We might just get this monster finished after all. Here is Part 25.
Grief was an inconvenient emotion at the quietest of times, and it was certainly no more accommodating when one’s enemy had his hands about your throat, or when the world was collapsing around you. Etienne could not spare a half-second to mourn his lost love, not when Girard Noeme was attempting to kill him, not while the ceiling caved in and the floor continued to crumble.
Devastation from both above and below careened toward Etienne and Noeme as they grappled. Noeme’s elegant dining table and his priceless wine cellar both succumbed and fell out of sight.
“Shall we join her, Etienne?” A sardonic smirk twisted Noeme’s lip. Etienne loathed the increasingly pressing idea of letting the man go, but not badly enough to sacrifice himself for it.
Noeme knew it.
The rack nearest them began to warp and crack as its furthest edge sank over the rim of the approaching hole. The nerves inside Etienne’s teeth throbbed as he clenched them.
Out of options.
He delivered an uppercut to Noeme’s jaw and ran, making a hard break for the slanted side wall of the cavern, where a modicum of safety might be found. Noeme spat blood, shook off Etienne’s hit and set out on a parallel path. Both men leaped to the wall. They clung to desperate handholds as the last of the floor vanished beneath them. Heads buried themselves in the crooks of elbows to avoid inhaling the gale of shattered bedrock and loose soil spinning throughout the cavern.
Hovering safely inside a protective shell of magic, Elyssia never took her empty eyes from Nightingale as she dropped the entirety of the earth upon her. More tumbled from above, most of it falling straight through the maw in the floor, the rest piling up along the sides of the cavern in drifts, blanketed by fragments of what was left of the structure of the five sub-floors of the Bureau building.
The wrath of a goddess was thorough.
She did not relent until a new element joined the bombardment, though this one floated into the cavern more gently than the rest: warm shafts of morning sunlight, casting an amber glow upon the billions of motes of dust suspended in the air. A fifty-foot wide crevasse opened to the surface now, and in the silence that settled over the cavern as the last of the rock fell, faint sounds of the battle being waged up there drifted down to where Noeme and Etienne were lying.
Noeme pushed himself up from the dirt. He looked at Elyssia, who floated quietly in the middle of the devastation she had wrought. Her task accomplished, her broken mind awaited further orders.
“Ma belle,” he called to her. Glowing white eyes fixed on their master. “Nightingale is gone. Now your power is free. This country is yours. Do as we planned.” Gleeful at the impending realization of his vision, Noeme’s tone swelled into spit-drenched hysterics. “Faites de chaque âme votre esclave!”
Etienne burst from the darkness and tackled him.
Languidly, Elyssia stretched out her arms. From open palms threads of gold light began to rise and tangle together, like the first shoots of vines climbing from the soil. Laced at the heart of the light though was a stream of onyx-dark energy, a tentacle of malevolence. The light spun together, gold and black intertwined, into a single, flowering whirlwind that fanned out as it surged up through the opening to the surface, cracking eardrums with the sound of lightning ricocheting inside hollow tin.
Bureau soldiers and St. Iliane rebels hacking at each other halted in mid-slice. Energy erupted into the sky in a single pillar and blasted outward, bathing every living person in its glow. The treacly black tentacle lanced through the initial warm embrace, snaking and twisting through mouths, noses, ears and eyes, embedding itself in minds, sponging away every trace of independent thought. The battle stopped and men of both sides stood silent, their wills erased. Subjugated as one to Elyssia’s power, bodies pledged to undying service of a goddess – herself enslaved as much as they.
The spell’s strength was magnified with each foot it traveled. Unimpeded by the structures of men it hurtled across the very limits of the city of Calerre. Magic did not discriminate: at kitchen tables, at casino tables, on the docks or beneath the streets, in the fur-lined echelons of political power or in the fetid rot of the slums, people were changed. Husbands forgot the faces of their wives. Fathers forgot their daughters. In an instant, the collected thoughts of a hundred thousand people went silent.
