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Armageddon by Nicholas Roerich, created 1935–6 and available under Creative Commons license

Part Three: Into the Flame

In the end our paths did not cross for several years. Was that unusual? Slightly, perhaps. But then, if you’re part of an intergalactic sisterhood, people have a tendency to fall between the cracks. I had best friends in the Guild I did not see for five years at a time.

In addition, few bridgebuilders were posted permanently to Cassonne. The rest, were scattered across the worlds of this galaxy — and two more beside — and though their skills had opened the universe to us, there was a price to pay. So much so, that casual travel between worlds was not a thing encouraged, ever.

You see: skipping back and forth through portals does not take time. You may step into a portal on Valois or Belvis and step out of a portal on Cassonne and the time spent in p-space, as our scientists call the bit in-between, will be a fraction of a second. Or possibly none at all: they are still arguing about that!

It is not the time that is an issue, but the energy spent. Someone “out there” needs to communicate with someone back home and then the builders do whatever builders do: projecting their wormholes through space, obliterating time and distance and, in the process, wiping themselves out for hours, days at a time. Because bridging is exhausting work.

I’d not say the bridge-building caste is obsessed with that aspect of their work: just that every time I have attended a gathering that included two or more of that chapter, conversation sooner or later turned to tips for creating personal reserves of energy. Dieusa! Goddess, but they are obsessed with healthy living!

As for defenders such as myself: when we are not on our home world imparting our delicate, destructive skills to others, we are out in the wilds dealing with whoever, whatever pops up to threaten our way of life and that of Cassonne’s many client worlds.

What? You thought we just cut off worlds that proved problematic? Ostracised them until they saw sense? If only it were that easy! But wherever sentient life develops, something else emerges. I call it the confounding factor: because no matter how you think this or that species is going to cause you trouble — and they usually do — you can never tell until it happens.

And most of the time, ostracism is just too blunt a tool: a little more surgical precision is needed. I have lost count of the occasions when someone has imagined that kidnapping our local builders would give them some advantage. Either in their dealings with Cassonne itself, or in their attempts to overthrow their own rulers.

For the most part we could not care less. About the rulers, that is. No matter how corrupt, venal fickle we considered the regime to be we let them get on with it. Our absolute rule, at all times, remained: we do not intervene. Because however good the motives for a first intervention, where does it end? Before we knew it we’d have created the Cassonne Empire which, as I have already remarked, we do not want. Ever.

Though that led to frequent argument between defenders. We saw the worst of the worlds with which we dealt, so yes: we had views. Still, we understood why we were not allowed to do anything about them.

To every client, was granted our ultimate guarantee. No matter how vile or evil you may be, it is none of our business. Occasionally — very occasionally — as we encountered worlds more outlandish, more extreme in their immorality, we might just decline to add them to our web.

But these were few indeed. More numerous by far were the worlds with whom we continued to trade, no matter how much their rulers made my flesh creep.

They rarely got it. Some worlds, centuries ahead of ourselves technologically, had created weapons capable of destroying themselves many times over. Their warlords or secessionists or terrorists — I had little time for such fine distinctions — possessed truly terrifying arsenals. And sometimes this led to misunderstandings. For why would beings armed in such fashion fear anyone.

Why, indeed, would they believe that I, a simple human woman, unarmed and alone, could call down power that made their own efforts pale into insignificance?

Such arrogance was at the heart of one incident, some ten, fifteen years after Katerin left: and it still haunts me. A warlord on Bohem captured three of our builders. Two were still alive: one, I discovered on arrival, had been abused in every way imaginable before being dismembered in a ridiculous attempt to “gain our attention”. I resented that: the idea we cared so little for our own that taking one was not enough.

I was, too, furious, angry beyond words, when I learned that the dead woman was not any woman but Aimada, whom I had taught just three years before. Standing orders required that I work with the local authorities to recover our other alumne with least force. Some hope! The “authorities” were corrupt through and through: the only thing distinguishing them from the kidnappers was that they presently occupied the capital of Bohem, and the other side did not. They were useless.

After six months tracking across hot and inhospitable desert I found their camp. There, a posse of armed guards marched me to a central forum where the warlord sneered and two dozen thugs aimed guns at me. What did they want? The usual: their own portal. Favourable terms. Neither was an option: we gave our services without fear or favour on a take them or leave them basis.

