Posts

Chapter 12

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>

Esparatos’s weapon, Laya, looked like a hunting rifle. Sleek gunmetal, glistening with freshly applied oil. A machined scope, the settings no doubt just as Esparatos wanted them. A polished walnut stock.

His feathered fingers closed around even as I closed the distance, and he spun around with a vicious, full armed swing…

…and I was slapping away the tip of the razored metal whip he now held, parrying it off to the side with Akeem’s flat, dipping the blade so as not to let him tangle it up and wrench it from my hand…

And the whip was gone and Esparatos was thrusting a long spear right at my chest so I stepped back, but now he had a pistol and I dodged desperately to the side as he fired…

Laya wasn’t a hunting rifle. It wasn’t a whip, or a spear, or a nine millimetre handgun. It was all of these things, all at the same time, whatever weapon Esparatos needed in the moment, shifting form in the flicker of a thought. It had its limitations – like all ima, its store of chaotic energy was finite and each change of form drained its reserve, as did each use of projectile ammunition. But these limitations were unlikely to help me during the fight – I had no doubt that both Laya and Esparatos himself were fresh from a chaos-rent, their reserves as close to maximum as to make no difference.

Making ima was hardly an exact science. It took an immense effort of will and required working in the proximity of a rent for far longer than was advisable. There was no guarantee of how the process would come out – each one I myself had made had ended up rather different to what I’d envisioned. Only a fool expected repeatable outcomes from the forces of chaos. If it were otherwise, no doubt all of Reality would be toting replicas of Nemi.

Esparatos, however, had succeeded in making something truly masterful.

I slashed at him and the pistol became a short cutlass, knocking Akeem off line, then a quarterstaff that drove my blade down while the other end powered towards my head.

I caught it with my off hand, and suddenly I was holding a wickedly hooked glaive by the bladed end and Esparatos ripped it out of my hand in a welter of blood. I back-stepped, fingers of my left hand hanging useless, and the glaive became a shotgun levelled at my chest.

He fired.

The ground around me erupted as I shed the force of the blast, pellets rattling off my Kasis-hardened chest like raindrops. Soil was raining down around me and I went for him under the cover it provided, Ensis working on the severed tendons of my hand, coiling them back down from inside my arm, re-joining the sinews. I lunged out of the rain of mud and dead plant matter but Esparatos was no fool – he’d rolled back around the bole of a black barked tree and my sword found only air.

Akeem snarled in frustration.

I circled round the trunk and Akeem clanged off the metal haft of the axe Esparato swung at my head. He wrenched it down to open my guard and then punched forward with a longsword. I voided my body so instead of impaling me the strike only gashed my shoulder and for one second I was inside his guard.

I lunged.

He danced back in a flurry of quick steps, recovering from his over-extension with impressive speed. Akeem’s tip left a line of pink blood under his eye.

Just a nick,’ said the sword, with profound dissatisfaction.

I grinned. ‘First blood,’ I said.

Esparatos didn’t answer. Laya became a rapier in his hands and he flicked the point at me, lightning fast. I answered with a stop thrust and he was forced to retreat around the tree. I followed and he came back and me with a long, hooked, almost semi-circular blade, the tip ripping for my kidney.

I parried…

And the tree exploded. I mean it literally. One minute it was there, a pillar of black wood shielding Esparato’s off-hand, denying me space on my right side, and the next it was an expanding cloud of foot-long splinters.

Turis. He must have used his free hand to smash it…

I had no time to get out of the way. I felt something stab through me, once, twice, three times all together.

Stumbled.

Glanced down. I had three spears of broken wood sticking from my chest. It hurt to breathe.

Fuuuccck…

The crown of the tree crashed down to the side of me. I could see Esparatos on the other side of the shattered stump, utterly unhurt. There was an assault rifle in his hands.

I dove for cover behind another tree as he cut loose. Felt the pulse of Sansis he sent after me, thew it back and heard the crackle of flame as it hit something – too much to hope it was Esparatos. It had been a weak pulse to start, one he must’ve know I would deflect.

Why he had even…

The Faris binding settled on me.

Oh, Esparatos, you sneaky motherfucker

That’s why he’d thrown the Sansis. Thrown it so I would throw it back. So that he, like the rock-fish that was his namesake, could strike me in the moment I struck, when my attention was committed and I could not defend.  I’d not even seen the Faris binding coming and now…

Now there was no escape.

‘Don’t you think you’re getting a little over confident?’ I yelled at him, from the cover of the tree. ‘You think I’m going to run from you?’

My bravura was slightly ruined my the cough the followed it. A quart of blood spilled from my mouth in its wake.

I heard him laugh. ‘You have a veritable forest growing out of your sternum, Rukh,’ he said. ‘So yes, I feel I have the advantage.’

I didn’t answer. I was pulling the splinters from my chest, each one agony to remove, each doing more damage coming out than it had going in. I burned power like it was going out of style  – I couldn’t afford a slow heal. If I lost function…

This is taking too long,’ said Akeem. ‘Let’s kill him.’

The sword wasn’t much for strategy, but it was right that I was running out of time. Esparatos would already be flanking me, lining up his shot. If he got it I wouldn’t even hear the bullet.

Guns weren’t all that popular among our kind. Duels between those raised to the power tended to be about attrition, about forcing the other person to accumulate damage or to waste power. Once you were out of power, you were dead. As long as you were alive and had power you had a chance. A gun, at the end of the day, was just a mechanism for delivering a kinetic shock, redirectable through Turis like any other impact.

