But Heboric sank back down, groping in the silts once more. ‘I killed my god.’
‘Heboric,’ said Mael of the Seas, ‘even gods of war will tire of war. It seems that only mortals will not. No matter. He has absolved you of all blame. His blood has brought life to dead lands. He deems it a worthy sacrifice.’
‘But that sacrifice will fail, Heboric,’ said the other Elder God, ‘if you do not awaken from your dream.’
‘Who is upon the tree?’
‘Heboric, there is no one upon the tree.’
The sightless eyes lifted once again. ‘No one?’
‘Let us see your hands, old friend. I have awakened all the warrens, and all now lead to one place. A cavern far beneath a barrow, made by the jaws of D’rek. Shall we walk there now, Heboric?’
‘No one dreams within a barrow.’
Both Elder Gods were silent to that, and when the Crippled God looked at each of them in turn he saw that they were weeping – he could see the tears on their weathered faces, as if they stood, not at the bottom of an ocean, but upon a desert.
Or upon the broken skin of a barrow.
When Heboric dragged his hands from the silts, one glowed emerald through the billowing clouds, the other the hue of Otataral. The face he now turned to the Elder Gods was filled with sudden fear. ‘Will I be alone there? In that cavern?’
‘No,’ replied Mael of the Seas. ‘Never again.’
‘Who was upon the tree?’
‘We go to her now, Heboric Ghosthands.’
They began walking, and the Crippled God could feel the sorceries of this realm drawing towards them, gathering, conjoining to make this road.
Then, ahead on the path, he saw the glimmer of a lantern – a figure, now guiding them forward, but from a great distance.
The journey seemed to take an eternity. Things sank down from time to time, coming from the darkness above, stirring clouds of silt into the currents. He saw ships of wood, ships of iron. He saw the carcasses of serpentine monsters. He saw a rain of human corpses, shark-gnawed and dragged down boots first to land upon the bottom as if to walk – perhaps even to join this procession – but then their legs folded beneath them, and the silts made for them a soft place to rest.
He thought he saw mounted warriors, glimmering green and blue, tracking them from a distance.
The lantern light was suddenly closer, and the Crippled God saw their guide standing before a cave chewed into the face of a massive cliffside.
When they reached the mouth of that cave, the two Elder Gods paused and both bowed to their guide, but that ghastly figure gave no sign of acknowledgement, only turned away, as if to take its light on to some other path. As if to lead others to their own fates.
They strode down a winding tunnel, and emerged in a vast cavern.
The Elder God who was not Mael of the Seas faced the Crippled God. ‘Long have you wandered the blood I gave to this realm. I am K’rul, the Maker of Warrens. Now it is time for you to leave, to return to your home.’
The Crippled God considered this, and then said, ‘I am flesh and bone. Made in the guise of a human. Where my children call down to me, I cannot go. Would you have me summon them down?’
‘No. That would mean our deaths – all of us.’
‘Yes. It would.’
‘There will be a way,’ K’rul said. ‘It begins with Heboric, but it ends at the hands of another.’
‘This flesh you wear,’ Mael of the Seas added, ‘is unsuited to your return. But it was the best that they could do.’
‘Fallen One,’ said K’rul, ‘will you trust us?’
The Crippled God looked at Heboric, and then he released his grip on the hands of the Elder Gods. Reached for Heboric’s.
But the mortal stepped back, and said, ‘Not yet, and not both of them. Both of them will kill you. I will reach for you, Lord, when the moment arrives. This I promise.’
The Crippled God bowed, and stepped back.
And with his Otataral hand, Heboric, once named Light-Touch, reached through the waters above him. Copper light burst forth, filled the entire cavern.
The vast fingers that erupted from the barrow encompassed the entire mound – but they did not tear the ground. Ghostly, translucent, they arced high overhead, and closed about the Otataral Dragon.
Korabas loosed a deafening scream – but if it was a cry of pain, torment or release Fiddler could not tell.
Beyond the Otataral Dragon, which was even now being drawn closer down above them, the manifestation of T’iam – growing ever more corporeal, forming a multi-headed leviathan – began to tear itself apart once more. Distant shrieks, as dragons pulled away, lunged free.
Most fled as if their tails were on fire. Fiddler stared, now unmindful of the vast, descending form of the Otataral Dragon, as they raced away, while others, too badly damaged, spun earthward, striking the ground with thunderous concussions. It’s fucking raining dragons.
Quick Ben stared upward, praying under his breath, and then his eyes narrowed – he could see through Korabas. He has her – whoever you are, you have her now.
Gods, this is going to work.
I promised, Burn. I promised you, didn’t I?
All right, so maybe I can’t take all the credit.
For modesty’s sake, if I ever talk about it, I mean. But here, in my head … I did it!
Kalam saw the infernal pride burgeoning in the wizard’s face and knew precisely what the scrawny bastard was thinking. The assassin wanted to hit the man. At least ten times.
Crouched, even as the ghostly body of the Otataral Dragon slipped down around them all, Kalam turned to look at the Crippled God. Who stood motionless, eyes shut, hands still raised into the sky.
Maybe a dragon can fly you up there, friend. They’re not all fleeing, are they?
A woman he’d never seen before slumped down beside him, offered him an inviting smile. ‘I like the look of you,’ she said.
Gods, not another one. ‘Who in Hood’s name are you?’
Her smile flashed wider. ‘I am the woman who stole the moon. Oh, I see that you don’t believe me, do you?’
‘It’s not that,’ he replied. ‘Fine, you stole it – but then you broke the fucking thing!’
Fury lit her face most becomingly. ‘I am Apsal’ara, the Mistress of Thieves!’
He grinned at her. ‘Never liked thieves.’ Frustrate them. Works every time.