I awoke to a cool breeze and the smell of salt.
My wounds had healed – that was not a surprise in itself, but I had a thin slice on the back of my hand that had not been there before. It looked reasonably fresh.
More importantly, my reserves were empty. Bone dry.
I had no power.
When Isande had stamped me into unconsciousness, probably cracking my skull in the process, my body would’ve drawn on that power for healing as I had trained it to. Such healing would’ve been indiscriminate. Every injury, no matter how minor, would’ve been healed. That was probably why I was feeling so good. Things I wouldn’t have wasted power on had been fixed, maybe even things I hadn’t been aware of – damage to the lining of my stomach or lungs or example.
Ensis was a costly discipline. I would’ve used up almost everything I’d had left. Hell, I hadn’t been running on full power when she’d walked into the bar, let alone…
But there was more. The slice on my hand proved that much. Isande had made it, probably several hundred times, watching it heal over each time. When it had stopped healing, she would’ve known I was dry.
Cunning bitch, I thought, not without admiration. I mean, the tactic had been standard when taking prisoners back in the War, but I hadn’t even thought she might…
But then, you didn’t think you’d lose, either, did you?
Ah well. It wasn’t like my reserves had been that great to begin with. I had not needed them on Sansara.
You should’ve kept them topped up, all the same. You had three chaos-rents, right there. Isande was probably brimming with energy before she even stepped into the bar.
War ended. You got sloppy.
But there was no point in dwelling on the mistake. Mostly, I was just happy to still be breathing.
I sat up.
I had been lying in the grass beneath a blue sky with a single yellow sun. To my left I could see thick tangles of gorse and some other plant-life that I didn’t recognise. I was, clearly, no longer on Sansara.
Kandor, maybe? It’s nearby…
To the right was the edge of a cliff, and a gleaming azure sea. Beads of light glittered on the waves. I could see the circling shadows of seabirds hunting in the noonday sun. I could hear their echoing calls sounding across the waves.
It was almost restful.
Isande was standing at the cliff’s edge, wind whipping at her gi jacket. She was staring out to sea, her back to me.
I contemplated shoving her off the cliff. A blow to the back of the head, even with prosaic force, would stun her. She would slip and fall before she could muster any power or plan to save herself. Her body would be dashed against the base of the cliff. I could follow down at my leisure, and finish her before she could use Ensis to repair herself.
That was my pride talking. I had never liked to lose. But we agreed to the contest. She had not broken the treaty. By my own rules, that meant I couldn’t either.
Besides, shoving her off the cliff just seemed… juvenile.
‘You won,’ I said. ‘I guess you get your way.’
She turned, shrugging her shoulders. ‘It would’ve been easier if you’d cooperated.’ She paused, smiling. ‘But, that said, I have always wanted to fight you one-on-one.’
I stood, slowly. Flexed my hand to check its function. There was no pain, no soreness. I felt strong, healthy. I had made a full recovery, it seemed.
My well of power was dry, but that could be remedied. Isande had done no permanent damage.
That spoke of a terrible confidence all by itself.
‘You know,’ said Isande, slowly, ‘I thought you’d be tougher. You beat Ulmeshian, back in the War. No-one else has ever come close.’ Her smile widened. ‘Maybe you’ve lost your edge?’
I smiled back. ‘Don’t be a bitch, Isande.’
Besides, there’s more to that story than any of you know. Even Ulmeshian doesn’t know the whole of it.
‘Unless,’ said Isande, as if I had not spoken, ‘unless you wanted to lose?’
I shook my head. ‘No.’
I was the one to break it. ‘So, Exan really killed him?’
The good humour drained from Isande’s face in a split second. ‘Yes. Carmen was there. She saw it all.’
‘And yet she survived?’
I smiled a nasty smile. ‘Of course she did.’
Isande frowned at me. ‘Exan is strong, Rukh. She was no match for him alone, and she knew it. She fled before he could bind her.’
I’m not the only one getting sloppy in her old age, then. He should’ve had time to…
I closed my eyes for moment, banishing the thought.
‘Did you order him to do it?’ Isande asked me. ‘Is this some plan of yours?’
I met her gaze. ‘No.’
She didn’t ask me if I was lying. She knew I wasn’t. Isande had known me before the War. We had been friends once, closer than sisters. She knew the truth of me – that I never lied, that I never broke a promise. It had been the foundation of the Dark Pact’s power. For all that the Alliance painted us as the bad guys, people had known that they could trust our word. We had stood united in the face of every threat, bound by our oaths, and in that unity we had found strength.
It had been the only thing that had made the treaty possible. It hadn’t been written on paper or signed in blood. It had been laid out in my words, sealed by my name. Everyone who had sworn to follow me was bound by that promise.
