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Return of the Crimson Guard is the second high fantasy novel by Canadian author Ian C. Esslemont set in the world of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, co-created with Esslemont's friend and colleague Steven Erikson. Chronologically, Return of the Crimson Guard takes place after the events in Erikson's sixth Malazan novel, The Bonehunters. Return of the Crimson Guard is the second of six planned novels by Esslemont to take place in the Malazan world, starting with Night of Knives and followed by Stonewielder.
The return of the mercenary company, the Crimson Guard, could not have come at a worse time for a Malazan Empire exhausted by warfare and weakened by betrayals and rivalries. Indeed, there are those who wonder whether the Empress Laseen might not be losing her grip on power as she faces increasing unrest as conquered kingdoms and principalities sense freedom once more.
Into the seething cauldron of Quon Tali--the Empire's heartland--marches the Guard. With their return comes the memory of the Empire--and yet all is not well with the Guard itself. Elements within its elite, the Avowed, have set their sights on far greater power. There are ancient entities who also seek to further their own arcane ends. And what of the swordsman called Traveller who, with his companion Ereko, has gone in search of a confrontation from which none have ever returned?
As the Guard prepares to wage war, so Laseen's own generals and mages, the 'Old Hands', grow impatient at what they see as her mismanagement of the Empire. But could Laseen have outwitted them all? Could she be using the uprisings to draw out and finally eliminate these last irksome survivors from the days of her illustrious predecessor, Kellanved?
This novel is dedicated to the first Winnipeg gang of the
Treherne Room and the second of Rick's Place.
For all those afternoons and evenings honing the trade.
With gratitude I acknowledge Peter Crowther, who made this work possible; John Jarrold, who extended a great deal of faith; and Simon Taylor, whose encouragement and welcome meant, and continue to mean, more than he knows.
Thanks also to Bill Hunter and Chris for their early readings.
Geri, Conor, Ross, and Callum: you give it meaning.
|Return of the Crimson Guard|
|Chapter 1 (I)||Chapter 2 (II)|
|Chapter 3 (III)||Chapter 4 (IV)|
|Chapter 5 (V)|
|The Eternal Return|
|Chapter 6 (I)||Chapter 7 (II)|
|Chapter 8 (III)||Chapter 9 (IV)|
|Chapter 10 (V)||Chapter 11 (VI)|
|Fates and Chances|
|Chapter 12 (I)||Chapter 13 (II)|
|Chapter 14 (III)||Chapter 15 (IV)|
|Chapter 16 (V)|
The Elder Age.
Denuth, a child of Mother Earth, explores the scene of an explosion. He finds Liossercal, the Son of Light, lying wounded; he had attempted to assault an Azath. Liossercal leaves before Draconus arrives.
Book One: Diaspora's EndEdit
Chapter 1 (I)Edit
For a year the Second Company of the Crimson Guard have been besieging the Spur, a tower in plains of the Bael subcontinent of Assail. Kyle is a fairly recent recruit; he came from a plains tribe and is a worshipper of their god Father Wind. Some of the guard, Kyle included, are trying to enter the tower from beneath, through a passage that they have discovered. They are led by Greymane, a renegade Malazan Fist. They start climbing the tower, and are attacked by its occupant, the warlock Shen. Greymane somehow acquires a two-handed sword and stabs Shen, who retreats and later dies.
At the top of the tower Kyle is sent to scout the rooms; but the company mage, Smoky, first marks his sword with a token of the Wind god. After a while the guard meet a powerful Ascendant; they attack and manage to repel him. Afterwards Kyles notices that his sword is now doubly marked with the Wind token.
Chapter 2 (II)Edit
In Stratem two companions descend from a mountain range, travelling south to the sea where they intend to build a ship. One is called Traveller; the other, a Thel Akai, Ereko. Both are escapees from the Stormwall. Traveller easily kills a band of brigands. 12 days later they reach a semi-derelict coastal village. As Ereko looks out to sea he recalls the Stormwall and the Stormriders attacking from the ocean. Traveller had been a new arrival; it was his immediate success against the Riders, plus a hint from his Goddess, that made Ereko break their chains and escape from the Wall. The remaining villagers explain that they are being raided repeatedly from the sea. Traveller agrees to help defend the village once he recognises the raiders' equipment.
