Once upon a time, as a winter night’s frozen rain tumbled onto the lucky city of Calerre, a sorceress ran, and men pursued her.
Her name was Elyssia de Navarre. It was her married name. One that she had accepted with joy and trust and love. In the span of a few years, it had become a shackle. It tied her to a life and a man that existed for the sole purpose of crushing her spirit. In the beginning it had been beautiful, and she had surrendered to romance and promises and dreams on the cusp of coming true. However, he had forgotten that love was a journey, not a prize. Complacency and cynicism had taken his eye away from her and from the precious son they had made together. They had led him to seek his solace at the bottom of bottles and in the beds of less complicated women. Elyssia had been too trusting for her own good, she recognized that now. She had hoped that loving him enough, and the desperate need of a son for his father, would bring back the man he had once been, bring him back to her. Others had often told her that her faith in the innate goodness of people was her greatest weakness, and she had always asserted, sometimes angrily, that it was a greater strength than any magic she might possess.
The barking of dogs caromed off the spires of brick looming over the sorceress’ head. Boots stumbled through icy puddles that shot bolts of cold up numb, weary legs.
Elyssia never liked referring to herself as a sorceress. She understood that it was the proper appellation for those relatively few women like her whose innate magical ability and potential was much more than that of a witch, but sorceress had always felt like an occupation, or worse, a definition. This is all that you are and no more. Accordingly her relationship with her powers had always been troubled, if that was the best way to describe pretending for most of her life that she did not have them. Hers was a common story, especially where a whiff of idle suspicion could bring officers of the Bureau Centrale through your door before the day was out. The choice was to hide who you were or take up the fight. Either meant living under constant fear, but the former option at least held the promise of more time. Elyssia was not a fighter. She craved simplicity, the peace of tea in her garden at sunset while children laughed and played at her feet. Some might label her a coward for that, but those people would never grapple with her specific moral quandary: knowing you could silence a thousand heartbeats with a wave of your hand did not make the prospect of actually doing it any more appealing – no matter who those people were and what they had done to those like you. She could not foresee any situation in which getting involved would not make things worse. Instead, Elyssia chose to keep to herself. She may have had the powers of a sorceress, but she would not be a sorceress.
The street dead-ended at an empty wall. The shouts from the men grew louder, penning her in and frightening anyone who might have been inclined to help her back behind the immediate safety of their locked doors. Frantic eyes peered through strings of auburn hair drenched dark by the rain for another avenue, anything she could use to keep moving.
The quiet life Elyssia had craved, the one she thought she had secured when she married Reynand de Navarre, danced out of reach. She would keep the home and tend to her little garden and smile at the sensation of their child growing in her belly, but nary a day went by when she was not reminded of the secret self she guarded with meticulous care. She tamed the temptation to use magic to remedy daily burdens easily enough, but when friends would confess their tribulations to her in a flurry of tears, just as she imagined helping them with a spell they would regurgitate the Bureau’s propaganda in the same breath. Or, there would be news of local witches being arrested and harsh new laws being rushed to royal assent to combat this rising epidemic. She would often question herself for choosing to live among these people as one of them, for coveting respect from small minds, when she knew she was so much more. On nights when Reynand did not come home, she would lie awake searching the face of the bright amber moon and listening to the rush of blood in her ears, her veins alight with power, surging and begging for a glorious release. She longed to throw open the window and hurl herself into the sky, to soar over their rooftops, to bring a surprise dawn to the Baie des Lanciers by way of blossoms of light tossed from her fingers with gleeful abandon. Magic was her gift, her birthright. Why should she refuse to embrace it?
Pellets of ice fell faster and hit harder. Shouts and boots blared harder still. They were close. Elyssia created a sphere of warmth about herself to hold the rain at bay. She gestured at the impassable wall before her and caused aged stone and mortar to warp and bend itself out of her way. It parted like an obedient curtain to create a passage through to the next street. She drew a veil of mist and fog from the air to obscure her trail.
