I thought about walking right out of the House and back out into Reality. I wanted to. Each step would be another strike at Dalarion, another brick removed from the foundations of his power. The War hadn’t finished him, but I took vicious pleasure in the thought that the treaty could.
But I had unfinished business in the House. Business I’d left for far too long.
I headed back up to the dojo.
The lesson was over and the disciples had gone, but Kirin was still there. He had hung a heavy bag from one of the roof beams and was whaling on with a speed and strength that no mortal fighter could’ve hoped to match.
I watched him for a time, remembering the first imaski training camps. They had all started out as mortals – Ashmari, Kaban, Kandori… I’d taken anyone who I thought was good enough, regardless of race or gender. I’d trained each one of them personally, and I’d begun when they were just ordinary soldiers. I’d wanted them to be the best despite the strength and power that came from the imaskibrew, not because of it.
Kirin had remembered his lessons. I could see echoes of my own motion in his movements, as I could with anyone I’d trained.
The imaski had been bred with the expectation that they would face those who’d been raised to the power in the traditional way. They were strong, and they were fast, and their armour was thick. They had a natural healing factor to compensate for their lack of Ensis. Their lifespans matched our own. But more importantly, much more importantly, they had the ability to walk the worlds as we did. I had made good use of imaski strike teams in the War, both as shock troops in conventional conflicts, and against my own kind.
Eventually Kirin turned from the bag, no sign of the sweat or fatigue that would’ve marked a human fighter.
‘I have a question,’ I asked him.
He just looked at me, a flat gaze full of ever-familiar hatred.
‘Do you plan to face me eventually, or are you going to run and hide for the rest of your life? Hope that someone else gets to me before I get to you?’
He spat off to one side. ‘I will face you,’ he said.
I nodded. ‘I know better than to trust your word,’ I said to him. ‘So I’ve no plans to wait. But…’
‘When this is over. When Exan is dealt with.’
His voice, deep and masculine, quavered just a little when he said Exan’s name. He was afraid of him.
Of course he is. Exan hunted him just as fiercely as I did. It was not only me he betrayed. He betrayed us all.
‘Just like that?’ I raised an eyebrow. ‘After all the running and hiding?’
‘Maybe I’ve run enough.’
I smiled. ‘You certainly have.’ I took a step towards him. ‘Do you remember their names, I wonder? Skaro. Enji. Telmach…’
He turned away. ‘Enough,’ he said. ‘I remember.’
‘I will do you a favour, traitor,’ I said, ‘I won’t kill you in your sleep.’ I made to go, and then, at the threshold, I paused. ‘Find me on Sansara,’ I said. ‘But I won’t wait forever.’
* * *
Isande caught me in the hallway. She simply stepped into my path, blocking the exit. I felt a surge of anticipation. Was this it? Were they finally going to show their true colours?
‘You said no,’ she said to me. It wasn’t a question.
She nodded. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Dalarion never believed that you were responsible. Neither, to be honest, did I. That is why he asked me to come for you, rather than Carmen or Sanjay.’
I wondered, briefly, how things would’ve turned out had it been Carmen who had shown up on Sansara. We would still have fought, and probably to the death. Assuming I’d survived, what would I have done?
Declared the treaty broken, probably. The War would have begun anew, just as Dalarion feared.
Part of me longed for that. The War had made things relatively simple after all.
‘He didn’t ask though, did he?’ I said to Isande. ‘He sent you. The way he sent you from that room. You do not stand as equals in this House. He is not a man who believes in equals.’
She frowned at me, but said nothing.
I made to go.
‘Wait,’ she said.
I smiled at her. ‘Going to fight me, Isande? Because otherwise I’m really not interested.’
‘I want you to change your mind.’
I laughed at her. ‘You don’t get it, do you? I don’t care. I don’t care if you people go to war a second time. I don’t care that Tancris is dead. I don’t care about any of it! Weren’t you looking at the floor earlier? I’m still the Last Evil, Isande.’ I shook my head. ‘Get someone else to save you.’
Something flashed in her eyes.
This bitch is laughing at me?
‘Where are you going to go, Rukh?’ she asked. ‘What are you going to do?’
