Authors: Ian C. Esslemont
Tags: #Fantasy, #War, #Azizex666, #Science Fiction
It was the one they wanted; the only one who remained a true threat and whom they would always be watching their backs for. Master assassin and High Mage of the Crimson Guard. Dancer's rival all those years ago – Cowl.
He was astonishing to watch. Blades bared, darting, feinting, and Laseen blocking with kicks that lashed out to punish chest and head. A gesture from Cowl and Warren magics wavered the air like heat ripples only to dissipate to nothing upon Laseen.
Of course, the lingering Otataral dust.
That useless effort from Cowl drew him a blow to his head that sent him spinning from his feet. Yet he was up again, unfazed, and closed, leaping. A blurred series of slashes from him, spinning, knives reversed; Laseen slipping each, hands jabbing,
and the edge of a foot slamming Cowl back. But her shirt and trousers now hung slashed – blood bloomed upon her front, dripped from her hands.
Possum decided that perhaps he'd watched for long enough. He stood, shook himself. He had been delivered a terrible blow. Mortal had it struck true – deadly still should it not be treated, but he had the minutes he needed. For it had always been his habit when wreathed in Mockra to appear a good hand's width taller than his true height. He drew his wrist-knives and joined the fight.
A flash of surprise from Cowl's slitted dark eyes was Possum's reward as he closed, lead foot sliding up. Cowl stepped edgeways, a blade directed to each of them. But neither Possum nor Laseen pressed their advantage; each crouched, content to guard themselves. The master assassin's head tilted just a fraction as he considered this. Then his eyes widened.
He threw himself sideways but not quickly enough as a new figure appeared, leaping from a Warren to lash out, kicking him in his side, sending him tumbling down into the blast crater. This new figure launched himself after, scarecrow thin, tattered clothes flapping, his long white hair a dirty tangle. He leapt upon Cowl and the two slashed at each other, dirt and dust billowing in a blur of shifting feet, rolls, sweeps, grips attempted and broken, and throws.
A kick from Cowl sent the other flying backwards, but in the air an arm snapped forward and a thin blade slammed into the Guard assassin. He gestured, disappeared into a Warren and the other, landing cat-like on his feet, white hair flying, waved to disappear as well.
And so they are off chasing each other across Realms and Warrens. Cowl and Topper, hated enemies and rivals from their first meeting. Will Topper finally succeed where Dancer failed and ascend to the peak of his calling? Will it always be Dancer and Cowl – never him? Will we ever see either of them again? Myself, I hope not!
Possum fell to his knees and a hand, his chest cramped. Gods! He couldn't breathe! Punctured a lung, he was sure of it.
‘Bring a healer,’ Laseen called to the soldiers who'd run up. She actually sounded winded – a first. Possum smiled, meaning to make a joke of that, but he saw behind Laseen's dirty blood-smeared feet two others: two small girl's feet snug in fine leather slippers.
Oh no! No! Others can wait just as patiently!
He straightened though his chest flamed and his vision blurred. Laseen was staring ahead, a puzzled look in eyes that had otherwise always guarded all expression, all hints. The girl-woman who'd
bested Possum twice before backed away, long stilettos bloodied, a wicked sharp-toothed smile, eyes bright with savage glee.
she gloated, then jumped, blades flashing to parry thrown heavy knives that hissed past Possum. Warren magics blew her backwards in waves of power and she writhed, snarling and flailing amid the blackened dirt of the crater. A Warren opened and she fell within, her form melting, transforming into some
Soldiers and mages ran up. Possum knelt before Laseen, who had eased forward on to her knees. ‘Laseen,’ he breathed, hardly able to form words.
Her eyes held no recognition, no awareness. The face softened. The hard, so long held lines of watchfulness and calculation melted away to reveal a seemingly younger woman – one whom Possum would call far from plain. She fell forward to the burnt, trampled ground. Mages pushed Possum aside, knelt, turned her over. Hands eased him down as well.
I failed. One job to do – just the one. And I failed. What am I to do? What could there possibly be for me now?
He felt Denul healing magics stealing upon him, dulling his pain and his senses.
Do not, dear healers, bother to wake me.
* * *
Shimmer watched the ranks upon ranks of Kanese cavalry as they came swelling up out of the south to encircle their position and unease tightened its grip on her chest. Not far behind marched their thousands of infantry. Simple precautions? Once the mar had been sealed the last Malazan officer remaining, Urko, had tilted his head to K'azz in ironic salute and walked off down the hillside all alone – to the west. Another disappearance now that Laseen had overcome all? Very possibly. She glanced to K'azz. ‘Shall we too strike out, head west?’
He shook his head, hands clasped at his back. ‘No. Not yet. No orders seem to have been given yet regarding us. So long as we do not move, they won't.’ He gave her a reassuring smile. ‘Sometimes acting in fear of a course of action brings that very course about. Since they are the sea right now – we shall be the mountain.’
Pure K'azz. But she still could not get used to hearing his voice, his words, coming from the mouth of what appeared no more than an elder with thinning hair, grey stubble at his thin cheeks.
A Brethren wavered into presence before Shimmer and she was
still unnerved and saddened to see that it was Smoky. He inclined his head to her and K'azz. ‘She's dead,’ he announced.
Both she and K'azz gave a shocked
‘Cowl!’ K'azz snarled. ‘We'll have to flee.’
‘He failed. Topper ambushed him from the Imperial Warren. Intervened. The two are off. Probably still duelling. Gods know where.’