Only now, of course, Exan had broken it.
And not in accordance with my wishes. I had wanted the War to end. I had known that it was lost, that carrying on would’ve achieved nothing.
I had no desire to…
Not entirely true, that, is it?
No. Some days I did wish the War was back on. Everything had been simpler then, in a way. My every decision had been made in a strategic context. I’d never been unsure of what to do. I had had plenty of worthy opponents, had never wanted for a decent fight. I had been a figure of fear and dread to some but I had mattered. I did not matter any longer. Of course, in the broad infinity that was Reality, no-one did.
Isande was watching me. She knew what I was thinking.
‘Do you regret it?’ she asked me, ever so softly.
Another silence, broken only by the calling seabirds and the soft whisper of the wind.
Do you regret it?
Well, if I was honest with myself, not entirely. Not every day. Less often, probably, than I regretted signing the treaty. But regrets were funny things. They came and went with the mood. Did I think I had done something wrong? That I had sinned against some cosmic scale of objective morality? No, no I did not.
Did I wish it had gone differently? That I had been able to win?
That, however, was none of Isande’s business.
Show no weakness, I reminded myself.
‘Let me ask you a question instead,’ I said. ‘Do you think it’s better this way? The way things are now? Do you think the right side won?’
Isande’s face was impassive as she answered. ‘You are responsible for the death of millions, if not billions. You are responsible for the extinction of entire worlds. You broke ties with your only true family. You betrayed your friends and all that they stood for. More pain and heartache can be laid at your feet than at the feet of any other individual in the history of Reality.’ She favoured me with a small, humourless smile. ‘You had to be stopped.’
I folded my arms. ‘Not what I asked, Isande,’ I said. ‘I could’ve built something numinous…’
‘At the cost of mortal blood.’
‘Well, yes,’ I said. ‘But it’s not as if that’s an uncommon price for these things, is it?’
Isande’s face was cold. ‘You didn’t have the right.’
‘Ah yes. We’re not supposed to interfere.’ I shook my head in amusement. ‘And yet that is exactly what you and the others did, isn’t it?’
‘You had to be stopped,’ said Isande, in exactly the same tone as before.
I spread my hands. ‘Why? How many times have the Alliance sat back and watched as the mortals did to each other the very things you condemned me for doing? And let’s not forget “cost” you talk about would’ve been immeasurably lower if you’d just let me get on with it.’ I favoured her with a mocking smile. ‘If you are going to judge me evil, at least go to the trouble of building a consistent moral framework first.’
Then, after a long moment, Isande spoke, her voice so quiet as to be almost a whisper.
‘Do you care about that cost, Rukh? Did you carve out your empire for any real purpose?’ A pause. ‘Or were you simply bored?’
And to that, of course, I had no answer that I cared to give.
* * *
There are two ways to travel between worlds.
One is to step into Chaos. It is the raw, unfiltered substance from which solid reality is forged. Or so they say. Chaos extends its tendrils into every cube of space in Reality. Thus from Chaos, one can go anywhere. Of course, you don’t get to decide where you come out, or who you come out as, or if you come out at all. Chaos is the resort of the powerless, the ignorant, or the very, very desperate.
I tried to avoid being one of those three.
That said, everyone starts out as powerless and ignorant, and most start out desperate too. Chaos holds the potential for change. Some say it is change and maybe they’re right, but it is very definitely power. To become what I was I had had bound a thread of it within myself, learned to channel it into the myriad disciplines of my kind.
This was what allowed me to use the second method.
Isande led and I followed. We walked away from the edge of the cliff, through the tangles of gorse and along the tiny animal tracks. Our path twisted down towards the level of the sea. We walked through a small forest and out onto a long smooth beach. Gulls scattered at our approach.
And then the beach was gone, smoothing out into a long tarmac road, the surface of which was painted with yellow symbols. The sky above us was red with the setting of the sun. Storm-clouds bunched on the horizon.
Isande and I walked the tarmac in step with each other. Hours passed. Tarmac became stone cobbles through a busy market square. Cobbles became a dirt track through a forest.
I ticked off the names of the worlds in my head. Kandor, Shasu, Narma, Koralin…
This was Faris. It cost no power to step between worlds, only knowledge of the ways between them. In the War that knowledge had been worth more than anything. We had scouted constantly, built complex maps of where linked to where, of which paths we thought were new and which paths the other side already knew about. We spent that knowledge on ambushes and escapes and delivering crushing defeats to mortal strongholds.
In a way, it was that knowledge that had finally ended the War. Not in the way I had imagined, but by getting me unobstructed to the gates of the House, white flag draping from my fist.
