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Esparatos’s weapon, Laya, looked like a hunting rifle. Sleek gunmetal, glistening with freshly applied oil. A machined scope, the settings no doubt just as Esparatos wanted them. A polished walnut stock.
His feathered fingers closed around even as I closed the distance, and he spun around with a vicious, full armed swing…
…and I was slapping away the tip of the razored metal whip he now held, parrying it off to the side with Akeem’s flat, dipping the blade so as not to let him tangle it up and wrench it from my hand…
And the whip was gone and Esparatos was thrusting a long spear right at my chest so I stepped back, but now he had a pistol and I dodged desperately to the side as he fired…
Laya wasn’t a hunting rifle. It wasn’t a whip, or a spear, or a nine millimetre handgun. It was all of these things, all at the same time, whatever weapon Esparatos needed in the moment, shifting form in the flicker of a thought. It had its limitations – like all ima, its store of chaotic energy was finite and each change of form drained its reserve, as did each use of projectile ammunition. But these limitations were unlikely to help me during the fight – I had no doubt that both Laya and Esparatos himself were fresh from a chaos-rent, their reserves as close to maximum as to make no difference.
Making ima was hardly an exact science. It took an immense effort of will and required working in the proximity of a rent for far longer than was advisable. There was no guarantee of how the process would come out – each one I myself had made had ended up rather different to what I’d envisioned. Only a fool expected repeatable outcomes from the forces of chaos. If it were otherwise, no doubt all of Reality would be toting replicas of Nemi.
Esparatos, however, had succeeded in making something truly masterful.
I slashed at him and the pistol became a short cutlass, knocking Akeem off line, then a quarterstaff that drove my blade down while the other end powered towards my head.
I caught it with my off hand, and suddenly I was holding a wickedly hooked glaive by the bladed end and Esparatos ripped it out of my hand in a welter of blood. I back-stepped, fingers of my left hand hanging useless, and the glaive became a shotgun levelled at my chest.
The ground around me erupted as I shed the force of the blast, pellets rattling off my Kasis-hardened chest like raindrops. Soil was raining down around me and I went for him under the cover it provided, Ensis working on the severed tendons of my hand, coiling them back down from inside my arm, re-joining the sinews. I lunged out of the rain of mud and dead plant matter but Esparatos was no fool – he’d rolled back around the bole of a black barked tree and my sword found only air.
Akeem snarled in frustration.
I circled round the trunk and Akeem clanged off the metal haft of the axe Esparato swung at my head. He wrenched it down to open my guard and then punched forward with a longsword. I voided my body so instead of impaling me the strike only gashed my shoulder and for one second I was inside his guard.
He danced back in a flurry of quick steps, recovering from his over-extension with impressive speed. Akeem’s tip left a line of pink blood under his eye.
‘Just a nick,’ said the sword, with profound dissatisfaction.
I grinned. ‘First blood,’ I said.
Esparatos didn’t answer. Laya became a rapier in his hands and he flicked the point at me, lightning fast. I answered with a stop thrust and he was forced to retreat around the tree. I followed and he came back and me with a long, hooked, almost semi-circular blade, the tip ripping for my kidney.
And the tree exploded. I mean it literally. One minute it was there, a pillar of black wood shielding Esparato’s off-hand, denying me space on my right side, and the next it was an expanding cloud of foot-long splinters.
Turis. He must have used his free hand to smash it…
I had no time to get out of the way. I felt something stab through me, once, twice, three times all together.
Glanced down. I had three spears of broken wood sticking from my chest. It hurt to breathe.
The crown of the tree crashed down to the side of me. I could see Esparatos on the other side of the shattered stump, utterly unhurt. There was an assault rifle in his hands.
I dove for cover behind another tree as he cut loose. Felt the pulse of Sansis he sent after me, thew it back and heard the crackle of flame as it hit something – too much to hope it was Esparatos. It had been a weak pulse to start, one he must’ve know I would deflect.
Why he had even…
The Faris binding settled on me.
Oh, Esparatos, you sneaky motherfucker…
That’s why he’d thrown the Sansis. Thrown it so I would throw it back. So that he, like the rock-fish that was his namesake, could strike me in the moment I struck, when my attention was committed and I could not defend. I’d not even seen the Faris binding coming and now…
Now there was no escape.
