I led the way through Reality, half listening to the others talking behind me. Cass at the back with Isande, taking her through the fight in the temple for what had to be the third or fourth time, Isande occasionally stopping her to ask a pointed question.
Kirin walked alone, saying nothing. He was even more of a pariah than I was, for all that they pretended otherwise. No-one really trusted a traitor. Someone who turned once might turn again.
Not that I’d have that backstabbing piece of shit back for even a second.
Sanjay and Mako were playing chess, calling the moves to one another. I followed along for a while, watching the black and white pieces slide around the board in my mind’s eye. I’d used to like chess.
I had once been very good at it.
It was Carmen who stole my attention away from the game. She came up beside me as we crossed a desert of golden sand on a world called Terami. She walked with me in silence as the sun fell, and when it finally dipped below the horizon, she spoke.
‘I have hated you,’ she said. ‘I have wished terrible things upon you.’
‘That’s a crowded hole you’re in,’ I said.
She continued as if I had not spoken. ‘But you did not kill my Iago. Moreover, you now feel as I do regarding our true enemy.’ A pause as she struggled with something. ‘Sanjay and Isande have reminded me… you do not lie.’
Oh my, I thought to myself sarcastically. I’m all teary.
‘I once fought you with everything I had,’ she said. ‘But that was then. Today you are my ally in revenge. For this, you are my sister.’ She put a hand on my upper arm. ‘You are forgiven, for everything.’
I think I’m going to be sick.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘That’s nice.’
She snatched her hand back as she heard the poison in my voice.
‘Thing is, Carmen,’ I said, my eyes on the road ahead, ‘that’s a pretty easy thing for you to say. You forgive me? For what exactly? You and I barely crossed paths in the War. I never killed anyone you particularly liked, did I? Hell, when I put Telemens down you were probably wet with joy.’
A sharp intake of breath from Cass behind me. Mako and Sanjay paused in their game, listening.
I didn’t care.
‘You are…’ she began, but I wasn’t done.
‘But it’s not that easy. You think the War was all about you? You think I didn’t lose people?’ I stopped and rounded on her. ‘Maybe you should think,’ I said, ‘about what I’m doing now. About who I’m putting myself up against. And maybe, just maybe, you should go fuck yourself.’
Show no weakness.
Oh. Yeah. That.
I glanced back along the row of stunned faces. Even Isande’s cool façade had broken. Only Mako looked unfazed. But like I said, it is hard to tell with a lizard.
I let out a short laugh. Let the tension that had built within me unwind. ‘Wow,’ I said to Carmen, ‘I actually let you get to me.’
I went back to walking.
It was some time before conversation resumed.
* * *
We camped on Sandim, beside a mountain lake.
The air was cool, and crisp, the water clear above the rocky lakebed. There was an island a short distance from the shore, upon which stood a stand of pine trees. Isande swam out to collect firewood. Sanjay disappeared for an hour and returned, smugly, with a brace of long-necked, purple-feathered birds that according to him had the look of good eating.
I sat, and brooded.
I took care to appear perfectly relaxed, as if I was enjoying the scenery.
How had I, a woman who had never broken her word, ended up changing sides like this? Because that’s what it was. I was walking in step with Sanjay, and Carmen, and fucking Kirin, all ready to do Dalarion’s dirty work. On the other side were at least two of my closest friends, now turned to enemies. More, this was not just about Tancris. That had been obvious the moment Trickster had made her move. If she was involved as well then this was, like Mako had said, much bigger. The treaty was in ruins. Dalarion’s reasons for involving me were already obsolete.
The War was back on.
Oh, the scale was several orders of magnitude smaller than it had been, but it would be the same conflict. Exan had never been in favour of peace, and it seemed that he’d had as much of it as he could stomach.
He’s not going to stop with just Tancris. Oh no…
I could be wrong, but if I was right, if the War was recommencing as I had hoped and dreamed back in my darker moments on Sansara, what was I doing helping the Alliance?