The timing was a little harder to pull off, but Kasis was an oft-utilised back-up. And guns were unwieldy, they required ammunition, and crucially they did not always work.

Subtle differences in the physics of different worlds meant that certain high-energy reactions didn’t always have the same results, or indeed, any result at all. Some substances that had exothermic properties on one world might not have them on another. And so on.

I pulled the third splinter from my chest, and it came free in a welter of cold agony.

Laya, when in the form of a gun, never failed to work. From fighting alongside with Esparatos, from being his friend, I knew a bit about it. Like all ima its source of energy was chaos. When in the form of a gun it created its ammunition directly from chaotic power. It accelerated these projectiles through the barrel by directly manifesting kinetic force. It did not rely on prosaic bullets and propellants.

Which meant that when Esparatos put it in his favourite form, that of a high-powered sniper rifle, the weapon would burn more power than normal, but it would accelerate a round just fine.

Just a kinetic shock, still. But if you didn’t see it coming…

Well, it was hard to use Ensis when your head was already an expanding cloud of pink mist.

I dropped to the floor, wounds in my chest not yet healed but healing. My organs were fine, the blood vessels reconnected. I could feel a rib shifting and tissue knitting but I had no more time to wait.

Left, a hundred paces,’ said Akeem. ‘He has line of sight.’

I sprung forward from the crouch, putting the tree between me and my left side and heard the crack of gunshot, louder than breaking stone. Felt the vibration as something plunged into the ground behind me in a plume of soil.

There were ferns just ahead of me. I dove into them, desperate for the cover.

Engaged Danis.

Crawled.

*             *             *

All in all, the situation was less than optimal.

I’d failed to finish Esparatos up close, and now this was his playground. The jungle. The wild. Not a fight now but a hunt, and I had no illusions as to who was the better hunter. This cat-and-mouse ,kill-‘em-before-you’re-close-enough-to-call-‘em-names sort of game was Tollan Esparatos’s element.

I was healed now, but my reserves had dipped below half capacity. I could not afford to take hits like the ones I’d taken when the tree had exploded.

Worse still was the fact that, if not for Akeem, I would already be dead.

It was one of the sword’s properties, perhaps the only useful function its unasked-for sentience served – whatever senses with which it perceived the world extended out around me in a wide radius, and it was compelled to warn me of danger.

Or rather, of potential targets. Akeem did not seem to have much of a concept of danger. Certainly it had never expressed any concern for my life. Or concern of any kind, come to think of it.

I nudged the fern next to me as I crawled past it, unthinking, and a gunshot split the air. Something hammered into the ground by my hand, sending vibrations through the earth.

Fuck.

I snatched a handful of earth and threw it at a fern a few paces away with Turis-assisted force. The stem shook on the impact and I saw the frond waver, and a second later another gunshot rang out.

Dirt plumed near the base of my targeted fern.

I crawled, ever so carefully forward.

My heart was hammering in my chest. That first shot had been inches from my head. While Esparatos would not hope to kill me outright from blind shooting, even a bullet in the shoulder would be a problem. I would be forced to release Danis to heal, which would let him find me, or to leave a blood trail and a scent, which would also let him find me.

He would assume, given that neither had occurred, that I was unhurt and still moving. He would consider the possibility that I had decoyed him with the movement of the second fern, but he would not fire again without cause. Each shot was expensive, and he would wish to conserve Laya’s energy…

He would want to move, too, fearful that he’d betrayed his own position. He would want to move and seek a wider perspective on this area of forest.

Something flickered at the edge of my perception. Not my physical perception either.

Surely not…

‘Been a while since we spoke like this, Rukh,’ said Esparatos.

His voice didn’t turn up in my head or anything. It was like I was looking right at him, perhaps ten feet between us, that he was talking in slightly raised tones to cover that less-than-intimate distance. Only I wasn’t looking at him, for all that I felt like I was. He was nowhere near.

Jakis, the discipline was called. A method for talking to one of your own kind, but only usable when you were on the same world. If I was to explain how it worked…

Well it was a little like casting a bottle with a written message into an ocean. Only this ocean had special currents, which meant that your bottle only went to the intended recipient. Or maybe it would be better to say that it went to all possible recipients, but that only the intended recipient could see it and open it, or even know that there was a bottle.

Of course, once they did open it there was an active connection along which more messages could be sent in either direction.

Some of the more esoteric disciplines are hard to describe, even by metaphor.

‘Don’t sulk, Rukh,’ said Esparatos. ‘I know you aren’t close enough to me to fear an answer.’

I supressed a sigh. ‘Maybe I just don’t feel like talking,’ I said, as I continued to crawl through the ferns.

You had to speak aloud with Jakis. You could speak quietly, but you had to make audible sound in order to have something to transmit. So as long as I was replying, Esparatos would know that I wasn’t sneaking up behind him.

That cut both ways, I guessed, but if Esparatos was ever behind me with line of sight, he would be pulling a trigger rather than wasting his breath on words.

‘Are you still upset about my trying to kill you?’

‘Not as much as I am about you breaking your oath,’ I said. ‘If you’d turned up on Sansara before all this started and asked to fight me to the death, I would have still considered you a friend when I burned your corpse.’ There was a tree ahead of me, perhaps four of five strides distant. I set my sights on it. Crawled forward another inch. ‘Now when I kill you, I will be killing a spineless traitor.’

I was careful to keep my breathing even as I moved. To be sensible of the noise I was making as I dragged myself between the ferns. This was the other reason Esparatos had opened a connection with Jakis – it would not only carry my words, but also ambient noise that could give him clues as to my movement or surroundings.