I hesitated. I cursed myself for it but it was too late, she’d landed a hit and now she knew it. Because what was I going to do? I had, in some way, been asking myself that question since I’d signed the treaty.
And, frankly, I hadn’t found an answer.
‘Don’t you want to fight Exan?’
I stared at her.
I hadn’t even thought of that.
Exan was tough. We’d sparred once or twice but never gone at it in earnest. He had been my loyal lieutenant, after all.
I wondered, then, if I had turned Dalarion down because of anything he’d said to me, or just for the simple fact that it had been Dalarion who was asking. Or maybe because of my contempt for all that fate-of-the-multiverse crap.
Or maybe…. Maybe because of the one argument he’d made that had made sense. Had made so much sense that it wasn’t even an argument.
I will be true to you so long as you are true to me….
Oh, there was some leeway in that oath. But if Exan had broken the treaty, a treaty I had commanded him to obey, then it wasn’t really open to interpretation. He had broken faith, and I had made clear what the consequences of that were. I had spoken them aloud and my word was as iron.
I had hated Dalarion for reminding me of that. Also, if I was honest, I had hated the prospect of hunting down someone who had once been so close to me.
Only here was a different way of looking at things. A chance to fight Exan in deadly earnest…
‘You’re a vile temptress, Isande,’ I said, shrugging my shoulders. ‘But you’ve got me. Okay. I’ll deal with him.’
A genuine smile spread across her face. ‘Good.’
I raised a hand to forestall her. ‘On one condition…’
* * *
The staircase led down through the bedrock.
I followed Isande down the cut steps, and wondered where it was we were going. Back when I’d been Dalarion’s student, this stair had led only to the chaos-rent at the House’s base.
I could feel its pull as we came closer. Chaos represented power, but it was a dangerous power. It sang to us with its potential.
It was not enough, sometimes, to simply draw off the radiated energies. A chaos-rent represented an opportunity to do so much more.
Jump in. Emerge elsewhere. No need for the torturous climb back up to the gates of the House. Here was the exit, if you were bold enough to take it. No matter that I had seen what happened to those who made that leap. They were not me.
Bind it. I had performed that ritual more than once, but only once upon myself. What if it could be performed again? Oh, they said it was impossible, but the meek said that about oh so many things. I had done so much with a comparatively modest well of power. What might I do with more?
Widen it. That was the most seductive song of all. I felt its call whenever I stood near a rent, the same way I felt that horrific, self-destructive urge to jump whenever I stood near a high cliff. Feed power back into the rent, crumble the fabric of reality at its borders. Keep going, until the radiating chaos was strong enough to crumble reality all by itself. The growth would become self-sustaining.
In that way, you could sign the death warrant for an entire world.
But we did not go down as far as the rent. We reached a small landing, still some way above it, and a small, wooden door.
It had not been here before. But it made sense that things would’ve changed. If I had been Dalarion, I would have changed the entire layout of the House as soon as I could. That would’ve made prior knowledge of the layout useless, made an attack all the more difficult.
I smiled to myself. Perhaps he had. It would’ve have been so like him to change it back just before my visit here, all the better to put pressure on me.
Isande opened the door.
‘Did you wonder, at all, how I found you on Sansara?’ asked Isande.
I shook my head. ‘No.’
This was the truth. I hadn’t wondered. There were two ways Isande could’ve found me. One was to wander through Reality, searching, asking questions, hoping to pick up my trail. The other, more likely explanation, was that the Alliance had been keeping tabs on me since the treaty had been signed.
Of course, the reason Isande was asking was that the latter was supposed to be impossible.
There was a short corridor beyond the doorway, and beyond that, a small square room, the wall and floors and ceiling layered with gleaming silver panels.
So. This is it.
Dalarion and Mako were already inside.
‘…not sure,’ said Mako. ‘We can try again in a few hours.’
Dalarion tapped his staff against the floor in irritation. ‘It has been two days,’ he said. ‘Wherever he is, he is there for the long haul.’
‘Not necessarily,’ I said.
I felt the sudden pressure of their attention, but I ignored it. I was looking at the panels on the walls.
