Chapter 10

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>

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.

The treaty…

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.

I lunged.

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.

You’re staaaaallllinnnngggg.’

 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.

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>

Chapter 9

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>


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.


Almost 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 screamed.

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…

And stopped.

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 sighed.

‘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.’

A pause.

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.’

‘Not fair.

‘Tough shit,’ I said, and started walking.

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>

Chapter 8

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>

Well. Shit.

I was good at fighting. I was good at it because I loved it, and because I had practised hard. The past few days had knocked the rust off, but I was nowhere near the level I had been at during the War. Even then…

Especially then, I would not have fought five on one, not by choice, not ever.

These five were neither mortals nor ima. These five, despite their relative youth, had all been raised to the power. I had no idea as to exactly how powerful they were, how far advanced in the disciplines. But if Exan had trained them, he would’ve prioritised combat skills.

Well, you’re always complaining that you never get a decent fight…

I tested Faris. No joy. The binding was a solid one, a couple of hours at least. I shouldn’t’ve let that happen. I should’ve been ready, broken it before it got its grip on me…

Focus, Rukh.

Exan’s disciples were advancing towards me, weapons drawn.

I recognised the tall woman in the centre, the one who had been holding Mako earlier. I recognised the two short horns that rose from her shaved scalp, and the basic set of her features. But her skin was a paler shade of brown than I remembered and her curves were more pronounced. The alterations did not surprise me in the least – when you mastered Ensis you could look however you wished, provided you took the time and power necessary to make the changes.

Many people chose to conform to whatever their local standard of beauty had been. Nor was I an exception – I was three inches taller than I’d been as a mortal, and had no shame about the changes whatsoever.

The woman’s name was Shas, and Exan had been planning to raise her to the power when I’d last seen him. She would be his most senior disciple then, the most experienced out of the five before me, and no doubt their leader.

She wore an arming sword on her left hip.

Not just any sword either.

I recognised that blade. I had broken the wrist of the man who’d made it and torn it from his grasp. I had pulled out his throat with my fingers and stamped his skull to powder.

His name had been Elis Carrick. He had fought for the Alliance in the War, though in the years beforehand he had been Dalarion’s personal nemesis. Carrick had been one of the greatest of us, and the sword had been the unassailable truth of that claim. It was called Nemi, and the wounds it made could not be healed with Ensis. Its edge could not be turned with Kasis. Turis would not steal the force from its cuts.

It was one hell of a weapon.

It was the blade that had wounded Dalarion back in ancient days. It was the blade that had nearly killed me in the War. It was the blade of a master, of one of the worthiest of my old enemies, and Exan had handed it to his no-name disciple like it was a stick of candy.

I was… somewhat annoyed by that.

I was also in very real trouble.

With that blade, Shas represented a severe threat independent of her skills with the disciplines. A mortal carrying that blade would’ve worried me.

And she wasn’t alone.

A thin woman in a duelling mask, who carried a long slim rapier.

A fat man with the head of a lion and an axe as long as he was tall.

A big, musclebound figure with four-inch tusks protruding from his lower jaw and a set of impressively long dreadlocks, his fists clad in steel gauntlets.

A woman, her skin the same shade of blue as Carmen’s, who twirled a pair of knives around her fingers like they were parade batons.

I labelled them in my head: Mask, Lion, Tusks, Blue.

This lot were like Cass, it seemed – they hadn’t yet fully mastered Turis and Kasis. They could not rely on their own flesh and bone, and so they had to rely on mortal steel instead.

I would’ve crushed any two of them, but all together? With that sword in play?

Shas drew Nemi from its sheath and pointed at me with the tip. ‘From what I hear,’ she said, ‘and from what I remember, there’s a lot of people who’d like to do what I’m about to do. And if I’m honest, ever since I got this I’ve been itching to use it.’

I shook my head with an amusement that was only partially feigned.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘I guess when all you’ve got is a magic sword, everything begins to look like an evil overlord in need of slaying.’

She flashed me a sarcastic smile. ‘Cute.’

The others fanned out around me. Mask and Lion on my left, Tusk and Blue on my right. They moved surely and confidently. Of course they did. There were five of them and only one of me.

I sighed.

Sometimes, when the odds are against you and the enemy holds all the cards, the only thing to do is attack.

So I did.

Trouble was, so did they. All at once.

Mask came in from the far left, circling into my peripheral vision, lunging out with her rapier even as Lion charged, axe raised. Tusks and Blue on the right, Shas in the middle…

Not in perfect synchrony though. Mask and Lion were faster…

I went for them slapping aside Mask’s rapier with an open palm and exploding inside her guard. I took her arm and threw her between me and Lion, tried to follow up with a punch but never got the chance. Tusk blasted forward on Turis-assisted heels like a bullet from a gun, snow fountaining in his wake, his metal-clad fist seeking my head. I got a shoulder up into its path just in time and snow blasted outwards around my feet as I shifted the force.

I had no time to retaliate – Mask had pivoted clear and Lion’s axe was dropping for my head and Blue was coming around Tusk’s shoulder to get behind me…

I caught Lion’s axe by the haft even as I ducked under Tusk’s next wild swing. Yanked the weapon forward and kicked him the groin with an enhanced foot, felt his grip on the axe slacken as he doubled over. I half spun, the weapon suddenly mine, haft slamming into the side of Mask’s head even as I tried to put the blade into Tusk’s.

He caught it on his gauntlet and suddenly Blue was on me, landing from what had to have been a flying leap, her blades tearing bloody furrows in my back and shoulder as she jammed them in like a climber’s pitons.

I let go of the axe and peeled her off with one Turis-assisted arm, flinging her into Mask so that they both went down in the snow. Lion was still trying to recover from the groin strike, so only Tusk was standing, one hand still uselessly clutching the axe blade, the other in a rough approximation of a guard as he pivoted towards me…

Where is Shas?

I spun around, and then turned that spin into a desperate sideways leap. Nemi’s irresistible edge carved through the air where I had been.

She’d come around under the cover of Blue’s flying leap, nearly had me while I’d been busy with the others. Now she drove me back with a flurry of sweeping cuts, and Lion was up again with his axe back in his hands, and Blue was standing, and Mask was coming to support Shas on the left even as Tusk came up on her right…

Shas lunged and I went forward around the blade, seeking her neck, but she was ready for it and I had to dive sideways into Mask or lose an arm.

Mask’s rapier scored a scratch on my shoulder but got a reverse elbow into the side of her head by way of reply and I felt bone break. Dodged around her as she reeled, leapt back towards the edge of the ridge…


I had all five of them in my sights again, a decent amount of space between us. I could see that I’d done no real damage yet – they were all standing, all clearly proficient with Ensis, and their strategy was clear. Funnel me in towards that blade, swarm me with strikes, make it as hard as possible for me to hit back at them.

But I could read the frustration in their eyes, too. I had done no real damage, true, but nor had they landed anything on me. Each one of them had no doubt harboured some secret hope that they would be my match alone, that they would finish me without aid from the others.

I had crushed that hope, at least in most of them. They were uncertain now, a little off balance….

‘You guys aren’t actually that good at this, are you?’ I said to them as they advanced. Lion and Tusk on the wings now, moving out to bracket me.

I fixed Lion with a look, gave him what I hoped looked like my full attention and he hesitated.

Tusk blasted himself forward with Turis again, gauntleted fist aimed at my temple. But I’d been watching in my peripheral vision for exactly this and Lion’s hesitation and Tusk’s speed meant that he was now coming at me all on his lonesome.


I pivoted out the way and drove an enhanced knee right up into his belly. My hip flexors wrenched with the impact but it had the desired effect –  he stopped, winded, clearly either unable or too slow to block or redirect the force.

I chopped my hand down towards the now exposed back of his neck, and the flesh split beneath the Kasis-hardened  edge of my palm.

His head came off in geyser of red.

The others froze. Even Shas’s eyes were wide, her confidence shaken.

I held up my hand and inspected my bloody fingernails. ‘Nearly ten whole heartbeats to kill a man,’ I said, and then met Shas’s eyes. ‘Maybe I’m getting old?’

Ah, that look on their faces. I had lived for that once.

‘She’s trying to get inside your head,’ said Shas, after a second. ‘Don’t let her.’

She took a step forward.

I grinned. It was a genuine grin. This was the fight I’d been waiting for. This was a challenge. This was to the bloody screeching death. I stood, once more, between increasing my legend or dying in the attempt. It was my favourite place to stand.

I raised my hands to guard, and I beckoned.

*             *             *

They were more cautious now, but that only made them more dangerous. They came at me with everything they had. They threw Sansis and I threw it right back. They cut and slashed and I ducked and dodged and wove. I broke wrists and stamped on legs and delivered yet more crippling groin strikes, but these four knew Ensis and they knew it well. They wanted to make it a war of attrition, to make this matter of who would run out of power first. There were four of them and only one of me so such a contest should favour them… but they had not my experience, had not my skill. They spent heavily to cover their lack and I felt the rising certainty that even if they had their way they would still run dry before I did.

I had not engaged Shas. I had kept the others between me and her, made them my allies in staying beyond the reach of that terrible sword. Every time she found herself facing me I circled to put one of the others in her path. Every time they split to bracket me I slipped around them. No-one wanted to face me alone but they hadn’t the space to face me together.

I watched Shas’s frustration build.

It was an old group fighting trick, this one. Lock down one person, the enemy officer or their toughest fighter. Watch as they strain to close with you, as they struggle with those around them. Watch the group’s cohesion splinter. They will break apart soon, and they will break apart with relief.

When they do, pick off the weakest. Repeat, ad infinitum ad mortem.

I was beginning to remember. I had been good at this…

I killed Mask next. She over extended on one of those fancy rapier lunges and I burst inside and got my arm around her throat. I slammed my other hand against the top of her head even as I pulled her away from the others.

Her skull shattered like an eggshell. Her mask rolled away, a dented epigraph.

Lion charged me in a fury and I stopped him with a front kick to the groin. The axe blade dropped and it took a narrow slice out of the side of my leg, but I was pivoting around him, my fist lashing towards his temple. He was wise to that trick though and he dropped his head. The axe came cutting back, lower this time, and I leapt over it just as Shas came around him at me, Nemi raised in the high guard.

She cut at me , snarling, and I rolled under the sweep of that fatal edge the way I would roll under a hook or head-kick.

The blade, continued, unobstructed, into the space where I had been. Lion had straightened back up from his crouch. Shas was forced to arrest her momentum before she cut his head off herself. I kicked her into him and the two of them went down together.

Blue leapt right at me before I could finish one or both of them off, her blades seeking my face. I dropped into a crouch and my shoulder caught her in the stomach. She flipped right over me, somehow managing to score a cut across my cheek with one her knives on the way.

She landed hard behind me. I turned even as I heard her groan, momentarily incapacitated by the pain. She’d landed on an area devoid of snow, where the stone beneath showed through and there was nothing to cushion the impact.

I didn’t wait for her to get up. I just stepped forward and stamped her head apart with a Turis-assisted foot.

I spun back to face the other two, but they’d managed to disentangle themselves. They were spreading apart to bracket me. This was the most dangerous time. They could come at me from both angles but they didn’t have to worry so much about getting in each other’s way. Shas could finally bring that blade to bear…

So I played my trump card, the one I’d been saving for just this moment.

I gathered up a significant chunk of my remaining energies, and I let loose with a burst of Sansis.

The snow around me flashed into instant vapour.

I used Danis in that same moment, pulling in my power, hiding my taint.

Invisible. Or the next best thing.

I heard Lion cry out in the sudden heat, and I wondered if maybe I should’ve just gone right for him. If he couldn’t handle a little steam then a direct strike would’ve cooked him as thoroughly as it had cooked Isande.


I forced the thought away and made for the source of the cry.

‘Where is she?’ said Lion, and I didn’t know whether to be amused or disgusted. Where did Exan find these people?

Shas was too smart to reply, too smart to give away her own position as Lion had done. Nor could I sense her taint – she too was using Danis. Lion obviously hadn’t thought of that.

It was a depressing fact that the strength of will necessary to bind a thread of chaos did not always come attached to the greatest intellects.

I stepped up behind him just as the steam began to dissipate, and I lopped his head off with one Kasis-assisted arm.

I had always been a fan of that particular move.

*             *             *

Shas and I faced each other across the slick, steaming stone.

Both snow and steam were gone now, leaving only the rock. The nearby cliff edge was now much more visible, a dark grey line against the white backdrop of the mountain slopes below. The bodies of Shas’s allies were strewn about us. Four dead  matter of minutes, each one by my own hand. Their blood caked my fingers, dry, sticky, already flaking away in some places.

A snowflake settled against my bare shoulder. A new fall then, just in time to replace the old. I wondered how long it would be before the evidence of our battle was buried in fresh snow.

It’s not over yet, Rukh, I reminded myself.

No. There was one more body to lay down. All that remained to be seen was whether it would be Shas’s or mine.

‘Just you and me, kid,’ I said to her, with a grin.

She glared at me past Nemi’s wicked edge. ‘You know what this is, right?’

I let my grin widen. ‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘After all, I killed the man who made it.’

Shas’s face paled slightly beneath those curving horns.

‘You sure about this, kiddo?’ I asked her. ‘I mean, five minutes ago you had all the advantages. Now you have only the sword. And it isn’t the instant-win device you’re hoping for either. It didn’t do Carrick any good. Or do you think you’re better than he was?’

Shas took a step toward and snarled. ‘Maybe I do,’ she said.

I laughed and spread my bloody hands. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘you obviously weren’t good enough to save your friends.’

Her face twisted in sudden rage. She took another step, and then she stopped. Took a deep breath. Her expression settled into something… not calm exactly. She was anything but calm. But there was a quiet resolve there that hadn’t been there before.


Shas was a hotheaded kid by the standards of our kind, but no-one could bind a thread of chaos without tremendous self-control. The trick was recognising when you needed to exercise that control. To learn that it wasn’t just something you needed at the edge of a chaos rent, but something that you need every minute of every day, and never more so than when faced with an enemy.

Shas wasn’t at that level yet. But she knew I was trying to goad her, and she knew that if she fought angry that I would kill her.