I had allowed the link only because that, too, cut both ways.

Esparatos laughed. ‘Did I ever tell you the story of my sensei? The one who raised me to the power?’

‘You told me you killed him,’ I said, as I reached the base of the tree. ‘I guess I should have asked a few more questions about that before accepting your oath.’

I pulled myself around the tree’s base.

Stood.

Tensed as I waited, silently, for a bullet.

‘Ooh, you’re on your feet again,’ said Akeem, with anticipatory glee. ‘Does this mean we can get back to the killing?’

I ignored it, and it lapsed almost immediately back into its ever-present and nonsensical chatter.

‘Did I tell you why?’ said Esparatos.

I frowned. I had heard something in the background, just after that last answer, as though he’d tried to cover a sound with his words but failed ever so slightly. A scrape, as of metal on stone…

My first thought was Laya’s barrel scraping against a stone surface, but there was no obvious rock formation nearby nor would Esparatos have been that careless even if there had been.

‘No,’ I said, glancing off into the jungle to my left and right. ‘If I recall you never told anyone.’

‘Not another living soul,’ he agreed.

I listened out for that sound again, but if it had been a momentary slip then he’d clearly resolved not to make another.

And, much as I hated to admit it, I did want to know his story.

Which is why he is telling you it. A story he’s never told another living soul. An answer to a question that you’ve wondered about since you met him… he wants to hold your attention. Remember that this is an unparalleled hunter,  a man who knows you, a man who is better equipped to kill you than almost anyone else in Reality…

Which led back to the noise I’d heard. Esparatos wasn’t a careless man. Therefore the noise had been unavoidable. What did that tell me?

‘Well, perhaps the time has come. It may… explain a few things. Why I am who I am. Why I have done what I have done.’

‘The suspense is killing me,’ I shot back.

What would I do, if I was Tollan Esparatos? I would have a rifle. I would have the skills to use it. I would want  a clear shot at my quarry, from the side or from behind.

I would have seen my quarry flee into the ferns. I would assume she was heading for the trees. I would assume that she would work in deeper and deeper…

I would circle, then. I would circle around, try and make it so that she was working towards me, rather than away…

‘His name was Cernukan,’ said Esparatos. ‘He was known, on Belia. Still is, no doubt. Present in our myths and legends. Revered as the god of the hunt. He chose me at a young age… was passing through our world and… well, it was a chance encounter. But he saw my skills as a hunter, saw something of himself in me…’

‘I could do this part of the story myself,’ I said. ‘Why else does someone raise someone to the power?’

A snort. ‘You raised Exan, if I recall, largely because you thought he was pretty.’

I smiled at the memory, despite myself. ‘There was a little more to it than that.’

‘Would it be inaccurate to say that you raised him for similar reasons to the reasons you ended up sleeping with him?’

I thought for a moment.

‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t think it would be.

I shook myself. Now was not the time to get mired in nostalgia. Esparatos was trying to get around me, I was sure of it now. Perhaps he already was in position somewhere deeper in the jungle, up high in the branches of some tree, ready for me to stumble towards.

Yeah… that was more like it. I’d been slow going through the ferns, too slow. He’d got around me already. Which meant there was no point in moving deeper. Better to stay where I was, make him come to me…

He was committed to hunting me down, after all. If the Faris binding expired then I would be free to move off world, to rejoin the others and warn them about what I’d overheard. He wouldn’t know that I had no idea where the others were. He would have to come find me, have to close the distance, and once I had him within arm’s length…

I wished that I could risk releasing Danis. Given a few seconds with access to my full powers and I could craft an image of a tree with Illumis, wait within it for him to approach.

But this was pure fantasy. You could maintain such a disguise with the trickle of power Danis allowed you, but no more. And if I dropped Danis, Esparatos would find me. No doubt he was scanning the trees through his scope this very moment, waiting for just such a lapse.

On the bright side, he would be suffering from exactly the same restrictions. He couldn’t risk that I was close enough to sense his taint.

And there were more prosaic means of constructing a hiding place.

‘Well, I wasn’t sleeping with Cernukan,’ Esparatos continued. ‘He was like a stern older brother. Constantly lecturing me, constantly correcting me. He taught me all the basics, just as Dalarion did for you. Taught me to fight…’

I taught you to fight,’ I said.

‘Hmmm, I would say that you more… continued… my training. Thank you for those broadsword lessons by the way, they very much came in handy earlier today.’

‘Oh, go fuck yourself,’ I said, but once again couldn’t help smiling. This was the third reason Esparatos had contacted me through Jakis – the longer I spoke with him the more I remembered our friendship. This was all to the good as far as he was concerned. If he could trap me back into that manner of thinking there was all the more chance I might hesitate at a crucial moment, that my killer instinct might be blunted.

Of course, Esparatos of all people would know how miniscule the chances of that actually were. I would break my word for nothing, and I had killed for a lot less than a broken oath in my time.

‘Cernukan taught me the fundamentals. Taught me Turis, and Kasis, and all the rest. Taught me quite a lot more about hunting, which was strange, because I’d thought I’d known everything. And, eventually, he stopped teaching me.’

I let out a snort of amusement. ‘That’s how being a disciple works,’ I said. ‘At first you are, then you aren’t.’

‘You misunderstand me. He didn’t stop teaching me because he had nothing more to teach. He simply decided that I had learned enough. There is a difference.’

‘That’s how being a disciple works,’ I said again. ‘Or are you telling me that you were planning to teach Idigan everything?’