‘Rukh has agreed to help us hunt down Exan,’ said Isande.
I could sense it in them, now that I focused. Each of these panels had a trace of chaos about them. I had known it the moment I had seen them, even as I knew one of my own kind whenever I saw them, even if I didn’t recognise their face.
It was possible to bind chaos into something other than a person’s soul. The results were unpredictable, as always, but it allowed one to create an object that possessed some power of its own. The sword Isande carried was, I suspected, an ima, but I didn’t know for sure. It was hard to distinguish their aura from the aura of the wearer, so it was difficult to be entirely sure, but our kind had little need for prosaic weapons. Sanjay’s definitely was – I had tried to melt it with Sansis when I’d fought him and the power had just flowed off of it – and I suspected the same of his pistol though to carry two ima was rare. They were difficult to make.
An ima held a well of power the same way a person did, and it had to be refilled in the same manner. That explained why Dalarion had had this place built down here, close to the rent. They could also be built to hide their taint when they were dormant…
I ran my eye around the panels a second time. There were a lot of them. To build this place, even if they’d had half the Alliance working together, would have taken quite some time and been all kinds of dangerous. Forging ima – part of the Akisis discipline – was a risky and exhausting business.
This room represented a substantial investment of power.
I was pretty sure I knew what it did.
‘What did you mean, not necessarily?’ asked Dalarion.
‘Exan isn’t stupid,’ I replied. ‘It is likely he knows what you’re trying, and has taken steps to avoid it.’ I turned to them and smiled.
I’ll admit, I was enjoying this, just a little bit.
‘You know what this place is?’ asked Mako, furrows appearing in her little scaled face.
‘I have a pretty good idea,’ I said, and pointed at one of the panels. ‘I imagine that each of those is a scrying mirror. They look identical, but they aren’t are they? Not when they were made with chaos.’ I made an encompassing gesture with one arm. ‘They work in concert. Whichever one of you it is that uses this place…’ here I grinned at Mako, ‘…must have incredible mental fortitude. Scanning the whole of Reality would melt the average person’s brain.’
‘How did you…’ began Dalarion, but Mako got there first.
‘Shasu,’ she said.
I nodded. ‘Shasu.’
Exan had begun the conquest there, the rest of us being busy elsewhere at the time. The most advanced of Shasu’s nations had still been very much in the sword and sandal stage, and Exan had always excelled on that kind of battlefield. The locals had not been prepared for the imaski he’d had with him either. It hadn’t taken him long to raise a substantial local following, and with a little more time he’d have set up a proper empire to serve as an engine of conquest.
But he didn’t get a little more time. Two months was about it.
Ulmeshian, Sanjay Jacobs, and Telemens Dax had all shown up on Shasu at the same time. We had no idea how long they’d been on the world before they launched their assassination attempt – the first Exan had known of it was when his quarters had been engulfed in a wash of Sansis flame.
He’d made it out, just barely.
I had known, right away, that the chances of them finding out about Shasu so quickly were slim to nil. More than that, getting three heavy hitters together in one place took time. Ulmeshian, according to my intelligence, should’ve been holding the line on Derivani against Esparatos’s forces. No way they’d had him on standby just in case.
He had been recalled for a specific operation, which meant that they’d had solid intel.
From then on, we proceeded on the basis that the enemy could track our movements.
Mako stared at me for a moment, and then turned to Dalarion. Said very clearly: ‘I told you so.’
Dalarion tapped his staff against the floor again. ‘We couldn’t pass up the opportunity,’ he said. ‘Besides, if we’d let Exan…’
‘Surely,’ said Isande, ever so softly, ‘it is of little consequence now?’
Dalarion sighed. ‘You are right, of course,’ he said, and looked at me, suddenly weary. ‘Please, Rukh, if you can tell us anything about Exan’s whereabouts, now is the time.’
I waved at the panels around us. ‘We figured that however you were doing it, the thing you were focusing in on was the taint. That’s what makes us different from the mortals. With that in mind, we focussed on developing counter-measures.’ I smiled. ‘We succeeded.’
