Part Four: Circle’s End
We are come full circle.
Here I stand, one side of the bridge — a real, physical bridge, this time — set in a pretty clearing, a mile or so to the south of Cassonne. Any minute now, the thing, the creature that has already wreaked such chaos and destruction upon so many worlds will break what little resistance my fellow mages can mount against him. Then, our bridgebuilders will allow him to pass through a portal that ends in the woods a little way across from where I am stood.
Though this is but diversion. We do not know what this being is: whether it kills to feed, or for the simple delight of snuffing out life. Does it even know what it does? Are we dealing with some deranged arch-mage, evil counterpart to myself and our sisterhood? Or some fluke of nature? What will it do, once arrived?
Or He. For in my previous encounter I sensed what I could only describe as an unbounded and hostile male energy,
Will he just smash our entire world to pieces, not pausing even to take stock? In which case, all our efforts to save some small portion of our people will have been in vain. Or will he stop and, inferior though I may be, yet decide to take me on? Therein lies our main hope: that my daring to stand against him will pique his ego; lead him to engage when one wiser, less sure of their own omnipotence, might not. Perhaps he will see me as threat, however slight, to be dealt with first. Or — horrid thought! — as tasty tidbit, a fitting hors d’oeuvre to the main course: our world; our home.
If he commits, I cannot hope to defeat him. Yet I can slow him down, lock him in pointless combat for a few hours: a day or so at most. If, if, if. Yes: if for whatsoever reason he seeks to battle the strongest, most dangerous being in this world and to destroy her first…
Too bad that being just happens to be me!
How do I know? I do not. All I have is a vague optimism, and a dream, a nightmare vision that has haunted me the whole of my life foretelling that suggests this is how it ends.
Is that prophesy, Lissa? There’s another subject the Guild has always been a little touchy about. Arguments have raged, down the years. On the one side are those who claim that our powers are extreme expression of some natural physical capability and, if only we studied them long enough we’d explain them quite away. On the other sit those that subscribe to the “it’s magic” school of thought. Some of our ability, they argue, may be explained away: but not all of it. Our gifts are not of this world and ultimately beyond rational explanation.
And prophesy mostly belongs to the latter group.
Don’t ask me why. There’s another subject I mostly ignored as student. Oh: you’ll think me such a bad pupil! I passed on bridgebuilding — well, flunked it would be more accurate — and passed, too, on philosophing the nature of our powers. Though the arguments, and those making them, are not dissimilar. Lovers of theory! “Geeks”, perhaps. And those, like Katerin, who engaged with it, seemed always to me to be gifted with a rare patience for the abstract that I, pragmatic defender that I am, lacked entirely. Two questions, always, I had: will it help me vanquish my enemy? Will it assist in protecting my friends?
What, I wondered, would Katerin say now? For a brief instant, I imagined her fixing me with those serious dark eyes of hers and starting to explain how prophesy could not exist in a world bounded by natural law. Because? Because something something temporal paradox… And if we could really foretell the future, our powers were truly magical.
How strange. As I drew deeper into myself, creating the focus from which I would soon lash out at the enemy, the speculation meant less than nothing to me. And yet I missed Katerin: missed that I would never again sitting politely across from her, putting on my best listening face, while she explained to me this or that principle of arcane lore.
Would she miss me? Of course she would, I told myself, remembering that night so many years ago when, hesitantly, she sought my advice. Or perhaps…perhaps something was broken then, never to be repaired.
Enough! This was distracting, and I needed all my wits about me. Centre yourself, Lissa: breathe; breathe. Nothing could prepare me for what came next, as joyful spring morning was supplanted, on an instant, by hell on earth. Along the woodland road belched heat and fire and something else, some malevolent hatred of life that seemed to rejoice in reducing trees, birds, forest creatures to charred and blackened ash.
Such irony! The bridgebuilders had landed this creature but yards from the clearing that Katerin, in her experimenting, had accidentally pulped. Yet she had done so by accident. This…this was something else. Vicious. Vile.
“Not this time!” I whispered to myself, shocked at the realisation that, science or magic, this scene was playing out near exactly as it had played in my dreams down the years. Chalk one up to magic!