Silence.

‘By your use of the past tense…’ said Esparatos after a moment.

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘He’s dead. How do you think I found you?’

I was on my hands and knees now, digging in the dirt at the base of the tree, as I had been for the past few minutes. There was a decent sized space between the roots, a space I could lower myself into when the time came and be shielded from view on three sides.

Esparatos let out a long, low sigh. ‘Did you absolutely have to kill him? He was only doing as I asked him to do.’

I shook my head, not caring that Esparatos wouldn’t see the danger. ‘His oath wasn’t to you,’ I said. ‘It was to me. And he broke it, fully aware of the consequences. If you’d wanted him to live, you should have told him to hold to his word. You should have held to your own.’ I paused. ‘He died relatively quick, if it makes any difference.’

Another silence, longer than the last. I spent the time filling the hole I’d made with dead leaves, lifting them one by one so that no tell-tale rustling would  get to Esparatos over our link.

‘Well,’ said Esparatos, his tone slightly more subdued than before, ‘in answer to your question, no, I was not. But that in some ways is the point of the story.’ He paused. ‘Did you teach Exan everything, then? By implication you did not.’

‘Everything he knows, maybe. Everything I know? Not even close.’

I am a woman of extreme foresight, I thought to myself.

‘But you taught him everything related to the disciplines, yes?’

‘Disciplines, combat, philosophy,’ I said, agreeing. ‘No reason not to. Might as well not bother at all otherwise.’

‘Quite.’ I could almost hear Esparatos’s nod. ‘Just not how you made the imaskibrew, or what that sword you carry does, or where you hid your armour when…’

‘Those things and plenty more,’ I told him. ‘Girl’s got to have some secrets.’

And, beyond those secrets, there had been the lessons I had expected him to learn for himself. Such lessons were easy to explain in words and hard to live – lessons like never breaking your word, never making an empty threat, always seeking to refine your edge, never stopping, never pausing for breath….

The things that let you achieve true power. The hard work that hid behind every impressive thing I’d ever done.

Nor was the cost always just in hard work.

A solid reputation for never breaking your word, a reputation so solid, in fact, that those who challenged it were considered liars. Maintaining that had meant being that, had meant and still meant a careful analysis and consideration of everything I said, a good memory for my oaths, and some hard, hard choices. It had made my road a long and bloody one, but it had given me power, too. So few people saw that, for all that it was in plain view. I could, as a result of my iron word, make a trusted contract with even those who hated me. It had made the Dark Pact possible. Made our successes in the war possible. Let us promise neutrality or vengeance or alliance with others of our kind and be believed, and through that belief influence their behaviour.

We would never has done as well as we had without my word. Never.

I suspected that Exan would find his own war more difficult to fight now that he was known to be forsworn. He had failed to live that lesson, despite my warnings to him when I had been his sensei. And because of that he would always be second to me, would never surpass me as he so clearly desired to. Exan was a usurper that didn’t understand power, for all that he had his share of it. He thought it was something held, rather than something that had to be constantly achieved an re-achieved. And, for that reason alone, he was doomed.

‘Well, Cernukan stopped short in many things. Our relationship was not that of a true sensei and disciple, not anymore. Because Cernukan was Belian, and so was I, and that enforced certain… realities.’

This is it, I thought. This is whatever he is building to, this is his justification…

‘You see, the thing that…oh.’

I frowned. ‘What?’

Esparatos let out another sigh. ‘It seems I haven’t lined things up quite as well as I could have,’ he said. ‘Your revelation about Idigan threw me a little, side-tracked our conversation.’ He didn’t sound upset. ‘It seems, alas, that our time is up.’

I glanced around me, concerned by the smug triumph in his voice, but saw only leafy screen and failing light. What did he mean?

‘I had hoped to conclude the story right before concluding your life but unfortunately…’

I rolled my eyes. ‘Honestly, Esparatos, your bullshit is becoming…’ I tailed off as I smelled it, hot, acrid….

Smoke in my nostrils.

Fuuuuuuuuuckkkkk….

‘Checkmate, Rukh,’ said Esparatos, with obvious satisfaction. ‘And when you get to Hell, tell Idigan I’m sorry.’

I felt him sever the link.

Looked up.

It was clearly visible now, the haze that seeped between the trees, the vanguard of what was behind it. I could hear, too, what Esparatos must’ve heard over the link, the thing he’d been waiting for, the sound that had tipped him off and let him know that his trap was sprung.

The crackle of flames.

Akeem paused in its usual mindless chatter as he sensed the shift in my mood, the adrenaline dumping into my bloodstream.

‘What is it?’ the sword asked.

‘He’s fired the jungle,’ I said. ‘The forest is on motherfucking fire…’

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>

 

Chapter 11

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>

There were six distinct possibilities as to where the others had headed from Curia, six different transitions available at this juncture of the way, all miles apart. I knew better than to expect any tracks – not only was the ice sheet a poor medium for holding tracks, but even if the others had been in too much of a hurry to mask their trail, there was no way that Esparatos would have been. The man had been a legendary hunter on his home world before being raised to power – covering his tracks was second nature to him and he would have not have let the others’ sign stand when it could point to his own destination.

I scanned the ground as I approached the way, no longer skimming but walking on my own two feet, muscles warm from my long run. I had half-hoped that Shas would have been more careless, but it seemed that Exan had trained her well.

And though she was young, she had fought in the war. The more prosaic arts of a stealthy journey had been drilled deep into all the participants, Alliance and Dark Pact alike. Those who had failed to heed the lesson had been culled from the ranks by those on the other side that had taken it to heart.

