There was some preparation necessary before we could enter the city. I was wearing jeans and a sleeveless top, which hadn’t quite caught on in Ista yet, and Cass’s yellow-and-grey banded skin would be like nothing the Uribani had ever seen. In some places you could get away with it – people would assume you were in costume or that you had exotic tastes – but not in Ista. Not in an insular, patriarchal society where dress was a major indicator of caste.
There were two ways to disguise oneself with power. The expensive option was to fabricate such a disguise with Bayis, and alter one’s features with Ensis. This took time and a lot of power. The other option was to mess with the light.
The discipline was called Illumis. It involved adjusting how the photons in your immediate vicinity were reflected. It took a certain amount of skill and a good understanding of optics, but it was pretty versatile. The illusion itself took some power to create, but maintaining it once you had it in place was wonderfully cheap. Of course, the illusions it produced were just that – illusions. It did nothing to change your shape or mass and it did nothing to hide your taint.
It was tricky enough to learn, for all its ease of use, and I was mildly impressed with how detailed Cass’s disguise was. Clearly she’d put a lot of effort in.
We walked down to the city together, wearing the images of old women. Blue robes, stooped backs, hair bound in headscarves and olive skin crinkled with the lines of mortal living. We passed others on the road who looked much as we did and we exchanged illusory nods and fanged smiles but dared no words.
‘You know they’ll kill you if I don’t come back,’ said Cass, as we stepped through the city gate.
I didn’t know if that was supposed to be an attempt at humour or a genuine threat, and I didn’t much care.
Besides, she was probably right.
The gates of Ista were wide open to admit the evening traffic. There was a guard leaning against the side of the stone archway, smoking a cigarette. An assault rifle dangled from a strap around his neck. His clothing was loose grey cloth, effective camouflage in such barren country. A headscarf hid much of his face.
‘Danis,’ I said to Cass. She gave me a look, but to her credit didn’t question me.
Illumis was all well and good for hiding from mortals, but if you wanted to hide from one of our kind then you needed to go a little further. My eyes were utterly deceived by Cass’s Uribani disguise, but I could still see her taint. I knew that she wasn’t mortal.
Danis was the art of hiding one’s taint. It meant drawing the power that pervaded your flesh back into your internal well. It was uncomfortable, like holding your breath, and you could draw only the faintest trickle of power while you held it. But if Exan was here in Ista still, it would make us effectively invisible to him.
Not that I thought he was. But it paid to be careful.
I felt Cass’s chaos taint vanish from my perceptions and I focused my own will inward. The power drained out of me, leaving a horrific sense of vulnerability in its wake. I ran a thin trickle of energy out into my illusion and did my best to ignoring the hot, seething sensation building in my chest.
Been a while since you’ve had to do this…
But “had to do it” was the right phrase. Anyone of our kind could spot another’s taint just by looking at them. Worse, you could spot the taint at ranges beyond those of mundane eyesight, or when that eyesight was obscured.
If someone was waiting in the city for us, then a scan of the horizon would probably be enough to tell them that Isande and the others were there. They wouldn’t know exactly where, but they’d have an idea of a general vicinity.
In the War, use of Danis had been routine. You never knew when someone from the other side would turn up to take you out. My standing orders to the rest of the Dark Pact had been that if they weren’t using power, they needed to be suppressing it.
Of course, the War was over, and it seemed the veterans of both sides had gone a little lax.
I pushed these thoughts away and focused on the city around us. It hadn’t changed all that much since I’d last been here. But then, that was the way of things when you built from solid stone. Quarrying the stuff was not easy, and people didn’t demolish and rebuild for the sake of fashion. Given the work involved, they made do with previous generations’ aesthetic instead.
The citizens dressed in long flowing garments in a variety of riotous colours. Here and there I saw more soldiers walking the streets in military grey. There didn’t appear to be much distinction between their military and their police.
There never was. The Patriarch has all the power here.
Of course, that was supposition. It was a while since I’d been on Uriban and even longer since I’d been in Ista. The buildings hadn’t changed but the politics might’ve. I really had no way of knowing.
