If I had been teaching my own student I would have begun with a light sparring session and moved on from there. But I didn’t trust Cass not to sucker punch me with a Turis-loaded fist when I was least prepared for it. She clearly thought herself one of the righteous, which meant her promise to Isande was worth nothing. People like that would happily break their word to serve some imagined higher principle.
No way was I putting myself in line for that sucker punch. Without power, an augmented strike could kill me outright.
So I used Isande.
They faced each other across the empty grass, a few long strides apart. I watched from the sidelines with a business eye. This was familiar to me. I had trained many back in the War, and in the days prior to it. I had trained those mortal fighters that would become my imaski, and I had trained those we’d raised to the power. But it had been a different process, an industrial process. This was like it had been in the old days. Master to student.
I remembered my own training, and where I was going, and it was like pulling thorns from my flesh.
Nostalgia is a bitch at times.
‘Begin,’ I said.
I stopped them almost immediately. They bowed to each other, a gesture of respect older than time, and I found myself striding forward, shaking my head.
‘No,’ I said.
Cass looked at me, and then tilted her head to one side in a gesture that was simultaneously quizzical and insolent.
‘You took your eyes off of your opponent,’ I said. ‘She could have been inside your guard before you’d straightened. That blow could’ve killed you.’
Cass glanced past me at Isande and I shook my head.
‘No point in looking at her. Sure, she’s an honourable woman, but not everyone is. Would you take your eyes off me?’
‘We’re only sparring…’
‘You’re learning bad habits,’ I told her. ‘When the time comes for real violence, against a real opponent, you will forget everything except what you have trained. You will fall back on old patterns.’ I shook my head at her. ‘No bowing.’
Again she looked to Isande for confirmation, but I didn’t wait to see if she would give it. I just took a step back out of the way and spoke again.
I watched, almost bored, as they closed on each other. The circled for a moment, and then Cass came in with a swift flurry of punches that Isande slipped and blocked. I kept watching. I saw the blur of a front kick and swift counter from Isande. Cass leapt back out of range, and then came in again.
The moves were there. The technique was there. But there was no fire. This wasn’t combat. It wasn’t even sport. It was a shadow of a shadow and it pained me just to watch it.
‘That,’ I told them both, ‘was embarrassing.’
Isande took the rebuke with a blank expression, though I could sense her amusement. Cass’s face flushed.
‘Get this into your head, kiddo,’ I said to Cass, ‘if you want to fight, to really fight, then you have to train for it. You aren’t training for the ring, or for some fucking exhibition.’ I waved a hand in the air for emphasis. ‘You are training to break, to maim, to kill.’ I snorted. ‘If you can’t except that, then forget about being her disciple. Go study the disciplines or travel the worlds or something else that makes use of the Alliance’s peace. Leave the fighting to the warriors.’
There was a pause, and then Cass cleared her throat.
‘I am a warrior,’ she said, in a voice that spoke of tightly controlled anger. ‘And one day, Helena Rukh, when I am ready, I will come for you and kill you. No matter where in Reality you go, I will kill you. No matter how many others stand between us, I will kill you.’ She bared her teeth at me. ‘I. Will. Kill. You.’
I grinned at her. ‘I look forward to seeing you try,’ I said, and then, because I was her teacher for the moment and not her enemy, I pointed to Isande. ‘Pretend she is me. Pretend you are fighting in deadly earnest. Show me your disciplines. Waste less passion on telling me what you will do in the future, and show me what you can do today.’ I turned to Isande. ‘You’re just as bad,’ I told her. ‘You won’t do the girl any favours by sparing her pain.’
‘Yes, sensei,’ said Isande, without even a touch of irony.
I stepped back once more.
‘Let’s try again,’ I said. ‘Begin.’
Isande was moving before the words were even out of my mouth. Cass was a fraction slower, but to her credit it was only a fraction. I felt a pulse of satisfaction. This was how a fight should start. A strong opening could mean an early win, and in a fight to the death that was the best kind of win.
As unsatisfying as it can sometimes be.
