Fun and Fancy Speculation about Star Wars: Episode VIII

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Spoilers, of course.

The last reels have unspooled.  The final reviews are in.  Billions of dollars have exchanged hands.  Billions of bytes of data have been exchanged in the evaluation and measurement of the story’s worth.  Opinions have been cemented and there is little else to say about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  There remains but one lingering question:  what’s next?

Episode VIII has begun filming; we know this, thanks to the official announcement featuring a recreation of the final moments of the previous movie, and writer-director Rian Johnson’s sporadic tweets on the subject.  We’ve heard that Benicio del Toro and Laura Dern have joined the cast, most of which is returning.  We were disappointed but ultimately understanding about the shift of the release date from May to December of 2017, particularly if the additional time means a better movie is the result.  Other than that, the lid is closed, and as fans the only thing we can do between now and then is speculate.  What lies among the stars for Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo and BB-8?  How will Luke and Leia fit in?  Will the Resistance defeat the First Order once and for all?

Figuring out what happens next isn’t actually that difficult.  The way forward is much clearer than the dangling threads of The Force Awakens would make it seem.  Let’s look at them one at a time.

The state of the galaxy

The First Order was successful in wiping out the capital of the Republic and most of the Republic fleet, leaving the Resistance without its primary means of support.  However, their superweapon Starkiller Base was also destroyed, reducing the First Order to much the same state.  So as Episode VIII begins, the galaxy is without a central government – essentially in a state of anarchy, with two substantially weakened powers grappling to establish themselves as the sole viable unifying force, with thousands of star systems up for grabs.  The Resistance was depicted as something of a ragtag band using old ships and weapons, while the First Order appears to be much better funded with plenty of state of the art materiel and personnel.  Even with Starkiller Base eliminated, the First Order may be better equipped to continue the battle for the galaxy even if it has to be one measly star system at a time.  One could very well envisage the opening crawl setting up the story thus:  while the First Order has been dealt a blow, with the Republic gone they have begun a war of attrition, pushing outward and laying claim to system after system, and the Resistance finds itself unable to keep up and looking desperately for a way to stem the tide.

We know nothing about Benicio del Toro’s character yet, other than vague comments about him being a villain.  That doesn’t mean necessarily that he’s another member of the First Order – their entire leadership is intact after The Force Awakens.  What if, instead, he’s the leader of a third party – some kind of wealthy (if shady) syndicate that the Resistance needs to court in order to keep up the fight?  We know the galaxy is full of criminals, like the infamous Hutts, or the rival gangs that sought to extract their swindled funds from Han Solo before they were eaten by rathtars.  What if Del Toro is the head of the mysterious Kanjiklub – or more likely, the leader of a Spectre-like organization that controls all illicit activity throughout the galaxy and has no great love for the First Order?  You could have an interesting story there with both the Resistance and the First Order attempting to sway his group into the fight, a sort of “enemy of my enemy is my friend” type of dilemma.  For General Leia, it would mean a significant challenge to her principles.  Is it worth doing business with devils to defeat the greatest devil of all?  If it has to resort to similar methods to achieve its ends, is the Resistance no better than the very foe it professes to despise?

The state of the Force

Even though the previous movie ended on a shot of Luke Skywalker and Rey looking silently at one another as the music swelled, Episode VIII likely won’t pick up with them for at least the first ten minutes (remember, all Star Wars movies begin with a spaceship going somewhere).  It would be foolish to believe that merely a glimpse of his old lightsaber will be enough to convince Luke to impart his knowledge to this completely unknown girl.  And I do believe she is unknown, despite the wishes by many fans that she will turn out to be Luke’s daughter.  There would simply be no story for Luke if that were the case.  Why would he refuse to train his own child?  You can suggest that it might be because the previous attempt to train one of his bloodline went bad, but there’s a considerable difference between a nephew and a daughter.  Rather, I would imagine that Luke will want nothing to do with Rey, having decided (at least at first) that the galaxy is better off without people who can touch the Force.  At least, until Rey proves herself somehow.  This is where a concept that was deleted from The Force Awakens might come into play.  (Hollywood never lets a good idea go un-recycled.)