At Kurzan the Crimson Guard have been negotiating to hire some ships. When the negotiations fail, they take them: Kyle is one of those who swims out and boards a ship. They are attacked by galleys; a Mage summons a demon that attacks Kyle. Kyle's token-marked sword is powerful enough to injure the demon, to its surprise.
In Unta, Mallick Rel visits Lady Batevari, a fortune-teller, ostensibly for a reading; this allows him to meet her companion, the girl Taya. She is the daughter of Vorcan Radok, the High Mage and Mistress of the Darujhistan Assassins' Guild, and is herself a skilled assassin.
Unknown to herself, Ghelel is the last surviving member of an old Talian ruling family, the Tayliin. Malazan troops come to the estate where she has been raised, but she is saved from capture by her fencing-master and secret guardian, Quinn.
On the Wickan frontier of the Quon Tali continent a Malazan army patrol rescues a group of Wickans that have been attacked by Malazan settlers. They take them back to their fort.
Fist Genist leads a Malazan column to Fort Saran in the Seti lands on Quon Tali. When he arrives he finds a group of veterans led by a man who claims to be Toc the Elder, a fabled cavalry leader thought to be dead. Toc announces himself to the Malazan troops, who recognise him and shout his name.
Chapter 3 (III)Edit
Storo Matash is captain of a company of saboteurs in the Quon Talian city Li Heng. He is a veteran, and has the distinction of once killing a Crimson Guard Avowed. He receives a coded message from an old acquaintance seeking a meeting.
In Unta, Mallick Rel goes to the shore. He is High Priest of Mael, and the god has been bound by the rituals of his cult. He invokes Mael and orders him to hasten the arrival of both the Secessionist and Mercenary ships.
Twenty members of the Crimson Guard have for years been trapped underground on the island of Umryg, entombed by their erstwhile employers. They finally manage to break out, and fight their way through the Umryg army to the sea.
Kital is a newly-initiated Claw. She has been sent into the Imperial Warren to investigate the interception and slaughter of Imperial messengers. She finds a corpse and his assassin, a man who refused to give a name. He easily kills Kital. The original corpse is then animated by the Chained God who offers the assassin a place in his House, which he refuses.
There are some new arrivals at The Pit, a mining camp on Otataral Island. They are greeted by one of the original inmates, Ho, a Li Heng mage, and by Yathengar, once a Seven Cities priest. Two of the newcomers seem unusual: they are younger than most, and are probably army Battle Mages.
Ghelel is under the protection of Choss and Amaron, both Old Guard, both now rebelling against the Malazans. They have captured a Claw, and Ghelel insists on interrogating him. He informs her that Amaron was himself an assassin, and commanded the Talons.
Captain Storo goes to meet his acquaintance, followed by his saboteur company who suspect their services will be required. Storo meets Orlat and his associates who try to recruit him to their rebellion against the Malazans. Storo refuses and the company fight their way out and down to the river.
Orlat has already killed the Malazan military governor and intends to occupy the Palace where the Malazan forces are billeted. Storo says that the army will support whoever is in charge there next morning. The company enter by a secret passage and occupy the City Temple, the centre of power in Li Heng. They are attacked by rebel soldiers and Mages but, helped by their Mage-assassin Silk and master swordsman Rell, manage to survive until the morning.
Chapter 4 (IV)Edit
Commander Shimmer and the Crimson Guard Second Company have arrived off the Stratem coast, near Fortress Haven which was once their base. Some, Kyle included, disembark and explore. They eventually meet some of the First Company led by Skinner, who appears to be insane. Gradually more of the Guard arrive, including Avowed and Mages. Then one night Kyle wakes to find Stoop leaving the camp. He follows and witnesses him meeting Skinner and Cowl, the company Mage and assassin-master. Cowl kills Stoop; as he dies he tells Kyle to run.
Kyle runs for three days before he is caught by another mage, Mara, who claims that it was Kyle that killed Stoop. Kyle is saved from her by the arrival of his comrades Stalker, Badlands and Coots, the Lost brothers. Together they continue away from the Guard.
