with rage. ‘To what?’

Not replying, Paran forced himself forward, one step, then another.

The first ranks stood upon the shore’s verge, foam swirling round their skeletal feet, behind them thousands upon thousands of kin. Clutching weapons of wood, bone, horn, flint, copper, bronze and iron. Arrayed in fragments of armour, fur, hide. Silent, now, motionless.

The sky overhead was dark, lowering and yet still, as if a storm had drawn its first breath … only to hold it.

Paran looked upon that ghastly rank facing him. He was not sure how to do this – he had not even known if his summoning would succeed. And now … there are so many. He cleared his throat, then began calling out names.

‘Shank! Aimless! Runter! Detoran! Bucklund, Hedge, Mulch, Toes, Trotts!’ And still more names, as he scoured his memory, his recollection, for every Bridgeburner he knew had died. At Coral, beneath Pale, in Blackdog Forest and Mott Wood, north of Genabaris and northeast of Nathilog – names he had once fixed in his mind as he researched – for Adjunct Lorn – the turgid, grim history of the Bridgeburners. He drew upon names of the deserters, although he knew not if they lived still or, if indeed dead, whether or not they had returned to the fold. The ones that had vanished in Blackdog’s great marshes, that had disappeared after the taking of Mott City.

And when he was done, when he could remember no more names, he began his list again.

Then saw one figure in the front row dissolving, melting into sludge that pooled in the shallow water, slowly seeping away. And in its place arose a man he recognized, the firescorched, blasted face grinning – Paran belatedly realized that the brutal smile held no amusement, only the memory of a death-grimace. That and the terrible damage left behind by a weapon.

‘Runter,’ Paran whispered. ‘Black Coral—’

‘Captain,’ cut in the dead sapper, ‘what are you doing here?’

I wish people would stop asking me that. ‘I need your help.’

More Bridgeburners were forming in the front ranks. Detoran. Sergeant Bucklund. Hedge, who now stepped from the water’s edge. ‘Captain. I always wondered why you were so hard to kill. Now I know.’

‘You do?’

‘Aye, you’re doomed to haunt us! Hah! Hah hah!’ Behind him, the others began laughing.

Hundreds of thousands of ghosts, all joined in laughter, was a sound Ganoes Paran never, ever wanted to hear again. Mercifully, it was shortlived, as if all at once the army of dead forgot the reason for their amusement.

‘Now,’ Hedge finally said, ‘as you can see, we’re busy. Hah!’

Paran shot out a hand. ‘No, please, don’t start again, Hedge.’

‘Typical. People need to be dead to develop a real sense of humour. You know, Captain, from this side the world seems a whole lot funnier. Funny in a stupid, pointless way, I’ll grant you—’

‘Enough of that, Hedge. You think I don’t sense the desperation here? You’re all in trouble – even worse, you need us. The living, that is, and that’s the part you don’t want to admit—’

‘I admitted it clear enough,’ Hedge said. ‘To Fid.’


‘Aye. He’s not too far away from here, you know. With the Fourteenth.’

‘He’s with the Fourteenth? What, has he lost his mind?’

Hedge smirked. ‘Damn near, but, thanks to me, he’s all right. For now. This ain’t the first time we’ve walked among the living, Captain. Gods below, you shoulda seen us twist Korbolo’s hair – him and his damned Dogslayers – that was a night, let me tell you—’

‘No, don’t bother. I need your help.’

‘Fine, be that way. With what?’

Paran hesitated. He’d needed to get to this point, yet now that he’d arrived, this was suddenly the last place he wanted to be. ‘You, here,’ he said, ‘in Raraku – this sea, it’s a damned gate. Between whatever nightmare world you’re from, and mine. I need you, Hedge, to summon … something. From the other side.’

The mass of ghosts collectively recoiled, the motion snatching a tug of air seaward.

The dead Bridgeburner mage Shank asked, ‘Who you got in mind, Captain, and what do you want it to do?’

Paran glanced back over a shoulder at Ganath, then back again. ‘Something’s escaped, Shank. Here, in Seven Cities. It needs to be hunted down. Destroyed.’ He hesitated. ‘I don’t know, maybe there are entities out there that could do it, but there’s no time to go looking for them. You see, this … thing … it feeds on blood, and the more blood it feeds on, the more powerful it gets. The First Emperor’s gravest mistake, attempting to create his own version of an Elder God – you know, don’t you? What – who – I am talking about. You know … it’s out there, loose, unchained and hunting—’

‘Oh it hunted all right,’ Hedge said. ‘They set it free, under a geas, then gave their own blood to it – the blood of six High Mages, priests and priestesses of the Nameless Ones – the fools sacrificed themselves.’

‘Why? Why set Dejim Nebrahl free? What geas did they set upon it?’

‘Just another path. Maybe it’ll lead where they wanted it to, maybe not, but Dejim Nebrahl is now free of its geas. And now it just … hunts.’

Shank asked, in a tone filled with suspicion, ‘So, Captain, who is it you want? To take the damned thing down?’

‘I could only think of one … entity. The same entity that did it the first time. Shank, I need you to find the Deragoth.’


If thunder could be caught, trapped in stone, and all its violent concatenation stolen from time, and tens of thousands of years were freed to gnaw and scrape this racked visage, so would this first witnessing unveil all its terrible meaning. Such were my thoughts, then, and such they are now, although decades have passed in the interval, when I last set eyes upon that tragic ruin, so fierce was its ancient claim to greatness.

The Lost City of the Path’Apur

Prince I’farah of Bakun, 987–1032 Burn’s Sleep

He had washed most of the dried blood away and then had watched, as time passed, the bruises fade. Blows to the head were, of course, more problematic, and so there had been fever, and with fever in the mind demons were legion, the battles endless, and there had been no rest then. Just the heat of war with the self, but, finally, that too had passed, and shortly before noon on the second day, he watched the eyes open.

Incomprehension should have quickly vanished, yet it did not, and this, Taralack Veed decided, was as he had expected. He poured out some herbal tea as Icarium slowly sat up. ‘Here, my friend. You have been gone from me a long time.’

The Jhag reached for the tin cup, drank deep, then held it out for more.

‘Yes, thirst,’ the Gral outlaw said, refilling the cup. ‘Not surprising. Blood loss. Fever.’

‘We fought?’

‘Aye. A sudden, inexplicable attack. D’ivers. My horse was killed and I was thrown. When I awoke, it was clear that you had driven off our assailant, yet a blow to your head had dragged you into unconsciousness.’ He paused, then added, ‘We were lucky, friend.’

‘Fighting. Yes, I recall that much.’ Icarium’s unhuman gaze sought out Taralack Veed’s eyes, searching, quizzical.

The Gral sighed. ‘This has been happening often of late. You do not remember me, do you, Icarium?’

‘I – I am not sure. A companion …’

‘Yes. For many years now. Your companion. Taralack Veed, once of the Gral Tribe, yet now sworn to a much higher cause.’

‘And that is?’

‘To walk at your side, Icarium.’

The Jhag stared down at the cup in his hands. ‘For many years now, you say,’ he whispered. ‘A higher cause … that I do not understand. I am … nothing. No-one. I am lost—’ He looked up. ‘I am lost,’ he repeated. ‘I know nothing of a higher cause, such that would make you abandon your people. To walk at my side, Taralack Veed. Why?’

The Gral spat on his palms, rubbed them together, then slicked his hair back. ‘You are the greatest warrior this world has ever seen. Yet cursed. To be, as you say, forever lost. And that is why you must have a companion, to recall to you the great task that awaits you.’

‘And what task is this?’

Taralack Veed rose. ‘You will know when the time comes. This task shall be made plain, so plain to you, and so perfect, you will know that you have been fashioned – from the very start – to give answer. Would that I could be more helpful, Icarium.’

The Jhag’s gaze scanned their small encampment. ‘Ah, I see you have retrieved my bow and sword.’

‘I have. Are you mended enough to travel?’

‘Yes, I think so. Although … hungry.’

‘I have smoked meat in my pack. The very hare you killed three days ago. We can eat as we walk.’

Icarium climbed to his feet. ‘Yes. I do feel some urgency. As if, as if I have been looking for something.’ He smiled at the Gral. ‘Perhaps my own past …’

‘When you discover what you seek, my friend, all knowledge of your past will return to you. So it is prophesied.’

‘Ah. Well then, friend Veed, have we a direction in mind?’

Taralack gathered his gear. ‘North, and west. We are seeking the wild coast, opposite the island of Sepik.’

‘Do you recall why?’

‘Instinct, you said. A sense that you are … compelled. Trust those instincts, Icarium, as you have in the past. They will guide us through, no matter who or what stands in our way.’

‘Why should anyone stand in our way?’ The Jhag strapped on his sword, then retrieved the cup and downed the last of the herbal tea.

‘You have enemies, Icarium. Even now, we are being hunted, and that is why we can delay here no longer.’

Collecting his bow, then stepping close to hand the Gral the empty tin cup, Icarium paused, then said, ‘You stood guard over me, Taralack Veed. I feel … I feel I do not deserve such loyalty.’

‘It is no great burden, Icarium. True, I miss my wife, my children. My tribe. But there can be no stepping aside from this responsibility. I do what I must. You are chosen by all the gods, Icarium, to free the world of a great evil, and I know in my heart that you will not fail.’

The Jhag warrior sighed. ‘Would that I shared your faith in my abilities, Taralack Veed.’

‘E’napatha N’apur – does that name stir your memories?’

Frowning, Icarium shook his head.

‘A city of evil,’ Taralack explained. ‘Four thousand years ago – with one like me standing at your side – you drew your fearsome sword and walked towards its barred gates. Five days, Icarium. Five days. That is what it took you to slaughter the tyrant and every soldier in that city.’

A look of horror on the Jhag’s face. ‘I – I did what?’

‘You understood the necessity, Icarium, as you always do when faced with such evil. You understood, too, that none could be permitted to carry with them the memory of that city. And why it was necessary to then slay every man, woman and child in E’napatha N’apur. To leave none breathing.’

‘No. I would not have. Taralack, no, please – there is no necessity so terrible that could compel me to commit such slaughter—’

‘Ah, dear companion,’ said Taralack Veed, with great sorrow. ‘This is the battle you must always wage, and this is why one such as myself must be at your side. To hold you to the truth of the world, the truth of your own soul. You are the Slayer, Icarium. You walk the Blood Road, but it is a straight and true road. The coldest justice, yet a pure one. So pure even you recoil from it.’ He settled a hand on the Jhag’s shoulder. ‘Come, we can speak more of it as we travel. I have spoken these words many, many times, my friend, and each time you are the same, wishing with all your heart that you could flee from yourself, from who and what you are. Alas, you cannot, and so you must, once more, learn to harden yourself.

‘The enemy is evil, Icarium. The face of the world is evil. And so, friend, your enemy is …’

The warrior looked away, and Taralack Veed barely heard his whispered reply, ‘The world.’

‘Yes. Would that I could hide such truth from you, but I could not claim to be your friend if I did such a thing.’

‘No, that is true. Very well, Taralack Veed, let us as you say speak more of this whilst we journey north and west. To the coast opposite the island of Sepik. Yes, I feel … there is something there. Awaiting us.’

‘You must needs be ready for it,’ the Gral said.

Icarium nodded. ‘And so I shall, my friend.’

Each time, the return journey was harder, more fraught, and far, far less certain. There were things that would have made it easier. Knowing where he had been, for one, and knowing where he must return to, for another. Returning to … sanity? Perhaps. But Heboric Ghost Hands had no firm grasp of what sanity was, what it looked like, felt like, smelled like. It might be that he had never known.

Rock was bone. Dust was flesh. Water was blood. Residues settled in multitudes, becoming layers, and upon those layers yet more, and on and on until a world was made, until all that death could hold up one’s feet where one stood, and rise to meet every step one took. A solid bed to lie on. So much for the world. Death holds us up. And then there were the breaths that filled, that made the air, the heaving assertions measuring the passing of time, like notches marking the arc of a life, of every life. How many of those breaths were last ones? The final expellation of a beast, an insect, a plant, a human with film covering his or her fading eyes? And so how, how could one draw such air into the lungs? Knowing how filled with death it was, how saturated it was with failure and surrender?

