In Letherii, the exiled Malazan army commanded by Adjunct Tavore begins its march into the eastern Wastelands, to fight for an unknown cause against an enemy it has never seen.
This last great army of the Malazan Empire is resolved to make one final defiant, heroic stand in the name of redemption. But can deeds be heroic when there is no one to witness them? And can that which is not witnessed forever change the world? Destinies are rarely simple, truths never clear but one certainty is that time is on no one's side. For the Deck of Dragons has been read, unleashing a dread power that none can comprehend…
In a faraway land and beneath indifferent skies, the final chapter of ‘The Malazan Book of the Fallen' has begun…
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Dust of Dreams
Book Nine of the Malazan Book of the Fallen
By Steven Erikson
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Steven Erikson
All rights reserved.
Abject misery lies not in what the blanket reveals, but in what it hides. King Tehol the Only of Lether
War had come to the tangled, overgrown grounds of the dead Azath tower in the city of Letheras. Swarms of lizards had invaded from the river's shoreline. Discovering a plethora of strange insects, they began a feeding frenzy.
Oddest among the arcane bugs was a species of two-headed beetle. Four lizards spied one such creature and closed in, surrounding it. The insect noted threats from two directions and made a careful half-turn, only to find two additional threats, whereupon it crouched down and played dead.
This didn't work. One of the lizards, a wall-scampering breed with a broad mouth and gold-flecked eyes, lunged forward and gobbled up the insect.
This scene was played out throughout the grounds, a terrible slaughter, a rush to extinction. The fates, this evening, did not appear kind to the two-headed beetles.
Not all prey, however, was as helpless as it might initially seem. The role of the victim in nature is ephemeral, and that which is fed upon might in time feed upon the feeders in the eternal drama of survival.
A lone owl, already engorged on lizards, was the sole witness to the sudden wave of writhing deaths on the rumpled earth below, as from the mouths of dying lizards, grotesque shapes emerged. The extinction of the two- headed beetles proved not as imminent a threat as it had seemed only moments earlier.
But owls, being among the least clever of birds, are unmindful of such lessons. This one watched, wide-eyed and empty. Until it felt a strange stirring in its own gut, sufficient to distract it from the wretched dying below, that array of pale lizard bellies blotting the dark ground. It did not think of the lizards it had eaten. It did not take note, even in retrospect, of the sluggish efforts some of them had displayed at escaping its swooping talons.
The owl was in for a long night of excruciating regurgitation. Dimwitted as it was, from that moment on and for ever more, lizards were off its menu.
The world delivers its lessons in manners subtle or, if required, cruel and blunt, so that even the thickest of subjects will comprehend. Failing that, they die. For the smart ones, of course, incomprehension is inexcusable.
* * *
A night of heat in Letheras. Stone dripped sweat. The canals looked viscid, motionless, the surface strangely flattened and opaque with swirls of dust and rubbish. Insects danced over the water as if seeking their reflections, but this smooth patina yielded nothing, swallowing up the span of stars, devouring the lurid torchlight of the street patrols, and so the winged insects spun without surcease, as though crazed with fever.
Beneath a bridge, on stepped banks buried in darkness, crickets crawled like droplets of oozing oil, glistening, turgid, haplessly crunched underfoot as two figures drew together and huddled in the gloom.
'He never would've went in,' one of them said in a hoarse whisper. 'The water reeks, and look, no ripples, no nothing. He's scarpered to the other side, somewhere in the night market where he can get lost fast.'
'Lost,' grunted the other, a woman, lifting up the dagger in one gloved hand and examining the edge, 'that's a good one. Like he could get lost. Like any of us could.'
'You think he can't wrap himself up like we done?'
'No time for that. He bolted. He's on the run. Panicked.'
'Looked like panic, didn't it,' agreed her companion, and then he shook his head. 'Never seen anything so ... disappointing.'
The woman sheathed her dagger. 'They'll flush him out. He'll come back across, and we jump him then.'
'Stupid, thinking he could get away.'
After a few moments, Smiles unsheathed her dagger again, peered at the edge.
Beside her, Throatslitter rolled his eyes but said nothing.
