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Authors: Ian C. Esslemont

Tags: #Fantasy, #War, #Azizex666, #Science Fiction

Return of the Crimson Guard (128 page)

BOOK: Return of the Crimson Guard
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‘What!’

Shell faced them, her eyes revealing her utter disbelief and horror. She pushed a shaking hand through her short hair. ‘He's gone. Taken by the rift. Both of them.’

‘And that thing? The rift?’ K'azz demanded.

‘Still growing.’

Shimmer caught K'azz's eye and he nodded. ‘Commander Urko,’ she called gently, but firmly. ‘It would appear that we must pull together everything we have left.’

Urko's grimaced nod almost seemed to grind his neck. ‘I agree.’

‘We have some six, perhaps eight, Avowed mages. I understand there are many witches and warlocks among the Wickans. What of the mage cadre?’

His dark eyes hidden away beneath a great shelf of bone glared their anger then glanced away. ‘Crushed. We have some squad mages but no one of great stature, ‘cept maybe one.’

‘This Tiste Andii mage?’

‘No. There ain't no Andii mage – none I know of. There's an ex-High Mage named Bala. Bala Jesselt. She's at the east redoubt.’

‘Very well. Perhaps we may use the Imperial Warren to move—’

K'azz had held up a hand. ‘Excuse me, Shimmer. The Brethren report we may have one more option. We should wait.’

‘Wait?’ Urko growled. His gaze searched K'azz's face. ‘What's this? More of your old tricks? Wait for what?’

‘For it to grow a bit more.’

* * *

Nait could not believe what he'd seen. The big powers were supposed to bail them out of trouble. Not disappear into a great big steaming pile of it. He studied the slim acid fuse clenched in his dirty hand.
Just me
V
you now, honey.

 

‘Are you all right?’ someone shouted over the roaring, which was so deafening and constant Nait had almost forgotten it.

Flinching, Nait peered around. Ho, on his knees in the dirt, was peering down at him. Nait nodded, completely bemused. He cocked
his head, thinking of the puzzle of this man who seemed able to overcome everything thrown at him and he mouthed: ‘Who
are
you, anyway?’

The mage smiled crookedly, nodding his understanding. ‘I'm just another damn-fool mage, Sergeant Jumpy.’ He pointed up. ‘Just like this one. I thought I was capable of anything. But all my researches and experiments brought me only misery.’ Improbably, he eased himself down cross-legged, as if they were relaxing on a hillside. He cast one gauging look up to the rift then returned to studying Nait. ‘I was inspired by Ryllandaras, believe it or not. He is Soletaken, yes, a man-beast. But few remember now that he is also D'ivers – one who is many. Who is to know how many there are of him? Perhaps this one
is
the last. In any case, I attempted an incalculably ancient and complex ritual. One none dared re-create, since the few times it was invoked were far beyond living memory. And I did succeed. After a grotesque fashion. I am D'ivers, Sergeant. Human D'ivers. There are four of me left alive. The others conspired to have me cast into prison to be rid of me. But I am returned and they have fled.

‘Now,’ and he gestured to the mound. ‘Is this it?’

‘Yes.’

Others came jogging up, hunched, wincing in empathic pain from the churning lip of the rift now suspended so low.
So low!
Nait sat up. He waved to these others, Treat, Blues and Sept –
Soliel help us! What a sad collection of street beggars!
Blues’ face mottled in bruising, an eye swollen shut. Treat's clothes tattered, his limbs black with crusted blood mixed with dirt. Sept's ear and neck sliced in a gash that had soaked his front in blood. Nait pointed to Tourmaline. ‘Take her out of here!’

Ho arched a brow, mouthed,
her
? But he nodded and gestured the others up. Tourmaline signed a weak negative they ignored as they grabbed hold of her and dragged her off. Ho remained, cocked a question to Nait who waved him away: ‘Gotta get to work.’