‘Don’t you think you’re getting a little over confident?’ I yelled at him, from the cover of the tree. ‘You think I’m going to run from you?’
My bravura was slightly ruined my the cough the followed it. A quart of blood spilled from my mouth in its wake.
I heard him laugh. ‘You have a veritable forest growing out of your sternum, Rukh,’ he said. ‘So yes, I feel I have the advantage.’
I didn’t answer. I was pulling the splinters from my chest, each one agony to remove, each doing more damage coming out than it had going in. I burned power like it was going out of style – I couldn’t afford a slow heal. If I lost function…
‘This is taking too long,’ said Akeem. ‘Let’s kill him.’
The sword wasn’t much for strategy, but it was right that I was running out of time. Esparatos would already be flanking me, lining up his shot. If he got it I wouldn’t even hear the bullet.
Guns weren’t all that popular among our kind. Duels between those raised to the power tended to be about attrition, about forcing the other person to accumulate damage or to waste power. Once you were out of power, you were dead. As long as you were alive and had power you had a chance. A gun, at the end of the day, was just a mechanism for delivering a kinetic shock, redirectable through Turis like any other impact.
The timing was a little harder to pull off, but Kasis was an oft-utilised back-up. And guns were unwieldy, they required ammunition, and crucially they did not always work.
Subtle differences in the physics of different worlds meant that certain high-energy reactions didn’t always have the same results, or indeed, any result at all. Some substances that had exothermic properties on one world might not have them on another. And so on.
I pulled the third splinter from my chest, and it came free in a welter of cold agony.
Laya, when in the form of a gun, never failed to work. From fighting alongside with Esparatos, from being his friend, I knew a bit about it. Like all ima its source of energy was chaos. When in the form of a gun it created its ammunition directly from chaotic power. It accelerated these projectiles through the barrel by directly manifesting kinetic force. It did not rely on prosaic bullets and propellants.
Which meant that when Esparatos put it in his favourite form, that of a high-powered sniper rifle, the weapon would burn more power than normal, but it would accelerate a round just fine.
Just a kinetic shock, still. But if you didn’t see it coming…
Well, it was hard to use Ensis when your head was already an expanding cloud of pink mist.
I dropped to the floor, wounds in my chest not yet healed but healing. My organs were fine, the blood vessels reconnected. I could feel a rib shifting and tissue knitting but I had no more time to wait.
‘Left, a hundred paces,’ said Akeem. ‘He has line of sight.’
I sprung forward from the crouch, putting the tree between me and my left side and heard the crack of gunshot, louder than breaking stone. Felt the vibration as something plunged into the ground behind me in a plume of soil.
There were ferns just ahead of me. I dove into them, desperate for the cover.
* * *
All in all, the situation was less than optimal.
I’d failed to finish Esparatos up close, and now this was his playground. The jungle. The wild. Not a fight now but a hunt, and I had no illusions as to who was the better hunter. This cat-and-mouse ,kill-‘em-before-you’re-close-enough-to-call-‘em-names sort of game was Tollan Esparatos’s element.
I was healed now, but my reserves had dipped below half capacity. I could not afford to take hits like the ones I’d taken when the tree had exploded.
Worse still was the fact that, if not for Akeem, I would already be dead.
It was one of the sword’s properties, perhaps the only useful function its unasked-for sentience served – whatever senses with which it perceived the world extended out around me in a wide radius, and it was compelled to warn me of danger.
Or rather, of potential targets. Akeem did not seem to have much of a concept of danger. Certainly it had never expressed any concern for my life. Or concern of any kind, come to think of it.
I nudged the fern next to me as I crawled past it, unthinking, and a gunshot split the air. Something hammered into the ground by my hand, sending vibrations through the earth.
I snatched a handful of earth and threw it at a fern a few paces away with Turis-assisted force. The stem shook on the impact and I saw the frond waver, and a second later another gunshot rang out.
Dirt plumed near the base of my targeted fern.
I crawled, ever so carefully forward.
My heart was hammering in my chest. That first shot had been inches from my head. While Esparatos would not hope to kill me outright from blind shooting, even a bullet in the shoulder would be a problem. I would be forced to release Danis to heal, which would let him find me, or to leave a blood trail and a scent, which would also let him find me.
