There were six distinct possibilities as to where the others had headed from Curia, six different transitions available at this juncture of the way, all miles apart. I knew better than to expect any tracks – not only was the ice sheet a poor medium for holding tracks, but even if the others had been in too much of a hurry to mask their trail, there was no way that Esparatos would have been. The man had been a legendary hunter on his home world before being raised to power – covering his tracks was second nature to him and he would have not have let the others’ sign stand when it could point to his own destination.
I scanned the ground as I approached the way, no longer skimming but walking on my own two feet, muscles warm from my long run. I had half-hoped that Shas would have been more careless, but it seemed that Exan had trained her well.
And though she was young, she had fought in the war. The more prosaic arts of a stealthy journey had been drilled deep into all the participants, Alliance and Dark Pact alike. Those who had failed to heed the lesson had been culled from the ranks by those on the other side that had taken it to heart.
Survival of the fittest, and all that.
Not that there weren’t occasions when a trail was an acceptable risk. My passage across Curia’s ice sheet, for example, was in no way obscured – it pointed after me as clear as an arrow – but I intended to be long gone before anyone got around to following it.
The others had been working to a different strategic calculus.
There was no real way to know for sure where they had gone. Idigan’s intelligence ended at the point where Esparatos had gone on alone.
I tried to put myself in the mind of my quarry.
What would Sanjay Jacobs do?
I had no doubt that he would have taken command. Carmen was no warrior, despite her pretensions to the contrary, Cass was just a disciple, and Kiren would neither wish to lead nor expect to be followed.
No, Sanjay would be the one whose decisions would guide them.
At my hip Akeem continued to mutter more bloodthirsty nonsense about the death of the universe and the slaughter of all life. I let it chatter on, and did my best to tune it out and think.
At the end of the day, Sanjay would do whatever he thought Dalarion would want him to do. That was the principle about which he had built his entire existence. He would think me dead, a prisoner, or in league with Exan. He would know that the War was back on.
That would leave him with two real options. Take his meagre forces and attempt to do some damage – maybe circle back and try and keep contact with Exan, track him without being tracked in turn, perhaps rescue Mako if he hadn’t already given up hope in that regard.
Or crawl back to the House, tail between his legs.
Sanjay, despite his ability to do a good impression of a pompous idiot, was not stupid. Mot the greatest of intellects, mind, but not stupid. And he was a decent soldier. He would know that Carmen, Cass and Kiren were not suited for any specialist, behind-enemy-lines operations. He would fear, perhaps quite rightly, that Exan had already set in motion the kind of large scale conquests of mortal civilisations that the Dark Pact had mobilised in the past. He would want to co-ordinate with the rest of the Alliance, make sure that Dalarion knew what was going on and could organise an appropriate response…
In other words, crawling back to the House, tail between his legs, would be exactly what he would do.
Given what he knew and the resources at his disposal, it was probably even the right choice.
Of course, he didn’t know that Esparatos was following him.
His shortest, most direct route back to the House led through the ways to Osha. No guarantee that he had taken it – he might have detoured again in order to throw of pursuit, but I didn’t think so. There would be a psychological appeal to getting home and safe as fast as possible, and he would want to trust that his flight across the surface of Curia would have been enough to deal with any possible pursuit.
There was also danger in delay. He would not want to assume that Dalarion had had a good fix on us with the Mirror. He would fear the possibility that his lord and master was twiddling his thumbs back in the House, thinking we were all still a unified force rather than broken and divided, thinking that Exan was a lone violator of the treaty rather than the leader of a resurgent Dark Pact. In Sanjay’s mind, arriving too late might be as bad as not arriving at all…
The third reason he would have picked Osha was the most compelling – the way continued from there to a number of new worlds, three of which were viable options for a speedy return to the House. Even if he thought himself still pursued, he would have backed himself to stay ahead of his pursuers long enough to make his next transition. If he had reached that transition, then even Esparatos, famed tracker that he was, would have had trouble following. Hell, he could even have split his group to double or triple the chances of one of them making it back…
Osha. They went through Osha.
There was no longer any doubt in my mind.
Of course, once I got to Osha I would have a devil of a time figuring out where to go next, but that was a problem for another day.
For the moment I was more worried about how far behind them I was.
I glanced up at the night sky. Four and half days we’d been apart now. I doubted they had skimmed their way across ice sheet – from my own journey I knew that there was no way to avoid leaving a trail of broken ice behind you and they had left no such sign of their passage. At a lighter run, perhaps with a bit of Turis to keep them moving, they might have managed the crossing in as little as two days, which left me two and a half days behind…
Unless, of course, Esparatos had already killed them all. He was certainly capable of doing so.