“Not this time!” I repeated as he burst free of the trees and paused for all of half a second before unleashing a torrent of energy toward me. Did he even have a form? Or was he pure energy. Through the crackle of flame and lightning, for an instant I saw, thought I saw, the outline of a human, not that different to my own. Or was that just my eyes, weeping at the assault upon them, seeking to make sense of the impossible?
Theory, theory! Such a waste of time. A millisecond before his blast struck home I brought up shields of my own: an aura in blue and rose-pink that surrounded myself and the ground on which I stood and drew now the full force of his attack. Bolts of vivid lightning etched in crimson: at least, that was what a mere mortal, watching the two of us begin, would have seen, for all of the time it took for the light that lies beyond red to burn their eyes out. More: as he came at me so I drew back and unleashed a bolt of my own. Crisp, crackling white electricity. Also, pointless. He did not bother to shield or deflect: just stood and absorbed it.
For one single, unexpected moment, his attack faltered. Not a pause: that would have been too much to hope for. Still, something. Could we have been wrong? Had Izelda and I over-estimated the power of this creature?
No. Not at all. I had taken the beast by surprise. In all his voyaging across who knew what incredible distances between the stars, he rarely, if ever, encountered one such as me before: rarely met with any who might withstand that first deadly assault.
And so we ground on. Minute followed minute: hour followed hour and I had him. Almost. A dragon by the tail. Because having committed to reducing my shields he was himself now mightily exposed. He could not give up his attack for a moment without risking that I would launch a counter-attack. And he was wary now, understanding that this seemingly frail old woman could bite.
As for me: what else could I do but hold on? For the time being I was safe and unharmed within my defensive circle while outside, the incredible energies generated between the two of us alternately scorched and vapourised.
The bridge was gone, incinerated to nothing in the first seconds of our encounter. I had retreated — my sole retreat so far — to the rocky foundations on which it had rested. Though even those were displaying the scars of conflict, as here and there solid rock melted, ran and reformed into glass shot through with diamond and other precious jewels.
That, though, does not even begin to describe our battle. Because of course you’ve read tales of sorcerers engaged in the duel arcane: trading lightning blows, like olden deities. I remember, long ago, the first stirrings of my own talent, as I gazed excitedly upon one such battle, illustrated colourfully, garishly in a book presented by my mother when I was but 10.
What such stories ignore — they are, after all, written for the most part by those without the ability to channel power and turn it back as portal or energy bolt or shield — is not only the vast amounts of energy channeled, but also the fact that all energy must run somewhere. The scale was yet another matter picked over by the theorists. The nub of it: no body — no mortal human body, at least — could possibly contain or generate such power. Though whether that same rule applied to the enemy before me, I was less convinced.
Our skill, therefore, must lie in an ability somehow to channel power from elsewhere. As for scale, my little sortie to Bohem proved most comprehensively: when a defender lets fly, pretty much anything within range and unshielded will be obliterated. Which is why the first lesson a defender learns is to shield: not merely to protect herself; but to protect others from the consequences of her power.
As I did now. For the exchange taking place between me and the beast was unleashing, each instant, the energy of stars colliding. So as well as fighting this creature I must also take ensure, every single moment, that only the merest residue of our exchange leak out into the world proper. Because what use winning the battle if Cassonne itself was collateral in our fight?
So I held, and I held. Always, tending first to my own shields, and protecting the world on which I stood. Second, whenever chance arose, launching my own feeble attacks back at him. Feeble, should I say? When the very least of my attacks would have laid waste an entire world: and yet he shrugged them off like so much gentle rain.
And last — this would be what killed me in the end — holding myself together. Literally. Because after a while my head throbbed and burned. I knew this was no ordinary headache: was the start of a process spoken of by defenders in fear and awe. The dispersal. A sure sign that despite my own best efforts, not all of the energies were contained within my shields. Some were leaking out. The merest fraction of his assault: yet that alone was enough to kill me a dozen times over.
Was killing me, destroying my body. And I, by reflex as much as skill, was maintaining my life, my very existence, by pure force of will. The more it hurt, the more damage was being done. In the end, so they said, the pain became too much: and then you let go and ceased to be.