In Unta a group of local landholders feel they are forced by circumstances to rebel and intend to seize the Imperial Arsenal. Mallick Rel, who has incited their conspiracy, immediately betrays them, so enhancing his power in the Assembly. The next day Empress Laseen meets with her Council. They discuss strategies to quell the rebellions in the provinces, in particular the Quon Talians and the Seti.
In the Southern Rust Ocean the slave galley Ardent rescues a dozen castaways from a raft. Though the castaways appear close to death, they recover amazingly quickly and take over the vessel in the name of the Crimson Guard; one, Iron Bars, kills several of the slavers. They set course for Stratem.
On the Wickan frontier, the fort holding the Malazan garrison and some Wickan refugees is besieged by a large number of Malazan settlers. The settlers call upon Lieutenant Rillish, the commander, to surrender. He refuses.
Traveller and Ereko are constructing a ship when two raider vessels arrive; they contain Tiste Edur. Traveller has no difficulty in killing them all, sparing only a Witch named Sorrow. She sees Traveller as a prophet or Ascendant and asks for his guidance; he instructs her to travel north and spread the word of what she has seen.
Captain Storo and his remaining troops are recovering from their wounds. Storo and Silk discuss their situation: they fear an attack by the surrounding Seti tribes.
Chapter 5 (V)Edit
In Unta Korbolo Dom, the First Sword, visits Mallick Rel. Korbolo can't understand why the Empress and Mallick are doing nothing in the face of the Provinces' rebellion. Mallick's explanation, that they have few alternatives, satisfies him and he leaves; Mallick then describes him as a fool and potential scapegoat.
The Malazan garrison besieged in their frontier fort are now being repeatedly attacked. The Wickans that they are protecting beg unsuccessfully to be allowed to take part in its defence.
In the Imperial Warren the unnamed assassin detects another, hidden watching several distant titanic flying spires. The assassins fight and the unnamed one wins by using a warren, Kurald Galain. However he regrets harming her and attempts to save her life.
The saboteurs Hurl and Sunny, plus the local mage Liss, have ridden out of Li Heng; they go as Storo's representatives to meet delegates of the Seti tribal council, the Seti being historical enemies of Quon Tali. The Seti delegates are two shamans and the Warlord, whom Liss recognises as Toc the Elder, one of the Old Guard. Liss is identified by the shamans as the source of Liss's Vow, or Curse. Liss, then a Sun Dancer, had been raped and expelled, and cursed the Seti to wander lost until they accepted her back.
Kyle and his companions are travelling west across Stratem. They encounter local followers of the Wind, who aid them by providing a path of Wind that will act as a shortcut. They arrive near the coast and see a newly-build ship.
Ghelel is frustrated. Though nominally in charge, in reality she is a figurehead for Choss and Amaron, who cause her to parade around the army camp dressed like nobility with a retinue of ten guards. They finally explain: they want any spies to observe her like this; soon she will slip away in disguise to become a cavalry leader in an elite group, the Marchland Sentries.
Lieutenant Rillish's remaining troops are outnumbered and will soon be overwhelmed. They discover that most of the Wickans have left the camp via a warren that was opened by the self-sacrifice of their leaders and shaman. The Malazan troops escape though the warren, and find themselves outside the siege.
Skinner has set off with three ships, including that of Commander Shimmer and the Second company. They are heading for Quon Tali, and Skinner decides that there is a need for haste. His mages therefore open a portal to the Warren of Ruse. The ships pass through and are immediately becalmed in the Shoals, in legend a place where Mael sends those who displease him. There are marooned ships visible as far as the horizon. They see a far-off light that might be the exit gate, and start rowing towards it.
Book 2: The Eternal ReturnEdit
Chapter 6 (I)Edit
In The Pit the new arrivals aren't fitting in with the rest. Ho overhears their discussion, and realises that they suspect the inmates are investigating something. They catch him listening, and confront him with their suspicion: that they are investigating the action of Otataral. Ho is surprised they are so close to the truth. The newcomers claim they could leave at any time, and could take the others with them if they agree. Ho refuses, saying their research is too important.
