Malis. An empty world. It had plants and trees and beasts and birds… but no people. No sentient life of any kind, as far as we could tell.
It was here, a long, long time ago, that the House had been built.
There were very few ways leading to or from Malis, too few. They all seemed to lead to the area around the House, as if the rest of the planet was beneath notice. I suspected that there had been other ways in the past, but that someone had destroyed them in the same fashion as a gardener pruning errant branches. I had also had a strong suspicion as to who that someone was.The House itself looked like the mansion house from a rich man’s estate. I’d seen a dozen like it in various corners of Reality. The wide porch, supported by columns. The upstairs balcony. The large windows separated into neat, geometrics panes of glass. The empty plain of waving prairie grass that surrounded it, and the worn track that led up to the door.
It did not look like the Alliance’s central command centre and main staging area, but it was nonetheless. It was the most heavily defended patch of real estate in all Reality, or so they said. The ultimate fortress: guarded by protections both prosaic and arcane, incapable of ever being taken or destroyed.
In the War, I haven’t even tried.
I stood in the long grass and looked across at the rise on which it stood. The white surfacing gleamed in the afternoon sun.
I felt something stir within me at the sight.
It had been my home once, after all.
‘Not long now,’ said Cass, giving me a satisfied look. ‘You scared?’
I didn’t deign to answer. There were very few things in Reality that made me afraid. And while there were people up there in the House whose strength I respected, while some were even worthy opponents, there was not a one I was scared of.
On the other hand, I knew that they were very much scared of me.
So I just smiled and headed down the track towards it, taking point for the first time. I had promised that I would do no harm to anyone in that House unless they attacked me first, but I knew I had no such protection in return. There would be other hotheads like Cass who had never signed the treaty, or those who had but could moralise themselves into breaking it.
Bring it, I thought to myself, a hot, savage thought, tinged with longing for violence.
Like hell I was.
I wondered again, as I walked down the path, why Isande had taken me via the chaos-rent. She must know as well as I that there was a real possibility of violence. There were some pretty unreasonable people in the Alliance. Without power I would’ve been at their mercy, but now if it came to blows it would come to blood. She must’ve known, standing at that rent, that she could be signing the death warrant for one of her own.
She knows I didn’t kill Exan.
There was a puzzle here. A puzzle that, in the old days, I would’ve been unable to leave alone. But I was here now, and I had promised to go in and listen to what my would-be judges had to say. It didn’t matter what Isande was scheming. Time enough to figure that out later.
I reached the steps that led up to the porch, and I paused.
I was dimly aware of Cass and Isande some way behind me, but only dimly. The House had eclipsed them in my thoughts. This was the place I had trained. The place I had learned to wield the powers I had earned.
It had… significance.
I ascended the steps.
The door was open, just as it always used to be.
I stepped through.
The air inside was warm, dry. I could feel somewhere far below me, the presence of a chaos-rent.
This place was a fortress for our kind. Its creator had made sure it was well stocked with our most important resource.
The only thing we really care for. Power.
Carmen Cadan was waiting in the hallway.
Tall, black-eyed and blue-skinned, with lips that would turn a priest to sin. Her hair was a mass of rich dark curls, careless and stylish all at once. She wore a tight-fitting white dress to show off her curves, circles of fabric missing at her hips and at her shoulders. The neckline was cut very low.
‘Carmen,’ I said, inclining my head. ‘As subtle as ever.’
She spat at my feet.
‘I’ll just go on through, shall I?’
‘I will eat your eyes, Rukh,’ she promised me.
I grinned at her as I passed.
Heard Isande and Cass pause to give their condolences.
The hallway was as I remembered it, white marble floors heated from beneath. I longed to kick my boots off and pad across it in bare feet, as I had when I was young. But I didn’t. I had foregone that pleasure a long time ago.
I paused, momentarily at the base of the staircase. I wondered if my room was still up there, and what had become of it.
I shook myself, and headed for the meeting hall.
‘…faster! You bring ‘em back faster than you send them out. Got to keep your face protected or you’ll lose your fucking head. Trust me.’
I knew that voice.