‘When we get there,’ I said to Cass, ‘it would be best if you said nothing. I will introduce you as a disciple and let them assume that you are my disciple. This will grant you their respect.’
We turned a corner. Up ahead was the building I was looking for, a single story block of stone, entrance flanked by smooth columns, roof topped with an impressive dome. Things changed, but stone lasted. It was part of the reason we had chosen this place. In Ista they wore their past around them here, more so than in other places. The face of their city endured, as did their traditions. Memory spanned the generations.
Useful traits in a mortal culture. Well, useful for us at any rate.
I paused to glance up at the dome. No small feat of engineering that, when all you had to work with was stone and a few crude hand tools. But then, mortals put in all manner of effort when it came to their temples.
‘They call themselves the Cult of Rukh,’ I said.
But by then we were already at the entrance.
There was no guard. There was no door, either, just the neat, rectangular opening and the dark room beyond.
I stepped inside.
It had not changed at all.
A circular room, not unlike the meeting hall at the House. I wondered if that design had influenced me, back when I’d let Desikim set this place up. I disliked the thought. I disliked the idea that anything of mine could be tainted by something of Dalarion’s.
And yet you sought followers, said a voice in the back of my mind. Just as he did. Just as he always has. The only difference being, you admitted it.
I pushed the voice aside. This was not the time to second guess myself.
The far wall was lined with statues. Five in total, each one eminently lifelike. They had been carved from stone, but layered with painted wax. If I hadn’t known better, they might’ve passed for living people.
A sharp intake of breath from Cass.
In the centre, right opposite the doorway, was my own likeness staring back. Oh, I was a fraction taller, my waist a fraction slimmer, my bare arms showing better muscle definition than I had these days, but it was me all right. I was wearing black combat fatigues, the jacket hanging open. My hands were raised and in this light, the wax was indistinguishable from skin. They’d even managed to get the eyes right – they glistened the way real eyeballs glistened. No doubt some acolyte had the job of dabbing them with water each day so as to maintain the illusion.
Exan had commissioned these statues. He’d been very keen that they look as like us as possible, a living record for our followers and guarantor of instant obedience whenever we returned.
His statue stood to the right of mine, lean and hungry, mouth crooked in a grin that showed his fanged incisors, body clad in the fighting leathers he had always preferred. On my statue’s left stood Trickster, a diminutive woman in a short sleeved tunic, one clawed hand extended outward, proffering a fanned deck of cards. On the outer edges were Tollan Esparatos and Desikim. Esparatos on the left in a grey battledress, his weapon, Laya, gripped in one feathered hand. Desikim on the right, face half hidden by her cowl, the black silk robe and its meaningless silver symbols bound tight against her form.
The leaders of the Dark Pact, and its original members. Or, to the mortals that came to worship in this place, a pantheon of capricious gods.
There was a woman kneeling at the base of my statue, adding a lit candle to the masses that had already gathered there. She stood, lowered the hood of her robe to shake free a wave of red hair, and turned.
For a moment I thought it was going to be Desikim.
It wasn’t. It was a mortal with a squashed face and a pug nose. She smiled as we entered, baring her fanged teeth.
‘Welcome,’ she said. ‘Have you come to look at the shrine? Or are you of the faithful?’
I dropped my Ilumis in response. I released Danis.
For a moment all was still. I felt the resumption Cass’s chaos taint as she too threw off her disguise.
The mortal took a step forward slowly, and then ran her hand across the contours of my face. I bore this in silence.
Eventually she took a step back and shuddered.
‘My lady,’ she said, licking her lips. ‘You have returned.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I am wondering how truly faithful you have remained.’
She swallowed. ‘I have tended this shrine since the duty was passed to me by my father. I keep close contact with the rest of the Cult and it pleases me to say that we are strong in this city. We have become the religion of the powerful. We spread your teachings. The records are still kept, just as you once commanded.’
I said nothing. Beside me, Cass shifted uneasily.
The priestesses eyes flicked across to her, ever so briefly.
