Book Two of the Malazan Book of the Fallen
By Steven Erikson
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2000 Steven Erikson
All rights reserved.
And all came to imprint
On the path,
To scent the dry winds
Their cloying claim
The Path of Hands Messremb
1164th Year of Burn's Sleep
Tenth Year of the Rule of Empress Laseen
The Sixth in the Seven Years of Dryjhna, the Apocalyptic
A corkscrew plume of dust raced across the basin, heading deeper into the trackless desert of the Pan'potsun Odhan. Though less than two thousand paces away, it seemed a plume born of nothing.
From his perch on the mesa's wind-scarred edge, Mappo Runt followed it with relentless eyes the color of sand, eyes set deep in a robustly boned, pallid face. He held a wedge of emrag cactus in his bristle-backed hand, unmindful of the envenomed spikes as he bit into it. Juices dribbled down his chin, staining it blue. He chewed slowly, thoughtfully.
Beside him Icarium flicked a pebble over the cliff edge. It clicked and clattered on its way down to the boulder-strewn base. Under the ragged Spiritwalker robe — its orange faded to dusty rust beneath the endless sun — his gray skin had darkened into olive green, as if his father's blood had answered this wasteland's ancient call. His long, braided black hair dripped black sweat onto the bleached rock.
Mappo pulled a mangled thorn from between his front teeth. "Your dye's running," he observed, eyeing the cactus blade a moment before taking another bite.
Icarium shrugged. "Doesn't matter any more. Not out here."
"My blind grandmother wouldn't have swallowed your disguise. There were narrow eyes on us in Ehrlitan. I felt them crawling on my back day and night. Tannos are mostly short and bow-legged, after all." Mappo pulled his gaze away from the dust cloud and studied his friend. "Next time," he grunted, "try belonging to a tribe where everyone's seven foot tall."
Icarium's lined, weather-worn face twitched into something like a smile, just a hint, before resuming its placid expression. "Those who would know of us in Seven Cities, surely know of us now. Those who would not might wonder at us, but that is all they will do." Squinting against the glare, he nodded at the plume. "What do you see, Mappo?"
"Flat head, long neck, black and hairy all over. If just that, I might be describing one of my uncles."
"But there's more."
"One leg up front and two in back."
Icarium tapped the bridge of his nose, thinking. "So, not one of your uncles. An aptorian?" Mappo slowly nodded. "The convergence is months away. I'd guess Shadowthrone caught a whiff of what's coming, sent out a few scouts ..."
"And this one?"
Mappo grinned, exposing massive canines. "A tad too far afield. Sha'ik's pet now." He finished off the cactus, wiped his spatulate hands, then rose from his crouch. Arching his back, he winced. There had been, unaccountably, a mass of roots beneath the sand under his bedroll the night just past, and now the muscles to either side of his spine matched every knot and twist of those treeless bones. He rubbed at his eyes. A quick scan down the length of his body displayed for him the tattered, dirt-crusted state of his clothes. He sighed. "It's said there's a waterhole out there, somewhere —"
"With Sha'ik's army camped around it."
Icarium also straightened, noting once again the sheer mass of his companion — big even for a Trell — the shoulders broad and maned in black hair, the sinewy muscles of his long arms, and the thousand years that capered like a gleeful goat behind Mappo's eyes. "Can you track it?"
"If you like."
Icarium grimaced. "How long have we known each other, friend?"
Mappo's glance was sharp, then he shrugged. "Long. Why do you ask?"
"I know reluctance when I hear it. The prospect disturbs you?"
"Any potential brush with demons disturbs me, Icarium. Shy as a hare is Mappo Trell."
"I am driven by curiosity."
The unlikely pair turned back to their small campsite, tucked between two towering spires of wind-sculpted rock. There was no hurry. Icarium sat down on a flat rock and proceeded to oil his longbow, striving to keep the hornwood from drying out. Once satisfied with the weapon's condition, he turned to his single-edged long sword, sliding the ancient weapon from its bronze-banded boiledleather scabbard, then setting an oiled whetstone to its notched edge.
