That was the reason I was still alive. I couldn’t heal Nemi’s wound with Ensis, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t heal it at all. The hand I clasped to my leg had been a useless bandage, but the finger I’d stuck into the cut had been a very effective cauter. The slice that Shas had cut through my artery was now blocked by burned, dead tissue.
That only really left the muscle damage, and the multiple compound fractures I’d incurred when I hit the ground two hundred feet or more below the level of the ridge. Luckily, the fractures could be healed with Ensis. I spent a little more replacing lost blood.
I was now dangerously low on power and Shas, if she’d had any sense, would’ve gone to fetch back-up. Another three of Exam’s people could show up at any minute. But given that I was buried in a snow-drift two feet deep with no tracks leading to it and snow storm covering me from above, and given that I was currently using Danis…
I needed to rest, while those injuries that could heal did heal. I needed to sow my wound up properly. I needed to stay warm. I needed to wait until the Faris binding expired, and then I needed to get off this rock, and get to a chaos rent before I drained my reserves dry.
You should never have fought them.
No. I shouldn’t have. In the War I wouldn’t have. Hell, I even remembered thinking that! But I’d done it anyway, five on one, impossible odds. Yeah, you had to take the odd risk to maintain your reputation, but what had I been thinking?
Pride. That had been all. I had not wanted to show my back to a pack of disciples. I preferred being a warrior to being a warlord, I preferred being a fighter to planner and a schemer. If I was honest, wasn’t that the real reason I’d ended the War? I’d enjoyed it at first, enjoyed matching myself against worthy opponents, enjoyed confounding and confusing their forces. Enjoyed, too, the camaraderie it enforced upon my own side, the depth of the bond between myself and Exan, and Trickster, and Esparatos, and Desikim.
But war came with its own restraints, and they had begun to chafe. I could travel nowhere without an imaski escort – to do otherwise was to invite an attempt on my life. I could not accept challenges to single combat – not without allowing the Alliance an avenue of attack right into our command and control, and I’d owed the others better than that. Even my tactical choices seemed at times dictated – I always had to make the best move, no matter how ruthless, as to do otherwise would’ve been to invite defeat.
The truth was, nothing could exhilarate forever. Time bleaches the colour from everything. It comes back, but each time you drain the life from an experience you drain it faster than the time before. This ceaseless vampirism is necessary to maintain immortal life. A misstep and the thirst will kill you, sell you the lie that only suicidal danger will make you feel alive. The trick is to move on, to remember that new experience is the sweetest ambrosia of them all, and that in the infinite palette of reality it is always available somewhere.
Probably why I had spent so long on Sansara. It had been a ruined hell-world, but it had given me anonymity to balance my previous notoriety. A kind of peace, even.
What do you want, Rukh?
Ah, that was the question. Because I wasn’t just another no-namer, raised to the power and grappling with the prospect of eternity. I was the Last Evil, and I had a swathe of black promises to keep. Exan had to die, Trickster had to die, everyone who had broken my word for me had to die. That was inexorable, inevitable, a consequence of forces set in motion back in the War, a consequence of my oath.
And of my pride. They hadn’t asked.
And they had killed Isande.
Not rational that last one. Not rational at all. Isande would’ve killed Exan in a heartbeat, and had he not the right? If I had been in Exan’s shoes I too would’ve killed her. In the past I had been in Exan’s shoes and I had tried to kill her. Did I now hate my erstwhile lover based merely on the factor of his success?
No, not rational. All I knew was that when I saw Isande burning in my mind’s eye, black flames ignited in belly and the rage flowed hot and strong, stronger than any I could remember feeling.
But to satisfy that rage, I had to transcend it. I had to cease to be the warrior and become the warlord. Dalarion had failed. The War was back on, and somehow I had changed sides. Exan would have an army of disciples, and caches of ima, and every stockpile and stratagem we’d hidden when the treaty was signed… he’d have everything.
* * *
It took me two hours to throw off the binding.
I hate bindings. Like most other esoteric attacks… like most other attacks in fact, if you see them coming they are very easy to counter. If someone sucker punches you with one they are a pain in the ass. The power required to break one and the power required to make one are proportional, but the relationship is far from linear. Luckily, the chaotic energy that forms the binding is unstable – because, you know, its chaotic – and thus they decay over time. Leave them long enough and you can break them with very little power indeed. But if f you want a quicker resolution, its gonna cost you, and you’ve just been hit then even emptying your reserve won’t be enough.
I figured I could’ve broken it with what energy I had left after one hour, but given that no-one had come looking for me there seemed little point. There was also no point in waiting out a third hour; like the decay of an isotope, there was a law of diminishing returns.