Isande went for the high kick. Cass slapped it aside with her own leg, feinted a knee strike, and exploded off her back leg with a flying cross. Isande fell back, catching the punch on a high block, and the ground beneath her rumbled.
They were using Turis.
Isande shoved her disciple back and retaliated with a combination of low and high kicks. Cass caught the first on her hands and only narrowly missed taking the second on her chin. Isande closed the range with a flurry of straight punches, none of which landed a hit. Cass slapped her hand away but the hook was heading for a face before she could get in the counter and again she was forced to block. Again the ground rumbled.
I grinned. I knew what Isande was up to. She was swarming her, throwing strike after strike, and although Cass was falling back before the onslaught, Isande was closing the range. Cass could barely defend herself and if just one of those punches connected properly…
And then Cass pulled it together. She slapped the uppercut that would’ve finished her out of the way, rolled beneath the hook that followed it, and pivoted away in the same motion. Blood flew from Isande’s hand as the force exploded, unspent.
Cass came up on her blind side. Threw a cross…
I blinked. Cass was on her knees, clutching her wrist, face screwed up in pain. Isande was standing there looking down at her, face utterly serene. There was a gash across the back of her own hand, but it looked shallow enough. She hadn’t shredded her fist the way I had in the bar.
Cass, on the other hand…
Cass’s hand was broken. A thin bone jutted from the side of her palm. Blood seeped from deep splits in her knuckles.
She must’ve hit quite hard. And although she had been striking at the unprotected side of Isande’s face, Isande had still managed to defend.
Kasis, the discipline was called. It took a fair wedge of power, but it allowed you to harden parts your body to the consistency of steel. It did nothing to hold back the pain of impact, but it would protect one’s flesh from damage and it was most unpleasant for the attacker.
Unless, of course, they were using Kasis themselves.
The drawbacks were that it cost more in power than shedding force through Turis, and that you had to take the full force of the blow for it to be effective. But when you desperately needed to block a gap in your defences, Kasis was the perfect tool.
‘That… that really fucking hurts,’ said Cass, getting up. The bone was already moving back into alignment.
‘Stop,’ I told her. ‘No Ensis.’
She looked at me, wide eyed, and then to Isande. ‘What?’
‘No Ensis,’ I said, keeping my face blank.
Cass looked again to Isande. ‘Sensei…’
‘For this lesson,’ I told her, letting my voice go cold, ‘I’m your sensei. No Ensis.’
Slowly, arm trembling, she lowered her hand. The little bone that jutted from the side of it stopped moving. The blood continued to flow.
Her eyes met mine. I could see the fury in them. ‘You,’ she said, ‘are one sick fuck.’
‘I agreed to teach you something,’ I told her. ‘That is exactly what I’m doing.’ I pointed to where Isande stood, motionless. ‘While you were moaning about your hand, she could’ve killed you fifty different ways. I would’ve had your head off of your shoulders inside a second.’ I shook my head at her. ‘You need to keep fighting, no matter what damage you take. I did not call a halt. You simply decided you had lost. You do that in the real world and you will die.’
Cass glanced back to Isande. ‘Fine,’ she said. ‘We keep fighting. But that doesn’t mean I can’t…’
‘You don’t have time.’
She was shaking her head now. ‘You back off,’ she said. ‘Make space. Make the time.’
If you can, sure.
‘Ensis costs power,’ I told her. ‘The next strike might meet with Kasis as well. You might break your hand again. Rinse and repeat, and soon your reserves are dry and you have to go on the defensive, and then each of her blows becomes effectively unblockable, and sooner or later you will make the slip that kills you. You do not spend power until you have to.’ I gestured at her broken hand. ‘It will still function as a weapon. The bone is relatively intact. Ensis will spare you pain, nothing else.’
‘Pain is a distraction!’
I nodded. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘And it can be mastered. Mastered and ignored.’
Cass’s lips were trembling. ‘I can’t fight like this,’ she said.
