The ways between the worlds are complex things.
In their most basic consideration, all a way is, is a path. Mundane. Nothing special. Only along that path are transition points, places where you can step from one world to another – assuming, of course, that you have either been raised to the power or have partaken of the imaskibrew.
Such transitions are built by my kind, built by a unique deployment of Faris and a substantial investment of chaotic power. It is comparable with constructing a bridge, if the bridge in question must last for all eternity and the only tools you have to work on it with are your bare hands.
It is rarely done anymore, at least not in the parts of Reality I frequent. Why build a new path when the old ones will do?
But some knowledge of the rules is helpful. Transitions are easier to construct in some places than in others. Transitions cannot be built too close together. Transitions are best built between worlds that… well, there’s not really a word for it but “feel similar” is probably the best approximation.
As long as you understand that “similar” in this context may mean many different things.
Thus the ways are best thought of in terms of clusters of transition points a few miles of travel apart. One emerges from such a transition and walks to another, emerges from the transition on another world and walks to another…and so on.
In doing so, one may, if one is careless, leave a trail.
I certainly hoped that Sanjay’s group had been careless. I had decided that I needed them. I had decided that catching up with that group was my next move, because all my other moves put me in a poor position.
There was a chance, for example, that they would assume I’d gone back to Exan. That the ambush was my fault. That assumption could make me a lot of enemies unless I headed it off before they reported back to the House. I did not want to be fighting this new Dark Pact and the Alliance. Not at the same time, anyway.
You won’t catch them, said a little voice in the back of my head. They will be running, they won’t want to be followed…
Yeah, Sanjay would have them covering their tracks. Of course he would. It made me cringe to think how sloppy we’d been in our supposed hunt for Exan. We’d not concerned ourselves with trails or stealth, had acted, quite frankly, like we were fucking tourists. Had walked straight into an ambush.
A very curious ambush. One I needed to think about a little more.
As for following the others….
Well, there was no point writing the trail off as a cold one before I’d at least tried to follow it. Though to do so, there was only one place I could start from. One place I could go.
Back to Altain. Back to the high, snowy ridge where I had nearly lost my life to carelessness and Nemi’s wicked edge.
I arrived almost three days after I had left. On Wegua I had taken a handful of glass beads from its glittering deserts and used Bayis to warp the matter into a strip of fibrous cloth – expensive, in terms of chaotic power, but glass was a better starting material than water or stone, and all I could hope to find on Altain itself was snow, rock, and enemies.
I’d wanted my deception in place before I found those enemies. The bandage was wound around my thigh beneath the corresponding rip in my jeans, covering the place where Nemi had carved into me. I had practiced my limp as well, the memory of the real damage tutor enough in this regard. It would serve to bait attackers, make them perceive an opening when there was none.
A temporary advantage, no doubt, but no less worth having for that fact.
I approached the ridge under cover of Danis, thankful for the blizzard that raged around me, obscuring me from view. It took me a while to circle around and find a way up that did not require the use of power, and when I did the path was steep and treacherous.
As I suspected, there was a figure waiting at the top.
They sat, cross-legged, right across the path of the way, a huddled bundle of furs. They had a spear stuck in the snow at their side, the shaft black against the pale sky.
They had not seen me.
I thought for a moment, and then began to circle, quiet and careful, around to their rear.
I was cold, only able to draw a trickle of power while using Danis and thus not enough to keep me properly warm. The sitting figure seemed very far away as I took step by careful step, the light crunch of the snow hidden by the roaring of the wind.
I could feel Akeem’s anticipation. The sword practically hummed with it, though it was mercifully silent. Akeem was always silent when violence was in the offing.
The figure’s head rose slightly, and I froze where I was. Behind them now, but still ten paces distant. Had they heard something? If they turned around now…
Well, I wasn’t afraid to face whoever it was one on one. Or, more likely, to chase them down as they fled through to Curia. But it would be easier and cleaner to settle this here, on Altain, with no-one else around…
Unless there were another fifty of Exan’s people waiting in the snow drifts of course. But I didn’t think so. I doubted Exan would commit his forces to such on the slim, slim chance that I returned to this place.
The figure lowered their head.
I took a step forward. And another.
Akeem came out of the scabbard in utter silence, the blade almost invisible against the whiteness of our surroundings.
I took another step.