He would assume, given that neither had occurred, that I was unhurt and still moving. He would consider the possibility that I had decoyed him with the movement of the second fern, but he would not fire again without cause. Each shot was expensive, and he would wish to conserve Laya’s energy…
He would want to move, too, fearful that he’d betrayed his own position. He would want to move and seek a wider perspective on this area of forest.
Something flickered at the edge of my perception. Not my physical perception either.
‘Been a while since we spoke like this, Rukh,’ said Esparatos.
His voice didn’t turn up in my head or anything. It was like I was looking right at him, perhaps ten feet between us, that he was talking in slightly raised tones to cover that less-than-intimate distance. Only I wasn’t looking at him, for all that I felt like I was. He was nowhere near.
Jakis, the discipline was called. A method for talking to one of your own kind, but only usable when you were on the same world. If I was to explain how it worked…
Well it was a little like casting a bottle with a written message into an ocean. Only this ocean had special currents, which meant that your bottle only went to the intended recipient. Or maybe it would be better to say that it went to all possible recipients, but that only the intended recipient could see it and open it, or even know that there was a bottle.
Of course, once they did open it there was an active connection along which more messages could be sent in either direction.
Some of the more esoteric disciplines are hard to describe, even by metaphor.
‘Don’t sulk, Rukh,’ said Esparatos. ‘I know you aren’t close enough to me to fear an answer.’
I supressed a sigh. ‘Maybe I just don’t feel like talking,’ I said, as I continued to crawl through the ferns.
You had to speak aloud with Jakis. You could speak quietly, but you had to make audible sound in order to have something to transmit. So as long as I was replying, Esparatos would know that I wasn’t sneaking up behind him.
That cut both ways, I guessed, but if Esparatos was ever behind me with line of sight, he would be pulling a trigger rather than wasting his breath on words.
‘Are you still upset about my trying to kill you?’
‘Not as much as I am about you breaking your oath,’ I said. ‘If you’d turned up on Sansara before all this started and asked to fight me to the death, I would have still considered you a friend when I burned your corpse.’ There was a tree ahead of me, perhaps four of five strides distant. I set my sights on it. Crawled forward another inch. ‘Now when I kill you, I will be killing a spineless traitor.’
I was careful to keep my breathing even as I moved. To be sensible of the noise I was making as I dragged myself between the ferns. This was the other reason Esparatos had opened a connection with Jakis – it would not only carry my words, but also ambient noise that could give him clues as to my movement or surroundings.
I had allowed the link only because that, too, cut both ways.
Esparatos laughed. ‘Did I ever tell you the story of my sensei? The one who raised me to the power?’
‘You told me you killed him,’ I said, as I reached the base of the tree. ‘I guess I should have asked a few more questions about that before accepting your oath.’
I pulled myself around the tree’s base.
Tensed as I waited, silently, for a bullet.
‘Ooh, you’re on your feet again,’ said Akeem, with anticipatory glee. ‘Does this mean we can get back to the killing?’
I ignored it, and it lapsed almost immediately back into its ever-present and nonsensical chatter.
‘Did I tell you why?’ said Esparatos.
I frowned. I had heard something in the background, just after that last answer, as though he’d tried to cover a sound with his words but failed ever so slightly. A scrape, as of metal on stone…
My first thought was Laya’s barrel scraping against a stone surface, but there was no obvious rock formation nearby nor would Esparatos have been that careless even if there had been.
‘No,’ I said, glancing off into the jungle to my left and right. ‘If I recall you never told anyone.’
‘Not another living soul,’ he agreed.
I listened out for that sound again, but if it had been a momentary slip then he’d clearly resolved not to make another.
And, much as I hated to admit it, I did want to know his story.
Which is why he is telling you it. A story he’s never told another living soul. An answer to a question that you’ve wondered about since you met him… he wants to hold your attention. Remember that this is an unparalleled hunter, a man who knows you, a man who is better equipped to kill you than almost anyone else in Reality…
Which led back to the noise I’d heard. Esparatos wasn’t a careless man. Therefore the noise had been unavoidable. What did that tell me?
‘Well, perhaps the time has come. It may… explain a few things. Why I am who I am. Why I have done what I have done.’
