“I wasn’t sure if you would come.”
The Baron cleared his throat. It was choked with sand, despite his heavy cloak, and his mouth was dry. “Many things have changed. I don’t know if I would have agreed a year ago, or two. Definitely not three or more.”
Iko chuckled. He was sitting on a chair, outside his conical home, peering at the setting sun in the desert sky. He’d watched his brother trudge across the dunes for more than half an hour after learning of The Baron’s approach, a steadily-growing figure in the distance, and he had a second chair and a drink ready. The Baron accepted both, slumping into his seat and drinking greedily from his cup. His bare jawbone clicked against the ceramic mug.
“Are you ever going to get that repaired?” Iko bristled. “It’s disturbing. I don’t even properly know what happened to earn you that little facial blemish.”
“It’s a long story,” The Baron replied, flushing. He downed the last of his drink and set his cup in the sand beside his chair. “Ahh. Thank you. I needed that. At any rate, yes, I’ll get my face fixed some day. For now, it’s a… reminder.”
Iko raised his eyebrow.
“Not to underestimate people.” The Baron pulled his cloak back over his face. “You look as though you’ve suffered some of the same.”
Iko grinned. He was sitting with his robe partially opened, enough to expose his neck. A thin string of stitches ran from one side of the skin to the other, disappearing behind his neck. “Ha ha, yes, that. A present from our mutual friend. I can at least hide it, if I want, and not draw any questions.”
The Baron waited a moment to respond. He’d spent the last month on the road, trudging ceaselessly across terrain both open and disguised. Where he could he’d bartered for passage, but the people of the Imperium were busy rebuilding their homes in the wake of the war with the Non, and few could be persuaded to travel far. Most seemed paranoid of strangers, and The Baron thought that a rather understandable standpoint.
“I suppose I should ask who you mean by ‘mutual friend’, but it’s fairly obvious.” He nudged his mug with his toe. “Could I get any more of this? I’m still parched.”
“In a moment,” Iko replied. He settled himself more comfortably into his chair. “It’s not that obvious, now is it? We shared many friends over the years. Most of them are dead now, I’ll grant you, but a few are still alive. Like, say… Litobora? Surely you’ve seen her more recently than I have.”
The Baron grimaced. “Yes. Yes I have. I’m afraid she’s joined the ranks of the deceased. Certain… circumstances… ushered her to the grave.”
“Ah.” Iko sipped his drink, watching The Baron carefully. “That’s too bad. I was fond of the ol’ girl. Certainly came in useful. I suppose these same circumstances have claimed another life, as well?”
The Baron stiffened, sitting up. He grabbed his mug from the ground and walked into Iko’s house without invitation. After some rummaging he returned with two mugs, each filled to the brim with golden liquid. Setting one down on the ground, he yanked his cloak away from his face, turned to stare Iko in the eye, and sipped as slowly as his brother. He made sure to click his jaw against the mug with each sip.
“My god, you’ve become petulant!” Iko slapped his knee, grinning. “Okay, okay, I deserved that. I apologize. I was rude. ‘Show your guest courtesy, lest he discomfit your home,’ as Gregarious the Wise once said. Please, cover your face, or I might wretch.”
The Baron refused to cover himself, but he faced away from Iko, watching the desert as he drank. “I think you make some of those blasted quotes up. I’ve never heard of any of the people you quote.”
“Well, then, you need to read more.” Iko drained his mug, casting a quick look over his shoulder, into his house. “Seriously, though. What happened? I’m curious.”
“You’re always curious,” The Baron countered. “No doubt that’s what got your head lopped from your body. Foolish curiosity.”
Iko waited, and, eventually, The Baron recounted his tale: joining Dragomir in his travels, meeting Traveller, journeying to his former home, finding Bora, aiding in the restoration of Traveller’s eye, and the final confrontation with Eve. Iko seemed particularly interested in this point, and he gasped when The Baron described Dragomir’s final moments. The shock was apparently enough for Iko to lapse into silence, and he remained that way for several minutes, head lowered in thought.
“So… he’s really dead this time.” Iko pursed his lips. “Pity. He was fun. And what happened to Traveller?”
“He wandered away shortly after the explosion. I haven’t seen him since.” The Baron sighed, head drooping. He removed his glasses and polished them, revealing a pair of small eyes with glowing green pupils.
Iko watched The Baron in silence, observing the remaining half of his brother’s face. There was so much pain in that expression, so much sadness, and Iko suspected that this wasn’t the first time it had found a place in The Baron’s heart. Iko himself had seen that same tortured face during their last, brief meeting in codespace, when his furious brother had shaken a vacant-eyed corpse at him across space and time. A surreal moment, to be sure, but the sadness was there - and the longing.
“You loved him,” Iko murmured. “You actually loved him. You silly bastard.”
The Baron looked up, an eyebrow raised, obviously having missed the comment. Iko waved it away. “And since then… what? It’s been almost a year, by my reckoning. What have you been doing?”
The Baron set his glasses back on his eroded nose, scowling. “I’ve been busy. Are you going to tell me what you want, or is this just a ‘pleasant’ chat? We could have done that across codespace.”
“Indulge me just a bit longer.” Iko motioned to the second cup of liquid by The Baron’s chair. “Have a sip and let an old man in on some secrets.”
