‘If you seek to torment me, Cotillion—’
‘No, I would not do that. Forgive me.’
‘If these are your fears, however …’
‘No, not my fears. Not at all. They are my weapons.’
Edgewalker seemed to shiver, or perhaps some shift of the ash beneath his rotted moccasins sent a tremble through him, a brief moment of imbalance. Settling once more, the Elder fixed Cotillion with the withered dark of its eyes. ‘You, Lord of Assassins, are no healer.’
No. Someone cut out my unease, please. Make clean the incision, take out what’s ill and leave me free of it. We are sickened by the unknown, but knowledge can prove poisonous. And drifting lost between the two is no better. ‘There is more than one path to salvation.’
‘It is curious.’
‘Your words … in another voice, coming from … someone else, would leave a listener calmed, reassured. From you, alas, they could chill a mortal soul to its very core.’
‘This is what I am,’ Cotillion said.
Edgewalker nodded. ‘It is what you are, yes.’
Cotillion advanced another six paces, eyes on the nearest dragon, the gleaming bones of the skull visible between strips of rotted hide. ‘Eloth,’ he said, ‘I would hear your voice.’
‘Shall we bargain again, Usurper?’
The voice was male, but such details were in the habit of changing on a whim. Still, he frowned, trying to recall the last time. ‘Kalse, Ampelas, you will each have your turn. Do I now speak with Eloth?’
‘I am Eloth. What is it about my voice that so troubles you, Usurper? I sense your suspicion.’
‘I needed to be certain,’ Cotillion replied. ‘And now I am. You are indeed Mockra.’
A new draconic voice rumbled laughter through Cotillion’s skull, and then said, ‘Be careful, Assassin, she is the mistress of deceit.’
Cotillion’s brows lifted. ‘Deceit? Pray not, I beg you. I am too innocent to know much about such things. Eloth, I see you here in chains, and yet in mortal realms your voice has been heard. It seems you are not quite the prisoner you once were.’
‘Sleep slips the cruellest chains, Usurper. My dreams rise on wings and I am free. Do you now tell me that such freedom was more than delusion? I am shocked unto disbelief.’
Cotillion grimaced. ‘Kalse, what do you dream of?’
Does that surprise me? ‘Ampelas?’
‘The rain that burns, Lord of Assassins, deep in shadow. And such a grisly shadow. Shall we three whisper divinations now? All my truths are chained here, it is only the lies that fly free. Yet there was one dream, one that still burns fresh in my mind. Will you hear my confession?’
‘My rope is not quite as frayed as you think, Ampelas. You would do better to describe your dream to Kalse. Consider that advice my gift.’ He paused, glanced back at Edgewalker for a moment, and then faced the dragons once more. ‘Now then, let us bargain for real.’
‘There is no value in that,’ Ampelas said. ‘You have nothing to give us.’
‘But I do.’
Edgewalker suddenly spoke behind him. ‘Cotillion—’
‘Freedom,’ said Cotillion.
He smiled. ‘A fine start. Eloth, will you dream for me?’
‘Kalse and Ampelas have shared your gift. They looked upon one another with faces of stone. There was pain. There was fire. An eye opened and it looked upon the Abyss. Lord of Knives, my kin in chains are … dismayed. Lord, I will dream for you. Speak on.’
‘Listen carefully then,’ Cotillion said. ‘This is how it must be.’
The depths of the canyon were unlit, swallowed in eternal night far beneath the ocean’s surface. Crevasses gaped in darkness, a world’s death and decay streaming down in ceaseless rain, and the currents whipped in fierce torrents that stirred sediments into spinning vortices, lifting like whirlwinds. Flanked by the submerged crags of the canyon’s ravaged cliffs, a flat plain stretched out, and in the centre a lurid red flame flickered to life, solitary, almost lost in the vastness.
Shifting the almost weightless burden resting on one shoulder, Mael paused to squint at that improbable fire. Then he set out, making straight for it.
Lifeless rain falling to the depths, savage currents whipping it back up into the light, where living creatures fed on the rich soup, only to eventually die and sink back down. Such an elegant exchange, the living and the dead, the light and the lightless, the world above and the world below. Almost as if someone had planned it.
He could now make out the hunched figure beside the flames, hands held out to the dubious heat. Tiny sea creatures swarmed in the reddish bloom of light like moths. The fire emerged pulsing from a rent in the floor of the canyon, gases bubbling upward.
Mael halted before the figure, shrugging off the wrapped corpse that had been balanced on his shoulder. As it rocked down to the silts tiny scavengers rushed towards it, only to spin away without alighting. Faint clouds billowed as the wrapped body settled in the mud.
The voice of K’rul, Elder God of the Warrens, drifted out from within his hood. ‘If all existence is a dialogue, how is it there is still so much left unsaid?’
Mael scratched the stubble on his jaw. ‘Me with mine, you with yours, him with his, and yet still we fail to convince the world of its inherent absurdity.’
K’rul shrugged. ‘Him with his. Yes. Odd that of all the gods, he alone discovered this mad, and maddening, secret. The dawn to come … shall we leave it to him?’
‘Well,’ Mael grunted, ‘first we need to survive the night. I have brought the one you sought.’
‘I see that. Thank you, old friend. Now tell me, what of the Old Witch?’
Mael grimaced. ‘The same. She tries again, but the one she has chosen … well, let us say that Onos T’oolan possesses depths Olar Ethil cannot hope to comprehend, and she will, I fear, come to rue her choice.’
‘A man rides before him.’
Mael nodded. ‘A man rides before him. It is … heartbreaking.’
‘“Against a broken heart, even absurdity falters.”’
‘“Because words fall away.”’
Fingers fluttered in the glow. ‘“A dialogue of silence.”’
‘“That deafens.”’ Mael looked off into the gloomy distance. ‘Blind Gallan and his damnable poems.’ Across the colourless floor armies of sightless crabs were on the march, drawn to the alien light and heat. He squinted at them. ‘Many died.’
‘Errastas had his suspicions, and that is all the Errant needs. Terrible mischance, or deadly nudge. They were as she said they would be. Unwitnessed.’ K’rul lifted his head, the empty hood now gaping in Mael’s direction. ‘Has he won, then?’
Mael’s wiry brows rose. ‘You do not know?’
‘That close to Kaminsod’s heart, the warrens are a mass of wounds and violence.’
Mael glanced down at the wrapped corpse. ‘Brys was there. Through his tears I saw.’ He was silent for a long moment, reliving someone else’s memories. He suddenly hugged himself, released a ragged breath. ‘In the name of the Abyss, those Bonehunters were something to behold!’
The vague hints of a face seemed to find shape inside the hood’s darkness, a gleam of teeth. ‘Truly? Mael – truly?’
Emotion growled out in his words. ‘This is not done. Errastas has made a terrible mistake. Gods, they all have!’
After a long moment, K’rul sighed, gaze returning to the fire. His pallid hands hovered above the pulsing glow of burning rock. ‘I shall not remain blind. Two children. Twins. Mael, it seems we shall defy the Adjunct Tavore Paran’s wish to be for ever unknown to us, unknown to everyone. What does it mean, this desire to be unwitnessed? I do not understand.’