I shook my head at her. ‘Then you’ll die. In a real fight pain comes without warning. You could take a wound at any time. Unless you can keep going, regardless, then your opponent can leverage her advantage. You must not allow that.’
Isande cleared her throat. ‘I would also point out,’ she said, ‘that the…’ She glanced at me quickly, ‘psychological effect of an opponent who appears unfazed by all damage….’
‘This isn’t how we train!’ said Cass, shaking her head again.
‘It’s how I train,’ I said, and gestured, once again, to Isande. ‘Now, get back to it. You can heal up when we’re done.’
* * *
We made camp a few hours later by a river of a clear water, on a world called Relaria. The sky was pale green, devoid of cloud, and shading towards evening. The plant-life around us was the glittering blue of coloured glass, and the edges of the tree leaves were razor sharp – as I remembered when I reached past one, unthinking.
A line of blood coloured my wrist.
I looked at it for a moment, and then went to the river to fish.
I caught half a dozen tentacle-mouthed creatures, striking them from the water with my uninjured hand so that they flopped, helpless on the bank. Isande pierced them through with a broken branch, and set a pile of those sharp blue leaves aflame.
They burned well, neither too quickly nor too slow.
Just like old times.
We had spent time here together, back in the earliest stages of our training. Being forced to survive in a primitive environment was a good experience for any student have. Sparring in these glittering glass forests was not like it was elsewhere, either. One learned very quickly to mind one’s surroundings.
Pain, after all, is an excellent teacher.
‘You would not do it,’ said Cass from where she sat, hugging her knees on the other side of the fire. ‘Would you?’
I raised an eyebrow at her. ‘Do what?’
I could feel Isande’s exasperation with her disciple, but she said nothing. I was beginning to see that this was her way.
After all, I make an excellent foil all by myself.
Cass gestured with her now healed hand. ‘The training exercise. That’s not really how you…’ She broke off, seeing the amusement on my face.
So that was it. It had been too hard for her, and so she had decided that it was too hard for anyone. But I didn’t answer her. I didn’t explain myself. I had taught the lesson, and it was up to her whether or not she learned it. The time was up. I was not her sensei. I would neither pander to her illusions or make any effort to dispel them.
‘Perhaps think who you are talking to,’ said Isande, lifting the fish out of the fire. ‘Is it a good idea to underestimate her?’
Ah. Isande knew of course. Isande had seen me keep fighting with the side of my face caved in not long ago, and had seen worse still in the War.
She pulled one of the fish off the stick with bare fingers and tossed it to me.
I caught it.
It was still hot from the fire, but that didn’t matter. Another discipline, Sansis, allowed one to move heat from one place to another, to diffuse it into the air or adjacent matter. At the most basic level, heat was simply kinetic force, same as a punch or a kick. The movement was different, more spread out, less focused, but that made it all the easier to channel.
The rules were the same as Turis. The smaller the amount of energy, the longer you had to diffuse or redirect it. The inverse was also true.
I drew the heat from the fish through my fingers and let it dissipate into my flesh. My hand remained unburned and I felt immediately warmer. Of course, if I’d had power I could’ve generated as much thermal energy as I needed from within… but I didn’t.
‘You must learn to see what is there,’ Isande was saying to Cass. ‘Not what you think should be there, or wish was there, or…
I pulled a piece of fish off and popped it into my mouth. It had a tough rubbery texture, and a smoky aftertaste, but it sure beat the slug-steaks I’d had on Sansara.
Cass stood up, very suddenly, mouth hanging open. ‘You’re dry,’ she said. ‘Out of power!’
Finally figured it out, huh?
There was little point in dissembling. ‘What gave it away?’ I asked her, with a hint of sarcasm. ‘The fact I’d just come from a fight with your sensei? The fact that you’ve seen me use none this entire time?’ I raised my free hand to show the cut I’d received earlier. ‘Or did you consider this evidence? After what I showed you today, you should’ve discarded that one.’
Once again, she was ready to attack. She saw an opening. Saw weakness.
‘You gave your word,’ said Isande, pulling apart her own fish with her fingers. ‘Or does that not mean anything to you?’