‘The suspense is killing me,’ I shot back.
What would I do, if I was Tollan Esparatos? I would have a rifle. I would have the skills to use it. I would want a clear shot at my quarry, from the side or from behind.
I would have seen my quarry flee into the ferns. I would assume she was heading for the trees. I would assume that she would work in deeper and deeper…
I would circle, then. I would circle around, try and make it so that she was working towards me, rather than away…
‘His name was Cernukan,’ said Esparatos. ‘He was known, on Belia. Still is, no doubt. Present in our myths and legends. Revered as the god of the hunt. He chose me at a young age… was passing through our world and… well, it was a chance encounter. But he saw my skills as a hunter, saw something of himself in me…’
‘I could do this part of the story myself,’ I said. ‘Why else does someone raise someone to the power?’
A snort. ‘You raised Exan, if I recall, largely because you thought he was pretty.’
I smiled at the memory, despite myself. ‘There was a little more to it than that.’
‘Would it be inaccurate to say that you raised him for similar reasons to the reasons you ended up sleeping with him?’
I thought for a moment.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t think it would be.
I shook myself. Now was not the time to get mired in nostalgia. Esparatos was trying to get around me, I was sure of it now. Perhaps he already was in position somewhere deeper in the jungle, up high in the branches of some tree, ready for me to stumble towards.
Yeah… that was more like it. I’d been slow going through the ferns, too slow. He’d got around me already. Which meant there was no point in moving deeper. Better to stay where I was, make him come to me…
He was committed to hunting me down, after all. If the Faris binding expired then I would be free to move off world, to rejoin the others and warn them about what I’d overheard. He wouldn’t know that I had no idea where the others were. He would have to come find me, have to close the distance, and once I had him within arm’s length…
I wished that I could risk releasing Danis. Given a few seconds with access to my full powers and I could craft an image of a tree with Illumis, wait within it for him to approach.
But this was pure fantasy. You could maintain such a disguise with the trickle of power Danis allowed you, but no more. And if I dropped Danis, Esparatos would find me. No doubt he was scanning the trees through his scope this very moment, waiting for just such a lapse.
On the bright side, he would be suffering from exactly the same restrictions. He couldn’t risk that I was close enough to sense his taint.
And there were more prosaic means of constructing a hiding place.
‘Well, I wasn’t sleeping with Cernukan,’ Esparatos continued. ‘He was like a stern older brother. Constantly lecturing me, constantly correcting me. He taught me all the basics, just as Dalarion did for you. Taught me to fight…’
‘I taught you to fight,’ I said.
‘Hmmm, I would say that you more… continued… my training. Thank you for those broadsword lessons by the way, they very much came in handy earlier today.’
‘Oh, go fuck yourself,’ I said, but once again couldn’t help smiling. This was the third reason Esparatos had contacted me through Jakis – the longer I spoke with him the more I remembered our friendship. This was all to the good as far as he was concerned. If he could trap me back into that manner of thinking there was all the more chance I might hesitate at a crucial moment, that my killer instinct might be blunted.
Of course, Esparatos of all people would know how miniscule the chances of that actually were. I would break my word for nothing, and I had killed for a lot less than a broken oath in my time.
‘Cernukan taught me the fundamentals. Taught me Turis, and Kasis, and all the rest. Taught me quite a lot more about hunting, which was strange, because I’d thought I’d known everything. And, eventually, he stopped teaching me.’
I let out a snort of amusement. ‘That’s how being a disciple works,’ I said. ‘At first you are, then you aren’t.’
‘You misunderstand me. He didn’t stop teaching me because he had nothing more to teach. He simply decided that I had learned enough. There is a difference.’
‘That’s how being a disciple works,’ I said again. ‘Or are you telling me that you were planning to teach Idigan everything?’
‘By your use of the past tense…’ said Esparatos after a moment.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘He’s dead. How do you think I found you?’
I was on my hands and knees now, digging in the dirt at the base of the tree, as I had been for the past few minutes. There was a decent sized space between the roots, a space I could lower myself into when the time came and be shielded from view on three sides.
Esparatos let out a long, low sigh. ‘Did you absolutely have to kill him? He was only doing as I asked him to do.’