Ghelel travels downriver towards Li Heng to join the Marchland Sentries; not without difficulty as they are billeted in a village some way from the city. She meets their leader, Marquis Jhardin. Iron Bars and his men are becalmed and are reduced to rowing. They are boarded from a Seguleh vessel; the Seguleh demand they surrender their supplies. As this would result in death from thirst and starvation, Iron Bars challenges the Seguleh spokesman, the one with lowest status and least fighting ability. Despite that Iron Bars almost loses before he manages to kill the Seguleh. As he has now acquired status, the other Seguleh depart.
Rillish is disabled by his wounds, and is unable to command the party of Wickan children and Malazan troops. The children are well-adapted to the plains and manage well, though they seem to be taking orders from one of the toddlers. They fight a party of settlers, then meet more Wickans including Nil and Nether.
Kyle and his companions attempt to steal the ship that Traveller and Ereko have constructed. They are prevented, and instead agree to join Traveller and Ereko. They depart for The Dolmens in Jacuruku.
Chapter 7 (II)Edit
Skinner's three ships have finally escaped from the Shoals and arrived in Unta. They disembark. Skinner and the other leaders head for the Palace, but find it almost deserted; they are greeted only by Mallick Rel. Most head back to the ships, but are attacked both by Claws and mobs of citizens' militia. Both sides take casualties. Then there is an immense explosion from the area of the Imperial Arsenal, where Moranth munitions are stored. The shock stops the fighting and the Crimson Guard are able to depart.
Empress Laseen, once the commander of the Claws, had hunted Avowed during the fighting. Afterwards she orders the armed forces to prepare for departure towards Li Heng; Laseen herself will be in charge.
Chapter 8 (III)Edit
Toc the Elder is the leader of the Seti tribes, but there is unrest: they are gathered outside Li Heng but do not attack. Toc explains he is awaited further arrivals, but is pressured to mount a, possibly premature, attack. Another complication is The Wildman of the foothills, an unknown agitator who denounces all contact with non-Seti people. Toc sends his aide, Captain Moss, to investigate.
Lieutenant Rillish learns that the Wickans' leader, though a toddler, is Coltaine reborn. Rillish renounces his Malazan rank and joins the Wickans, who intend to invade towards Unta in retaliation for the Malazan invasion of Wickan lands.
Storo's troops defending Li Heng are surprised that the Seti are attacking the enormously high walls. At first the Seti take many casualties, but then a gate is treacherously opened and the invaders enter the city. The defenders retreat to the inner walls.
More Talian League troops arrive outside Li Heng, led by Urko, another of the Old Guard. They hear that Laseen and the Malazan army have left Unta and is travelling towards them. The leaders discuss the disposition of their forces.
Chapter 9 (IV)Edit
In Li Heng Storo's mages suggest how they might survive in the face of overwhelming odds. Under the city is Ryllandaras, a semi-divine man-jackal. Though supposedly killed, he is only bound. If released outside the city he will kill enough of the besieging troops to narrow the odds.
Ereko's ship has arrived at the coast of Jacuruku. When they land they are given hospitality by a local emissary called Jhest Golanjar. He mentions that he speaks their language as he learned it from a contingent of the Crimson Guard who conquered a neighbouring kingdom.
The next day Jhest tries to recruit Traveller; when refused, he reveals himself to be a mage, causing Traveller to sink beneath the ground. While Ereko tries to retrieve Traveller, soldiers attack them but are killed by Kyle and his friends. Finally Traveller is brought back to the surface and kills Jhest. They depart on their reprovisioned ship.
In the Pit the new arrivals have been caught spying by Yathengar, who takes them to the centre of their excavations where they have uncovered an enormous Jade figure. Yath causes it to exhale, and the resulting wind blows one of them, Grief, across the cavern. To everyone's surprise he isn't killed, and quickly recovers.
The newcomers then say they are there to rescue everyone. They climb the unclimbable cavern walls, overcome the guards, and lower a platform for the others to use.
The Crimson Guard have landed at Cawn, sacked it, and move inland towards Li Heng, their army reinforced by local conscripts.
Outside Li Heng Ghelel and the other commanders are aware of 'pirates' moving inland towards them. Then they learn that they are the Crimson Guard. Ghelel's troop travel to investigate and find their way blocked by the Guard, who have occupied a key bridge and the impregnable ruins of the Sanctuary of Burn. They are permitted to cross the bridge as they travel south, but are warned that they will not be allowed to return.