I was beginning to see why Exan had given her the blade.

‘I’m not Carrick,’ she said after a moment, ‘but I know what I’m doing. And I know that you’ve spent a lot of power today. More than me, for sure. I think if you were as confident of killing me as you make out, that you’d already be stepping to it.’

Well, there was a certain amount of truth in that. She was right about my reserves – I was at less than a quarter. She was right that I was more wary of Nemi than I was letting on. But she was wrong about the rest. I had no doubt of my ability to take her on. The reason I was talking so much wasn’t because I was stalling, but because this was not a time-sensitive situation and I was, quite frankly, enjoying myself.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘if you think you’re hard enough…’

She leapt.

Nemi carved towards my neck in a beautiful straight cut. It was a complete waste of the sword’s potential. The whole point of the blade was that it functioned against our kind the way a normal weapon did against a mortal. There was no need to go for the instant kill. If Shas had had any sense she’d have aimed for my centre of mass, made the stroke as hard to dodge as possible. She didn’t have to take me down with a single slice. Not when every wound would tell.

I dipped under the strike even as the weight of the weapon carried her past me, and I slammed a push kick into the small of her back.

She staggered forward but didn’t fall over as I’d hoped. I closed the distance knowing that the counterstrike was coming but reasonable confident of where it was coming from.

Of course, if I was wrong….

Shas swept around and Nemi came with her in a low sweep, seeking my shins. I leapt over the blade and her eyes widened in horror as she saw my flying cross coming towards her face.

She started to move her head but I could see, in that beautiful, frozen moment, that she didn’t have time.

My Turis-loaded knuckles connected with the side of her face.

I felt flesh explode under my hand. Warmth splattered up my arm. A moment later I hit the ground and rolled clear. Leapt back to my feet

That last part was more habit and reflex than anything else. I knew that Shas was dead. I’d felt her skull break under my knuckles. Hell the amount of force I’d put into that punch, she probably didn’t have a skull anymore. No way she…

She was still standing.

Half her head was gone, pulverised in an instant, but the rest was there. I could see the broken outline of her skull, the ravaged purple matter of her bisected brain, the blood leaking from  thousand severed vessels. But more importantly I could see how those vessels twitched a grew like reaching tentacles, how the brain swelled to replace its lost matter, how the edge of her skull raced out and round, the skin and flesh only a few centimetres behind. Within seconds the destroyed half of her face was back, the eye swelling up from its empty socket, the missing hair sprouting back into place.

Holy fuck.

‘Well,’ I said aloud, ‘I’ll admit, that was quick.’

Shas raised the sword. ‘I’m stronger than you can imagine, bitch. I haven’t even touched my reserves.’

I grinned by way of response. ‘Guess I’ll just have to keep hitting you then, won’t I?’

But on the inside I was still reeling from what I’d just seen.

Ensis cost a lot of power. Everyone knew that. The more complex the regeneration, the more it cost. Regenerating part of your own brain was as expensive as it came. And the faster you wanted the job done the more power you had to use. Shas had repaired most of her own head in mere seconds. While you could train your mind to resort to indiscriminate use of Ensis whenever you lost consciousness, most people didn’t have the reserves to repair their brain at all let alone at that speed. I suspected that Exan or Ulmeshian could’ve pulled it off, but both men were famous for their facility with chaotic power.

If Shas was in their league…

Well, this was going to be interesting.

She cut at me again, a looping diagonal cut. I leapt back out of range and Nemi’s tip nicked my face. It was only just deep enough to draw blood. She swung the sword again from the other side and this time my leap was long enough to get me clear entirely. She swung again, and again, and each time I slipped further away from her. She tried to herd me towards the edge of the cliff but I circled around long before we reached it. Eventually, as I’d known she would, she changed tactics.

Instead of swinging the blade at me she unleashed a fast diving lunge. The blade shot towards me low and deadly, covering more ground than I could’ve hoped to clear. But I didn’t even try. This was what I had been waiting for.

I slapped the flat of the blade down with as much force as I could muster, hearing the point scrape against the ground. In a flash I was inside her guard, my legs parallel with the middle of the blade, the rest of me right up in Shas’s face. For one, glorious second there was nothing between me and her unprotected head.

I swung a fist, hard.

She staggered, but the ground cracked beneath her with redirected force and I knew I’d done no real damage. Her counterattack was no doubt coming, but I had one hand still forcing the sword down and the other was quick and deadly. I struck again and again, and she ripped the blade out to the side, freeing it of my control, and brought it up around and over…

A heartbeat more and she’d bring it down and split me in twain but she was slow, oh so slow. I struck at her with elbow and knee and open palm and she reeled back before me.

I swiped at her face…

He jaw went spinning away in a welter of blood, a formless scream of pain echoing in its wake.

But my time was up. Nemi’s wicked edge dropped towards me like Death’s own scythe.

I spun free, feeling the rustle of air as Nemi carved through the space where I had been. I heard the edge clang against the stone, and I threw my arm over Shas’s, trapping it against my side. I twisted my body clockwise…

The arm broke.

I got a palm against Nemi’s hilt to keep it off me, and then I severed that arm at the shoulder joint with the edge of my Kasis-hardened hand.

Shas screamed again.

I lashed a  palm strike into her face and she managed a clumsy block. She stumbled back, her one arm flailing wildly. I stepped forward…

And my leg gave way beneath me.

Pain. A fall on to hard stone is no small thing, especially if it comes out of nowhere. I felt the bones break in my face. It was a harder knock than anything Shas or her posse had tagged me with in the entire preceding fight. Hell, it was the hardest knock I’d taken since Isande had stamped me unconscious back on Sansara.

I didn’t let it faze me. Pain is transient. I could heal later, but if I stayed on the ground I was dead woman. I made to get up…

And fell, sprawling, once again.

I couldn’t put any weight on my left leg.

I glanced down at it.

Somehow, in that vicious close-quarter exchange, Shas had managed to get in a clean hit with the sword. There was a wide gash across my upper thigh, biting deep into the muscle. A gash I could not heal with Ensis.

Fuck it, I thought, and forced myself to stand, weight on my good leg.

I put my hand over the wound to hold it closed. Blood pushed its way between my fingers in heavy pulses. There was quite a lot of it.

Shas was a few feet away, Nemi now off the ground and gripped in her one remaining hand, a grim smile on her recently repaired face.

She knew, as I did, that she had just killed me. The big artery in my leg was severed. I was going to bleed out inside the next few minutes, a quick and relatively painless death. I had only seconds of useful action left to me.

I glanced at the stump of Shas’s arm. ‘Not healing it yet?’ I asked her, and forced a grin. ‘Looks like you were exaggerating a little earlier, huh? About your oh so incredible reserves?’

Shas hefted the sword and took a step forwards. ‘Burn in hell, bitch,’ she said.

I raised an eyebrow. I had heard some shocking pre-mortem one-liners in my time, but that one wasn’t even original.

Nor did I have any respect for someone who chose their jaw over their fighting arm in a situation such as this. Had I really thought it was over, that I was really out of options, I would have spent my last to kill her. Even a dying dragon can spit fire.

But there is a wide gap between dying and dead, and I wasn’t ready to give up.

I didn’t bother with a pithy reply. I just loaded the heel of my good leg with Turis and shoved, hard, against the ground.

The stone split with the force of that leap.

I flew backwards ten, twenty, feet. The edge of the cliff passed beneath me. The freshly falling snow seemed to swirl all around me, above and below.

Then I dropped like stone.

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>

Chapter 7

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>

I led the way through Reality, half listening to the others talking behind me. Cass at the back with Isande, taking her through the fight in the temple for what had to be the third or fourth time, Isande occasionally stopping her to ask a pointed question.

Kirin walked alone, saying nothing. He was even more of a pariah than I was, for all that they pretended otherwise. No-one really trusted a traitor. Someone who turned once might turn again.

Not that I’d have that backstabbing piece of shit back for even a second.

Sanjay and Mako were playing chess, calling the moves to one another. I followed along for a while, watching the black and white pieces slide around the board in my mind’s eye. I’d used to like chess.

I had once been very good at it.

It was Carmen who stole my attention away from the game. She came up beside me as we crossed a desert of golden sand on a world called Terami. She walked with me in silence as the sun fell, and when it finally dipped below the horizon, she spoke.

‘I have hated you,’ she said. ‘I have wished terrible things upon you.’

‘That’s a crowded hole you’re in,’ I said.

She continued as if I had not spoken. ‘But you did not kill my Iago. Moreover, you now feel as I do regarding our true enemy.’ A pause as she struggled with something. ‘Sanjay and Isande have reminded me… you do not lie.’

Oh my, I thought to myself sarcastically. I’m all teary.

‘I once fought you with everything I had,’ she said. ‘But that was then. Today you are my ally in revenge. For this, you are my sister.’ She put a hand on my upper arm. ‘You are forgiven, for everything.’

I think I’m going to be sick.

Well,’ I said. ‘That’s nice.’

She snatched her hand back as she heard the poison in my voice.

‘Thing is, Carmen,’ I said, my eyes on the road ahead, ‘that’s a pretty easy thing for you to say. You forgive me? For what exactly? You and I barely crossed paths in the War. I never killed anyone you particularly liked, did I? Hell, when I put Telemens down you were probably wet with joy.’

A sharp intake of breath from Cass behind me. Mako and Sanjay paused in their game, listening.

I didn’t care.

‘You are…’ she began, but I wasn’t done.

‘But it’s not that easy. You think the War was all about you? You think I didn’t lose people?’ I stopped and rounded on her. ‘Maybe you should think,’ I said, ‘about what I’m doing now. About who I’m putting myself up against. And maybe, just maybe, you should go fuck yourself.’


Show no weakness.

Oh. Yeah. That.

I glanced back along the row of stunned faces. Even Isande’s cool façade had broken. Only Mako looked unfazed. But like I said, it is hard to tell with a lizard.

I let out a short laugh. Let the tension that had built within me unwind. ‘Wow,’ I said to Carmen, ‘I actually let you get to me.’

I went back to walking.

It was some time before conversation resumed.

*             *             *

We camped on Sandim, beside a mountain lake.

The air was cool, and crisp, the water clear above the rocky lakebed. There was an island a short distance from the shore, upon which stood a stand of pine trees. Isande swam out to collect firewood. Sanjay disappeared for an hour and returned, smugly, with a brace of long-necked, purple-feathered birds that according to him had the look of good eating.

I sat, and brooded.

I took care to appear perfectly relaxed, as if I was enjoying the scenery.

I wasn’t.

How had I, a woman who had never broken her word, ended up changing sides like this? Because that’s what it was. I was walking in step with Sanjay, and Carmen, and fucking Kirin, all ready to do Dalarion’s dirty work. On the other side were at least two of my closest friends, now turned to enemies. More, this was not just about Tancris. That had been obvious the moment Trickster had made her move. If she was involved as well then this was, like Mako had said, much bigger. The treaty was in ruins. Dalarion’s reasons for involving me were already obsolete.

The War was back on.

Oh, the scale was several orders of magnitude smaller than it had been, but it would be the same conflict. Exan had never been in favour of peace, and it seemed that he’d had as much of it as he could stomach.

He’s not going to stop with just Tancris. Oh no…

I could be wrong, but if I was right, if the War was recommencing as I had hoped and dreamed back in my darker moments on Sansara, what was I doing helping the Alliance?

Your word, I reminded myself. Is that not reason enough?

I was beginning to wonder if it was.

He didn’t ask.

That was closer to the heart of things. Exan hadn’t asked me. He hadn’t even tried. He had simply decided that it was time, all by himself. He had broken faith, broken his oath to me, and despite everything he had once been to me, for that I would kill him.

Hell hath no fury, after all.

I took a breath. Centred myself.

Went to where Isande was assembling the fire. Being aloof and apart was one thing. Hell, in my situation it was practically a given. But I could not be seen to be sulking. Not so soon after my earlier outburst.

I winced at the thought. It had probably not done my image any real harm. It might even have made some of them question the self-righteous bullshit Dalarion had had them eating for the past however-long. But I was embarrassed all the same, annoyed with myself for even that brief loss of control.

Show. No. Weakness.

Especially not to these people.

Only I had.

Damn, I need to hit something.

I paused at the thought. It actually wasn’t a bad idea.

Isande was just arranging the last few branches on her unlit campfire. She straightened as a I approached.

‘Hey,’ I said.

From her seat on a nearby stone, Cass glared murder.

Isande just raised an eyebrow.

‘Want to spar?’

She went still for a moment. But it wasn’t the same question I’d asked by the chaos-rift, and she knew the difference.

‘The others,’ she said, ‘they might get the wrong idea.’

I grinned at her. ‘That’s your excuse?’

Sanjay was down at the lakeside, plucking the feathers from his kills. Kirin had gone for a walk, and Mako and Carmen had disappeared off together for some sort of pow-wow. Yeah, they might leap to the wrong conclusion if they came back and saw me fighting Isande, but it wasn’t like it was an insurmountable obstacle.

‘I’ll owe you a favour,’ I said to her.

She raised an eyebrow. ‘You will put yourself in my debt? You?’

I nodded.

She hesitated, just for the look of the thing, but I’d already read the decision in her eyes.

‘This is a bad idea,’ said Cass, folding her arms.

‘Watch,’ said Isande. ‘Learn.’ A pause. ‘Make sure no-one does anything stupid.’ She gestured towards the lake, and her next words were addressed to me. ‘Down there, in the open space. ‘And no power.’

‘No power,’ I agreed.

We started slow. Straight punches, and hard, high blocks. We moved with measured steps. Together. Apart. Circle and counter-circle. It was more a dance than anything else, as if the moves had been pre-planned by some external choreographer. It was the exact opposite of how I usually opened a fight, but this wasn’t a fight, not really.