But the treaty was done. It had covered this situation too. I had made it clear, that when people started coming at me again, that when I faced an organised enemy, I would no longer be bound by individual compacts when it would put me at a tactical disadvantage. This figure was watching for me. It was unlikely that they were Alliance, and very likely that they were part of Exan’s new Dark Pact. That was enough.
I could not help reflecting on the fact that when I’d made that particular clause of the treaty clear, I had done so envisaging a future where the Alliance broke their word.
Funny how things turned out.
The seated figure half-turned at my movement, the rustle of clothes enough of a trigger, their reflexes sharp enough not to waste time wondering. But they were on their arse in the snow and slowed by the seeping of the cold and they managed a partial turn and little else before Akeem slammed into their side, penetrating furs and flesh like they were tissue paper.
I twisted and ripped the blade back out in welter of pale, pink blood.
The figure gave a choked, bubbling gasp, still trying to rise.
My next blow chopped into the thigh, half severing their leg.
I withdrew, seeing the wound already beginning to heal as whoever it was desperately reached for Ensis.
Not fast enough, I thought, with some satisfaction, and then stepped close and brought Akeem’s hilt down on their head with Turis-assisted force.
They dropped, unconscious, into the snow.
‘Disappointing.’ I scarcely needed Akeem’s words to know of its frustration. I could feel it, as though it were a palpable thing. The sword cared only for killing, nothing else. It hungered for it, the way a starving man hungers for food, the way an addict hungers for their drugs. But unlike the starving man or the addict, for Akeem there was no satisfaction, not even a temporary one. It might sigh with ecstasy whenever it took a life, but no matter how many souls I fed the blade it was forever thirsty for more.
I flipped the unconscious figure over, already suspecting what I would see within the fur-lined hood.
A beaked face framed by grey feathers, male if I was any judge. That and the pink blood suggested he was from Belia, same as Esparatos. Worse, I knew him.
Idigan Rodrisanto. Esparatos’s disciple.
The knowledge was like a punch to the gut.
Only one reason for him to be here, watching the transition between Altain and Curia.
It might still only be Exan and Trickster, I thought to myself. Exan might have seduced him away from Esparatos. He would have gone to everyone he could think of…
But I didn’t believe it. I remembered Idigan from the last days of the War. Remembered his hero worship of Esparatos, his devotion.
Like Exan, like Trickster, Tollan Esparatos had betrayed me.
Three out of four. At least.
I shook myself. Idigan would be awake in a moment – his leg was already healed.
I hacked down with Akeem once again.
Taking a prisoner like this was an art more than it was a science. The rate at which their body healed their wounds was the only clue to the level of their reserves. One had to watch the healing carefully, had to reinflict trauma to the brain in order to keep them unconscious, had to progress from the deeper wound to the lighter, until one was making tiny, superficial cuts and watching them close, time after time.
It was all rather tedious.
But I was an old hand at it. I had done it enough times before, back in the old days. A prisoner was one of the only ways to gather intelligence, and in terms of intelligence I felt I was sorely lacking.
Eventually the slice on the back of Idigan’s feathered hand failed to heal over. To be sure I dragged him what I thought was an appreciable distance from the transition to Curia, and propped him up against a snow drift.
I considered, for a moment, whether or not I should break one of his legs.
On the one hand, I couldn’t have him running off. On the other, once I had broken his leg I would have no real way to unbreak it.
And I was planning a reasonably civil conversation, at least to start with. And sometimes it is important to leave yourself room to escalate.
It was another twenty minutes before he woke up, long enough that I wondered if I’d done some permanent damage to the brain. But when he finally opened his tawny eyes they seemed clear enough.
‘…what… what happened…’
He moved one feathered hand towards his head, but I had Akeem at his throat before it had moved more than a few centimetres. He froze.
‘Do I have your attention?’ I asked him.
He gave the barest fraction of a nod.
‘Do you know who I am?’
‘I… I remember.’
‘Oh good,’ I said, and grinned at him. ‘I remember you too, Idigan Rodrisanto.’ He seemed to wilt a little as I said his name. ‘I was there when you swore the oath of the Dark Pact. “I will be true to you so long as you are true to me. I will serve you until my final death.” You looked into my eyes and said those words, and you knew what they meant.’
‘I was there, also, when you agreed to the treaty. Not that I needed you to, that first oath was enough. But I didn’t want anyone telling me that signing the treaty was not being “true” or some other weaselling bullshit. Twice you swore, Idigan Rodrisanto, and twice you are forsworn.’
