Hearing the exchange, Quick Ben snorted.
Kalam, you never learn, do you? Or maybe you just can’t help yourself.
The roof of the cavern suddenly glowed white-hot, and Heboric spun to the Crippled God. ‘Now! Open your eyes – you can’t be down here when she arrives. No one can!’
The Crippled God turned. He sensed the two Elder Gods were gone.
Farewell, Mael of the Seas and K’rul Maker of Warrens.
‘Open your eyes!’
And so he did, and in that moment he felt Heboric take his hand.
Koryk had dragged himself behind a tilted standing stone, his eyes fixed upon the Crippled God not five paces away. There was a need inside him, unbearable, savage. It wanted to devour him. It wanted to annihilate the world, the one he lived in, the one that had nothing but the thinnest skin between what hid inside and what lay outside.
There was no answer. None but the obvious one – the one he dared not look at. If he did, he would have to face his own story – not as some nostalgic bravado, but as the succession of hurts that he was not unique in carrying. And he would see all the scars – the ones he bore, the others he had made on those close to him.
He stared at the Crippled God, as if it could somehow save his soul.
And the Fallen One opened his eyes – and stared directly into Koryk’s.
Jade fire lit a whirling pillar round the god, spinning ever faster, the glow brightening, the air howling.
Their gazes were locked together through the emerald flames.
And Koryk saw something – there, awakening, a look … a promise.
He felt his soul reaching forth – closer … closer – reaching to touch.
The Crippled God smiled at him, with such love, such knowing.
The shadow rising behind him was out of place – it could not belong inside those raging fires. Yet Koryk saw it lifting, taking form. He saw two arms rising from that shape, saw the raw, dull gleam of dagger blades.
Koryk’s scream of warning ripped raw his throat – he flung himself forward—
Even as Cotillion’s knives plunged down.
To sink into the Crippled God’s back.
Shock took that otherworldly face – as if the smile had never been – and the head rocked back, the body arching in agony.
Someone slammed into Koryk, dragged him to the ground. He fought, howling.
The green fire ignited, shot spiralling into the sky – so fast it was gone in moments.
Koryk stared after it, one hand stretching upward.
Beside him, too close to bear, he heard Fiddler say, ‘It was the only way, Koryk. It’s for the best. Nothing you can—’
Suddenly sobbing, Koryk pushed the man away, and then curled up, like a child who lived in a world of broken promises.
Hedge pulled Fiddler away from the sobbing soldier. Fiddler shot him a helpless look.
‘He’ll shake out of it,’ Hedge said. ‘Once it all settles and he works it out, he’ll be fine, Fid.’
Quick Ben and Kalam joined the two sappers, and Fiddler fixed his eyes on the wizard. ‘Was it real, Quick? What I saw – did I …’
The wizard gestured and they followed him to one edge of the summit. He pointed down to a lone figure standing some distance away, little more than a silhouette, its back to them. ‘Care to ask him, Fid?’
Ask him? After all we’ve done … how to see this? Ask him? What if he answers me? ‘No,’ he said.
‘Listen, you were right – it had to be this way.’
Yes! It had to – we didn’t do all this for nothing!
Fiddler stepped back, eyed the three men standing before him. ‘Look at us,’ he whispered. ‘I never thought …’
‘Send them down, Fid,’ said Hedge. ‘Your soldiers – get ’em to carry the wounded down off this fucking barrow.’
Quick Ben and Kalam were now eyeing Hedge suspiciously.
The man scowled at the attention. ‘Fid, send them down, will you? This is just for us – don’t you see? What’s coming – it’s just for us.’
When Fiddler turned, he saw his soldiers. And, feeling grief grip his heart, he forced himself to look from one face to the next. In his mind, he spoke their names. Tarr. Koryk. Bottle. Smiles. Balm. Throatslitter. Deadsmell. Widdershins. Hellian. Urb. Limp. Crump. Sinter. Kisswhere. Maybe. Flashwit. Mayfly. Clasp. Nep Furrow. Reliko. Vastly Blank. Masan Gilani. ‘Where’s Nefarias Bredd?’ he demanded.
Sergeant Tarr tilted his head. ‘Captain?’
‘Where is he, damn you?’
‘There is no Nefarias Bredd, sir. We made him up – on the march to Y’Ghatan. Got us a bad loaf of bread. Someone called it nefarious. We thought it was funny – like something Braven Tooth would’ve made up.’ He shrugged.
‘But I—’ Fiddler turned to Hedge, saw the man’s blank look. ‘Oh, never mind,’ he sighed, facing his soldiers again. ‘All of you, go down – take Sweetlard and Rumjugs with you. I’ll … I’ll be down shortly.’
He watched them walk away. He knew their thoughts – the emptiness now overtaking them. Which would in the days and nights ahead slowly fill with grief, until they were all drowning. Fiddler looked back up at the sky. The Jade Strangers looked farther away. He knew that was impossible. Too soon for that. Still …
A faint wind swept across the summit, cool and dry.
‘Now,’ said Hedge.
Fiddler thought he heard horses, drawing up, and then three figures were climbing into view. Ghostly, barely visible to his eyes – he could see through them all.
Whiskeyjack. Trotts. Mallet.
‘Aw, shit,’ said Kalam, kicking at a discarded helm. It spun, rolled down the hillside.
Whiskeyjack regarded him. ‘Got something to say, Assassin?’
And the man suddenly grinned. ‘It stinks, sir, from here to the throne.’
The ghost nodded, and then squinted westward for a moment before turning to Hedge. ‘Well done, soldier. It was a long way back. You ready for us now?’
Fiddler felt something crumble inside him.
Hedge drew off his tattered leather cap, scratched at the few hairs left on his mottled scalp. ‘That depends, sir.’
‘On what?’ Whiskeyjack demanded, eyes fixing hard on the sapper.
Hedge glanced over at Fiddler. ‘On him, sir.’
And Fiddler knew what he had to say. ‘I let you go long ago, Hedge.’
‘Aye. But that was then and this isn’t. You want me to stay? A few more years, maybe? Till it’s your time, I mean?’
If he spoke at all, Fiddler knew that he would lose control. So he simply nodded.
Hedge faced Whiskeyjack. ‘Not yet, sir. Besides, I was talking with my sergeants just the other day. About buying us a bar, back in Malaz City. Maybe even Smiley’s.’
Fiddler shot the man a glare. ‘But no one can find it, Hedge. Kellanved went and hid it.’
‘Kitty-corner to the Deadhouse, that’s where it is. Everyone knows, Fid.’
‘But they can’t find it, Hedge!’
The man shrugged. ‘I will.’
‘Fiddler,’ Whiskeyjack said. ‘Pay attention now. Our time is almost done here – sun’s soon to rise, and when it does, we will have left this world for the last time.’ He gestured and Mallet stepped forward, carrying a satchel. He crouched down and removed the straps, and then drew out a fiddle. Its body was carved in swirling Barghast patterns. Seeing that, Fiddler looked up at Trotts. The warrior grinned, showing his filed teeth.
‘I did that, Fid. And that mistake there, up near the neck, that was Hedge’s fault. He tugged my braid. Blame him. I do.’
Mallet carefully set the instrument down, placing the bow beside it. The healer glanced up, almost shyly. ‘We all had a hand in its making, Fid. Us Bridgeburners.’
‘Take it,’ ordered Whiskeyjack. ‘Fiddler, you were the best of us all. You still are.’
Fiddler looked over at Quick Ben and Kalam, saw their nods, and then at Hedge, who hesitated, as if to object, and then simply shrugged. Fiddler met Whiskeyjack’s ethereal eyes. ‘Thank you, sir.’