Eventually we reached a crossroads. This world, Elran, had rings. They curved up into the blue sky in an immense, sparking band. The single sun hid its face behind their edge. The ground was hard-packed, rocky desert, the road a track of finely beaten dust. A signpost marked the crossroads, its shadow long in the failing light.
There was someone waiting for us beside it. But then, that was often the way, with crossroads.
I glanced at her. ‘Friend of yours?’ There was no doubt that the girl was one of us. I could see her taint, plain as anything, not in any way that I could describe but ineffably there all the same. There were ways to hide it, ways to mask it, but in the absence of those disciplines our kind always knew our own.
Her skin was pale yellow marked with swirling grey bands of varying thicknesses. The largest was perhaps three inches wide, the smallest may be a tenth of that. Her ears were hidden beneath a ragged mop of short, dark hair, but I knew that they would be pointed, same as I knew that the dark pairs of parallel lines on either side of her neck were vestigial gills.
She was from Kaba then, or had chosen to appear so. With enough skill in Ensis you could look pretty much however you wanted. Most people retained the characteristics of their homeworld, but it was never wise to assume.
It was her choice of dress that really interested me. White gi, bound with a red belt. A katana over her shoulder, the very mirror of Isande. That kind of imitation was rarely seen, except in very specific circumstances.
Isande has a disciple? Well, isn’t that a twist?
‘Cass,’ said Isande, and for the first time I saw weariness in her. ‘I told you to meet me at the House.’
But Cass wasn’t paying attention. She was looking, instead, at me.
I looked back. Studied her face.
There was scar running from her left eye to the right side of her jaw, a thin, neat scar but stark red against her banded skin. It had clearly been made by something very sharp. Either she didn’t have the skill with Ensis to heal it, or she had left it there deliberately to give her face some character.
I didn’t recognise her, for what that was worth, but I recognised the look in her eyes all right. I had seen it before on the innumerable battlefields of the War, in all kinds of flavours.
‘Is this her?’ she asked, eyes still locked on mine.
‘Depends who you mean by “her”,’ I said.
Cass’s mouth pressed into a thin, hard line. ‘Helena Rukh. The Black Queen. Leader of the Dark Pact. The Last Evil.’ She all but spat that last one. ‘Need I go on?’
I smiled at her. ‘Please do,’ I said. ‘It’s rare to hear my titles listed with such eloquence.’
I don’t lie, ever, but sometimes it’s possible to be objectively truthful and utterly sarcastic at the same time. I have always relished those opportunities.
She took a step, but Isande was beside her in an instant, hand on her shoulder. ‘No,’ she said, voice firm. ‘Rukh and I have reached an accord.’
‘Not my accord,’ said Cass, shaking her off. She looked her in the eye. ‘You going to fight me, sensei? Because that’s what it will take.’
Isande sighed, and stepped back.
‘Take it you never signed the treaty?’ I asked, looking at Cass. I was keeping my hands loose at my sides, my body open, my entire stance nonthreatening. But I was under no illusions – she was going to attack.
‘No. I was born just after it was signed.’
I nodded. ‘That’ll be why I don’t recognise you.’ I grinned at her. ‘You’re still a child.’
She went for me.
I’d seen it coming a mile off. She was young, and angry, and she still thought that a fight was something you squared up to. Her hand went to the sword at her hip as she came forward, and a couple of seconds later it was over.
I didn’t bother going for the sword. I feinted towards it with my left hand, on reflex as much as anything, and I whipped the folded knuckles of my right into her throat with all the force I could muster.
I felt the cartilage break, but I was already disengaging, backing up in case she got the sword out of the scabbard in time for one last, desperate cut.
She didn’t. She just dropped, choking on the splinters of her own larynx.
Isande watched in silence, her face a mask.
On a more experienced opponent the blow would never have landed. Cass should’ve blocked it with a dropped chin, or slapped it away with her free hand. But she hadn’t been thinking. She’d been too focused on putting that katana through my neck to deal with the reality of her situation. I’d seen that weakness when I’d seen the hatred on her face. She’d probably fantasised about this moment, built up a picture of how it should go, and when the time came she hadn’t been able to set that fantasy aside.
That one strike had been all it had taken to end the fight. A blow to the neck was a killing blow.
And Cass was dying. Her throat was a ruin, and she couldn’t breathe. The only prosaic solution was an emergency tracheotomy, and that was a very difficult surgery to perform on yourself, especially if you were in the position of needing to.
Luckily for her she had access to less prosaic solutions.
I watched as the darkening bruise on her throat receded. Her throat flexed and rippled as her splintered larynx reconstructed itself beneath her skin.