He would return one of our builders, hold on to the other as guarantee of future co-operation

At that moment, I am afraid I quite forgot the bit about least force. I was then a little shy of my 100th birthday and in the prime of life. I listened politely to his demands. I drew myself up straight and looked the brute direct in the eye. I was, so survivors from that day tell, most impressive.

“There will be no negotiation. No bargaining.

“You will return my sisters now, no argument. And we demand reparation for she whom you murdered. For Aimada.

“Understood?”

You could hear a pin drop. And then, in the space of less than two seconds, it was over. He started to laugh. A few of the assorted thugs came to the alert, filling the air with the all too familiar whine and crackle of two dozen phase weapons powering up. Much too late…

And I?

One: in the blink of an eye I wrapped protective shields around myself, my sisters and any living creatures I sensed within range, and posing no threat. Mostly women and children, plus a few hangers-on.

Two: I channeled, let loose, unleashed the energy of a small supernova within the confines of the camp.

Three? There was no three. Pretty much the entirety of the petty band was gone: vapourised in an instant. As, too, the camp, surrounding trees and bushes, small rocks. The floor of the desert for half a mile around was now polished glass mirror. And superhot. I took care to cool it down before releasing any of my shields.

And that was that. Well, almost. On my return to Cassonne, I was called before the Guild Council. Was I aware of Guild policy? I nodded. Had there been no alternative? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Would I promise to behave in future? Certainly, I agreed. It was the least I could do and the most they could ask. For the death of a builder was not a common event and Aimada had been well-liked, well-connected. Distantly related, I discovered later, to the Council President for that year.

So with that half-promise to do better I was off the hook and, for a while, something of a celebrity. Because no matter what the rules said, my sister defenders understood the end would as likely have been not much different: just arrived at more slowly and after more talking. Builders, too, approved a defender who stood up for them. A few from my chapter trod more cautiously around me: and yet, for the first time, I heard my name being spoken as one who might, in time, come to lead our own chapter.

“Nonsense”, I rebuked my friends. “There are many better qualified”.

“Time will tell”, they answered back. And so, in the end, it did.

As for Bohem? For a long time after it became model client. We asked no reparations. But they looked after us in ways few others did. Indeed, according to another mèstra from my order, the entire quadrant in which Bohem sat was, for years after, exceptionally well-behaved.

Throughout all of this, I barely saw or heard of Katerin. From time to time her name cropped up in conversation, mostly with approval. She was “one to watch”.

Also: “Doing great stuff out on the western arc”.

In such manner I learned of her progress, promoted early from journeywoman to Sòr, indicating acceptance of her as solid, competent. A long way from mèstra, still. Boudiousa! For heaven’s sake! No-one made mèstra before the age of 40, unless very well-connected or uniquely capable. Still, all the signs were there, and another year or two and she advanced another step, from builder for a single world to co-ordinating a team across an entire sector.

I was pleased she was doing well: still sad that her flight, on our last night together in Cassonne, had created such a gulf between us; also, fascinated as the gossip mill threw up another little tidbit. Katerin had taken to herself a partner, another builder; I must send her my best wishes, I told myself, was still telling myself a couple of years further on when I learned through much the same, circuitous route, that her partnership was at an end.

A pity, I told myself. Though you would forgive me, I am sure for the slightest hint of wishful thinking. What if she had not run out so precipitately from my quarters that night? Oh. I know there was no prospect of anything then. But there was something: a spark; a sense of kinship I shared with few others, and over the years, it did not fade, but continued to burn.

Yet the events that would take us to the brink, and then bring us so fortuitously back together again were already brewing.

Jenofa, President of my chapter, died, peacefully, in her lodgings at the Academy. Aged 150 or thereabouts, so they said: a grand old age for anyone. At the same time, Mirèio, my immediate superior in the order and no great friend — she had been least accepting of my explanation after Bohem — disappeared while on a mission to the remote outpost on Gaudat.

Why? What could possibly befall a woman who, acid tongue notwithstanding, was one of the most powerful mages in Cassonne’s web? So they sent me out to trace her footsteps. In part because I had proven just how dangerous I could be in a tight corner: in part, too, because for all my modest denials I was now, I realised, not just fourth most senior in my chapter, but second most dangerous, after Izelda, hurriedly voted in as interim head.