But not yet. Not yet. Every minute I held was another life. Another dozen lives. Every hour a thousand or more of my friends, family, sisters taking their leave of Cassonne and heading out to who knew what refuge among the distant stars. I would not let go. I would not.
I had no way of telling how long I held: knew that you could come through such battles, imagining days to have elapsed, and find no more than a few minutes gone past. Still, my sense was that I was doing what I had set out to do. The beast was stopped, and had been for some hours now.
How many lives had that saved? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? I had no way of knowing: just the vain, vague hope that in the end some part of Cassonne would live on elsewhere.
Yet I could not hold forever. There was an end in sight and, I could tell, it was coming closer. The outer perimeter to my shield was bowing inward. I no longer had the strength to put a decent wall around me. The damage wrought by our combat was spreading ever further, and I could no longer stop it from leaking out.
Another blast from the creature. This time I felt it, like a physical thing, and that was definitely bad. It meant I was becoming unanchored, detached from the place on which I stood.
No! There is life in me still! You will not beat me so easily. Did I think that? Was I now so lost that I was talking to myself? I drew myself together one more time and, with a scream of unbridled rage and fury, unleashed a flurry of bolts in the beast’s direction. Enough, I think, to give it pause, to surprise it. Nowhere near enough to beat it back. That moment, if ever it existed, was long gone.
Still, I took some satisfaction in knowing I still had a little to give.
So very little. My head was pounding! My mind breaking: why, at this very last moment would my thoughts turn to Katerin? I should concentrate on the battle before me. But I was weary: so weary. It was time to rest and if I must drift to sleep, let it be with a head full of memories of a time before: a better time.
Katerin: the eccentric. Katerin the genius.. Katerin the undefeatable, unfairly brought low by her own chapter. Katerin…I shall miss you!
“Most touching, mèstra. But I am going nowhere: and neither are you.”
What? Now I knew the end was near. I was hallucinating: her voice, her thoughts within my mind. But so real. So deliciously, beautifully real.
“Hallucination? Me? You know I should be offended by that. But seriously mèstra: I am here. And I bring help.”
“How?” Can you refuse to believe your own thoughts. If one can, I did so at that very moment.
“Yes. Another thing we are taught cannot work this way: is little more than a parlour trick for reading minds across a room. But how, in Dieusa’s name, do you imagine I managed to move bridges half way across the galaxy without being able to co-ordinate directly with my other builders?
“We’ve been doing this for the last ten years, co-ordinating, speaking…
“Still”, I pushed back: “I am touched you are here to bid me farewell. But you should leave now before the end. You do not want to be caught up in the backwave from that.”
“Oh mèstra, don’t you get it? We do not just communicate: we channel energy. And the same energy that builds bridges is the energy you are using to fight this creature. Open yourself and take what I can give.
“No: you will die too.”
“Silly! I have no intention of dying. Mèstra! You gave so much when I was younger: now accept a helping hand when it is offered.”
And that: well, that is where the battle turned. As I opened my mind to Katerin, I felt a surge of energy such as I had never experienced before. My head cleared, instantly. My shields sprang back up and for a moment I managed even to push back.
For a moment. Then it caught itself: found a new point of balance. Stalemate. Again. So Katerin would sustain me for a few hours longer. And then? Then both of us would burn, because whatever magic she had worked — and this felt truly magical to me at that moment — I was just as sure that when I went down, so would she. I was glad of her presence: sad that we were together again only at so hopeless a juncture.
“Leave me, Katerin”, I spoke earnestly. “You have a life ahead of you.”
“Indeed. And I have only just begun. Here, as elsewhere.”
And then, to my amazement, I sensed another presence within the mind touch. “Valois here, Sòr Katerin. Anthea is with you.
And a fourth. “Colmar stands. Iolanda is with you.
A fifth. A sixth. After that I lost count.
I recognised the names. These were young builders and journeywomen from worlds under Katerin’s tutelage: a roll call of sisterhood. As each name called out, I felt an energy building. Above and beyond anything that Izelda and I had managed. More, I felt sure, than any individual in the entire history of Cassonne had ever disposed.