‘A disciple,’ I said. ‘You make speak freely in front of her. More freely than you have so far. You have more to tell me.’
A fairly obvious deduction but it is amazing what an ignorant mortal will read into it.
‘Lord Exan passed through here some months ago,’ she said.
I’ll bet he did.
I felt Cass tense, and hoped she had the sense to keep her mouth shut.
‘He had instructions for me. For the rest of Cult.’
Now that was news to me.
The Cult had been Exan’s responsibility. The whole false religion angle had started with Desikim, but the Cult was on Uriban and Exan was Uribani. It had been his during the War, and it had been agreed that he would keep tending to it during peacetime. I had known that he would pass through every few years or so to keep an eye, but instructions, orders…
I folded my arms. ‘Do elaborate,’ I said.
The priestess nodded, eager to please. ‘He told us to…’
She stopped, suddenly. Her eyes were wide, wider than they had been when I had shown myself earlier. Her head craned back, exposing her throat. A small, pathetic moan forced its way from between her lips.
Blood ran from her nose.
Then she pitched forward, face first. A hollow thud as she hit the floor. The kind of noise a dead body makes when falling.
The exact kind of noise in fact.
A rasp of steel on leather as Cass drew her sword.
A thin rectangular object was buried in the back of the priestess’s skull. A wafer of painted obsidian.
A playing card.
I looked up. One of the statues was stepping down off of its pedestal, a sheaf of stone cards spread in each clawed hand like throwing knives, a grin across those all-too familiar features.
Not a statue.
‘Oh the look on your face.’
I sighed. ‘Hello Trickster,’ I said.
* * *
Trickster. No other name given. She had been my spymaster in the War, the commander of my intelligence corps, mortal and otherwise. She had also been my partner in research and development – her knowledge of the disciplines had been extensive, as had her knowledge of mortal science. I knew very little about her past before the War, though I’d run into her on several occasions when I’d still been a disciple.
She had been obsessed with chaos.
Beside me, Cass was quivering, sword in hand.
Show no weakness.
‘Relax,’ I told her, ‘Trickster is an old friend.’ I made an apologetic face at Trickster. ‘She’s heard too many stories, I’m afraid. Makes her a little nervous.’
‘Oh, oh she should be,’ said Trickster, boyish hair bouncing as she did a little jig. ‘I am so very, very dangerous, after all.’ She winked at me with one mad eye, and then suddenly sobered. ‘She’s not your disciple, is she, Rukh? Or did you think I’d miss that?’
‘No, she isn’t,’ I said. ‘And no, I didn’t. But I didn’t think you’d murder our high priestess either. What’s gotten into you?’
I just looked at her.
‘So maybe I’m a little loopy at the moment,’ said Trickster, suddenly defensive. Or mock defensive, it was hard to tell. ‘But I’ve been standing up here for ages. I’m so stiff. I had to kill her, just to limber up.’
I sighed. ‘Of course you did.’ I gave her a hard look. ‘Where’s Exan? And why don’t you want me to know what he’s up to?’
Trickster rolled her eyes at me. ‘Oh, Rukh,’ she said, ‘just because I killed her doesn’t mean I was trying to keep something quiet! You are so silly!’
I knew better than to trust that. My experience was that she would keep a solemn oath, but lie like fuck the rest of the time. She did so without shame or apology, the same way she did everything.
‘Where’s Exan?’ I asked her again.
She spread her hands and shrugged. ‘Now? Who can say?’ Her eyes went to Cass. ‘But that’s not the interesting question, oh no. The interesting question, the really, really interesting question, is what you’re doing here with Telemens Dax’s daughter.’
‘Look,’ I said to Trickster, ‘it’s like this. Tancris is dead. The Alliance think Exan is responsible. I need to find him and find the truth. If he is, then he’s broken the treaty and therefore his oath to me.’ I smiled. ‘You remember the penalty for that, don’t you?’
Trickster bit her lip. Cocked her head to one side.