The tempo increased. I threw my combos at half speed and Isande responded with textbook competence. She slapped my jabs down with an open palm, slipped my crosses, rolled hooks. She returned in kind. Then I was snapping my left arm into her left wrist, and she was pulling back the cross she had been about to send, knowing that her fist would shatter on my rising elbow, and then…

And then we were a blur of motion. Our movement became wild, almost nonsensical, half in response to one another, half in our unspoken need to keep moving, to make sure this didn’t bog down into weary circling, or empty posturing, or even the exchange of conversation that sometimes occurred when both parties needed a rest. We didn’t need rest. We didn’t want rest. We wanted to keep going until forever

We took risks. I launched kicks at her head, despite the risk to my balance. She replied with a flying knee and was forced into a forward roll when I dodged. I chained three hooks together and grinned as she ducked them all. I tried combos I would never have thrown in a real fight, quadruple jabs, spinning kicks, at one stage a backflip…

We left the holds and takedowns alone. Neither of us wanted this to become the slow attrition of a close-quarter wrestling clinch. She threw me, twice, but I landed on my feet both times and threw her once by way of revenge. But I didn’t try to pin her down, nor she me, though in a real confrontation we both would have finished a downed opponent without hesitation or mercy. But this wasn’t a real confrontation, and there was no sense in ruining a dogfight by digging trenches.

It was exhilarating.

Eventually, as always, the flesh betrays.

We broke apart, spent. I was sheathed in sweat. I didn’t know how long we’d been going. It seemed like hours, but it always did and rarely was. That was combat for you. Isande was breathing hard, her clothes stuck to her skin, her blonde hair a mess. Blood leaked from her ruined lips, and she held one arm awkwardly at her side.

I became aware of Cass and the others watching us. I hadn’t even noticed them before, except, perhaps, as dim protesting shadows when I’d landed a blow on Isande.

I probed at my own injuries. I’d broken bones in my hand, but that was to be expected in a bare knuckle fight. I could feel the ache from my stomach muscles that betrayed heavy bruising, maybe even internal bleeding. My left ear was warm and heavy. There was a pulsing agony in the centre of my face that felt like a broken nose.

I opened my mouth, and realised that she’d broken my jaw.


It was expensive, in terms of power. Not as much as the fight with Trickster had cost me, but significant all the same.

But I needed that.

‘That… that was incredible,’ Cass was saying.

A snort from Carmen. ‘Flashy, certainly,’ she said, with a sneer, smoothing the hem of her white dress.

I grinned at her, my jaw now healed enough for me to speak. ‘Any time you want to have a go,’ I said, ‘all you have to do is ask.’

Sanjay was looking at Isande with disapproval. ‘Was that strictly necessary?’ he asked her.

Isande just looked at him. Not with anger, or disappointment exactly. It was the look of a queen who’d heard an impertinent remark for the first time in her life, and neither knew nor cared what it meant.

He sighed. ‘I’d better start cooking,’ he said, and headed for the fire.

‘Learn anything?’ said Isande to Cass.

Cass’s hero-worship was more palpable than usual. I barely listened to her gushing response, just enough to know that she’d missed the point Isande had been driving at. Like all good sensei’s, Isande was trying to make a lesson through her example. And the lesson, in this case, had not been about combat technique.

If I sparred with Isande as an equal, then until Cass could do the same she was nowhere near close to facing me for real.

By the sound of things, she hadn’t figured that out yet.

I watched the two of them for a moment, not listening to the words they said – not that I could hear them over Sanjay’ cursing attempts to light the fire without power – but watching their expressions. Watching Isande’s expression.

‘Hey Mako,’ I said.

She was sitting on a rock a few feet away, very still.

She looked around at my words. ‘Yes?’

‘Isande’s her mother, isn’t she?’

Mako shrugged. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Does it matter?’

‘No,’ I said, still watching. ‘I guess it doesn’t.’

*             *             *

‘I want to know what you’re planning,’ said Sanjay the next morning. ‘There is no longer any need for…’

‘That’s enough,’ I said, and increased my pace.

He really has no fucking idea, does he?

We were walking across a plain of ice. This world, Curia, was so cold that I was using Sansis to regulate my body temperature.  I could’ve conserved power by wearing some kind of protective gear, but frankly it wasn’t worth it. We weren’t planning an extended stay.

‘You tell us nothing!’ he snapped, and I couldn’t help but smile.

‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘I don’t.’

I felt his gaze on me, but when I refused to react he eventually spun away in frustration. I heard him fall in further back. He was expressing his frustration to Carmen, who made sympathetic noises.

‘I guess you’re still not going to talk about the Mirror,’ said Isande as we transitioned to a long snowy ridge. Mountains pierced the sky all around us and the air was crisp and cool. This was Altain, an empty world that had been spared the worst ravages of the War.

‘You guess correctly,’ I said. ‘Unless you want to call in your favour so soon after earning it?’

She laughed. ‘Oh, I’ll hold on to that marker for a while yet, Rukh. There are few who can claim to have the Last Evil in their debt.’

She clapped me on the shoulder, an oddly comradely gesture given our history. It was something she might’ve done back in the old days, before I had left the House, before the War. An echo of that long dead friendship, a hint that it might, despite all the two of us had done to one another, be one day revived.

Then she burned.

I mean it literally. One moment she was walking beside me, enviably beautiful beneath the light of the cold sun, and the next she was pillar of flame with a dancing, screaming figure at its heart. Her cry tore the air like incarnate loss. Smoke billowed from her eyes and mouth.


I whirled around.

A dark figure burst from the snow behind Mako.

Sanjay grabbed Carmen’s hand and flickered out of the world, back to Curia. Another dark figure leapt from the whiteness into the space where they had been.

Kirin vanished without drawing his blades.

Isande dropped limp into the snow, a twisted black mockery of what she had once been.

Cass was at her side in an instant.

Wake up, Rukh!

But the Faris binding was on me, settling over my shoulders like a silken net. It was the one offensive move in the discipline. It stopped the target from going off-world. They varied in strength but this one would hold me for half a day at least…

Wake up!           

Cass was gone now, taking Isande’s corpse with her. I had no doubt it was a corpse. He wouldn’t have risked using too little power.

I turned back slowly.

I knew who I was going to see.

I had been taken utterly by surprise. Not one of those attacks had been aimed at me, and my reactions had been sluggish. But it could’ve been me. It could’ve been me dancing in that pillar of flame instead of Isande, my brain smoked in my skull before I could bring any power to bear.


Not now, Rukh!

He stood in the snow, steam rising from the muscle of his bare arms, the snow reduced to slush around his booted feet. His handsome face was crooked in a grin that just showed the tips of his fangs.

There were others around him. I barely noticed them. My tactical brain counted five, noted the dark uniforms that we hadn’t used since the War, picked out the one face I remembered from four I didn’t. This lot were his disciples then…

All of them.

He’s been raising people to the power, I realised. Recruiting.

Then off the back of that another, fiercer thought, right from the pulsing centre of my very self.

Show no weakness.

Not now. Especially not now.

So I pulled a smile up from somewhere and looked him right in the eye.

‘Hey Exan,’ I said.

His grin widened, just a fraction. ‘Hey you,’ he said, and then he was stepping forward, arms opened wide.

He embraced me. I felt something inside me melt and I put my arms around his torso to return that embrace. His skin was still sizzling from the fire he had unleashed, but I didn’t care. His smell was as I remembered. He held me with the same unshakable strength he had always held me. Within those arms I wasn’t the Last Evil or the Black Queen, but just me. The real, trembling, unmasked and undefended core of me.

Show no weakness.

I pulled away.

Took stock of the situation.

The others were gone, fled from this world. Only Mako remained, held in the grip of a tall woman in black uniform. She had Mako’s head between her palms, ready to crush it at the slightest provocation. I could think of a few ways out of that position, but none I’d want to try against a watchful opponent. And Mako wasn’t a fighter. She was a thinker, a planner.

‘Not going to go after the others?’ I asked Exan.

He shrugged at me. ‘I’ve got people who will track them,’ he said. ‘We’ll take them when the time is right.’ He gestured at Mako. ‘She’s the important one. That lizard’s got every secret the Alliance ever had locked up in her head.’

I glanced at Mako again. She wasn’t struggling. Her yellow eyes were flat, her red-scaled face impassive.

‘Good luck getting her to talk,’ I said.

‘Ha, done enough interrogations in my time, you know that.’ He grinned at me. ‘She’ll squeal. Promise.’

A pause.

I thought of Isande burning in the snow and I felt the pang of another loss. I had known her since I’d first been raised to the power. With her gone…

Not now, Rukh!

‘What are you doing, Exan?’ I asked, at last.

The snow shifted around us. His disciples kept still, but their eyes were on him, waiting for their cue.

‘We have the advantage, now,’ he said. ‘In so many different ways. The Alliance was mostly disbanded – if we take out Dalarion and the others it’ll be gone for good. We can finish the War, Rukh. We can win.’

I nodded slowly.

‘Thing is, Exan,’ I said, ‘I already finished the War.’ I smiled. ‘There was a treaty and everything.’

He went very still. Around him, his disciples tensed. He looked at me, hurt in his eyes, and I looked right back, unflinching.

Show no weakness.

‘I have been a shadow since the War,’ said Exan. ‘So have you. The Alliance went back to their lives and all was well, but us? We lost everything we’d fought for. It all turned out to be for nothing. No empires, no kingdoms, right back where we’d started with only dead friends and new enemies to show for it.’ He shook his head. ‘I’ve had enough, Rukh. Tancris was the first. Isande made a decent second and this scaly bitch will do for dessert. But I want the rest of them. I want Dalarion.’

‘Oh Exan,’ I said, flashing him a mocking smile, ‘I feel almost the same way.’ I let my face grow steely cold. ‘But my word is as iron. You broke your oath to me. You broke faith with the Dark Pact. Don’t you recall the punishment?’

I took a step towards him.

He flinched.

‘The treaty was a betrayal of everything we stood for. I see that now. Our oaths were dust long before I…’

‘You could’ve asked,’ I said to him. ‘They did. I doubt Tancris’s body was even cold before Isande was on her way to fetch me. If you’d but asked…’

‘You said…’

‘I am always careful what I swear to,’ I told him. ‘Do you really think, that if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t have destroyed that treaty without ever going against my promise? That I couldn’t have baited them into to breaking it? You know me, Exan. You, above all others, know what I am capable of.’

I took another step forwards.

‘So don’t pretend this is about the War, or about promises, or about the treaty. This is just you trying to go it alone, to step out from my shadow. You’ve sacrificed everything that was ever between us to that cause. And you know it.’

Pain in his features now. ‘It doesn’t have to be this way.’

I smiled a mirthless smile and shook my head. ‘You fucked up, Exan. Because it does have to be this way. My word is as iron. Always has been. I won’t break a promise, not even for you.’

‘Trickster said…’

I laughed, pouring every ounce of scorn into my voice that I could. ‘That psycho? Oh, she’s lost her shit in a big way. It only took five minutes with her to see that. I mean, she was a bit off back in the War, but now she’s finally fallen out of the crazy tree for good. If you’re letting her lead you around by the nose, then you’re dumber than I thought.’


Exan stood there for a moment, and then, very slowly, shook his head. ‘Enemies, then?’ he asked me, and though he kept his voice light I could see the pain in his eyes.

He wasn’t alone in that. That embrace had to be the last one. Those arms could never hold me again, because if I was ever again that close I would be killing him. I had known this since Trickster had stepped off of the pedestal, even if I hadn’t admitted it to myself until now. Oh, I wanted to make it all simple again. To be at his side and the rest of Reality be damned. But I never broke a promise. The moment I did, I was nothing.

That was not a fate I could face.

I kept my own pain off my face. Kept my eyes cold, as though I were pronouncing death on some unknown mortal, instead of upon my closest friend and erstwhile lover.

I nodded. ‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘I’m afraid so. So how about we get this done?’

He sighed. ‘I’m not going to fight you, Rukh,’ he said. ‘Not the way you want me to.’ He glanced back at the tall woman who was holding Mako. ‘Give her here.’

‘I like Mako about as well as any of them,’ I said, as Exan took hold of his prisoner, ‘but if you think you can coerce me…’

‘Oh no,’ said Exan, shaking his head. ‘No, I know you better than that. I guess I just don’t particularly want to see this, Rukh. Not ashamed to admit it either.’ He paused, and there was something in his eyes, something fragile, precarious, a hurt that it hurt to see. ‘You know I loved you, once?’

That was an exaggeration. I had been his mentor and he had looked up to me. I was a woman. He had been young. A certain amount of lust had been inevitable… but love?

‘More fool you,’ I said aloud.

He winced, and then turned to his disciples. ‘Kill her,’ he said, and then turned walked away, Mako marched before him with the blade still at her throat.

He did not look back.

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>


Chapter 6

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>

There was some preparation necessary before we could enter the city. I was wearing jeans and a sleeveless top, which hadn’t quite caught on in Ista yet, and Cass’s yellow-and-grey banded skin would be like nothing the Uribani had ever seen. In some places you could get away with it – people would assume you were in costume or that you had exotic tastes – but not in Ista. Not in an insular, patriarchal society where dress was a major indicator of caste.

There were two ways to disguise oneself with power. The expensive option was to fabricate such a disguise with Bayis, and alter one’s features with Ensis. This took time and a lot of power. The other option was to mess with the light.

The discipline was called Illumis. It involved adjusting how the photons in your immediate vicinity were reflected. It took a certain amount of skill and a good understanding of optics, but it was pretty versatile. The illusion itself took some power to create, but maintaining it once you had it in place was wonderfully cheap. Of course, the illusions it produced were just that – illusions. It did nothing to change your shape or mass and it did nothing to hide your taint.

It was tricky enough to learn, for all its ease of use, and I was mildly impressed with how detailed Cass’s disguise was. Clearly she’d put a lot of effort in.

We walked down to the city together, wearing the images of old women. Blue robes, stooped backs, hair bound in headscarves and olive skin crinkled with the lines of mortal living. We passed others on the road who looked much as we did and we exchanged illusory nods and fanged smiles but dared no words.

‘You know they’ll kill you if I don’t come back,’ said Cass, as we stepped through the city gate.

I didn’t know if that was supposed to be an attempt at humour or a genuine threat, and I didn’t much care.

Besides, she was probably right.

The gates of Ista were wide open to admit the evening traffic. There was a guard leaning against the side of the stone archway, smoking a cigarette. An assault rifle dangled from a strap around his neck. His clothing was loose grey cloth, effective camouflage in such barren country. A headscarf hid much of his face.