Such air choked him, burned down his throat, tasting of the bitterest acid. Dissolving and devouring, until he was naught but … residue.

They were so young, his companions. There was no way they could understand the filth they walked on, walked in, walked through. And took into themselves, only to fling some of it back out again, now flavoured by their own sordid additions. And when they slept, each night, they were as empty things. While Heboric fought on against the knowledge that the world did not breathe, not any more. No, now, the world drowned.

And I drown with it. Here in this cursed wasteland. In the sand and heat and dust. I am drowning. Every night. Drowning.

What could Treach give him? This savage god with its overwhelming hungers, desires, needs. Its mindless ferocity, as if it could pull back and reclaim every breath it drew into its bestial lungs, and so defy the world, the ageing world and its deluge of death. He was wrongly chosen, so every ghost told him, perhaps not in words, but in their constant crowding him, rising up, overwhelming him with their silent, accusatory regard.

And there was more. The whisperings in his dreams, voices emerging from a sea of jade, beseeching. He was the stranger who had come among them; he had done what none other had done: he had reached through the green prison. And they prayed to him, begging for his return. Why? What did they want?

No, he did not want answers to such questions. He would return this cursed gift of jade, this alien power. He would cast it back into the void and be done with it.

Holding to that, clinging to that, was keeping him sane. If this torment of living could be called sane. Drowning, I am drowning, and yet … these damned feline gifts, this welter of senses, so sweet, so rich, I can feel them, seeking to seduce me. Back into this momentary world.

In the east the sun was clawing its way back into the sky, the edge of some vast iron blade, just pulled from the forge. He watched the red glow cutting the darkness, and wondered at this strange sense of imminence that so stilled the dawn air.

A groan from the bundle of blankets where Scillara slept, then: ‘So much for the blissful poison.’

Heboric flinched, then drew a deep breath, released a slow sigh. ‘Which blissful poison would that be, Scillara?’

Another groan, as she worked her way into a sitting position. ‘I ache, old man. My back, my hips, everywhere. And I get no sleep – no position is comfortable and I have to pee all the time. This, this is awful. Gods, why do women do it? Again and again and again – are they all mad?’

‘You’d know better than I,’ Heboric said. ‘But I tell you, men are no less inexplicable. In what they think. In what they do.’

‘The sooner I get this beast out the better,’ she said, hands on her swollen belly. ‘Look at me, I’m sagging. Everywhere. Sagging.’

The others had woken, Felisin staring wide-eyed at Scillara – with the discovery that the older woman was pregnant, there had been a time of worship for young Felisin. It seemed that the disillusionment had begun. Cutter had thrown back his blankets and was already resurrecting last night’s fire. The demon, Greyfrog, was nowhere to be seen. Off hunting, Heboric supposed.

‘Your hands,’ Scillara noted, ‘are looking particularly green this morning, old man.’

He did not bother confirming this observation. He could feel that alien pressure well enough. ‘Naught but ghosts,’ he said, ‘the ones from beyond the veil, from the very depths of the Abyss. Oh how they cry out. I was blind once. Would that I were now deaf.’

They looked at him strangely, as they often did after he’d spoken. Truths. His truths, the ones they couldn’t see, nor understand. It didn’t matter. He knew what he knew. ‘There is a vast dead city awaiting us this day,’ he said. ‘Its residents were slain. All of them. By Icarium, long ago. There was a sister city to the north – when they heard what had happened, they journeyed here to see for themselves. And then, my young companions, they chose to bury E’napatha N’apur. The entire city. They buried it intact. Thousands of years have passed, and now the winds and rains have rotted away that solid face. Now, the old truths are revealed once more.’

Cutter poured water into a tin pot and set it on the hook slung beneath an iron tripod. ‘Icarium,’ he said. ‘I travelled with him for a time. With Mappo, and Fiddler.’ He then made a face. ‘And Iskaral Pust, that insane little stoat of a man. Said he was a High Priest of Shadow. A High Priest! Well, if that’s the best Shadowthrone can do …’ He shook his head. ‘Icarium … was a … well, he was tragic, I guess. Yet, he would not have attacked that city without a reason, I think.’

Heboric barked a laugh. ‘Aye, no shortage of reasons in this world. The King barred the gates, would not permit him to enter. Too many dark tales surrounding the name of Icarium. A soldier on the battlements fired a warning arrow. It ricocheted off a rock and grazed Icarium’s left leg, then sank deep into the throat of his companion – the poor bastard drowned in his own blood – and so Icarium’s rage was unleashed.’

‘If there were no survivors,’ Scillara said, ‘how do you know all this?’

‘The ghosts wander the region,’ Heboric replied. He gestured. ‘Farms once stood here, before the desert arrived.’ He smiled at the others. ‘Indeed, today is market day, and the roads – which none but I can see – are crowded with push-carts, oxen, men and women. And children and dogs. On either side, drovers whistle and tap their staves to keep the sheep and goats moving. From the poor farms this close to the city, old women come out with baskets to collect the dung for their fields.’

Felisin whispered, ‘You see all this?’


‘Right now?’

‘Only fools think the past is invisible.’

‘Do those ghosts,’ Felisin asked, ‘do they see you?’

‘Perhaps. Those that do, well, they know they are dead. The others do not know, and do not see me. The realization of one’s own death is a terrifying thing; they flee from it, returning to their illusion – and so I appear, then vanish, and I am naught but a mirage.’ He rose. ‘Soon, we will approach the city itself, and there will be soldiers, and these ghosts see me, oh yes, and call out to me. But how can I answer, when I don’t understand what they want of me? They cry out, as if in recognition—’

‘You are the Destriant of Treach, the Tiger of Summer,’ Cutter said.

‘Treach was a First Hero,’ Heboric replied. ‘A Soletaken who escaped the Slaughter. Like Ryllandaras and Rikkter, Tholen and Denesmet. Don’t you see? These ghost soldiers – they did not worship Treach! No, their god of war belonged to the Seven, who would one day become the Holies. A single visage of Dessimbelackis – that and nothing more. I am nothing to them, Cutter, yet they will not leave me alone!’

Both Cutter and Felisin had recoiled at his outburst, but Scillara was grinning.

‘You find all this amusing?’ he demanded, glaring at her.

‘I do. Look at you. You were a priest of Fener, and now you’re a priest of Treach. Both gods of war. Heboric, how many faces do you think the god of war has? Thousands. And in ages long past? Tens of thousands? Every damned tribe, old man. All different, but all the same.’ She lit her pipe, smoke wreathing her face, then said, ‘Wouldn’t surprise me if all the gods are just aspects of one god, and all this fighting is just proof that that one god is insane.’

‘Insane?’ Heboric was trembling. He could feel his heart hammering away like some ghastly demon at the door to his soul.

‘Or maybe just confused. All those bickering worshippers, each one convinced their version is the right one. Imagine getting prayers from ten million believers, not one of them believing the same thing as the one kneeling beside him or her. Imagine all those Holy Books, not one of them agreeing on anything, yet all of them purporting to be the word of that one god. Imagine two armies annihilating each other, both in that god’s name. Who wouldn’t be driven mad by all that?’

‘Well,’ Cutter said into the silence that followed Scillara’s diatribe, ‘the tea’s ready.’

Greyfrog squatted atop a flat rock, looking down on the unhappy group. The demon’s belly was full, although the wild goat still kicked on occasion. Morose. They are not getting along. Tragic list, listlessly reiterated. Child-swollen beauty is miserable with aches and discomfort. Younger beauty feels shocked, frightened and alone. Yet likely to reject soft comfort given by adoring Greyfrog. Troubled assassin beset by impatience, for what, I know not. And terrible priest. Ah, shivering haunt! So much displeasure! Dismay! Perhaps I could regurgitate the goat, and we could share said fine repast. Fine, still kicking repast. Aai, worst kind of indigestion!

‘Greyfrog!’ Cutter called up. ‘What are you doing up there?’

‘Friend Cutter. Discomfort. Regretting the horns.’

Thus far, Samar Dev reflected, the positions on the map had proved accurate. From dry scrubland to plains, and now, finally, patches of deciduous forest, arrayed amidst marshy glades and stubborn remnants of true grassland. Two, perhaps three days of travel northward and they would reach boreal forest.

Bhederin-hunters, travelling in small bands, shared this wild, unbroken land. They had seen such bands from a distance and had come upon signs of camps, but it was clear that these nomadic savages had no interest in contacting them. Hardly surprising – the sight of Karsa Orlong was frightening enough, astride his Jhag horse, weapons bristling, bloodstained white fur riding his broad shoulders.

The bhederin herds had broken up and scattered into smaller groups upon reaching the aspen parkland. There seemed little sense, as far as Samar Dev could determine, to the migration of these huge beasts. True, the dry, hot season was nearing its end, and the nights were growing cool, sufficient to turn rust-coloured the leaves of the trees, but there was nothing fierce in a Seven Cities winter. More rain, perhaps, although that rarely reached far inland – the Jhag Odhan to the south was unchanging, after all.

‘I think,’ she said, ‘this is some kind of ancient memory.’

Karsa grunted, then said, ‘Looks like forest to me, woman.’

‘No, these bhederin – those big hulking shapes beneath the trees over there. I think it’s some old instinct that brings them north into these forests. From a time when winter brought snow and wind to the Odhan.’

‘The rains will make the grass lush, Samar Dev,’ the Teblor said. ‘They come up here to get fat.’

‘All right, that sounds reasonable enough. I suppose. Good for the hunters, though.’ A few days earlier they had passed a place of great slaughter. Part of a herd had been separated and driven off a cliff. Four or five dozen hunters had gathered and were butchering the meat, women among them tending smoke-fires and pinning strips of meat to racks. Half-wild dogs – more wolf than dog, in truth – had challenged Samar Dev and Karsa when they rode too close, and she had seen that the beasts had no canines, likely cut off when they were young, although they presented sufficient threat that the travellers elected to draw no closer to the kill-site.

She was fascinated by these fringe tribes living out here in the wastes, suspecting that nothing had changed for them in thousands of years; oh, iron weapons and tools, evincing some form of trade with the more civilized peoples to the east, but they used no horses, which she found odd. Instead, their dogs were harnessed to travois. And mostly basketry instead of fired-clay pots, which made sense given that the bands travelled on foot.

Here and there, lone trees stood tall on the grasslands, and these seemed to be a focal point for some kind of spirit worship, given the fetishes tied to branches, and the antlers and bhederin skulls set in notches and forks, some so old that the wood had grown round them. Invariably, near such sentinel trees there would be a cemetery, signified by raised platforms housing hide-wrapped corpses, and, of course, the crows squabbling over every perch.

Karsa and Samar had avoided trespass on such sites. Though Samar suspected that the Teblor would have welcomed a succession of running battles and skirmishes, if only to ease the boredom of the journey. Yet for all his ferocity, Karsa Orlong had proved an easy man to travel with, albeit somewhat taciturn and inclined to brooding – but whatever haunted him had nothing to do with her, nor was he inclined to take it out on her – a true virtue rare among men.

‘I am thinking,’ he said, startling her.

‘What about, Karsa Orlong?’

‘The bhederin and those hunters at the base of the cliff. Two hundred dead bhederin, at least, and they were stripping them down to the bone, then boiling the bones themselves. Whilst we eat nothing but rabbits and the occasional deer. I think, Samar Dev, we should kill ourselves one of these bhederin.’

‘Don’t be fooled by them, Karsa Orlong. They are a lot faster than they look. And agile.’

‘Yes, but they are herd animals.’

‘What of it?’

‘The bulls care more about protecting ten females and their calves than one female separated out from the others.’

‘Probably true. So, how do you plan on separating one out? And don’t forget, that female won’t be a docile thing – it could knock you and your horse down given the chance. Then trample you.’