Survival of the fittest, and all that.

Not that there weren’t occasions when a trail was an acceptable risk. My passage across Curia’s ice sheet, for example, was in no way obscured – it pointed after me as clear as an arrow – but I intended to be long gone before anyone got around to following it.

The others had been working to a different strategic calculus.

There was no real way to know for sure where they had gone. Idigan’s intelligence ended at the point where Esparatos had gone on alone.

I tried to put myself in the mind of my quarry.

What would Sanjay Jacobs do?

I had no doubt that he would have taken command. Carmen was no warrior, despite her pretensions to the contrary, Cass was just a disciple, and Kiren would neither wish to lead nor expect to be followed.

No, Sanjay would be the one whose decisions would guide them.

At my hip Akeem continued to mutter more bloodthirsty nonsense about the death of the universe and the slaughter of all life. I let it chatter on, and did my best to tune it out and think.

At the end of the day, Sanjay would do whatever he thought Dalarion would want him to do. That was the principle about which he had built his entire existence. He would think me dead, a prisoner, or in league with Exan. He would know that the War was back on.

That would leave him with two real options. Take his meagre forces and attempt to do some damage – maybe circle back and try and keep contact with Exan, track him without being tracked in turn, perhaps rescue Mako if he hadn’t already given up hope in that regard.

Or crawl back to the House, tail between his legs.

Sanjay, despite his ability to do a good impression of a pompous idiot, was not stupid. Mot the greatest of intellects, mind, but not stupid. And he was a decent soldier. He would know that Carmen, Cass and Kiren were not suited for any specialist, behind-enemy-lines operations. He would fear, perhaps quite rightly, that Exan had already set in motion the kind of large scale conquests of mortal civilisations that the Dark Pact had mobilised in the past. He would want to co-ordinate with the rest of the Alliance, make sure that Dalarion knew what was going on and could organise an appropriate response…

In other words, crawling back to the House, tail between his legs, would be exactly what he would do.

Given what he knew and the resources at his disposal, it was probably even the right choice.

Of course, he didn’t know that Esparatos was following him.

His shortest, most direct route back to the House led through the ways to Osha. No guarantee that he had taken it – he might have detoured again in order to throw of pursuit, but I didn’t think so. There would be a psychological appeal to getting home and safe as fast as possible, and he would want to trust that his flight across the surface of Curia would have been enough to deal with any possible pursuit.

There was also danger in delay. He would not want to assume that Dalarion had had a good fix on us with the Mirror. He would fear the possibility that his lord and master was twiddling his thumbs back in the House, thinking we were all still a unified force rather than broken and divided, thinking that Exan was a lone violator of the treaty rather than the leader of a resurgent Dark Pact. In Sanjay’s mind, arriving too late might be as bad as not arriving at all…

The third reason he would have picked Osha was the most compelling – the way continued from there to a number of new worlds, three of which were viable options for a speedy return to the House. Even if he thought himself still pursued, he would have backed himself to stay ahead of his pursuers long enough to make his next transition. If he had reached that transition, then even Esparatos, famed tracker that he was, would have had trouble following. Hell, he could even have split his group to double or triple the chances of one of them making it back…

Osha. They went through Osha.

There was no longer any doubt in my mind.

Of course, once I got to Osha I would have a devil of a time figuring out where to go next, but that was a problem for another day.

For the moment I was more worried about how far behind them I was.

I glanced up at the night sky. Four and half days we’d been apart now. I doubted they had skimmed their way across ice sheet – from my own journey I knew that there was no way to avoid leaving a trail of broken ice behind you and they had left no such sign of their passage. At a lighter run, perhaps with a bit of Turis to keep them moving, they might have managed the crossing in as little as two days, which left me two and a half days behind…

Unless, of course, Esparatos had already killed them all. He was certainly capable of doing so.

I shrugged to myself. Only one way to find out.

*             *             *

I emerged out into the jungle of Osha’s southern hemisphere, the heat and humidity a stark contrast to the clear, freezing air on the Curia side. The vegetation lay thick around me, trees with black bark and dark green leaves, ferns that rose to my waist, stinking, steaming vines that crawled round trunk and root alike. There was path ahead, little more than a narrow trail of trodden earth.

I moved along it, careful not to disturb the plants around me.

A dozen paces along I spotted it – a fern that leant over the path, its fronds curled, wilting. The tip of it was broken, hanging from its parent plant by a fibrous thread.

I smiled. The direction of the break was my first clear indicator – someone had passed this way, and recently.

‘You see the broken plant? You see it?’

‘Hush,’ I said, my voice little more than a whisper

Akeem ignored me. ‘Someone went this way. Let’s find them and kill them.’

‘Depending on who it is,’ I told it, ‘I might do just that. Now shut up.’

I had to assume I was in hostile territory now. I hated to do it, but this jungle was an ambusher’s dream, and I didn’t fancy getting sucker-punched with Sansis by a hidden enemy. Moving with appropriate stealth was going to cost me time, but it wasn’t like the ice plains of Curia where I could see any threat coming from miles away. It was time to take measures.

With some reluctance I moved off the path and into green forest of ferns that lay on either side of it. Engaged Danis.

Tried to ignore the seething sensation in my chest as my power rebelled at the suppression.

Began moving.

*             *             *

Four hours later I was ready to scream.

