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Ours. Yes, you speak for us all, even as we cringe at our own confessions. ‘Forgive my words, Lord. I am made ill – the taste—’

‘We had no choice in that, Aparal. What sickens you is the bitter flavour of its pain. It passes.’ Kadagar smiled and clapped him on the back. ‘I understand your momentary weakness. We shall forget your doubts, yes? And never again speak of them. We are friends, after all, and I would be most distressed to be forced to brand you a traitor. Set upon the White Wall … I would kneel and weep, my friend. I would.’

A spasm of alien fury hissed through Aparal and he shivered. Abyss! Mane of Chaos, I feel you! ‘My life is yours to command, Lord.’

‘Lord of Light!’

Aparal turned, as did Kadagar.

Blood streaming from his mouth, Iparth Erule staggered closer, eyes wide and fixed upon Kadagar. ‘My lord, Uhandahl, who was last to drink, has just died. He – he tore out his own throat!’

‘Then it is done,’ Kadagar replied. ‘How many?’

Iparth licked his lips, visibly flinched at the taste, and then said, ‘You are the First of Thirteen, Lord.’

Smiling, Kadagar stepped past Iparth. ‘Kessobahn still breathes?’

‘Yes. It is said it can bleed for centuries—’

‘But the blood is now poison,’ Kadagar said, nodding. ‘The wounding must be fresh, the power clean. Thirteen, you say. Excellent.’

Aparal stared at the dragon staked to the slope behind Iparth Erule. The enormous spears pinning it to the ground were black with gore and dried blood. He could feel the Eleint’s pain, pouring from it in waves. Again and again it tried to lift its head, eyes blazing, jaws snapping, but the vast trap held. The four surviving Hounds of Light circled at a distance, hackles raised as they eyed the dragon. Seeing them, Aparal hugged himself. Another mad gamble. Another bitter failure. Lord of Light, Kadagar Fant, you have not done well in the world beyond.

Beyond this terrible vista, and facing the vertical ocean of deathless souls as if in mocking madness, rose the White Wall, which hid the decrepit remnants of the Liosan city of Saranas. The faint elongated dark streaks lining it, descending just beneath the crenellated battlements, were all he could make out of the brothers and sisters who had been condemned as traitors to the cause. Below their withered corpses ran the stains from everything their bodies had drained down the alabaster facing. You would kneel and weep, would you, my friend?

Iparth asked, ‘My lord, do we leave the Eleint as it is?’

‘No. I propose something far more fitting. Assemble the others. We shall veer.’

Aparal started but did not turn. ‘Lord—’

‘We are Kessobahn’s children now, Aparal. A new father, to replace the one who abandoned us. Osserc is dead in our eyes and shall remain so. Even Father Light kneels broken, useless and blind.’

Aparal’s eyes held on Kessobahn. Utter such blasphemies often enough and they become banal, and all shock fades. The gods lose their power, and we rise to stand in their stead. The ancient dragon wept blood, and in those vast, alien eyes there was nothing but rage. Our father. Your pain, your blood, our gift to you. Alas, it is the only gift we understand. ‘And once we have veered?’

‘Why, Aparal, we shall tear the Eleint apart.’

He’d known what the answer would be and he nodded. Our father.

Your pain, your blood, our gift. Celebrate our rebirth, O Father Kessobahn, with your death. And for you, there shall be no return.

I have nothing with which to bargain. What brings you to me? No, I see that. My broken servant cannot travel far, even in his dreams. Crippled, yes, my precious flesh and bones upon this wretched world. Have you seen his flock? What blessing can he bestow? Why, naught but misery and suffering, and still they gather, the mobs, the clamouring, beseeching mobs. Oh, I once looked upon them with contempt. I once revelled in their pathos, their ill choices and their sorry luck. Their stupidity.

But no one chooses their span of wits. They are each and all born with what they have, that and nothing more. Through my servant I see into their eyes – when I so dare – and they give me a look, a strange look, one that for a long time I could not understand. Hungry, of course, so brimming with need. But I am the Foreign God. The Chained One. The Fallen One, and my holy word is Pain.

Yet those eyes implored.

I now comprehend. What do they ask of me? Those dull fools glittering with fears, those horrid expressions to make a witness cringe. What do they want? I will answer you. They want my pity.

They understand, you see, their own paltry scant coins in their bag of wits. They know they lack intelligence, and that this has cursed them and their lives. They have struggled and lashed out, from the very beginning. No, do not look at me that way, you of smooth and subtle thought, you give your sympathy too quickly and therein hide your belief in your own superiority. I do not deny your cleverness, but I question your compassion.

They wanted my pity. They have it. I am the god that answers prayers – can you or any other god make that claim? See how I have changed. My pain, which I held on to so selfishly, now reaches out like a broken hand. We touch in understanding, we flinch at the touch. I am one with them all, now.

You surprise me. I had not believed this to be a thing of value. What worth compassion? How many columns of coins balance the scales? My servant once dreamed of wealth. A buried treasure in the hills. Sitting on his withered legs, he pleaded with passers-by in the street. Now you look at me here, too broken to move, deep in the fumes, and the wind slaps these tent walls without rest. No need to bargain. My servant and I have both lost the desire to beg. You want my pity? I give it. Freely.

Need I tell you of my pain? I look in your eyes and find the answer.

It is my last play, but you understand that. My last. Should I fail

Very well. There is no secret to this. I will gather the poison, then. In the thunder of my pain, yes. Where else?

Death? Since when is death failure?

Forgive the cough. It was meant to be laughter. Go then, wring your promises with those upstarts.

That is all faith is, you know. Pity for our souls. Ask my servant and he will tell you. God looks into your eyes, and God cringes.’

Three dragons chained for their sins. At the thought Cotillion sighed, suddenly morose. He stood twenty paces away, ankle deep in soft ash. Ascendancy, he reflected, was not quite as long a stride from the mundane as he would have liked. His throat felt tight, as if his air passages were constricted. The muscles of his shoulders ached and dull thunder pounded behind his eyes. He stared at the imprisoned Eleint lying so gaunt and deathly amidst drifts of dust, feeling … mortal. Abyss take me, but I’m tired.

Edgewalker moved up alongside him, silent and spectral.

‘Bones and not much else,’ Cotillion muttered.

‘Do not be fooled,’ Edgewalker warned. ‘Flesh, skin, they are raiment. Worn or cast off as suits them. See the chains? They have been tested. Heads lifting … the scent of freedom.’

‘How did you feel, Edgewalker, when everything you held fell to pieces in your hands? Did failure arrive like a wall of fire?’ He turned to regard the apparition. ‘Those tatters have the look of scorching, come to think of it. Do you remember that moment, when you lost everything? Did the world echo to your howl?’