‘I am not the one to worry about that. It is you who must worry, Samar Dev.’

‘Why me?’

‘Because you will be the bait, the lure. And so you must be sure to be quick and alert.’

‘Bait? Now hold on—’

‘Quick and alert. I will take care of the rest.’

‘I can’t say I like this idea, Karsa Orlong. I am in fact quite content with rabbits and deer.’

‘Well, I’m not. And I want a hide.’

‘What for? How many hides do you plan to wear?’

‘Find us a small clump of the beasts – they are not frightened by your horse as much as they are by mine.’

‘That’s because Jhag horses will take calves on occasion. So I read … somewhere.’

The Teblor bared his teeth, as if he found the image amusing.

Samar Dev sighed, then said, ‘There’s a small herd just ahead and to the left – they moved out of this glade as we approached.’

‘Good. When we reach the next clearing I want you to begin a canter towards them.’

‘That will draw out the bull, Karsa – how close do you expect me to get?’

‘Close enough to be chased.’

‘I will not. That will achieve nothing—’

‘The females will bolt, woman. And from them I shall make my kill – how far do you think the bull will chase you? He will turn about, to rejoin his harem—’

‘And so become your problem.’

‘Enough talk.’ They were picking their way through a stand of poplar and aspen, the horses pushing through chest-high dogwood. Just beyond was another glade, this one long, the way the green grasses were clumped suggesting wet ground. On the far side, perhaps forty paces distant, a score of hulking dark shapes loomed beneath the branches of more trees.

‘This is swamp,’ Samar Dev noted. ‘We should find another—’

‘Ride, Samar Dev.’

She halted her horse. ‘And if I don’t?’

‘Stubborn child. I shall leave you here, of course – you are slowing me down as it is.’

‘Was that supposed to hurt my feelings, Karsa Orlong? You want to kill a bhederin just to prove to yourself that you can best the hunters. So, no cliff, no blinds or corrals, no pack of wolf-dogs to flank and drive the bhederin. No, you want to leap off your horse and wrestle one to the ground, then choke it to death, or maybe throw it against a tree, or maybe just lift it up and spin it round until it dies of dizziness. And you dare to call me a child?’ She laughed. Because, as she well knew, laughter would sting.

Yet no sudden rage darkened his face, and his eyes were calm as they studied her. Then he smiled. ‘Witness.’

And with that he rode out into the clearing. Inky water spraying from the Jhag horse’s hoofs, the beast voicing something like a snarl as it galloped towards the herd. The bhederin scattered in a thunderous crash of bushes and snapping branches. Two shot out directly towards Karsa.

A mistake, Samar Dev realized in that moment, to assume there was but one male. One was clearly younger than the other, yet both were huge, eyes red-rimmed with rage, water exploding round them as they charged their attacker.

The Jhag horse, Havok, swerved suddenly, legs gathering beneath him, then the young stallion launched himself over the back of the larger bull. But the bhederin was quicker, twisting and heaving its massive head upward, horns seeking the horse’s exposed underbelly.

That upward lunge killed the bull, for the beast’s head met the point of Karsa’s stone sword, which slid into the brain beneath the base of the skull, severing most of its spine in the process.

Havok landed in a splash and spray of muck on the far side of the collapsing bull, well beyond the range of the second male – which now pivoted, stunningly fast, and set off in pursuit of Karsa.

The warrior swung his horse to the left, hoofs pounding as Havok ran parallel to the edge of trees, chasing after the half-dozen females and calves that had lumbered out into the clearing. The second bull closed fast behind them.

The cows and calves scattered once more, one bolting in a direction different from the others. Havok swerved into its wake, and a heartbeat later was galloping alongside the beast. Behind them, the second male had drawn up to flank the other females – and one and all, this group then crashed back into the thicket.

Samar Dev watched Karsa Orlong lean far to one side, then slash down with his sword, taking the beast in the spine just above its hips.

The cow’s back legs collapsed under the blow, sluicing through the muck as the creature struggled to drag them forward.

Wheeling round in front of the bhederin, Karsa held his sword poised until he reached the cow’s left side, then he lunged down, the sword’s point driving into the animal’s heart.

Front legs buckled, and the cow sagged to one side, then was still.

Halting his horse, Karsa slid off and approached the dead cow. ‘Make us a camp,’ he said to Samar Dev.

She stared at him, then said, ‘Fine, you have shown me that I am, in fact, unnecessary. As far as you’re concerned. Now what? You expect me to set up camp, and then, I presume, help you butcher that thing. Shall I lie beneath you tonight just to round things out?’

He had drawn a knife and now knelt in the pooling water beside the cow. ‘If you like,’ he said.

Barbarian bastard … well, I should not have expected anything else, should I? ‘All right, I have been thinking, we will need this meat – the land of rocks and lakes north of here no doubt has game, but far less plentiful and far more elusive.’

‘I shall take the bull’s skin,’ Karsa said, slicing open the bhederin’s belly. Entrails tumbled out to splash in the swampy water. Already, hundreds of insects swarmed the kill-site. ‘Do you wish this cow’s skin, Samar Dev?’

‘Why not? If a glacier lands on us we won’t freeze, and that’s something.’

He glanced over at her. ‘Woman, glaciers don’t jump. They crawl.’

‘That depends on who made them in the first place, Karsa Orlong.’

He bared his teeth. ‘Legends of the Jaghut do not impress me. Ice is ever a slow-moving river.’

‘If you believe that, Karsa Orlong, you know far less than you think you do.’

‘Do you plan on sitting on that horse all day, woman?’

‘Until I find high ground to make a camp, yes.’ And she gathered the reins.

Witness, he said. He’s said that before, hasn’t he? Some kind of tribal thing, I suppose. Well, I witnessed all right. As did that savage hiding in the shadows at the far end of the glade. I pray the locals do not feel proprietary towards these bhederin. Or we will find excitement unending, which Karsa might well enjoy. As for me, I’ll just likely end up dead.

Well, too late to worry much about that.

She then wondered how many of Karsa Orlong’s past companions had had similar thoughts. In those times just before the Teblor barbarian found himself, once again, travelling alone.

The rough crags of the ridge cast a maze of shadows along the ledge just beneath, and in these shadows five sets of serpentine eyes stared down at the winding wall of dust on the plain below. A trader’s caravan, seven wagons, two carriages, twenty guards on horses. And three war-dogs.

There had been six, but three had caught Dejim Nebrahl’s scent and, stupid creatures that they were, had set off to hunt the T’rolbarahl down. They had succeeded in finding the D’ivers, and their blood now filled the bellies of the five remaining beasts.

The Trell had stunned Dejim Nebrahl. To snap one of his necks – not even a Tartheno could manage such a thing – and one had tried, long ago. Then, to drag the other down, over the cliff’s edge, to plunge to its death among the jagged rocks below. This audacity was … unforgivable. Weak and wounded, Dejim Nebrahl had fled the scene of ambush, wandering half-crazed with anger and pain until stumbling upon the trail of this caravan. How many days and nights had passed, the T’rolbarahl had no idea. There was hunger, the need to heal, and these demands filled the mind of the D’ivers.

Before Dejim Nebrahl, now, waited his salvation. Enough blood to spawn replacements for those he had lost in the ambush; perhaps enough blood to fashion yet another, an eighth.

He would strike at dusk, the moment the caravan halted for the day. Slaughter the guards first, then the remaining dogs, and finally the fat weaklings riding in their puny carriages. The merchant with his harem of silent children, each one chained to the next and trailing behind the carriage. A trader in mortal flesh.

The notion sickened Dejim Nebrahl. There had been such detestable creatures in the time of the First Empire, and depravity never went extinct. When the T’rolbarahl ruled this land, a new justice would descend upon the despoilers of flesh. Dejim would feed upon them first, and then all other criminals, the murderers, the beaters of the helpless, the stone-throwers, the torturers of the spirit.

His creator had meant him and his kind to be guardians of the First Empire. Thus the conjoining of bloods, making the sense of perfection strong, god-like. Too strong, of course. The T’rolbarahl would not be ruled by an imperfect master. No, they would rule, for only then could true justice be delivered.

Justice. And … of course … natural hunger. Necessity carved out its own laws, and these could not be denied. When he ruled, Dejim Nebrahl would fashion a true balance between the two dominant forces in his D’ivers soul, and if the mortal fools suffered beneath the weight of his justice, then so be it. They deserved the truth of their own beliefs. Deserved the talon-sharp edges of their own vaunted virtues, for virtues were more than just words, they were weapons, and it was only right that such weapons be turned upon their wielders.

The shadows had descended the cliff-face here in the lee of the setting sun’s light. Dejim Nebrahl followed those shadows downward to the plain, five sets of eyes, but one mind. The focus of all absolute and unwavering.

Delicious slaughter. Splashing red to celebrate the sun’s lurid fire.

As he flowed out onto the plain, he heard the dogs begin barking.

A moment of pity for them. Stupid as they were, they knew about necessity.

Something of a struggle, but he managed to unfold himself and descend, groaning with stiffness, from the mule’s broad back. And, despite the awkward effort, he spilled not a single drop from his cherished bucket. Humming beneath his breath some chant or other – he’d forgotten where in the vast tome of Holy Songs it had come from, and really, did it actually matter? – he waddled with his burden to the simpering waves of Raraku Sea, then walked out amidst the softly swirling sands and eagerly trembling reeds.

Pausing suddenly.

A desperate scan of the area, sniffing the humid, sultry, dusky air. Another scan, eyes darting, seeking out every nearby shadow, every wayward rustle of reed and straggly bush. Then he ducked lower, soaking his frayed robes as he knelt in the shallows.

Sweet, sun-warmed waters.

A final, suspicious look round, all sides – could never be too careful – then, with solemn delight, he lowered the bucket into the sea.

And watched, eyes shining, as the scores of tiny fish raced out in all directions. Well, not exactly raced, more like sat there, for a time, as if stunned by freedom. Or perhaps some temporary shock of altered temperature, or the plethora of unseen riches upon which to gorge, to grow fat, sleek and blissfully energetic.

The first fish of Raraku Sea.

Iskaral Pust left the shallows then, flinging the bucket to one side. ‘Tense thy back, mule! I shall now leap astride, oh yes, and won’t you be surprised, to find yourself suddenly galloping – oh believe me, mule, you know how to gallop, no more of that stupid fast trot that rattles loose my poor teeth! Oh no, we shall be as the wind! Not a fitful, gusting wind, but a steady, roaring wind, a stentorian wind that races across the entire world, the very wake of our extraordinary speed, oh, how your hoofs shall blur to all eyes!’

Reaching the mule, the High Priest of Shadow leapt into the air.

Shying in alarm, the mule sidestepped.

A squeal from Iskaral Pust, then a grunt and muted oof as he struck and rolled in the dust and stones, wet robes flapping heavily and spraying sand about, while the mule trotted a safe distance away then turned to regard its master, long-lashed eyes blinking.

‘You disgust me, beast! And I bet you think it’s mutual, too! Yet even if you thought that, why, then I’d agree with you! Out of spite! How would you like that, horrid creature?’ The High Priest of Shadow picked himself up and brushed sand from his robes. ‘He thinks I will hit him. Strike him, with a large stick. Foolish mule. Oh no, I am much more cunning. I will surprise him with kindness … until he grows calm and dispenses with all watchfulness, and then … ha! I shall punch him in the nose! Won’t he be surprised! No mule can match wits with me. Oh yes, many have tried, and almost all have failed!’

He worked a kindly smile on to his sun-wizened face, then slowly approached the mule. ‘We must ride,’ he murmured, ‘you and I. Fraught with haste, my friend, lest we arrive too late and too late will never do.’ He came within reach of the reins where they dangled beneath the mule’s head. Paused as he met the creature’s eyes. ‘Oh ho, sweet servant, I see malice in that so-placid gaze, yes? You want to bite me. Too bad. I’m the only one who bites around here.’ He snatched up the reins, narrowly avoiding the snapping teeth, then clambered onto the mule’s broad, sloped back.