‘Danis,’ I said to Cass. She gave me a look, but to her credit didn’t question me.

Illumis was all well and good for hiding from mortals, but if you wanted to hide from one of our kind then you needed to go a little further. My eyes were utterly deceived by Cass’s Uribani disguise, but I could still see her taint. I knew that she wasn’t mortal.

Danis was the art of hiding one’s taint. It meant drawing the power that pervaded your flesh back into your internal well. It was uncomfortable, like holding your breath, and you could draw only the faintest trickle of power while you held it. But if Exan was here in Ista still, it would make us effectively invisible to him.

Not that I thought he was. But it paid to be careful.

I felt Cass’s chaos taint vanish from my perceptions and I focused my own will inward. The power drained out of me, leaving a horrific sense of vulnerability in its wake. I ran a thin trickle of energy out into my illusion and did my best to ignoring the hot, seething sensation building in my chest.

Been a while since you’ve had to do this…

But “had to do it” was the right phrase. Anyone of our kind could spot another’s taint just by looking at them. Worse, you could spot the taint at ranges beyond those of mundane eyesight, or when that eyesight was obscured.

If someone was waiting in the city for us, then a scan of the horizon would probably be enough to tell them that Isande and the others were there. They wouldn’t know exactly where, but they’d have an idea of a general vicinity.

In the War, use of Danis had been routine. You never knew when someone from the other side would turn up to take you out. My standing orders to the rest of the Dark Pact had been that if they weren’t using power, they needed to be suppressing it.

Of course, the War was over, and it seemed the veterans of both sides had gone a little lax.

I pushed these thoughts away and focused on the city around us. It hadn’t changed all that much since I’d last been here. But then, that was the way of things when you built from solid stone. Quarrying the stuff was not easy, and people didn’t demolish and rebuild for the sake of fashion. Given the work involved, they made do with previous generations’ aesthetic instead.

The citizens dressed in long flowing garments in a variety of riotous colours. Here and there I saw more soldiers walking the streets in military grey. There didn’t appear to be much distinction between their military and their police.

There never was. The Patriarch has all the power here.

Of course, that was supposition. It was a while since I’d been on Uriban and even longer since I’d been in Ista. The buildings hadn’t changed but the politics might’ve. I really had no way of knowing.

‘When we get there,’ I said to Cass, ‘it would be best if you said nothing. I will introduce you as a disciple and let them assume that you are my disciple. This will grant you their respect.’


We turned a corner. Up ahead was the building I was looking for, a single story block of stone, entrance flanked by smooth columns, roof topped with an impressive dome. Things changed, but stone lasted. It was part of the reason we had chosen this place. In Ista they wore their past around them here, more so than in other places. The face of their city endured, as did their traditions. Memory spanned the generations.

Useful traits in a mortal culture. Well, useful for us at any rate.

I paused to glance up at the dome. No small feat of engineering that, when all you had to work with was stone and a few crude hand tools. But then, mortals put in all manner of effort when it came to their temples.

‘They call themselves the Cult of Rukh,’ I said.

‘The what?’

But by then we were already at the entrance.

There was no guard. There was no door, either, just the neat, rectangular opening and the dark room beyond.

I stepped inside.

It had not changed at all.

A circular room, not unlike the meeting hall at the House. I wondered if that design had influenced me, back when I’d let Desikim set this place up. I disliked the thought. I disliked the idea that anything of mine could be tainted by something of Dalarion’s.

And yet you sought followers, said a voice in the back of my mind. Just as he did. Just as he always has. The only difference being, you admitted it.

I pushed the voice aside. This was not the time to second guess myself.

The far wall was lined with statues. Five in total, each one eminently lifelike. They had been carved from stone, but layered with painted wax. If I hadn’t known better, they might’ve passed for living people.

A sharp intake of breath from Cass.

In the centre, right opposite the doorway, was my own likeness staring back. Oh, I was a fraction taller, my waist a fraction slimmer, my bare arms showing better muscle definition than I had these days, but it was me all right. I was wearing black combat fatigues, the jacket hanging open. My hands were raised and in this light, the wax was indistinguishable from skin. They’d even managed to get the eyes right – they glistened the way real eyeballs glistened. No doubt some acolyte had the job of dabbing them with water each day so as to maintain the illusion.

Exan had commissioned these statues. He’d been very keen that they look as like us as possible, a living record for our followers and guarantor of instant obedience whenever we returned.

His statue stood to the right of mine, lean and hungry, mouth crooked in a grin that showed his fanged incisors, body clad in the fighting leathers he had always preferred. On my statue’s left stood Trickster, a diminutive woman in a short sleeved tunic, one clawed hand extended outward, proffering a fanned deck of cards. On the outer edges were Tollan Esparatos and Desikim. Esparatos on the left in a grey battledress, his weapon, Laya, gripped in one feathered hand. Desikim on the right, face half hidden by her cowl, the black silk robe and its meaningless silver symbols bound tight against her form.

The leaders of the Dark Pact, and its original members. Or, to the mortals that came to worship in this place, a pantheon of capricious gods.

There was a woman kneeling at the base of my statue, adding a lit candle to the masses that had already gathered there. She stood, lowered the hood of her robe to shake free a wave of red hair, and turned.

For a moment I thought it was going to be Desikim.

It wasn’t. It was a mortal with a squashed face and a pug nose. She smiled as we entered, baring her fanged teeth.

‘Welcome,’ she said. ‘Have you come to look at the shrine? Or are you of the faithful?’

I dropped my Ilumis in response. I released Danis.

She froze.

For a moment all was still. I felt the resumption Cass’s chaos taint as she too threw off her disguise.

The mortal took a step forward slowly, and then ran her hand across the contours of my face. I bore this in silence.

Eventually she took a step back and shuddered.

‘My lady,’ she said, licking her lips. ‘You have returned.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I am wondering how truly faithful you have remained.’

She swallowed. ‘I have tended this shrine since the duty was passed to me by my father. I keep close contact with the rest of the Cult and it pleases me to say that we are strong in this city. We have become the religion of the powerful. We spread your teachings. The records are still kept, just as you once commanded.’

I said nothing. Beside me, Cass shifted uneasily.

The priestesses eyes flicked across to her, ever so briefly.

‘A disciple,’ I said. ‘You make speak freely in front of her. More freely than you have so far. You have more to tell me.’

A fairly obvious deduction but it is amazing what an ignorant mortal will read into it.

‘Lord Exan passed through here some months ago,’ she said.

I’ll bet he did.

I felt Cass tense, and hoped she had the sense to keep her mouth shut.

‘He had instructions for me. For the rest of Cult.’

Now that was news to me.

The Cult had been Exan’s responsibility. The whole false religion angle had started with Desikim, but the Cult was on Uriban and Exan was Uribani. It had been his during the War, and it had been agreed that he would keep tending to it during peacetime. I had known that he would pass through every few years or so to keep an eye, but instructions, orders…

I folded my arms. ‘Do elaborate,’ I said.

The priestess nodded, eager to please. ‘He told us to…’

She stopped, suddenly. Her eyes were wide, wider than they had been when I had shown myself earlier. Her head craned back, exposing her throat. A small, pathetic moan forced its way from between her lips.

Blood ran from her nose.

Then she pitched forward, face first. A hollow thud as she hit the floor. The kind of noise a dead body makes when falling.

The exact kind of noise in fact.

A rasp of steel on leather as Cass drew her sword.

A thin rectangular object was buried in the back of the priestess’s skull. A wafer of painted obsidian.

A playing card.

I looked up. One of the statues was stepping down off of its pedestal, a sheaf of stone cards spread in each clawed hand like throwing knives, a grin across those all-too familiar features.

Not a statue.

‘Oh the look on your face.’

I sighed. ‘Hello Trickster,’ I said.

*             *             *

Trickster. No other name given. She had been my spymaster in the War, the commander of my intelligence corps, mortal and otherwise. She had also been my partner in research and development – her knowledge of the disciplines had been extensive, as had her knowledge of mortal science. I knew very little about her past before the War, though I’d run into her on several occasions when I’d still been a disciple.

She had been obsessed with chaos.

Beside me, Cass was quivering, sword in hand.

Show no weakness.

‘Relax,’ I told her, ‘Trickster is an old friend.’ I made an apologetic face at Trickster. ‘She’s heard too many stories, I’m afraid. Makes her a little nervous.’

‘Oh, oh she should be,’ said Trickster, boyish hair bouncing as she did a little jig. ‘I am so very, very dangerous, after all.’ She winked at me with one mad eye, and then suddenly sobered. ‘She’s not your disciple, is she, Rukh? Or did you think I’d miss that?’

‘No, she isn’t,’ I said. ‘And no, I didn’t. But I didn’t think you’d murder our high priestess either. What’s gotten into you?’


I just looked at her.

‘So maybe I’m a little loopy at the moment,’ said Trickster, suddenly defensive. Or mock defensive, it was hard to tell. ‘But I’ve been standing up here for ages. I’m so stiff. I had to kill her, just to limber up.’

I sighed. ‘Of course you did.’ I gave her a hard look. ‘Where’s Exan? And why don’t you want me to know what he’s up to?’

Trickster rolled her eyes at me. ‘Oh, Rukh,’ she said, ‘just because I killed her doesn’t mean I was trying to keep something quiet! You are so silly!’

I knew better than to trust that. My experience was that she would keep a solemn oath, but lie like fuck the rest of the time. She did so without shame or apology, the same way she did everything.

‘Where’s Exan?’ I asked her again.

She spread her hands and shrugged. ‘Now? Who can say?’ Her eyes went to Cass. ‘But that’s not the interesting question, oh no. The interesting question, the really, really interesting question, is what you’re doing here with Telemens Dax’s daughter.’

Cass tensed.

‘Look,’ I said to Trickster, ‘it’s like this. Tancris is dead. The Alliance think Exan is responsible. I need to find him and find the truth. If he is, then he’s broken the treaty and therefore his oath to me.’ I smiled. ‘You remember the penalty for that, don’t you?’

Trickster bit her lip. Cocked her head to one side.

‘No,’ she said. ‘No.’ She shook her head violently. ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ She was still suddenly, eyes fixed on mine. ‘I don’t like that, Rukh, I don’t like that one bit.’ An ominous clacking sound as her clawed fingers shuffled the stone cards. She took a breath.

‘Die,’ she said.

A thousand implications in that word, and no time to sort through them. No time to think what this might mean, no time to wonder if she was in league with Exan or if she’d finally lost her mind. No time to…

I moved.

Trickster was already leaping back, arm whipping around for the throw, and I knew I wouldn’t reach her in time. I put my forearms up in front of my face to shield it and a dozen cards shattered on my Kasis-reinforced limbs. One slipped through to hammer into my forehead, but that too broke against my reinforced skin – I wasn’t going to fuck around, not with Trickster.

I dropped my arms, still stinging from the impact. Saw her slipping backward between the statues.

I jumped forward, up onto the pedestal, and lost half my cheek for my trouble. Her claws just tore it out of my face in a single swipe. I felt hot blood splashing down my neck and the burning of severed nerve endings. I ignored it, jabbing forward, but Trickster was slipping back further and further, covering her retreat with a flurry of slashing claws.

I was dimly aware of Cass yelling something behind me, but I ignored her. Couldn’t she see that I was busy?

I rolled under the next strike and for one beautiful split second I had a clean shot at Trickster’s belly.

I whipped a shovel hook through the gap, fast as anything, not knowing if I was to break my fist on Kasis-reinforced skin or deliver a winding strike, but already planning the uppercut and the horizontal elbow that would follow…

I never made contact.

Cold hands seized me from behind.

My hands.

I glanced back into the eyes of my own statue, the wax cracking and falling from the limbs as the stone shifted beneath it like a living thing.

Trickster’s laughter echoed around the chamber.

‘You have got to be fucking kidding me!’ I said as the statue brought back its fist to strike.


The statues had been replaced with ima. Or perhaps they had always been ima, perhaps Trickster had put this trap in place long ago without telling me.

Not good…

I thrust the blade of a hand against my statue’s wrist to try and lever myself free, but there were no muscles or tendons to put pressure on, only unyielding stone. The fist shot towards my face faster than I would’ve believed.

I jerked my head to the side and the fist missed. The fingers of its other hand were digging into my flesh now, tightening more and more.

The sound of steel hitting stone echoed through the chamber.


You’re in trouble, Rukh.

I chopped at the statue’s wrist again, but this time I loaded my hand with Turis and Kasis, and the stone shattered. I twisted out of its grasp and nearly lost my head to a chambered side kick from statue-Exan.

I rolled, came up behind it and snapped a kick of my own into its lower back. Statue-Exan stumbled forward into my statue, and they both went down with a crash.

Cass backed into view, cutting savagely at statue-Desikim’s face with her katana. Sparks flew from the stone with a bone-juddering screech, but the ima didn’t slow in its advance.

I moved to help but statue-Esparatos was in my way, the wax mask fallen from its stone features, the grey plumage reduced to greyer stone. It came forward as if to embrace me, and I stepped back to avoid the crush of those powerful arms.

It raised its leg to kick and I saw my opening and seized its ankle. I sent a burst of Turis through my hands – expensive without the punch to focus it – and the leg exploded like a bomb. Fragments slashed at my bare arms but I didn’t care. Statue-Esparatos stumbled and fell.

Something twisted and metallic clattered off the wall behind me.

Cass’s sword.

She was backing up before Desikim’s statue, empty handed. The ima seemed undamaged – the robe it wore had been sliced to pieces but the stone bore only a few superficial scratches.

I started forward again, but even as I did so Cass lunged forward with a jab and blasted the thing’s head apart.

The statue’s limbs locked solid, inert once more. No longer an ima, now just a thing.

Cass met my gaze with a self-satisfied smile.

I pointed to the fallen statue in front of me and then over to where statue-me and statue-Exan still struggled to rise. ‘Finish them off,’ I told her, and cast my gaze about for Trickster.

There was a small doorway behind where the statues had stood. I hadn’t seen it before. I had no idea where it led.

I made right for it.

