Authors: Ian C. Esslemont
Tags: #Fantasy, #War, #Azizex666, #Science Fiction
Hood's balls! Who was this guy?
More wreckage flew overhead, whipping for the fellow.
No! Not again!
But as it neared it burst into flames, the shattered timbers incinerating instantly into wafting black flakes. The mangled iron glowing, melting and misting into smoke.
Three figures emerged from the churning smoke and dust, Ho supported by the Wickan youths. They were making for the trench. Though he was beaten and bruised the mage's face held an idiotic
grin. The Wickan girl spotted Nait and signed
He didn't need any more encouragement than that.
They piled into the trench. People reached out, supporting Nait. One was Heuk. ‘Who in Hood's mercy is
‘Tayschrenn.’ The old mage grinned his blackened rotten teeth. ‘Ain't he somethin’?’
The aged Wickan witch helped with Ho, who offered a broken-lipped smile. ‘You won?’ she asked him. He gave a tired nod.
‘They acceded to me.’
‘Good. I knew they would.’ She turned on the two youths. ‘And you two – where is the other, Blues? Why did you not come back with him? We still may need him.’
The two exchanged suffering glances, but bowed. ‘Yes, Nana,’ they said, and scrambled back out on to the field.
‘Healers!’ the old woman barked, waving them to Ho. ‘See to him!’
Nait peered up at the mar still hanging in the clear blue sky like a bruise or ugly wound. It had grown since he last looked. ‘It's low,’ he said to Heuk.
The enemy mage, named Yath apparently, had been plucked off the ground. He flailed now, limbs churning, enmeshed in the argent puissance invoked by Tayschrenn. It looked as though the High Mage intended to force him through his own rift.
‘Yes …’ Heuk murmured appreciatively, ‘he may just bridge it…’ Then the mage stiffened and turned to Nait, his face blanching. He gripped Nait's shoulder. ‘Eldest forgive me!
What of Tourmaline? The munitions! Tayschrenn stands almost on top of them!’
* * *
No one asked Kyle to leave the hilltop and so he remained, arms crossed, watching the fireworks of the mage duel out on the battle plain. With him was the Untan nobleman who'd come as part of the Wickan delegation – Kyle hadn't caught the man's name. He watched and listened just as Kyle did, his face torn between awe and dread. The battle below reminded Kyle of the Spur, only on an even grander scale. So this was what the old hands meant when they spoke about the Warren-clashes of the old campaigns. Fearsome stuff. He
understood more clearly now the relationship between the different arms of these armies out of Quon. No wonder the presence of a powerful mage corps could deter any aggression – or the lack invite it. Still, from the reactions around him he understood what they were seeing now to be unprecedented; a deliberate effort at whole-scale destruction.
That duelling appeared to jump to a yet greater confrontation as light like the reflection of the sun from still water blossomed on the plain. The Avowed mages remaining around Kyle, Opal, Lor-sinn and Shell, all cursed and winced, Shell staggering backwards as if pushed by some unseen force.
‘I know that!’ Opal said through clenched teeth.
‘Brethren report it is the High Mage,’ said Shimmer, her tone amazed.
‘The only time I've ever been glad to see him,’ K'azz said.
The old Malazan commander, Urko, grunted appreciatively. ‘Couldn't turn a blind eye to something like
‘Did you witness the confrontation at Pale?’ Lor-sinn asked of Shell.
Shell straightened her jerkin, her lined face wrinkled up as though pained. ‘I watched from the distance.’
‘Challenged Anomander,’ Lor-sinn breathed. ‘Lord of Moon's Spawn.’
Kyle watched Opal shake her mop of curly auburn hair. ‘Hubris. The Ascendant held back.’
‘And how do we know that?’
Opal gestured to the field. ‘And risk such consequences?’
Lor-sinn, Kyle could tell, remained unconvinced. A glimmering brilliance out of the field made Kyle flinch and look away; he glanced back, a hand shading his eyes. The rumbling of a particularly loud eruption of power rolled over them. The mages winced in empathic pain.
K'azz raised a hand for attention. ‘Brethren say a messenger is here for Commander Urko.’
‘Well?’ asked Urko.
‘The messenger claims to be an officer of the assembled Cawnese Provincial Army.’
Kyle looked to the Malazan commanders Urko and Fist D'Ebbin. Urko's greying brows rose like shelves. Fist D'Ebbin, though beaten down by what he had endured through the night, at first appeared pleased, then that pleasure slipped into unease as he glanced to K'azz. These two were all that remained of Imperial command in the
field – other than the Sword, who was rumoured to be in charge of the eastern redoubt. Cowl's Veils had taken an awful toll.
Urko motioned to K'azz. ‘Send him up.’
A soldier climbed the hillside, his helmet under an arm. He wore mail under a white surcoat bearing the diamond design of Cawn. He saluted Urko. ‘Commander.’
‘I bear news from the east.’
The man glanced about at the Guardsmen. Voice lowered, he said, ‘Perhaps a more private talk …’
‘Here will do. As you can see – we are facing a common enemy.’
‘I understand. Very well. The Cawn Provincial Army is marshalling to the east. It was judged prudent to remain a good distance away. We bring five thousand cavalry and thirty thousand mixed infantry. Command is Lords Mal Nayman, J'istenn, and Viehman ‘esh Wait. We are also pleased to host the Imperial representative Councillor and Assembly Spokesman, Mallick Rel.’
Urko's brows now clenched in puzzlement. ‘Mallick? He's left Unta?’ He dismissed the mystery with a shake of his head. ‘Fist D'Ebbin, would you accompany the captain here and coordinate the commands?’