The arrival of little Etienne forced Elyssia to abandon her ambivalence about her magic. The premature birth had been difficult for both, and only the stronger constitution of a sorceress allowed them to survive it. He was a wisp of child, susceptible to every illness that blew through the city on shadowed wings. Too much of his father in him, she thought. Realizing that he would not see his first birthday if she did not intervene, Elyssia set aside her old vow and began using her powers to heal him, to bolster his strength with hers. She slipped spells into soups and goodnight kisses, and when he stumbled and scraped his knee, her comforting touch made the wound vanish. Reynand, who had never known of his wife’s special abilities, remained ignorant. If he had any doubts, they were doused so frequently in drink that it did not matter. Ironically, when he was sober, he could be a doting father, and in those moments Elyssia dared to hope that their family would grow against odds to become what she had always wanted it to be. But all it did was advance an impending and terrible choice.
They were waiting for her on the other side. Over a hundred men hunted for her, and they had cordoned off the entire arrondissement to seal her within. Elyssia’s hands glowed with golden light as she stared down the line of soldiers. Swords up, they charged, and her fingers spat streams of fire and lightning at them. Screeches and wails of pain erupted from every man who was struck down. She waved her arms and swept the wounded from her path like so many fragile motes of dust. But a second wave came, and a third, and then the arrows began to fly…
She never knew who had betrayed her. Perhaps she had simply become too careless about using her magic. Maybe the neighbors had begun to wonder about the implausible bounty from their tiny garden, or the Navarres’ perpetual immunity to the frequent outbreaks of disease in their quartier. It did not really matter. One morning Reynand was accosted in the street by a pair of Bureau sergeants and brought in for interrogation at their dread headquarters on Chemin des Fougères. Elyssia thought he had just disappeared on one of his drinking binges. When he finally stumbled home after being released two days later he was shaken and confused. She had done too well at hiding her true self from him, as he had been able to tell the Bureau’s questioners nothing of value, and he could not comprehend why they had taken him in the first place. Elyssia knew enough about the Bureau to realize that once their suspicions were aroused, appearances to the contrary they would not be swayed until they made an arrest. They were probably watching the home now, and her. Etienne was on the floor playing with his toys, and he laughed at something he was doing, and Elyssia had to bite into her lip to silence her tears.
The first arrow took her in the shoulder. Teeth of fire clamped down and spun her around. Elyssia disintegrated the arrow with a flash from her fingertip and pressed her palm against the wound to heal it. A second strike gored into her lower back. Wincing, she threw her hands up and unleashed a wave of probing golden light into the air, intending it to paralyze the unseen archers. Cries tumbled from the rooftops, followed by a handful of bodies, but the barrage of arrows did not stop. Two more cut the air, piercing her thigh and her calf. They were being careful to avoid fatal shots, but she could not heal herself fast enough before more volleys came. She collapsed. Elyssia let the power fade from her hands. She sat still in the cold and the wet, bleeding, thinking of her son.
When the moment came for her to make the decision to leave, Elyssia agonized over whether or not to take little Etienne with her. She had already chosen her route: north, over the border where the Bureau could not follow, where it was storied that witches could walk freely, that the laws were far more permissive regarding magic. Elyssia had persuaded a sympathetic driver to take her out of the city, but from there it was some fifteen hundred miles through the worst of winter’s bite with Bureau eyes in every town and outpost on the way. Even with her powers it would be an arduous, perilous journey. Not one for a little boy. What did it say about the country when the safest place for a child was with his drunkard, philandering father and not his loving sorceress mother? As she kissed him good night for the last time, Elyssia whispered a promise into Etienne’s sleeping ears that whatever the cost, she would see him again. She blessed him with a final spell to keep him safe until that day. She slipped out the back door and stole away into the night as boreal wind turned rain to sleet.