Exempt were those who bore the brunt of Girard Noeme’s lifelong hatred. Throughout Calerre and beyond, witches young and old, confused and terrified at what was happening in front of them, tried to free their loved ones from the grip of the dark spell, meeting only empty glares. In the cavern below the Bureau Centrale headquarters, light continued to sail upward from her hands as Elyssia de Navarre swept her irresistible control out across the country, claiming new souls from every county and rural village, adding mindless conscripts to Noeme’s army ten thousand at a time.
As a single mass they waited for her instruction.
As she waited for hers.
Etienne and Girard Noeme flailed about on the sloping dirt ledge like a pair of hormonal schoolboys battling over the favor of the prettiest girl. Etienne tried to wrest himself free of the man’s arm coiled about his neck, squeezing on his windpipe. He elbowed Noeme in the groin, climbed out from under him and pinned him beneath his legs. The attacks that ensued were wild, an animal fury made human. Noeme’s gashed and swollen face bled raw from almost every pore, and still Etienne did not stop. The skin of his knuckles purpled with bruises. He wanted to beat the man’s smile from his mouth. Blow followed blow, delivered with such furious conviction as if every single punch could demolish those qualities in Noeme that Etienne hated most in himself.
Girard Noeme was who Etienne had so desperately wanted to become, and was now determined to destroy.
Noeme’s fingers scratched for a handful of dirt. He flung it into Etienne’s face. Black chunks stabbed Etienne’s eyes. Filled them with tears. He wheezed, stumbled back as he grabbed at them. Noeme seized Etienne’s disorientation and landed two jabs in his stomach, then finished with a hook to his right cheek. Etienne crumpled.
The older man lumbered to his feet, brushed past his fallen opponent and descended the slope on which they fought. Elyssia was floating out there in the middle of the cavern, sending her spell up and out into the world, and Noeme had but to speak to her to set his final, terrible play in motion.
Blindly, Etienne thrust out his leg. Noeme’s foot caught on it. He pitched forward. Slid to the edge of the precipice. Etienne dove after him, his field of vision a scattering of blurs. Noeme grabbed at a handhold. Caught Etienne’s arm.
Pulled them both over the side.
Etienne’s arms jerked painfully taut as he latched onto a spiked crag of rock that arrested his fall. Noeme was hanging a few feet lower, trying to paw his way back up. Frosted gusts of wind tugged at them from the massive hole beneath their feet while the flaring and hissing of Elyssia’s spell above cleaved at their ears. Etienne stretched his hand out for another cleft in the rock, one that brought him closer to where Noeme was holding on. Noeme watched him.
It did not require genius to divine Etienne’s intent.
“What happens after you kill me, mon gars?” Noeme bellowed. Echoing his earlier words. “I’m trying to save civilization, not destroy it! Can you imagine ten thousand witches battling like this for control? Our world will be ashes! Balance needs to be restored! It’s the only way!”
Etienne let go of the crag, dug his fingers into the new crevice and pulled himself over.
Noeme’s tirade continued, hollered from below like a demon trying to tempt the mortals that walked above. Planting doubt so that they might chance to look down. “You can’t stop your mother. You’ve accomplished nothing. All you’ve done is march your beloved Nightingale to her death.”
Gripping at the rock face, Etienne hung above him now.
He lowered his foot.
“Do you ever wonder why your parents abandoned you? They knew what you were. You betrayed me. You betrayed Valnier and the men under your command. You sacrificed the men you brought with you today, and you let your lover die right in front of you. Your very existence is poison, Etienne. How does it feel to be a man who destroys everything and everyone he touches?”
Etienne answered by pressing the toe of his boot onto Noeme’s strained hand. He kept it there and gazed down at his old mentor, the man who had directed and controlled the course of his entire life, and so many other nameless lives as well. The man whose life he now held in his grasp for the first time, and who, for the first time, he knew he no longer needed to fear.
