So in what appears to be a recurring theme, this part got too long so I had to split it in two. Herein the more digestible part twenty-four.
There were as many religions in the world as there were grains of sand on a beach, and each had its own version of the creation myth. The universe had sprung, depending on one’s choice of faith, from accident, indifference, boredom, meticulous design, or in some cases, a war between the gods.
Etienne wondered, if early man had stumbled upon the spectacle unfolding above, if he too might have thought he was witnessing the birth of a new world. Perhaps that was exactly what it was. One could not understate the significance and the consequences of the contest about to commence between Nightingale and Elyssia de Navarre, the witch and the sorceress. Between the two most formidable women he’d ever known.
His lover, and his mother.
However, this time Etienne would not be the gambler merely placing a stake and attending on the outcome in a velvet-draped chair. With the piercing scrape of metal he wrenched a broadsword from its pine rack on one of the endless stacks of weapons and ventured deeper into the dimly illuminated maze. His part in this creation myth was less clearly defined, though he was certain he was not its hero. He was a side character hunting for another: the leader of the Bureau Centrale, the man responsible for transforming his mother into the soulless, obedient avatar she had become. For making Etienne into a soldier, some might argue equally as soulless. Girard Noeme had stolen both lives, and now he had stolen away among his arsenal of horrors. Intent, perhaps, on waiting out the battle, until the expected arrival of the Armée Royale which loomed less than ten minutes away.
Etienne could not predict what would happen then. He doubted that even the full army would make much of a stand against either of the two women.
In any event, he did not mean for Noeme to live to see it.
He masked his footsteps by slow, patience-taxing progress along the edge of each row of shelves. Deliberate caution was both maddening and necessary. He was a stranger in this place, while to Noeme it was a familiar sanctuary. Etienne could not fathom how many secret nooks and alcoves might suit to conceal his quarry throughout the extensive underground. He had to rely on an inadequate minutes-old, faint working comprehension of the outlay of the cavern, and he could only guess in which direction he was moving. Yet he continued on, knuckles aching as fingers bent around the hilt of his new sword, his ears straining for any careless hint of his enemy’s presence.
High overhead, Nightingale and Elyssia floated opposite one another. Gathering magic blazed at their fingers. They did not speak. Elyssia’s stare was mechanical, betraying little thinking of her opponent, if indeed her broken mind was thinking much of anything. There was nothing behind her eyes but instinct and power, enhanced now thanks to what she had drained from her adversary. There was no debate, no delay, no consideration of the options, or the ethics. She was only as they had made her. A weapon, created for a single purpose.
Hands raised, she flew at Nightingale.
Waiting not to see what havoc the sorceress could wreak, Nightingale launched herself toward Elyssia. Goddesses collided in a percussive eruption of gold and purple sparks as the protective barriers in which the two had encased themselves struck and repelled one another.
The two women spun apart. Elyssia whirled and let loose a snarling stream of golden energy, the same spell she had used to bind Nightingale a few minutes earlier. The ground beneath them wheezed, and the roof of the cavern shivered and dislodged spittles of rock. So overpowered was Elyssia’s magic that it seemed to split not only the air but the very fabric of the world…
Etienne squinted at the darkness, trying to pick out traces of movement.
Nothing but murmurs of wind.
He pressed himself against the shelves. As a sorceress’ son he was supposed to have adept perception and intuition, and he tried to trigger those senses now, to conjure an image of where Noeme might have gone. It was difficult to ignore the sizzling of the air as the women tossed volleys of lightning back and forth like so many balls of string.
It was even more difficult to avoid being undone by the hate simmering in his heart, the burgeoning, festering need for his foe to suffer gross, maniacal torment. That impetus to run screaming like a raving fool with sword held high. If Etienne managed to find Noeme, would he slash at the man’s body until nothing remained but ribbons of meat clinging to shattered bones? Would that give him back his lost life, would it return his mother to him as she had once been? Would it restore that precious balance to the world that so transfixed Noeme’s mind? The unlikelihood of any of those results didn’t make him want to snap the man’s neck with his bare hands any less.
Etienne continued ahead. The lingering light abandoned him. Darkness became whole.
And then he heard a voice.
“What do you want, Etienne?”
Nightingale’s palms flew up. Her teeth clenched hard. She heard herself grunt.
Elyssia’s spell bent around her and dispersed, winking out as though it had never been. Nightingale answered with a quick return burst of violet light from her hands. A casual wave of Elyssia’s hand reduced the counter to a harmless bloom of embers.
The sorceress peered down, at the nearest stack of shelves, and stretched her fingers toward it.
The unit rumbled. Bolts and screws flew from the corners. Inches-thick steel plate covering peeled itself back as easily as skin from a fruit, and from the opening a flurry of a thousand swords and knives and spears hoisted themselves into the air.