I shrugged to myself. Only one way to find out.
* * *
I emerged out into the jungle of Osha’s southern hemisphere, the heat and humidity a stark contrast to the clear, freezing air on the Curia side. The vegetation lay thick around me, trees with black bark and dark green leaves, ferns that rose to my waist, stinking, steaming vines that crawled round trunk and root alike. There was path ahead, little more than a narrow trail of trodden earth.
I moved along it, careful not to disturb the plants around me.
A dozen paces along I spotted it – a fern that leant over the path, its fronds curled, wilting. The tip of it was broken, hanging from its parent plant by a fibrous thread.
I smiled. The direction of the break was my first clear indicator – someone had passed this way, and recently.
‘You see the broken plant? You see it?’
‘Hush,’ I said, my voice little more than a whisper
Akeem ignored me. ‘Someone went this way. Let’s find them and kill them.’
‘Depending on who it is,’ I told it, ‘I might do just that. Now shut up.’
I had to assume I was in hostile territory now. I hated to do it, but this jungle was an ambusher’s dream, and I didn’t fancy getting sucker-punched with Sansis by a hidden enemy. Moving with appropriate stealth was going to cost me time, but it wasn’t like the ice plains of Curia where I could see any threat coming from miles away. It was time to take measures.
With some reluctance I moved off the path and into green forest of ferns that lay on either side of it. Engaged Danis.
Tried to ignore the seething sensation in my chest as my power rebelled at the suppression.
* * *
Four hours later I was ready to scream.
It wasn’t the heat or humidity – I had endured worse in my time and shifting thermal energy out of my skin and into the ground beneath me was something I could do without expending power. Occasionally I shifted it through the air to fry an insect before it could land on me, but that was as much for my amusement as to avoid a bite. I was an old friend of both pain and discomfort, and I took a certain pride in my ability to ignore them when it was necessary.
Even holding to Danis wasn’t the issue. True, the longer you held to it the worse it felt, but in the end that too was just a feeling. There were no real consequences to holding to it forever, or least none I’d ever heard of.
No, what was killing me was the slowness of it all.
I could practically feel the lead the others had on me widening. I wanted to be tearing through this jungle the way I’d torn across Curia. I could’ve been at the end of the this section of the way in thirty minutes if I used Turis to increase my speed.
There was even an argument that a faster pace would be safer – speed was its own form of defence, after all. If there were any of Exan’s people on Osha there was a strong chance I could blast past them before they had time to register I was even here…
But as entertaining as this fantasy was, it was just that, a fantasy. Because in all my four hours of picking through the jungle, I had yet to figure out where Sanjay and the others were heading next, or see any new sign of their passage. Racing to the next transition would do me no good until I decided which transition that was.
At the moment I was holding a neutral course, but in the next few minutes I would have to pick, or stop an wait until I had picked. The distance between the various options was comparatively small but switching between them would waste valuable time…
Of course, I could always just head back to the House myself and ask Dalarion for help.
I’d rather drink a pint of acid.
Besides, I didn’t have much faith that the others would survive if I did that, and I needed them to survive. Particularly Kiren.
I wanted to kill him myself, after all.
I smiled to myself at the thought, and then immediately froze.
Dropped into a crouch.
Voices. Up ahead.
And, just like that, the four hours of creeping through the jungle, trying not to disturb the wildlife and pushing plants carefully aside so as not to damage them had been completely and utterly worth it.
‘…says she can take them herself at any time. But the window is closing, apparently.’ Shas’s voice, the tone hurried, as if she was eager to please.
That was young people for you. Always trying to prove themselves.
‘You will tell her to do as Exan asked her to do, and wait,’ came the reply.
My heart pumped red rage as I heard it. Anger was leaking into me like blood from a wound, and there was a wound. A kind of hurt that somehow went beyond Exan’s betrayal, beyond Trickster’s betrayal. Trickster had the excuse of being insane. Exan had always chafed under my leadership to some extent, always sought to surpass me the way I had sought to surpass Dalarion… and more than that he was something of an equal. His treachery had hurt, all the more so considering the source, but it had least had a kind of symmetry about it.