Some of The Baron’s usual businesslike demeanour seeped back into his face, and he cleared his throat, took another drink, and continued speaking. “I’ve been in contact with… elements, you could say, of King Logan’s government. I trust you at least know that he’s a king, now?”
“I’ve heard rumours.”
“He’s working to set aside some land for the Non, where we can live freely. Under watch, but freely. I’ve agreed to help them set up a conservation area.” The Baron shrugged. “It’s not… much, but it’s a start. Certainly a better idea than what I had planned.”
“You mean forcing the world to accept your annexation of our former territory? Oh, yes, much better.” Iko twisted his lip. “‘A conservation area’. The Non aren’t goddamned animals facing extinction, o sad little brother mine. We’re people. We should be treated like people.”
“Well, at this point we’re war criminals.” The Baron tapped his mug, almost nervously. “Thanks to Kierkegaard the whole world fears us. We need time to wipe out that negative perception he built up. Time, and the efforts of a few good souls.”
“Time? Efforts?” Iko spat. He peered at his house again, winking once. “Bullshit. What we need is homogeny. We need everyone to blend together, to the point that everyone is the same. Only then will the Non become truly accepted. Kierkegaard was much closer to that goal than you’ll ever get.”
Iko rose from his chair, patting a thin layer of sand from his robes. The Baron watched as his brother turned to face the desert, looking far to the east, the wide sleeves of his finery drooping almost to his legs. The Baron thought he saw a flash of black and white stripes as the robes rustled, but nothing more.
“Kierkegaard was a genocidal maniac,” The Baron insisted. “You can’t possibly - “
That was all he managed. A sudden flash of movement swept behind The Baron’s chair, and something small and sharp slipped through one of the gaps in the chair and into The Baron’s back. He sat up, glasses flying from his eyes, limbs stock-still from a combination of pain and pinched nerves. Blood dribbled into his cloak from a single, precise wound in his flesh.
“Hello, sir,” a sly voice murmured in his ear. “I’m sorry, I don’t have a name for you. I’m sure we’ve met, though. What’s his name, Crap?”
Iko shrugged as he turned. “Call him whatever. It doesn’t really matter.”
“Very well. Whatever it is.” Dressed in a bulky robe that did nothing to hide her air of deadly competence, the girl with the shaggy black hair joined Iko in front of The Baron. “Hello, Whatever. I’m Celine. I’m afraid you have to die now. I will make this quick.”
Celine raised her hand, and a small, sharp dagger appeared out of her sleeve. Iko pushed her hand down before she could hurl it into The Baron’s neck, however, and he motioned her to one side. She moved without protest or comment, her expression almost bored. The Baron gurgled, watching his former princess as he struggled vainly to make his body respond to his commands. It refused.
“I’m sorry, bro,” Iko said, moving to The Baron’s side. He raised an arm, and his sleeve slid down to reveal a long, impossibly sharp set of fingers, the same striped pattern The Baron had noticed earlier. “I know this isn’t much consolation, but I’m going to use what you’ve got to set the world to rights. You had some decent ideas, and Kierkegaard almost got there, but… well, I suppose I’m going to have to do all the hard work myself. A shame - I prefer to be the lazy guy, y’know?”
The Baron watched his brother, twitching violently.
“You almost had it. If I could combine you ’n Kierkegaard, we’d have the perfect guy for uniting everybody.” Iko shook his head, setting his long fingers on The Baron’s chest. “All ya need, gentle sibling, is a villain. Someone everybody can hate, so they stop hating each other. Get that, and, bing! World peace. Kinda. The closest you’re like to get, anyway. It’s a simple philosophy, but damned effective. Time to prove it can work.”
Iko flattened his hand against The Baron’s chest, wrapping the tips of his long fingers around The Baron like the legs of a spider around its prey. He breathed deep, and when he released his breath a fierce flash of light filled the air, forming around Iko’s arm as twin, snaking tendrils of green and white. They pierced The Baron, and his body shuddered violently. The smell of ozone blew across the desert as The Baron tried to scream, his words held back by his incapacitation.
Eventually, it ended. The Baron fell stiffly back against his chair as Iko released him, the tendrils vanishing into mist. Iko took another breath, closed his eyes, opened his mouth… and released a small, green ghost that looked suspiciously like himself. He observed the ghost for a moment, and it observed him back, both looking quite satisfied. Iko snapped his ungainly fingers and the ghost vanished.
The Baron’s mouth formed a silent O of horror. He felt empty inside, as though something fundamentally his had been ripped out of his soul.
“Thanks, that felt good.” Iko covered his hands again. “I think I need a nap. Oh, and before you try and ask, yes, that’s why I wanted you here. Sorry if you feel betrayed. The gaping ache in your psyche won’t last long.”
Iko turned to his house and walked inside, giving a small signal with his eyebrow as he passed Celine. Dagger raised, she moved in for the kill. When she joined him a few moments later, there were dark, wet specks on the front of her robe. “Unpleasant. But necessary. Now, we turn our attention to everyone else, correct?”
The old man nodded. “Well, it may take a few hundred years. We’re going to lay low for a while, and see how things develop. At the very least we have to work on your whole ‘mortality’ thing. But yes, we’re finally ready to get started.”
Celine wiped her dagger on her robe. It disappeared back into her sleeve. “And when we’re done…?”
Iko shrugged. “Things will happen, as they always do. And we’ll have some fun. I think ‘Iko the Terrible’ has a nice ring to it, don’t you?”