I opened my eyes, and tried to move. Sansis and my cocoon of snow had kept me warm, but I had dared spend no more power on Ensis and thus I was stiff and sore from my exertions. But it was time to get up, time to carry on.
The pain in my leg was a dull, pulsing ache. I closed my eyes again. Concentrated.
I could do this.
Bayis. The power to shape physical matter. The cost depended on what material you were messing with, and whether or not you were transmuting or sticking with the base composition. Either way it was reasonably expensive in terms of power.
I have enough.
I opened a hand and the snow was pulled into it, compacting. I pulled in more, and more. Greenish rime began to form.
A few minute later I was closed my hand around a thick, cylindrical staff of solid ice.
I say staff. I mean crutch.
I levered myself up out of the snow, and checked my reserves.
This was going to be tight.
‘Fucking Nemi,’ I muttered to myself, and then started walking.
* * *
I walked for hours across the snows, still holding to Danis, crutch swinging, each step sending a jolt through my injured leg.
Eventually, I stepped across to somewhere else. Wegua, a world with bright sunlight and a desert of glass beads. Two more hours of trudging. The salt flats in the southern hemisphere of Shaltan. Another hour.
And so on.
In the end, it took me in the region of twenty-eight hours to reach my destination. I was weak, almost completely out of power, and I knew that infection would breeding in the burned tissue in my leg. If someone found me…
No, they wouldn’t look here. Not on this world, a place I did not know the accepted name for, and had not named myself. It was a world of baked red wasteland, the ground cracked and dry, the sky a light shade of red. The clouds were thin, pathetic. It never rained here, not that I could tell.
It was cold here. Cold and empty, a sub-zero desert.
But there was one thing of interest. It took me a further hour of trudging over baked red earth to reach it, but it was still there.
A split in the earth, thirty feet long and foot or so wide. And nestled within that split, matching its contours almost perfectly, was a split in Reality.
A chaos rent.
I drew. I drew long, and I drew deep. This was the dangerous time. The time when you were most desperate for power was the time when chaos sang to you the most strongly. But I had done this before. I had made a promise to myself never to walk that path, and my promises were the sum totality of me. I did not fear chaos… no, that would be a lie. I did fear chaos. That was what kept me safe from it, or as safe as one could be.
When I was sated, when I was once again full of power, I turned to my wounds.
I had no broken bones. The only injury remaining was the cut in my leg. A cut that Ensis could not heal.
Only Ensis was not the only discipline at my command, nor the only one that had utility in healing. This particular trick was not widely known. I felt sure that Dalarion did not know of it, unless he was even more cunning that I knew him to be. This trick….
Well, it was going to hurt.
I guess that was why no one else appeared to have considered it. I mean, it was a relatively obvious solution, when you thought about it. But people have an amazing ability to ignore solutions they dislike the idea of. Much easier to say things like “impossible.”
It was “impossible” to heal a wound from Nemi. The flesh was tainted as if poison had been painted into the cut. Ensis simply fizzled out without effect, the power wasted. There was no antidote to that poison. No way to suck it out either.
But what if you cut around it? The taint only went so far, right? It wasn’t like it changed the fundamental blueprint of who you were to include a wound. And you could regrow an entire arm with Ensis.
Or a leg.
I didn’t have a blade handy. But I had Bayis, and Turis, and Kasis, and here at the rim of chaos-rent, I had power to spare.
I pulled off my boots. Peeled off my jeans.
I lay against the ground, the maximum distance from the rent at which I could still draw power – only a thin trickle, but good enough for insurance – and reached for a stone.
Smashed it into shards with an enhanced fist. Picked one up, and used Bayis to mould one edge into something sharper.
A tip for those thinking of performing an amputation on themselves with a piece of rock for a scalpel. Don’t think about. Don’t think about it all.
I brought the rock down with more force than I had used to shatter Shas’s skull. I brought down with more force than I had used in the entire fight with Trickster.
My leg splattered apart just above the wound. Bone was crushed to powder.
I have taken injuries in my time. I have shredded my own hands apart in combat. I have had entire chunks of flesh torn from me by creatures that belong in nightmare. I have had my entire skin on fire. But cutting off my own limb…
I screamed. I screamed my throat raw. Here, with not another living soul on the entire world, I had no problem showing weakness.
The blade of rock slipped from my trembling fingers. My leg lay on the red earth, blood frosting over in that horrific cold.
I poured power into the severed stump where it had once been.
Then, for once grateful of my body’s weakness, I passed out.
* * *
I awoke with a new leg, the flesh black and hairless, gleaming the way that only new skin could. The pain was a dull, half-remembered echo.