Inside Li Heng, Storo's party release Ryllandaras.
Chapter 10 (V)Edit
The Wickans have invaded and approach Unta, which has few defenders since the Malazan army is travelling to Li Heng. Mallick Rel sends an officer to negotiate with the Wickans.
Kyle's party approach the Dolmens of Tien, where Duke K'azz, the original leader of the Crimson Guard, is believed to be trapped. Ereko leads them to the correct location. They dig, and find what appears to be a desiccated corpse. Then a warren opens and Kallor arrives. He has a longstanding grievance against Ereko and intends to kill him. Traveller declines to prevent this as Ereko has made him promise not to. Kallor mortally wounds Ereko, so fulfilling the terms of Traveller's promise. He attacks and wounds Kallor, who retreats into his warren. They return to their ship, Kyle having taken a smooth stone from Ereko as a keepsake.
At the ship they encounter an old man, Jan; he was shipwrecked there long ago and wishes to leave. Kyle agrees to take him to their next destination, Quon Tali.
The Talian Alliance makes another assault on Li Heng. Soon after it starts one of the Seti shamans warns Toc that Ryllandaras is free and approaching them. As many people as possible are moved inside the outer walls, where they should be safe. They close the gate, but the Malazan sappers demolish it with previously-placed munitions.
The Seti now have no protection against Ryllandaras, but in retaliation they destroy the inner gate too, so the Jackal-god can enter the main city. Only Rell can withstand him, and Ryllandaras finally withdraws.
The next day Toc meets with Imotan, the shaman of the Jackal warrior society, whose position within the Seti hierarchy has been enormously enhanced by the reappearance of his totem, Ryllandaras. Toc presses him to adhere to the agreement they had made, to take part in the forthcoming battle. Imotan ambiguously agrees that the Seti will be there.
The scholars and Mages freed from the Pit are now travelling on the Crimson Guard's ship Forlorn, led by Grief who is now revealed to be Blues. The Mages are washing off as much as possible of the Otataral dust; they are aware of the happenings at Li Heng; to get there in time their leader Yath plans a dangerous shared Ritual to take the ship through a Warren.
Kyle's party, voyaging towards Quon Tali, encounter a magical storm that they cannot avoid. They enter it and find themselves in the Warren of Shadow: Shadowthrone wishes to talk to Traveller, and Kyle also goes to the meeting. Shadowthrone wants Traveller to do something for him, and Traveller sets two conditions on his service.
As the discussion progresses Kyle's sword becomes increasingly hot. Finally it melts, and from it emerges Osserc. Initially there is a confrontation between him and Shadowthrone, but they eventually decide to ignore each other. Osserc gives Kyle his sword to replace the one that melted.
Traveller agrees to undertake Shadowthrone's service and leaves by warren. The others also depart.
Chapter 11 (VI)Edit
The Malazan army has arrived near Li Heng and is confronted by the Talian Alliance forces. The Alliance's main advantage will be the Seti cavalry, which should nullify the Malazan skirmishers. As promised, Imotan leads the Seti to the battlefield; then he tells Toc they will take no part in the fight, and ride away. Toc follows to try to dissuade him, but they kill him.
Without cavalry the battle goes badly for the Alliance and they eventually surrender. They are set to work reinforcing the Imperial compound as a defence against Ryllandaras. When they finish their leaders are imprisoned inside the walls, but the troops are left outside, defenceless, until the leaders agree to join with the Malazans against the expected Crimson Guard attack.
Marquis Jhardin hears of the defeat and tells Ghelel. He intends to return to his province and informs Ghelel that she is to accompany him and become his wife. With Molk's help she escapes from the camp, but they are attacked by two Mages. Molk defeats them but is himself killed.
Book 3: Fates and ChancesEdit
Chapter 12 (I)Edit
The Crimson Guard leaders meet emissaries from the Malazans. Each side declines to surrender, and prepares for the battle.
After hours of stand-off, the fighting gradually begins. The Malazan skirmishers approach Shimmer's troops and are repelled by her Mages. Then she and her subordinates are attacked by several Claw assassins. One, a Mage, pulls her into the Shadow Warren while magically throttling her. She manages to kill him, and is then expelled from Shadow by Edgewalker; but he first mentions that K'azz is also there, and Shimmer is able to contact him telepathically. He says that it was Skinner and Cowl who betrayed him.
