Chapter 1

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Sansara was a shitty little corner of reality.

I was not sure why I was there. I think it was because if I took a full tally of the universe, and then subtracted all those places I could not go or did not want to go, Sansara was the only place left. Or perhaps it was because I had wandered, seeking somewhere that matched my mood and state of self, and in Sansara found that reflection.

At the time, I found it hard to say.

So, Sansara:

There were two suns in the sky, one large, dull and red, the other small and white.  Above the horizon were three parallel rents, as though reality had been slashed open by the claw of some immense beast. This was not too far from the truth. Tendrils of multi-coloured chaos flickered at their borders.

The only local fauna was a fat, foot-long slug, grey skin banded with stripes of red chlorophyll, subsisting off the fungus that grew beneath the rocks and the light from the torn sky. Despite being a contender for the most wretched life-from in all Reality, they made surprisingly good eating. My suspicion was that they, along with the fungus they ate, had been either engineered or brought to Sansara from somewhere else. Even with the random mutation inflicted by radiating chaos, an ecosystem of just two organisms should not have be sustainable.

When it rained, it rained ash.

It fell in grey flakes, like filthy snow, I felt the touch of it on my face and bare arms, in my short cut hair, and, more annoyingly, down the front of my sleeveless top. My jeans were grey with it.

But I paid it no mind. My eyes were on my opponent.

He was a Kesan – I didn’t know if that referred to his species, his homeworld. his nation of birth or something else, and I didn’t much care. I didn’t know his name, and I didn’t care about that either. He was of interest only because he had decided, what with him being a big muscle bound freak and more than slightly nuts, that he was sure to win the upcoming fist fight. I was looking forward to proving him wrong.

Hell, I’d been hoping for this since the Kesans had arrived.

One decent fight, once in a while. What more could a girl can ask for?

I remembered the day they’d fallen from the rents, a thousand of them, unconscious or raving in the grips of their parachutes. Half had been dead, reduced to chunks of crystal or bursts of flame or gibbering masses of twisted flesh. The survivors had been mutated beyond recognition by the forces they’d endured.

You did not mess with raw chaos unless you knew what you were doing, and the Kesans hadn’t known shit.

I could see the extent of the damage on the man in front of me. I’d learned that the Kesans naturally had pale blue skin of varying hues, but this man’s skin was deep red, the colour of fresh blood. Patches of feather stood out, stark against otherwise smoothly muscled skin. There was a band of scales around his stomach.  On his left side breathed a small, secondary mouth, lined with needle teeth.

His face wasn’t much better. He had no nose, only a smooth patch of blank skin, and one eye was the bulging, mad eye of a wild bull. His whole face seemed twisted by its presence, his mouth crooked in a permanent semi-snarl.

I also suspected that he’d suffered a few alterations to his brain. A full third of the survivors had gone mad during their passage through the rent, but madness was a host of different sliding scales. Some were catatonic, some psychotic, some suffered from mood swings, but those were just the obvious cases. This guy had yet to speak, and while he responded to his comrades goads and cries of encouragement readily enough, it was clear that there was something missing.

It didn’t matter. As long as he could fight, nothing mattered.

One of his kin slapped him on the shoulder. They were in a ring around us, twisted forms jostling for a better view. I paid them no mind. They were the backdrop, the scenery. They had no value beyond marking the borders of our space.

‘Get her, Conrad!’

My opponent clenched his fists and bone ridges popped on his knuckles. He lunged.

Yes!

I pivoted out of the path of his fist, let it blur past me. I put a palm strike into his side, just above that gaping mouth. He staggered, but turned his extended jab into a vicious, back-hand elbow by way of retaliation. I rolled under it, and caught the front-kick he followed up with on my forearms.

The impact knocked me back a step, and I knew that I’d have bruises later, but none of this mattered. I was smiling. I was smiling because this guy knew what he was doing. I remembered, belatedly, that the Kesan expedition had been formed of military personnel. This man had had training.

I brought my hands back up and closed with him once more. I threw a jab, and he slipped his head out of the way. He reached forward to grab me and I ducked under his arm and out of his reach. He was a lot bigger than I was, maybe as much as twice my weight, and I had no desire to be crushed within those massive arms. I snapped a kick at his thigh and he lunged forward with a cross.

I moved my head, but I was off balance from the kick and didn’t quite get out of the way. He landed a glancing hit that split my lip and loosened my teeth, and I knew that a clean blow would’ve blasted me into unconsciousness.