Twenty paces from the shoreline and the world shifted around them, a miasmic swirl of shadows closing on all sides. Iskaral Pust cocked his head, looked round, then, satisfied, settled back as the mule plodded on.

A hundred heartbeats after the High Priest of Shadow vanished into his warren, a squat, wild-haired Dal Honese woman crept out of some nearby bushes, dragging a large ale cask behind her. It held water, not ale, and the lid had been pried off.

Grunting and gasping with the effort, Mogora struggled to bring the cask down into the shallows. She tipped it to one side and – a mostly toothless grin on her wrinkled features – watched a half-dozen young freshwater sharks slide like snakes into Raraku Sea.

Then she kicked the cask over and scrambled out of the water, a cackle escaping her as, with a flurry of gestures, she opened a warren and plunged into it.

Folding one shadow upon another, Iskaral Pust swiftly traversed a score of leagues. He could half-see, half-sense the desert, buttes and chaotic folds of arroyo and canyon he passed through, but none of it interested him much, until, after almost a full day’s travel, he caught sight of five sleek shapes crossing the floor of a valley ahead and to his left.

He halted the mule on the ridge and, eyes narrowing, studied the distant shapes. In the midst of attacking a caravan. ‘Arrogant pups,’ he muttered, then drove his heels into the mule’s flanks. ‘Charge, I say! Charge, you fat, waddling bastard!’

The mule trotted down the slope, braying loudly.

The five shapes caught the sound and their heads turned. As one, the T’rolbarahl shifted direction and now raced towards Iskaral Pust.

The mule’s cries rose in pitch.

Spreading out, the D’ivers flowed noiselessly over the ground. Rage and hunger rushed ahead of them in an almost visible bow wave, the power crackling, coruscating between the Shadow warren and the world beyond.

The beasts to either side wheeled out to come in from a flanking position, while the three in the centre staggered their timing, intending to arrive in quick succession.

Iskaral Pust was having trouble focusing on them, so jolted and tossed about was he on the mule’s back. When the T’rolbarahl had closed to within thirty paces, the mule suddenly skidded to a halt. And the High Priest of Shadow was thrown forward, lunging over the animal’s head. Head ducking, somersaulting over, then thumping down hard on his back in a spray of gravel and dust.

The first creature reached him, forearms lifting, talons unsheathed as it sailed through the air, then landing on the spot where Iskaral Pust had fallen – only to find him not there. The second and third beasts experienced a moment of confusion as the quarry vanished, then they sensed a presence at their side. Their heads snapped round, but too late, as a wave of sorcery hammered into them. Shadowwrought power cracked like lightning, and the creatures were batted into the air, leaving in their wakes misty clouds of blood. Writhing, they both struck the ground fifteen paces away, skidding then rolling.

The two flanking D’ivers attacked. And, as Iskaral Pust vanished, they collided, chests reverberating like heavy thunder, teeth and talons raking through hide. Hissing and snarling, they scrambled away from each other.

Reappearing twenty paces behind the T’rolbarahl, Iskaral Pust unleashed another wave of sorcery, watched it strike each of the five beasts in turn, watched blood spray and the bodies tumble away, kicking frenziedly as the magic wove flickering nets about them. Stones popped and exploded on the ground beneath them, sand shot upward in spear-like geysers, and everywhere there was blood, whipping out in ragged threads.

The T’rolbarahl vanished, fleeing the warren of Shadow – out into the world, where they scattered, all thoughts of the caravan gone as panic closed on their throats with invisible hands.

The High Priest of Shadow brushed dust from his clothes, then walked over to where stood the mule. ‘Some help you were! We could be hunting each one down right now, but oh no, you’re tired of running. Whoever thought mules deserved four legs was an idiot! You are most useless! Bah!’ He paused, then, and lifted a gnarled finger to his wrinkled lips. ‘But wait, what if they got really angry? What if they decided to make a fight to the finish? What then? Messy, oh, very messy. No, best leave them for someone else to deal with. I must not get distracted. Imagine, though! Challenging the High Priest of Shadow of all Seven Cities! Dumber than cats, that T’rolbarahl. I am entirely without sympathy.’

He climbed back onto the mule. ‘Well, that was fun, wasn’t it? Stupid mule. I think we’ll have mule for supper tonight, what do you think of that? The ultimate sacrifice is called for, as far as you’re concerned, don’t you think? Well, who cares what you think? Where to now? Thank the gods at least one of us knows where we’re going. That way, mule, and quickly now. Trot, damn you, trot!’

Skirting the caravan, where dogs still barked, Iskaral Pust began shifting shadows once more.

Dusk had arrived in the world beyond when he reached his destination, reining in the plodding mule at the foot of a cliff.

Vultures clambered amongst the tumbled rocks, crowding a fissure but unable or, as yet, unwilling to climb down into it. One edge of that crevasse was stained with dried blood, and among rocks to one side were the remains of a dead beast – devoured to bones and ragged strips by the scavengers, it was nonetheless easy to identify. One of the T’rolbarahl.

The vultures voiced a chorus of indignation as the High Priest of Shadow dismounted and approached. Spitting curses, he chased away the ugly, Mogora-like creatures, then eased himself down into the fissure. Deep, the close air smelling of blood and rotting meat.

The crevasse narrowed a little more than a man’s height down, and into this was wedged a body. Iskaral Pust settled down beside it. He laid a hand on the figure’s broad shoulder, well away from the obvious breaks in that arm. ‘How many days, friend? Ah, only a Trell would survive this. First, we shall have to get you out of here, and for that I have a stalwart, loyal mule. Then, well, then, we shall see, won’t we?’

Neither stalwart nor particularly loyal, the mule’s disinclination towards cooperation slowed down the task of extracting Mappo Runt considerably, and it was full dark by the time the Trell was pulled from the fissure and dragged onto a flat patch of wind-blown sand.

The two compound fractures in the left arm were the least of the huge Trell’s injuries. Both legs had broken, and one edge of the fissure had torn a large flap of skin and flesh from Mappo’s back – the exposed meat was swarming with maggots, and the mostly hanging flap of tissue was clearly unsalvageable, grey in the centre and blackening round the edges, smelling of rot. Iskaral Pust cut that away and tossed it back into the fissure.

He then leaned close and listened to the Trell’s breathing. Shallow, yet slow – another day without attention and he would have died. As it was, the possibility remained distinct. ‘Herbs, my friend,’ the High Priest said as he set to cleaning the visible wounds. ‘And High Denul ointments, elixirs, tinctures, salves, poultices … have I forgotten any? No, I think not. Internal injuries, oh yes, crushed ribs, that whole side. So, much bleeding inside, yet, obviously, not enough to kill you outright. Remarkable. You are almost as stubborn as my servant here—’ He looked up. ‘You, beast, set up the tent and start us a fire! Do that and then maybe I’ll feed you and not, hee hee, feed on you—’

‘You are an idiot!’ This cry came from the darkness off to one side, and a moment later Mogora appeared from the gloom.

The gloom, yes, that explains everything. ‘What are you doing here, hag?’

‘Saving Mappo, of course.’

‘What? I have saved him already!’

‘Saving him from you, I meant!’ She scrabbled closer. ‘What’s that vial in your hand? That’s venom of paralt! You damned idiot, you were going to kill him! After all he’s been through!’

‘Paralt? That’s right, wife, it’s paralt. You arrived, so I was about to drink it.’

‘I saw you deal with that T’rolbarahl, Iskaral Pust.’

‘You did?’ He paused, ducked his head. ‘Now her adoration is complete! How could she not adore me? It must be near worship by now. That’s why she followed me all the way. She can’t get enough of me. It’s the same with everyone – they just can’t get enough of me—’

‘The most powerful High Priest of Shadow,’ cut in Mogora as she removed various healing unguents from her pack, ‘cannot survive without a good woman at his side. Failing that, you have me, so get used to it, warlock. Now, get out of my way so I can tend to this poor, hapless Trell.’

Iskaral Pust backed away. ‘So what do I do now? You’ve made me useless, woman!’

‘That’s not hard, husband. Make us camp.’

‘I already told my mule to do that.’

‘It’s a mule, you idiot …’ Her words trailed away as she noted the flicker of firelight off to one side. Turning, she studied the large canvas tent, expertly erected, and the stone-ringed hearth where a pot of water already steamed beneath a tripod. Nearby stood the mule, eating from its bag of oats. Mogora frowned, then shook her head and returned to her work. ‘Tend to the tea, then. Be useful.’

‘I was being useful! Until you arrived and messed everything up! The most powerful High Priest in Seven Cities does not need a woman! In fact, that’s the very last thing he needs!’

‘You couldn’t heal a hangnail, Iskaral Pust. This Trell has the black poison in his veins, the glittering vein-snake. We shall need more than High Denul for this—’

‘Oh here we go! All your witchy rubbish. High Denul will conquer the black poison—’

‘Perhaps, but the dead flesh will remain dead. He will be crippled, half-mad, his hearts will weaken.’ She paused and glared over at him. ‘Shadowthrone sent you to find him, didn’t he? Why?’

Iskaral Pust smiled sweetly. ‘Oh, she’s suspicious now, isn’t she? But I won’t tell her anything. Except the hint, the modest hint, of my vast knowledge. Yes indeed, I know my dear god’s mind – and a twisted, chaotic, weaselly mind it is. In fact, I know so much I am speechless – hah, look at her, those beetle eyes narrowing suspiciously, as if she dares grow aware of my profound ignorance in all matters pertaining to my cherished, idiotic god. Dares, and would challenge me openly. I would crumble before that onslaught, of course.’ He paused, reworked his smile, then spread his hands and said, ‘Sweet Mogora, the High Priest of Shadow must have his secrets, kept even from his wife, alas. And so I beg you not to press me on this, else you suffer Shadowthrone’s random wrath—’

‘You are a complete fool, Iskaral Pust.’

‘Let her think that,’ he said, then added a chuckle. ‘Now she’ll wonder why I have laughed – no, not laughed, but chuckled, which, all things considered, is far more alarming. I mean, it sounded like a chuckle so it must have been one, though it’s the first I’ve ever tried, or heard, for that matter. Whereas a chortle, well, that’s different. I’m not fat enough to chortle, alas. Sometimes I wish—’

‘Go sit by your mule’s fire,’ Mogora said. ‘I must prepare my ritual.’

‘See how that chuckle has discomfited her! Of course, my darling, you go and play with your little ritual, that’s a dear. Whilst I make tea for myself and my mule.’

Warmed by the flames and his tralb tea, Iskaral Pust watched – as best as he was able in the darkness – Mogora at work. First, she assembled large chunks of stone, each one broken, cracked or otherwise rough-edged, and set them down in the sand, creating an ellipse that encompassed the Trell. She then urinated over these rocks, achieving this with an extraordinary half-crab half-chicken wide-legged waddle, straddling the stones and proceeding widdershins until returning to the place she had started. Iskaral marvelled at the superior muscle control, not to mention the sheer volume, that Mogora obviously possessed. In the last few years his own efforts at urination had met with mixed success, until even starting and stopping now seemed the highest of visceral challenges.

Satisfied with her piddle, Mogora then started pulling hairs from her head. She didn’t have that many up there, and those she selected seemed so deeply rooted that Iskaral feared she would deflate her skull with every successful yank. His anticipation of seeing such a thing yielded only disappointment, as, with seven long wiry grey hairs in one hand, Mogora stepped into the ellipse, one foot planted to either side of the Trell’s torso. Then, muttering some witchly thing, she flung the hairs into the inky blackness overhead.

Instinct guided Iskaral’s gaze upward after those silvery threads, and he was somewhat alarmed to see that the stars had vanished overhead. Whereas, out on the horizons, they remained sharp and bright. ‘Gods, woman! What have you done?’