*             *             *

She was waiting for me in the room beyond, her face twisted in a grin.

I slowed when I saw her. ‘What was the point of all that?’ I asked, her, raising my hands.

She shrugged and tilted her head to one side. ‘What’s the point of anything?’

I rolled my shoulders. ‘You know I’m going to kill you now, right?’

She laughed, swiping at the air with her claws. ‘Your face looks better with holes in it,’ she said. ‘Much better. I wonder how many other holes I’ll put in you before…’ She tailed off, her expression twisting in sudden rage. The change was terrifying all by itself. ‘You betrayed us!’ she spat. ‘I didn’t join you for peace! I joined you for WAR!’

And then she was hurtling across the gap between us.

I sidestepped, swinging my arm out into the space where she’d been. The strike was unenhanced and I bruised the bone against Kasis-hard flesh. I leapt back, ignoring the spike of pain running through me. Claws raked across my belly, tearing fabric and flesh.

I lashed out with Turis-loaded front kick…

It connected. Trickster was blasted off her feet by the force of it. She hit the ground with an audible crack.

I was on her a second later. No matter that I hadn’t expected the attack to work. No matter that I’d thought she’d redirect the force. This was an opening and I had to take it. Once they were on the ground they were a heartbeat from dead. Don’t give them time to recover, don’t…

I froze.

Trickster was sitting up, one hand behind her to support her weight. The other was two feet away, broken off by the impact. There was no blood. The break was bleached of colour, the illusion that had run through it damaged. Grey stone showed its jagged edge.

‘Surprise,’ said statue-Trickster.

I shook my head in admiration. ‘You are one sneaky bitch,’ I said.

She smiled and in a sing-song voice said: ‘Oh I’m so looking forward to doing this for real!’

I nodded. ‘Me too.’

Then I kicked statue-Trickster’s head apart and went back to find Cass.

*             *             *

She was standing over my statue, which was relatively intact but having some trouble getting itself off the ground. It had lost an arm at the shoulder when I’d thrown the other statue into it, and when it tried to push itself off of the floor with the other arm, the weight of its unsupported shoulder kept pulling it back down.

Design flaw, I thought with some amusement.

Of course, the foot Cass had on its back might’ve been part of it.

‘Oh just kill it already,’ I said to her.

She looked up at me, the vestigial gills at her neck flaring, and then the rage that burned in her eyes slowly subsided. She gave a curt nod, and then pulverised the statue’s head, with a single stamp.

The faintest ghost of a smile passed across her face.

‘Don’t look too happy,’ I told her. ‘The real me won’t be so easy.’

She tensed, and then relaxed. Turned to me.

‘What happened to Trickster?’

I shrugged. ‘Wasn’t her. Just an upgraded version of one of these.’

I sent Ensis to my face and belly as I spoke. There was a stone card sticking out of my shoulder- I had no recollection of the impact. I tugged it free and let the wound heal close. This had been an expensive fight. I reckoned I would’ve spent about a third of my reserve by the time I was back to optimum.

Had I been alone, I would’ve spent a lot more. If I’d run out…

If I’d run out, I would’ve died.

Not a cheery thought, that.

‘So who were you talking to then?’ Cass asked me.

I thought for a moment. ‘Good question,’ I said at last. ‘I think it was her controlling it. I think it was her mind in that stone shell.’

She had knew me too well for it to have been anything else.

Most of us stopped at making one or two ima in our lives. It involved working with raw chaos, usually at a rent, and that meant difficult, dangerous work. I myself had made more than most. But Trickster had made hundreds in her time, wielding Akisis with no heed for the potential consequences.

The statue had had her expressions, her mannerisms…

There was a discipline, Bayis, that allowed you conjure and shape solid matter. Was that how she’d done it – how she’d made the stone flow like skin and muscle, how she’d fooled me so completely? Or was it all Illumis, an in-built manipulation of the light? However they worked, the ima had been masterfully made.

Do not forget what she is capable of.

‘Was she controlling the others?’ asked Cass. ‘None of them talked but…’

‘I doubt they had any intellect of their own,’ I said, ‘if that’s what you’re asking.’ I closed my eyes. The implications…

“Oh I am so looking forward to doing this for real.”

‘You spoke to her like she was your friend,’ said Cass, and I heard the accusation in her voice. ‘She killed someone right in front of you, someone who worshipped you, and you didn’t even blink. You shrugged it off like it was less than nothing.’

I opened my eyes.

‘You have a point?’ I said. But I knew where this was going. It looked like fighting alongside me hadn’t instilled any respect in the girl. Or maybe she’d enjoyed breaking that statue of me just a bit too much.

‘You were going to let her get away with murder,’ she said. ‘If she hadn’t attacked you’d have just got what you needed from her and walked away, wouldn’t you?’

‘Probably,’ I agreed.

Her jaw slackened in surprise.

Oh, there were a lot of things I could’ve said. That Trickster had been one of mine more so than the priestess had been. That while I hadn’t approved, I had sworn oaths to Trickster and she to me. I could not have broken them. Only when she’d turned her art against me directly had those bonds been sundered.

I could’ve said all of that. But if I defended myself to Cass then I supported her right to question me. Worse, I would show weakness. I would show the hole in my side where the loyalty of my lieutenants had once been. I would show the pain I bore for a friend lost to the corruption of chaos.

Trickster had always been a bit strange, but it looked like she’d finally gone full-on nuts. Worse, she’d suggested that not only had Exan killed Tancris, but that she was in league with him. If that was true…

If that’s true, I thought to myself, then I know where he is. Or at least, I know where he’s going.

‘Come on,’ I said to Cass, heading for the door. ‘Let’s get back to the others.

*             *             *

What happened?’ asked Isande, when we caught up with them.

I glanced at her. ‘Trickster left a trap for us,’ I said.

For me.

There was no escaping that part. Only five of us had known the location of that temple, and even if those ima had been there since the War, the only reason for not telling me about them would’ve been to use them against me. She must’ve known I would come looking for Exan once I heard about what he’d done, and she had lain in wait with the intention of stopping me.

She may have been crazy, but that was not the same as stupid. For all that she had made me say it, she had known why I was there.

‘Trickster?’ Kirin tensed at her name. ‘What would she be…’

‘You think she is in league with Exan?’ asked Sanjay. ‘That she had something to do with Tancris’s murder?’

I was tempted to tell him that I didn’t give a fuck about Tancris’s murder. That Trickster had broken the treaty right in front of me when she’d set those ima on Cass and I. That she’d broken her oaths to me in the most profound sense possible. But I knew he wouldn’t care about these things, not the way I cared about them.

Nor was he clever enough to understand what this might mean.

‘If she helped kill my love,’ said Carmen, ‘I will…’ She hooked her fingers into claws, the sentence dying as she sought for a suitable vow.

I shook my head. ‘There’ll be a queue,’ I told her.

No one is getting to Trickster before me.

Mako let out a small, delicate cough. ‘One member of the Dark Pact breaking the treaty is a comparatively small thing,’ she said, with an apologetic shrug. ‘Two suggests something more.’

A frown from Cass. ‘What are you saying?’

Oh, not now, Mako. Not here.

I took a step forward. ‘We should get moving,’ I said, and then glanced over at Isande. ‘I want you bringing up the rear,’ I said to her. ‘Eyes keen.’

She inclined her head by way of response, and I knew she understood.

‘Hold on,’ said Sanjay. ‘You haven’t explained…’

I waved a hand to dismiss him. ‘Cass can fill you all in once we’re off world. Right now, we need to get moving.’

‘I don’t take orders from you!’

I shrugged. ‘Then go home,’ I told him. ‘Or stay here. Whatever you like. But I can’t be bothered to have this conversation again. It’s getting boring.’

I started walking.

It had occurred to me that if Trickster had been controlling that statue the way I suspected, then she would have to have been on Uriban to do it. If she’d been on Uriban then, then the chances were pretty good that she was still here. I was willing to bet, in fact, that she had us under observation and was listening to everything we said.

I could guess what her next move was going to be, too.

Well, Exan, you two-faced bastard. I guess you know we’re coming…

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>


Chapter 5

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>

I thought about walking right out of the House and back out into Reality. I wanted to. Each step would be another strike at Dalarion, another brick removed from the foundations of his power. The War hadn’t finished him, but I took vicious pleasure in the thought that the treaty could.

But I had unfinished business in the House. Business I’d left for far too long.

I headed back up to the dojo.

The lesson was over and the disciples had gone, but Kirin was still there. He had hung a heavy bag from one of the roof beams and was whaling on with a speed and strength that no mortal fighter could’ve hoped to match.

I watched him for a time, remembering the first imaski training camps. They had all started out as mortals – Ashmari, Kaban, Kandori… I’d taken anyone who I thought was good enough, regardless of race or gender. I’d trained each one of them personally, and I’d begun when they were just ordinary soldiers. I’d wanted them to be the best despite the strength and power that came from the imaskibrew, not because of it.

Kirin had remembered his lessons. I could see echoes of my own motion in his movements, as I could with anyone I’d trained.

The imaski had been bred with the expectation that they would face those who’d been raised to the power in the traditional way. They were strong, and they were fast, and their armour was thick. They had a natural healing factor to compensate for their lack of Ensis. Their lifespans matched our own. But more importantly, much more importantly, they had the ability to walk the worlds as we did. I had made good use of imaski strike teams in the War, both as shock troops in conventional conflicts, and against my own kind.

Eventually Kirin turned from the bag, no sign of the sweat or fatigue that would’ve marked a human fighter.

‘I have a question,’ I asked him.

He just looked at me, a flat gaze full of ever-familiar hatred.

‘Do you plan to face me eventually, or are you going to run and hide for the rest of your life? Hope that someone else gets to me before I get to you?’

He spat off to one side. ‘I will face you,’ he said.

I nodded. ‘I know better than to trust your word,’ I said to him. ‘So I’ve no plans to wait. But…’

‘When this is over. When Exan is dealt with.’

His voice, deep and masculine, quavered just a little when he said Exan’s name. He was afraid of him.

Of course he is. Exan hunted him just as fiercely as I did. It was not only me he betrayed. He betrayed us all.

‘Just like that?’ I raised an eyebrow. ‘After all the running and hiding?’

‘Maybe I’ve run enough.’

I smiled. ‘You certainly have.’ I took a step towards him. ‘Do you remember their names, I wonder? Skaro. Enji. Telmach…’

He turned away. ‘Enough,’ he said. ‘I remember.’

‘I will do you a favour, traitor,’ I said, ‘I won’t kill you in your sleep.’ I made to go, and then, at the threshold, I paused. ‘Find me on Sansara,’ I said. ‘But I won’t wait forever.’

*             *             *

Isande caught me in the hallway. She simply stepped into my path, blocking the exit. I felt a surge of anticipation. Was this it? Were they finally going to show their true colours?

‘You said no,’ she said to me. It wasn’t a question.

‘You knew?’

She nodded. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Dalarion never believed that you were responsible. Neither, to be honest, did I. That is why he asked me to come for you, rather than Carmen or Sanjay.’

I wondered, briefly, how things would’ve turned out had it been Carmen who had shown up on Sansara. We would still have fought, and probably to the death. Assuming I’d survived, what would I have done?

Declared the treaty broken, probably. The War would have begun anew, just as Dalarion feared.

Part of me longed for that. The War had made things relatively simple after all.

‘He didn’t ask though, did he?’ I said to Isande. ‘He sent you. The way he sent you from that room. You do not stand as equals in this House. He is not a man who believes in equals.’

She frowned at me, but said nothing.

I made to go.

‘Wait,’ she said.

I smiled at her. ‘Going to fight me, Isande? Because otherwise I’m really not interested.’

‘I want you to change your mind.’

I laughed at her. ‘You don’t get it, do you? I don’t care. I don’t care if you people go to war a second time. I don’t care that Tancris is dead. I don’t care about any of it! Weren’t you looking at the floor earlier? I’m  still the Last Evil, Isande.’ I shook my head. ‘Get someone else to save you.’

Something flashed in her eyes.


This bitch is laughing at me?

‘Where are you going to go, Rukh?’ she asked. ‘What are you going to do?’

I hesitated. I cursed myself for it but it was too late, she’d landed a hit and now she knew it. Because what was I going to do? I had, in some way, been asking myself that question since I’d signed the treaty.

And, frankly, I hadn’t found an answer.

‘Don’t you want to fight Exan?’

I stared at her.

I hadn’t even thought of that.

Exan was tough. We’d sparred once or twice but never gone at it in earnest. He had been my loyal lieutenant, after all.

I wondered, then, if I had turned Dalarion down because of anything he’d said to me, or just for the simple fact that it had been Dalarion who was asking. Or maybe because of my contempt for all that fate-of-the-multiverse crap.

Or maybe…. Maybe because of the one argument he’d made that had made sense. Had made so much sense that it wasn’t even an argument.

I will be true to you so long as you are true to me….

Oh, there was some leeway in that oath. But if Exan had broken the treaty, a treaty I had commanded him to obey, then it wasn’t really open to interpretation. He had broken faith, and I had made clear what the consequences of that were. I had spoken them aloud and my word was as iron.

I had hated Dalarion for reminding me of that. Also, if I was honest, I had hated the prospect of hunting down someone who had once been so close to me.

Only here was a different way of looking at things. A chance to fight Exan in deadly earnest…

‘You’re a vile temptress, Isande,’ I said, shrugging my shoulders. ‘But you’ve got me. Okay. I’ll deal with him.’

A genuine smile spread across her face. ‘Good.’

I raised a hand to forestall her. ‘On one condition…’

*             *             *

The staircase led down through the bedrock.

I followed Isande down the cut steps, and wondered where it was we were going. Back when I’d been Dalarion’s student, this stair had led only to the chaos-rent at the House’s base.

I could feel its pull as we came closer. Chaos represented power, but it was a dangerous power. It sang to us with its potential.

It was not enough, sometimes, to simply draw off the radiated energies. A chaos-rent represented an opportunity to do so much more.

Jump in. Emerge elsewhere. No need for the torturous climb back up to the gates of the House. Here was the exit, if you were bold enough to take it. No matter that I had seen what happened to those who made that leap. They were not me.