Bottle straightened, gestured for Koryk to join him, then watched, amused, as the broad-shouldered half-blood Seti shoved and elbowed his way through the crowd, leaving a wake of dark glares and bitten-off curses — there was little risk of trouble, of course, since clearly the damned foreigner was looking for just that, and instincts being what they were the world over, no one was of a mind to take on Koryk.
Too bad. It'd be a thing worth seeing, Bottle smiled to himself, if a mob of irate Letherii shoppers descended on the glowering barbarian, pummelling him into the ground with loaves of crusty bread and bulbous root- crops.
Then again, such distractions wouldn't do. Not right now, anyway, when they'd found their quarry, with Tarr and Corabb moving round back of the tavern to cover the alley bolt-hole, and Maybe and Masan Gilani up on the roof by now, in case their target got imaginative.
Koryk arrived, in a sweat, scowling and grinding his teeth. 'Miserable turds,' he muttered. 'What's with this lust to spend coin? Markets are stupid.'
'Keeps people happy,' said Bottle, 'or if not exactly happy, then ... temporarily satiated. Which serves the same function.'
'Keeping them outa trouble. The disruptive kind of trouble,' he added, seeing Koryk's knotted forehead, his darting eyes. 'The kind that comes when a population finds the time to think, really think, I mean — when they start realizing what a piece of shit all this is.'
'Sounds like one of the King's speeches — they put me to sleep, like you're doing right now, Bottle. Where exactly is he, then?'
'One of my rats is crouching at the foot of a banister —'
'Baby Smiles — she's the best for this. Anyway, she's got her beady eyes fixed right on him. He's at a table in the corner, just under a shuttered window — but it doesn't look like the kind anyone could actually climb through. Basically,' Bottle concluded, 'he's cornered.'
Koryk's frown deepened. 'That's too easy, isn't it?'
Bottle scratched at his stubble, shifted from one foot to the other, and then sighed. 'Aye, way too easy.'
'Here come Balm and Gesler.'
The two sergeants arrived.
'What are we doing here?' Balm asked, eyes wide.
Gesler said, 'He's in his funk again, never mind him. We got us a fight ahead, I figure. A nasty one. He won't go down easy.'
'What's the plan, then?' Koryk asked.
'Stormy leads the way. He's going to spring him loose — if he heads for the back door your friends will take him down. Same for if he goes up. My guess is, he'll dodge round Stormy and try for the front door — that's what I'd do. Stormy's huge and mean but he ain't fast. And that's what we're counting on. The four of us will be waiting for the bastard — we'll take him down. With Stormy coming up behind him and holding the doorway to stop any retreat.'
'He's looking nervous and in a bad mood in there,' Bottle said. 'Warn Stormy — he just might stand and fight.'
'We hear a scrap start and in we go,' said Gesler.
The gold-hued sergeant went off to brief Stormy. Balm stood beside Koryk, looking bewildered.
People were rolling in and out of the tavern like it was a fast brothel. Stormy then appeared, looming over almost everyone else, his visage red and his beard even redder, as if his entire face was aflame. He tugged loose the peace-strap on his sword as he lumbered towards the door. Seeing him, people scattered aside. He met one more customer at the threshold and took hold of the man by the front of his shirt, then threw him into his own wake — the poor fool yelped as he landed face first on the cobbles not three paces from the three Malazans, where he writhed, hands up at his bloodied chin.
As Stormy plunged into the tavern, Gesler arrived, stepping over the fallen citizen, and hissed, 'To the door now, all of us, quick!'
Bottle let Koryk take the lead, and held back even for Balm who almost started walking the other way — before Gesler yanked the man back. If there was going to be a scrap, Bottle preferred to leave most of the nasty work to the others. He'd done his job, after all, in tracking and finding the quarry.
Chaos erupted in the tavern, furniture crashing, startled shouts and terrified screams. Then something went thump! And all at once white smoke was billowing out from the doorway. More splintering furniture, a heavy crash, and then a figure sprinted out from the smoke.
An elbow cracked hard on Koryk's jaw and he toppled like a tree.