Ho agreed then straightened, stung.
‘Her!
Yes!’ He got to his feet, bent low. ‘There is another one! Tayschrenn's bodyguard! Oponn favour you!’

Already turned away, Nait gave a curt bob of his head. Dust floated up around him, sifting straight up in the gathering current. He felt the flow plucking at his surcoat. He lay on his side, face lowered, and fought to ignore the yammering oblivion just over his shoulder.

From his bag he drew a wood dowelling about the width of his littlest finger. This he pushed into the mounded earth. Quickly at
first, then slowing, tapping, tapping, until it struck something firm. Then he carefully withdrew it, leaving a hole. He gathered up a handful of the grey topsoil, spat into it, squeezed and moulded it in his hands into a ball.
Strong adherence. No sand or clay. Thick and slow.
This ball he threw aside, then he gathered up another, smaller, handful. He spat, rolled the dirt loosely around his palm.
Not too tight.
He rolled an elongated ball that he gently eased into the hole. Taking up the dowelling again he pushed the wet ball down the hole, slowly, tapping, until he met resistance.

He took a long breath then, exhaling, watched the twitching of his cut and battered hands.
Easy. Easy. Slow down, Nait my boy.
He glanced up to the rift. Damn close – but close enough? How much longer dare he wait? He watched broken stalks of grass lifting to spin up past his head, sucked into the hissing, roaring gale that hung what seemed just a few man-heights above his head. Experimentally, he threw up a handful of soil – none came back down.

Maybe that's close enough. But they'll only get the one chance. Maybe – no! This is damn slow dirt; who knows how long it'll take? Right. Do it.

He gave the dowelling one last press, eased it out and threw it aside – it spun upwards, whipped from sight.
Shit! Close enough!
Bent over the hole, he thumbed the stopper from the fuse. Slowly, achingly slow, he eased his hand over, tilting. He watched holding his breath as the thick viscous acid mix eased out. One drop swelled on the lip of the tube.
C'mon!
It hung, wobbling –
Oh, for the love of D'rek!-fell.

Right. One … maybe two. Yeah. Two – best be sure. He tilted further. A second drip swelled, fell. He threw the fuse away and ran. But in his rush he mistakenly straightened fully and something grabbed him from behind, pulling him backwards. He threw himself down again. His helmet was torn from his head. He grasped at handholds of the grass, pulled himself along. His feet kicked in the air behind him. A sandal was sucked from one foot.
Leave me be, Hood! Your bony hand ain't quick enough!

He pulled and pulled, sliced his palms open on the sharp crisp grass blades until he fell again and rolled, came up running. He pelted it, arms pumping, one sandal flapping. As he ran he imagined the heavy acid fluid permeating the saliva, increasing its concentration next to the casing of whichever munition he'd touched. Six per cent, seventeen, twenty-eight, fifty. Until a reaction began, irreversible, that started eating that casing until soon … soon …

Nait slowed, stopped, turned. The black and grey moiling maw of
the rift had touched down – or so it appeared. A reverberating roar ten times louder than that which had been afflicting him struck his chest and face like a mallet blow, knocking him backwards. Enraged, he stood again, waving his arms at it. Dirt like an avalanche in reverse was speeding up into the void of its black mouth.
Shit! It's sucked it up! Fucking arse-wipe cock

Light. A blow kicked him into the air and he flew, arms pinwheel-ing, to tumble, rolling, amid falling earth and clumps of roots and stones. He lay staring at the clear bright-blue sky.
Beauty. A beauty of a blast.

Something nearby was making an Abyss of a racket – loud enough to penetrate the ringing in his ears. Loud enough to annoy Nait into raising his head. The rift itself was now turning in a great sweep, but bent, irregular. Nait watched as its border region rotated, revealing a great warp or bite that turned itself forming its own spiral within the larger. And that rotating was speeding up.

