The conclusion to Ian C. Esslemont's epic fantasy Path to Ascendancy trilogya prequel story set in the New York Times bestselling Malazan Empire seriesco-created by Steven Erikson.
The incessant war between the bickering city states of Quon Tali rages. So engrossed are the warring lords and princes in their own petty feuds that few notice that an upstart mage from Dal Hon has gained control of the southern seas.
Kellanved could not care less about any of this petty politicking or strategy or war. Something other and altogether more mysterious has caught his attention and he - together with a reluctant and his decidedly skeptical friend Dancer - traverse continents and journey through the Realms. But this ancient mystery that has so captivated Kellanved is neither esoteric nor ephemeral. It involves the Elder races themselves, and more alarmingly, the semi-mythic Army of Dust and Bone.
Surely no one in their right mind would be so foolish as to embark on a journey from which none have returned? Well, no one except Kellanved.
Path to Ascendancy
#1 Dancer's Lament
#2 Deadhouse Landing
#3 Kellanved's Reach
About the Author
IAN C. ESSLEMONT grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has studied archaeology and creative writing, has traveled extensively in Southeast Asia, and lived in Thailand and Japan for several years. He lives in Alaska with his wife and children and writes novels set in the world of Malaz, a world he co-created with Steven Erikson, including Blood and Bone and Assail.
Read an Excerpt
Dancer slipped silently into the main reception hall of Mock's Hold and peered round. It was night and only the torches in their sconces lit the broad empty chamber. Turning, he nodded to Surly and indicated the stairs. 'He's in his rooms,' he mouthed as quietly as possible.
Surly, a Napan woman bearing the characteristic blue hue of those isles' natives, turned to the two men hanging back, also Napans. Cartheron Crust and Urko Crust were brothers, but as unalike as night and day, since Cartheron stood short and wiry while Urko bulked as wide as an ox. 'No one comes down or up,' she ordered.
Cartheron nodded, while his brother smacked one meaty fist into the other palm. Dancer and Surly glared at the loud slap of flesh and he grimaced, muttering, 'Sorry.'
Surly started up. Her bare feet were silent on the polished stone. Dancer glided with her almost as if he were floating up the steps. Together, they reached one particular door in the hall and took up positions to either side.
They nodded in unison, then Dancer took the latch and threw open the door. Both stormed into the chamber.
An aged, dark-skinned Dal Hon native snorted at the interruption, feet up on a desk, arms crossed over his paunch. He blinked, surprised, then frowned his displeasure. 'So,' he announced, 'it has come to this.'
'You leave us no choice, Kellanved,' Dancer answered. 'If you cooperate we'll make it quick.'
The wizened elder twisted up his lips and turned his face away. He crossed his arms. 'Never. You wouldn't dare.'
With a gesture as graceful as his name, Dancer invited Surly forward. She leaned up against Kellanved's desk. Crossing her arms, she cleared her throat and began, 'Let me see ... Nom Purge remains in perpetual warfare with Quon Tali. Dal Hon is currently probing a weakened Itko Kan's borders. The Seti continue to attack anyone other than travellers who enters the central plains. The War Marshal of the Bloorian League, in secret connivance with Unta, is steadily isolating Gris from its surrounding principates and allies, while the city state of Cawn sells arms and provides mercenaries to all sides.'
The wrinkled ancient had pressed his hands to his ears and was shaking his head. 'No! Stop this horrible babble – you're killing me!' 'Then how are we to proceed?' Dancer demanded. 'Tell us what you have in mind. For once.'
'Never! The element of surprise ...'
'Surprise our enemies,' Dancer pleaded. 'Not us!' He nodded for the woman to continue. 'Surly here has spent a great deal of time thinking about Nap.'
The ancient mage rolled his eyes. 'Oh, please. Who cares about Nap now? Dancer, a much more profound errand beckons ...'
The assassin glared a warning. 'Hear her out, at the least.'
Kellanved groaned and let his head fall to the desk.
Ignoring this, Surly went on, 'We should approach Dal Hon for an agreement exempting their shores and merchants from all attacks. We could ask for twenty ships with crews – or funding to the equivalent. For if we take Nap we will be the sole raiders of the Southern Seas. And they know this.'