Get it together, Rukh.

I was rusty, my moves and balance off to a degree that I wouldn’t have thought possible. With all my years of experience, I had thought my skills were worn in so deep that I couldn’t ever forget them.

You haven’t forgotten. You just need to knock the dust off.

I shook myself and went back on the offensive.

It was coming back to me. Rusty I may have been, but my technique was still better than his. I was faster too, not having all that superfluous muscle mass. It didn’t matter how strong he was if he couldn’t bring that strength to bear. I slipped and rolled my way away from every punch, blocked every kick, and eventually, eventually, he began to tire.

Nothing is more exhausting than combat. Nothing. You have to engage your entire body. You have to focus your entire mind. You draw upon your deepest physical reserves and the invisible processors of your subconscious. It demands all of you, in the way that nothing else does. Even as a sport, even when it is not to the death, nothing compares.

I felt my skills returning. My muscle memory was coming back. I was a little out of shape still, but that would be easily enough fixed when I had the time. My hand speed was off, but not by as much as it could’ve been. Again, easily fixed when I had the time…

Fix it now. Use Ensis. Repair youself…

But I couldn’t. I had promised myself. No power for this fight. This was my first exchange of blows in a long, long time, and I wanted to win with flesh and flesh alone. I would not cheat.

Nor did I need to.

He had slowed down now, worn out from the demands of our dance. My blows were starting to tell. I sunk a fist into the slack muscles of his stomach. I hammered the heel of my hand into his ribs. I put a knee into his groin and watched that mad eye bulge with the intimacy of his pain.

He threw his fist at my belly, a slow sloppy straight right, all power and no technique, a last ditch attempt to wind me has he had been winded. I stepped out of way, letting his fist graze past me, and dropped my elbow over the top of his arm, trapping it against my side.

I twisted my whole body in a single savage movement, and his arm broke with an audible snap.

He howled, falling to his knees.

I let go of his arm and snapped a kick into his face. He reeled, lips bloody and teeth broken. I put another into the side of his head.

Murmurs from the assembled Kesans.

He was out cold, a limp body slowly covered in settling ash.

I spat. It was over, but there was no satisfaction. He had broken just as I had been hitting my stride, just as my moves were coming together. I had been ready to cut loose, to really go all out, and he hadn’t been. He could’ve risen to my challenge, but instead he had failed and left me with nothing but frustration. Real, haven’t-been-laid-in-ages, need-a-cigarette-so-bad frustration.

I looked up at the circle of assembled Kesans, my eyes sweeping across them in case there was someone else, someone worthy of my time.

They fell back before my gaze like wheat before the scythe. No-one said anything.

So I turned away and stalked towards the across the street to the bar. Behind me, I heard the murmuring start up again.

‘…nearly killed him…’

‘Wouldn’t want to fight her…’

The noise cut off as I slammed the door behind me.

I went up to the bar and threw myself into one of the stools. The girl that stood behind it, her hair interspersed with quills and spines, poured me a glass of spice without asking.

I lifted it to my lips. Rich, red, and powerful strong, it was made from the sugar-rich skin of the photosynthesising slug. I had developed a taste for its thick texture and the hot, spicy aftertaste. It was like drinking the blood of a terminal curry addict.

I gulped it down, too impatient to sip and savour.

I heard booted feet on the floor behind me, but I didn’t turn. I recognised that odd limping gait from his last few visits. I heard him walk around behind the bar, heard him exchange a few words of whispered conversation with the bar lady. Heard the note of dismissal in his voice, heard her slow sneaking footfalls as she made her exit.

‘Hey, Eli,’ I said, without looking.

A bottle of spice thunked down next to my glass.

I looked up. Eli was unslinging his rifle from his shoulder. He leant it against the bar with exaggerated care, and said: ‘Hello, Rukh.’

He was a big man. His arms were about as thick around as my waist. He wore a big brown trench-coat over clothes ragged from constant reuse and a pair of thick, elbow-length leather gloves- no doubt chosen to hide the disfigurement of his hands and forearms.

He could do little about his six-clawed foot, or the bony protrusions on his face. Personally, had I been in his shoes, I wouldn’t have bothered at all.

Eli was the leader of the Kesans. I forgot what rank they ascribed to him, but they all saluted him whenever he passed by. He was the one who had met me when I strolled into their little town, some months ago, bored of the desert and wondering who these alien explorers might be.