They enclosed Elyssia within a spinning aura of metal, saturating the air with the frigid and bloody taste of iron. As one, they tilted up and aimed themselves toward a single target.
Elyssia’s fingers twisted, and the lethal blades hurtled toward Nightingale in a single massive barrage that the fastest soul alive could not hope to dodge.
Nightingale froze, her nerves ignited and–
“What happens… after you kill me? What will you do then?”
Noeme’s voice was a beacon of whispered taunts from somewhere in the black. Etienne refused to answer. Instead he took another step forward. Sword stood at the ready.
“If the Bureau is gone… do you think the witches’ rule will be better than ours? Power is addictive and transformative, Etienne, even to the noblest intentions. Do you think the common people will not still suffer? Do you not see the privileged castes, the stronger witches dominating the weak, segregation, discrimination, endless bloody wars fought with the most ungodly magic, and men… men diminished in status and freedoms until we are nothing but breeding stock?”
The voice grew louder as Etienne edged to the end of the row.
“There will be no going back. The balance of the world, our very way of life will be made extinct. Can you not see the moral responsibility of the Bureau to stand against this vision of tyranny? Can you not see the wisdom in what I have done? Or your own duty to stand with me, as you always have?”
–and she vanished in a hard flash of white beneath the storm of flying swords. The thousand blades impaled themselves into the cavern wall, their target simply gone from their path. Nightingale had often used her ability to disappear from one location and reappear in another only for dramatic effect. Here, it had saved her life.
She emerged behind Elyssia. A quick bolt of energy thrown from her hand speared the sorceress through the back. It spread out like glowing purple spiders prancing across Elyssia’s body and chewing at her with their millions of tiny pointed incisors. Nightingale allowed herself the precious respite of a breath as Elyssia writhed–
“Standing with you was the greatest mistake of my life,” Etienne declared. “Made when I was a stupid and naive child. I mean to correct it. Right now.”
“A true pity, mon gars. Before you do, first look up, and witness the dark future to which you would condemn our entire people.”
Thinking of Nightingale, Etienne lifted his eyes from the shadows.
From those shadows, a sword flashed.
–but it was not to be a long respite, as Elyssia clenched fingers into fists and blasted herself free of the pestering tendrils. She spun around, flattened her palms and pitched lance after lance of golden fire at Nightingale, the salvos flying one on top of the other.
It was a different, much harsher spell. Meant not to drain, but to burn.
Burn it did, searing easily through Nightingale’s protective magic, her clothes, and finally her skin. Nightingale’s torso jerked back with each hit as though she was being pummeled with fists of flame. Her arms cavorted in a fruitless effort to block them. Eventually she could not keep herself aloft.
The witch plummeted between the columns. Acid gnawed in her limbs as she panted and tried to rally her ebbing strength. Nightingale had feared she was overmatched from the start of this contest, and her confidence had not been given reason to grow.
The ground growled in the distance, its anger spiked with metal squeals rending, tearing, tumbling across the floor, storming closer without impediment. Suddenly the entire array of racks in front of Nightingale was wrenched up and tossed to the side, contents spilling across the cavern in a lingering rattle like hundreds of spoons being dropped in a drawer.
The fog of steel debris settled to reveal Elyssia strolling towards her, removing thousand-ton obstacles from her path one column at a time with casual flicks of a single silver-nailed finger, as commanding of the trifles of the world as a conductor over an obliging orchestra.
The sorceress smiled, and pointed at Nightingale.
Etienne noticed the falling longsword with scarcely time enough to shove his own weapon in its way and prevent it from carving off the starboard half of his body. Bolts of blue erupted at the clash of the spell-forged metal.
Girard Noeme was not a barroom brute like Serge Meservey. His training was gentleman’s combat in the classical style, and he compensated for any deficiencies of age with masterful swings and flourishes that seemed to hit twice as hard as they actually did.
Etienne could rely only on instinct and the few tricks he’d picked up from watching Corporal Valnier over the years. He understood enough of the basic principles to know that giving ground was losing, and so he leaned forward and parried Noeme’s slices as best he could. Etienne could not find an opening to try a more aggressive stance.
Noeme kept swinging. He alternated his attacks without any predictable pattern. Etienne kept up his clumsy counters. Magic blade clanged against magic blade, cascading both men with flecks of icy blue. Etienne’s arm screamed at him. He could sense that he was being deliberately worn down. He tried battering the blade away with more force, trying to jostle it from the grip of unsteady older fingers.
One of his parries finally pushed the tip of Noeme’s blade against the floor, where it caught on a rough tile seam for a fraction of a second. Just a fraction.
A fraction enough.
The rhythm was broken.
Etienne pressed his opportunity by drawing back his free fist and planting it in Noeme’s face. It connected with a dull slap-thud. The older man dropped his weapon and staggered back. Etienne lunged for him and swung again.