The worst part of going to Gaudat was the time it took. Because the region was not well mapped. Builders had long planned to establish a corridor there, but never quite got round to it. So instead of an instantaneous leap to my destination I must perforce portal to the nearest star where FTL ships were to be had, and then travel on through the infinite tedium of interstellar space. Yes: tedious! Because at past-light speeds there were no stars: just a grey mush for background; hour after hour, day after day, month after long month.

Three years, or thereabouts, it took to get there. Another three to get back. Once there I cast about scarce believing my eyes. Gaudat was gone, utterly destroyed. I freely confess: a shiver of fear passed through me as I read the analyses for the space around where Gaudat once wandered. For it was not shattered, reduced to rubble, as conventional weapons might cause: but pulverised to a fine powder and then dispersed on the galactic winds. It was a feat I …might be capable of. Or Izelda. Or Jenofa in her day.

But no client of ours could do this. Which meant we were no longer alone in our universe. There was another power out there, and it was not friendly.

I worked with my science team, a few weeks more: taking readings; logging meticulously anything there was to log. But there was little more to add. Nothing tangible, at any rate, beyond my sense, as our ship flashed out of hyperspace, that we were in the presence of something new, never before encountered. And terrifying.

Thereafter, life continued much as before, except for a sense of gathering storm. More of our clients were on the move, shifting planet to planet in great FTL arks. Something had spooked them. Twice more, we arrived, after the event, to find worlds vanished: twice more that same baleful energy signature. But these were remote, barely habited places. Until Auverne.

Auverne was a world teeming with life. Peaceful. Prosperous. Out towards Gaudat — though a good billion or so light years closer in, and fully connected to the portal web. I was enjoying a day off when Izelda’s summons came. Get down to the Portal grounds: NOW!.

I wasted no time: hastened to the hall where I found a half dozen builders clustered round a single portal; our connection, I surmised to Auverne. Izelda stood between them, pouring unimaginable energies into the connecting p-space.

“Something is trying to come through”, she gasped, breathless. “Something vicious. Hungry. I can…hold it. No more.”

“Break the connection!”, I ventured.

“We can’t”, one of the builders piped up. “Whatever it is, is jamming the portal open”.

I nodded. Perhaps my power combined with that of Izelda might suffice. So I joined her, and for two long minutes we grappled with whatever was on the other side, trying, with all our might, to wrest free the Auverne Portal from its control. In vain.

“There is a way”, I spoke quietly.

“We cannot!”

“Nor can we stop this”.

A second more, we fought side by side, pouring inconceivable energies into the portal. But we both knew it would not suffice. We must choose. Cassonne. Or Auverne. In the end, we burned Auverne. We reduced a world of millions to sterile ash. Because if you take away the end point to a portal, warping local space in the process, you close the connection.

There were tears on her cheek as she joined me in that last effort, pushing back, modulating our energies from defense to extermination. In truth, I think that day broke her forever after. And yes, it hurt me: I was still connected to Auverne when we killed it. I, too, felt the fear and despair of millions of lives blinking out of existence.

But I was always that bit more pragmatic than Iz’. So in the days and months that followed, I worked hard with others from our chapter, and beyond, seeking to understand what it was we had faced: how, if at all, it might be beaten. And Izelda, poor Iz’, retreated ever deeper into guilt-ridden solitude.

Which is why she was not on Cassonne when the last Act in this dread saga took place.

It began, oddly enough, with a direct request from Guild Council. There was to be a hearing on a matter of utmost seriousness. As a respected senior and “concerned party”, my counsel was requested.

No details, then. Though it didn’t take long to learn the full horror of the matter. Katerin was accused of uncoupling one end of a portal from its frame, in the process risking death and destruction of one of our oldest client worlds.

Worse, she was teaching journeywomen assigned to her sector to do this: so not just taking personal risk, but contaminating everything the Guild had taught for hundreds of years.

It was a shocking allegation.

Yet I came to it with open mind. The charges spoke to recklessness. That did not sit well with my own knowledge of the woman. Inquiring, yes. Challenging, definitely. But reckless? No. I guessed that I was hearing but one half of the story, and needed to know more.