Dalarion flinched. ‘You can avoid the Mirror?’ he said.
I could almost hear the capital letter. I wondered, with some disgust, if he had them calling it “the Mirror of Dalarion” yet.
‘If you know what you’re doing.’
He wanted to know. He wanted to know so very badly. It was written in the way he stood, the way he leaned slightly too far forward on his staff. He had snapped that question too fast, too eagerly, and given himself away. But even had he remained impassive, I would’ve known. He loved knowledge, and he loved power, and he hated being ignorant and weak.
I tapped the side of my nose. ‘Girl’s got to have some secrets,’ I said. ‘But don’t worry. I know where to start looking.’
* * *
We met in the entrance hall.
‘I’ll hear your promise now, traitor,’ I said to Kirin.
‘When Exan is dealt with,’ he said, ‘I swear on what remains of my soul that I will face you in single combat, before witnesses, in a place and time of your choosing.’
Fancy words. But some people are fond of grandiose promises. As if it gives them more worth! Kirin could’ve pronounced his oath over a human sacrifice and nine cauldrons of virgin blood and I wouldn’t have trusted it. Nor was there any higher power I could rely on to hold him to his word.
No power save my own.
Once a traitor, always a traitor.
‘Well,’ I told him, ‘in that case I promise you a stay of execution. Until my business with Exan is done, unless of course you betray this cause as well, I will not kill you.’
An awkward silence as they others looked at me. I knew what they were thinking.
I sighed. ‘Or maim you. Or do you any other obvious physical harm.’
‘And I swear,’ said Dalarion, ‘that whoever so breaks this bargain will be denied the sanctuary of my House for evermore.’
Oh you pretentious fuck, I thought. But I didn’t say anything. This had been my price. Kirin wasn’t going to hide from me again. When he broke his word, as I had no doubt he would, I would not have him running to hide behind the Alliance’s skirts. Not again. Either I died, or he did.
No compromise. Not on this.
‘Right,’ I said. ‘Let’s get going, little traitor.’
He flinched. ‘Now?’
I looked at him and then ran my gaze along the rest. ‘The Mirror isn’t going to work,’ I told them. ‘Waiting for Exan to slip up is not an option. We’re going to have to go track him down the old fashioned way.’
‘How?’ asked Sanjay. But it was Dalarion’s question, not his own. Sanjay’s every thought was about how best to please his master. He was a good little soldier. Always had been.
I favoured him with a smile. ‘None of your business,’ I said.
Sanjay shook his head. ‘I’m coming with you,’ he said, taking a step forward.
Carmen was less than a half-beat behind him. ‘As am I.’
‘And I,’ said Cass.
Isande said nothing. She just sighed and took a step forward of her own.
I glanced at Dalarion. ‘Anyone else?’
Slowly, almost sheepishly, Mako raised her hand. ‘I would like to come too,’ she said.
Sanjay glanced at her in surprise, but whether real or feigned I didn’t care to tell.
My first thought was to refuse. There was no way they could keep up with me if I didn’t want them to. I knew how to avoid the Mirror myself.
It was tempting.
Only having Isande along wouldn’t be so bad. And I wanted Kirin where I could see him, and if I was taking those two then I would have to take Cass, and that meant I might as well take the lot of them.
Besides, it would leave Dalarion on his lonesome.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘But this is my rodeo.’ I gave Sanjay a hard look. ‘You want to come, you’re going to have to do what you’re told.’
They have plenty of practice in that at least, I thought to myself, glancing at Dalarion. Don’t they, old man?
They didn’t like it, I could see that. But there was no way Sanjay could keep up with me if I didn’t want him too, and he knew that. It was also pretty obvious that Dalarion had asked him to keep an eye on me, so it wasn’t like he could change his mind and say that he didn’t want to come after all. I could practically see the cogs whirring in his head as he thought it through.
For once, though, I kept my amusement to myself.
‘It seems we have little choice,’ said Sanjay. He had a cold look about him now. I had no doubt that he still wanted me dead, but he had better control of his expression. ‘I accept your conditions.’
‘Agreed,’ said Carmen, a moment later, but I could tell that the word tasted foul in her mouth.