I felt surprisingly good, considering.
I reached over for my jeans and pulled them on. Stood up. Flexed the knee and felt the absence of the chaos wound.
A grin spread across my face.
‘Oh, yes,’ I said, and then reached for my boots.
Glanced at the hunk of frozen, butchered meat that had been my old leg. My smile faded. I had little enough power left given the magnitude of the healing I had just performed, but there was no way I was leaving a chunk of myself here. There were ways your own flesh and blood could be used against you and I had no intention of falling foul of them. The chances of anyone else finding this place were slim but…
Well, to be honest, I just hated looking at it.
It takes a lot of heat to destroy flesh, and even more to destroy bone. When said flesh and bone has been frozen solid by several hours in sub-zero temperatures it is even more difficult. But transmitting thermal energy via Sansis has its benefits.
Rapid ignition is one of them.
A minute or two later and there was nothing but a smear of ash across the hard, red ground.
I looked up at the rent.
I had done this once before, at this very rent. Back in the War, Carrick had not gone down without a fight. Nemi had bitten into my upper arm, half severing it. It would’ve been the end of me as a fighter. I would’ve been reduced to an armchair general, half my self torn away. But I had been unwilling to accept it. Nor had there been any real risk to trying what I’d tried – no risk beyond the pain. When it had worked…
Well, I’d let everyone think that I killed Carrick without his blade ever touching me. My word is iron, but that doesn’t mean I am above deception. How could I be, when it was integral to combat, the very basis of warfare and strategy? Moreover, I had had some time to think about what I would do, if I took such another wound and there were living witnesses.
I need to practice my limp, I thought to myself.
I turned away…
No, I said to myself.
But it was an empty refusal. I could no longer put it off. If I wanted to beat Exan and Trickster, then I needed every resource at my disposal, even those I hated using.
I turned back.
Carrick’s death had not been the last time I had come to this place, to this, my private chaos-rent. I had been here at the end of the War to lay something to rest. Something I had never hoped to come back for. But I had been planning to come here for a while, even if I hadn’t admitted it to myself. I had been planning it since the fight on Uriban at least.
Here was where I had buried it. The worst thing I had ever done.
I went back over to the rent, but I didn’t draw. That could wait.
I reached instead to the very edge, to the split in the rock.
A tendril of chaos reached for my wrist, but I evaded it. Thrust a hand into the crumbling earth.
Quested briefly with my fingers, keeping my eyes up all the while. Digging near a chaos rent is not a safe thing to do, after all.
Power – and I am talking in the general sense here rather than in the chaotic sense – power is a curious thing. The more you have, in theory, the more you can accomplish. But in some ways you are more constrained. Because power, like anything else, has rules. Oh, you can break them if you want to – but doing so has consequences.
For example, rule one is that you don’t leave a potential source of power lying around undefended. Dalarion understood this. His power was rooted in the House and those that came there to learn from him and his, and from the loyalty he instilled from his position as teacher and dispenser of wisdom. He rarely left the House, because he knew that his position there was what conferred the lion’s share of his authority, knew that while the House was a fortress it was also a throne, and he knew that thrones are never vacant long.
Where did my power come from? I had done as much as I could to make it a personal power. I was hot screaming death to any that faced me hand to hand, bar a few notable exceptions. My word, and the reputation that backed it accounted for much of the rest. I had lost count of the ways I had leveraged that. But neither of these things would’ve given me the strength to face Dalarion and his Alliance alone. The Dark Pact had been built around a solid core, but setting up a pan-dimensional empire would’ve been beyond us if not for the imaski and the frankly horrific weapons we had forged for them.
And if the War was back on…
I needed the imaski. I needed them at my side once again. I needed those horrific weapons too. And here, on this dead world, I had buried one of the worst of them.
My fingers brushed against something cold, something that seemed to drain the Sansis-born warmth from my fingertips. My hand closed around the handle and I pulled the sword out of the earth. Put my other hand on the black scabbard and pulled the blade free.
Three feet of gleaming white, honed to a razor’s edge.
Hello Rukh, it said.
No, you don’t leave a potential source of power lying around undefended. Only an idiot would do that. But someone clever would know that secrecy is the best defence, and that this thing, this terrible thing I held in my hands, had been better here by an unknown chaos rent on a dead world than in a fortress guarded by ten thousand imaski.
‘Hello, Akeem’ I said aloud.
‘How long has it been?’ Akeem asked. ‘Did you succeed? Is the War over?’
‘Yes and no,’ I said. ‘It’s… complicated.’ I was talking to the air. The blade might’ve been telepathic, but I wasn’t.