Kellanved's head snapped up. 'We? What is this we business?' He eyed Dancer narrowly.
Dancer pressed a hand to his brow in frustration. 'That's all you take away from that? This is sound strategy. I think we should listen.'
The mage set his elbows on the desk and steepled his fingers before his chin. He regarded Dancer with some scepticism. 'And just which we are we talking about here?'
'You, me, us – whoever! Just listen, dammit all to Burn!'
Kellanved pursed his lips and bounced his steepled fingers from them then lowered his hands to grip the desk. 'Very well. I shall reveal my plans! They are as follows ... we shall take all our ships, attack Dariyal, and take Nap!' He thrust a bent finger into the air. 'Ha!'
Surly and Dancer eyed one another, appalled. Dancer pulled a hand down his face. 'Gods have mercy,' he muttered, and turned away to pour a drink.
'That's just what Tarel would expect,' Surly explained, rather acidly. 'The same thing's been tried again and again for hundreds of years.' She pressed her hands together, almost at a loss for words. 'Nap invading Malaz, Malaz invading Nap. It always fails in the end. We need an alliance. I suggest Dal Hon.'
Kellanved waved that aside. 'I need no damned allies. Duplicitous betrayers! Two-faced turncoats! I curse them all.'
'Then what exactly do you suggest?' Dancer demanded.
'Exactly what I just outlined.'
Dancer sipped his wine. He eyed the mage over the glass. 'Haven't you been listening?'
Kellanved nodded. 'Yes I have. I hear that my plan is exactly what Talen and his admirals would expect of a new impetuous leader such as myself.' He cocked a brow at Surly. 'Yes?'
Now the Napan raider frowned, uncertain of the man's tack. 'Well, yes ...' Kellanved gave a curt nod. 'Excellent. Because said invasion will be a
diversion to draw their forces out of the capital. The real attack will come from the landward side. I myself shall transport a small force on to the island, led perhaps by our friend Dassem, to take the palace and replace its ruler.'
Surly snapped up a hand. 'Agreed – so long as you swear to leave Tarel to me.'
Kellanved inclined his head. 'Agreed.' He waved, shooing Surly from his chambers. 'Very good. Now, make the same offer to Itko Kan and Cawn in secret. But we will renege on those – yes?'
Dancer and Surly turned to eye one another, their brows rising: neither had thought of that.
Kellanved waved Surly off. 'Go on! Make the arrangements. Dancer and I have things to talk over.'
Surly did not move. Her gaze slid between the two, suspicious. 'If you disappear again how can I count on you being where you need to be?'
'Tayschrenn should be able to contact us,' Kellanved supplied, untroubled. 'And in any case, I see your point. We shan't be leaving for some time.'
She backed away to the door. 'Very well. But how can we know you'll be there ...'
He fluttered a hand. 'We shall. Do not worry.'
She pulled the door open, and could not help but add a last, dark, muttered, 'You'd better be.'
* * *
The Crust brothers met her at the bottom of the stairs and Cartheron asked, 'So? How'd it go? What's the plan?'
She eyed the upper rooms and ran her fingertips over the ridged calloused knuckles of her other hand. 'Remind me to stop underestimating that damned fool mage.'
* * *
Baron Elath Lallind, Sentry of the Seti Marches and High General of Nom Purge, was very pleased with his prosecution of the campaign against Quon Tali to date. He'd taken over from General Yellen of the Agar family – now stripped of all rank and disgraced – two seasons ago, and since then had proved victor far more often than the reverse. The most recent retreat of Quon Talian forces had brought the contending armies to the very border of Quon lands, at the shore-side plains of Sighing Grasses. A victory here would open the way to the rich northern provinces of their traditional enemy, and not too inconsequentially seal his name as the greatest leader in the history of Nom Purge. So it was that confidence was high and the mood one of barely suppressed glee at this last meeting of his command staff before battle.
'We will finally break them here and retake our ancient lands,' Elath announced to the nobles, captains and aides gathered in his command tent. 'So ends the last legacy of their vaunted hegemony.'
All glasses rose in a toast. 'To the general!' All save one, Elath noticed, a young captain of heavy infantry, risen to prominence for his personal skill in battle. Hugely broad he was, and blunt-faced. An uncouth commoner with a thick length of prematurely grey hair.