I was opening the door. I did not remember my passage down the corridor. This was not the meeting hall, this was the dojo. How had I…
My blood was pounding in my ears. A current of rage was running through me, hot and strong. It was the most intense emotion I had felt in what seemed like forever.
Show no weakness, I reminded myself.
Isande. That bitch had known. That’s why she’d made me promise not to harm anyone inside the House. She’d taken me to the rent so that she could elicit that promise from me while my guard was down. If I’d even suspected that he was here…
I pushed the door open.
The peripheral details were much as I remembered. A smooth wooden floor covered with training mats. A variety of martial arts equipment on the walls. Three pairs of disciples drilling their silly little katas…
He stood in the middle. Six and half feet tall, arms covered with muscle. His skin was coated with plates of thick black chitin that gleamed in the dojo’s lights. His face was black, blank mask, the only break in his shiny exoskeleton around his dark but surprisingly ordinary-looking mouth and eyes. From his head curled a pair of short, sharp horns that gave his whole being a demonic cast.
He was one of the imaski, beings that had served me long ago in the War. Beings I’d all but made. They had been my praetorian, my shock troops, my fanatic death-commandos. I had but to tell an imaski to do a thing and the thing was done. They had been the weapon that the Alliance could not replicate, the scourge and terror of a thousand worlds.
They had served me faithfully, loyalist of the loyal. No imaski had ever betrayed me.
‘Hello, Kirin,’ I said.
He went very still. ‘Get you behind me,’ he said, and it took a moment for me to realise that he was talking to the disciples and not quoting scripture.
‘Who is…’ began one of them, even as she made to move.
‘The Last Evil,’ said Kirin, his eyes locked on mine. He splayed his fingers and a pair of short black blades slid from his forearms to land in his grip.
I felt the smile spreading on my face. ‘I’ve got to admit,’ I said to him, ‘I’ve been looking forward to this.’
Back in the War, Kirin had been captured by the other side. Somehow they’d managed to convince him of the essential rightness of their cause blah blah blah. He’d turned, and in turning done incalculable damage to my forces. I had hunted him across the myriad battlefields of the War, but had never come close to actually capturing him.
But my word was iron, and everyone who served me or served with me knew the price of betrayal. When the treaty had been signed, I had named Kirin as an exception. If I found him, I told them, he was dead.
Oh, they had made a show of arguing. But one rebel imaski was not worth another thousand years of bloodshed.
‘I should’ve killed you when I had the chance,’ said Kirin.
I raised my hands. ‘Probably,’ I said.
I knew what he was thinking. I’d trained each of my imaski personally. He was deliberately stalling, making me watch for that first move. It would be fast, something unexpected, not the face though he might feint for the…
Isande was pushing past me into the room. I lowered my hands in disgust.
‘She has agreed not to harm anyone in the House who doesn’t attack her first,’ she told Kirin. ‘As long as you are within these walls, you are safe.’
I resisted the urge to scream in frustration. Instead, I turned to Isande and said:
‘You are one sneaky, sneaky bitch.’
She raised an eyebrow at me. ‘I might say the same of you.’
I just shrugged. She had a point, after all.
Kirin was staring at us.
I could taste the disappointment in the back of my throat. Kirin had postured instead of acting. He should’ve gone for my throat the moment I stepped in through the doorway…
Oh, grow up, I told myself. The universe doesn’t always respond as you wish it to.
‘Go to the meeting hall,’ said Isande. ‘They’re waiting.’
I flashed a grin at her. ‘As you wish,’ I said, and then flicked my gaze across to Kirin. ‘Enjoy the rest of your lesson,’ I said to him. ‘Traitor.’
He flinched at the word, as I’d known he would, and I left the room.
Cass was in the corridor. ‘You sure know how to bait people,’ she said as I walked past. ‘I’ll have to watch out for that.’
‘First sensible thing you’ve said to me,’ I said, and then, at last, made for the meeting hall.
* * *
The hall was a large circular room beneath a painted ceiling.
The floor was a mosaic. The tiles that formed it were tiny, smaller than the nail of my little finger. What colour they showed could change, or be changed, by anyone who had been raised to the power, and it didn’t just have to be the one colour. Thus the image on the mosaic largely depended on the mood of those in the House, and there was no real limit to the resolution.