Mappo struck the hide tent, folding it haphazardly before stuffing it into his large leather bag. Cooking utensils followed, as did the bedding. He tied the drawstrings and hefted the bag over one shoulder, then glanced to where Icarium waited — bow rewrapped and slung across his back.
Icarium nodded, and the two of them, half-blood Jaghut and full-blood Trell, began on the path leading down into the basin.
Overhead the stars hung radiant, casting enough light down onto the basin to tinge its cracked pan silver. The bloodflies had passed with the vanishing of the day's heat, leaving the night to the occasional swarm of capemoths and the batlike rhizan lizards that fed on them.
Mappo and Icarium paused for a rest in the courtyard of some ruins. The mudbrick walls had all but eroded away, leaving nothing but shin-high ridges laid out in a geometric pattern around an old, dried-up well. The sand covering the courtyard's tiles was fine and windblown and seemed to glow faintly to Mappo's eyes. Twisted brush clung with fisted roots along its edges.
The Pan'potsun Odhan and the Holy Desert Raraku that flanked it to the west were both home to countless such remnants from long-dead civilizations. In their travels Mappo and Icarium had found high tels — flat-topped hills built up of layer upon layer of city — situated in a rough procession over a distance of fifty leagues between the hills and the desert, clear evidence that a rich and thriving people had once lived in what was now dry, wind-blasted wasteland. From the Holy Desert had emerged the legend of Dryjhna the Apocalyptic. Mappo wondered if the calamity that had befallen the city-dwellers in this region had in some way contributed to the myth of a time of devastation and death. Apart from the occasional abandoned estate such as the one they now rested in, many ruins showed signs of a violent end.
His thoughts finding familiar ruts, Mappo grimaced. Not all pasts can be laid at our feet, and we are no closer here and now than we've ever been. Nor have I any reason to disbelieve my own words. He turned away from those thoughts as well.
Near the courtyard's center stood a single column of pink marble, pitted and grooved on one side where the winds born out in Raraku blew unceasingly toward the Pan'potsun Hills. The pillar's opposite side still retained the spiral patterning carved there by long-dead artisans.
Upon entering the courtyard Icarium had walked directly to the six-foot-high column, examining its sides. His grunt told Mappo he'd found what he had been looking for.
"And this one?" the Trell asked, setting his leather sack down.
Icarium came over, wiping dust from his hands. "Down near the base, a scattering of tiny clawed hands — the seekers are on the Trail."
"Rats? More than one set?"
"D'ivers," Icarium agreed, nodding.
"Now who might that be, I wonder?"
Icarium studied the flat plain stretching into the west. "There will be others. Soletaken and D'ivers both. Those who feel near to Ascendancy, and those who are not, yet seek the Path nonetheless."
Mappo sighed, studying his old friend. Faint dread stirred within him. D'ivers and Soletaken, the twin curses of shapeshifting, the fever for which there is no cure. Gathering ... here, in this place. "Is this wise, Icarium?" he asked softly. "In seeking your eternal goal, we find ourselves walking into a most disagreeable convergence. Should the gates open, we shall find our passage contested by a host of bloodthirsty individuals all eager in their belief that the gates offer Ascendancy."
"If such a pathway exists," Icarium said, his eyes still on the horizon, "then perhaps I shall find my answers there as well."
Answers are no benediction, friend. Trust me in this. Please. "You have still not explained to me what you will do once you have found them."
Icarium turned to him with a faint smile. "I am my own curse, Mappo. I have lived centuries, yet what do I know of my own past? Where are my memories? How can I judge my own life without such knowledge?"
"Some would consider your curse a gift," Mappo said, a flicker of sadness passing across his features.
"I do not. I view this convergence as an opportunity. It might well provide me with answers. To achieve them, I hope to avoid drawing my weapons, but I shall if I must."
The Trell sighed a second time and rose from his crouch. "You may be tested in that resolve soon, friend." He faced southwest. "There are six desert wolves on our trail."