It did not take long to find out. Katerin would be arraigned before a panel of seven elders, and I was now “elder enough” to be one of that number. At least, Izelda and her second in chapter were away, investigating reports that something resembling the horror we’d faced on Auverne — LifeHater we named it — was now approaching Yvoire, leaving me most senior of our order on Cassonne

As it was. I gathered, from the very beginning, that the hearing was likely to be but formality. Three members of the panel were from the builder chapter and it was obvious from their early remarks that they had already as good as found Katerin guilty. The remainder, apart myself, were likely to defer to what was being presented as private grief: a matter that only builders could fully understand and therefore no business of us “less gifted” mortals.

(Have I ever mentioned how one thing that always got up my nose, when it came to that chapter was the air of outraged sanctity with which too many of their elders were wont to carry themselves?).

It began badly for Katerin. Far from denying the allegations, she admitted them in full. As good as boasted of what she had done. Faced by incredulity, and struggling past a barrage of increasingly impolite interruption she threw back the lack of evidence to support their teachings, and good reason to question it. “The work of Lira Kinneret”, she began, “supports the idea that…”

She never quite finished, as an explosion of outrage from Sibilia, the oldest and, I guessed, most senior of her inquisitors, drowned her out.

“That….that…that blasted heretic! You dare to quote Kinneret in this place of all places? You condemn yourself from your own mouth.”

Ah. There was, it seemed, some issue here particular to the Builder chapter. Also, I noted with approval, Katerin had clearly been continuing her researches, since all I knew of Kinneret was as a writer, some three, four centuries previous, acclaimed as genius — for what, I had no idea — and whose writings were locked in their entirety in the Guild Archive. To which Katerin, of course, as Sòr, now had access.

The argument hammered back and forth a while more, with Katerin twice uttering “mas mou”: the first time calmly, the second in sheer angry frustration. “But it moves”. Apparently that had some relevance to portals and their tethering to the physical plane. But the debate was growing ever more technical and I…well, I sort of lost the will to live around the time someone, one of the elders, I believe, uttered the instantly forgettable view that “within the p-space nexus, portals must have existence, because if they do not exist at one point they cannot exist at any.”

“Si Dieusa mi valha!” May the Goddess preserve me from such absurdity!

And then it was over for the day.

And then, a little later that evening, there came, as I half expected it to, a knocking at my door. Katerin! How long since last she’d visited me in my lodgings! We hugged, embarrassed at first, and for a while neither of us said anything of consequence. Between us, the distance of too many years, and a friendship carelessly untended.

How quickly we closed that gap! My hair was thinner, lighter than last time we met here. She was broader, more filled out, with all the maturity of one past her fortieth year. It suited her well.

Though it was not her appearance that captivated me. How had I forgotten the spark of pure intelligence that ran through this woman? Or her wicked sense of mischief as she sensed my discomfort at my fellow Council members. “Ah! P-Sibilia”, she teased, “because if she does not exist at one point she cannot exist at any!”

I laughed, still uncertain what was meant. But the joke suited our mood and for a while we continued in that vein. Until Katerin paused and her expression turned serious expression:

“Do you understand what we were arguing about in there?”

I shook my head. I could go so far. Beyond that the detail made no sense. All I knew was that, by her own admission, Katerin had broken the rules. I would find it hard to argue otherwise.

“It’s about the nature of portals and the space — or no-space — between them.”

Gently I placed a finger to her lips: “you cannot argue your case here, in private. You know that.”

“I know. Nor would I. But we both know how this is going to end. And I want you, at least, to understand why I did this. If not, exactly, what I did.”

“OK”.

Then for a while, Katerin did explain. How, long after our first encounter she had wondered about the nature of portals, why there must be always two of them, why two builders were needed for stability, and why a thousand years after their discovery, people must still walk in and out of them.

Why could a portal not move? Answer: everyone knew they could. Just that such movement was always linked to disaster. And if p-space was no space at all, surely an infinitesimal movement at one end of a portal would turn them from passive bridges to active transport? Could builders not co-ordinate these space corridors at a distance? And why the oh-so-inefficient division of skills into separate chapters? Surely there were things we could all learn from one another?