‘No,’ she said. ‘No.’ She shook her head violently. ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ She was still suddenly, eyes fixed on mine. ‘I don’t like that, Rukh, I don’t like that one bit.’ An ominous clacking sound as her clawed fingers shuffled the stone cards. She took a breath.
‘Die,’ she said.
A thousand implications in that word, and no time to sort through them. No time to think what this might mean, no time to wonder if she was in league with Exan or if she’d finally lost her mind. No time to…
Trickster was already leaping back, arm whipping around for the throw, and I knew I wouldn’t reach her in time. I put my forearms up in front of my face to shield it and a dozen cards shattered on my Kasis-reinforced limbs. One slipped through to hammer into my forehead, but that too broke against my reinforced skin – I wasn’t going to fuck around, not with Trickster.
I dropped my arms, still stinging from the impact. Saw her slipping backward between the statues.
I jumped forward, up onto the pedestal, and lost half my cheek for my trouble. Her claws just tore it out of my face in a single swipe. I felt hot blood splashing down my neck and the burning of severed nerve endings. I ignored it, jabbing forward, but Trickster was slipping back further and further, covering her retreat with a flurry of slashing claws.
I was dimly aware of Cass yelling something behind me, but I ignored her. Couldn’t she see that I was busy?
I rolled under the next strike and for one beautiful split second I had a clean shot at Trickster’s belly.
I whipped a shovel hook through the gap, fast as anything, not knowing if I was to break my fist on Kasis-reinforced skin or deliver a winding strike, but already planning the uppercut and the horizontal elbow that would follow…
I never made contact.
Cold hands seized me from behind.
I glanced back into the eyes of my own statue, the wax cracking and falling from the limbs as the stone shifted beneath it like a living thing.
Trickster’s laughter echoed around the chamber.
‘You have got to be fucking kidding me!’ I said as the statue brought back its fist to strike.
The statues had been replaced with ima. Or perhaps they had always been ima, perhaps Trickster had put this trap in place long ago without telling me.
I thrust the blade of a hand against my statue’s wrist to try and lever myself free, but there were no muscles or tendons to put pressure on, only unyielding stone. The fist shot towards my face faster than I would’ve believed.
I jerked my head to the side and the fist missed. The fingers of its other hand were digging into my flesh now, tightening more and more.
The sound of steel hitting stone echoed through the chamber.
You’re in trouble, Rukh.
I chopped at the statue’s wrist again, but this time I loaded my hand with Turis and Kasis, and the stone shattered. I twisted out of its grasp and nearly lost my head to a chambered side kick from statue-Exan.
I rolled, came up behind it and snapped a kick of my own into its lower back. Statue-Exan stumbled forward into my statue, and they both went down with a crash.
Cass backed into view, cutting savagely at statue-Desikim’s face with her katana. Sparks flew from the stone with a bone-juddering screech, but the ima didn’t slow in its advance.
I moved to help but statue-Esparatos was in my way, the wax mask fallen from its stone features, the grey plumage reduced to greyer stone. It came forward as if to embrace me, and I stepped back to avoid the crush of those powerful arms.
It raised its leg to kick and I saw my opening and seized its ankle. I sent a burst of Turis through my hands – expensive without the punch to focus it – and the leg exploded like a bomb. Fragments slashed at my bare arms but I didn’t care. Statue-Esparatos stumbled and fell.
Something twisted and metallic clattered off the wall behind me.
She was backing up before Desikim’s statue, empty handed. The ima seemed undamaged – the robe it wore had been sliced to pieces but the stone bore only a few superficial scratches.
I started forward again, but even as I did so Cass lunged forward with a jab and blasted the thing’s head apart.
The statue’s limbs locked solid, inert once more. No longer an ima, now just a thing.
Cass met my gaze with a self-satisfied smile.
I pointed to the fallen statue in front of me and then over to where statue-me and statue-Exan still struggled to rise. ‘Finish them off,’ I told her, and cast my gaze about for Trickster.
There was a small doorway behind where the statues had stood. I hadn’t seen it before. I had no idea where it led.
I made right for it.
* * *
She was waiting for me in the room beyond, her face twisted in a grin.