Your word, I reminded myself. Is that not reason enough?
I was beginning to wonder if it was.
He didn’t ask.
That was closer to the heart of things. Exan hadn’t asked me. He hadn’t even tried. He had simply decided that it was time, all by himself. He had broken faith, broken his oath to me, and despite everything he had once been to me, for that I would kill him.
Hell hath no fury, after all.
I took a breath. Centred myself.
Went to where Isande was assembling the fire. Being aloof and apart was one thing. Hell, in my situation it was practically a given. But I could not be seen to be sulking. Not so soon after my earlier outburst.
I winced at the thought. It had probably not done my image any real harm. It might even have made some of them question the self-righteous bullshit Dalarion had had them eating for the past however-long. But I was embarrassed all the same, annoyed with myself for even that brief loss of control.
Show. No. Weakness.
Especially not to these people.
Only I had.
Damn, I need to hit something.
I paused at the thought. It actually wasn’t a bad idea.
Isande was just arranging the last few branches on her unlit campfire. She straightened as a I approached.
‘Hey,’ I said.
From her seat on a nearby stone, Cass glared murder.
Isande just raised an eyebrow.
‘Want to spar?’
She went still for a moment. But it wasn’t the same question I’d asked by the chaos-rift, and she knew the difference.
‘The others,’ she said, ‘they might get the wrong idea.’
I grinned at her. ‘That’s your excuse?’
Sanjay was down at the lakeside, plucking the feathers from his kills. Kirin had gone for a walk, and Mako and Carmen had disappeared off together for some sort of pow-wow. Yeah, they might leap to the wrong conclusion if they came back and saw me fighting Isande, but it wasn’t like it was an insurmountable obstacle.
‘I’ll owe you a favour,’ I said to her.
She raised an eyebrow. ‘You will put yourself in my debt? You?’
She hesitated, just for the look of the thing, but I’d already read the decision in her eyes.
‘This is a bad idea,’ said Cass, folding her arms.
‘Watch,’ said Isande. ‘Learn.’ A pause. ‘Make sure no-one does anything stupid.’ She gestured towards the lake, and her next words were addressed to me. ‘Down there, in the open space. ‘And no power.’
‘No power,’ I agreed.
We started slow. Straight punches, and hard, high blocks. We moved with measured steps. Together. Apart. Circle and counter-circle. It was more a dance than anything else, as if the moves had been pre-planned by some external choreographer. It was the exact opposite of how I usually opened a fight, but this wasn’t a fight, not really.
The tempo increased. I threw my combos at half speed and Isande responded with textbook competence. She slapped my jabs down with an open palm, slipped my crosses, rolled hooks. She returned in kind. Then I was snapping my left arm into her left wrist, and she was pulling back the cross she had been about to send, knowing that her fist would shatter on my rising elbow, and then…
And then we were a blur of motion. Our movement became wild, almost nonsensical, half in response to one another, half in our unspoken need to keep moving, to make sure this didn’t bog down into weary circling, or empty posturing, or even the exchange of conversation that sometimes occurred when both parties needed a rest. We didn’t need rest. We didn’t want rest. We wanted to keep going until forever
We took risks. I launched kicks at her head, despite the risk to my balance. She replied with a flying knee and was forced into a forward roll when I dodged. I chained three hooks together and grinned as she ducked them all. I tried combos I would never have thrown in a real fight, quadruple jabs, spinning kicks, at one stage a backflip…
We left the holds and takedowns alone. Neither of us wanted this to become the slow attrition of a close-quarter wrestling clinch. She threw me, twice, but I landed on my feet both times and threw her once by way of revenge. But I didn’t try to pin her down, nor she me, though in a real confrontation we both would have finished a downed opponent without hesitation or mercy. But this wasn’t a real confrontation, and there was no sense in ruining a dogfight by digging trenches.
It was exhilarating.