Looked like she could use Ensis after all.
‘Back in the War,’ I said, conversationally, ‘I’d be finishing you off right about now. There wouldn’t be much you could do to stop me either.’
She opened her mouth. Gasped.
Fast, I thought to myself. I can see what Isande sees in her.
‘You… you killed… killed my father.’
I had figured it was something like that. This routine had a depressing familiarity about it.
‘I’ve killed a lot of people,’ I said, raising my hands. ‘With both fist and word.’ I shrugged. ‘Such is war.’
She got to her feet. ‘My father was Telemens Dax,’ she said.
Memory dropped on me like a sledgehammer. For a moment I was back on Kaba, facing Dax and his gathered allies. No-namers, recently raised to the power and rushed to the front line all too soon. They had served their purpose though, which was to occupy the Imaski who accompanied me and allow Dax and I to go mano-a-mano in the style we both loved best.
He had very nearly killed me.
I looked back at his daughter. I could see the resemblance now, something in the line of her jaw, in the cast of her eyes. Dax hadn’t hated me though. He hadn’t been the kind of man to hate. He had entered the War with all kinds of principles, and by the end he’d betrayed every single one. His loathing had been reserved for himself.
‘I remember,’ I said. ‘We fought a long time, Dax and I. But it ended with his blood on my fingers, his mortal vessel in ruins.’ I shook my head, trying to shake the memory. ‘I burned his body where it fell and I left his ashes to the winds.’
Cass stood very still. I could read the tension in every line of her body.
‘After all,’ I continued, raising my head, ‘he would’ve done the same to me, if I’d let him. No difference between us at all really, except in a purely practical sense.’ I let my gaze harden. ‘You should let this go.’
Cass shook her head. Said, in a low voice, little more than a whisper, ‘No.’
She drew her sword, and, this time, I let her. That she was still using weapons meant she hadn’t mastered Turis and Kasis yet.
Still a disciple, I reminded myself.
She was fully healed now, and I knew she was ready to come at me a second time. I could see it in her stance, in the set of her feet, in the sudden, tight focus of her eyes. She didn’t care about the treaty. She didn’t care about Isande’s silent disapproval. She was losing herself to her rage. I had ruined her dreams of how this encounter would proceed, and for that she hated me all the more. In this moment, this beautiful moment, the only thing that would satisfy her would be my death.
I felt the killing-smile curl at the corners of my mouth. I felt the need I had not felt in a long time. I felt the itch in my fingertips. I wanted to dance. I wanted to break bone and shatter flesh. I wanted the risk, and the challenge, and singing in the blood that only came with combat.
I had experience and cunning. She had power to draw on and a blade in her hand. This would be a challenge.
I loved a challenge.
My warrior side was awake again. It was awake, and tugging on the edges of my soul, whispering dark truths into my inner ear. It was reminding me of what it had felt like when I’d faced this girl’s father. It was reminding me that the fight with Isande had been the first time in a long time that I’d felt truly alive.
I raised my hands to guard, and felt anticipation course through me.
Then Isande stepped between us. ‘Enough,’ she said.
Oh how I hated Isande for that! My first thought was to say “No, not enough,” to force the confrontation. How dare she intervene in this, this thing that belonged solely to Cass and I? I hated her for her strength, and for the absolute nature of her refusal. I wanted her dead for it.
I would fight them both.
But the strategist in me knew the stupidity of that thought. I could not win here, not as I was.
Besides, I had given Isande my word.
So I lowered my hands, feeling all the suppressed anger of a jilted lover, all the frustration of an aborted orgasm. But I kept my mask in place this time.
Show no weakness.
I shrugged at Isande, then flashed a wink at Cass.
‘Some other time then, kid,’ I said.
* * *
‘The next time I tell you to stay behind,’ Isande was saying, ‘you stay behind.’
We had left Elran behind after a few hours travel along its dusty tracks. We now walked across an open plain of long, green grass. It stretched all around us for as far as the eye could see, rippling constantly in the stiff breeze. The name of the world was Shadim, a world I had not visited since long before the War.
More importantly, it was not a necessary step on our way back to the House. Either Isande’s knowledge of the ways was lacking, or she was making a detour.
I guess I’ll find out in time.
‘Yes, sensei,’ said Cass.
‘Don’t sulk, girl. If you don’t want to follow my instructions then you don’t have to. There is no rule that says you have to be beholden to anyone other than yourself.’
‘Sensei,’ said Cass, slowing, ‘I didn’t mean…’
‘I am not sending you away,’ said Isande, ‘I am simply reminding you that it is your choice to be here. You asked to learn my way, to walk the path I have walked. I agreed to teach you. I never claimed to own you.’