‘Agreed,’ echoed Mako.
Cass looked to Isande.
‘Up to you,’ said her sensei. ‘This time, at least.’
Cass nodded her thanks and looked back at me. ‘Agreed,’ she said, and Isande nodded her own assent.
No point in looking to Dalarion. No matter that I didn’t want him to come anyway. There was no way he would leave the seat of his power undefended. That, always, had been his weakness.
A wry smile ghosted across my face.
Seven of us. I haven’t led so many since the war.
‘Go then,’ said Dalarion. ‘Find Exan. Bring him to justice.’
‘Oh, give it a rest, old man,’ I said, pushing past him. ‘You’ll get what you’re after.’ I paused at glanced back at him. ‘If I feel like it,’ I said, ‘I might even bring you his head.’
* * *
The last time I had visited the House I had come via Lirasor through a way that led practically to the door. It was a path I had kept secret since my youth, at first because I liked secrets and afterwards because I recognised the tactical value of that knowledge. I had always imagined that my final assault on the Alliance would make use of it.
In the end, I had used it to sue for peace. Exan had called it a waste, and perhaps he had been correct.
For my part, I figured it had been worth the look on their faces when I’d strode into the hallway.
I smiled, remembering.
Reached for Faris.
The way was gone. It wasn’t there. My attempt to exercise Faris slid off the air the way sword thrust skips off the edge of a shield.
I paused, my smile disappearing.
It had been destroyed, then. That took almost as much power as growing a new way did. It was like trying to tear down a bridge with your bare hands, or rip the paving off a road.
He had help, most likely.
I wasn’t sure why it bothered me so much. That way had been mine, yes, but what had I expected? It bypassed the security that protected the House. Treaty or no, that wasn’t the kind of thing Dalarion would allow to stand.
Must have taken him a while to find it, too. There was no reliable method for detecting a transition between worlds beyond basic trial and error. You had to know where they were, or wander around the place prodding at the skin of Reality with your powers like a blind man testing the road. He’d have known it was there from my unexpected arrival at his door but not exactly where.
Yeah, I wasn’t happy that it was gone, but at least I could console myself with the image of Dalarion stumbling around outside House like a witless old man trying to find it.
‘What’s the hold up?’ asked Sanjay, from somewhere behind me.
My first instinct was to remind him that he didn’t get to ask, but that would’ve made me look petty and stupid. So instead I turned and said:
‘The way I used last time is gone. We’ll have to take a different route.’
‘Where are we…’ he began, but I’d already turned away and started walking across the prairie.
I heard snippets of conversation behind me but I kept my eyes firmly on the road ahead.
‘…possibly be?’ Sanjay was saying.
A reply from Mako, too quiet for me to hear.
I heard low mutters from Carmen and Cass, who were probably discussing how evil I was. Or maybe not, but I maintain a healthy touch of paranoia at all times. They were the two most likely to break the treaty and try for me when I wasn’t looking.
Them and Kirin.
I felt the smile return at the thought. That particular loose end had been scratching at me for a while. I was looking forward to tying it up.
Of course, there is no real difference between Kirin and Exan, is there? They have both broken their oaths to you. They both deserve the same penalty.
I pushed the thought away. I still did not really believe that Exan had broken the treaty. Oh, I could believe that he’d killed Tancris, could believe that he’d killed him in exactly the manner that Carmen had described… but I could not believe that he’d broken his promise.
Some of the others, yes, but not Exan.
Well, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Around us the grass was beginning to give way to field of dark flowers. The air took on a heavy texture and heady scent. I could hear the droning of the insects and feel the warmth of the afternoon sun on my skin.
‘So,’ said a voice beside me, and I turned my head to see Isande keeping pace. ‘I have a question.’
‘Don’t expect an answer,’ I said.
‘Oh, it’s obvious you want to surprise us with where we’re going,’ said Isande. ‘But I’m more curious about how Exan is avoiding the Mirror. You didn’t tell Dalarion because you hate him, but…’
‘I think I’ll keep that one to myself a while longer,’ I told her, and kept my eyes on the road ahead.