It wasn’t the heat or humidity –  I had endured worse in my time and shifting thermal energy out of my skin and into the ground beneath me was something I could do without expending power. Occasionally I shifted it through the air to fry an insect before it could land on me, but that was as much for my amusement as to avoid a bite. I was an old friend of both pain and discomfort, and I took a certain pride in my ability to ignore them when it was necessary.

Even holding to Danis wasn’t the issue. True, the longer you held to it the worse it felt, but in the end that too was just a feeling. There were no real consequences to holding to it forever, or least none I’d ever heard of.

No, what was killing me was the slowness of it all.

I could practically feel the lead the others had on me widening. I wanted to be tearing through this jungle the way I’d torn across Curia. I could’ve been at the end of the this section of the way in thirty minutes if I used Turis to increase my speed.

There was even an argument that a faster pace would be safer – speed was its own form of defence, after all. If there were any of Exan’s people on Osha there was a strong chance I could blast past them before they had time to register I was even here…

But as entertaining as this fantasy was, it was just that, a fantasy. Because in all my four hours of picking through the jungle, I had yet to figure out where Sanjay and the others were heading next, or see any new sign of their passage. Racing to the next transition would do me no good until I decided which transition that was.

At the moment I was holding a neutral course, but in the next few minutes I would have to pick, or stop an wait until I had picked. The distance between the various options was comparatively small but switching between them would waste valuable time…

Of course, I could always just head back to the House myself and ask Dalarion for help.

I’d rather drink a pint of acid.

Besides, I didn’t have much faith that the others would survive if I did that, and I needed them to survive. Particularly Kiren.

I wanted to kill him myself, after all.

I smiled to myself at the thought, and then immediately froze.

Dropped into a crouch.

Voices. Up ahead.

And, just like that, the four hours of creeping through the jungle, trying not to disturb the wildlife and pushing plants carefully aside so as not to damage them had been completely and utterly worth it.

‘…says she can take them herself at any time. But the window is closing, apparently.’ Shas’s voice, the tone hurried, as if she was eager to please.

That was young people for you. Always trying to prove themselves.

‘You will tell her to do as Exan asked her to do, and wait,’ came the reply.

My heart pumped red rage as I heard it. Anger was leaking into me like blood from a wound, and there was a wound. A kind of hurt that somehow went beyond Exan’s betrayal, beyond Trickster’s betrayal. Trickster had the excuse of being insane. Exan had always chafed under my leadership to some extent, always sought to surpass me the way I had sought to surpass Dalarion… and more than that he was something of an equal. His treachery had hurt, all the more so considering the source, but it had least had a kind of symmetry about it.

But Tollan Esparatos? How many times had I saved his life? How many times had he sworn undying loyalty to me and my cause? What had there ever been that could justify this? We had had no romantic relationship to turn sour, no master-pupil dynamic to be twisted, we had simply been friends. Tollan Esparatos hadn’t joined the Dark Pact for wealth or power or the joy of the fight, he had joined because had asked him to.

His voice was blade in my back, for all that Idigan had warned me.

I am alone.

‘She is becoming overconfident in her new abilities,’ Esparatos continued. ‘Sanjay Jacobs is an unimaginative man but a skilled warrior. He duelled both Exan and Rukh in the War and survived both times. Nor is he alone.’

‘She says you are welcome to join in.’

A sigh. ‘We will, when the time is right,’ said Esparato.

A snort from Shas. ‘She won’t be happy.’

‘Believe it or not, Shas, my mission is not to make Trickster happy. If it was, I would be blowing open chaos rents or eating the hearts of little children, or something else demented and evil. You tell her that she either sticks to the plan and waits for Rukh to show up, or she can forget about our help with anything. Understand?’

Trickster.

‘…says she can take them herself at any time…’

Trickster was involved here? Well, I’d suspected she’d been with us on Uriban but clearly she’d followed… of course she had.

I felt like a fool. I’d assumed that she would have gone to Exan and warned him, but of course, he’d already known. They’d assumed the Alliance would send for me, or I for them, put that trap in place at the Temple, been ready when I fought my way clear from it.

Trickster had tracked us the whole way, then. Had communicated with Exan by courier – probably some disciple –  to set up the ambush on Altain…

Why hadn’t Idigan mentioned her? I hadn’t sensed that he was holding anything back, but I was all too aware that I was fallible.

Or he didn’t see her.

Had she broken contact then? Only re-joined Esparatos later? Or had she been following from further back?

…overconfident in her new abilities…”

Yes, that line had worried me. The idea of Trickster gathering any more power or proficiency to herself was not a happy one. The woman had no mental or moral limits at all. She would do things that any sane person lacked the capacity to consider.

Probably why Esparatos was assisting her. She’d  always needed some sort of leash.

‘I understand,’ said Shas with a sigh. ‘But she isn’t the easiest person in the world to talk to.’

Esparatos made a retching sound in the back of his throat – the avian equivalent of a snort. ‘If you have a problem acting as our go between,’ he said, ‘then perhaps you shouldn’t have let Rukh get away. It is, after all, your fault that we have to wait.’

‘I’m telling you,’ said Shas, ‘I cut her femoral artery open. She’s dead.’

Esparatos let out a short, humourless laugh. ‘If you believe that then you’re more of a fool than I thought. She beat you, Shas. She killed four of your companions and made her escape. You say you gave her a wound with Nemi and I believe you… but until we’ve seen her body she is not dead. Even then, I would make sure.’

‘Oh come on! She’s not that tough.’