For years, Katerin attacked these issues, mostly hindered by members of her own chapter. Until one day she stumbled across the writings of Kinneret. Hidden. Discredited. Yet, still mercifully in existence. Quickly she realised that Lira had asked the same questions long before. And coming up with answers.

For which her contemporaries hounded her out of her chapter. It was a sorry story and one I had found easy enough to believe. Immense power does not guarantee commensurate wisdom. Cassonne was proof of that.

In the end, we parted: friends once more, committed, whatever the next day might bring, to stay such.

It was with trepidation that, on the morrow, I joined my sisters in deliberation. I understood the stakes well enough: had been here myself, after Bohem. But then, of course, I’d broken one clear rule and, in defence, could point to lives saved, an example made, and no greater harm to any of those involved. Not so, here.

The builders wanted to make an example. Katerin should be stripped of all rank, expelled not just from the chapter (an act they had carried out the night previous, even before the Council met) and sent into exile. Her students should be brought in and asked to recant their dangerous ways or they too should suffer the same.

In vain, I argued clemency.

“Why, mèstre: we all know Lissa has a soft spot for Katerin. Or was it her sister was seen coming out Lissa’s quarters late last night?”

“How. Dare. You.” I flared in anger at Sibilia, who spoke this sentiment. “If you think….”

“Sòr. Stay yourself!” The woman recoiled in alarm, sensing the power that surged up, unbidden, behind my words

In an instant I recollected myself. No sister may ever threaten another directly. Though there is an old proverb about not waking sleeping dogs — or rousing a defender to ire.

I apologised, for my chapter’s sake: not for Sibilia, whom I knew now to be both bully and coward. And after, all was downhill. The Council accepted each and every proposal with but the one dissenting vote — my own. Sole exception: sending Katerin into exile. That, we agreed, must go before a full Academy hearing a month later.

They called her back in and my heart broke as she stood, dignified, refusing to break, as Sibilia read out her sentence.

I could not go to her then: would not give Sibilia the satisfaction of being proven at least half right. But later that evening, once more, that knock at my door. Once more, she fell into my arms. Once more, a long time passed in silence.

And yes: if you must ask, I took her to my bed that night. In sympathy and sisterhood. What else should I do? For a while she stuttered through all the things she must now begin: setting her affairs in order; warning her students to foreswear her and all she’d ever taught them. Still, she put others before herself.

In the end, though, like a child exhausted by grief, she drifted off to sleep, sobbing quietly in my arms. “Mas mou”, I heard her breathe to herself. “Mas mou!”

Tomorrow, I told myself, was another day and we might begin to put the pieces back together again.

How little we knew.

The beginning of the end came shortly after 7 of the morning. There was a hammering at my door and, when I opened it, a young alumna, from the Guild, demanded my presence before the Guild High Council. Outside, the corridors thronged with students. Lecturers rushed here and there, eyes wide with fear. Above all, the clangour of an alarm I had never heard before within the Academy.

Throwing on a simple shift, and bidding Katerin a cheery “see you later!”, I made my way to the central hall: the same hall where once before Izelda and I withstood the monstrous power that had laid waste Auverne. There I learned the worst.

The monster was arrived already on Yvoire: had seized the portal and bridge as well. Yvoire was in ruins. Izelda? Dead. At least, presumed to be, along with her second. Meanwhile, builders were trying desperately to break the connection, but… One of those present shrugged hopelessly. They’d scarce managed to do that before, and then with the help of the two most powerful mages on Cassonne. What could I, alone, do? What, even, with the help of those, I now commanded within my chapter?

The best, perhaps, was delay the beast while those who could abandoned Cassonne, left their home world forever.

The builders could, they thought…they hoped…redirect the Cassonne portal to a place outside the city: a pretty woodland grove I knew from childhood.

And I? I, alone, might hold the monster at bay for a few hours, a day, two days at most.

And after that?

I did not expect there to be any after.

Into the Flame is Part III of a four part story set in a fantasy universe. If you liked this and would like to read more, drop me a line or say hi on Twitter (@janefae). If you like it, please indicate in the usual fashion.

And if you would like to read the fourth and final instalment, head off to here.

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Feminist, writer, campaigner on political and sexual liberty who also knows a bit about IT, the law and policing. Not entirely serious…

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