She sighed. ‘As you wish.’
* * *
The journey took three days.
‘Uriban,’ said Kirin, when we arrived. ‘Of course.’
None of the others said anything. I’d met their questions with evasion and dismissal and eventually they’d stopped asking me, which had been the idea. But the ways we had been travelling were well known, and there were only so many destinations to pick from.
Uriban was where Exan had been born. It was where he and I had trained, in the years before we had begun our conquests.
It was early evening, the great green sun still a hand’s span above the horizon. The ground was smooth barren stone. To the west rose a jagged line of mountains, whereas to the east was plain strewn with boulders. A geyser panted its steamy breath through a wide split in the earth nearby.
And, in the distance, was a city.
Ista was an ancient settlement. It had been there for millennia before I’d visited it, and it had stood the time since with the same indifference. It had burst its walls three times, and each time the city’s Patriarch had had them rebuilt, further out. The outer wall was a huge bulwark of stone blocks, base guarded by the very trench they had been quarried from. The gate was wide enough to admit a dragon.
The stone gleamed beneath dying light of the green sun.
‘What are we here for, Rukh?’ asked Isande, ever so softly, and because it was Isande asking I figured that this time I should answer.
‘I don’t know where Exan is,’ I said, ‘but I can bet he will have passed through here at some point in the last year. It is the most recent lead we are likely to get.’
Isande frowned. ‘Will he really have revealed himself to the mortals here?’
I grinned at her. ‘It’s complicated,’ I said, and then turned to face the others. ‘You will have to wait here,’ I told them.
Sanjay folded his arms. ‘No,’ he said.
So much for promises.
‘You agreed to do as you were told,’ I said to him.
He stared at me with barely supressed fury. ‘You are not my commander,’ he said. ‘Under different circumstances I would…’ He mastered himself with a grimace.
I smiled, because I knew it would make him angry, and shrugged my shoulders. ‘If you want to break your word,’ I said, ‘then that is your business. If you want to break the treaty… well, all I can say is I would enjoy it immensely if you did. But if I catch you following me into the city then I will continue this without you.’
He looked at me a long moment and then, eventually, looked away.
‘Why can’t we follow?’ demanded Carmen. ‘I do not like this. What if you are planning to join up with Exan? What if…’
I sighed. ‘If you come in with me then there is no point in me going. Our chances of finding information decrease.’
Carmen folded her arms. ‘How so?’
May as well tell them.
‘‘There is a mortal organization I need to contact,’ I said. ‘They know my face, and the faces of the other leaders of the Dark Pact. But they know the faces of our enemies just as well. If they see you entering the city, they will suspect a trap.’
‘We will go in disguised,’ said Sanjay. ‘With Illumis we can…’
‘They aren’t stupid,’ I told him. ‘They will check. So unless you want to restructure your entire face…’
There was a pause as they digested this.
Then: ‘They won’t know her face,’ said Mako, pointing at Cass.
I raised an eyebrow. That was, unfortunately, an excellent point.
I knew what was coming. They would demand Cass go with me, and I would have little cause to argue. If I did, I would lose, and I would look weak in front of them. I would be forced to cut them all loose or to give into their demands.
You just don’t like them knowing your secrets, said a voice in the back of my mind.
That was true. But whether these people realised it or not, I was the leader of this expedition. And one thing I had learned as a leader was that there were times when you had to back down.
It showed a kind of strength all by itself.
‘She can come if she wants,’ I said, before the anyone could argue that point. ‘But the rest of you stay.’
‘Cass?’ asked Isande, and I heard an uncharacteristic worry in her voice.
‘I’ll go,’ said Cass.
‘There would be nothing unusual about an imaski escort,’ said Kirin. ‘I could…’
‘You’re not exactly inconspicuous either,’ I said. ‘I’d be announcing my presence to the entire city. People might even panic.’
‘Besides, the people I’m meeting will know who you are too,’ I said. ‘Nor will they believe that I’m willingly walking in step with you… Hell, I hardly believe it myself. So you just wait here like a good little traitor.’ I flashed him a mirthless smile. ‘I see you when I get back.’
To that, Kirin did not reply.