I slowed when I saw her. ‘What was the point of all that?’ I asked, her, raising my hands.
She shrugged and tilted her head to one side. ‘What’s the point of anything?’
I rolled my shoulders. ‘You know I’m going to kill you now, right?’
She laughed, swiping at the air with her claws. ‘Your face looks better with holes in it,’ she said. ‘Much better. I wonder how many other holes I’ll put in you before…’ She tailed off, her expression twisting in sudden rage. The change was terrifying all by itself. ‘You betrayed us!’ she spat. ‘I didn’t join you for peace! I joined you for WAR!’
And then she was hurtling across the gap between us.
I sidestepped, swinging my arm out into the space where she’d been. The strike was unenhanced and I bruised the bone against Kasis-hard flesh. I leapt back, ignoring the spike of pain running through me. Claws raked across my belly, tearing fabric and flesh.
I lashed out with Turis-loaded front kick…
It connected. Trickster was blasted off her feet by the force of it. She hit the ground with an audible crack.
I was on her a second later. No matter that I hadn’t expected the attack to work. No matter that I’d thought she’d redirect the force. This was an opening and I had to take it. Once they were on the ground they were a heartbeat from dead. Don’t give them time to recover, don’t…
Trickster was sitting up, one hand behind her to support her weight. The other was two feet away, broken off by the impact. There was no blood. The break was bleached of colour, the illusion that had run through it damaged. Grey stone showed its jagged edge.
‘Surprise,’ said statue-Trickster.
I shook my head in admiration. ‘You are one sneaky bitch,’ I said.
She smiled and in a sing-song voice said: ‘Oh I’m so looking forward to doing this for real!’
I nodded. ‘Me too.’
Then I kicked statue-Trickster’s head apart and went back to find Cass.
* * *
She was standing over my statue, which was relatively intact but having some trouble getting itself off the ground. It had lost an arm at the shoulder when I’d thrown the other statue into it, and when it tried to push itself off of the floor with the other arm, the weight of its unsupported shoulder kept pulling it back down.
Design flaw, I thought with some amusement.
Of course, the foot Cass had on its back might’ve been part of it.
‘Oh just kill it already,’ I said to her.
She looked up at me, the vestigial gills at her neck flaring, and then the rage that burned in her eyes slowly subsided. She gave a curt nod, and then pulverised the statue’s head, with a single stamp.
The faintest ghost of a smile passed across her face.
‘Don’t look too happy,’ I told her. ‘The real me won’t be so easy.’
She tensed, and then relaxed. Turned to me.
‘What happened to Trickster?’
I shrugged. ‘Wasn’t her. Just an upgraded version of one of these.’
I sent Ensis to my face and belly as I spoke. There was a stone card sticking out of my shoulder- I had no recollection of the impact. I tugged it free and let the wound heal close. This had been an expensive fight. I reckoned I would’ve spent about a third of my reserve by the time I was back to optimum.
Had I been alone, I would’ve spent a lot more. If I’d run out…
If I’d run out, I would’ve died.
Not a cheery thought, that.
‘So who were you talking to then?’ Cass asked me.
I thought for a moment. ‘Good question,’ I said at last. ‘I think it was her controlling it. I think it was her mind in that stone shell.’
She had knew me too well for it to have been anything else.
Most of us stopped at making one or two ima in our lives. It involved working with raw chaos, usually at a rent, and that meant difficult, dangerous work. I myself had made more than most. But Trickster had made hundreds in her time, wielding Akisis with no heed for the potential consequences.
The statue had had her expressions, her mannerisms…
There was a discipline, Bayis, that allowed you conjure and shape solid matter. Was that how she’d done it – how she’d made the stone flow like skin and muscle, how she’d fooled me so completely? Or was it all Illumis, an in-built manipulation of the light? However they worked, the ima had been masterfully made.
Do not forget what she is capable of.
‘Was she controlling the others?’ asked Cass. ‘None of them talked but…’
‘I doubt they had any intellect of their own,’ I said, ‘if that’s what you’re asking.’ I closed my eyes. The implications…
“Oh I am so looking forward to doing this for real.”