Eventually, as always, the flesh betrays.
We broke apart, spent. I was sheathed in sweat. I didn’t know how long we’d been going. It seemed like hours, but it always did and rarely was. That was combat for you. Isande was breathing hard, her clothes stuck to her skin, her blonde hair a mess. Blood leaked from her ruined lips, and she held one arm awkwardly at her side.
I became aware of Cass and the others watching us. I hadn’t even noticed them before, except, perhaps, as dim protesting shadows when I’d landed a blow on Isande.
I probed at my own injuries. I’d broken bones in my hand, but that was to be expected in a bare knuckle fight. I could feel the ache from my stomach muscles that betrayed heavy bruising, maybe even internal bleeding. My left ear was warm and heavy. There was a pulsing agony in the centre of my face that felt like a broken nose.
I opened my mouth, and realised that she’d broken my jaw.
It was expensive, in terms of power. Not as much as the fight with Trickster had cost me, but significant all the same.
But I needed that.
‘That… that was incredible,’ Cass was saying.
A snort from Carmen. ‘Flashy, certainly,’ she said, with a sneer, smoothing the hem of her white dress.
I grinned at her, my jaw now healed enough for me to speak. ‘Any time you want to have a go,’ I said, ‘all you have to do is ask.’
Sanjay was looking at Isande with disapproval. ‘Was that strictly necessary?’ he asked her.
Isande just looked at him. Not with anger, or disappointment exactly. It was the look of a queen who’d heard an impertinent remark for the first time in her life, and neither knew nor cared what it meant.
He sighed. ‘I’d better start cooking,’ he said, and headed for the fire.
‘Learn anything?’ said Isande to Cass.
Cass’s hero-worship was more palpable than usual. I barely listened to her gushing response, just enough to know that she’d missed the point Isande had been driving at. Like all good sensei’s, Isande was trying to make a lesson through her example. And the lesson, in this case, had not been about combat technique.
If I sparred with Isande as an equal, then until Cass could do the same she was nowhere near close to facing me for real.
By the sound of things, she hadn’t figured that out yet.
I watched the two of them for a moment, not listening to the words they said – not that I could hear them over Sanjay’ cursing attempts to light the fire without power – but watching their expressions. Watching Isande’s expression.
‘Hey Mako,’ I said.
She was sitting on a rock a few feet away, very still.
She looked around at my words. ‘Yes?’
‘Isande’s her mother, isn’t she?’
Mako shrugged. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Does it matter?’
‘No,’ I said, still watching. ‘I guess it doesn’t.’
* * *
‘I want to know what you’re planning,’ said Sanjay the next morning. ‘There is no longer any need for…’
‘That’s enough,’ I said, and increased my pace.
He really has no fucking idea, does he?
We were walking across a plain of ice. This world, Curia, was so cold that I was using Sansis to regulate my body temperature. I could’ve conserved power by wearing some kind of protective gear, but frankly it wasn’t worth it. We weren’t planning an extended stay.
‘You tell us nothing!’ he snapped, and I couldn’t help but smile.
‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘I don’t.’
I felt his gaze on me, but when I refused to react he eventually spun away in frustration. I heard him fall in further back. He was expressing his frustration to Carmen, who made sympathetic noises.
‘I guess you’re still not going to talk about the Mirror,’ said Isande as we transitioned to a long snowy ridge. Mountains pierced the sky all around us and the air was crisp and cool. This was Altain, an empty world that had been spared the worst ravages of the War.
‘You guess correctly,’ I said. ‘Unless you want to call in your favour so soon after earning it?’
She laughed. ‘Oh, I’ll hold on to that marker for a while yet, Rukh. There are few who can claim to have the Last Evil in their debt.’
She clapped me on the shoulder, an oddly comradely gesture given our history. It was something she might’ve done back in the old days, before I had left the House, before the War. An echo of that long dead friendship, a hint that it might, despite all the two of us had done to one another, be one day revived.
