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.
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 multilayered ruin inhabited by little more than vermin, of both the fourlegged 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 ground-floor 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.
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 bloodlust 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, leather-clad 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 silk-lined 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…’
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 shadowwrought 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, flatroofed, 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, neartransparent 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 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.’
‘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 death-cries 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 featherclad 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 lacking 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?’
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.’
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?’
‘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.’