He didn’t strike me as anything special. But somehow a thousand of his people had followed him into the chaos-rent they’d found on their homeworld. Somehow, the survivors of that monumentally dangerous journey continued to follow him.

The idiots.

‘You half-killed Conrad, just now,’ he said.

I shrugged, taking another sip. ‘He wanted a fight,’ I said. ‘I fought.’

‘Each one of my people is precious to me, Rukh,’ he said.

‘And utterly worthless to me.’

A pause. I suspected that he would have answered anyone else with a fist. But he wasn’t stupid, not entirely. He knew that I was more than he was. Once it was understood that my black skin wasn’t a mutation but a rather common phenotype where I was from, he’d known that I hadn’t come to Sansara through the rents. It was patently obvious that I wasn’t a local either.

He, along with the rest of his people, weren’t entirely sure what to make of me. I helped with the occasional task in order to justify drinking in their bar, but otherwise I did little. Any questions they asked me I deflected or ignored.

‘I need to know, Rukh,’ he said, almost gently.

Ah yes, here it was. Whenever I ended up in conversation with Eli, the same topic would be dredged up. He wanted to know how to leave Sansara. He wanted to go home.

My lack of mutation had convinced him that I had the answer.

To be fair, he was entirely correct in this assumption. Unfortunately, he was entirely wrong in several others.

‘I seem to remember having this conversation before,’ I said.

‘Maybe,’ said Eli, his face set, ‘but we’re running out of time. You’re the only person who’s managed to escape this.’ He touched a hand to the growth on his face. ‘However you managed it….’

‘I said no,’ I told him. I had made promises. Unfortunately for Eli, keeping them meant I couldn’t help him even if I’d wanted to.

A muscle in his face twitched. ‘We’re running low on supplies. The wells are producing less and less clean water and we don’t know how to fix it. Within a few weeks, we’ll be out. A short time after that, we’ll all be dead of dehydration.’

I shrugged, taking another sip of the spice. ‘Probably.’

‘I am talking about the end, Rukh. For all of us.’

‘All of you, maybe. I still don’t see what this has to do with me.’

Eli put a gloved hand on my arm. His fingers completely encircled my wrist. ‘We’re not asking anymore.’

I sighed and put my glass down. I pushed my stool a little away from the bar and turned to meet his eyes. ‘Let go,’ I said.

He hesitated, and then tried to pull me from the chair.

I twisted my hand in his grip, and flexed my will. My arm stole the strength from his and sent it back at him along the blade of my hand. His grip was broken, and he fell back, clutching his wrist. His eyes, one grey one green, looked at me shock.

‘You don’t know what you’re dealing with, Eli,’ I told him. ‘Your problems are not my problems. You want to get off-world?’ I jerked a hand towards the ceiling. ‘You know the way.’

He stepped back, shaking his head. ‘We can’t go through there again,’ he said. ‘We lost hundreds last time. Hundreds more lost their minds.’ Again his hand went to the protrusion on his face. ‘It changed us.’

I nodded, and picked up my glass again. ‘Chaos will do that.’

‘Fuck you,’ he spat.

I turned my back on him. Took another sip. ‘I never pretended to care, Eli. I’m not here for you. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have the odd conversation and you make a decent poison.’ I held up my glass in salute. ‘But we aren’t the same. In another time, in another place, I would’ve killed you just for touching me.’

‘It’s good to see you haven’t changed,’ said another voice.

I froze, glass half-way to my lips. I knew that voice. That voice so low and husky it had to be an affection. No-one really spoke like…

What is she doing here?

I put the glass down on the bar. Swivelled my stool around.

There was a figure standing in the doorway. Tall, about six three or six four. Slim-built but with a dancer’s muscles. Styled blonde hair done up behind her head. The light from the door made it a halo, even as it threw her face into shadow.

I knew who she was, nonetheless.

‘Get out,’ I said to Eli.

He didn’t move. I glanced at him, and then shrugged. If he wanted to stay, then that was his funeral. He’d been beginning to annoy me in any case.

‘Isande,’ I said, reaching back to the bar for my spice. ‘Come to have a drink with an old friend?’