Bureau soldiers swarmed over her with prodding hands. They wrenched her arms behind her back and cuffed her wrists with iron chain. Then they gagged her with a scratchy burlap strip whose knot dug into the base of her skull. Elyssia sucked at precious whiffs of icy air through it. The soldiers formed a circle about her and trained their weapons on her. They were smart. First in intercepting her driver before she could make contact, then the chase, now in the capture. She might be able to free herself from the bonds, but they would fill her with arrows before she could take one liberated step. She heard the clopping of horses’ hooves and the whine of carriage wheels, the click of a door being opened and the wet thud of boots onto puddled stone. The soldiers stepped aside for this new arrival. He did not wear a Bureau or Armée uniform. He approached slowly and crouched beside her. Even in the limited orange light from the soldiers’ torches, Elyssia could see the cold, clinical mind behind his eyes, the total absence of compassion. She stopped thinking of Etienne and began to fear for herself. “Bonsoir, ma belle Madame de Navarre,” the man said without emotion. In an obvious imitation of a tenderness he clearly did not possess he brushed a lock of her hair away from her cheek. She tried to recoil. He grinned. “My name is Girard,” he told her. “You and I will be spending a lot of time together.”
An older Girard Noeme stood next to a still young Elyssia de Navarre, and as he had done that night so many years before, brushed a lock of her now-bright silver hair away from the pale cheek that bore such ferocious scarring. Etienne’s mother did not react to the affectionate gesture. Her expression remained both blank and intense, with tiny tendrils of white mist seeping up from her unblinking eyes. “What have you done to her?” Etienne pleaded.
“I have created my own goddess,” Noeme said. “Through years of proper conditioning, select and methodical application of a variety of techniques of inducement, some mental, some… surgical.” He admired the long scars on the shaved side of her head. “A goddess must be bereft of petty human concerns such as attachment, empathy, kindness… love. When you succeed in stripping away those frivolous, inhibiting traits, all you are left with is power. Pure and invincible.” He smiled at his creation. “She is magnificent, isn’t she? Your mother’s powers have enabled me to achieve far more for the Bureau than I had dreamed possible. And without me, she would never have shed her burdensome human failings and evolved into this perfect higher being. It does so often take a man to help a woman realize her true measure of greatness, doesn’t it?”
Etienne recalled the rage Serge Meservey had shown him on the bridge in Charmanoix. He estimated, generously, that whatever Meservey had been feeling was about a tenth of what he was experiencing now. He could not bring himself to look at his mother, regardless of how much he longed to after thinking she had been dead these many years. Etienne could not begin to imagine how horribly she must have suffered at the hands of the merciless Bureau scientists who beat her and starved her and sliced into her with their filthy scalpels, to manufacture this abomination for Noeme’s use and amusement. Etienne did not doubt either that the garish manner in which she was attired and made up – the clinging, tattered black clothing, the talons lacquered silver to resemble mirrors – reflected Girard Noeme’s preferences as well. It was not enough, apparently, to make her into a mindless slave. She had to be an object of desire for him as well. The taste of sick, irredeemable hatred charred Etienne’s mouth, stoked further with the acid boiling up from his stomach. “You loathsome bastard,” he spat out.
Noeme only smiled. “You are as much a creation of mine as she is, mon gars. Except you were far, far easier to persuade. Did you know, on that first day, when you were undergoing your first test, which you passed so brilliantly, that your mother was being conditioned in the room directly below where you were sitting? She did put up quite the fight in the beginning. Killed more than a few of my men in the process. It took a decade of constant, tireless work. But eventually she broke. Now she is mine to command as I please, as you were. And there is just one final matter to attend to.”