Then she burned.
I mean it literally. One moment she was walking beside me, enviably beautiful beneath the light of the cold sun, and the next she was pillar of flame with a dancing, screaming figure at its heart. Her cry tore the air like incarnate loss. Smoke billowed from her eyes and mouth.
I whirled around.
A dark figure burst from the snow behind Mako.
Sanjay grabbed Carmen’s hand and flickered out of the world, back to Curia. Another dark figure leapt from the whiteness into the space where they had been.
Kirin vanished without drawing his blades.
Isande dropped limp into the snow, a twisted black mockery of what she had once been.
Cass was at her side in an instant.
Wake up, Rukh!
But the Faris binding was on me, settling over my shoulders like a silken net. It was the one offensive move in the discipline. It stopped the target from going off-world. They varied in strength but this one would hold me for half a day at least…
Cass was gone now, taking Isande’s corpse with her. I had no doubt it was a corpse. He wouldn’t have risked using too little power.
I turned back slowly.
I knew who I was going to see.
I had been taken utterly by surprise. Not one of those attacks had been aimed at me, and my reactions had been sluggish. But it could’ve been me. It could’ve been me dancing in that pillar of flame instead of Isande, my brain smoked in my skull before I could bring any power to bear.
Not now, Rukh!
He stood in the snow, steam rising from the muscle of his bare arms, the snow reduced to slush around his booted feet. His handsome face was crooked in a grin that just showed the tips of his fangs.
There were others around him. I barely noticed them. My tactical brain counted five, noted the dark uniforms that we hadn’t used since the War, picked out the one face I remembered from four I didn’t. This lot were his disciples then…
All of them.
He’s been raising people to the power, I realised. Recruiting.
Then off the back of that another, fiercer thought, right from the pulsing centre of my very self.
Show no weakness.
Not now. Especially not now.
So I pulled a smile up from somewhere and looked him right in the eye.
‘Hey Exan,’ I said.
His grin widened, just a fraction. ‘Hey you,’ he said, and then he was stepping forward, arms opened wide.
He embraced me. I felt something inside me melt and I put my arms around his torso to return that embrace. His skin was still sizzling from the fire he had unleashed, but I didn’t care. His smell was as I remembered. He held me with the same unshakable strength he had always held me. Within those arms I wasn’t the Last Evil or the Black Queen, but just me. The real, trembling, unmasked and undefended core of me.
Show no weakness.
I pulled away.
Took stock of the situation.
The others were gone, fled from this world. Only Mako remained, held in the grip of a tall woman in black uniform. She had Mako’s head between her palms, ready to crush it at the slightest provocation. I could think of a few ways out of that position, but none I’d want to try against a watchful opponent. And Mako wasn’t a fighter. She was a thinker, a planner.
‘Not going to go after the others?’ I asked Exan.
He shrugged at me. ‘I’ve got people who will track them,’ he said. ‘We’ll take them when the time is right.’ He gestured at Mako. ‘She’s the important one. That lizard’s got every secret the Alliance ever had locked up in her head.’
I glanced at Mako again. She wasn’t struggling. Her yellow eyes were flat, her red-scaled face impassive.
‘Good luck getting her to talk,’ I said.
‘Ha, done enough interrogations in my time, you know that.’ He grinned at me. ‘She’ll squeal. Promise.’
I thought of Isande burning in the snow and I felt the pang of another loss. I had known her since I’d first been raised to the power. With her gone…
Not now, Rukh!
‘What are you doing, Exan?’ I asked, at last.
The snow shifted around us. His disciples kept still, but their eyes were on him, waiting for their cue.
‘We have the advantage, now,’ he said. ‘In so many different ways. The Alliance was mostly disbanded – if we take out Dalarion and the others it’ll be gone for good. We can finish the War, Rukh. We can win.’
I nodded slowly.
