The return of the mercenary company the Crimson Guard could not have come at a worse time for the Malazan Empire. Drained by constant warfare, betrayals and rivalries, many see the grip of Empress Laseen weakening. Conquered kingdoms and principalities test their old independence.
Into this fermenting civil war on Quon Tali - the empire's homeland - comes the Guard and the ingrained memory of their vow of undying opposition to the existence of the empire. Yet rivalries and betrayals plague the Guard as well - elements of its elite, the Avowed, scheme to open paths to even greater power. Ancient, powerful entities, Ascendants, also seek to exploit all sides to further their own arcane ends. Meanwhile, a swordsman called Traveller and his companion, Ereko, move from one strange encounter to another on a mysterious path that will lead the swordsman to a confrontation from which none has ever returned.
As the Crimson Guard gathers itself for its assault on the empire, the empress faces more immediate threats. Feeding her wars has bled dry provincial garrisons across Quon Tali, and now regional nationalists see their chance to break free. Behind their insurrections stand the veteran commanders of Laseen's predecessor, Emperor Kellanved. These powerful generals and mages, the Old Hands, have lost patience with what they see as Laseen's mismanagement and have chosen one of their own to replace her.
Yet there are hints that Laseen may be using the uprisings to draw out and finally eliminate these last irksome survivors of her predecessor's rule....
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