Hedge threw the assassin a waterskin. ‘You’re out of shape, soldier.’
Fiddler saw his marines drawing up – their eyes were on the approaching dragon, and the hundreds of other, smaller dragons swooping down upon it in deadly waves. When some of them saw the blight, spreading out and now rushing closer, they flinched back. Fiddler well understood that gesture. ‘Quick Ben! Can she protect us?’
The wizard scowled across at him. ‘You don’t know? She’s here, isn’t she? Why else would she be here?’ He then advanced on Fiddler. ‘Didn’t you plan this?’
‘Plan? What fucking plan?’ he retorted, unwilling to budge. ‘Banaschar said something … his god was coming – to offer protection—’
‘Exactly – wait, what kind of protection?’
‘I don’t know!’
The blight struck the lower ground, caught the scattered Kolansii soldiers. They disintegrated in billows of dust.
The Malazans threw themselves to the ground, covering their heads.
Fiddler simply stared, as the Otataral Dragon voiced a terrible cry that seemed to hold in it a world’s pain and anguish, age upon age – and its tattered wings, snapping like torn sails, thundered wildly in the air as the creature halted directly above the barrow. Quick Ben pulled him down to the ground.
Nearby the earth shook as the corpse of a dragon slammed into it. A curtain of blood slapped the hillside.
The wizard dragged himself close. ‘Stay low – she’s fighting it. Gods, it’s killing her!’
Twisting round on the ground, Fiddler looked over at the Crippled God. His eyes widened.
Forged by the gods, the chains shattered like ice, links exploding, flinging shards in a vicious hail. Soldiers cried out, flinched away. The Crippled God remained lying on the ground, motionless. He had carried that weight for so long, he felt unable to move.
Yet his chest filled with air, the unyielding constriction now gone. The sudden release from pain left him hollow inside. Trembling took his body, and he turned his head.
The mortals were screaming, though he could not hear them. They looked upon him with desperate need, but he no longer understood what they desired of him. And then, blinking, he stared up, not at the hovering, dying dragon, but beyond it.
My worshippers. My children. I hear them. I hear their calls.
The Crippled God slowly sat up, staring down at his mangled hands, the uneven fingers, the nubs where nails should have been. He studied his scarred, seamed skin, the slack muscles beneath it. Is this mine? Is this how I am?
Rising to his feet, his attention was caught by the hundreds of dragons now massing to the south. They had drawn back from the Otataral Dragon, and now had begun writhing, swarming against each other, forming spiralling pillars of scale, wings and dragon flesh, twisting above a more solid mass. The shape towered into the sky, impossibly huge, and from the flattened, elongated ends of those pillars, high above them all, eyes suddenly flared awake.
A word whispered into the Crippled God’s mind – faint, yet still voiced in a howl of terror.
Manifesting. Awakening to slay the Otataral Dragon.
The Crippled God saw a man fighting his way closer to where he stood, as if against a whirlwind. Iron in his beard, a familiar face he vaguely recalled, and with that recollection vague emotions rising into his thoughts. There have been sacrifices this day. Made for me, by these strangers. Yet … asking for nothing. Not for themselves. Still, what do they now want from me?
I am free.
I can hear my children.
And yet they are trapped in the heavens. If I call them down, all will be destroyed here.
There were others, once – they fell as I did, and so much was damaged, so much was lost. I see them still, trapped in jade, shaped to make a message to these mortal creatures – but that message was never understood, and the voices stayed for ever trapped within.
If I call my children down, this world will end in fire.
Craning, he stared beseechingly into the heavens, and reached up, as if he might fly into them.
The uneven fingers strained on the ends of his misshapen hands, pathetic as broken wings.
The bearded man reached him, and now at last the Crippled God could hear his words, could understand them.
‘You must chain her! Lord! She will accept your chains! You must – T’iam is manifesting! She will destroy everything!’
The Crippled God felt his face twisting. ‘Chain her? I, who have known an eternity in chains? You cannot ask this of me!’
‘Chain her or she dies!’
‘Then death shall be her release!’
‘Lord – if she dies, then we all die! I beg you, chain her!’
He studied this mortal. ‘She accepts this?’
‘Yes! And quickly – D’rek is dying beneath us.’
‘But my power is alien – I have no means of binding it to this world, mortal.’
‘Find a way! You have to!’
He was freed. He could walk from this place. He could leave these mortals – not even the deadly power of the Otataral Dragon could harm him. Otataral, after all, is nothing more than the scab this world makes to answer the infection. And what is that infection? Why, it is me.
The Crippled God looked down upon this mortal. He kneels, as all broken mortals kneel. Against the cruelty of this and every world, a mortal can do nothing but kneel.
Even before a foreign god.
And what of the love I possess? Perhaps there is nothing – but no, there is no such thing as foreign love.
He closed his eyes, released his mind to this world.
And found them waiting for him.
Two Elder Gods, each taking a hand – their touches heartbreakingly gentle. The crushing pressure in this place had levelled every feature, darkness and silts swirling in unceasing dance. Currents raged on all sides, but none could reach through – the gods held them at bay.
No, only one of these Elders possessed that power, and he was named Mael of the Seas.
They led him across this plain, this ocean bed lost to the sun’s light.
To where knelt another mortal – but only his soul remained, though for the moment it once more occupied the body it had abandoned long ago: rotted with decay, swirl-tattoos seeming to flow in the currents from the naked form. He knelt with his hands thrust down, buried deep in the silts, as if seeking a lost coin, a precious treasure, a memento.
When he looked up at them, the Crippled God saw that he was blind.
‘Who is this?’ the mortal asked. ‘Who is this, nailed so cruelly to this tree? Please, I beg you – I cannot see. Please, tell me. Is it him? He tried to save me. It cannot have come to this. It cannot!’
And the Elder God who was not Mael of the Seas then spoke. ‘Heboric, you but dream, and this dream of yours is not a conversation. Only a monologue. In this dream, Heboric Ghosthands, you are trapped.’
But the mortal named Heboric shook his head. ‘You don’t understand. All I have touched I have destroyed. Friends. Gods. Even the child – I lost her too, to the Whirlwind. I lost them all.’
‘Heboric Ghosthands,’ said Mael, ‘will you fill this ocean with your tears? If you believe this notion to be new, know this: these waters were so filled … long ago.’
The other Elder God said, ‘Heboric, you must awaken from this dream. You must free your hands – they have waited for this moment since the island. They have touched and taken the Jade and now within you reside a million lost souls – souls belonging to this foreign god. And, too, your hands have touched Otataral, the summoner of Korabas.’