‘But,’ said Isande, voice hardening, ‘when you go against me it betrays a lack of trust. Today you told me that where Rukh is concerned, you do not trust me.’
‘Revenge is a jealous mistress,’ I said, and was rewarded with a slight tensing of Cass’s shoulders.
Isande gave me a look. It was the kind of look mothers give unruly children.
‘It’s not that I don’t trust you,’ said Cass, after a moment. ‘But she… she killed my father.’
‘Yes.’ Isande was no longer looking at me. She had quickened her pace, pulling ahead, and I could no longer see her expression. ‘He was my friend, if you recall, and on occasion my lover. As were Irani and Callahan, also dead at her hand. She killed many others who had been comrades and compatriots of mine. Her War killed many more.’
‘They mostly had it coming,’ I said.
Cass whirled, hand on her sword.
I stopped. This was as good a place as any. The grass only came partway up my shins and was no impediment to movement. There was plenty of space around us. Nothing to slow the fight down or get in the way.
Just how I liked it.
‘If you’re going to use that,’ I said, lacing my voice with an appropriate amount of scorn, ‘you’d best get on with it.’
‘You think this is the wisest course?’ said Isande to Cass. She said it quietly, as if it were a genuine question rather than a veiled warning. ‘Last time…’
‘She surprised me,’ said Cass, her eyes locked on mine. ‘I wasn’t ready.’
‘No,’ said Isande, voice dry, ‘no, you weren’t. And you still aren’t.’ A glance back at me. ‘She beat you without using any power at all. No Turis, nothing.’
Cass’s lips twitched in a stillborn snarl.
I let my grin widen. ‘You should listen to your mistress, Cassandra,’ I said. ‘I killed your father at the height of his strength. What makes you think you’ll do any better? Hell, what makes you think you’ll ever do any better?’
The sword came free of the scabbard.
I never even saw the blow.
One second Cass was stepping forward, blade in hand, the next her face had been turned around by the force of Isande’s slap.
Blood splattered from her lips.
‘You stupid girl,’ said Isande. Her voice was low but I could hear her anger. ‘Have you heard nothing that I have said? Or is it worse than that? Do you act this way because you know I am here to save you if something goes wrong?’ She chopped at her disciple’s wrist and the katana fell from nerveless fingers. ‘She defeated Ulmeshian himself in single combat. She will kill you!’
Stop it Isande, I thought to myself. You’re making me blush.
Cass turned her face back to her sensei. ‘All your reprimands are for me,’ she said, as the blood trickled down her face. ‘But she is the one who baits me.’
Isande snorted, not in amusement, but in contempt.
‘She baits you because you are easily baited. She tests your pride and your temper. One you have too much of, the other is too short by far. I will not stop the test just because you are failing it!’
Isande shoved her disciple in the chest, hard. Cass fell back into the grass, hands going back to catch herself.
‘She has kept to the treaty. You have broken it, twice.’ She turned away from Cass, a motion quite deliberate. ‘Your father would be ashamed of you.’
Or cheering you on, I thought. Man was a total bastard, after all.
I saw the words hit home, nonetheless. For a moment, I thought that Cass might break and cry. She was only a few decades old, younger than I could even remember being. And everyone has a breaking point.
But no tears came. She simply closed her eyes for a long moment, and then said:
‘I apologise.’ A pause. ‘I…I will not face Rukh until you tell me I am ready.’
Isande inclined her head. ‘Better,’ she said, and then, to my surprise, turned to me.
‘A favour,’ she said.
I raised an eyebrow.
Among those raised to the power, mortal currency is all but worthless. There is no economy as such, the only resources of value are power and the things made from it. Power cannot be traded, not directly, and only a fool would do so if it could.
A favour, on the other hand… well, that is worth something. Agreeing to one entitles you to one of equal value in return.
It was a long time since anyone had risked being beholden to me, even for a small thing.
‘I’m listening,’ I said.
Isande gestured towards Cass. ‘One lesson.’ She smiled a knowing smile. ‘On… oh, anything you like.’
Combat, then. I can teach her nothing of the disciplines, not like this. As you well know, you crafty, crafty bitch.
I thought for a moment. The idea appealed to me, for the novelty if nothing else. I hadn’t taught a disciple since Exan.
I pushed all thoughts of him away, suppressing them once again. There would be time enough to ruminate on his actions later.
‘Agreed,’ I said.
Cass was staring at me in horror, frozen in the act of retrieving her sword. ‘Sensei…’
But Isande was already shaking her head. ‘Get up,’ she said, and then pointed at me. ‘Learn.’