But Tollan Esparatos? How many times had I saved his life? How many times had he sworn undying loyalty to me and my cause? What had there ever been that could justify this? We had had no romantic relationship to turn sour, no master-pupil dynamic to be twisted, we had simply been friends. Tollan Esparatos hadn’t joined the Dark Pact for wealth or power or the joy of the fight, he had joined because had asked him to.
His voice was blade in my back, for all that Idigan had warned me.
I am alone.
‘She is becoming overconfident in her new abilities,’ Esparatos continued. ‘Sanjay Jacobs is an unimaginative man but a skilled warrior. He duelled both Exan and Rukh in the War and survived both times. Nor is he alone.’
‘She says you are welcome to join in.’
A sigh. ‘We will, when the time is right,’ said Esparato.
A snort from Shas. ‘She won’t be happy.’
‘Believe it or not, Shas, my mission is not to make Trickster happy. If it was, I would be blowing open chaos rents or eating the hearts of little children, or something else demented and evil. You tell her that she either sticks to the plan and waits for Rukh to show up, or she can forget about our help with anything. Understand?’
‘…says she can take them herself at any time…’
Trickster was involved here? Well, I’d suspected she’d been with us on Uriban but clearly she’d followed… of course she had.
I felt like a fool. I’d assumed that she would have gone to Exan and warned him, but of course, he’d already known. They’d assumed the Alliance would send for me, or I for them, put that trap in place at the Temple, been ready when I fought my way clear from it.
Trickster had tracked us the whole way, then. Had communicated with Exan by courier – probably some disciple – to set up the ambush on Altain…
Why hadn’t Idigan mentioned her? I hadn’t sensed that he was holding anything back, but I was all too aware that I was fallible.
Or he didn’t see her.
Had she broken contact then? Only re-joined Esparatos later? Or had she been following from further back?
“…overconfident in her new abilities…”
Yes, that line had worried me. The idea of Trickster gathering any more power or proficiency to herself was not a happy one. The woman had no mental or moral limits at all. She would do things that any sane person lacked the capacity to consider.
Probably why Esparatos was assisting her. She’d always needed some sort of leash.
‘I understand,’ said Shas with a sigh. ‘But she isn’t the easiest person in the world to talk to.’
Esparatos made a retching sound in the back of his throat – the avian equivalent of a snort. ‘If you have a problem acting as our go between,’ he said, ‘then perhaps you shouldn’t have let Rukh get away. It is, after all, your fault that we have to wait.’
‘I’m telling you,’ said Shas, ‘I cut her femoral artery open. She’s dead.’
Esparatos let out a short, humourless laugh. ‘If you believe that then you’re more of a fool than I thought. She beat you, Shas. She killed four of your companions and made her escape. You say you gave her a wound with Nemi and I believe you… but until we’ve seen her body she is not dead. Even then, I would make sure.’
‘Oh come on! She’s not that tough.’
‘Yes, that’s right,’ said Esparatos sarcastically. ‘She is worshiped as a god on a dozen worlds and feared as the devil on a thousand more because she is a weakling. That’s her secret.’ A pause, and then another sigh. ‘Go back to Trickster,’ he said, suddenly weary. ‘Tell her what I said. Then go and give Exan his update. You can check back in with me tomorrow.’
‘You think you’re so fucking clever. There’s no guarantee she’ll show up, even if she is alive. She might have gone to the House or…’
A smack, as of a feathered fist hitting flesh. I heard Shas stumbling, saw the ferns ahead rustle with sudden movement.
‘Sometimes I think you forget who you are talking to,’ said Esparatos.
The sound of a blade sliding from its scabbard. ‘You fucking…’
‘Put that away.’ Esparatos’s voice was flat, dangerous. ‘If you cannot handle a little discipline then by all means go crawling back to your sensei and complain. But if you come at me with that blade then I will kill you.’
‘Better,’ said Esparatos after a moment. ‘Now, have a little think about which of us know Helena Rukh the best, hmm? Her only options are to re-join the others or to return to Dalarion for help, and that she will not do. She will prefer almost anything to that, perhaps even death and defeat.’ A pause. ‘Now go.’
‘He says such lovely things about you,’ whispered Akeem. ‘Let’s kill him. Please?’
I didn’t reply. I just waited, breath held and utterly silence, as Shas shouldered her way through the ferns. She passed within about two feet of me, making no effort at stealth. I could see her horned head and shoulders above the tops of the ferns, could read the anger and the near-adolescent shame in her face.
Serves you right, I thought. You should have known better than to fuck with Esparatos.