She took a step into the room. She was much as I remembered. Thin, slanting eyes with brilliant, blue-green irises. She wore a plain gi, the white cotton throwing her tanned skin into sharp relief. She wore the gi’s jacket open to show the black top beneath, and had a black belt around her waist. An affection of course – the idea of Isande being tested for a belt in any martial art was beyond ludicrous.  The hilt of her katana jutted over her left shoulder, the same sword, as far as I could tell, that she’d carried in the War. I had never seen it unsheathed.

‘Not exactly,’ she said.

‘You look good,’ I told her, and downed the remainder of the spice. Swallowed. ‘Been working out?’

The answering smile that spread across her lips was a hard, empty thing. Her eyes held no mirth at all. They were as empty as the eyes of a doll, or a dead woman. This was not surprising. Isande and I had a long history. It was not all that long ago we had been trying, quite earnestly, to kill each other.

‘Who is this woman?’ asked Eli. ‘What is she doing here? How did she…’

‘Get out of here, Eli,’ I said to him, not taking my eyes off Isande. ‘Like I told you, I won’t help. You keep pushing, all you’re going to do is make things worse.’

‘Rukh…’

‘Go.’

This time, to his credit, he went. He picked his rifle up from behind the bar, passed by Isande with cautious curiosity, and strode out into the ash-fall.

I suspected that I would not see him again.

I tossed my empty glass onto the bar with a skittering thud. ‘I gave you all of Reality,’ I said to Isande. ‘You couldn’t leave this one little corner of it to me?’

‘Iago Tancris is dead,’ she told me. ‘Exan killed him.’

My first thought was that no, Exan hadn’t killed him. That had been the whole problem.  I had sent three assassins after Tancris, back in the War. The first one would’ve succeeded, if not for the timely intervention of Tancris’s lover, Carmen Cadan. The second had bungled it and Tancris had sent us his head in a box. That was when I’d told Exan to handle the fucker personally. They had duelled, briefly, but Tancris had escaped with…

Exan. Oh shit

Exan had been the raging attack dog of the Dark Pact, and I had held his leash. He had been my second, my closest confidant, my friend, and my lover. He had taken no action in the War that did not follow some strategy of mine, and everyone knew it. If he had killed Tancris…

He’s broken the treaty.

No wonder Isande looked like she was here for blood.

I got up off of the stool. My arms still ached from blocking that kick. I could feel the oozing from the cut on my lip. The backs of my legs were tight from holding stance. My muscles felt loose in my skin, as if all the strength had been wrung from them, water squeezed from a sponge.

Show no weakness, I thought to myself. It was my mantra in situations such as this. In all situations, really. Show no weakness.

‘What do you want, Isande?’

Even as I said it I was reaching for the power within me. I didn’t muck about. I loosened the muscles in my arms and legs, strengthened those fibres which had begun to decay from inactivity. I wiped away the aches of the fight and consequences of my recent indolence in one brief burst of power. The discipline was called Ensis. With it you could heal any wound that hadn’t already killed you, knit flesh, set bone, alter the very makeup of your own body. It was also expensive. Even a comparably small burst cost a lot of power, but I knew what was coming next and I couldn’t face it with half measures.

‘You are to come to the House,’ said Isande. Her features softened ever so slightly. ‘They want a trial.’

A trial? I knew what that meant. I knew who would be doing the judging too.

So I laughed at her. ‘You have got to be fucking joking,’ I said. ‘I put my name to the treaty. I gave you people my word. But there was nothing in there about being summoned whenever you felt like it.’

Isande stepped forward, and I felt a sudden thrill run through me.

She saw my expression and smiled. ‘I can’t attack you without breaking the treaty myself.’

I hid my disappointment and shrugged at her instead. ‘Guess you can’t make me do shit, then.’

She shrugged right back at me. ‘Not unless you agree to it.’

Silence.

I felt the smile spreading over my face. I knew what she was proposing. It wasn’t a violation of the treaty if we both wanted a fight. I mean, a sparring match didn’t break the treaty, did it? This would be something similar, a contest of equals. We’d done this sort of thing before, back in the old days, an easy way to settle an argument. She didn’t need to hammer out the terms – if I lost I would have to go to the House. If she lost, she would have to leave me alone.

I found myself unable to care. To me this was an end in itself.

‘Very well,’ I said to her, raising my hands.  ‘Whenever you’re ready.’

I barely got the words out.

She crossed the space between us with the smooth power of a cresting wave. She didn’t bother reaching for the weapon at her back. She didn’t go through the tedious process of working herself up to it or feeling out my defences. She knew better than that. Her hands came up to her face in an exact mirror of my own stance, and a split-second later, she struck.