I had to laugh when I saw it.
The mosaic showed me locking blades with a tall figure in gleaming white plate armour. My teeth were bared in a killing-grin. My opponent’s gaze was steady, his jaw set, his face the very picture of steely heroism. I was wearing spiky black armour worked with a skull relief. Other dark figures were displayed in the background, their forms blurry and indistinct despite the crispness of the image.
My opponent was Tancris, I realized, only never as I had seen him. Tancris had never faced me on the battlefield. I would not have had to send assassins after him if he had. Tancris had been a general of some surpassing skill, but he’d not had a reputation as a fighter, not in a personal sense. And while I had occasionally worn armour and did have a fondness for the colour black, the skulls were a step too far.
But you’re the villain, Rukh, remember? That’s how these people think.
‘Hardly subtle,’ I said.
There were two people waiting for me. They stood next to each other on the centre of the mosaic. Neither of them was the person I had expected to find.
‘Here at last,’ said Sanjay Jacobs. He’d grown a beard since I’d last seen him, neat, black, slicked with oil, just like his hair. He was thin, smaller than the average, but possessed of a savage, wiry strength. He wore a duelling sabre at his hip which he continued to use despite his skill with the disciplines. Him I had faced on the battlefield. It had ended with his sword sticking through my guts, and Ensis or no, that had hurt. Luckily the push of combat had prevented him from following up with something more fatal.
I was keen for a rematch, if the opportunity ever arose.
He was wearing dark suit trousers, black brogues, and crisp silk shirt that was half-way between charcoal and light pink. His sword hung from his belt on the left side. Above it, snug beneath his armpit, I could see the shoulder holster and the handle of the pistol that it held.
‘Sanjay,’ I said, by way of greeting. ‘You appear to have something on your chin.’
He just looked at me. ‘I am looking forward to watching you die,’ he said.
There was nothing for me in that comment, so I let it stand.
I turned to the room’s other occupant. ‘Hey, Mako,’ I said. ‘How’s things?’
‘Well enough,’ said Mako, with her traditional, empty courtesy. Or perhaps this was the height of respect. It was hard to tell.
Mako was small, only about five foot high, and humanoid in shape. She had roughly the same proportions as me, but a thin, reptilian tail curled from the back of her slacks and around her left ankle. Her skin gleamed with little red scales, the smooth crimson surface marked by the occasional slash of black barbing. Yellow eyes with vertical pupils peered from her mask-like face.
Both her expression and her voice were almost impossible to read. She was warm blooded, I’d been told, but you’d never have known it from the way she spoke. She reacted to everything with the same zen-like calm, no matter what it was.
She was also very, very clever.
Mako, like Tancris, had been one of the Alliance’s generals during the War. Unlike Tancris, I hadn’t sent any assassins after her, mainly because I’d had no idea where she was at any given time or what she was planning next. She’d waged a guerrilla campaign on Kaba that had turned a sure conquest into an absolute bloody nightmare. She’d been the brains behind the Alliance’s most effective stratagems. I had known of her involvement usually from the disarray in my own forces or the frustration of my allies.
I held her in a strange sort of esteem. She was not a fighter, but she was a worthy opponent nonetheless.
‘We’re not here to exchange pleasantries,’ said Sanjay. ‘You killed Tancris. You broke the treaty.’ He seemed almost pleased. ‘It’s time you got what you deserve.’
I ignored him.
‘Been up to much since the War?’ I asked Mako.
She thought for a moment, and then shook her head. ‘No.’
Well, so much for small talk.
I heard the door open behind me as the others came through. I glanced back.
Five, then. Isande, Mako, Sanjay, Carmen, and Cass. They stood around me in a loose circle. I wondered if this was intentional, perhaps designed to give them the psychological advantage. Was that why I was here, in my old home? Was all of this designed to unsettle me? Perhaps, to break me?
They are still afraid.
Yes, that was it. Despite everything, I was still the Last Evil in their eyes.
I crushed the urge to fold my arms. That would’ve looked defensive. I relaxed instead, thumbs hooked into the pockets of my jeans. I could feel Carmen watching me.