Cass glared at her, and then at me, and then slowly sank back down. ‘You knew,’ she said, voice bitter. ‘You knew when you made me promise. And you still won’t let me…’
‘No,’ said Isande. ‘I won’t. You aren’t ready.’
I ate the fish, listening to them argue. I wondered how I’d have dealt with this if Cass had been my disciple. Knocked her senseless, probably. It was a crude way to prove a point, but generally effective.
‘You really believe that?’ Isande was saying. ‘After all you’ve seen?’
‘I don’t know what to believe anymore!’ Cass had turned her head away, hiding her face. ‘I wonder if this is why you left me behind. You didn’t want me to see how close you are to this… this thing! She killed my father and you treat her like she’s your friend!’
I snorted, chucking the skeleton of the fish into the fire. That had to be one of the most ridiculous accusations I’d ever heard. Isande and I had been on opposite sides during the war. Even beforehand we had been rivals. The idea of us as friends…
Well, I guess we had been, once. But I had killed that. Killed it dead, for ever and ever.
The thought was… not a pleasant one.
‘That is not…’ tried Isande, but she didn’t get very far.
‘Or is it something else? Maybe you think so little of me that you let her humiliate me for your sport? Maybe you enjoy watching her bait me, maybe you enjoy seeing me in pain, maybe you…’
I was getting tired of this.
‘Maybe,’ I said, lying down on the ground beside the fire, ‘she loves you like a daughter, and doesn’t want to watch me kill you. Personally, I don’t give a fuck.’
I closed my eyes, using Sansis to draw some heat from the fire a little closer.
* * *
‘Well,’ said Isande, half a day later. ‘We’re here.’
We stood on the beach, the crash of the surf a distant echo behind us. The sand beneath my feet was not the light golden sand of the shoreline but the flat-packed, still-wet, grey-brown sand of the seabed.
The tide was out.
Up ahead a rocky shore-line, perhaps a hundred metres distant.
‘This isn’t the House,’ said Cass, somewhat unnecessarily. She sounded confused, which was understandable, but to me things were finally making sense.
I took a breath.
I could feel it now, the tingling, jolting sensation on my skin. Something deep inside me stirred in response.
‘There’s a chaos-rent here,’ I said.
Isande pointed to the rocky beach ahead of us. ‘Just there,’ she said.
Well, well, well.
A chaos-rent. One of those multi-coloured tears in the fabric of Reality, a gate to what lay underneath. It would be smoking with tendrils of chaotic energy.
Energy I could use.
This was how we refilled the well within. All I had to do was stand near that rent and draw it in. Of course, I had limited internal capacity, everyone did, but I could go from empty and useless to a full tank of gas with only a little rest.
Without power I was more or less at Isande’s mercy, prey wriggling in a predators jaws, but with it…
Oh, don’t get me wrong, she’d given me a thorough kicking last time around. She was quite possibly a better fighter than me. But I’d been half-asleep on Sansara. Now I was awake again, and when we fought…
Yes, when. Because I wanted to fight her, I really did. I wanted the risk, and the exhilaration, and the sense of awesome victory I would achieve if I beat her.
No doubt Isande knew this. She wasn’t stupid.
‘You’re going to let me fill the tank here?’ I asked her. ‘Really?’
‘Your word, first.’
Cass coughed. ‘Sensei,’ she said, head bowed. ‘I think we would be foolish to trust her.’
Much more respectful, I thought to myself. What did they talk about, when I slept?
Isande kept her eyes on me. ‘She’s never been known to break a promise.’
That was true. I had however been known for making promises that sounded better than they were. I kept to the letter of the bargain, not to the bargain the other person wished or thought they were making.
I guess this was part of why some people thought me a devil.
‘I gave you my word already.’
‘That you would come with me, yes.’ Isande shook her head. ‘It is not enough. You must promise that you will not seek to harm anyone at the House. That you will allow them their trial.’
I shook my head. ‘I’ll listen to what they have to say,’ I said, ‘and I won’t attack anyone at the House unless they come at me first… not this visit, anyway. But I won’t legitimise this. They have no right to judge me.’