 

He tried to stand, failed, sat heavily, arms limp on his lap, gazed at the rift. Blood dripped anew from his nose to pat the back of one hand. Even to his layman's eye the mar was clearly in trouble. It appeared to be diminishing in size overall, yet the smaller inner spiral was growing – it seemed to be feeding on the larger which was thinning, fast eroding. Like a snake eating its own tail. While he watched, the spinning accelerated to a blur and the rift shrank to a fraction of itself. The rotating and contraction continued, each becoming faster and faster, feeding each other perhaps, until the rift appeared to wrap itself out of existence to disappear without a sound.

Hunh. Nait spat out a mouthful of grit. Well, there you go. He tried to stand again, failed. Fine. Maybe he'd just sit here awhile. Enjoy the glow. Yeah, that's it. Job well done and all that shit. He wondered where Tourmaline had gone off to. Maybe it was time to find out how those Moranth got out of their armour.

CHAPTER IV
 

Mysteries intrigue us. That which we cannot easily understand or explain away holds our attention; we return to it repeatedly. Conversely, the simple and easily grasped is quickly consumed and dismissed. So it is that
she
remains. She defies all explanation, refuses to conform to our human, craven, self-serving need to explain ourselves. To be liked. To be ‘understood’. And so of course we are all mortally offended and hate her.

 

Musings on Laseen
Essayist Quillian D'Ebrell, Arath

 

P
OSSUM MAINTAINED HIS VEILS OF DISTRACTION AND DEFLECTION
summoned from Mockra, though that Warren was not his strength. He walked its twisted paths only in as much as they intersected and complemented the penchant in Meanas for trickery, illusion and misperception.

 

He remained hidden because his instincts told him it was not over. No, not yet. Though soldiers laughed and celebrated in nearby hastily dug trenches here in the centre of the field of battle; though Laseen now walked in the open, apparently completely unguarded. The soldiers paid her hardly any attention at all. They obviously thought her just another cadre mage, or Claw. She'd even approached a common Malazan sergeant for a cloth and been given a dirty rag with which she then wiped her sweaty face and blood-caked hands. For his part, Possum was troubled. What
was
she up to?

She walked the blasted and burnt field, untying her wrappings as she went, throwing its tattered remains aside. Beneath, she wore a silk short-sleeved shirt soaked to a dark green by sweat. Her muscular arms revealed the bruising and cuts of her night's hunt – having slain, what, five, six Avowed? The wraps at her legs came
next, kicked off from silk trousers, tight at the ankle, likewise sweat-soaked. Her short brown hair glistened, pressed flat like an animal's pelt.

She came to the edge of the crater blasted from the plain and there she stopped. Smoke still threaded from the blackened bare dirt after its astounding explosion. She raised her face to peer up for a time into the clear, so deceptively peaceful, pale-blue sky and suddenly Possum understood. Ah, yes. The last. With Tayschrenn now gone. Choss dead, Toc reported dead, Amaron missing, and Urko reported fled before he could be arrested, or, perhaps, pardoned. Leaving Surly/Laseen. The last survivor; single remaining representative of that generation that had built so grandly. And victor. Now un-contested ruler. Empress.

Was she providing the final irresistible bait to end everything now for ever and for good … herself? Possum now knew he was not alone in his watching. She had told him who also watched. Another, even more carefully hidden presence waited. And had been waiting for some time now. He was poised for the appearance of one man and one only – such was the price of Laseen.
The question was, would that man bite?

Of course he would.

Possum eased his blades in their wrist-sheaths. Now. It must be now. This would be his last opportunity before the army clasped Laseen to its bloody, battered but victorious breast.

And the man did bite. But not as Possum had assumed.

A sharp blow to his back was Possum's last sensation. He was flung forward stunned by the power and sudden violence of that strike. Vital seconds passed before his eyes fluttered open once more to view through kicked-up dust two figures enmeshed in a dance of exquisite choreography.

BOOK: Return of the Crimson Guard
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