And it was all mine, to direct as I willed. So I rode it, like a wild horse. Pushed out once more with my shields and struck back again and again at the creature. It reeled and reeled. It gave ground. But still, it persisted. Together, we had power enough to fight on. In the end, though the same conundrum. In the end, there was no sign whatsoever that this creature could be bested by myself or any combination of mages from Cassonne, before our own energies were exhausted. In time, our efforts would dwindle once more and, if they were there at the end, a dozen or more builders would die with me.
“I thank you”, I acknowledged. “Still, though, it is not enough”.
“Did I say it would be?” Inasmuch as one can tell such things across the mental connection that now linked us, I would swear that there was a grin on Katerin’s face as, finally, she got to put her old mentor in her place.
“We open a portal…”
“That won’t work. It would never enter a portal of its own will. Not here. Not now.”
“Mas mou, mèstra: mas mou. ‘But it moves!’ Have you not been listening? My chapter taught for centuries that portals are fixed points. But for these last ten years I and…my apprentices…have been moving them. It is so much more efficient.
So it was. One moment I stood one side of where the bridge had once been facing off against the worst nightmare imaginable. The next, he was gone, transported heaven knows where, as Katerin’s team forcibly removed him.
“But…he will return!”
Is it possible to shoosh a person via mind touch? Apparently so, as Katerin took great delight in explaining the very last of her ingenious plan.
“Do you not remember, mèstra, how once you asked me what would happen if you entered a portal and some part of you fell outside its boundary?”
“So what do you think would happen if we moved not just the portal, but the bridge between two portals while a creature such as that was within it?”
“Ah.” There was no answer to that. At least, no answer beyond pulling Katerin to me and giving her the dearest, closest hug ever. But since she was not with me in the flesh, I contented myself with breathing a little easier and smiling as I remembered our first awkward encounter all those years ago. Her ridiculous question: and my own all too superior answer.
And so it was. Katerin and her team — her mini-chapter as I ever after thought of it — executed a perfect two part plan. First they pulled the beast into a bridge of their making and then, with the beast still within, they shifted it. No more, perhaps than a few atoms inside the beast’s personal space. But it was enough.
I, being otherwise occupied at the time, did not see the light show that followed. Though I understand that pretty much every single sentient being across two entire galaxies did, as we discovered the answer to a question no-one had ever asked before: to wit, what happens when you take the energy of a thousand stars, as I was prepared to believe the beast contained, and rip it apart within the heart of a structure that stretches simultaneously across all the known cosmos.
Did we destroy it?
Logic says we must have. Nothing, no physical being could possibly survive an event that literally shredded it atom from atom, using the energy generated in that process to hasten its own destruction. I was not so sure. Having survived the best part of two days at the centre of one such storm, during which time my own continued existence was consequence of my own stubborn consciousness, I was left asking questions. Like, if my body was in a state of ultimate breakdown, what, where was the “me” stopping that from happening.
That sounded suspiciously like I exist independently of me, or at least, of my body. It is an argument for “soul” and far more spookiness than I like to think about, and so I do not.
Though I suspected the philosophers and theorists and geeks would be picking over the remains of my battle for years, decades to come.
To return to the obvious question: I truly hope we destroyed it — whatever it was. But my heart says maybe we did not. Perhaps it is out there, still, licking its wounds and preparing to return.
Then there is the time spent in battle. Two days, did I say? It was all of that and perhaps a little more. According to the assembled citizenry of Cassonne, an act of supreme self-sacrifice and, oh! I shall never live that down.
As far as I was concerned, I was just doing my job, defending Cassonne from existential threat: buying my sisters a little time. I never wanted — nor approved — the adulation that followed; all the talk of “brave Lissa” holding the bridge. Though I accepted the medal they gave me: turned down the Guild Presidency, which apparently was mine for the taking; and made the most of the annual banquet that the Guild decided henceforth to hold in my honour.
Well, a free meal is a free meal, no matter where it comes from! And Guild cuisine is renowned throughout our world web.