I shook my head, not caring that Esparatos wouldn’t see the danger. ‘His oath wasn’t to you,’ I said. ‘It was to me. And he broke it, fully aware of the consequences. If you’d wanted him to live, you should have told him to hold to his word. You should have held to your own.’ I paused. ‘He died relatively quick, if it makes any difference.’
Another silence, longer than the last. I spent the time filling the hole I’d made with dead leaves, lifting them one by one so that no tell-tale rustling would get to Esparatos over our link.
‘Well,’ said Esparatos, his tone slightly more subdued than before, ‘in answer to your question, no, I was not. But that in some ways is the point of the story.’ He paused. ‘Did you teach Exan everything, then? By implication you did not.’
‘Everything he knows, maybe. Everything I know? Not even close.’
I am a woman of extreme foresight, I thought to myself.
‘But you taught him everything related to the disciplines, yes?’
‘Disciplines, combat, philosophy,’ I said, agreeing. ‘No reason not to. Might as well not bother at all otherwise.’
‘Quite.’ I could almost hear Esparatos’s nod. ‘Just not how you made the imaskibrew, or what that sword you carry does, or where you hid your armour when…’
‘Those things and plenty more,’ I told him. ‘Girl’s got to have some secrets.’
And, beyond those secrets, there had been the lessons I had expected him to learn for himself. Such lessons were easy to explain in words and hard to live – lessons like never breaking your word, never making an empty threat, always seeking to refine your edge, never stopping, never pausing for breath….
The things that let you achieve true power. The hard work that hid behind every impressive thing I’d ever done.
Nor was the cost always just in hard work.
A solid reputation for never breaking your word, a reputation so solid, in fact, that those who challenged it were considered liars. Maintaining that had meant being that, had meant and still meant a careful analysis and consideration of everything I said, a good memory for my oaths, and some hard, hard choices. It had made my road a long and bloody one, but it had given me power, too. So few people saw that, for all that it was in plain view. I could, as a result of my iron word, make a trusted contract with even those who hated me. It had made the Dark Pact possible. Made our successes in the war possible. Let us promise neutrality or vengeance or alliance with others of our kind and be believed, and through that belief influence their behaviour.
We would never has done as well as we had without my word. Never.
I suspected that Exan would find his own war more difficult to fight now that he was known to be forsworn. He had failed to live that lesson, despite my warnings to him when I had been his sensei. And because of that he would always be second to me, would never surpass me as he so clearly desired to. Exan was a usurper that didn’t understand power, for all that he had his share of it. He thought it was something held, rather than something that had to be constantly achieved an re-achieved. And, for that reason alone, he was doomed.
‘Well, Cernukan stopped short in many things. Our relationship was not that of a true sensei and disciple, not anymore. Because Cernukan was Belian, and so was I, and that enforced certain… realities.’
This is it, I thought. This is whatever he is building to, this is his justification…
‘You see, the thing that…oh.’
I frowned. ‘What?’
Esparatos let out another sigh. ‘It seems I haven’t lined things up quite as well as I could have,’ he said. ‘Your revelation about Idigan threw me a little, side-tracked our conversation.’ He didn’t sound upset. ‘It seems, alas, that our time is up.’
I glanced around me, concerned by the smug triumph in his voice, but saw only leafy screen and failing light. What did he mean?
‘I had hoped to conclude the story right before concluding your life but unfortunately…’
I rolled my eyes. ‘Honestly, Esparatos, your bullshit is becoming…’ I tailed off as I smelled it, hot, acrid….
Smoke in my nostrils.
‘Checkmate, Rukh,’ said Esparatos, with obvious satisfaction. ‘And when you get to Hell, tell Idigan I’m sorry.’
I felt him sever the link.
It was clearly visible now, the haze that seeped between the trees, the vanguard of what was behind it. I could hear, too, what Esparatos must’ve heard over the link, the thing he’d been waiting for, the sound that had tipped him off and let him know that his trap was sprung.
The crackle of flames.
Akeem paused in its usual mindless chatter as he sensed the shift in my mood, the adrenaline dumping into my bloodstream.
‘What is it?’ the sword asked.
‘He’s fired the jungle,’ I said. ‘The forest is on motherfucking fire…’
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