‘Yes, that’s right,’ said Esparatos sarcastically. ‘She is worshiped as a god on a dozen worlds and feared as the devil on a thousand more because she is a weakling. That’s her secret.’ A pause, and then another sigh. ‘Go back to Trickster,’ he said, suddenly weary. ‘Tell her what I said. Then go and give Exan his update. You can check back in with me tomorrow.’

‘You think you’re so fucking clever. There’s no guarantee she’ll show up, even if she is alive. She might have gone to the House or…’

A smack, as of a feathered fist hitting flesh. I heard Shas stumbling, saw the ferns ahead rustle with sudden movement.

‘Sometimes I think you forget who you are talking to,’ said Esparatos.

The sound of a blade sliding from its scabbard. ‘You fucking…’

‘Put that away.’ Esparatos’s voice was flat, dangerous. ‘If you cannot handle a little discipline then by all means go crawling back to your sensei and complain. But if you come at me with that blade then I will kill you.’

Silence.

‘Better,’ said Esparatos after a moment. ‘Now, have a little think about which of us know Helena Rukh the best, hmm? Her only options are to re-join the others or to return to Dalarion for help, and that she will not do. She will prefer almost anything to that, perhaps even death and defeat.’ A pause. ‘Now go.’

He says such lovely things about you,’ whispered Akeem. ‘Let’s kill him. Please?’

I didn’t reply. I just waited, breath held and utterly silence, as Shas shouldered her way through the ferns. She passed within about two feet of me, making no effort at stealth. I could see her horned head and shoulders above the tops of the ferns, could read the anger and the near-adolescent shame in her face.

Serves you right, I thought. You should have known better than to fuck with Esparatos.

I had no doubt that he would indeed have killed her if she’d pushed the issue. She might have had Nemi, but Esparatos never went anywhere unarmed. And while the weapon he carried could not inflict wounds that did not heal, it was still an ima and it had properties of its own.

Akeem’s weight at my hip was a solid reassurance, the anticipation that bled through the scabbard for once a mirror to my own. I would let Shas go. I would wait until she was far along the trail, wait until I was sure she had transitioned to wherever it was she was going…

Then I would settle my business with Tollan Esparatos.

I would have a limited window, or had to assume I had a limited window. Shas had gone past me which meant that she was heading either for Tosta, a world with uncomfortably high gravity but a decent number of onward connections, or back to Curia.

And if she went back to Curia there was a risk she would see the trail I had made while skimming – I had slowed down as I approached the transition but if she headed back towards the way that led to Altain…

A small risk. Maybe forty percent. But if she saw it she would come running back to Esparatos.

I planned to have finished him by then.

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

Tollan Esparatos had broken his word. It was time he paid for it.

*             *             *

It was a tense few hours. I passed the time straining my ears, concerned that Esparatos would move on and I would lose him in the jungle. Concerned, also, that he might have somehow divined my presence during his conversation with Shas and by means of covert signal sent her looping round behind me.

But Nemi’s irresistible edge did not cleave my head from my shoulders, and I heard no sound to indicate that Esparatos had moved on.

Judging that the time was right, I crept forward through the ferns.

Spotted him almost immediately.

He was waiting in a small clearing, his back to one of the black-barked trees. He looked identical to when I had last seen him – grey feathered plumage, battledress uniform in muted greens that matched our surroundings, the crack in his beak that he refused to repair with Ensis despite his ability to do so. He sat in a pose of almost studied relaxation, the ankle of his right leg resting upon his left knee, eyes closed. His weapon, Laya, was propped up next to him. Moisture glistened on the gunmetal.

I was unable to halt the rush of warmth I felt as I saw him. The sight of an old friend not seen for too long.

I crushed the feeling.

He was unware of me. This was good. But it meant I had a choice to make.

I had one free shot. That was a hell of a thing, all by itself. It was impossible to block or dodge if you didn’t know the attack was coming. I could do to Esparatos what Exan had done to Isande – hit him with enough Sansis that he burned, enough that the very air around him caught fire with desperately shed heat.

Or I could use Faris. There was only really only one offensive move in the entire discipline, but it was an important one. A binding, such as Exan had thrown over me during the ambush at Altain. He would be unable to escape, would have to fight me…

I felt the urge for a fight. All this sneaking around had put me in the mood.

Yes,’ whispered Akeem

On the other hand, Sansis did seem like the obvious choice. But the way he was sat he would be able to shed a lot through the tree and through the ground beneath him. I would only get a second, maybe, where the power poured into him unchecked.

I could wipe myself out, trying to burn him dead in that time.

Rationalizations, Rukh? I asked myself.

Yes. It would cost in power, but there was no sense in doing anything else. I could not pick my strategies based on personal whims, not anymore. And while it would be hard to kill him outright with Sansis, I didn’t actually need him dead anyway, not yet. Quite the contrary. What I needed  was to wound him badly enough that he had to spend all his power on Ensis, get him at my mercy. Then I could find out from him where the others were, by torture if necessary.

He deserved a little torture, far as I was concerned.

Then I would kill him.

Slowly, I raised a hand.

‘You’re no fun at all,’ complained Akeem.

Then I remembered.

Esparatos had been born on a world called Belia. He had lived somewhere in the northern hemisphere of said world, in a country of trees and grass and burbling streams. He had grown up in a small tribal unit, learned to feed himself and his family by hunting. Had joined the military of whatever nation state his tribe had paid allegiance to, fought many prosaic wars, become ever more proficient in woodcraft and scouting and small group tactics.

Had encountered one of our kind, another Belian, someone he still refused to name. Been raised to the power, been a disciple, then not a disciple.

Killed his former sensei for reasons he had never divulged, not even to me.