‘Let’s not wait,’ she said. ‘Let’s just kill her now and be done with it.’
The statement didn’t worry me. Carmen Cadan was not to be underestimated, but she was still more bark than bite. If all they wanted was to kill me out of hand, then Isande could’ve done that for them back on Sansara. My suspicion was that they had some song and dance planned to salve their collective conscience, some mockery of justice.
Well, I said I’d listen to what they had to say.
Part of me hoped that Cadan would go for me. I wondered if the others would intervene. Alone, one on one, I figured I could take her.
I knew I’d have fun finding out.
‘She told me that she didn’t kill him,’ said Isande. ‘That Exan acted alone.’
‘He never acted alone during the war,’ said Mako. There was no accusation in her voice. The statement was flat, neutral, like everything Mako said.
A snarl from Cadan. ‘As if we can trust what she said!’
Only they could. They knew they could. Across all Reality, wherever my name was spoken, everyone knew that I did not break my word. It was a hard code to keep to sometimes. I made very few promises, because who knew what the future held? I made them conditionally, because each one was a bond on me. But my word had been all that had made the treaty possible.
It had been all that had made the Dark Pact possible.
These people hated me. They feared me. They raged that I had escaped justice for the things I had done. But they knew my word was iron. Even Carmen.
Sanjay was looking at me with something that might’ve been surprise. ‘You’re saying…’
I sighed. ‘You want it straight, Sanjay?’ I asked. ‘I had no idea Iago Tancris was dead, nor prior inkling of his fate, until Isande told me. I haven’t issued a kill order since the treaty, and I cancelled any made before it. Exan is not dancing to my tune, not this time.’
Then, from the doorway behind us:
‘In that case, you and I need to talk.’
Show no weakness.
But I couldn’t help the tide of emotion that washed through me. Anger, yes. Oh so much anger. But I had loved him like a father once, and if I was honest, a part of me still did. The War had twisted our bonds to one another, but it had not sundered them.
He and Isande were the closest thing I had to a family, after all.
I turned around.
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘Wondered when you’d show up.’
He was big man, heavy with muscle despite his apparent age. I say apparent age because if he’d wished to look young like the rest of us, he could’ve done. But his thick white hair and close cropped beard were clear statements about how he viewed himself. He thought himself wise. He thought himself strong.
I had long suspected that he thought himself like a god, though any such accusation would no doubt appal him. But then, he’d always been a hypocrite too.
There was an old injury to the back of his knee, one that could not be healed with Ensis. He carried a heavy staff, thick around as my upper arm, and he had a tendency to lean heavily upon it whenever he was forced to stand for any length of time.
This weakness, however, was deceptive.
I knew this. I knew this because he had once been my sensei, even as I had been Exan’s. He had taught me how to walk between worlds. He’d taught me to create and redirect kinetic forces. He’d shown me how to summon my first handful of hydrogen and how to make the heat that would set it alight. He’d found me, newly raised and unconscious beside that chaos-rent on Ashmar, and he had resolved to teach me everything.
His name was Dalarion. This was his House, and his home. If the Alliance had a leader, he was it.
‘Leave us,’ he said to the others, stepping forward. He planted his staff on the mosaic, and his pale blue eyes met mine.
‘Leave us,’ he said again, slamming the butt of his staff against the floor, his voice ringing with the tones of command.
Like dogs, they went.
* * *
Dalarion and I faced each other across the surface of the mosaic.
‘Well, that’s a neat trick,’ I said to him.
He looked away. ‘We need to talk about Exan. I wanted us to speak alone.’
I laughed. ‘Oh, that was very clear.’ I puffed my chest out and in my best of impression of him said: “Leave us!”’
He did not meet my gaze.
‘So, the War may be over but you’re still in charge. Still got a pack of them running around doing your bidding. Well done.’
The Alliance had been forged, in theory, to face the threat I represented. The Dark Pact was strong because we were united under one banner, with one purpose. Everyone else was divided. It was Dalarion who had brought them together into a cohesive opposition.