Icarium unwrapped his antlered bow and strung it in a swift, fluid motion. "Desert wolves never hunt people."
"No," Mappo agreed. It was another hour before the moon would rise. He watched Icarium lay out six long, stone-tipped arrows, then squinted out into the darkness. Cold fear crept along the nape of his neck. The wolves were not yet visible, but he felt them all the same. "They are six, but they are one. D'ivers."
Better it would have been a Soletaken. Veering into a single beast is unpleasant enough, but into many ...
Icarium frowned. "One of power, then, to achieve the shape of six wolves. Do you know who it might be?"
"I have a suspicion," Mappo said quietly.
They fell silent, waiting.
Half a dozen tawny shapes appeared out of a gloom that seemed of its own making, less than thirty strides away. At twenty paces the wolves spread out into an open half-circle facing Mappo and Icarium. The spicy scent of D'ivers filled the still night air. One of the lithe beasts edged forward, then stopped as Icarium raised his bow.
"Not six," Icarium muttered, "but one."
"I know him," Mappo said. "A shame he can't say the same of us. He is uncertain, but he's taken a blood-spilling form. Tonight, Ryllandaras hunts in the desert. Does he hunt us or something else, I wonder?"
Icarium shrugged. "Who shall speak first, Mappo?"
"Me," the Trell replied, taking a step forward. This would require guile and cunning. A mistake would prove deadly. He pitched his voice low and wry. "Long way from home, aren't we. Your brother Treach had it in mind that he killed you. Where was that chasm? Dal Hon? Or was it Li Heng? You were D'ivers jackals then, I seem to recall."
Ryllandaras spoke inside their minds, a voice cracking and halting with disuse. I am tempted to match wits with you, N'Trell, before killing you.
"Might not be worth it," Mappo replied easily. "With the company I've been keeping, I'm as out of practice as you, Ryllandaras."
The lead wolf's bright blue eyes flicked to Icarium.
"I have little wits to match," the Jaghut half-blood said softly, his voice barely carrying. "And I am losing patience."
Foolish. Charm is all that can save you. Tell me, bowman, do you surrender your life to your companion's wiles?
Icarium shook his head. "Of course not. I share his opinion of himself."
Ryllandaras seemed confused. A matter of expedience then, the two of you traveling together. Companions without trust, without confidence in each other. The stakes must be high.
"I am getting bored, Mappo," Icarium said.
The six wolves stiffened as one, half flinching. Mappo Runt and Icarium. Ah, we see. Know that we've no quarrel with you.
"Wits matched," Mappo said, his grin broadening a moment before disappearing entirely. "Hunt elsewhere, Ryllandaras, before Icarium does Treach a favor." Before you unleash all that I am sworn to prevent. "Am I understood?"
Our trail ... converges, the D'ivers said, upon the spoor of a demon of Shadow.
"Not Shadow any longer," Mappo replied. "Sha'ik's. The Holy Desert no longer sleeps."
So it seems. Do you forbid us our hunt?
Mappo glanced at Icarium, who lowered his bow and shrugged. "If you wish to lock jaws with an aptorian, that is your choice. Our interest was only passing."
Then indeed shall our jaws close upon the throat of the demon.
"You would make Sha'ik your enemy?" Mappo asked.
The lead wolf cocked its head. The name means nothing to me.
The two travelers watched as the wolves padded off, vanishing once again into a gloom of sorcery. Mappo showed his teeth, then sighed, and Icarium nodded, giving voice to their shared thought. "It will, soon."
The Wickan horsesoldiers loosed fierce cries of exultation as they led their broad-backed horses down the transport's gang-planks. The scene at the quayside of Hissar's Imperial Harbor was chaotic, a mass of unruly tribesmen and women, the flash of iron-headed lances rippling over black braided hair and spiked skullcaps. From his position on the harbor-entrance tower parapet, Duiker looked down on the wild outland company with more than a little skepticism, and with growing trepidation.