Gesler ducked a lashing fist, just in time to meet an upthrust knee, and the sound the impact made was of two coconuts in collision. The quarry's leg spun round, taking the rest of the man with it in a wild pirouette, whilst Gesler rocked back to promptly sit down on the cobbles, his eyes glazed.
Shrieking, Balm back-stepped, reaching for his short sword — and Bottle leapt forward to pin the sergeant's arm — as the target lunged past them all, running hard but unevenly for the bridge.
Stormy stumbled out from the tavern, his nose streaming blood. 'You didn't get him? You damned idiots — look at my face! I took this for nothing!'
Other customers pushed out round the huge Falari, eyes streaming and coughing.
Gesler was climbing upright, wobbly, shaking his head. 'Come on,' he mumbled, 'let's get after him, and hope Throatslitter and Smiles can slow him down some.'
Tarr and Corabb showed up and surveyed the scene. 'Corabb,' said Tarr, 'stay with Koryk and try bringing him round.' And then he joined Bottle, Gesler, Stormy and Balm as they set out after their target.
Balm glared across at Bottle. 'I coulda had him!'
'We need the fool alive, you idiot,' snapped Bottle.
The sergeant gaped. 'We do?'
'Look at that,' hissed Throatslitter. 'Here he comes!'
'Limping bad, too,' observed Smiles, sheathing her dagger once more. 'We come up both sides and go for his ankles.'
Throatslitter went left, Smiles went right, and they crouched at either end of the landing on this side of the bridge. They listened to the step-scruff of the limping fugitive as he reached the span, drawing ever closer. From the edge of the market street on the opposite side, shouts rang through the air. The scuffling run on the bridge picked up pace.
At the proper moment, as the target reached the end and stepped out on to the street's cobbles, the two Malazan marines leapt out from their hiding places, converging, each wrapping arms round one of the man's legs.
The three went down in a heap.
Moments later, amidst a flurry of snarled curses, gouging thumbs and frantic kicking, the rest of the hunters arrived, and finally succeeded in pinning down their quarry.
Bottle edged closer to gaze down at their victim's bruised, flushed visage. 'Really, Sergeant, you had to know it was hopeless.'
'Look what you did to my nose!' Stormy said, gripping one of Fiddler's arms and apparently contemplating breaking it in two.
'You used a smoker in the tavern, didn't you?' Bottle asked. 'What a waste.'
'You'll all pay for this,' said Fiddler. 'You have no idea —'
'He's probably right,' said Gesler. 'So, Fid, we gonna have to hold you down here for ever, or will you come peacefully now? What the Adjunct wants, the Adjunct gets.'
'Easy for you,' hissed Fiddler. 'Just look at Bottle there. Does he look happy?'
Bottle scowled. 'No, I'm not happy, but orders are orders, Sergeant. You can't just run away.'
'Wish I'd brought a sharper or two,' Fiddler said, 'that would've settled it just fine. All right now, you can all let me up — I think my knee's busted anyway. Gesler, you got a granite jaw, did you know that?'
'And it cuts me a fine profile besides,' said Gesler.
'We was hunting Fiddler?' Balm suddenly asked. 'Gods below, he mutiny or something?'
Throatslitter patted his sergeant on the shoulder. 'It's all right now, Sergeant. Adjunct wants Fiddler to do a reading, that's all.'
Bottle winced. That's all. Sure, nothing to it. I can't wait.
They dragged Fiddler to his feet, and wisely held on to the man as they marched him back to the barracks.
Grey and ghostly, the oblong shape hung beneath the lintel over the dead Azath's doorway. It looked lifeless, but of course it wasn't.
'We could throw stones,' said Sinn. 'They sleep at night, don't they?'
'Mostly,' replied Grub.
'Maybe if we're quiet.'
Sinn fidgeted. 'Stones?'
'Hit it and they'll wake up, and then out they'll come, in a black swarm.'
'I've always hated wasps. For as long as I can remember — I must've been bad stung once, do you think?'
'Who hasn't?' Grub said, shrugging.
'I could just set it on fire.'
'No sorcery, Sinn, not here.'
'I thought you said the house was dead.'