He swallowed, crop bobbing in his scrawny throat.
‘Do you dispute these oaths, or that you have broken them?’
He would not meet my gaze. ‘No,’ he said.
‘Then you know that this is where you die. If you have broken faith then your life is forfeit, for my word remains iron!’
We sat in silence for a moment. And for all that Akeem hummed, restless at my side, I could still taste satisfaction in Idigan’s obvious shame.
‘All that remains then,’ I said, ‘is to negotiate the manner of your passing. Should I flay you inch by inch until you are a bloodied, screaming, mutilated bag of meat that can do nought but beg for death… or should I make it quick?’ I grinned at him. ‘Which would you prefer?’
He took a breath, and his beak cracked in what might have been a smile, though there was no humour in his voice. ‘I think, on balance…’ he shrugged his bony shoulders. ‘I would prefer for it to be quick.’
‘And what, pray tell, have you to bargain with?’
He sighed. ‘I will tell you whatever you wish to know.’ He nodded his head towards the sword at my side. ‘But you must promise me that you will not use that on me. That you will use your own hands.’
I let the silence pool for a moment. I understood his request. Akeem had had a certain… reputation… among my forces in the War. Everyone suspected it was an ima, but none but me knew its properties. There were fanciful tales of tortured souls trapped for eternity in the matrix of the blade, tales I did nothing to discourage.
As if I would want your worthless essence hanging from my belt. The bloody thing makes enough noise as it is.
‘If I think you are telling me the truth,’ I said aloud, ‘then I will use my own hands, and not the sword.’
He nodded, and I sent a pulse of Sansis into him, enough to warm him against the freezing air. Generosity and a reminder of the imbalance between us, all in one.
‘Ask,’ he said.
‘Is Tollan Esparatos also a traitor?’ I asked him.
He lowered his eyes once more. ‘Yes.’
I let out a slow breath. I had known when I’d seen Idigan’s face, but confirmation still hurt. Hurt like a knife in the soul.
‘I don’t know.’
Well, that was something. It had been a while since I’d had anything to hold out hope for.
‘End it,’ said Akeem, all snarling impatience. ‘End it. Kill him. Cut his life from his body.’
I ignored the sword. Idigan had more to tell me.
Indeed, in the end, he sang like a bird.
When he was done, and had no more to tell, I nodded to him. I had caught no hint of a lie, was as sure of this intelligence as one could be of information gained in such circumstances.
I was also a woman of my word.
‘End it,’ said Akeem, once again.
I reached forward and took Idigan’s head in my hands. He did not resist.
‘NO!’ snarled the blade. ‘Use me! USE ME!’
But that had not been the deal.
‘Could I not… could I not just live?’ Idigan’s tawny eyes were alien to me, and yet I could see the pleading in them nonetheless.
I shook my head. ‘No,’ I told him. ‘You can’t.’
And, so saying, I snapped his neck.
‘The price of treachery,’ I said to him, as he gasped and choked, his eyes wide and staring. He could not believe that he was dying.
Few people could, when it came upon them.
‘You should have used me,’ said Akeem, as Idigan choked on his last breath. ‘I was made to kill.’
‘So was I,’ I said, and then stepped away from Idigan Rodrisanto’s cooling corpse and made my way out of the world.
* * *
A frozen plain of solid ice. A white sky, the sun hidden by the thickness of the upper atmosphere. Distant mountains the only marker of the horizon.
I trudged across the whiteness, regretting my hasty departure from Altain and my failure to strip Idigan of his furs. I was spending power on Sansis to keep myself warm – only a trickle, but a trickle I should not have had to waste. I needed to get myself back into the mind-set of the War, to spend power only when necessary, never when not.
I had a ways to go, it seemed.
As I walked, practicing my limp, my thoughts turned to Dalarion.
Was his wound real? He was the only other person I could recall that had taken such a serious blow from Nemi and lived to tell of it. The back of his knee in his case – he had shown me the scar when I had been his disciple, but such things were easily faked. And whatever I thought of him, he wasn’t stupid. Had he struck upon the same solution that I had?
He had the resolve to sell such a deception, this I knew. But would he have?
No. Appearance was too important to him. He was too in love with his own tragedy – he would never even consider that the wound was less than permanent, much less risk the loss of a whole limb in an attempt to heal it. Hell, I had only done so myself because the first time, when I’d killed Carrick, I had had nothing to really lose.