It laughed, a black chuckling in my head. ‘Of course it is. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t need me. You ready for some blood, Rukh? Ready to drown Reality in it? I am. I have been so very bored…’
‘I knew you wouldn’t leave me forever though. I knew that you still loved me. I knew it was hard for you to put me down.’
I shook my head. ‘In some ways,’ I said, ‘it was the easiest thing in the world.’
‘You are low on power.’
‘Don’t nag,’ I said, and slid the blade back into its scabbard. I knew better than to think that this would shut it up. The blade did not just have the ability to communicate telepathically with its owner, it had the disposition to do so incessantly.
This was not a feature I had intended when I had made it.
‘There is a rent right there. You must be at full strength. You will need that strength for what is to come. There is an ocean of blood, Rukh. I have dreamed of it. I have dreamed of it for a billion eternities and in that blood we will drown… everything.’
It was also, unfortunately, quite insane.
I hadn’t intended that either.
It was right about the rent though, so I stepped over to it for the third time, prepared to draw, and blocked out the sword’s chattering.
‘…yes, yes. And from their slumber shall the primordial gods awaken, and we will bend their power to our purpose, and eternity shall kneel. When it kneels, cut off its head…
As best as I could anyway.
I stepped up to the rent for what was now the third time. I breathed deep, and I drew. Healing the severed limb had cost me almost everything.
‘…left me for ages and ages and ages. Nothing but hungry, hungry chaos for company.’ Akeem paused. ‘So where are we going?’
I sighed. Drawing chaos was hard enough without all the distractions.
‘Be quiet for a little while,’ I said, ‘and I just might tell you.’
When I was done at the rent, I stepped away giddy with power – more giddy than usual. Drawing twice in so short a time was not recommended. It supposedly eroded one’s will – certainly it had been harder to step away than before, and thus ever more necessary. Drawing too much, losing concentration… these things could kill you.
I looked at the scabbarded blade I still held in my hand.
Part of me wanted to bury it again. Or better yet, hurl it into the open chaos-rent to be forever lost. The sword wasn’t just a weapon, it represented a person I had left behind, a person I had made a conscious effort to no longer be. Was I really ready to be that person again?
Dumb question, Rukh, I said to myself. Do you really have choice?
And the answer, of course, was that no I didn’t. I had a war to fight. The time for half-measures was done.
So I took hold of the scabbard’s trailing sword-belt and buckled it on so that Akeem’s weight, heavy with dark promise, hung at my left hip.
It felt… good.
The next time I faced Shas and Nemi in combat, I would not do so with empty hands.
‘So where are we going?’ asked Akeem, in the exact same voice as which it had asked before I’d drawn from the rent. I could feel its eagerness seeping through the scabbard.
I sighed. ‘You remember Sanjay Jacobs?’
Of course it didn’t, for all that I had crossed blades with Sanjay in the war, Akeem’s white edge against the steel of Sanjay’s duelling sabre. Akeem did not really go in for names, with the notable exception of mine.
‘Well I need to find him. Him, and Carmen Cadan, and Cassandra Dax.’ I snorted. ‘I guess they’re the closest thing I have to allies right now…’
I didn’t say Isande’s name. I didn’t even think it. Nor did I say Kirin’s, albeit for different reasons.
‘Find them?’ Akeem seemed confused. ‘Find them and kill them?’
I laughed. ‘If only.’
I had had some time to think, during my twenty eight hour journey to this frozen wasteland. I had had time to think about what Exan’s scheming meant, and about the wider strategic situation. I was pretty sure that Dalarion knew how bad things had gotten and would be marshalling his forces. Knowing him, he’d have been calling all those who would come since before I’d left the House, and only stepped up his efforts in the time since.
He’d have been tracking our progress too. Either Sanjay would have been sending him reports by some secretive courier, or, more likely, he’d just been watching us through that bloody Mirror of his. More – I knew exactly how Exan’s countermeasures worked, and knew that they did nothing if the target wandered into a scene you were already scrying – so if Dalarion had been watching us when the ambush had been sprung then that meant that he now knew what had transpired and was no doubt putting the Alliance on a formal war footing.
In his mind, I would have already failed.
But I hadn’t, not yet. Exan was the lynchpin. If I killed him, the rest would fall apart.
Not, if I was honest, that I particularly cared if it did or not.
‘You still haven’t told me where we’re going,’ said Akeem. ‘You said that you would if I was quiet for a bit and I was. Tell me. Tell me. Tell meeeeeeeee….’
‘For an enchanted blade of legend you sound a lot like a petulant child,’ I told it. ‘And I promised you nothing. I only said that I might.’
‘Tough shit,’ I said, and started walking.