Noeme fell against the racks. A thick stream of blood from his nose stained his pressed ecru jacket, but he was smiling.
Simmering temper bubbled over to a boil. Etienne grabbed Noeme by the collar and hauled him to his feet. “You think this is funny?” he spat at him.
“Your little bird,” Noeme said. “See how she flies.”
Held in Elyssia’s power, Nightingale was no bird. She was a rag in a dog’s mouth.
Elyssia wagged her finger to and fro, and the witch was thrown from one side of the room to the other. The sorceress slammed her against the jagged roof of the cavern. Nightingale wailed at the crush of her back against the unforgiving stippled rock. Elyssia dropped her even faster to the floor, picked her up again and propelled her end over end through the shelves of weapons.
It was not the tactic of someone trying to win a fight, but rather that of a superior combatant relishing the humiliation of an inadequate challenger.
Nightingale whimpered. Lacerations and bruises tattooed her entire body. Stabbing breaths told her of broken ribs. She clutched at her chest and tried to heal them before Elyssia seized her again and lobbed her into the wall. Excess magic ruptured the ground beneath wherever she was thrown, splitting and coughing up fragments of rock, leaving long, twisting scars trailing her.
Nightingale rolled to a stop.
Fear seeped into her bones. Every witch, even those as strong as she, had grown accustomed to living with a certain degree of permanent fear, like a chronic ache that could be ignored on days when the hunters seemed far from the door. What claimed her now was far more acute. It was a throttling fear that if she failed here, she might very well be the last free witch to walk this world.
She looked back along the nearest fissure, at the slow approach of the pale, white-eyed, white-haired Elyssia alongside it. Nightingale did not think she could endure another round. And attacking the sorceress directly was futile.
Perhaps there was another way.
Nightingale drew back her arms and plunged her hands inside the fissure. Fingers melted through stone. Purple light shot along the length of it, connected with the other ruptures in the floor that Elyssia’s spells had created, and spread until each one of them glowed with Nightingale’s power.
White eyes blinked.
A tremor rocked the entire cavern. A moment of stillness followed. Popping sounds pierced the silence, piling on one another and cresting to a wave. At the edge of each fissure, bedrock saturated with violet sparks began to split and crumble away into pebbles. Cracks widened into chasms that grew wider still, emptying into a light-devouring, swelling maw.
As the hole opened beneath the nearest racks of weapons, strong steel bracings strained, bent, buckled and crashed into the growing abyss, sending their deadly cache falling forever out of reach. The hole pushed its ravenous edge outwards, toward the surrounding walls of the cavern. The next column of steel – waiting idly, expecting to wait on – broke, tilted and fell in, followed by the next.
Noeme’s magnificent arsenal was being swallowed by the earth.
Elyssia frowned, and as ground shattered under her boots, she lifted herself into the air.
Etienne pressed his face closer to Noeme’s, close enough to taste the Cygne Reine on his breath. He grinned. “There go your precious weapons, Girard,” he said, tightening his grip on the man’s collar.
Noeme grinned back. “I’ll just have your mother make more.”
Etienne answered the blunt rebuttal with an equally blunt fist.
Nightingale and Elyssia traded stares as the floor of the cavern collapsed and took the weapons with it. The witch feigned the simper of the bully who had broken her sister’s toys.
The sorceress wore the confident indifference of the adult who had long outgrown them.
Locking the void of her eyes on Nightingale, Elyssia lifted her arms above her head. Ripples tore through the dimpled ceiling of the cavern. It heaved, gave way and sent stone daggers plunging to the floor across its entire span. Some of them vaporized in flashes of purple as Nightingale deflected the closest projectiles. Elyssia pulled at more of the earth, drawing down a choking storm from a seemingly limitless reserve. Hail swelled in size and escalated to a deafening deluge.
The spell ate upwards, like a giant worm devouring itself a path to the surface. It burst through the Bureau sub-levels above and added manmade debris like twisted steel bars and splintering concrete slabs to the punishing torrent. Five floors’ worth of furniture, flooring, pipes, vents, all of it joined the flood of rock and dirt crashing through the gaping belly of the world.
Nightingale’s attempts to spirit herself free were frustrated by the more immediate need for breath. She felt her hands grab at nothing, tasted precious air clogged by peat and dust and cement, tried to kick legs frozen in a tomb of earth rising fast to enclose the rest of her. Consciousness and awareness slipped from clawing fingertips, stealing any lingering traces of hope with it. Time itself hesitated, enough for a final, clear and saddening truth to take root in her mind. She knew.
It was over.
She was beaten.
She could not even gather enough air for a scream.
Etienne watched the witch disappear beneath a tumbling sheet of black earth.
* * *
It’s not over yet! Stay tuned for Part 25 coming next week!