Elath lowered his glass, his satisfaction souring. 'You are concerned?' he asked this leader of one of their foreign contingents.
The fellow rubbed a heavy paw over his jowls and let out a breath of unease. 'It's not like these Quon Talians to be so unprepared. Where are their reinforcements?'
'Our sources tell us this is all they can muster at this time.' He offered a shrug. 'Quon and Tali are not what they once were.'
'And they no doubt have sources among you who tell them you believe this.'
Elath's mood was now positively darkening. 'And you are ... Orjin Samarr? Yes? Well, come out with it, Captain Samarr. What is it you are suggesting?'
The swordsman pointed to the east. 'These deep wooded valleys flanking the plain. You could hide a whole army in there. I don't like it.'
Elath turned a raised brow upon Baron Ghenst Terrall of the Coastal Provinces. The baron bowed. 'The woods are clear, lord marshal. My own personal scouts searched them.'
Elath returned his attention to the foreign swordsman. 'There you are. The baron assures us they are clear.'
'Just the same, I'd feel a lot better if I could send a few of my own lads and lasses to —'
The marshal snapped up a hand for silence. 'Captain ... if a noble of Nom Purge says something is so, then it is so. A gentleman does not question another gentleman's word.'
Many of the gathered nobility smirked at this particular phrasing, while the foreigner's thick brows clenched as if he were too dense to parse the hidden insult behind the words. He nodded then, bowing to the general. 'Too much drink, perhaps.' He finished his cup and picked up the battered iron gauntlets on the table before him. He saluted the marshal, 'To a glorious victory, sir,' and brushed aside the heavy tent flap, exiting.
Outside, in the cold damp wind off the deeps of the Western Sea, he muttered to himself, 'But whose?'
Four figures rose from a fire nearby. A scarred Wickan with a wild, wind-tossed mane of tangled hair, wearing a long studded leather hauberk; a towering pale fellow, bald, in an iron cuirass; a woman in a full-length coat of mail, twinned Untan duelling swords at her sides; and a squat, very black Dal Hon elder in a cloak of multicoloured rags and patches.
'He's not attacking, is he?' the woman demanded.
Orjin sighed; tucked his gauntlets into his weapon-belt. 'He's attacking.'
'And the woods?' the bald giant asked.
'Baron Ghenst Terrall assures us that the woods are clear.'
'There are horses in the woods,' the Wickan muttered. 'I can sense them.'
'And what would you know about horses?' the Dal Hon ancient cackled. 'That is rich! You, Arkady, a Wickan without a horse!'
The Wickan answered slowly, through tightly clenched teeth, 'I told you ... I swore a vow.'
Orjin waved a hand for silence. 'Spread the word – everyone stick close to me. We may have to carve our way out of Hood's own grasp tomorrow.'
The four nodded, answering, 'Aye, captain.'
* * *
It was probably Orjin's impolitic honesty at the staff meeting that saw his command stationed at the rear of the dispositions for the coming battle, in the reserves. He and his would see no glory this day, but that suited him just fine. He wasn't in it for the glory; leave that to the nobles bred on war and battle. He was here for ... well, he really couldn't say why he was here. It all happened kind of by accident. He'd left Geni, a small backwater fishing isle famous for nothing, and set out to win a living by the only thing he seemed to have an aptitude for – swordplay. And over the next few years he'd found himself with a growing name and a growing set of followers attracted to that name. Now he was a captain, if only unofficially, as his troop was no formal mercenary force, rather more like a large warband such as the chieftains of ancient times used to lead.
So it was that at dawn he and his command stood waiting with hands at belts, or, in the case of the bald giant Orhan of Fenn, leaning his seven-foot frame on a twelve-foot-tall halberd.
As the rising sun burned the fog from the plain and warmed him, the light murmur of contact reached even here, far to the rear.
'Skirmishers are feeling each other out,' Terath supplied, her gauntleted hands clasping and reclasping the worn leather grips of her duelling swords.
The Wickan, Arkady, grunted his agreement.
'You know,' offered Orhan, 'in battles the view I'm used to isn't the rumps of the officers' horses.'
'We must be really far back,' Arkady grumbled.