Noeme looked up at Nightingale, suspended unconscious in chains over the table, and his smile inverted itself. “Nature’s insistence on balance can be so very frustrating,” he said. “The more powerful your mother became, the more weapons she fashioned for me, the more this… pest would pop up, rescuing others, defeating Bureau officers, thwarting my careful plans. Nightingale’s very existence counters your mother’s magic like a weight balances a scale. It prevents me from concluding the war on my terms. But your misguided crusade brought her before me.” He faced Etienne again. “Once my goddess has drained every last drop of magic from your precious Nightingale, there will be no one left to interfere. Her power will be absolute. She will take command of every single mind in this country and turn them as one against the witches. Imagine it, mon gars. A entire nation transformed into an army. Lords, peasants, barons and slaves. Old men. Children. Four million people. They will all become my loyal soldiers. And with the arsenal you see around you they will slaughter every single witch who yet draws breath. You will both be witness to this glorious victory.” He leaned closer. “Once it is done, I will have my goddess seize your mind and command you to kill your love. Nightingale will beg and plead and weep, and you will bury one of my blades in her throat.”
“I’ll gut you with it. Just as I did Meservey,” Etienne snarled.
Noeme shook his head. “Ah, poor Serge. These weapons were his idea, you know. Imaginative man. Such a pity he can’t be here to share in this. Perhaps we should drink to his memory when this is over, hmm?” He looked at Elyssia and pointed to Nightingale, then stood aside to watch.
Puppeted by Noeme’s strings, Elyssia obediently raised both arms and stretched her fingers. Air sizzled as barbed golden lightning flew from beneath silver fingernails and skewered Nightingale’s floating form. Nightingale snapped awake. She shook and contorted and moaned, fighting both the onslaught of the spell and the grip of the chains that held her. Elyssia’s strike burrowed deep, and suddenly violet light erupted from every pore on Nightingale’s body, spiraled into the gold and began to flow in an accelerating stream back into Elyssia’s open palms. Nightingale’s magic was being stolen from her, ripped away exactly as Noeme said. The witch’s terrible cries touched the stone rafters.
Etienne clambered to his feet. “Maman,” he begged. “Mother, please. Stop this.”
Elyssia ignored him as one would disregard a speck of lint on a lapel. Etienne could see the purple glow that was the manifestation of Nightingale’s magic flowing into his mother’s veins beneath her skin. She was drawing on Nightingale to augment her own strength. In a matter of moments, Nightingale would be rendered an ordinary woman and Elyssia would become too powerful for anyone to stop. Noeme’s nightmare endgame would proceed unchecked. The witches of the world would be massacred, cut down without hesitation or remorse by their own fathers, brothers and sons.
Their last hope was a man who once would have happily endorsed this plan.
“Please, mother,” he said again. “It’s Etienne. Listen to me. This isn’t you. You don’t have to do this.” He reached out to touch her arm. Heat scorched his fingertips.
Elyssia’s dark-stained lips simpered fleeting annoyance, her eyes flashed hot white, and Etienne was catapulted across the room. Cement tile greeted his backside by shooting a razor-edged spear up his spine and down into his feet. He rolled twice and came to rest in a mass of bruises and scrapes twenty feet from the dining table. Noeme’s voice taunted him from afar. “Don’t waste your breath, mon gars! She doesn’t even know who you are. A goddess has no time for mortal distractions.”
Futility gnawed at Etienne as Nightingale’s cries filled his ears. He had nothing he could use to help her, nothing to disable his mother. Here he was, in a cavern filled to bursting limits with weapons crafted for use specifically against magic, and he could not get to a precious dagger without being noticed. High in the air, Nightingale’s body spasmed into a blur as Elyssia continued siphoning away her power. Golden lightning flared, reflected in the silverware still arranged neatly across the table, still waiting for a non-existent dinner to be served.
Etienne cocked his head. The forks and knives and spoons did look remarkably similar to the metal of the blades. Was it possible? Did Noeme have Elyssia create these for him as well, or were they simply well varnished? To dine on the ashes of your enemy with utensils of the same metal from which you made your swords; a cultured man like Girard Noeme would appreciate the irony. The bet was on whether Noeme’s poetic sense outweighed his common sense.
The stake was Nightingale’s life.