A salute. ‘Aye, sir.’
‘A moment,’ K'azz called. ‘What of your mage cadre, Captain? We may have need of them.’
The captain faced Urko, saying nothing. The old general's face tightened. ‘Well?’
The captain admitted, reluctantly, ‘Squad mages, only, sir.’ And he added, weighted with significance: ‘For generations Cawn has given up its best to the Empire.’
Urko glowered a nod. ‘Very good. Dismissed.’
Fist D'Ebbin bowed to K'azz and Shimmer. Kyle thought the last look he gave them one of silent apology. The two officers descended the hillside.
Kyle's gaze was pulled back to the field. Why that look of apology? he wondered.
Ah, yes – numbers. The Imperial force was now twice as large.
The Avowed mages all let out excited calls then, pointing to the field. One of the duelling figures, the summoner of the rift, Kyle assumed, was airborne, wreathed in an argent conflagration. Kyle was still not all that familiar with these contests, but it looked as though this Tayschrenn had gained the advantage.
And should he win? What then? Kyle's gaze edged over to study K'azz. That Cawnese officer probably hadn't even realized whom he'd stood before. And why should he? K'azz was now just another old man, his white hair tousled. He still wore his sun-faded, tattered old fisherman's canvas trousers and shirt. He hadn't even belted on a sword. The only gesture he seemed to have allowed himself was a silver sigil of the Guard at his breast. Yet he clearly was in command. All the Avowed instinctively arrayed themselves around him. While Kyle watched, the Duke's troubled gaze followed not the coruscating mage duel of the plain but the retreating figure of the Cawnese messenger.
Yes, he too must be wondering
Laseen gave her word
but that was when the field was more even. Would the temptation to try to finally rid the Imperium of its most enduring enemy lead her to reconsider?
* * *
Nait edged his way through the blackened ash of the seared grass, the dust of the dirt and gravel powdered by the incalculable forces competing, thrashing, just above his head.
Ants, just us ants down here. And me the dumbest of them.
The High Mage was close, manoeuvring to edge the writhing, flailing shape of Yath above into the mar. Close enough to be blown to droplets by Tourmaline's cussors.
What a monumental fuck-up!
Nait paused – which way? All looked the same: churned-up, flame-scorched, blasted wasteland. Then a glint of gold through the ash-grey and black. He shuffled over. The Moranth was in a bad way. Thrown soil covered her, disguising the worst of her injuries. As it was, Nait winced. Her back was one burnt scar of puckered flesh and the strange chitinous Moranth armour all melted and twisted. She was lying on a mound – the buried charge.
‘Tourmaline!’ Nait called, his head next to hers.
The helm stirred, turned to him. ‘You return, saboteur.’
A chuckle. ‘You have no idea, little man. But get me out of this and perhaps I shall enlighten you.’
Don't think I won't take you up on that.
He studied the mound of pressed earth. His hair stirred to stand and his breath caught as he glimpsed in one of the Moranth's gauntleted fists the tall slim length of an acid fuse. Using both hands he gently prised it loose and only then managed to exhale.
Gods below – my nerves weren't going to take much more of this.
He studied the thrashing figure above in its cocoon of blinding, virulent energy, the arcs and sizzling connections between him and Tayschrenn below. The enemy, Yath, was close to the yawning, roiling lip of the rift. ‘Not much longer now,’ he called to Tourmaline. ‘Looks like we'll maybe get to keep all our goodies, hey?’
The banners of power quivered then as if struck. Some snapped to lash the air and ground like whips of flame sending up curtains of blasted earth that pattered down across him and Tourmaline. Nait covered his head.
Damn, I should not have said that!
He peered between his forearms. Through the penumbra of energies surrounding Tayschrenn Nait glimpsed figures at the man's rear enmeshed in an eerie dance of move and counter-move. Three faced one who seemed some kind of a bodyguard, fending them off from the High Mage's back. This one, slim, short and blurringly quick, whirled a stave feinting at the attackers. And since those three were certainly not Claws, that left Crimson Guard Veils, probably Avowed.
Come to take Tayschrenn while they had the chance!
Other figures came charging in; Nait recognized Blues, Ho and the other Avowed, Treat and Sept. But the bodyguard fell, having absorbed terrible punishment. Ho threw himself upon one attacker and wrenched the man or woman's head around. Blues and another fell together in a storm of knife-thrusts. The third leapt forward, rolling, evading all to strike the High Mage.
A detonation of power blasted everyone tumbling away like weeds uprooted in a cyclone. A wall of dirt and stones thrown up by the shockwave punched into Nait who yelled as all his earlier wounds pounded anew. But that was not the worst – the worst was his effort to hold the acid fuse steady against his chest like a babe. Once the pressure eased, Nait rolled on to his back, wiped his tearing eyes.
Staring upwards it took him a moment to comprehend just what he was seeing. Close to the rift two figures now rotated around each other – one flailing, the other limp – while the raw Warren energies reverberated between them, thrumming and gyring with the release of all that power. As Nait watched, open-mouthed, the wild spinning tumbled both of them into the open maw of the rift and they disappeared within.
* * *
Standing next to K'azz, Shimmer watched in surprise and alarm as all the Avowed mages within sight grunted and stepped back, rocked by an eruption of brilliance like the sun itself. A booming avalanche
report washed over all, striking Shimmer full in the chest. Shell whispered low: ‘Tayschrenn's been hit. One of ours, I'm sorry to say. Isha, I believe.’ She took a breath murmuring a curse. ‘He's drifting, rising … there's a pull from the …’ She lurched forward, hands rising.