‘You spoke to her like she was your friend,’ said Cass, and I heard the accusation in her voice. ‘She killed someone right in front of you, someone who worshipped you, and you didn’t even blink. You shrugged it off like it was less than nothing.’
I opened my eyes.
‘You have a point?’ I said. But I knew where this was going. It looked like fighting alongside me hadn’t instilled any respect in the girl. Or maybe she’d enjoyed breaking that statue of me just a bit too much.
‘You were going to let her get away with murder,’ she said. ‘If she hadn’t attacked you’d have just got what you needed from her and walked away, wouldn’t you?’
‘Probably,’ I agreed.
Her jaw slackened in surprise.
Oh, there were a lot of things I could’ve said. That Trickster had been one of mine more so than the priestess had been. That while I hadn’t approved, I had sworn oaths to Trickster and she to me. I could not have broken them. Only when she’d turned her art against me directly had those bonds been sundered.
I could’ve said all of that. But if I defended myself to Cass then I supported her right to question me. Worse, I would show weakness. I would show the hole in my side where the loyalty of my lieutenants had once been. I would show the pain I bore for a friend lost to the corruption of chaos.
Trickster had always been a bit strange, but it looked like she’d finally gone full-on nuts. Worse, she’d suggested that not only had Exan killed Tancris, but that she was in league with him. If that was true…
If that’s true, I thought to myself, then I know where he is. Or at least, I know where he’s going.
‘Come on,’ I said to Cass, heading for the door. ‘Let’s get back to the others.
* * *
What happened?’ asked Isande, when we caught up with them.
I glanced at her. ‘Trickster left a trap for us,’ I said.
There was no escaping that part. Only five of us had known the location of that temple, and even if those ima had been there since the War, the only reason for not telling me about them would’ve been to use them against me. She must’ve known I would come looking for Exan once I heard about what he’d done, and she had lain in wait with the intention of stopping me.
She may have been crazy, but that was not the same as stupid. For all that she had made me say it, she had known why I was there.
‘Trickster?’ Kirin tensed at her name. ‘What would she be…’
‘You think she is in league with Exan?’ asked Sanjay. ‘That she had something to do with Tancris’s murder?’
I was tempted to tell him that I didn’t give a fuck about Tancris’s murder. That Trickster had broken the treaty right in front of me when she’d set those ima on Cass and I. That she’d broken her oaths to me in the most profound sense possible. But I knew he wouldn’t care about these things, not the way I cared about them.
Nor was he clever enough to understand what this might mean.
‘If she helped kill my love,’ said Carmen, ‘I will…’ She hooked her fingers into claws, the sentence dying as she sought for a suitable vow.
I shook my head. ‘There’ll be a queue,’ I told her.
No one is getting to Trickster before me.
Mako let out a small, delicate cough. ‘One member of the Dark Pact breaking the treaty is a comparatively small thing,’ she said, with an apologetic shrug. ‘Two suggests something more.’
A frown from Cass. ‘What are you saying?’
Oh, not now, Mako. Not here.
I took a step forward. ‘We should get moving,’ I said, and then glanced over at Isande. ‘I want you bringing up the rear,’ I said to her. ‘Eyes keen.’
She inclined her head by way of response, and I knew she understood.
‘Hold on,’ said Sanjay. ‘You haven’t explained…’
I waved a hand to dismiss him. ‘Cass can fill you all in once we’re off world. Right now, we need to get moving.’
‘I don’t take orders from you!’
I shrugged. ‘Then go home,’ I told him. ‘Or stay here. Whatever you like. But I can’t be bothered to have this conversation again. It’s getting boring.’
I started walking.
It had occurred to me that if Trickster had been controlling that statue the way I suspected, then she would have to have been on Uriban to do it. If she’d been on Uriban then, then the chances were pretty good that she was still here. I was willing to bet, in fact, that she had us under observation and was listening to everything we said.
I could guess what her next move was going to be, too.
Well, Exan, you two-faced bastard. I guess you know we’re coming…