Isande looked at me a long while, and then shrugged.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I guess that’ll have to do.’
I looked at her, and then, slowly, shook my head. ‘What are you playing at, Isande?’ I asked her. ‘First you make sure my reserves are dry, and then you go out of your way – quite literally – to let me refill them. What are you up to?’
Isande gave me a rare smile. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I imagine allowing you to face the others from a position of strength will count as a favour repaid?’
I thought for a moment, and then nodded. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But that’s not all there is to it, is there?’
Isande’s smile became a grin. ‘No,’ she said, ‘it isn’t. But I’m entitled to my secrets. Either make use of this opportunity or don’t. The choice is yours.’
Well, when you put it like that…
We went up to the rent.
It looked, at first, like a chasm in rock. But it wasn’t. The rock split on either side of it, sure, but the rent was in Reality, not stone. It was the difference between a picture of a valley, and a picture of a mountain that had had its canvas slashed open.
Colour swirled within, lurid pinks and greens. Abstract tendrils wavered hungrily at its edges.
‘Destruction. Creation. Change. Chaos is all these things.’
Trickster had said that to me, long ago. She’d had an unhealthy obsession with the stuff.
Wonder what she’s up to now?
I could feel the power fizzing in the air around me. I opened myself to it. I drank deep.
The cut on my hand healed almost instantly. The aches of the long walk vanished. One could not help but use Ensis in this state. It was as close to free as such a thing could be. Within a few minutes I felt better than I had in years. I was giddy with the feeling, like I was young again…
Keep it together, Rukh.
Of course, drawing from a vent was not without its risks. This power was still born of chaos. It had to be tamed, distilled, brought into the well within me as something wholly mine.
Carelessness could cost you your sanity, or, some believed, your soul.
But I had done this before, many times. I would have said I was in no danger… but it was the fools that thought that who were in the greatest danger of all. Better to say that there was a threat, but that I was more than that threat’s equal.
Beside me, Isande and Cass were drawing from the vent as well. There was no way to tell the level of another’s reserves, at least, not directly, but they had both spent power on the journey.
Still, they both stepped away long before I did.
When I eventually came down from the rent, I was grinning.
‘Hey, Isande,’ I said, and her eyebrows went up in response.
I raised my hands. ‘Fight me?’
Isande glanced at my hands. Licked her lips. Her own hands hung loose at her sides, but I could see her desire to raise them.
But Isande and I weren’t looking at her. We had eyes only for each other.
A fighter is only as good as her opponents. I’d had few friends in my life, and fewer lovers. But I had made good enemies. I had a knack for it. Isande was one of the toughest left, which was probably why she’d been chosen to come after me. She had beaten me. She represented a challenge.
I love a challenge.
I wanted a rematch. I wanted it not because I had a loser’s shame, but because I felt I had wasted the opportunity. My last performance had been lacking.
I had not yet been awake.
I was at the peak of my strength. My body was healed to the optimum. My soul brimmed with power. I had taken Isande’s measure, and she mine.
I was ready. My readiness was so profound, so encompassing, that the fight itself was almost a foregone conclusion. It was the logical result of the chain of events that had led me here.
Even better, Isande was feeling it too. She too was at her best. She too was whole, and hale, and filled with power. She too, measured herself by the strength of her opponents. She too loved to fight.
We teetered on a knife edge. It would be so easy. Cass could witness that this, like our last battle, had been something we both wanted. We could find a space away from the rent, with plenty of space. Then…
Why, then, we could do as we wished. As we both wished, all ties and vows forgotten.
For one, long, lingering moment, I thought we might actually do it.
Then Isande closed her eyes. Took a breath.
Opened them again, and was once again serene.
‘Perhaps another time,’ she said, and smiled.
My disappointment was crushing. It was a mountain on my back. I felt like my world had begun and ended, all at once.
Show no weakness, I reminded myself.
So I just shrugged at her. ‘Fair enough,’ I said.