Girard Noeme’s scarred mouth foamed with fury. “You’d do this, Monsieur le Commissionaire? I made you. What were you before me… the unwanted offspring of a worthless drunk? I gave you everything you have. And there’s nothing out there for you if I’m gone. You are nothing.”
Abruptly, Etienne’s role became clear.
“I know what I am,” he said. “I’m the villain in this story, Girard. We both are. The difference is, I know my side is supposed to lose.”
He stomped his boot.
Finger bones shattered.
Genuine surprise pried his mouth open and snapped his eyelids back, but the darkness took him before he could scream. There was nothing more. No sound of limbs scraping against rock, no clatter of abrupt impact. He simply disappeared, down there in that empty mass. Etienne heard only the cold, impersonal wind crying out from an abyss whose hunger could never be sated.
The satisfaction, the vindication he had been expecting did not come. He did not even feel an inkling of relief. He couldn’t. There was no time. Etienne could not imagine what his mother would do now that her master was gone. He pulled himself back up to the ledge, rose to his feet and stared out at Elyssia across the great maw. She still floated above it, power rising from her outstretched hands and seizing every mind it touched. There was no limit to how far she could go.
He could not let it continue.
Whatever the cost.
Near the ledge on which Etienne stood, broken fragments of a weapon rack that had escaped the fall littered the ground. Underneath twisted steel frames lay a handful of bows and a few dozen arrows tipped with piercing heads made of the silvered metal. He knew it could cause damage, even to a godlike sorceress. Elyssia’s shoulder still bled from where he had stabbed her with the table knife.
Etienne hoisted the bow in his arm and nocked an arrow in it. She was facing away from him. She would not see it. He aimed at the center of her spine. Drew the string back. Felt a wave of sickness churn through his stomach and the sting of warm saltwater pooling at his eyes.
“Maman,” he whispered to himself.
Etienne, said someone else in his mind.
The bow fell from his hands.
He ran. As he had once run in fear from the bier of his father, now he ran with renewed hope. Over the mounds of rock and debris, around the edge of the opening in the world, toward where he had last seen her, to the very place from where he somehow knew her call had sounded out. He fell to his knees and began tearing away the dirt, cutting his fingers, wearing them raw, biting through bloody lips as he drew upon strength he did not have. Elyssia’s magic crackled and spat behind him as he dug.
At last he saw it.
A glimpse of flesh.
He plunged his arm into the ground, wrapped it around hers and wailed at the sky as he wrenched her from her premature tomb.
Nightingale crawled up and gulped greedily at liberated air.
“You’re alive!” Etienne declared, incredulity a hair short of the hammy instinct to slap his head in disbelief.
“Barely,” coughed Nightingale through dirt and dust. “It took everything I had left to shield myself.” She looked away from him, out at Elyssia in the eye of the cyclone of golden light. “I can feel her spell. I can feel the minds out there in its grip. She’s so close. She almost has everyone. Even without the weapons… so many of our sisters are going to die.” Resignation dimmed her features. “I can’t stop her. I’m not… I’m not strong enough. She’s much too powerful.”
The inevitable cloaked itself about Etienne’s shoulders. “Then we can’t stop her. But what if Noeme was right, about one thing?” Nightingale stared at him. “Maybe balance is the way,” he added. “But it’s not the world that needs balancing. It’s her.”
The witch understood, but her brow tightened. “Etienne, I don’t know if I can–”
He clasped her shoulder and smiled. “Just be ready. You’ll know when.”
Etienne stood, brushed the dirt from his trousers. He straightened himself and descended the hill of stone towards the maw where his mother waited.
Nightingale called after him. “She’ll kill you!”
He stopped and gazed back at the woman he loved, finding himself bereft of anything more substantial or reassuring to say. Instead, he winked.
And he went on.
Nightingale secreted herself in the shadows.