Ignoring him, she stepped back out of the ellipse and began singing in the Woman’s Language, which was, of course, unintelligible to Iskaral’s ears. Just as the Man’s Language – which Mogora called gibberish – was beyond her ability to understand. The reason for that, Iskaral Pust knew, was that the Man’s Language was gibberish, designed specifically to confound women. It’s a fact that men don’t need words, but women do. We have penises, after all. Who needs words when you have a penis? Whereas with women there are two breasts, which invites conversation, just as a good behind presents perfect punctuation, something every man knows.

What’s wrong with the world? You ask a man and he says, ‘Don’t ask.’ Ask a woman and you’ll be dead of old age before she’s finished. Hah. Hah ha.

Strange streams of gossamer began descending through the reflected light of the fire, settling upon the Trell’s body.

‘What are those?’ Iskaral asked. Then started as one brushed his forearm and he saw that it was a spider’s silk, and there was the spider at one end, tiny as a mite. He looked skyward in alarm. ‘There are spiders up there? What madness is this? What are they doing up there?’

‘Be quiet.’

‘Answer me!’

‘The sky is filled with spiders, husband. They float on the winds. Now I’ve answered you, so close that mouth of yours lest I send a few thousand of my sisters into it.’

His teeth clacked and he edged closer to the hearth. Burn, you horrid things. Burn!

The strands of web covered the Trell now. Thousands, tens, hundreds of thousands – the spiders were wrapping about Mappo Runt’s entire body.

‘And now,’ Mogora said, ‘time for the moon.’

The blackness overhead vanished in a sudden bloom of silver, incandescent light. Squealing, Iskaral Pust fell onto his back, so alarming was the transformation, and he found himself staring straight up at a massive, full moon, hanging so low it seemed within reach. If he but dared. Which he did not. ‘You’ve brought the moon down! Are you mad? It’s going to crash on us!’

‘Oh, stop it. It only seems that way – well, maybe I nudged it a bit – but I told you this was a serious ritual, didn’t I?’

‘What have you done with the moon?’

She crowed with manic laughter. ‘It’s just my little ritual, darling. How do you like it?’

‘Make it go away!’

‘Frightened? You should be! I’m a woman! A witch! So why don’t you just drag that scrawny behind of yours into that tent and cower, dear husband. This is real power, here, real magic!’

‘No it isn’t! I mean, it’s not witch magic, not Dal Honese – I don’t know what this is—’

‘You’re right, you don’t. Now be a good little boy and go to sleep, Iskaral Pust, while I set about saving this Trell’s miserable life.’

Iskaral thought to argue, then decided against it. He crawled into the tent.

From outside, ‘Is that you gibbering, Iskaral?’

Oh be quiet.

Lostara Yil opened her eyes, then slowly sat up.

A grey-cloaked figure was standing near a stone-arched portal, his back to her. Rough-hewn walls to either side, forming a circular chamber with Lostara – who had been lying on an altar – in the centre. Moonlight was flooding in from in front of the figure, yet it seemed to be sliding in visible motion. As if the moon beyond was plunging from the sky.

‘What—?’ she asked, then began to cough uncontrollably, sharp pain biting in her lungs. Finally recovering, she blinked tears from her eyes, looked up once again.

He was facing her now.

The Shadow Dancer. The god. Cotillion. Seemingly in answer to her initial question, he said, ‘I am not sure. Some untoward sorcery is at work, somewhere in the desert. The moon’s light has been … stolen. I admit I have never seen anything like it before.’

Even as he was speaking, Lostara’s memories returned in a rush. Y’Ghatan. Flames, everywhere. Blistering heat. Savage burns – oh how her flesh screamed its pain – ‘What – what happened to me?’

‘Oh, that was what you meant. My apologies, Lostara Yil. Well, in short, I pulled you out of the fire. Granted, it’s very rare for a god to intervene, but T’riss kicked open the door—’


‘The Queen of Dreams. Set the precedent, as it were. Most of your clothes had burned – I apologize if you find the new ones not to your liking.’

She glanced down at the rough-woven shift covering her.

‘A neophyte’s tunic,’ Cotillion said. ‘You are in a Temple of Rashan, a secret one. Abandoned with the rebellion, I believe. We are a league and a half from what used to be Y’Ghatan, forty or so paces north of the Sotka Road. The temple is well concealed.’ He gestured with one gloved hand at the archway. ‘This is the only means of ingress and egress.’

‘Why – why did you save me?’

He hesitated. ‘There will come a time, Lostara Yil, when you will be faced with a choice. A dire one.’

‘What kind of choice?’

He studied her for a moment, then asked, ‘How deep are your feelings for Pearl?’

She started, then shrugged. ‘A momentary infatuation. Thankfully passed. Besides, he’s unpleasant company these days.’

‘I can understand that,’ Cotillion said, somewhat enigmatically. ‘You will have to choose, Lostara Yil, between your loyalty to the Adjunct … and all that Pearl represents.’

‘Between the Adjunct and the Empress? That makes no sense—’

He stayed her with a raised hand. ‘You need not decide immediately, Lostara. In fact, I would counsel against it. All I ask is that you consider the question, for now.’

‘What is going on? What do you know, Cotillion? Are you planning vengeance against Laseen?’

His brows lifted. ‘No, nothing like that. In fact, I am not directly involved in this … uh, matter. At the moment, anyway. Indeed, the truth is, I am but anticipating certain things, some of which may come to pass, some of which may not.’ He faced the portalway again. ‘There is food near the altar. Wait until dawn, then leave here. Down to the road. Where you will find … welcome company. Your story is this: you found a way out of the city, then, blinded by smoke, you stumbled, struck your head and lost consciousness. When you awoke, the Fourteenth was gone. Your memory is patchy, of course.’

‘Yes, it is, Cotillion.’

He turned at her tone, half-smiled. ‘You fear that you are now in my debt, Lostara Yil. And that I will one day return to you, demanding payment.’

‘It’s how gods work, isn’t it?’

‘Some of them, yes. But you see, Lostara Yil, what I did for you in Y’Ghatan four days ago was my repayment, of a debt that I owed you.’

‘What debt?’

Shadows were gathering about Cotillion now, and she barely heard his reply, ‘You forget, I once watched you dance …’ And then he was gone.

Moonlight streamed into his wake like quicksilver. And she sat for a time, bathed in its light, considering his words.

Snoring from the tent. Mogora sat on a flat stone five paces from the dying fire. Had he been awake, Iskaral Pust would be relieved. The moon was back where it belonged, after all. Not that she’d actually moved it. That would have been very hard indeed, and would have attracted far too much attention besides. But she’d drawn away its power, somewhat, briefly, enough to effect the more thorough healing the Trell had required.

Someone stepped from the shadows. Walked a slow circle round the recumbent, motionless form of Mappo Trell, then halted and looked over at Mogora.

She scowled, then jerked a nod towards the tent. ‘Iskaral Pust, he’s the Magi of High House Shadow, isn’t he?’

‘Impressive healing, Mogora,’ Cotillion observed. ‘You do understand, of course, that the gift may in truth be a curse.’

‘You sent Pust here to find him!’

‘Shadowthrone, actually, not me. For that reason, I cannot say if mercy counted for anything in his decision.’

Mogora glanced again at the tent. ‘Magi … that blathering idiot.’

Cotillion was gazing steadily at her, then he said, ‘You’re one of Ardata’s, aren’t you?’

She veered into a mass of spiders.

The god watched as they fled into every crack and, moments later, were gone. He sighed, took one last look round, momentarily meeting the placid eyes of the mule, then vanished in a flowing swirl of shadows.


When the day knew only darkness,

the wind a mute beggar stirring ashes and stars

in the discarded pools beneath the old

retaining wall, down where the white rivers

of sand slip grain by grain into the unseen,

and every foundation is but a moment

from a horizon’s stagger, I found myself

among friends and so was made at ease

with my modest list of farewells.

Soldier Dying

Fisher kel Tath

They emerged from the warren into the stench of smoke and ashes, and before them, in the growing light of dawn, reared a destroyed city. The three stood unmoving for a time, silent, each seeking to comprehend this vista.

Stormy was the first to speak. ‘Looks like the Imperial Warren’s spilled out here.’

Ash and dead air, the light seeming listless – Kalam was not surprised by the marine’s observation. They had just left a place of death and desolation, only to find themselves in another. ‘I still recognize it,’ the assassin said. ‘Y’Ghatan.’

Stormy coughed, then spat. ‘Some siege.’

‘The army’s moved on,’ Quick Ben observed, studying the tracks and rubbish where the main encampment had been. ‘West.’

Stormy grunted, then said, ‘Look at that gap in the wall. Moranth munitions, a whole damned wagon of ’em, I’d say.’

A viscous river had flowed out through that gap, and, motionless now, it glittered in the morning light. Fused glass and metals. There had been a firestorm, Kalam realized. Yet another one to afflict poor Y’Ghatan. Had the sappers set that off?

‘Olive oil,’ said Quick Ben suddenly. ‘The oil harvest must have been in the city.’ He paused, then added, ‘Makes me wonder if it was an accident.’

Kalam glanced over at the wizard. ‘Seems a little extreme, Quick. Besides, from what I’ve heard of Leoman, he’s not the kind to throw his own life away.’

‘Assuming he stayed around long enough.’

‘We took losses here,’ Stormy said. ‘There’s a grave mound there, under that ash.’ He pointed. ‘Scary big, unless they included rebel dead.’

‘We make separate holes for them,’ Kalam said, knowing that Stormy knew that as well. None of this looked good, and they were reluctant to admit that. Not out loud. ‘The tracks look a few days old, at least. I suppose we should catch up with the Fourteenth.’

‘Let’s circle this first,’ Quick Ben said, squinting at the ruined city. ‘There’s something … some residue … I don’t know. Only …’

‘Sound argument from the High Mage,’ Stormy said. ‘I’m convinced.’

Kalam glanced over at the mass burial mound, and wondered how many of his friends were lying trapped in that earth, unmoving in the eternal dark, the maggots and worms already at work to take away all that had made each of them unique. It wasn’t something he enjoyed thinking about, but if he did not stand here and gift them a few more moments of thought, then who would?

Charred rubbish lay strewn on the road and in the flats to either side. Tent stakes still in place gripped burnt fragments of canvas, and in a trench beyond the road’s bend as it made its way towards what used to be the city’s gate, a dozen bloated horse carcasses had been dumped, legs upthrust like bony tree-stumps in a flyblown swamp. The stench of burnt things hung in the motionless air.

Apsalar reined in on the road as her slow scan of the devastation before her caught movement a hundred paces ahead and to her left. She settled back in the saddle, seeing familiarity in the gaits and demeanours of two of the three figures now walking towards what remained of Y’Ghatan. Telorast and Curdle scampered back to flank her horse.

‘Terrible news, Not-Apsalar!’ Telorast cried. ‘Three terrible men await us, should we continue this course. If you seek to destroy them, well then, that is fine. We wish you well. Otherwise, I suggest we escape. Now.’

‘I agree,’ Curdle added, small skeletal head bobbing as the creature paced, grovelled, then paced again, tail spiking the air.

Her horse lifted a front hoof and the demonic skeletons scattered, having learned that near proximity to the beast was a treacherous thing.

‘I know two of them,’ Apsalar said. ‘Besides, they have seen us.’ She nudged her mount forward, walking it slowly towards the mage, his assassin companion, and the Malazan soldier, all of whom had now shifted direction and approached with a measured pace.

‘They will annihilate us!’ Telorast hissed. ‘I can tell – oh, that mage, he’s not nice, not at all—’

The two small creatures raced for cover.

Annihilation. The possibility existed, Apsalar allowed, given the history she shared with Quick Ben and Kalam Mekhar. Then again, they had known of the possession, and she had since travelled with Kalam for months, first across the Seeker’s Deep, from Darujhistan all the way to Ehrlitan, during which nothing untoward had occurred. This eased her mind somewhat as she waited for them to arrive.

Kalam was the first to speak. ‘Few things in the world make sense, Apsalar.’

She shrugged. ‘We have each had our journeys, Kalam Mekhar. I, for one, am not particularly surprised to find our paths converging once more.’