In Unta Mallick Rel hires a boat to take him across the harbour so that he can contact Mael and remonstrate with him. However Mael is no longer under his control: the local population have sensed his presence and have been worshipping him in their own fashion, which has freed him from Mallick's Jhistal ties. Mael transports him to Cawl.
Chapter 13 (II)Edit
On the Wickan Plains Nil and Nether have become aware of the confrontation in Quon. They decide to intervene on the Malazan side. The Malazans would then be indebted to them, and the price will be their sovereignty. They take 1000 veteran riders, and Rillish; and as the normal Warrens have guardians who might intervene, they intend to travel through the Abyss itself.
Kyle's party are being led through the Shadow Warren. Jan admits that he is in fact Duke K'azz. Edgewalker intervenes to expel them from Shadow; they find themselves in Quon, not far from the battlefield. K'azz contacts the Brethren and expels Skinner from the company.
The Crimson Guard divides into two parties: those loyal to K'azz, and Skinner's followers. The latter continue to attack the Malazan remaining position, but are routed by the Wickan cavalry who suddenly arrive on the field. Skinner remains and is attacked by two previous members of Dassem Ultor's bodyguard. They are suddenly joined by someone who appears to be Dassem Ultor himself; he eventually wounds Skinner and forces him to withdraw. The mysterious swordsman then disappears again.
Chapter 14 (III)Edit
Five Avowed have been defending a bridge, so preventing Kanese troops reinforcing the Malazans. They are now all wounded; K'azz, Kyle and company relieve them. Kyle finds Osserc's sword to be magically effective. After a while Kanese emissaries ask for a truce: their magic-user has detected the approach of a manifestation of great power.
Yath has combined the powers of the Mages to transport them through Serc warren. However he starts attacking the Crimson Guard, and announces his intention to revenge himself on the Malazans by devastating the whole of the Quon continent. He moves the ship to the edge of Chaos then opens a gate to Quon, so creating a Rent. The ship crash-lands on the battlefield.
Yath has retained the augmented powers of the Ritual, and is attacking the Malazan army while strengthening the Rent: soon it will be self-sustaining. The high-mage Tayschrenn arrives and engages Yath; they are evenly matched. Three Veils loyal to Skinner attack Tayschrenn, and one wounds him. Both Tayschrenn and Yath vanish into the Rent. A Malazan sapper, Nait, then explodes their accumulated munitions just inside the mouth of the Rent, which shrinks and disappears.
Chapter 15 (IV)Edit
The battle over and the Rent no longer a threat, the troops relax. Among them, now visible, walks Laseen in her Claw role: she had killed several Avowed. Her bodyguard, Possum, lurks concealed by his warren; he realises that Laseen is presenting herself as bait to attract Cowl. Suddenly Cowl strikes Possum from behind, then attacks Laseen. When Possum recovers he sees them fighting and joins in. Then another arrives: the unnamed assassin from the Imperial Warren, now identified as Topper. He attacks Cowl, and as they fight they disappear into a Warren. Taya Radok, Mallick Rel's assassin, then appears behind Laseen and fatally stabs her.
Soon after, Mallick Rel arrives with reinforcements from Cawl. With Laseen and most of the leaders dead, he takes charge.
The Crimson Guard withdraw into the now-vacant Imperial Warren. Kyle and the Lost brothers remain; they are taken by the shade of Stoop to meet Greymane, who is hiding in the Sanctuary of Burn. They agree to leave with him.
Chapter 16 (V)Edit
Hurl, Liss and Rell are still stalking Ryllandaras. They find a Seti camp where he has massacred many of his followers, including Imotan, his shaman. They meet Amaron who joins their party, as soon after do Urko, Braven Tooth, 'Temp' and 'Sweetgrass', all members of the Old Guard.
A few days later Liss explains her plan: the ex-Dawn-dancer will perform a ritual dance to attract Ryllandaras to the camp; the Old Guard and Rell will then attack him while he's distracted. That night she dances and Ryllandaras arrives. After a struggle that leaves Rell and Amaron dead and the others seriously injured, Liss and Ryllandaras disappear together into a Gate.