With the crunch of his boots on shattered stone, Etienne thought about the occasions upon which he had been called upon to sway minds with his words. To paint chilling scenes of violent retribution for those who would not surrender to the Bureau Centrale. Latterly, to weave a tapestry of heroic possibility to spur those who were reluctant to stand up against it. On more than one occasion, simply to preserve his own skin. All those precisely crafted, flowery metaphors, dancing about multiple clauses couched in gilded sentences, defining the most pivotal moments of his life like the multifaceted flavors in the finest vintages of wine. Mere rehearsal. An infant’s incremental ascent to the unexpected summit on which he now stood, and where he quivered with an infant’s own fear.
Etienne toed the edge of the precipice. He gazed up at Elyssia. Her pale face was tilted toward the sunlight and draped in the golden glow of her magic. Long whitish hair frolicked about her. She looked ethereal, and oddly serene. He knew that inside, she was far from it. He refused to believe that somewhere in the broken soul, there did not linger still a spark of the true spirit of the loving woman who had given birth to him, fighting against the years of vile, unspeakable conditioning imposed upon her by Girard Noeme. Etienne needed to locate that spark – and pour fuel on it.
“Mother!” he shouted over the wind.
She did not respond.
Etienne spread out his arms. “Mother, I know you probably don’t realize who I am. The last time you saw me, I was a little boy tripping over his toys. You don’t recognize the grown man standing in front of you now. Your son. For so long you’ve been locked away in the darkness. Starved, maimed, subjected to unending pain. So desperate for human contact that you’ve believed the lies and the distortions of the only voice that has condescended to speak to you, all those lonely years. Mother… it doesn’t have to go on. The pain, being alone… it can stop now, and you can take back the life that was taken from you.”
Elyssia gave no indication that she had heard a solitary word. Her magic kept spiraling up, through the opening in the ceiling and out across the world.
“None of this is fair,” Etienne said to her. “None of this should have happened. You never should have had to run. You should have been free to be who you always were. I wish I’d been able to know that person. I might have made different choices in my own life. But I do know that everything that is good about me came from you, and if there is enough of you in me to make me realize that what I was doing was wrong, then surely there must be enough left of the real you to know that you are too. Mother, you are about to murder thousands of innocent people, and you have to stop. The real Elyssia de Navarre, the one hiding beneath that gruesome costume they’ve wrapped you in, would never do anything like that.”
Etienne chanced leaning even further forward. “Maman… do you remember when I was four, and I was scared that Papa would never come home, and you told me that I didn’t ever have to be scared of anything because there were people who loved me?” He swallowed. “I’m scared now. I’m scared of what you’re about to do. I know that you’re scared too.
“I need you to love me now, maman. I need you to know that I’m here, and I won’t let you go. You are stronger than what they did to you. You have a generous heart, and if you can still feel that heart beating, then you know you can’t do what the lying voice has told you to do. You can come back. It’s not too late. Listen to me. Remember my voice. Remember my face. We don’t have to be what they made us. We can beat them. You can beat him. You’re more powerful than any of them. You have the choice, not them. You can decide to stop. Maman, please. Look at me. That’s all I ask. Just look at me.”
Etienne willed his words to cross the divide and reach her.
It did not seem to be enough.
But there, in the middle of a pillar of magic, a goddess heard the long-silent stirrings of her human soul.
A dark sorceress felt a breath’s caress of tender light.
And a mother looked down at face of her son.
“Maman,” Etienne pleaded. “I love you.”
The blinding white mist contaminating her eyes evanesced into wisps, falling away like a curtain. The adoring, deep brown eyes that had watched over him as a baby emerged and beheld him again.
“Etienne,” Elyssia whispered.
And felt fire explode in his chest.
Piercing him through the center of his back.
Blood bubbled over Etienne’s lips as his knees met the earth.
Girard Noeme towered over him, a sword drenched in crimson clutched in his hand.
From behind, Nightingale surged into the air and slammed her hands against Elyssia’s scarred face. Searing violet light poured out from her fingertips, saturating the sorceress with healing magic.
The world washed away in a flood of pure white.
* * *