‘Now that,’ said Quick Ben, ‘is an alarming statement. Unless you’re here to satisfy Shadowthrone’s desire for vengeance, there is no possible reason at all that our paths should converge. Not here. Not now. I certainly haven’t been pushed and pulled by any conniving god—’

‘You have the aura of Hood about you, Quick Ben,’ Apsalar said, an observation that clearly startled Kalam and the soldier. ‘Such residue comes only from long conversations with the Lord of Death, and so, while you might claim freedom for yourself, perhaps your motives for what you do and where you choose to go are less purely your own than you would have others believe. Or, for that matter, than what you yourself would like to believe.’ Her gaze slid across to Kalam. ‘Whilst the assassin has known the presence of Cotillion, only a short while ago. And as for this Falari soldier here, his spirit is bound to a T’lan Imass, and to the Fire of Life that passes for worship among the T’lan Imass. Thus, fire, shadow and death, drawn together even as the forces and gods of such forces find alignment against a single foe. Yet, I feel I should warn you all – that foe is no longer singular and, perhaps, never was. And present alliances may not last.’

‘What is it about all this,’ Quick Ben said, ‘that I’m not enjoying?’

Kalam rounded on the wizard. ‘Maybe, Quick, you’re sensing something of my desire – which I am barely restraining – to plant my fist in your face. The Lord of Death? What in the name of the Abyss happened at Black Coral?’

‘Expedience,’ the wizard snapped, eyes still on Apsalar. ‘That’s what happened. In that whole damned war against the Pannion Domin. That should have been obvious from the outset – Dujek joining forces with Caladan Brood was simply the first and most egregious breaking of the rules.’

‘So now you’re working for Hood?’

‘Not even close, Kalam. To stretch a pun, Hood knows, he was working for me.’

‘Was? And now?’

‘And now,’ he nodded towards Apsalar, ‘as she says, the gods are at war.’ He shrugged, but it was an uneasy shrug. ‘I need to get a sense of the two sides, Kalam. I need to ask questions. I need answers.’

‘And is Hood providing them?’

The glance he shot the assassin was skittish, almost diffident. ‘Slowly.’

‘And what is Hood getting from you?’

The wizard bridled. ‘Ever try twisting a dead man’s arm? It doesn’t work!’ His glare switched between Kalam and Apsalar. ‘Listen. Remember those games Hedge and Fid played? With the Deck of Dragons? Idiots, but never mind that. The point is, they made up the rules as they went along, and that’s what I’m doing, all right? Gods, even a genius like me has limits!’

A snort from the Falari soldier, and Apsalar saw him bare his teeth.

The wizard stepped towards him. ‘Enough of that, Stormy! You and your damned stone sword!’ He waved wildly at the city of Y’Ghatan. ‘Does this smell sweet to you?’

‘What would smell even sweeter is the Adjunct’s High Mage all chopped up and served in a stew to Hood himself.’ He reached for the Imass sword, his grin broadening. ‘And I’m just the man to do—’

‘Settle down, you two,’ Kalam said. ‘All right, Apsalar, we’re all here and that’s passing strange but not as strange maybe as it should be. Doesn’t matter.’ He made a gesture that encompassed himself, Quick Ben and Stormy. ‘We’re returning to the Fourteenth Army. Or, we will be, once we’ve circled the city and Quick’s satisfied it’s as dead as it looks—’

‘Oh,’ the wizard cut in, ‘it’s dead all right. Still, we’re circling the ruin.’ He pointed a finger at Apsalar. ‘As for you, woman, you’re not travelling alone, are you? Where are they hiding? And what are they? Familiars?’

‘You could call them that,’ she replied.

‘Where are they hiding?’ Quick Ben demanded again.

‘Not sure. Close by, I suspect. They’re … shy.’ And she added nothing more, for now, satisfied as she was by the wizard’s answering scowl.

‘Where,’ Kalam asked, ‘are you going, Apsalar?’

Her brows rose. ‘Why, with you, of course.’

She could see that this did not please them much, yet they voiced no further objections. As far as she was concerned, this was a perfect conclusion to this part of her journey. For it coincided with her most pressing task – the final target for assassination. The only one that could not be ignored.

She’d always known Cotillion for a most subtle bastard.

‘All right, then,’ Sergeant Hellian said, ‘which one of you wants to be my new corporal?’

Touchy and Brethless exchanged glances.

‘What?’ Touchy asked. ‘Us? But you got Balgrid and Tavos Pond, now. Or even—’

‘It’s my new squad and I decide these things.’ She squinted over at the other soldiers. ‘Balgrid’s a mage. So’s Tavos Pond.’ She scowled at the two men. ‘I don’t like mages, they’re always disappearing, right when you want to ask them something.’ Her gaze slid across to the last two soldiers. ‘Maybe’s a sapper and enough said about that, and Lutes is our healer. That leaves …’ Hellian returned her attention to the twins, ‘you two.’

‘Fine,’ said Touchy. ‘I’ll be corporal.’

‘Hold on,’ Brethless said. ‘I want to be corporal! I ain’t taking no orders from him, Sergeant. Not a chance. I got the brains, you know—’

Touchy snorted. ‘Then, since you didn’t know what to do with them, you threw them away.’

‘You’re a big fat liar, Touchy—’

‘Quiet!’ Hellian reached for her sword. But then remembered and drew a knife instead. ‘Another word either of you and I’ll cut myself.’

The squad stared at her.

‘I’m a woman, see, and with women, it’s how we deal with men. You’re all men. Give me trouble and I’ll stick this knife in my arm. Or leg. Or maybe I’ll slice a nipple off. And you bastards will have to live with that. For the rest of your days, you’ll have to live with the fact that you were being such assholes that Hellian went and disfigured herself.’

No-one spoke.

Smiling, Hellian resheathed the knife. ‘Good. Now, Touchy and Brethless, I’ve decided. You’re both corporals. There.’

‘But what if I want to order Brethless—’

‘Well you can’t.’

Brethless raised a finger. ‘Wait, what if we give different orders to the others?’

‘Don’t worry ’bout that,’ Maybe said, ‘we ain’t gonna listen to you anyways. You’re both idiots, but if the sergeant wants to make you corporals, that’s fine. We don’t care. Idiots make good corporals.’

‘All right,’ Hellian said, rising, ‘it’s settled. Now, nobody wander off, since the captain wants us ready to march.’ She walked away, up towards the ridge. Thinking.

The captain had dragged off Urb and made him a sergeant. Madness. That old rule about idiots making good corporals obviously extended to sergeants, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Besides, she might go and kill him and then there’d be trouble. Urb was big, after all, and there wasn’t much in the way of places to hide his body. Not around here, anyway, she concluded, scanning the broken rocks, bricks and potsherds strewn on the slope.

They needed to find a village. She could trade her knife – no, that wouldn’t work, since it would mess up her threat and the squad might mutiny. Unless, next time, she added nails to the possible weapons – scratch her own eyes out, something like that. She glanced down at her nails – oh, mostly gone. What a mess …

‘Look at her,’ Maybe said. ‘Tells us not to wander off then what does she do? Wanders off. Finds a ridge to do what? Why, check out her nails. Ooh, they’re chipped! Gods, we’ve got a real woman for our Hood-damned sergeant—’

‘She ain’t a real woman,’ Touchy said. ‘You don’t know her at all, sapper. Now, me and Brethless, we were two of the poor fools who came first to the temple in Kartool, where this whole nightmare started.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Balgrid demanded.

‘Someone went and butchered all the priests in the D’rek temple, and we was the first ones on the scene. Anyway, you know how this goes. That was our quarter, right? Not that we could patrol inside temples, of course, so we weren’t to blame. But since when does common sense count for anything in the empire? So, they had to send us away. Hopefully to get killed, so none of it gets out—’

‘It just did,’ Tavos Pond said, scratching beneath the rough, crusted bandages swathing one side of his face.

‘What are you talking about?’ Balgrid demanded again. ‘And what’s the sergeant doing over there?’

Maybe glared at Lutes. ‘He’s still deaf. Do something!’

‘It’ll come back,’ the healer replied, shrugging. ‘Mostly. It takes time, that’s all.’

‘Anyway,’ Touchy resumed, ‘she ain’t a real woman. She drinks—’

‘Right,’ Brethless cut in, ‘and why does she drink? Why, she’s scared of spiders!’

‘That don’t matter,’ his brother retorted. ‘And now she’s stuck sober and that’s bad. Listen, all of you—’

‘What?’ Balgrid asked.

‘Listen, the rest of you, we just keep her drunk and everything’ll be fine—’

‘Idiot,’ Maybe said. ‘Probably you didn’t catch whoever killed all those priests because your sergeant was drunk. She did good in Y’Ghatan, or have you forgotten? You’re alive ’cause of her.’

‘That’ll wear off, sapper. Just you wait. I mean, look at her – she’s fussing over her nails!’

Adopting heavies into a squad was never easy, Gesler knew. They didn’t think normally; in fact, the sergeant wasn’t even sure they were human. Somewhere between a flesh-and-blood Imass and a Barghast, maybe. And now he had four of them. Shortnose, Flashwit, Uru Hela and Mayfly. Flashwit could probably out-pull an ox, and she was Napan besides, though those stunning green eyes came from somewhere else; and Shortnose seemed in the habit of losing body parts, and there was no telling how far that had gone beyond the missing nose and ear. Uru was a damned Korelri who’d probably been destined for the Stormwall before stowing aboard a Jakatakan merchanter, meaning she felt she didn’t owe anybody anything. Mayfly was just easily confused, but clearly as tough as they came.

And Heavies came tough. He’d have to adjust his thinking on how to work the squad. But if he ever shows up, Stormy will love these ones.

Maybe in one way it made sense to reorganize the squads, but Gesler wasn’t sure of the captain’s timing. It was Fist Keneb’s responsibility, anyway, and he’d likely prefer splitting up soldiers who were, one and all now, veterans. Well, that was for the damned officers to chew over. What concerned him the most at the moment, was the fact that they were mostly unarmed and unarmoured. A score of raiders or even bandits happening upon them and there’d be more Malazan bones bleaching in the sun. They needed to get moving, catch up with the damned army.

He fixed his gaze on the west road, up on the ridge. Hellian was there already, he saw. Lit up by the rising sun. Odd woman, but she must have done something right, to have led her soldiers through that mess. Gesler would not look back at Y’Ghatan. Every time he had done that before, the images returned: Truth shouldering the munitions packs, running into the smoke and flames. Fiddler and Cuttle racing back, away from what was coming. No, it wasn’t worth any last looks back at that cursed city.

What could you take from it that was worth a damned thing, anyway? Leoman had drawn them right in, made the city a web from which there was no escape – only … we made it, didn’t we? But, how many didn’t? The captain had told them. Upwards of two thousand, wasn’t it? All to kill a few hundred fanatics who would probably have been just as satisfied killing themselves and no-one else, to make whatever mad, futile point they felt worth dying for. It was how fanatics thought, after all. Killing Malazans simply sweetened an already sweet final meal. All to make some god’s eyes shine.

Mind you, polish anything long enough and it’ll start to shine.

The sun lifted its blistered eye above the horizon, and it was almost time to begin the march.

Ten, maybe more pups, all pink, wrinkled and squirming inside an old martin’s nest that had dislodged from an exploding wall. Bottle peered down at them, the nest in his hands. Their mother clung to his left shoulder, nose twitching as if she was contemplating a sudden leap – either towards her helpless brood or towards Bottle’s neck.

‘Relax, my dear,’ he whispered. ‘They’re as much mine as they are yours.’

A half-choking sound nearby, then a burst of laughter.

Bottle glared over at Smiles. ‘You don’t understand a thing, you miserable cow.’

‘I can’t believe you want to take that filthy thing with you. All right, it got us out, so now leave it be. Besides, there’s no way you can keep them alive – she’s got to feed ’em, right, meaning she has to scrounge. When’s she gonna be able to do that? We’re about to march, you fool.’