Bind it. I had performed that ritual more than once, but only once upon myself. What if it could be performed again? Oh, they said it was impossible, but the meek said that about oh so many things. I had done so much with a comparatively modest well of power. What might I do with more?

Widen it. That was the most seductive song of all. I felt its call whenever I stood near a rent, the same way I felt that horrific, self-destructive urge to jump whenever I stood near a high cliff. Feed power back into the rent, crumble the fabric of reality at its borders. Keep going, until the radiating chaos was strong enough to crumble reality all by itself. The growth would become self-sustaining.

In that way, you could sign the death warrant for an entire world.

But we did not go down as far as the rent. We reached a small landing, still some way above it, and a small, wooden door.

It had not been here before. But it made sense that things would’ve changed. If I had been Dalarion, I would have changed the entire layout of the House as soon as I could. That would’ve made prior knowledge of the layout useless, made an attack all the more difficult.

I smiled to myself. Perhaps he had. It would’ve have been so like him to change it back just before my visit here, all the better to put pressure on me.

Isande opened the door.

‘Did you wonder, at all, how I found you on Sansara?’ asked Isande.

I shook my head. ‘No.’

This was the truth. I hadn’t wondered. There were two ways Isande could’ve found me. One was to wander through Reality, searching, asking questions, hoping to pick up my trail. The other, more likely explanation, was that the Alliance had been keeping tabs on me since the treaty had been signed.

Of course, the reason Isande was asking was that the latter was supposed to be impossible.

There was a short corridor beyond the doorway, and beyond that, a small square room, the wall and floors and ceiling layered with gleaming silver panels.

So. This is it.

Dalarion and Mako were already inside.

‘…not sure,’ said Mako. ‘We can try again in a few hours.’

Dalarion tapped his staff against the floor in irritation. ‘It has been two days,’ he said. ‘Wherever he is, he is there for the long haul.’

‘Not necessarily,’ I said.

I felt the sudden pressure of their attention, but I ignored it. I was looking at the panels on the walls.

‘Rukh has agreed to help us hunt down Exan,’ said Isande.

I could sense it in them, now that I focused. Each of these panels had a trace of chaos about them. I had known it the moment I had seen them, even as I knew one of my own kind whenever I saw them, even if I didn’t recognise their face.


It was possible to bind chaos into something other than a person’s soul. The results were unpredictable, as always, but it allowed one to create an object that possessed some power of its own. The sword Isande carried was, I suspected, an ima, but I didn’t know for sure. It was hard to distinguish their aura from the aura of the wearer, so it was difficult to be entirely sure, but our kind had little need for prosaic weapons. Sanjay’s definitely was – I had tried to melt it with Sansis when I’d fought him and the power had just flowed off of it – and I suspected the same of his pistol though to carry two ima was rare. They were difficult to make.

An ima held a well of power the same way a person did, and it had to be refilled in the same manner. That explained why Dalarion had had this place built down here, close to the rent. They could also be built to hide their taint when they were dormant…

I ran my eye around the panels a second time. There were a lot of them. To build this place, even if they’d had half the Alliance working together, would have taken quite some time and been all kinds of dangerous. Forging ima – part of the Akisis discipline – was a risky and exhausting business.

This room represented a substantial investment of power.

I was pretty sure I knew what it did.

‘What did you mean, not necessarily?’ asked Dalarion.

‘Exan isn’t stupid,’ I replied. ‘It is likely he knows what you’re trying, and has taken steps to avoid it.’ I turned to them and smiled.

I’ll admit, I was enjoying this, just a little bit.

‘You know what this place is?’ asked Mako, furrows appearing in her little scaled face.

‘I have a pretty good idea,’ I said, and pointed at one of the panels. ‘I imagine that each of those is a scrying mirror. They look identical, but they aren’t are they? Not when they were made with chaos.’ I made an encompassing gesture with one arm. ‘They work in concert. Whichever one of you it is that uses this place…’ here I grinned at Mako, ‘…must have incredible mental fortitude. Scanning the whole of Reality would melt the average person’s brain.’

Stunned silence.

‘How did you…’ began Dalarion, but Mako got there first.

‘Shasu,’ she said.

I nodded. ‘Shasu.’

Exan had begun the conquest there, the rest of us being busy elsewhere at the time. The most advanced of Shasu’s nations had still been very much in the sword and sandal stage, and Exan had always excelled on that kind of battlefield. The locals had not been prepared for the imaski he’d had with him either. It hadn’t taken him long to raise a substantial local following, and with a little more time he’d have set up a proper empire to serve as an engine of conquest.

But he didn’t get a little more time. Two months was about it.

Ulmeshian, Sanjay Jacobs, and Telemens Dax had all shown up on Shasu at the same time. We had no idea how long they’d been on the world before they launched their assassination attempt – the first Exan had known of it was when his quarters had been engulfed in a wash of Sansis flame.

He’d made it out, just barely.

I had known, right away, that the chances of them finding out about Shasu so quickly were slim to nil. More than that, getting three heavy hitters together in one place took time. Ulmeshian, according to my intelligence, should’ve been holding the line on Derivani against Esparatos’s forces. No way they’d had him on standby just in case.

He had been recalled for a specific operation, which meant that they’d had solid intel.

From then on, we proceeded on the basis that the enemy could track our movements.

Mako stared at me for a moment, and then turned to Dalarion. Said very clearly: ‘I told you so.’

I laughed.

Dalarion tapped his staff against the floor again. ‘We couldn’t pass up the opportunity,’ he said. ‘Besides, if we’d let Exan…’

‘Surely,’ said Isande, ever so softly, ‘it is of little consequence now?’

Dalarion sighed. ‘You are right, of course,’ he said, and looked at me, suddenly weary. ‘Please, Rukh, if you can tell us anything about Exan’s whereabouts, now is the time.’

I waved at the panels around us. ‘We figured that however you were doing it, the thing you were focusing in on was the taint. That’s what makes us different from the mortals. With that in mind, we focussed on developing counter-measures.’ I smiled. ‘We succeeded.’

Dalarion flinched. ‘You can avoid the Mirror?’ he said.

I could almost hear the capital letter. I wondered, with some disgust, if he had them calling it “the Mirror of Dalarion” yet.

‘If you know what you’re doing.’


He wanted to know. He wanted to know so very badly. It was written in the way he stood, the way he leaned slightly too far forward on his staff. He had snapped that question too fast, too eagerly, and given himself away. But even had he remained impassive, I would’ve known. He loved knowledge, and he loved power, and he hated being ignorant and weak.

I tapped the side of my nose. ‘Girl’s got to have some secrets,’ I said. ‘But don’t worry. I know where to start looking.’

*             *             *

We met in the entrance hall.

‘I’ll hear your promise now, traitor,’ I said to Kirin.

‘When Exan is dealt with,’ he said, ‘I swear on what remains of my soul that I will face you in single combat, before witnesses, in a place and time of your choosing.’

Fancy words. But some people are fond of grandiose promises. As if it gives them more worth! Kirin could’ve pronounced his oath over a human sacrifice and nine cauldrons of virgin blood and I wouldn’t have trusted it. Nor was there any higher power I could rely on to hold him to his word.

No power save my own.

Once a traitor, always a traitor.

‘Well,’ I told him, ‘in that case I promise you a stay of execution. Until my business with Exan is done, unless of course you betray this cause as well, I will not kill you.’

An awkward silence as they others looked at me. I knew what they were thinking.

I sighed. ‘Or maim you. Or do you any other obvious physical harm.’

‘And I swear,’ said Dalarion, ‘that whoever so breaks this bargain will be denied the sanctuary of my House for evermore.’

Oh you pretentious fuck, I thought. But I didn’t say anything. This had been my price. Kirin wasn’t going to hide from me again. When he broke his word, as I had no doubt he would, I would not have him running to hide behind the Alliance’s skirts. Not again. Either I died, or he did.

No compromise. Not on this.

‘Right,’ I said. ‘Let’s get going, little traitor.’

He flinched. ‘Now?’

I looked at him and then ran my gaze along the rest. ‘The Mirror isn’t going to work,’ I told them. ‘Waiting for Exan to slip up is not an option. We’re going to have to go track him down the old fashioned way.’

‘How?’ asked Sanjay. But it was Dalarion’s question, not his own. Sanjay’s every thought was about how best to please his master. He was a good little soldier. Always had been.

I favoured him with a smile. ‘None of your business,’ I said.

Sanjay shook his head. ‘I’m coming with you,’ he said, taking a step forward.

Carmen was less than a half-beat behind him. ‘As am I.’

‘And I,’ said Cass.

Isande said nothing. She just sighed and took a step forward of her own.

I glanced at Dalarion. ‘Anyone else?’

Slowly, almost sheepishly, Mako raised her hand. ‘I would like to come too,’ she said.

Sanjay glanced at her in surprise, but whether real or feigned I didn’t care to tell.

My first thought was to refuse. There was no way they could keep up with me if I didn’t want them to. I knew how to avoid the Mirror myself.

It was tempting.


Only having Isande along wouldn’t be so bad. And I wanted Kirin where I could see him, and if I was taking those two then I would have to take Cass, and that meant I might as well take the lot of them.

Besides, it would leave Dalarion on his lonesome.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘But this is my rodeo.’ I gave Sanjay a hard look. ‘You want to come, you’re going to have to do what you’re told.’

They have plenty of practice in that at least, I thought to myself, glancing at Dalarion. Don’t they, old man?

A pause.

They didn’t like it, I could see that. But there was no way Sanjay could keep up with me if I didn’t want him too, and he knew that. It was also pretty obvious that Dalarion had asked him to keep an eye on me, so it wasn’t like he could change his mind and say that he didn’t want to come after all. I could practically see the cogs whirring in his head as he thought it through.

For once, though, I kept my amusement to myself.

‘It seems we have little choice,’ said Sanjay. He had a cold look about him now. I had no doubt that he still wanted me dead, but he had better control of his expression. ‘I accept your conditions.’

‘Agreed,’ said Carmen, a moment later, but I could tell that the word tasted foul in her mouth.

‘Agreed,’ echoed Mako.

Cass looked to Isande.

‘Up to you,’ said her sensei. ‘This time, at least.’

Cass nodded her thanks and looked back at me. ‘Agreed,’ she said, and Isande nodded her own assent.

No point in looking to Dalarion. No matter that I didn’t want him to come anyway. There was no way he would leave the seat of his power undefended. That, always, had been his weakness.

A wry smile ghosted across my face.

Seven of us. I haven’t led so many since the war.

‘Go then,’ said Dalarion. ‘Find Exan. Bring him to justice.’

‘Oh, give it a rest, old man,’ I said, pushing past him. ‘You’ll get what you’re after.’ I paused at glanced back at him. ‘If I feel like it,’ I said, ‘I might even bring you his head.’

*             *             *

The last time I had visited the House I had come via Lirasor through a way that led practically to the door. It was a path I had kept secret since my youth, at first because I liked secrets and afterwards because I recognised the tactical value of that knowledge. I had always imagined that my final assault on the Alliance would make use of it.

In the end, I had used it to sue for peace. Exan had called it a waste, and perhaps he had been correct.

For my part, I figured it had been worth the look on their faces when I’d strode into the hallway.

I smiled, remembering.

Reached for Faris.

The way was gone. It wasn’t there. My attempt to exercise Faris slid off the air the way sword thrust skips off the edge of a shield.

I paused, my smile disappearing.

It had been destroyed, then. That took almost as much power as growing a new way did. It was like trying to tear down a bridge with your bare hands, or rip the paving off a road.

He had help, most likely.

I wasn’t sure why it bothered me so much. That way had been mine, yes, but what had I expected? It bypassed the security that protected the House. Treaty or no, that wasn’t the kind of thing Dalarion would allow to stand.

And yet…

Must have taken him a while to find it, too. There was no reliable method for detecting a transition between worlds beyond basic trial and error. You had to know where they were, or wander around the place prodding at the skin of Reality with your powers like a blind man testing the road. He’d have known it was there from my unexpected arrival at his door but not exactly where.

Yeah, I wasn’t happy that it was gone, but at least I could console myself with the image of Dalarion stumbling around outside House like a witless old man trying to find it.

‘What’s the hold up?’ asked Sanjay, from somewhere behind me.

My first instinct was to remind him that he didn’t get to ask, but that would’ve made me look petty and stupid. So instead I turned and said:

‘The way I used last time is gone. We’ll have to take a different route.’

‘Where are we…’ he began, but I’d already turned away and started walking across the prairie.

I heard snippets of conversation behind me but I kept my eyes firmly on the road ahead.

‘…possibly be?’ Sanjay was saying.

A reply from Mako, too quiet for me to hear.

I heard low mutters from Carmen and Cass, who were probably discussing how evil I was. Or maybe not, but I maintain a healthy touch of paranoia at all times. They were the two most likely to break the treaty and try for me when I wasn’t looking.

Them and Kirin.

I felt the smile return at the thought. That particular loose end had been scratching at me for a while. I was looking forward to tying it up.

Of course, there is no real difference between Kirin and Exan, is there? They have both broken their oaths to you. They both deserve the same penalty.

I pushed the thought away. I still did not really believe that Exan had broken the treaty. Oh, I could believe that he’d killed Tancris, could believe that he’d killed him in exactly the manner that Carmen had described… but I could not believe that he’d broken his promise.

Some of the others, yes, but not Exan.

Well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Around us the grass was beginning to give way to field of dark flowers. The air took on a heavy texture and heady scent. I could hear the droning of the insects and feel the warmth of the afternoon sun on my skin.


‘So,’ said a voice beside me, and I turned my head to see Isande keeping pace. ‘I have a question.’

‘Don’t expect an answer,’ I said.

‘Oh, it’s obvious you want to surprise us with where we’re going,’ said Isande. ‘But I’m more curious about how Exan is avoiding the Mirror. You didn’t tell Dalarion because you hate him, but…’

‘I think I’ll keep that one to myself a while longer,’ I told her, and kept my eyes on the road ahead.

She sighed. ‘As you wish.’

*             *             *

The journey took three days.

‘Uriban,’ said Kirin, when we arrived. ‘Of course.’