Uncountable years had passed since his humble origins, but Esparatos had not changed, not really. Grown perhaps. Become more concentrated, more… himself. But from the day he’d earned his name in the manhood rights of his tribe to this, now, the ever-present present, he had always been, quintessentially, a hunter….

I thought, very hard, about what I was about to do.

On Belia, there is a type of fish that hunts by remaining perfectly still. It sits on the streambed, pebbly skin disguising it among the rocks so that it appears to be a rock itself. The flow of the water through its craggy gills is enough to allow it to breathe while motionless. It waits and waits. The moss and weed take root in the folds of its flesh and flourish. It becomes part of the scenery. Other fish come close by and nibble the weed from its skin, and still it does nothing.

Its prey is a hunter of a different sort. A predator fish, large and muscular. This fish comes along the stream with all the arrogance of the strong. It swishes its tail and the other fish scatter. It sets its sight on one, and prepares to strike.

It never notices the rock-fish. Not until it’s too late. The rock-fish moves, sudden, just as the predator commits to the strike. The predator has no hope of dodging. The rock-fish tears into its belly. The predator thrashes, frenzied.

Dies.

The rock-fish eats enough to last it many days. Moves on. Finds another spot in which to settle.

I know this not because of any fascination with the various ecosystems of Belia. I know this because one night around a fire, Esparatos shared this story with me in response to a seemingly unrelated question. The rock-fish was the most perfect hunter in Reality, or so he said. It was small, and unassuming, but it no-one had ever known it miss. Most predators balanced a single successful kill against many, many failures. But the rock-fish never failed. The key to its success, Esparatos had declared, were its camouflage, its stillness, its timing, and its knowledge of its target – the qualities that all the greatest hunters strove to master.

The rock-fish was known, on Belia at least, as an “esparatos.”

All thoughts of Sansis fled from my head. I reached for Faris instead.

‘Yes!’ hissed Akeem.

As I suspected, the binding settled for a moment, and then immediately broke.

Esparatos opened his eyes.

I stood up out of the ferns, releasing Danis. Moved towards him with my now well-practiced limp. I kept it subtle, as if it was something I was trying to hide rather than something I was trying to show. Time would tell if he bought it.

‘Hey,’ I said to him. ‘Out of curiosity, when did you realize I was there?’

His beak cracked open a little, and he let out a soft laugh. ‘You made a slight noise when you closed the approach.’ He cocked his head, thinking. ‘A couple of minutes ago, perhaps?’

I smiled, but inside my heart was racing.

I had just come very close to dying. If I’d hit him with Sansis I would have used an awful lot of power. If he’d been ready, he could have deflected it right back at me before it had even begun to cross the distance between us. I’d have been the one caught off guard. No way could I have shed that much power in time.

Close. So very close.

‘Thought so,’ I said.

There was an awkward pause. Esparatos did not reach for his weapon, but I saw his eyes flicker, ever so briefly, to the scabbard at my hip. He would know what it contained.

‘Since we’re in the spirit of satisfying one another’s curiosity,’ he said, ‘how long had you been there?’

I shrugged. There was no real reason to deny him. ‘Since before Shas left,’ I said.

‘Hmmm.’

Another pause, both longer and more awkward. We both knew what this was building towards. Akeem’s bloodlust was as strong as I’d ever felt it. But my will to fight had ebbed. There was little savour to this task now.

Of course, that didn’t change the fact that it needed to be done.

‘Aren’t you going to ask me?’ he said, after a moment.

I raised an eyebrow. ‘You want me to?’

A shrug. ‘It is expected, in these situations.’

I spread my hands. ‘I went through all of this with Exan,’ I told him. ‘I don’t need to go through it again. So no, I’m not going to ask you. What matters is what you’ve done, not why you’ve done it. You broke your oath. I just listened to you reprimanding a disciple for not killing me. I know who’s side you’re on, and it isn’t mine. So why the fuck would I ask you?’

He inclined his head. ‘I don’t suppose you’d consider breaking the treaty yourself? Coming over to our side?’

At that I just laughed. He knew how ludicrous an idea that was. Without my word, I was nothing.

‘Ah well,’ he said. ‘I just never imagined you joining the Alliance.’

A million answers to that. That I hadn’t joined the Alliance, that I was merely, for the moment, on their side of things. That it was rich to throw accusations of treachery given what he himself had done. That I knew a cheap meant-to-wound shot when I heard it, that it was more an admission of his guilt than any mark against me.

But I gave none of these answers. My temporary reluctance was evaporating, my earlier anger resurgent. And I had no need to explain myself to him, not now that he was, by his own admission both my enemy and a confirmed traitor.

‘Shall we?’ I asked him, and put a hand on my sword. ‘Or are you planning to run?’

He didn’t answer. He just stood up and reached for Laya.

I drew Akeem.

‘Oh yes,’ said the sword. ‘Oh I’ve been waiting for this!’

You and me both,’ I said under my breath. ‘You and me both.’

<< Previous          <<>>          Next >>

 

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.

Step.

Step.

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…’

‘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.

‘Desikim?’

‘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.

*             *             *

Curia.

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.

Grinned.

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 >>

Sansis.

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.

Well…

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?’

‘No.’

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…

Stopped.

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.

Mistake.

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.

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.

Interesting.

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.’

Silence.

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.

Ensis.

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.

Isande…

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.

Isande…

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.’

Silence.

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.’

Whose?’

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?’

‘Nothing!’

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.

Ima.

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.

Cass.

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 >>