‘We can manage,’ he replied. ‘They’re tribal creatures, rats. Besides, we’ve already scrounged enough food – it’s only Y’Ghatan who needs to eat lots, for now. The pups just suckle.’

‘Stop, you’re making me sick. There’s enough rats in the world already, Bottle. Take the big one, sure, but leave the others for the birds.’

‘She’d never forgive me.’

Sitting nearby, Koryk studied the two bickering soldiers a moment longer, then he rose.

‘Don’t go far,’ Strings said.

The half-Seti grunted a wordless reply, then headed towards the far, northern end of the flats, where broad, deep pits pockmarked the ground. He arrived at the edge of one and looked down. Long ago, these pits had yielded clay for the potters, back when there had been water close to the surface. When that had dried up, they had proved useful for the disposal of refuse, including the bodies of paupers.

The pits nearest the city’s walls held only bones, bleached heaps, sun-cracked amidst tattered strips of burial cloth.

He stood above the remains for a moment longer, then descended the crumbling side.

The soldiers had lost most of the bones affixed to their armour and uniforms. It seemed only fitting, Koryk thought, that these long-dead citizens of Y’Ghatan offer up their own. After all, we crawled through the city’s own bones. And we can’t even measure what we left behind.

Knee-deep in bones, he looked round. No shortage of fetishes here. Satisfied, he began collecting.

‘You look damn near naked without all that armour.’

Corporal Tarr grimaced. ‘I am damn near naked without all my armour, Sergeant.’

Smiling, Strings looked away, searching until he found Koryk, who was in the process of climbing into the ground. At least, it looked that way from here. Strange, secretive man. Then again, if he wanted to crawl into the earth, that was his business. So long as he showed up for the call to march.

Cuttle was near the fire, pouring out the last of the tea, a brew concocted from a half-dozen local plants Bottle had identified as palatable, although he’d been a little cagey on toxicity.

After a moment surveying his squad, the sergeant returned to shaving off his beard, hacking at the foulsmelling, singed hair with his camp knife – the only weapon left to him.

One of the foundling children had attached herself to him and sat opposite, watching with wide eyes, her round face smeared with ash and two wet, dirty streaks running down from her nose. She had licked her lips raw.

Strings paused, squinted at her, then raised one eyebrow. ‘You need a bath, lass. We’ll have to toss you into the first stream we run across.’

She made a face.

‘Can’t be helped,’ he went on. ‘Malazan soldiers in the Fourteenth are required to maintain a certain level of cleanliness. So far, the captain’s been easy about it, but trust me, that won’t last …’ He trailed off when he saw that she wasn’t listening any more. Nor was she looking at him, but at something beyond his left shoulder. Strings twisted round to follow her gaze.

And saw a rider, and three figures on foot. Coming down from the road that encircled Y’Ghatan. Coming towards them.

From a short distance to the sergeant’s right, he heard Gesler say, ‘That’s Stormy – I’d recognize that bludgeon walk anywhere. And Kalam and Quick. Don’t know the woman on the horse, though …’

But I do. Strings rose. Walked up the slope to meet them. He heard Gesler behind him, following.

‘Hood take us,’ Strings said, studying first Apsalar, then Kalam and Quick Ben, ‘half the old squad. All here.’

Quick Ben was squinting at Fiddler. ‘You shaved,’ he said. ‘Reminds me just how young you are – that beard turned you into an old man.’

He paused, then added, ‘Be nice to have Mallet here with us.’

‘Forget it,’ Strings said, ‘he’s getting fat in Darujhistan and the last thing he’d want to do is see our ugly faces again.’ He coughed. ‘And I suppose Paran’s there, too, feet up and sipping chilled Saltoan wine.’

‘Turned out to be a good captain,’ the wizard said after a moment. ‘Who’d have thought it, huh?’

Strings nodded up at the woman on the horse. ‘Apsalar. So where’s Crokus Younghand?’

She shrugged. ‘He goes by the name of Cutter, now, Fiddler.’


‘In any case,’ she continued, ‘we parted ways some time ago.’

Stormy stepped closer to Gesler. ‘We lost him?’ he asked.

Gesler looked away, then nodded.

‘What happened?’

Strings spoke in answer: ‘Truth saved all our skins, Stormy. He did what we couldn’t do, when it needed to be done. And not a word of complaint. Anyway, he gave up his life for us. I wish it could have been otherwise …’ He shook his head. ‘I know, it’s hard when they’re so young.’

There were tears now, running down the huge man’s sunburnt face. Saying nothing, he walked past them all, down onto the slope towards the encamped Malazans. Gesler watched, then followed.

No-one spoke.

‘I had a feeling,’ Quick Ben said after a time. ‘You made it out of Y’Ghatan – but the Fourteenth’s marched already.’

Fiddler nodded. ‘They had to. Plague’s coming from the east. Besides, it must’ve seemed impossible – anyone trapped in the city surviving the firestorm.’

‘How did you pull it off?’ Kalam demanded.

‘We’re about to march,’ Fiddler said as Faradan Sort appeared, clambering onto the road. ‘I’ll tell you along the way. And Quick, I’ve got a mage in my squad I want you to meet – he saved us all.’

‘What do you want me to do?’ the wizard asked. ‘Shake his hand?’

‘Not unless you want to get bit.’ Hah, look at his face. That was worth it.

The bridge was made of black stones, each one roughly carved yet perfectly fitted. Wide enough to accommodate two wagons side by side, although there were no barriers flanking the span and the edges looked worn, crumbly, enough to make Paran uneasy. Especially since there was nothing beneath the bridge. Nothing at all. Grey mists in a depthless sea below. Grey mists swallowing the bridge itself twenty paces distant; grey mists refuting the sky overhead.

A realm half-born, dead in still-birth, the air was cold, clammy, smelling of tidal pools. Paran drew his cloak tighter about his shoulders. ‘Well,’ he muttered, ‘it’s pretty much how I saw it.’

The ghostly form of Hedge, standing at the very edge of the massive bridge, slowly turned. ‘You’ve been here before, Captain?’

‘Visions,’ he replied. ‘That’s all. We need to cross this—’

‘Aye,’ the sapper said. ‘Into a long forgotten world. Does it belong to Hood? Hard to say.’ The ghost’s hooded eyes seemed to shift, fixing on Ganath. ‘You should’ve changed your mind, Jaghut.’

Paran glanced over at her. Impossible to read her expression, but there was a stiffness to her stance, a certain febrility to the hands she lifted to draw up the hood of the cape she had conjured.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I should have.’

‘This is older than the Holds, isn’t it?’ Paran asked her. ‘And you recognize it, don’t you, Ganath?’

‘Yes, in answer to both your questions. This place belongs to the Jaghut – to our own myths. This is our vision of the underworld, Master of the Deck. Verdith’anath, the Bridge of Death. You must find another path, Ganoes Paran, to find those whom you seek.’

He shook his head. ‘No, this is the one, I’m afraid.’

‘It cannot be.’


She did not reply.

Paran hesitated, then said, ‘This is the place in my visions. Where I have to begin. But … well, those dreams never proceeded from here – I could not see what lay ahead, on this bridge. So, I had this, what you see before us, and the knowledge that only a ghost could guide me across.’ He studied the mists engulfing the stone path. ‘There’s two ways of seeing it, I eventually concluded.’

‘Of seeing what?’ Ganath asked.

‘Well, the paucity of those visions, and my hunches on how to proceed. I could discard all else and attempt to appease them with precision, never once straying – for fear that it would prove disastrous. Or, I could see all those uncertainties as opportunities, and so allow my imagination fullest rein.’

Hedge made a motion something like spitting, although nothing left his mouth. ‘I take it you chose the latter, Captain.’

Paran nodded, then faced the Jaghut again. ‘In your myths, Ganath, who or what guards this bridge?’

She shook her head. ‘This place lies beneath the ground beneath Hood’s feet. He may well know of this realm, but would not presume to claim dominance over it … or its inhabitants. This is a primal place, Master of the Deck, as are those forces that call it home. It is a conceit to believe that death has but a single manifestation. As with all things, layer settles upon layer, and in time the deepest, darkest ones become forgotten – yet they have shaped all that lies above.’ She seemed to study Paran for a moment, then said, ‘You carry an otataral sword.’

‘Reluctantly,’ he admitted. ‘Most of the time I keep it buried by the back wall of Coil’s estate, in Darujhistan. I am surprised you sensed it – the scabbard is made of iron and bronze and that negates its effect.’

The Jaghut shrugged. ‘The barrier is imperfect. The denizens in this realm – if the myths hold truth and they always do – prefer brute force over sorcery. The sword will be just a sword.’

‘Well, I wasn’t planning on using it, anyway.’

‘So,’ Hedge said, ‘we just start on our way, across this bridge, and see what comes for us? Captain, I may be a sapper, and a dead one at that, but even I don’t think that’s a good idea.’

‘Of course not,’ Paran said. ‘I have planned for something else.’ He drew out from his pack a small object, spoked and circular, which he then tossed on the ground. ‘Shouldn’t be long,’ he said. ‘They were told to stay close.’

A moment later sounds came through the mists behind them, the thunder of hoofs, the heavy clatter of massive wheels. A train of horses appeared, heads tossing, frothflecked and wild-eyed, and behind them a six-wheeled carriage. Guards were clinging to various ornate projections on the carriage’s flanks, some of them strapped in place by leather harnesses. Their weapons were out, and they glared fiercely into the mists on all sides.

The driver leaned back on the reins, voicing a weird cry. Hoofs stamping, the train reared back, slewing the huge carriage round to a stone-snapping, skidding halt.

The guards unhitched themselves and swarmed off, establishing a perimeter with crossbows out and cocked. On the bench the driver set the brake, looped the reins about the handle, then pulled out a flask and downed its contents in seven successive swallows. Belched, restoppered the flask, pocketed it, then clambered down the carriage side. He unlatched the side door even as Paran caught movement through its barred window.

The man pushing his way through was huge, dressed in sodden silks, his pudgy hands and round face sheathed in sweat.

Paran spoke: ‘You must be Karpolan Demesand. I am Ganoes Paran. Thank you for arriving so quickly. Knowing the reputation of the Trygalle Trade Guild, of course, I am not at all surprised.’

‘Nor should you be!’ the huge man replied with a broad smile that revealed gold-capped, diamond-studded teeth. The smile slowly faded as his gaze found the bridge. ‘Oh dear.’ He gestured to two of the nearest guards, both Pardu women, both badly scarred. ‘Nisstar, Artara, to the edge of the mists on that bridge, if you please. Examine the edges carefully – without a retaining wall we face a treacherous path indeed.’ The small, bright eyes fixed on Paran once more. ‘Master of the Deck, forgive me, I am fraught with exhaustion! Oh, how this dread land taxes poor old Karpolan Demesand! After this, we shall hasten our return to our most cherished native continent of Genabackis! Naught but tragedy haunts Seven Cities – see how I have lost weight! The stress! The misery! The bad food!’ He snapped his fingers and a servant emerged from the carriage behind him, somehow managing to balance a tray crowded with goblets and a crystal decanter in one hand while navigating his egress with the
other. ‘Gather, my friends! Not you, damned shareholders! Keep a watch out, fools! There are things out there and you know what happens when things arrive! Nay, I spoke to my guests! Ganoes Paran, Master of the Deck, his ghostly companion and the Jaghut sorceress – join me, fretful three, in this one peaceable toast … before the mayhem begins!’

‘Thanks for the invitation,’ Hedge said, ‘but since I’m a ghost—’

‘Not at all,’ Karpolan Demesand cut in, ‘know that in close proximity to my contrivance here, you are not cursed insubstantial – not at all! So,’ he passed a goblet to the sapper, ‘drink, my friend! And revel once more in the delicious sensation of taste, not to mention alcohol!’

‘If you say so,’ Hedge said, accepting the goblet. He swallowed a mouthful, and his hazy expression somehow brightened. ‘Gods below! You’ve done it now, merchant! I think I’ll end up haunting this carriage for all time!’