I had no doubt that he would indeed have killed her if she’d pushed the issue. She might have had Nemi, but Esparatos never went anywhere unarmed. And while the weapon he carried could not inflict wounds that did not heal, it was still an ima and it had properties of its own.
Akeem’s weight at my hip was a solid reassurance, the anticipation that bled through the scabbard for once a mirror to my own. I would let Shas go. I would wait until she was far along the trail, wait until I was sure she had transitioned to wherever it was she was going…
Then I would settle my business with Tollan Esparatos.
I would have a limited window, or had to assume I had a limited window. Shas had gone past me which meant that she was heading either for Tosta, a world with uncomfortably high gravity but a decent number of onward connections, or back to Curia.
And if she went back to Curia there was a risk she would see the trail I had made while skimming – I had slowed down as I approached the transition but if she headed back towards the way that led to Altain…
A small risk. Maybe forty percent. But if she saw it she would come running back to Esparatos.
I planned to have finished him by then.
“I will be true to you so long as you are true to me.”
Tollan Esparatos had broken his word. It was time he paid for it.
* * *
It was a tense few hours. I passed the time straining my ears, concerned that Esparatos would move on and I would lose him in the jungle. Concerned, also, that he might have somehow divined my presence during his conversation with Shas and by means of covert signal sent her looping round behind me.
But Nemi’s irresistible edge did not cleave my head from my shoulders, and I heard no sound to indicate that Esparatos had moved on.
Judging that the time was right, I crept forward through the ferns.
Spotted him almost immediately.
He was waiting in a small clearing, his back to one of the black-barked trees. He looked identical to when I had last seen him – grey feathered plumage, battledress uniform in muted greens that matched our surroundings, the crack in his beak that he refused to repair with Ensis despite his ability to do so. He sat in a pose of almost studied relaxation, the ankle of his right leg resting upon his left knee, eyes closed. His weapon, Laya, was propped up next to him. Moisture glistened on the gunmetal.
I was unable to halt the rush of warmth I felt as I saw him. The sight of an old friend not seen for too long.
I crushed the feeling.
He was unware of me. This was good. But it meant I had a choice to make.
I had one free shot. That was a hell of a thing, all by itself. It was impossible to block or dodge if you didn’t know the attack was coming. I could do to Esparatos what Exan had done to Isande – hit him with enough Sansis that he burned, enough that the very air around him caught fire with desperately shed heat.
Or I could use Faris. There was only really only one offensive move in the entire discipline, but it was an important one. A binding, such as Exan had thrown over me during the ambush at Altain. He would be unable to escape, would have to fight me…
I felt the urge for a fight. All this sneaking around had put me in the mood.
‘Yes,’ whispered Akeem
On the other hand, Sansis did seem like the obvious choice. But the way he was sat he would be able to shed a lot through the tree and through the ground beneath him. I would only get a second, maybe, where the power poured into him unchecked.
I could wipe myself out, trying to burn him dead in that time.
Rationalizations, Rukh? I asked myself.
Yes. It would cost in power, but there was no sense in doing anything else. I could not pick my strategies based on personal whims, not anymore. And while it would be hard to kill him outright with Sansis, I didn’t actually need him dead anyway, not yet. Quite the contrary. What I needed was to wound him badly enough that he had to spend all his power on Ensis, get him at my mercy. Then I could find out from him where the others were, by torture if necessary.
He deserved a little torture, far as I was concerned.
Then I would kill him.
Slowly, I raised a hand.
‘You’re no fun at all,’ complained Akeem.
Then I remembered.
Esparatos had been born on a world called Belia. He had lived somewhere in the northern hemisphere of said world, in a country of trees and grass and burbling streams. He had grown up in a small tribal unit, learned to feed himself and his family by hunting. Had joined the military of whatever nation state his tribe had paid allegiance to, fought many prosaic wars, become ever more proficient in woodcraft and scouting and small group tactics.
Had encountered one of our kind, another Belian, someone he still refused to name. Been raised to the power, been a disciple, then not a disciple.
Killed his former sensei for reasons he had never divulged, not even to me.
Uncountable years had passed since his humble origins, but Esparatos had not changed, not really. Grown perhaps. Become more concentrated, more… himself. But from the day he’d earned his name in the manhood rights of his tribe to this, now, the ever-present present, he had always been, quintessentially, a hunter….
I thought, very hard, about what I was about to do.