I wasn’t entirely sure how he’d gone about it. Perhaps he’d pointed to what I’d begun on Ashmar, the precedent I’d set by forging a mortal empire, and discussed its dangers. Perhaps he’d frightened them with what the imaski represented – an army that could travel between worlds, soldiers that were a genuine threat even to our kind. Perhaps he’d simply called in those favours he’d hoarded since the ancient days, or relied or sheer force of personality. Probably he’d done all of these things.
The Alliance had been assembled with impressive speed, ready to set itself against me and mine and all that we had begun. The Dark Pact had been aiming for a pan-dimensional empire, and the Alliance had taken it upon themselves to oppose that goal.
I had thought that that was all they were – a group defined in opposition to us. But whereas the treaty had effectively dissolved the Dark Pact, it seemed some element of the Alliance remained, a stubborn stain refusing to be scrubbed clean.
‘I imagine it would be the same for you,’ said Dalarion, at last. ‘We were both leaders in the War.’ A shrug. ‘Old habits die hard.’
I shrugged back at him. ‘Maybe.’
Then: ‘Take the mask off, Rukh.’
I raised an eyebrow. ‘Excuse me?’
‘You can pretend to be cold and hard. You can pretend to be indifferent.’ He gestured towards the doorway with his free hand. ‘You have all of them fooled. They are still afraid of you, of who you are, of who you were.’ He shook his head. ‘But I know you. It was I who found you and trained you in our ways. I know your triumphs, your mistakes. I have seen you masked and unmasked, broken, vulnerable, wounded… I know who you are. And this? This is not it.’
Beneath him the mosaic rippled. The image of my battle with Tancris shredded apart. It now showed me sitting at Dalarion’s feet, a pupil before her master. I looked very, very young.
I gave this new image the snort of contempt that it deserved, and met his eyes.
‘Maybe you’re wrong, old man,’ I said. ‘Maybe this is all that’s left.’
He seemed, for a moment, to lean more heavily upon his staff. ‘I wish I could believe that. But I can’t.’ A sigh. ‘I hated you for making peace, did you know that? While we were at war, it was easy. I could pretend that there was nothing of you left. That you had fallen irrevocably. That some malign power had twisted you beyond recovery. But when you made peace…’
I said nothing.
‘When you made peace, I knew. You were still my Helena.’
I had always hated it when he got like this. It was like time was an epic saga, and he was the protagonist. Everything, always, was about him.
I had never cared for people using my first name either.
‘I was never yours, Dalarion. I was always mine.’
He waved a hand dismissively. ‘Yes. Perhaps it was a poor choice of words.’ He looked me in the eyes. ‘You broke my heart, nonetheless. I loved you like a daughter, and you turned against everything I stood for.’
‘You make it sound so dramatic. I never turned on you. I never turned on any of you. I would’ve died for you.’ I forced my voice to remain even. ‘I like a good fight, don’t get me wrong, but I always knew who my kind were.’ I gestured down at the mosaic beneath us, and with an effort of will turned it back to the duel with Tancris. ‘I tried to conquer.’ I stepped forward, my feet on Tancris’s dead visage. ‘That was my great crime. Regardless of my motives, that was, to you, untenable. No matter you “loved me like a daughter.”’ I framed these last words mockingly with my fingers. ‘You still chose the mortals over me.’ I broke off, shaking my head. ‘Am I the only one who remembers that it was you people who declared war?’
‘We have a responsibility!’
He must’ve read the contempt in my eyes, for he flinched, and would not meet my gaze. ‘I did some black things in the War,’ I said. ‘I don’t deny it. I served dark terror to my enemies and I watched them choke on it. But you… you betrayed me. Or did you think you were the only one capable of love?’
He stood, clinging to his staff like a vine to a tree, his face stark in the echo of my accusations.
‘Everything you did,’ he said, eventually, his voice thick with emotion, ‘everything… You did it with my hands. Your every order was spoken with my voice. I was your sensei! I was responsible! You made me a murderer!’
The arrogance of those words was breath-taking.
I thought about answering. I thought about calling him on his hubris. On his perfect narcissism. For a man of his age, of his supposed wisdom, it was pathetic.
He is, like the rest of them, a child.