I wondered too, if I could keep the secret. It had felt good to walk around as a whole person while he suffered the effects of his disability. But once it was known that I had taken the cut and healed it…
Does it have to be known?
Maybe not. Maybe I could encourage a different assumption – that the wound had not been as deep as it first appeared. That I had been cut and injured, but that natural healing had brought me back to full functionality…
It was not like the rest our kind had that much experience with lasting damage of that kind.
‘I’m bored,’ said Akeem. ‘When can we kill something?’
‘When we find someone or something I decide to kill,’ I said. Talking to the blade was usually pointless, but it had been chattering constantly since I’d left Altain, and there was a certain catharsis in response.
‘You’re dragging this out. Stalling.’
There the blade had a point. I had a couple of hundred miles to travel before the next transition, and I could not do it at walking pace.
The way that led through Curia to Altain and beyond was not the only way on the planet. There were usually hundreds of different ways on any named world. Curia had been close to the front lines of the War at one or two points in its history, and thus the roads that ran through it were varied. There was also no point in me walking back along the path of our original journey from Uriban.
The others had not gone that way.
Before speaking to Idigan, I had assumed that they had gone through one of the other transitions close by – transition points were usually built in clusters in as close proximity as the laws of Faris allowed, and from the Altain-Curia crossing there had been another three options within a few hours walk. One of those would have been the logical choice to flee through following Exan’s ambush.
Only Sanjay Jacobs had decided to try and be clever. He had led them across the ice to an entirely different crossroads, a hundred miles distant, thinking to throw off pursuit.
But he had failed. Idigan and Esparatos had been hiding on the Curia side of the transition, watching through a long scope.
We had, it seemed, walked right past them on our way through to Altain.
Esparatos had followed Sanjay’s group when they’d made their escape, keeping a safe distance so as not to be spotted. Idigan had remained in place in case I or anyone else had come through after the others were gone. Eventually Shas had showed up to report how she had apparently killed me.
Idigan had not believed her. He’d been unconvinced by her inability to find my corpse. They had argued, and Shas, still missing an arm, had set off after Esparatos to report to him. Seeing little point in watching from the Curia side, and with Shas having seized the task of reporting to Esparatos, Idigan had decided to make himself useful and set up on the Altain side to watch for my reappearance in the event that I had lived.
By one interpretation, I guess he’d succeeded.
Should’ve hidden in the snow, I thought to myself. Held to Danis, like the others did with their ambush.
But he hadn’t, he’d been lazy, and it had cost him.
There was a fair amount I still didn’t know. That ambush had been well timed. While I assumed that Trickster had tipped Exan off to my approach, their intelligence had been a little too good for my taste. If she had, as I suspected, been on Uriban at the same time as the rest of us, where was she now? Had she got ahead of us? Made use of a way I didn’t know of? Or had Exan been on standby with his little strike force?
I couldn’t quite get a grip on the problem. I didn’t have enough data.
I was reasonably sure that Esparatos would have the answers though.
God, that sword was annoying.
And still right.
I abandoned my limp. Shook my head as if by doing so I could clear my thoughts away, and looked towards the horizon.
Took a breath.
Then I was running. I ran hard, heart and lungs pumping. I would get tired, but not for a while. Ensis let you keep yourself in peak physical condition with only a little power, regularly applied. I ran like a professional athlete.
Not enough for a hundred mile journey, not nearly enough.
So I used Turis. I loaded my heels with force, let my stride lengthen to impossible bounds, felt the ice crack apart with the force of my footfalls. The air whipped at me and I leaned forward, keeping my head down to streamline my body, arms pumping at my sides.
I was machine, fed by blood and air and chaotic power. I opened the throttle.
Skimming, some people called this. The use of Turis to run at incredible speeds. Some prep work was required with Ensis to adapt the body for the stress, but it was work I had done long ago and the maintenance was second nature. A difficult technique in more varied terrain, but here on the flat, frozen ice sheets of Curia it was as easy as it ever got.
Somewhat exhilarating too. It had been a while since I’d done it, after all.
I could feel the journey that would be days by prosaic means shortening to hours. I would find Sanjay, Carmen, Cass and Kiren. I would find Esparatos and Shas.
I would let them know that the Last Evil was back in the game.