‘Alas, my friend, the effect wears off, eventually. Else we face an impossible burden, as you might imagine! Now you, Jaghut, please, the significance of the myriad flavours in this wine shall not be lost on you, I’m sure.’ Beaming, he handed her a goblet.

She drank, then bared her tusks in what Paran took to be a smile. ‘Bik’trara – ice flowers – you must have crossed a Jaghut glacier some time in the past, to have harvested such rare plants.’

‘Indeed, my dear! Jaghut glaciers, and much more besides, I assure you! To explain, the Trygalle Trade Guild travels the warrens – a claim no other merchants in this world dare make. Accordingly, we are very expensive.’ He gave Paran a broad wink. ‘Very, as the Master of the Deck well knows. Speaking of which, I trust you have your payment with you?’

Paran nodded.

Karpolan proffered the third goblet to Paran. ‘I note you have brought your horse, Master of the Deck. Do you intend to ride alongside us, then?’

‘I think so. Is that a problem?’

‘Hard to say – we do not yet know what we shall encounter on this fell bridge. In any case, you must ride close, unless you mean to assert your own protection – in which case, why hire us at all?’

‘No, your protection I shall need, I’m sure,’ Paran said. ‘And yes, that is why I contracted with your guild in Darujhistan.’ He sipped at the wine, and found his head swimming. ‘Although,’ he added, eyeing the golden liquid, ‘if I drink any more of this, I might have trouble staying in the saddle.’

‘You must strap yourself tightly, Ganoes Paran. In the stirrups, and to the saddle. Trust me in this, such a journey is best managed drunk – or filled with the fumes of durhang. Or both. Now, I must begin preparations – although I have never before visited this warren, I am beginning to suspect we will be sorely tested on this dread bridge.’

‘If you are amenable,’ Ganath said, ‘I would ride with you within.’

‘Delightful, and I suggest you ready yourself to access your warren, Jaghut, should the need arise.’

Paran watched as the two climbed back into the carriage, then he turned to regard Hedge.

The sapper finished the wine in his goblet and set it back down on the tray, which was being held still by the servant – an old man with red-rimmed eyes and grey hair that looked singed at its ends. ‘How many of these journeys have you made?’ Hedge asked him.

‘More’n I can count, sir.’

‘I take it Karpolan Demesand is a High Mage.’

‘That he be, sir. An’ for that, us shareholders bless ‘im every day.’

‘No doubt,’ Hedge said, then turned to Paran. ‘If you ain’t gonna drink that, Captain, put it down. You and me need to talk.’

Paran risked another mouthful then replaced the goblet, following as, with a gesture, Hedge set off towards the foot of the bridge.

‘Something on your ghostly mind, sapper?’

‘Plenty, Captain, but first things first. You know, when I tossed that cusser back in Coral, I figured that was it. Hood knows, I didn’t have a choice, so I’d do the same thing if I had to do it over again. Anyway –’ he paused, then said, ‘for a time there was, well, just darkness. The occasional flicker of something like light, something like awareness.’ He shook his head. ‘It was like, well,’ he met Paran’s eyes, ‘like I had nowhere to go. My soul, I mean. Nowhere at all. And trust me on this, that ain’t a good feeling.’

‘But then you did,’ Paran said. ‘Have somewhere to go, I mean.’

Hedge nodded, eyes once more on the mists engulfing the way ahead. ‘Heard voices, at first. Then … old friends, coming outa the dark. Faces I knew, and sure, like I said, friends. But some who weren’t. You got to understand, Captain, before your time, a lot of Bridgeburners were plain bastards. When a soldier goes through what we went through, in Raraku, at Black Dog, you come out one of two kinds of people. Either you’re damned humbled, or you start believing the Empress worships what slides outa your ass, and not just the Empress, but everyone else besides. Now, I never had time for those bastards when I was alive – now I’m looking at spending an eternity with ’em.’

Paran was silent for a moment, thoughtful, then he said, ‘Go on.’

‘Us Bridgeburners, we got work ahead of us, and some of us don’t like it. I mean, we’re dead, right? And sure, it’s good helping friends who are still alive, and maybe helping all of humanity if it comes to that and I’m sorry to say, it will come to that. Still, you end up with questions, questions that can’t be answered.’

‘Such as?’

The sapper’s expression twisted. ‘Damn, sounds awful, but … what’s in it for us? We find ourselves in an army of the dead in a damned sea where there used to be desert. We’re all done with our wars, the fighting’s over, and now it looks like we’re having to march – and it’s a long march, longer than you’d think possible. But it’s our road, now, isn’t it?’

‘And where does it lead, Hedge?’

He shook his head again. ‘What’s it mean to die? What’s it mean to ascend? It’s not like we’re gonna gather ten thousand worshippers among the living, is it? I mean, the only thing us dead soldiers got in common is that none of us was good enough or lucky enough to survive the fight. We’re a host of failures.’ He barked a laugh. ‘I better remember that one for the bastards. Just to get under their skins.’

Paran glanced back at the carriage. Still no activity there, although the servant had disappeared back inside. He sighed. ‘Ascendants, Hedge. Not an easy role to explain – in fact, I’ve yet to find a worthwhile explanation for what ascendancy is – among all the scholarly tracts I’ve pored through in Darujhistan’s libraries and archives. So, I’ve had to come up with my own theory.’

‘Let’s hear it, Captain.’

‘All right, we’ll start with this. Ascendants who find worshippers become gods, and that binding goes both ways. Ascendants without worshippers are, in a sense, unchained. Unaligned, in the language of the Deck of Dragons. Now, gods who once had worshippers but don’t have them any more are still ascendant, but effectively emasculated, and they remain so unless the worship is somehow renewed. For the Elder Gods, that means the spilling of blood on hallowed or once-hallowed ground. For the more primitive spirits and the like, it could be as simple as the recollection or rediscovery of their name, or some other form of awakening. Mind you, none of that matters if the ascendant in question has been well and truly annihilated.

‘So, to backtrack slightly, ascendants, whether gods or not, seem to possess some form of power. Maybe sorcery, maybe personality, maybe something else. And what that seems to mean is, they possess an unusual degree of efficacy—’

‘Of what?’

‘They’re trouble if you mess with them, is what I’m saying. A mortal man punches someone and maybe breaks the victim’s nose. An ascendant punches someone and they go through a wall. Now, I don’t mean that literally – although that’s sometimes the case. Not necessarily physical strength, but strength of will. When an ascendant acts, ripples run through … everything. And that’s what makes them so dangerous. For example, before Fener’s expulsion, Treach was a First Hero, an old name for an ascendant, and that’s all he was. Spent most of his time either battling other First Heroes, or, towards the end, wandering around in his Soletaken form. If nothing untoward had happened to Treach in that form, his ascendancy would have eventually vanished, lost in the primitive bestial mind of an oversized tiger. But something untoward did happen – actually, two things. Fener’s expulsion, and Treach’s unusual death. And with those two events, everything changed.’

‘All right,’ Hedge said, ‘that’s all just fine. When are you getting to your theory, Captain?’

‘Every mountain has a peak, Hedge, and throughout history there have been mountains and mountains – more than we could imagine, I suspect – mountains of humanity, of Jaghut, of T’lan Imass, of Eres’al, Barghast, Trell, and so on. Not just mountains, but whole ranges. I believe ascendancy is a natural phenomenon, an inevitable law of probability. Take a mass of people, anywhere, any kind, and eventually enough pressure will build and a mountain will rise, and it will have a peak. Which is why so many ascendants become gods – after the passing of generations, the great hero’s name becomes sacred, representative of some long-lost golden age, and so it goes.’

‘So if I understand you, Captain – and I admit, it’s not easy and it’s never been easy – there’s too much pressure these days and because of that there’s too many ascendants, and things are getting hairy.’

Paran shrugged. ‘It might feel that way. It probably always does. But these things shake themselves out, eventually. Mountains collide, peaks fall, are forgotten, crumble to dust.’

‘Captain, are you planning to make a new card in the Deck of Dragons?’

Paran studied the ghost for a long time, then he said, ‘In many of the Houses, the role of Soldier already exists—’

‘But not unaligned soldiers, Captain. Not … us.’

‘You say you have a long road ahead, sapper. How do you know that? Who is guiding you?’

‘I got no answer to that one, Captain. That’s why we figured – our payment for this bargain – that you constructing a card for us would, well, be like shaking a handful of wheat flour over an invisible web.’

‘Part of the bargain? You might have mentioned that at the start, Hedge.’

‘No, better when it’s too late.’

‘For you, yes. All right, I’ll think on it. I admit, you’ve made me curious, especially since I don’t think you and your ghostly army are being directly manipulated. I suspect that what calls to you is something far more ephemeral, more primal. A force of nature, as if some long lost law was being reasserted, and you’re the ones who will deliver it. Eventually.’

‘An interesting thought, Captain. I always knew you had brains, now I’m finally getting a hint of what they’re good for.’

‘Now let me ask you a question, Hedge.’

‘If you must.’

‘That long road ahead of you. Your march – it’s to war, isn’t it? Against whom?’

‘More like what—’

Commotion behind them, the shareholders rushing back to the carriage, the snap of leather and the clunk of buckles as the dozen or so men and women began strapping themselves in place. The horses, suddenly agitated, tossed their heads and stamped, nostrils flaring. The driver had the traces in his hands once more.

‘You two!’ he said in a growl. ‘It’s time.’

‘Think I’ll sit beside the driver,’ Hedge said. ‘Captain, like the High Mage said, be sure you ride close. I knew how to get us here, but I ain’t got a clue what’s coming.’

Nodding, Paran headed towards his horse, whilst Hedge clambered up the side of the carriage. The two Pardu women returned from their stations on the bridge and climbed up to take flanking positions on the roof, both checking their heavy crossbows and supply of broad-headed quarrels.

Paran swung himself into the saddle.

A shutter in the side door was opened and the captain could make out Karpolan’s round, shiny face. ‘We travel perilously fast, Ganoes Paran. If some transformation occurs on the horse you ride, consider abandoning it.’

‘And if some transformation besets me?’

‘Well, we shall do our best not to abandon you.’

‘That’s reassuring, Karpolan Demesand.’

A brief smile, then the shutter snapped shut once more.

Another weird cry from the driver and a snap of the traces. The horses lunged forward, carriage slewing straight behind them. Rolling forward. Onto the stone bridge.

Paran rode up alongside it, opposite one of the shareholders. The man threw him a wild, half-mad grin, gloved hands gripping a massive Malazan-made crossbow.

Climbing the slope, then into the mists.

That closed like soft walls round them.

A dozen heartbeats, then chaos. Ochre-skinned creatures swarmed in from both sides, as if they had been clinging beneath the bridge. Long arms, clawed at the ends, short, ape-like legs, small heads that seemed filled with fangs. They flung themselves at the carriage, seeking to drag off the shareholders.

Screams, the thud of quarrels striking bodies, hissing pain from the creatures. Paran’s horse reared, forelegs kicking at a beast scrambling beneath it. Sword out, Paran slashed the blade into the back of the creature clinging and biting fierce chunks of meat from the nearest shareholder’s left thigh. He saw the flesh and muscle part, revealing ribs. Then blood sluiced out. Squealing, the beast fell away.

More had reached the carriage, and Paran saw one shareholder torn from her perch, swearing as she was dragged down onto the stones, then vanishing beneath seething, smooth-skinned bodies.

The captain swung his horse round and closed on the writhing mass.

No skill involved – it was simply lean down and hack and slash, until the last bleeding body fell away.

The woman lying on the bloody stones looked as though she had been chewed by a shark, then spat out. Yet she lived. Paran sheathed his sword, dismounted and threw the dazed, bleeding woman over a shoulder.

Heavier than she’d looked. He managed to settle her down over the back of his horse, then vaulted once more into the saddle.

The carriage already vanishing into the mists, ochre bodies tumbling from it. The back wheels both rose and thumped as they rolled over flopping corpses.

And between Paran and the carriage, half