Part of him still resisted doing anything to harm the woman who had given birth to him, no matter what she had become. None of this was her fault. He had to convince himself that it was not Elyssia de Navarre standing there. It was Girard Noeme’s vile, perverted redrafting of her by endless experimentation and torture into a vessel of his will. A foreign persona grafted onto her body.
That, he could kill.
Silently asking forgiveness, Etienne charged toward his mother. In a single motion he scooped a carving knife from the edge of the table and flipped it to his other hand. No turning back, no stopping his momentum. He brought it down, hard, through the tattered black sleeve, into the pale flesh of Elyssia’s raised left arm.
The first sound he heard from his mother in twenty years was a scream of pain.
Magic died on Elyssia’s fingertips. The spell suspending Nightingale collapsed. She crashed to the table, tumbled off its side in a ringing cascade of shattered porcelain and glass and lay still.
Blue sparks leapt from Elyssia’s wound as blood seeped through her hand. She clawed at it, an uncomprehending grimace souring her empty expression. The smell of burning metal tainted the air as the knife crumbled into gray ash beneath her fingers. Cold glowing eyes veered to target Etienne. “Maman, je…” he whispered. She drowned the rest of his plea by turning her dark powers against him.
Etienne’s legs buckled and he splayed out onto the floor, limbs crooked at unnatural angles. In his twelve years of battling witches, he’d never suffered an attack this intense before, and he was wholly unprepared for the deafening pain that went with it. Elyssia’s lightning stabbing through him was like thousands of searing, giant steel needles boring into his bones, but it was more than a physical assault. He could feel his emotions under siege as well, his sense of hope being perforated by those same needles and an overwhelming sorrow and darkness closing in on his heart, as if one could be revisited in an instant by the accumulated sins of an entire life. Images of the countless women he had ordered to their deaths flooded his thoughts one after another, after another. So many faces. So much regret. He could feel life slipping from his grip, drawn inexorably into a greedy, encompassing blackness, and as he had long feared, waiting for him there was a giant, aching nothing. Worse still, he knew he deserved it.
Beyond the deluge of energy suffocating him he could pick out his mother’s face. She was approaching and intensifying her spell with each step. There was still no sign of recognition, of any sense from her that she knew whom she was killing. Noeme’s face was there too, over her wounded shoulder, and Etienne could see him shaking his head, mouthing “mon gars” again before turning away, refusing to bear witness to his death, leaving it as a private moment for a mother and her son. Etienne thought that between the penetrating forks of gold light, he saw a faint hint of pleasure twist her lips. Perhaps Elyssia de Navarre was truly gone. He resigned himself to whatever was to come.
A blast of purple cut across his view. Elyssia was struck in the stomach and flung hard through the nearest stack of weapons. The force of her body’s impact tilted and toppled the massive unit back, pouring dozens of swords and other gear onto the floor around her with wooden cracks and metallic clatters. Etienne gasped at his release from her attack. Noeme merely gasped.
She was alive, seemingly unhurt, and still a force, despite the effect of Elyssia’s draining spell. But she was breathing more heavily than usual, and traces of sweat beaded across her brow.
The witch’s hands simmered with strands of spent violet light as she let them fall to her sides. She went immediately to Etienne to hoist him from the floor. Etienne’s head was spinning and his leg muscles had the fortitude of meringue, but he managed to remain vertical. They had not a moment to reassure each other, however, as Elyssia burst free of the wreckage entombing her and lifted herself high above it, ominous golden energy spinning about her arms, white eyes narrowing with intent onto Nightingale. Girard Noeme grinned, pivoted and scurried off into a darkness that welcomed him.
“Go,” Nightingale told Etienne. “I’ll handle your mother.”
Etienne nodded. No spare seconds for a kiss for luck either. He ran after Noeme.
Once upon a time, as soldiers waged war above them, far below the world a determined man chased the devil, while behind him, two mighty goddesses rose into the air to do battle.
* * *