'It is ... I think. But maybe the yard isn't.'
She glanced round. 'People been digging here.'
'You ever gonna talk to anybody but me?' Grub asked.
'No.' The single word was absolute, immutable, and it did not invite any further discussion on that issue.
He eyed her. 'You know what's happening tonight, don't you?'
'I don't care. I'm not going anywhere near that.'
'Maybe, if we hide inside the house, it won't reach us.'
'Maybe,' Grub allowed. 'But I doubt the Deck works like that.'
'How do you know?'
'Well, I don't. Only, Uncle Keneb told me Fiddler talked about me last time, and I was jumping into the sea around then — I wasn't in the cabin. But he just knew, he knew exactly what I was doing.'
'What were you doing?'
'I went to find the Nachts.'
'But how did you know they were there? You don't make sense, Grub. And anyway, what use are they? They just follow Withal around.'
'When they're not hunting little lizards,' Grub said, smiling.
But Sinn was not in the mood for easy distraction. 'I look at you and I think ... Mockra.'
To that, Grub made no reply. Instead, he crept forward on the path's uneven pavestones, eyes fixed on the wasp nest.
Sinn followed. 'You're what's coming, aren't you?'
He snorted. 'And you aren't?'
They reached the threshold, halted. 'Do you think it's locked?'
Grub crouched down and edged forward beneath the huge nest. Once past it, he slowly straightened and reached for the door's latch. It came off in his hand, raising a puff of sawdust. Grub glanced back at Sinn, but said nothing. Facing the door again, he gave it a light push.
It crumpled like wafer where his fingers had prodded. More sawdust sifted down.
Grub raised both hands and pushed against the door.
The barrier disintegrated in clouds and frail splinters. Metal clunked on the floor just beyond, and a moment later the clouds were swept inward as if on an indrawn breath.
Grub stepped over the heap of rotted wood and vanished in the gloom beyond.
After a moment, Sinn followed, ducking low and moving quickly.
From the gloom beneath a nearly dead tree in the grounds of the Azath, Lieutenant Pores grunted. He supposed he should have called them back, but to do so would have revealed his presence, and though he could never be sure when it came to Captain Kindly's orders — designed and delivered as they were with deliberate vagueness, like flimsy fronds over a spike-filled pit — he suspected that he was supposed to maintain some sort of subterfuge when following the two runts around.
Besides, he'd made some discoveries. Sinn wasn't mute at all. Just a stubborn little cow. What a shock. And she had a crush on Grub, how sweet — sweet as tree sap, twigs and trapped insects included — why, it could make a grown man melt, and then run down a drain into that depthless sea of sentimentality where children played, and, occasionally, got away with murder.
Well, the difference was Pores had a very good memory. He recalled in great detail his own childhood, and could he have reached back, into his own past, he'd give that snot-faced jerk a solid clout to the head. And then look down at that stunned, hurt expression, and say something like 'Get used to it, little Pores. One day you'll meet a man named Kindly ...'
Anyway, the mice had scurried into the Azath House. Maybe something would take care of them in there, bringing to a satisfying conclusion this stupid assignment. A giant, ten-thousand-year-old foot, stomping down, once, twice. Splat, splot, like stinkberries, Grub a smear, Sinn a stain.
Gods no, I'd get blamed! Growling under his breath, he set out after them.
In retrospect, he supposed he should have remembered that damned wasp nest. At the very least, it should have caught his attention as he leapt for the doorway. Instead, it caught his forehead.
Sudden flurry of enraged buzzing, as the nest rocked out and then back, butting his head a second time.
Recognition, comprehension, and then, appropriately enough, blind panic.
Pores whirled and ran.
A thousand or so angry black wasps provided escort.
Six stings could drop a horse. He shrieked as a fire ignited on the back of his neck. And then again, as another stinger stabbed, this time on his right ear.
Excerpted from Dust of Dreams by Steven Erikson. Copyright © 2009 Steven Erikson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Book One The Sea Does Not Dream of You,
Book Two Eaters of Diamonds and Gems,
Book Three Only the Dust Will Dance,
Book Four The Path Forever Walked,