None of the others said anything. I’d met their questions with evasion and dismissal and eventually they’d stopped asking me, which had been the idea. But the ways we had been travelling were well known, and there were only so many destinations to pick from.

Uriban was where Exan had been born. It was where he and I had trained, in the years before we had begun our conquests.

It was early evening, the great green sun still a hand’s span above the horizon. The ground was smooth barren stone. To the west rose a jagged line of mountains, whereas to the east was plain strewn with boulders. A geyser panted its steamy breath through a wide split in the earth nearby.

And, in the distance, was a city.


Ista was an ancient settlement. It had been there for millennia before I’d visited it, and it had stood the time since with the same indifference. It had burst its walls three times, and each time the city’s Patriarch had had them rebuilt, further out. The outer wall was a huge bulwark of stone blocks, base guarded by the very trench they had been quarried from. The gate was wide enough to admit a dragon.

The stone gleamed beneath dying light of the green sun.

‘What are we here for, Rukh?’ asked Isande, ever so softly, and because it was Isande asking I figured that this time I should answer.

‘I don’t know where Exan is,’ I said, ‘but I can bet he will have passed through here at some point in the last year. It is the most recent lead we are likely to get.’

Isande frowned. ‘Will he really have revealed himself to the mortals here?’

I grinned at her. ‘It’s complicated,’ I said, and then turned to face the others. ‘You will have to wait here,’ I told them.

Sanjay folded his arms. ‘No,’ he said.

So much for promises.

‘You agreed to do as you were told,’ I said to him.

He stared at me with barely supressed fury. ‘You are not my commander,’ he said. ‘Under different circumstances I would…’ He mastered himself with a grimace.

I smiled, because I knew it would make him angry, and shrugged my shoulders. ‘If you want to break your word,’ I said, ‘then that is your business. If you want to break the treaty… well, all I can say is I would enjoy it immensely if you did. But if I catch you following me into the city then I will continue this without you.’

He looked at me a long moment and then, eventually, looked away.

‘Why can’t we follow?’ demanded Carmen. ‘I do not like this. What if you are planning to join up with Exan? What if…’

I sighed. ‘If you come in with me then there is no point in me going. Our chances of finding information decrease.’

Carmen folded her arms. ‘How so?’

May as well tell them.

‘‘There is a mortal organization I need to contact,’ I said. ‘They know my face, and the faces of the other leaders of the Dark Pact. But they know the faces of our enemies just as well. If they see you entering the city, they will suspect a trap.’

‘We will go in disguised,’ said Sanjay. ‘With Illumis we can…’

‘They aren’t stupid,’ I told him. ‘They will check. So unless you want to restructure your entire face…’

There was a pause as they digested this.

Then: ‘They won’t know her face,’ said Mako, pointing at Cass.

I raised an eyebrow. That was, unfortunately, an excellent point.

I knew what was coming. They would demand Cass go with me, and I would have little cause to argue. If I did, I would lose, and I would look weak in front of them. I would be forced to cut them all loose or to give into their demands.

You just don’t like them knowing your secrets, said a voice in the back of my mind.

That was true. But whether these people realised it or not, I was the leader of this expedition. And one thing I had learned as a leader  was that there were times when you had to back down.

It showed a kind of strength all by itself.

‘She can come if she wants,’ I said, before the anyone could argue that point. ‘But the rest of you stay.’

‘Cass?’ asked Isande, and I heard an uncharacteristic worry in her voice.

‘I’ll go,’ said Cass.

‘There would be nothing unusual about an imaski escort,’ said Kirin. ‘I could…’

‘You’re not exactly inconspicuous either,’ I said. ‘I’d be announcing my presence to the entire city. People might even panic.’

‘But I…’

‘Besides, the people I’m meeting will know who you are too,’ I said. ‘Nor will they believe that I’m willingly walking in step with you… Hell, I hardly believe it myself. So you just wait here like a good little traitor.’ I flashed him a mirthless smile. ‘I see you when I get back.’

To that, Kirin did not reply.

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>


Chapter 4

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>

Malis. An empty world. It had plants and trees and beasts and birds… but no people. No sentient life of any kind, as far as we could tell.

It was here, a long, long time ago, that the House had been built.

There were very few ways leading to or from Malis, too few. They all seemed to lead to the area around the House, as if the rest of the planet was beneath notice. I suspected that there had been other ways in the past, but that someone had destroyed them in the same fashion as a gardener pruning errant branches. I had also had a strong suspicion as to who that someone was.The House itself looked like the mansion house from a rich man’s estate. I’d seen a dozen like it in various corners of Reality. The wide porch, supported by columns. The upstairs balcony. The large windows separated into neat, geometrics panes of glass. The empty plain of waving prairie grass that surrounded it, and the worn track that led up to the door.

It did not look like the Alliance’s central command centre and main staging area, but it was nonetheless. It was the most heavily defended patch of real estate in all Reality, or so they said. The ultimate fortress: guarded by protections both prosaic and arcane, incapable of ever being taken or destroyed.

In the War, I haven’t even tried.

I stood in the long grass and looked across at the rise on which it stood. The white surfacing gleamed in the afternoon sun.

I felt something stir within me at the sight.

It had been my home once, after all.

‘Not long now,’ said Cass, giving me a satisfied look. ‘You scared?’

I didn’t deign to answer. There were very few things in Reality that made me afraid. And while there were people up there in the House whose strength I respected, while some were even worthy opponents, there was not a one I was scared of.

On the other hand, I knew that they were very much scared of me.

So I just smiled and headed down the track towards it, taking point for the first time. I had promised that I would do no harm to anyone in that House unless they attacked me first,  but I knew I had no such protection in return. There would be other hotheads like Cass who had never signed the treaty, or those who had but could moralise themselves into breaking it.

Bring it, I thought to myself, a hot, savage thought, tinged with longing for violence.

You scared?

Like hell I was.

I wondered again, as I walked down the path, why Isande had taken me via the chaos-rent. She must know as well as I that there was a real possibility of violence. There were some pretty unreasonable people in the Alliance. Without power I would’ve been at their mercy, but now if it came to blows it would come to blood. She must’ve known, standing at that rent, that she could be signing the death warrant for one of her own.

She knows I didn’t kill Exan.


There was a puzzle here. A puzzle that, in the old days, I would’ve been unable to leave alone. But I was here now, and I had promised to go in and listen to what my would-be judges had to say. It didn’t matter what Isande was scheming. Time enough to figure that out later.

I reached the steps that led up to the porch, and I paused.

I was dimly aware of Cass and Isande some way behind me, but only dimly. The House had eclipsed them in my thoughts. This was the place I had trained. The place I had learned to wield the powers I had earned.

It had… significance.

I ascended the steps.

The door was open, just as it always used to be.

I stepped through.

The air inside was warm, dry.  I could feel somewhere far below me, the presence of a chaos-rent.

This place was a fortress for our kind. Its creator had made sure it was well stocked with our most important resource.

The only thing we really care for. Power.

Carmen Cadan was waiting in the hallway.

Tall, black-eyed and blue-skinned, with lips that would turn a priest to sin. Her hair was a mass of rich dark curls, careless and stylish all at once. She wore a tight-fitting white dress to show off her curves, circles of fabric missing at her hips and at her shoulders. The neckline was cut very low.

‘Carmen,’ I said, inclining my head. ‘As subtle as ever.’

She spat at my feet.

‘I’ll just go on through, shall I?’

‘I will eat your eyes, Rukh,’ she promised me.

I grinned at her as I passed.

Heard Isande and Cass pause to give their condolences.

Kept going.

The hallway was as I remembered it, white marble floors heated from beneath. I longed to kick my boots off and pad across it in bare feet, as I had when I was young. But I didn’t. I had foregone that pleasure a long time ago.

I paused, momentarily at the base of the staircase. I wondered if my room was still up there, and what had become of it.

I shook myself, and headed for the meeting hall.

‘…faster! You bring ‘em back faster than you send them out. Got to keep your face protected or you’ll lose your fucking head. Trust me.’

I knew that voice.

I was opening the door. I did not remember my passage down the corridor. This was not the meeting hall, this was the dojo. How had I…

My blood was pounding in my ears. A current of rage was running through me, hot and strong. It was the most intense emotion I had felt in what seemed like forever.

Show no weakness, I reminded myself.

Isande. That bitch had known. That’s why she’d made me promise not to harm anyone inside the House. She’d taken me to the rent so that she could elicit that promise from me while my guard was down. If I’d even suspected that he was here…

I pushed the door open.

The peripheral details were much as I remembered. A smooth wooden floor covered with training mats. A variety of martial arts equipment on the walls. Three pairs of disciples drilling their silly little katas…

He stood in the middle. Six and half feet tall, arms covered with muscle. His skin was coated with plates of thick black chitin that gleamed in the dojo’s lights. His face was black, blank mask, the only break in his shiny exoskeleton around his dark but surprisingly ordinary-looking mouth and eyes. From his head curled a pair of short, sharp horns that gave his whole being a demonic cast.

He was one of the imaski, beings that had served me long ago in the War. Beings I’d all but made. They had been my praetorian, my shock troops, my fanatic death-commandos. I had but to tell an imaski to do a thing and the thing was done. They had been the weapon that the Alliance could not replicate, the scourge and terror of a thousand worlds.

They had served me faithfully, loyalist of the loyal. No imaski had ever betrayed me.

Except one.

‘Hello, Kirin,’ I said.

He went very still. ‘Get you behind me,’ he said, and it took a moment for me to realise that he was talking to the disciples and not quoting scripture.

‘Who is…’ began one of them, even as she made to move.

‘The Last Evil,’ said Kirin, his eyes locked on mine. He splayed his fingers and a pair of short black blades slid from his forearms to land in his grip.

I felt the smile spreading on my face. ‘I’ve got to admit,’ I said to him, ‘I’ve been looking forward to this.’

Back in the War, Kirin had been captured by the other side. Somehow they’d managed to convince him of the essential rightness of their cause blah blah blah. He’d turned, and in turning done incalculable damage to my forces. I had hunted him across the myriad battlefields of the War, but had never come close to actually capturing him.

But my word was iron, and everyone who served me or served with me knew the price of betrayal. When the treaty had been signed, I had named Kirin as an exception. If I found him, I told them, he was dead.

Oh, they had made a show of arguing. But one rebel imaski was not worth another thousand years of bloodshed.

‘I should’ve killed you when I had the chance,’ said Kirin.

I raised my hands. ‘Probably,’ I said.

I knew what he was thinking. I’d trained each of my imaski personally. He was deliberately stalling, making me watch for that first move. It would be fast, something unexpected, not the face though he might feint for the…


Well, shit.

Isande was pushing past me into the room. I lowered my hands in disgust.

‘She has agreed not to harm anyone in the House who doesn’t attack her first,’ she told Kirin. ‘As long as you are within these walls, you are safe.’

I resisted the urge to scream in frustration. Instead, I turned to Isande and said:

‘You are one sneaky, sneaky bitch.’

She raised an eyebrow at me. ‘I might say the same of you.’

I just shrugged. She had a point, after all.

Kirin was staring at us.

I could taste the disappointment in the back of my throat. Kirin had postured instead of acting. He should’ve gone for my throat the moment I stepped in through the doorway…

Oh, grow up, I told myself. The universe doesn’t always respond as you wish it to.

‘Go to the meeting hall,’ said Isande. ‘They’re waiting.’

I flashed a grin at her. ‘As you wish,’ I said, and then flicked my gaze across to Kirin. ‘Enjoy the rest of your lesson,’ I said to him. ‘Traitor.’

He flinched at the word, as I’d known he would, and I left the room.

Cass was in the corridor. ‘You sure know how to bait people,’ she said as I walked past. ‘I’ll have to watch out for that.’

‘First sensible thing you’ve said to me,’ I said, and then, at last, made for the meeting hall.

*             *             *

The hall was a large circular room beneath a painted ceiling.

The floor was a mosaic. The tiles that formed it were tiny, smaller than the nail of my little finger. What colour they showed could change, or be changed, by anyone who had been raised to the power, and it didn’t just have to be the one colour. Thus the image on the mosaic largely depended on the mood of those in the House, and there was no real limit to the resolution.

I had to laugh when I saw it.

The mosaic showed me locking blades with a tall figure in gleaming white plate armour. My teeth were bared in a killing-grin. My opponent’s gaze was steady, his jaw set, his face the very picture of steely heroism. I was wearing spiky black armour worked with a skull relief. Other dark figures were displayed in the background, their forms blurry and indistinct despite the crispness of the image.

My opponent was Tancris, I realized, only never as I had seen him. Tancris had never faced me on the battlefield. I would not have had to send assassins after him if he had. Tancris had been a general of some surpassing skill, but he’d not had a reputation as a fighter, not in a personal sense. And while I had occasionally worn armour and did have a fondness for the colour black, the skulls were a step too far.

But you’re the villain, Rukh, remember? That’s how these people think.

‘Hardly subtle,’ I said.

There were two people waiting for me. They stood next to each other on the centre of the mosaic. Neither of them was the person I had expected to find.

‘Here at last,’ said Sanjay Jacobs. He’d grown a beard since I’d last seen him, neat, black, slicked with oil, just like his hair. He was thin, smaller than the average, but possessed of a savage, wiry strength. He wore a duelling sabre at his hip which he continued to use despite his skill with the disciplines. Him I had faced on the battlefield. It had ended with his sword sticking through my guts, and Ensis or no, that had hurt. Luckily the push of combat had prevented him from following up with something more fatal.

I was keen for a rematch, if the opportunity ever arose.

He was wearing dark suit trousers, black brogues, and crisp silk shirt that was half-way between charcoal and light pink. His sword hung from his belt on the left side. Above it, snug beneath his armpit, I could see the shoulder holster and the handle of the pistol that it held.

‘Sanjay,’ I said, by way of greeting. ‘You appear to have something on your chin.’

He just looked at me. ‘I am looking forward to watching you die,’ he said.

There was nothing for me in that comment, so I let it stand.

I turned to the room’s other occupant. ‘Hey, Mako,’ I said. ‘How’s things?’

‘Well enough,’ said Mako, with her traditional, empty courtesy. Or perhaps this was the height of respect. It was hard to tell.