‘Who then?’ Shimmer asked.
‘An unknown talent. New. But inhuman.’
‘Of mixed blood descent would be my guess. Human and demon.’
‘Don't know. Not from Quon Tali. Someone must have brought her in.’
K'azz raised a hand. ‘Thank you, Smoky. And … I am sorry.’
An insubstantial shrug. ‘Had to happen eventually. At least it was quick.’ He faded away.
K'azz squeezed his eyes with a thumb and forefinger, sighing. ‘Good thing it was an outsider. Things could've gone very badly for us otherwise. As it is, they may still want blood.’
‘And Tayschrenn is gone.’
‘Yes.’ He shook his head in genuine regret. ‘His presence kept so many in line. Now, I truly fear what may be unleashed. Still…’ and he gave her a speculative look, ‘I would not count that man gone yet.’
While they watched, yet more cavalry came riding on to the field, this time from the east, up the trader road from Cawn: the provincial Cawnese cavalry. These forces too ranged themselves facing the Guard from the north and east. So many.
‘And where were these armies just two days ago?’ she murmured, unintentionally giving voice to her thoughts.
‘Elsewhere, thankfully,’ K'azz grinned, but then he nodded his understanding. ‘We are being granted a rare sight, Shimmer. The gathering might of a far-flung Empire in truth. Seems in our absence the Malazans have pulled together a true political and logistical whole …’ He paused, the crow's-feet at his eyes deepening as he squinted, his mouth drawing down. ‘We are the invaders now, Shimmer. Quon does not want us.’
And Shimmer exhaled. Some long-held breath clenched deep within her stomach relaxed after so long.
Thank all the Gods he sees this. There is hope for us yet.
She glanced around the retreat: yes, all that were left now were Guardsmen and the Untan noble who accompanied the Wickans. The Bael recruits came walking up, Stalker, Badlands and Coots. They joined Kyle. From what K'azz had told her of them she hoped they would ease themselves back into the Guard, but something told her this would probably not happen. The scout, Stalker, raised his chin to the field. ‘Damn lot of them. We heard the news. Any idea who's in charge down there now – if anyone?’
‘It had better not end up the Sword,’ a voice said from nearby. Shimmer turned. It was the Untan nobleman. Rillish?
‘Why?’ K'azz asked.
The man drew a long breath as if searching for where to start. ‘The Wickans told me of his actions up north in Seven Cities. The man's bloodthirsty. Has no mercy. He'll order you all wiped out – the Wickans as well, probably. He has a hatred of them.’
K'azz appeared doubtful. ‘Surely enough blood's been spilled …’
Shimmer recounted her meeting with the man – only one day ago? Seemed like years, another world. Yes, the Untan's evaluation struck her as true. A man to whom lives meant nothing. ‘I met the man with Skinner,’ she said. ‘At the parley. From what I saw of him I agree with Rillish.’
‘I see.’ K'azz pursed his thin lips. ‘Of course from a military point of view I can understand it … I had just hoped we'd moved on to a political solution. But, if not …’ He motioned to her. ‘Have the Brethren summon all mages.’
A Wickan elder came walking up, his thick, greying, unkempt hair blowing in the wind, a hand on his long-knife pommel, his walk bow-legged. He raised a clawed hand to Rillish. ‘You're wanted on the field.’
The Untan noble bowed to K'azz. ‘Until later, Commander.’
K'azz gave a brief tilt of his head in assent. ‘Yes, I hope to hear later on how you came to join the Wickan command – I'm sure it must be quite a story.’
The man's smile was solemn. ‘Yours, I think, would interest most here far more. May Burn guard your way.’
Shimmer watched him jog down the hillside. Only the Guard now remained on the hilltop retreat. ‘What do you have in mind?’ she asked.
A mischievous half-smile pulled at his lips. ‘I think we should have a look at the Imperial Warren.’
* * *
Ho remained while Imperial regulars, Malazan, Falaran and Moranth, saw to the treatment of Laseen's corpse. They formed an unofficial guard, held back the gathering crowd, wrapped the body in clean cloth, then appropriated a supply wagon brought down to collect wounded, and carefully placed the body on its empty bed. The woman he'd found on the field, Tayschrenn's bodyguard, they sat up front. She'd given her name as Kiska and seemed shattered – not by her wounds, but by the trauma of having lost Tayschrenn. The other remaining Claw operative, once his wounds had been stabilized, had got up and simply wandered off to become lost among those many milling about the battlefield.
Of the other mages who had come together to attempt to counter Yath, all save one had gone their separate ways. The surviving Crimson Guardsmen, Blues, Treat, Sept, Gwynn and Fingers, had discreetly slipped away to join their brothers and sisters on their hilltop position. Blues and Gwynn had carried Fingers on a stretcher as just another of the wounded, and, Hood knew, there were more than enough of those. The Wickan twins, witch and warlock, had ridden off with a troop of horsemen who'd come leading extra mounts for them. They'd left with Su, who, from what he'd overheard, was in truth the elder cousin of the twin's grandmother, and very possibly
eldest Wickan alive today.
‘It's not over,’ Su had called to him from where she sat gently cradled by a rider astride a mount, enigmatic and true to form. He'd just waved goodbye.
The saboteurs, including sergeants Jumpy and Urfa, seemed content to sit sprawled in the shade of their trenches, helmets and armour shed, re-dressing wounds and cadging water and food from the many Kanese and Cawn cavalry wandering the battlefield, collecting wounded and souvenirs.