Instead I simply folded my arms, closing off the discussion.
‘So,’ I said. ‘Exan.’
It stretched on as he looked at me, eyes scanning my face. But then, eventually, he nodded. Shook his head, not in denial but as if to shake something loose, eyes refocusing as he adjusted to the change in subject.
‘Tancris was relaxing on the beach with Carmen,’ he said. ‘Exan appeared. Tancris was surprised, and somewhat disgusted, as you might imagine, but he kept to the treaty. He told Exan to leave. Exan made a show of wanting to shake his hand. Carmen says he was mocking Tancris, maybe even trying to goad him into doing something stupid. Then, without warning, he hit him with Sansis. Tancris burned to death in an instant. Carmen fled.’
Sansis. Yeah, that sounds like him.
Sansis was not usually a useful discipline for combat. It has one significant advantage over Turis, which is that you can use it at range. You send a pulse of raw power to the target, and when it hits, heat is created. The disadvantage is that if the other person sees it coming they can turn that pulse of power right back at you, maybe with some interest. Or if they don’t feel like starting that kind of back-and-forth they can redirect into the ground, or at one of your allies, or whatever.
Obviously, Tancris hadn’t seen it coming. He must’ve convinced himself that Exan wouldn’t break the treaty.
I didn’t blame him for that, not really. I didn’t believe it myself, after all.
‘Have we any proof he did it, other than Carmen’s word?’
Dalarion stared at me. ‘Carmen loved Tancris,’ he said, ‘why would she lie about…’
I just looked at him.
‘No,’ he admitted. ‘That is part of the reason you were brought here. But if he did not do this thing at your instigation…’ He put a hand to his chin. ‘He did this for his own reasons then. Not yours.’
A nod. ‘Then you must deal with him.’
I laughed at him. ‘Me?’ I said. I was genuinely amused. ‘In case you have forgotten, Exan is my friend. Tancris wasn’t.’
‘It has to be you,’ he said. ‘If anyone else goes after him, the War will begin anew. Worlds will burn. Chaos will thrive.’ A pause. ‘Everything we fought for will have been for nothing.’
My smile died. ‘Welcome to my life,’ I said, turning away.
‘Carmen will go after him regardless. When she does, he will kill her and the rest of the Dark Pact will flock to his banner. Do you really think that you can stay out of this, Rukh?’
‘I signed the treaty,’ I said, without looking back. ‘I put my word to it. Is that not enough?’
‘So did he. He gave his word, and he broke it. And when he broke it, he broke yours as well. Is that not enough, Rukh? That he turned on you just as you once turned on me?’
I kept my response low, measured, nonchalant, even though I was hot screaming fury on the inside. I kept my face calm and clear despite knowing that he could not see it.
How dare he?
‘I thought we covered this,’ I said aloud. ‘I didn’t turn on you, Dalarion. I wasn’t the one who declared war.’ I paused, and when he didn’t answer, went on: ‘But yeah, you’re right. Exan broke his oaths to me when he killed Tancris. If he killed Tancris. Don’t think I haven’t thought of that before.’ I laughed again, deliberately mocking. ‘But that doesn’t mean I’m suddenly one of the gang. You want him? Send Isande. She’s more than capable.’
I made for the exit.
I will be true to you, Exan had said, long ago, so long as you are true to me.
It was the oath of the Dark Pact. I had sworn it to him, and him to me, and each of us to each of us, allies and friends all. A promise and a threat, all bound together.
We keep our word, I had told them. We keep our word, because we live long lives, and we do not forget. Any who betrays can never be trusted again. And “never” is a long, long time.
My oath. My threat.
But the War was over. There was no longer any need for either. Exan might’ve decided to go his own way, might’ve made an empty thing of his word and promise, but that was largely his problem.
‘I can’t send anybody unless you go with them,’ said Dalarion. ‘If you refuse it will mean another war.’ A pause. ‘You have a duty.’
I didn’t slow. ‘I don’t care.’
‘The fate of all Reality…’
I raised the back of my hand in a contemptuous farewell. ‘Save your bullshit for Cadan and the rest of them. They’ll lap it up.’
I reached the door.