Mako was small, only about five foot high, and humanoid in shape. She had roughly the same proportions as me, but a thin, reptilian tail curled from the back of her slacks and around her left ankle. Her skin gleamed with little red scales, the smooth crimson surface marked by the occasional slash of black barbing. Yellow eyes with vertical pupils peered from her mask-like face.

Both her expression and her voice were almost impossible to read. She was warm blooded, I’d been told, but you’d never have known it from the way she spoke. She reacted to everything with the same zen-like calm, no matter what it was.

She was also very, very clever.

Mako, like Tancris, had been one of the Alliance’s generals during the War. Unlike Tancris, I hadn’t sent any assassins after her, mainly because I’d had no idea where she was at any given time or what she was planning next. She’d waged a guerrilla campaign on Kaba that had turned a sure conquest into an absolute bloody nightmare. She’d been the brains behind the Alliance’s most effective stratagems. I had known of her involvement usually from the disarray in my own forces or the frustration of my allies.

I held her in a strange sort of esteem. She was not a fighter, but she was a worthy opponent nonetheless.

‘We’re not here to exchange pleasantries,’ said Sanjay. ‘You killed Tancris. You broke the treaty.’ He seemed almost pleased. ‘It’s time you got what you deserve.’

I ignored him.

‘Been up to much since the War?’ I asked Mako.

She thought for a moment, and then shook her head. ‘No.’

Well, so much for small talk.

I heard the door open behind me as the others came through. I glanced back.

Five, then.  Isande, Mako, Sanjay, Carmen, and Cass. They stood around me in a loose circle. I wondered if this was intentional, perhaps designed to give them the psychological advantage. Was that why I was here, in my old home? Was all of this designed to unsettle me? Perhaps, to break me?

They are still afraid.

Yes, that was it. Despite everything, I was still the Last Evil in their eyes.

I crushed the urge to fold my arms. That would’ve looked defensive. I relaxed instead, thumbs hooked into the pockets of my jeans. I could feel Carmen watching me.

‘Let’s not wait,’ she said. ‘Let’s just kill her now and be done with it.’

The statement didn’t worry me. Carmen Cadan was not to be underestimated, but she was still more bark than bite. If all they wanted was to kill me out of hand, then Isande could’ve done that for them back on Sansara. My suspicion was that they had some song and dance planned to salve their collective conscience, some mockery of justice.

Well, I said I’d listen to what they had to say.

Part of me hoped that Cadan would go for me. I wondered if the others would intervene. Alone, one on one, I figured I could take her.

I knew I’d have fun finding out.

‘She told me that she didn’t kill him,’ said Isande. ‘That Exan acted alone.’

‘He never acted alone during the war,’ said Mako. There was no accusation in her voice. The statement was flat, neutral, like everything Mako said.

A snarl from Cadan. ‘As if we can trust what she said!’

Only they could. They knew they could. Across all Reality, wherever my name was spoken, everyone knew that I did not break my word. It was a hard code to keep to sometimes. I made very few promises, because who knew what the future held? I made them conditionally, because each one was a bond on me. But my word had been all that had made the treaty possible.

It had been all that had made the Dark Pact possible.

These people hated me. They feared me. They raged that I had escaped justice for the things I had done. But they knew my word was iron. Even Carmen.

Sanjay was looking at me with something that might’ve been surprise. ‘You’re saying…’

I sighed. ‘You want it straight, Sanjay?’ I asked. ‘I had no idea Iago Tancris was dead, nor prior inkling of his fate, until Isande told me. I haven’t issued a kill order since the treaty, and I cancelled any made before it. Exan is not dancing to my tune, not this time.’


Then, from the doorway behind us:

‘In that case, you and I need to talk.’

Show no weakness.

But I couldn’t help the tide of emotion that washed through me. Anger, yes. Oh so much anger. But I had loved him like a father once, and if I was honest, a part of me still did. The War had twisted our bonds to one another, but it had not sundered them.

He and Isande were the closest thing I had to a family, after all.

I turned around.

‘Hey,’ I said. ‘Wondered when you’d show up.’

He was big man, heavy with muscle despite his apparent age. I say apparent age because if he’d wished to look young like the rest of us, he could’ve done. But his thick white hair and close cropped beard were clear statements about how he viewed himself. He thought himself wise. He thought himself strong.

I had long suspected that he thought himself like a god, though any such accusation would no doubt appal him. But then, he’d always been a hypocrite too.

There was an old injury to the back of his knee, one that could not be healed with Ensis. He carried a heavy staff, thick around as my upper arm, and he had a tendency to lean heavily upon it whenever he was forced to stand for any length of time.

This weakness, however, was deceptive.

I knew this. I knew this because he had once been my sensei, even as I had been Exan’s. He had taught me how to walk between worlds. He’d taught me to create and redirect kinetic forces. He’d shown me how to summon my first handful of hydrogen and how to make the heat that would set it alight. He’d found me, newly raised and unconscious beside that chaos-rent on Ashmar, and he had resolved to teach me everything.

His name was Dalarion. This was his House, and his home. If the Alliance had a leader, he was it.

‘Leave us,’ he said to the others, stepping forward. He planted his staff on the mosaic, and his pale blue eyes met mine.

No-one moved.

‘Leave us,’ he said again, slamming the butt of his staff against the floor, his voice ringing with the tones of command.

Like dogs, they went.

*             *             *

Dalarion and I faced each other across the surface of the mosaic.

‘Well, that’s a neat trick,’ I said to him.

He looked away. ‘We need to talk about Exan. I wanted us to speak alone.’

I laughed. ‘Oh, that was very clear.’ I puffed my chest out and in my best of impression of him said: “Leave us!”’

He did not meet my gaze.

‘So, the War may be over but you’re still in charge. Still got a pack of them running around doing your bidding. Well done.’

He winced.

The Alliance had been forged, in theory, to face the threat I represented. The Dark Pact was strong because we were united under one banner, with one purpose. Everyone else was divided. It was Dalarion who had brought them together into a cohesive opposition.

I wasn’t entirely sure how he’d gone about it. Perhaps he’d pointed to what I’d begun on Ashmar, the precedent I’d set by forging a mortal empire, and discussed its dangers. Perhaps he’d frightened them with what the imaski represented – an army that could travel between worlds, soldiers that were a genuine threat even to our kind. Perhaps he’d simply called in those favours he’d hoarded since the ancient days, or relied or sheer force of personality. Probably he’d done all of these things.

The Alliance had been assembled with impressive speed, ready to set itself against me and mine and all that we had begun. The Dark Pact had been aiming for a pan-dimensional empire, and the Alliance had taken it upon themselves to oppose that goal.

I had thought that that was all they were – a group defined in opposition to us. But whereas the treaty had effectively dissolved the Dark Pact, it seemed some element of the Alliance remained, a stubborn stain refusing to be scrubbed clean.

‘I imagine it would be the same for you,’ said Dalarion, at last. ‘We were both leaders in the War.’ A shrug. ‘Old habits die hard.’

I shrugged back at him. ‘Maybe.’


Then: ‘Take the mask off, Rukh.’

I raised an eyebrow. ‘Excuse me?’

‘You can pretend to be cold and hard. You can pretend to be indifferent.’ He gestured towards the doorway with his free hand. ‘You have all of them fooled. They are still afraid of you, of who you are, of who you were.’ He shook his head. ‘But I know you. It was I who found you and trained you in our ways. I know your triumphs, your mistakes. I have seen you masked and unmasked, broken, vulnerable, wounded… I know who you are. And this? This is not it.’

Beneath him the mosaic rippled. The image of my battle with Tancris shredded apart. It now showed me sitting at Dalarion’s feet, a pupil before her master. I looked very, very young.

I gave this new image the snort of contempt that it deserved, and met his eyes.

‘Maybe you’re wrong, old man,’ I said. ‘Maybe this is all that’s left.’

He seemed, for a moment, to lean more heavily upon his staff. ‘I wish I could believe that. But I can’t.’ A sigh. ‘I hated you for making peace, did you know that? While we were at war, it was easy. I could pretend that there was nothing of you left. That you had fallen irrevocably. That some malign power had twisted you beyond recovery. But when you made peace…’

I said nothing.

‘When you made peace, I knew. You were still my Helena.’

I had always hated it when he got like this. It was like time was an epic saga, and he was the protagonist. Everything, always, was about him.

I had never cared for people using my first name either.

‘I was never yours, Dalarion. I was always mine.’

He waved a hand dismissively. ‘Yes. Perhaps it was a poor choice of words.’ He looked me in the eyes. ‘You broke my heart, nonetheless. I loved you like a daughter, and you turned against everything I stood for.’

‘You make it sound so dramatic. I never turned on you. I never turned on any of you. I would’ve died for you.’ I forced my voice to remain even. ‘I like a good fight, don’t get me wrong, but I always knew who my kind were.’ I gestured down at the mosaic beneath us, and with an effort of will turned it back to the duel with Tancris. ‘I tried to conquer.’ I stepped forward, my feet on Tancris’s dead visage. ‘That was my great crime. Regardless of my motives, that was, to you, untenable. No matter you “loved me like a daughter.”’ I framed these last words mockingly with my fingers. ‘You still chose the mortals over me.’ I broke off, shaking my head. ‘Am I the only one who remembers that it was you people who declared war?’

‘We have a responsibility!’

He must’ve read the contempt in my eyes, for he flinched, and would not meet my gaze. ‘I did some black things in the War,’ I said. ‘I don’t deny it. I served dark terror to my enemies and I watched them choke on it. But you… you betrayed me. Or did you think you were the only one capable of love?’

He stood, clinging to his staff like a vine to a tree, his face stark in the echo of my accusations.

‘Everything you did,’ he said, eventually, his voice thick with emotion, ‘everything… You did it with my hands. Your every order was spoken with my voice. I was your sensei! I was responsible! You made me a murderer!’

The arrogance of those words was breath-taking.

I thought about answering. I thought about calling him on his hubris. On his perfect narcissism. For a man of his age, of his supposed wisdom, it was pathetic.

He is, like the rest of them, a child.

Instead I simply folded my arms, closing off the discussion.

‘So,’ I said. ‘Exan.’


It stretched on as he looked at me, eyes scanning my face. But then, eventually, he nodded. Shook his head, not in denial but as if to shake something loose, eyes refocusing as he adjusted to the change in subject.

‘Tancris was relaxing on the beach with Carmen,’ he said. ‘Exan appeared. Tancris was surprised, and somewhat disgusted, as you might imagine, but he kept to the treaty. He told Exan to leave. Exan made a show of wanting to shake his hand. Carmen says he was mocking Tancris, maybe even trying to goad him into doing something stupid. Then, without warning, he hit him with Sansis. Tancris burned to death in an instant. Carmen fled.’

Sansis. Yeah, that sounds like him.

Sansis was not usually a useful discipline for combat. It has one significant advantage over Turis, which is that you can use it at range. You send a pulse of raw power to the target, and when it hits, heat is created. The disadvantage is that if the other person sees it coming they can turn that pulse of power right back at you, maybe with some interest. Or if they don’t feel like starting that kind of back-and-forth they can redirect into the ground, or at one of your allies, or whatever.

Obviously, Tancris hadn’t seen it coming. He must’ve convinced himself that Exan wouldn’t break the treaty.

I didn’t blame him for that, not really. I didn’t believe it myself, after all.

‘Have we any proof he did it, other than Carmen’s word?’

Dalarion stared at me. ‘Carmen loved Tancris,’ he said, ‘why would she lie about…’

I just looked at him.

‘No,’ he admitted. ‘That is part of the reason you were brought here. But if he did not do this thing at your instigation…’ He put a hand to his chin. ‘He did this for his own reasons then. Not yours.’


A nod. ‘Then you must deal with him.’

I laughed at him. ‘Me?’ I said. I was genuinely amused. ‘In case you have forgotten, Exan is  my friend. Tancris wasn’t.’

‘It has to be you,’ he said. ‘If anyone else goes after him, the War will begin anew. Worlds will burn. Chaos will thrive.’ A pause. ‘Everything we fought for will have been for nothing.’

My smile died. ‘Welcome to my life,’ I said, turning away.

‘Carmen will go after him regardless. When she does, he will kill her and the rest of the Dark Pact will flock to his banner. Do you really think that you can stay out of this, Rukh?’

I hesitated.

‘I signed the treaty,’ I said, without looking back. ‘I put my word to it. Is that not enough?’

‘So did he. He gave his word, and he broke it. And when he broke it, he broke yours as well. Is that not enough, Rukh? That he turned on you just as you once turned on me?’

I kept my response low, measured, nonchalant, even though I was hot screaming fury on the inside. I kept my face calm and clear despite knowing that he could not see it.

How dare he?

‘I thought we covered this,’ I said aloud. ‘I didn’t turn on you, Dalarion. I wasn’t the one who declared war.’ I paused, and when he didn’t answer, went on: ‘But yeah, you’re right. Exan broke his oaths to me when he killed Tancris. If he killed Tancris. Don’t think I haven’t thought of that before.’ I laughed again, deliberately mocking. ‘But that doesn’t mean I’m suddenly one of the gang. You want him? Send Isande. She’s more than capable.’

I made for the exit.

I will be true to you, Exan had said, long ago, so long as you are true to me.

It was the oath of the Dark Pact. I had sworn it to him, and him to me, and each of us to each of us, allies and friends all. A promise and a threat, all bound together.

We keep our word, I had told them. We keep our word, because we live long lives, and we do not forget. Any who betrays can never be trusted again. And “never” is a long, long time.

My oath. My threat.

But the War was over. There was no longer any need for either. Exan might’ve decided to go his own way, might’ve made an empty thing of his word and promise, but that was largely his problem.

Not mine.

‘I can’t send anybody unless you go with them,’ said Dalarion. ‘If you refuse it will mean another war.’ A pause. ‘You have a duty.’

I didn’t slow. ‘I don’t care.’

‘The fate of all Reality…’

I raised the back of my hand in a contemptuous farewell. ‘Save your bullshit for Cadan and the rest of them. They’ll lap it up.’

I reached the door.

Walked away.

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>