But two days! It was Katerin’s plan to come riding to the rescue from the very beginning. Only she was prevented from doing so, forcibly, by members of her own chapter. Instead, they first refused her help in holding the bridges open for our people to escape through. Then, as she grew more vocal in asserting that she had a solution, they confined her to an exclusion cell, within which she could neither use her powers to escape, nor summon others to her aid.
There she remained for the best part of 48 hours, while the rest of her chapter, the traditionalists continued to evacuate as best they could until the last hours when they decided the end was nigh: I was about to go down to defeat. It was time for them to make their own escape.
Because yes: it turns out they were watching the progress of my own battle, with the sole object of deciding when I was about to lose, and therefore the right time to cut and run.
Even then, it was a close thing. Most builders fled, leaving Katerin locked deep within the Academy. Luck, it was, or a moment of benevolence led one of the last of their number remaining to take pity on her and set her free: as it turned out, in the nick of time.
As for the builder chapter: at time of telling this tale, there is still a reckoning to be had. Though it is plain that the reign of Sibilia and her set is now at an end. What Katerin did, on that last day, shook the Guild to its core. All those centuries of teaching how skills and energies were singular and must be constrained within disciplines: how bridgebuilding must be done like THIS and no other way; all that was overturned in a moment. Soon after, a wealth of writings and treatises arguing this — not just the works of Kinneret — started to emerge, daily, from the Guild’s archive, revealing just how much the Guild had chosen not to know.
For Sibilia, though, the tally was bleaker still. It was not just the fact that she and her allies abandoned Cassonne hours before they needed: though that looked bad. No: it was the show trial, the inquisition of Katerin that came immediately before. Because if I was hero of Cassonne, Katerin was right up there on the pedestal alongside me. Not just hero: but wronged hero!
Sibilia’s salvation, I learned later, lay in Katerin’s good nature. She understood that she had won the argument and, in so doing, achieved near mythic status amongst the habitants of Cassonne. To my amusement, there was already a small industry springing up in comic books dedicated to tales of Katerin — and OK, yes, of the seriously less glamorous Lissa, too! Not to mention the young would-be sorcerers clamouring to join the academy to be “just like Katerin”
She had no need to take revenge: it was not in her. Too, she understood that the moment she started down that road, it was unlikely to end well. There were many simply misguided: good, honest builders, whose help would be needed in the rebuilding of the Guild that was now bound to follow.
And last…last of all? You want to know what became of myself and Katerin? By all that is decent, I should tell you to mind your own business. What goes on between the two women who saved Cassonne is private and not mete for public gossip. Not that that will stop you!
So let me tell you just the one thing — and perhaps this is why, in past years, mind touch was frowned upon and every alumna, Sòr and mèstra was dissuaded from practising it. When you touch another mind in such intimate space, you can hide nothing: nothing, that is, of your feelings, of your true self that hides behind the everyday façade. That’s bad news, if the two of you do not get on. I laughed later, when Katerin speculated on what would have happened had she taken Sibilia into mind touch in order to demonstrate her own good faith. I suspect one, or both, would have exploded. Perhaps literally!
Yet in that moment upon the bridge, as Katerin made her presence felt, I knew her with a depth and intimacy I had never known before or since with any other of my sisterhood. I knew her: and I knew her to be not just the impish, excitable, challenging young woman I first met in lectures all those years ago. I knew her as soul mate and sister and…
You want to know what became of us? Let me say only that a few days after, she came again to my quarters. And this time there was no embarrassment, no tears, no fear. Only good wine, a warm fire and the dearest of hugs.
And that, I believe, is as much as any, apart Katerin and myself, need ever know.
An de la Dieusa 3170
Into the Flame is Part IV 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.
As for the language, and names: these are both glosses on medieval occitan, a language spoken in the South of France for many centuries: still spoken in its modern variant by around 4 million people. It is neither the original, nor the modern form of that language: after all, Cassonne is not anywhere to be found on our world. Rather, it is my imagining of how such language might become, as well as tribute and homage to the people of that region.
Thanks, therefore, also, to Thibaud Ducros — also known as Tibaud Delcròs (in Occitan) or Tebôd Ducrôx (in Arpitan)- though better known to me as @PersonaPositiva: a Twitter friend and speaker of modern day occitan, who has guided me along this path.