Before screenwriters Arndt, Kasdan and Abrams decided that Luke himself was to be the object of the quest, there was discussion that there might be some valuable information left over in remnants of the Death Star that had crashed in an ocean on Rey’s world, and that that would be the story’s McGuffin.  In the movie, Han said that it was rumored Luke had gone looking for the first Jedi temple.  Yet when we find him he’s on an empty island in the middle of a vast ocean.  What if the Jedi temple is somewhere under all that water, and in order for Rey to be granted the benefit of Luke’s teachings, she is forced to help him find it, in a quest through ancient ruins that invokes Indiana Jones?  (Laura Dern as an oracle/ghost of one of the first Jedi, perhaps?)  The journey would of course be a spiritual one as well as a physical one, with Rey finding out even more about herself along the way and discovering, rather like The Karate Kid, that what appears as a futile series of labors has in fact been her Jedi training all along.  One aspect I find interesting in the discussion of who Rey might be is that every single theory suggests she was left on Jakku for her protection.  What if that’s not the case – what if she was abandoned there because her parents were afraid of her, because they thought she was dangerous?  What if there is more dark side in her than we’ve been led to believe thus far?  It sets up a fascinating contrast with Kylo Ren, whose training we know thanks to Snoke’s last line of dialogue is also incomplete.  In Episode VIII we might see parallel stories of Rey being trained to resist her innate darkness while Kylo struggles to purge the last of his inner light as he endures unexpected guilt over his act of patricide – and because there is an Episode IX to come, we may not see the resolution of that conflict yet.

The state of the galaxy’s favorite bromance

When we last saw Finn, he was lying unconscious in a Resistance medical bay after taking a lightsaber to the spine.  He will of course make a miraculous recovery and be consumed now with taking the fight to his former colleagues after spending most of the first movie running away from them.  John Boyega, tweeting on the first day’s shooting, included a hint of what might be either his character’s arc or an actual line of dialogue:

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This would fit what I talked about above, with the Resistance in regrouping mode as the First Order takes system after system, and Finn growing impatient with the progress of the war.  He’s going to want to punish the people who stole his life from him.  Trying to keep him from going too far down the dark path – even though in this example it’s not a question of being seduced to the dark side of the Force – will be his BFF Poe Dameron.  One could even see the two of them being dispatched on a mission that has something to do with the scenario I hypothesized above regarding Benicio del Toro’s character.  Rian Johnson is said to have arranged screenings for the cast of the Gregory Peck war movie Twelve O’Clock High and the Russian film Letter Never Sent; the former is about a hard-nosed general whipping a bunch of misfit bomber pilots into fighting shape, while the latter is about a group of geologists who get trapped in the Siberian woods while searching for diamonds.  Finn and Poe (and little BB-8 for good measure) might be cast into an homage to either, or a combination of both of these narratives.

As to “the lip bite that launched a thousand ships”?  I think it would a tremendous and welcome step forward to have gay characters in a Star Wars movie.  I don’t think it’s going to happen.  I don’t think the powers that be would slam the door on the possibility by dropping Poe’s yet-unseen girlfriend into the plot, but they will more than likely skirt what they could see as a potential audience-alienating controversy by leaving the matter to wishful conjecture instead.  The main thrust of the story is always going to be the war in the galaxy far far away, and every subplot will be in service to that narrative, not progressive social commentary, as much as we might welcome it.  Finn and Poe will remain pals and comrades-in-arms, but nothing more.

Putting it all together

The second act of a play is traditionally the darkest, or, as Lawrence Kasdan has put it, “when everything goes to hell.”  Characters are brought to their lowest point.  Everything we’ve taken for granted collapses.  The remaining pieces are assembled in an unexpected order for the final dramatic showdown.  I think we will see the First Order resurgent, the Resistance on the edge of a final defeat, friends set against one another and Rey and Kylo Ren both forced to wage mortal battles with their own respective souls, perhaps even in the form of a lightsaber rematch.  I doubt we will see anything as gut-wrenching as Han Solo’s death – it would be gilding the lily a bit to take another one of the classic trio out of the picture – but as the credits roll we’ll be left with significant doubt as to whether our heroes will survive.  We may even be doubtful as to whether our heroes are actually heroes.  Just as Darth Vader ultimately turned out to be the true hero of the original trilogy by killing his evil master in Return of the Jedi, what if his grandson, whom we could never possibly consider forgiving after what he did to our childhood idol in The Force Awakens, is fated to follow a similar path?

About the only thing we can be certain of about Episode VIII is that once it’s done we’ll be having the exact same conversation about Episode IX.  In the meantime, let me know your own thoughts in the comments – do you see these as logical developments, or do you have another idea about what will follow the crawl on December 15, 2017?

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Vintage, Epilogue

vintagetitleHere we are.  What began as a directionless lark in September of 2014 finally wraps up, approximately 95K words later.  It’s been fun.  Thank you for taking the journey with me; I hope it’s been worth it.