She had been desperate for this since the moment she came in through the door, and when someone came at you with that attitude, you absolutely had to match it.

Or lose, of course.

She sent a palm striking towards my face, almost too fast to follow. I threw a hard block into its path, and my forearm shook with the impact. Beneath me the ground cracked with redirected force.

The follow-up came from the right, but I rolled under and launched a counter. She slapped it aside, stealing its force and returned it with interest to my belly. I was ready for that one and my knee caught her on the hip.

A spider’s web of cracks spread in the stone beneath her as she shed the energy into the floor. She staggered a little with effort, I took the opportunity to swing an elbow into her face. I hit only air.

I had just time to realise that it had been feint before three heavy blows went into my kidneys. I stole the force and packed it into another punch, but Isande had pivoted clear. With nowhere to go that stolen force exploded in my hand.

Flesh tore. Blood splattered the badly painted walls.

Pain.

I stumbled back. My fist was a ruin. I had kept the bones intact, but the remains of my hand hung off them in tatters.

Isande raised an eyebrow. ‘Sloppy,’ she said.

Show no weakness

I shrugged at her again, as though it were nothing. But she was right. I was still rusty, having spent too long sitting on my ass, and a quick fight with a mortal and a burst of Ensis were not enough to fix that. My moves were still off.

Isande resumed her attack with a vengeance. She was fast, and it was clear she had kept up with training. Her movements were smooth and sure where mine were clumsy and worse, overly cautious. I’d wrecked my confidence when I’d wrecked my hand, and if I didn’t pull myself to together I was going to lose.

But she was better than me. Her limbs blurred and it took every ounce of concentration to match her speed. I had to think each move instead of acting on instinct.

Kick. Block. One-two. Block. Dodge.

Dodge.

Dodg…

… she caught me with a solid hook on the side of my face. I felt my cheekbone shatter, and I stumbled. My nerves were afire now, screaming their agony. I could’ve repaired myself with Ensis, just as I could’ve healed my hand, but that would’ve cost power. Use too much and you could run out, and I didn’t want to run out in the middle of a fight. That was a good way to get yourself killed.

Heal later. The bone’s intact and you’re not going to be hitting her with your face.

Well, not if I could help it anyway.

‘You should quit, Rukh,’ she said, stepping back.

I forced my broken face into some semblance of a grin. ‘I surrendered to you once,’ I told her, and gestured at the peeling walls. ‘Look where it got me.’

Her next attack was a flurry of punches, too fast to follow. I retreated before them, letting her spend energy on thrashing the air. If she tried to enhance one of those and didn’t hit me, she’d shred her own fist just as I had. But Isande wasn’t stupid. She switched to a push kick, forcing me to pivot away, and then suddenly she was in close and I was forced to block, and block, and block again.

This was Turis, physical combat augmented with kinetic force. It was equal parts brutality and strategy. Hell, unarmed combat was a complex and difficult thing all by itself, without adding the use of power into the mix. But it was our kind’s favoured way of engaging each other in combat. I was known for being quite good at it.

So was Isande.

I was back against the wall now, my shoulder-blade pressed against the cool plaster. I had no room to retreat and she was crowding me, preventing me from pivoting clear. I needed to create space but it was all elbows and knees now and no room to dodge.

I rolled under a horizontal elbow and heard it carve a furrow in the wall behind me. I put a knee into her groin and she flinched forward – you could never shed all the force with Turis. I kneed her again and punched the side of her head with my shredded fist. She stumbled, and I slammed my forehead into her face and felt her nose break with a satisfying crunch.

Oh yes…

She stumbled back, and I closed for the finish. She sent a jab at me to fend me off but I slapped it aside and stole its force. My shin-kick crunched into the side of her knee…

Her other knee shot out. It took me in the side an instant after my kick landed. The timing was perfect. Impossibly perfect, but she pulled it off. Every ounce of force I’d sent out came back at me, along with whatever interest Isande had seen fit to add.

Which was quite a lot, if I’m any judge. Like I said, the timing was perfect.

It was like being shot. The force of the blow turned me right around. I felt my ribs splintering in my chest. My heels skidded on the stone and I lost my balance.

I fell. Hard.

Looked up.

Isande was above me, one  foot raised…

…she stamped down.

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