‘Thing is, Exan,’ I said, ‘I already finished the War.’ I smiled. ‘There was a treaty and everything.’
He went very still. Around him, his disciples tensed. He looked at me, hurt in his eyes, and I looked right back, unflinching.
Show no weakness.
‘I have been a shadow since the War,’ said Exan. ‘So have you. The Alliance went back to their lives and all was well, but us? We lost everything we’d fought for. It all turned out to be for nothing. No empires, no kingdoms, right back where we’d started with only dead friends and new enemies to show for it.’ He shook his head. ‘I’ve had enough, Rukh. Tancris was the first. Isande made a decent second and this scaly bitch will do for dessert. But I want the rest of them. I want Dalarion.’
‘Oh Exan,’ I said, flashing him a mocking smile, ‘I feel almost the same way.’ I let my face grow steely cold. ‘But my word is as iron. You broke your oath to me. You broke faith with the Dark Pact. Don’t you recall the punishment?’
I took a step towards him.
‘The treaty was a betrayal of everything we stood for. I see that now. Our oaths were dust long before I…’
‘You could’ve asked,’ I said to him. ‘They did. I doubt Tancris’s body was even cold before Isande was on her way to fetch me. If you’d but asked…’
‘I am always careful what I swear to,’ I told him. ‘Do you really think, that if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t have destroyed that treaty without ever going against my promise? That I couldn’t have baited them into to breaking it? You know me, Exan. You, above all others, know what I am capable of.’
I took another step forwards.
‘So don’t pretend this is about the War, or about promises, or about the treaty. This is just you trying to go it alone, to step out from my shadow. You’ve sacrificed everything that was ever between us to that cause. And you know it.’
Pain in his features now. ‘It doesn’t have to be this way.’
I smiled a mirthless smile and shook my head. ‘You fucked up, Exan. Because it does have to be this way. My word is as iron. Always has been. I won’t break a promise, not even for you.’
I laughed, pouring every ounce of scorn into my voice that I could. ‘That psycho? Oh, she’s lost her shit in a big way. It only took five minutes with her to see that. I mean, she was a bit off back in the War, but now she’s finally fallen out of the crazy tree for good. If you’re letting her lead you around by the nose, then you’re dumber than I thought.’
Exan stood there for a moment, and then, very slowly, shook his head. ‘Enemies, then?’ he asked me, and though he kept his voice light I could see the pain in his eyes.
He wasn’t alone in that. That embrace had to be the last one. Those arms could never hold me again, because if I was ever again that close I would be killing him. I had known this since Trickster had stepped off of the pedestal, even if I hadn’t admitted it to myself until now. Oh, I wanted to make it all simple again. To be at his side and the rest of Reality be damned. But I never broke a promise. The moment I did, I was nothing.
That was not a fate I could face.
I kept my own pain off my face. Kept my eyes cold, as though I were pronouncing death on some unknown mortal, instead of upon my closest friend and erstwhile lover.
I nodded. ‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘I’m afraid so. So how about we get this done?’
He sighed. ‘I’m not going to fight you, Rukh,’ he said. ‘Not the way you want me to.’ He glanced back at the tall woman who was holding Mako. ‘Give her here.’
‘I like Mako about as well as any of them,’ I said, as Exan took hold of his prisoner, ‘but if you think you can coerce me…’
‘Oh no,’ said Exan, shaking his head. ‘No, I know you better than that. I guess I just don’t particularly want to see this, Rukh. Not ashamed to admit it either.’ He paused, and there was something in his eyes, something fragile, precarious, a hurt that it hurt to see. ‘You know I loved you, once?’
That was an exaggeration. I had been his mentor and he had looked up to me. I was a woman. He had been young. A certain amount of lust had been inevitable… but love?
‘More fool you,’ I said aloud.
He winced, and then turned to his disciples. ‘Kill her,’ he said, and then turned walked away, Mako marched before him with the blade still at her throat.
He did not look back.