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Better, Cotillion decided, than jaded scepticism. Oh, how he was sick of that. ‘Tell me,’ he resumed, ‘what do you think you’re seeing here? Desperation? Panic? A failing of will, some inevitable decline crumbling to incompetence? Do you believe in failure, Edgewalker?’

The apparition remained silent for a time, and then spoke in a broken, rasping voice. ‘You cannot be so … audacious.’

‘I asked if you believed in failure. Because I don’t.’

‘Even should you succeed, Cotillion. Beyond all expectation, beyond, even, all desire. They will still speak of your failure.’

He sheathed his daggers. ‘And you know what they can do to themselves.’

The head cocked, strands of hair dangling and drifting. ‘Arrogance?’

‘Competence,’ Cotillion snapped in reply. ‘Doubt me at your peril.’

‘They will not believe you.’

‘I do not care, Edgewalker. This is what it is.’

When he set out, he was not surprised that the deathless guardian followed. We have done this before. Dust and ashes puffed with each step. The wind moaned as if trapped in a crypt. ‘Almost time, Edgewalker.’

‘I know. You cannot win.’

Cotillion paused, half turned. He smiled a ravaged smile. ‘That doesn’t mean I have to lose, does it?’

Dust lifted, twisting, in her wake. From her shoulders trailed dozens of ghastly chains: bones bent and folded into irregular links, ancient bones in a thousand shades between white and deep brown. Scores of individuals made up each chain, malformed skulls matted with hair, fused spines, long bones, clacking and clattering. They drifted out behind her like a tyrant’s legacy and left a tangled skein of furrows in the withered earth that stretched for leagues.

Her pace did not slow, as steady as the sun’s own crawl to the horizon ahead, as inexorable as the darkness overtaking her. She was indifferent to notions of irony, and the bitter taste of irreverent mockery that could so sting the palate. In this there was only necessity, the hungriest of gods. She had known imprisonment. The memories remained fierce, but such recollections were not those of crypt walls and unlit tombs. Darkness, indeed, but also pressure. Terrible, unbearable pressure.

Madness was a demon and it lived in a world of helpless need, a thousand desires unanswered, a world without resolution. Madness, yes, she had known that demon. They had bargained with coins of pain, and those coins came from a vault that never emptied. She’d once known such wealth.

And still the darkness pursued.

Walking, a thing of hairless pate, skin the hue of bleached papyrus, elongated limbs that moved with uncanny grace. The landscape surrounding her was empty, flat on all sides but ahead, where a worn-down range of colourless hills ran a wavering claw along the horizon.

She had brought her ancestors with her and they rattled a chaotic chorus. She had not left a single one behind. Every tomb of her line now gaped empty, as hollowed out as the skulls she’d plundered from their sarcophagi. Silence ever spoke of absence. Silence was the enemy of life and she would have none of it. No, they talked in mutters and grating scrapes, her perfect ancestors, and they were the voices of her private song, keeping the demon at bay. She was done with bargains.

Long ago, she knew, the worlds – pallid islands in the Abyss – crawled with creatures. Their thoughts were blunt and simple, and beyond those thoughts there was nothing but murk, an abyss of ignorance and fear. When the first glimmers awakened in that confused gloom, they quickly flickered alight, burning like spot fires. But the mind did not awaken to itself on strains of glory. Not beauty, not even love. It did not stir with laughter or triumph. Those fires, snapping to life, all belonged to one thing and one thing only.

The first word of sentience was justice. A word to feed indignation. A word empowering the will to change the world and all its cruel circumstances, a word to bring righteousness to brutal infamy. Justice, bursting to life in the black soil of indifferent nature. Justice, to bind families, to build cities, to invent and to defend, to fashion laws and prohibitions, to hammer the unruly mettle of gods into religions. All the prescribed beliefs rose out twisting and branching from that single root, losing themselves in the blinding sky.

But she and her kind had stayed wrapped about the base of that vast tree, forgotten, crushed down; and in their place, beneath stones, bound in roots and dark earth, they were witness to the corruption of justice, to its loss of meaning, to its betrayal.

Gods and mortals, twisting truths, had in a host of deeds stained what once had been pure.

Well, the end was coming. The end, dear ones, is coming. There would be no more children, rising from the bones and rubble, to build anew all that had been lost. Was there even one among them, after all, who had not suckled at the teat of corruption? Oh, they fed their inner fires, yet they hoarded the light, the warmth, as if justice belonged to them alone.

She was appalled. She seethed with contempt. Justice was incandescent within her, and it was a fire growing day by day, as the wretched heart of the Chained One leaked out its endless streams of blood. Twelve Pures remained, feeding. Twelve. Perhaps there were others, lost in far-flung places, but she knew nothing of them. No, these twelve, they would be the faces of the final storm, and, pre-eminent among them all, she would stand at that storm’s centre.

She had been given her name for this very purpose, long ago now. The Forkrul Assail were nothing if not patient. But patience itself was yet one more lost virtue.

Chains of bone trailing, Calm walked across the plain, as the day’s light died behind her.

‘God failed us.’

Trembling, sick to his stomach as something cold, foreign, coursed through his veins, Aparal Forge clenched his jaw to stifle a retort. This vengeance is older than any cause you care to invent, and no matter how often you utter those words, Son of Light, the lies and madness open like flowers beneath the sun. And before me I see nothing but lurid fields of red, stretching out on all sides.

This wasn’t their battle, not their war. Who fashioned this law that said the child must pick up the father’s sword? And dear Father, did you really mean this to be? Did she not abandon her consort and take you for her own? Did you not command us to peace? Did you not say to us that we children must be as one beneath the newborn sky of your union?

What crime awoke us to this?

I can’t even remember.

‘Do you feel it, Aparal? The power?’

‘I feel it, Kadagar.’ They’d moved away from the others, but not so far as to escape the agonized cries, the growl of the Hounds, or, drifting out over the broken rocks in ghostly streams, the blistering breath of cold upon their backs. Before them rose the infernal barrier. A wall of imprisoned souls. An eternally crashing wave of despair. He stared at the gaping faces through the mottled veil, studied the pitted horror in their eyes. You were no different, were you? Awkward with your inheritance, the heavy blade turning this way and that in your hand.

Why should we pay for someone else’s hatred?

‘What so troubles you, Aparal?’

‘We cannot know the reason for our god’s absence, Lord. I fear it is presumptuous of us to speak of his failure.’

Kadagar Fant was silent.

Aparal closed his eyes. He should never have spoken. I do not learn. He walked a bloody path to rule and the pools in the mud still gleam red. The air about Kadagar remains brittle. This flower shivers to secret winds. He is dangerous, so very dangerous.

‘The Priests spoke of impostors and tricksters, Aparal.’ Kadagar’s tone was even, devoid of inflection. It was the voice he used when furious. ‘What god would permit that? We are abandoned. The path before us now belongs to no one else – it is ours to choose.’