Beside the Imperial Historian stood the High Fist's representative, Mallick Rel, his fat, soft hands folded together and resting on his paunch, his skin the color of oiled leather and smelling of Aren perfumes. Mallick Rel looked nothing like the chief adviser to the Seven Cities' commander of the Malazan armies. A Jhistal priest of the Elder god of the seas, Mael, his presence here to officially convey the High Fist's welcome to the new Fist of the 7th Army was precisely what it appeared to be: a calculated insult. Although, Duiker amended silently, the man at his side had, in a very short time, risen to a position of power among the Imperial players on this continent. A thousand rumors rode the tongues of the soldiers about the smooth, soft-spoken priest and whatever weapon he held over High Fist Pormqual — each and every rumor no louder than a whisper, for Mallick Rel's path to Pormqual's side was a tale of mysterious misfortune befalling everyone who stood in his way, and fatal misfortune at that.
The political mire among the Malazan occupiers in Seven Cities was as obscure as it was potentially deadly. Duiker suspected that the new Fist would understand little of veiled gestures of contempt, lacking as he did the more civilized nuances of the Empire's tamed citizens. The question that remained for the historian, then, was how long Coltaine of the Crow Clan would survive his new appointment.
Mallick Rel pursed his full lips and slowly exhaled. "Historian," he said softly, his Gedorian Falari accent faint in its sibilant roll. "Pleased by your presence. Curious as well. Long from Aren court, now ..." He smiled, not showing his green-dyed teeth. "Caution bred of distant culling?"
Words like the lap of waves, the god Mael's formless affectation and insidious patience. This, my fourth conversation with Rel. Oh, how I dislike this creature! Duiker cleared his throat. "The Empress takes little heed of me, Jhistal ..."
Mallick Rel's soft laugh was like the rattle of a snake's tail. "Unheeded historian or unheeding of history? Hint of bitterness at advice rejected or worse, ignored. Be calmed, no crimes winging back from Unta's towers."
"Pleased to hear it," Duiker muttered, wondering at the priest's source. "I remain in Hissar as a matter of research," he explained after a moment. "The precedent of shipping prisoners to the Otataral mines on the island reaches back to the Emperor's time, although he generally reserved that fate for mages."
"Mages? Ah, ah."
Duiker nodded. "Effective, yes, although unpredictable. The specific properties of Otataral as a magic-deadening ore remain largely mysterious. Even so, madness claimed most of those sorcerers, although it is not known if that was the result of exposure to the ore dust, or the deprivation from their Warrens."
"Some mages among the next slave shipment?"
"Question soon answered, then."
"Soon," Duiker agreed.
The T-shaped quay was now a maelstrom of belligerent Wickans, frightened dock porters and short-tempered warhorses. A cordon of Hissar Guard provided the stopper to the bottleneck at the dock's end where it opened out onto the cobbled half-round. Of Seven Cities blood, the Guards had hitched their round shields and unsheathed their tulwars, waving the broad, curving blades threateningly at the Wickans, who answered with barking challenges.
Two men arrived on the parapet. Duiker nodded greetings. Mallick Rel did not deign to acknowledge either of them — a rough captain and the 7th's lone surviving cadre mage, both men clearly ranked too low for any worthwhile cultivation by the priest.
"Well, Kulp," Duiker said to the squat, white-haired wizard, "your arrival may prove timely."
Kulp's narrow, sunburned face twisted into a sour scowl. "Came up here to keep my bones and flesh intact, Duiker. I'm not interested in becoming Coltaine's lumpy carpet in his step up to the post. They're his people, after all. That he hasn't done a damned thing to quell this brewing riot doesn't bode well, I'd say."
The captain at his side grunted agreement. "Sticks in the throat," he growled. "Half the officers here saw their first blood facing that bastard Coltaine, and now here he is, about to take command. Hood's knuckles," he spat, "won't be any tears spilled if the Hissar Guard cuts down Coltaine and every one of his Wickan savages right here at the Quay. The Seventh don't need them." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson. Copyright © 2000 Steven Erikson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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