On Belia, there is a type of fish that hunts by remaining perfectly still. It sits on the streambed, pebbly skin disguising it among the rocks so that it appears to be a rock itself. The flow of the water through its craggy gills is enough to allow it to breathe while motionless. It waits and waits. The moss and weed take root in the folds of its flesh and flourish. It becomes part of the scenery. Other fish come close by and nibble the weed from its skin, and still it does nothing.
Its prey is a hunter of a different sort. A predator fish, large and muscular. This fish comes along the stream with all the arrogance of the strong. It swishes its tail and the other fish scatter. It sets its sight on one, and prepares to strike.
It never notices the rock-fish. Not until it’s too late. The rock-fish moves, sudden, just as the predator commits to the strike. The predator has no hope of dodging. The rock-fish tears into its belly. The predator thrashes, frenzied.
The rock-fish eats enough to last it many days. Moves on. Finds another spot in which to settle.
I know this not because of any fascination with the various ecosystems of Belia. I know this because one night around a fire, Esparatos shared this story with me in response to a seemingly unrelated question. The rock-fish was the most perfect hunter in Reality, or so he said. It was small, and unassuming, but it no-one had ever known it miss. Most predators balanced a single successful kill against many, many failures. But the rock-fish never failed. The key to its success, Esparatos had declared, were its camouflage, its stillness, its timing, and its knowledge of its target – the qualities that all the greatest hunters strove to master.
The rock-fish was known, on Belia at least, as an “esparatos.”
All thoughts of Sansis fled from my head. I reached for Faris instead.
‘Yes!’ hissed Akeem.
As I suspected, the binding settled for a moment, and then immediately broke.
Esparatos opened his eyes.
I stood up out of the ferns, releasing Danis. Moved towards him with my now well-practiced limp. I kept it subtle, as if it was something I was trying to hide rather than something I was trying to show. Time would tell if he bought it.
‘Hey,’ I said to him. ‘Out of curiosity, when did you realize I was there?’
His beak cracked open a little, and he let out a soft laugh. ‘You made a slight noise when you closed the approach.’ He cocked his head, thinking. ‘A couple of minutes ago, perhaps?’
I smiled, but inside my heart was racing.
I had just come very close to dying. If I’d hit him with Sansis I would have used an awful lot of power. If he’d been ready, he could have deflected it right back at me before it had even begun to cross the distance between us. I’d have been the one caught off guard. No way could I have shed that much power in time.
Close. So very close.
‘Thought so,’ I said.
There was an awkward pause. Esparatos did not reach for his weapon, but I saw his eyes flicker, ever so briefly, to the scabbard at my hip. He would know what it contained.
‘Since we’re in the spirit of satisfying one another’s curiosity,’ he said, ‘how long had you been there?’
I shrugged. There was no real reason to deny him. ‘Since before Shas left,’ I said.
Another pause, both longer and more awkward. We both knew what this was building towards. Akeem’s bloodlust was as strong as I’d ever felt it. But my will to fight had ebbed. There was little savour to this task now.
Of course, that didn’t change the fact that it needed to be done.
‘Aren’t you going to ask me?’ he said, after a moment.
I raised an eyebrow. ‘You want me to?’
A shrug. ‘It is expected, in these situations.’
I spread my hands. ‘I went through all of this with Exan,’ I told him. ‘I don’t need to go through it again. So no, I’m not going to ask you. What matters is what you’ve done, not why you’ve done it. You broke your oath. I just listened to you reprimanding a disciple for not killing me. I know who’s side you’re on, and it isn’t mine. So why the fuck would I ask you?’
He inclined his head. ‘I don’t suppose you’d consider breaking the treaty yourself? Coming over to our side?’
At that I just laughed. He knew how ludicrous an idea that was. Without my word, I was nothing.
‘Ah well,’ he said. ‘I just never imagined you joining the Alliance.’
A million answers to that. That I hadn’t joined the Alliance, that I was merely, for the moment, on their side of things. That it was rich to throw accusations of treachery given what he himself had done. That I knew a cheap meant-to-wound shot when I heard it, that it was more an admission of his guilt than any mark against me.
But I gave none of these answers. My temporary reluctance was evaporating, my earlier anger resurgent. And I had no need to explain myself to him, not now that he was, by his own admission both my enemy and a confirmed traitor.
‘Shall we?’ I asked him, and put a hand on my sword. ‘Or are you planning to run?’
He didn’t answer. He just stood up and reached for Laya.
I drew Akeem.
‘Oh yes,’ said the sword. ‘Oh I’ve been waiting for this!’
‘You and me both,’ I said under my breath. ‘You and me both.’