The swordswoman had set to rubbing her teeth with a willow twig and now she tossed this aside, spitting. 'You know what we say out east in Unta about this interminable Purge–Tali war?'
'What, Terath?' Orjin answered, distracted, focused upon the growing clamour of battle ahead – the lights and mediums must be closing upon one another.
'Everyone says that the war with Nom Purge is just the Talians keeping in practice.'
The giant Orhan's chuckle was a deep bass rumble. 'That is a good one. I like that.'
Orjin rubbed his chin, listening even more keenly now, and muttered, 'I think you're right in that, Terath.'
A roar washed over them at the rear, sweeping down from the battlefield – the largest cohorts colliding, mostly medium infantry. Among these two armies the cavalry was mainly the officer corps and their staff, for visibility and mobility rather than actual fighting.
'Now or never ...' he breathed aloud.
But it came not as he'd expected it – an explosive burst of despairing shouts and screams – rather, all the Nom Purge mounted officers in view slewed their horses over to the forested east and Orjin knew that the rest of the Quon Talian forces had just revealed themselves. And done so too far from the engagement.
'Ready weapons!' he bellowed to his troop.
The impact of the charging Quon Tali forces came as a menacing roar and a shudder beneath their feet. Orjin knew the Purge forces still had a chance – as long as they held fast and resisted. One break, or routed company, however, could very well crack the entire dam. He and his force awaited the outcome, whichever it may be, in the rear.
After a good twenty minutes of pitched battle back and forth, Nom Purge infantry appeared, running past them, some even throwing down their weapons as they went. Orjin sought out the company mage, the Dal Hon shaman, Yune, and gave him a nod. The hunched old man pounded his raven-feather-strung staff to the ground – once. That blow communicated itself to all Orjin's forces, its meaning prearranged: Tighten up.
Mounted Nom Purge nobles then appeared, battered and bloodied, pushing their horses through the milling infantry to charge past Samarr's unit.
'Where is Elath?' he yelled as they thundered by. 'Dammit! What's going on?' All ignored him. Orjin spotted a harried and wild-eyed Baron Ghenst Terrall among those abandoning the field and charged towards him, pushing aside fleeing soldiers as he went. He waved the nobleman down.
'Out of my way, damn you!' the baron shouted.
'Rally the troops – while you can!' Orjin shouted back.
Ghenst attempted to yank his mount around him. 'Word of this must reach the queen, dog!'
'And what of the woods?' Orjin demanded. 'The Quon forces came out of the woods!'
For an instant their eyes met, and the baron glanced away, his face flushing. Stunned, Orjin let his arms fall. 'You Hood-damned bastard ...'
Ghenst took that moment to spur his mount past.
Orjin's troops found him there, motionless, still peering after the diminishing figure of the fleeing nobleman. They surrounded him, using the flat of their blades to push back a rising tide of refugees from the front, all clamouring for protection among Orjin's tight unit. The giant Orhan came wading through the press. 'Orders?' he rumbled.
Blinking, coming to himself, Orjin gestured to the east. 'Make for cover in the woods – as a unit!'
Orhan inclined his bald scarred head. 'Aye, aye.' He waved his great halberd overhead in a circle, ending the arc to point east. As one, the chevron of mercenary heavies began marching, with Orjin at point.
As they pushed through the rout, Orjin spotted a staff messenger, bloodied from a head blow, staggering almost aimlessly. He broke ranks to take hold of the woman's shoulder and give her a shake. 'What happened, dammit to Hood!'
'We held them,' she murmured, dazed. 'We held ... but there were too many. Too many ...'
'And Elath? What word?'
'Fallen.' She wiped a wet, bloodied hand across her face. 'We are lost.'
'Only if you break,' Samarr snarled, pushing her to the rear. 'Never break.'
They marched onward. Quon Talian forces now appeared, harrying the broken Purge mediums. Among these came grim-faced heavies in long surcoats that bore a black field adorned by a simple silver crown. The famous sigil of the Talian Iron Legion.
These men and women simply struck a guard, allowing Orjin's troops to pass; after all, the day was already theirs. Why pursue unnecessary hard knocks?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Kellanved's Reach"
Copyright © 2019 Ian Cameron Esslemont.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.