Autumn smelled like spring.

Cool, fresh winds swept in from the bay and ferried morning mist up into the hills above Calerre.  Throughout the city, a gentler sun shone through a veil of lapis blue upon giddy children splashing in the puddles that had collected in front of their houses on the old stone streets.  Even after only one day’s rain, the land felt greener.  Wearied bushes and trees dared to unfurl and lift their leaves, and the grasses were soft under foot again.  The long overdue downpour had doused the last of the fires, and where the headquarters of the Bureau Centrale had once jutted its hideous self into the collective fears of four million people, there stood only an abandoned, smoldering black husk, its smothered embers being quickly forgotten.

The hills concealed a secluded glade where the wall of trees parted over a view of the harbor whose docks and quays a young boy named Etienne de Navarre had once loved to explore.  His body, shrouded in white cloth, lay on a plain stone slab in the center of the glade, attended on either side by the sisters Adelyra and Kathaline Belleclain.  The Belleclains had known him only for a few moments, back in the river town of Charmanoix, but his intervention had allowed them to escape capture by the Bureau, and his sacrifice would now allow them to live free.

Two mourners stood vigil.  Etienne’s mother, Elyssia de Navarre, looked stronger and more assured with every hour as she settled back into her true self.  If one did not know she was waiting on the funeral of her son, one might have judged her demeanor impatient.  One would not, however, make this judgment if sharing in the incomparably bracing sensations of magic that sprinted through her veins and begged her for jubilant release.  Enormous wings had been unchained after twenty painful years, and Elyssia longed to heed the irresistible call of the sky.  She knew, too, that her late son would not have wanted her to live out her days in the well of grief, not when so many of them had already been stolen from her.

The other, the witch whose enemies had dubbed her Nightingale, wore the quiet contemplation of the veteran of a hundred wars.  Her own energies were spent, and while she had greater cause for optimism today, she wondered if there was a specific, definable amount of rest that would allow her to feel renewed, would spur her to step back onto the front lines.  She was not certain where she would find it.  Returning to her sanctuary, the distant beach where she and Etienne had spent their last night, held no lingering appeal.  Certain memories lived there that she was in no hurry to revisit.

Adelyra and Kathaline clasped hands over the body, bent their heads and closed their eyes.  White light gathered at their hands and spread beneath them.

Le Taureau and the others had not wished to attend.  They had set out for home before the last flames had gone out.  Le Taureau had confessed to her, somewhat less coarsely than usual, that he was a man to swing a sword, not a hammer.  He was content to lord over his little fiefdom of ne’er-do-wells in St. Iliane and had no interest in the plodding mechanics of government, or the labors of building a new country.  He did emphasize, however, that should she need him to fight for her again, that he would forever remain at the call of his déesse.

Nightingale had smiled, kissed his cheek, and wished him well.

As the light engulfed Etienne’s body, Nightingale’s mind meandered to the future.  She was grateful to no longer be alone in her battle, to be joined by a sorceress far more powerful than she.  Though their central command and their arsenal were both gone and the government had seemingly withdrawn its previously unqualified support, pockets of the Bureau Centrale staffed by hardline believers still festered throughout the country, carrying on business as usual.  Nightingale could count on Elyssia to assist in sweeping up those stubborn remnants, but even that was only one miniscule step on a much longer road.  The dismantling of the official organization did not mean that the laws were not still brutal and unfair, that the common people would not still be terrified of magic.  Witches still needed a voice, and that voice needed to be heard.

She was mindful of what she had once told Etienne, that there was no spell to change a man’s character.  That didn’t mean an occasional display of magic here and there couldn’t be incredibly persuasive.  Nightingale could sense that the climate was different now, that her long-held aspirations might finally meet a more receptive audience.  The people who had suffered most under the Bureau’s lies and persecution had seen their hope vindicated, and it was tasked to her, Elyssia and their many anonymous sisters to seize this hard-won, critical moment and show those who feared them that they could ignite a wondrous revolution and create a new, inclusive country where witches and mortals could live together in peace and mutual respect.  It amused Nightingale to think of herself as taking on the role of politician.  It would not be the strangest one she had ever adopted.

There were no guarantees.  There never were.

But there was promise.

The pure white light on the bier glowed hotter and brighter, edging to bursting.  A few tiny motes broke away at first, followed in short order by thousands more.  They drifted up into the air like seeds blown from a dandelion, catching on the breeze, sailing out across the harbor into the embrace of infinity.  Nightingale looked at Elyssia.  She was crying, but smiling, and she touched her fingertips to her lips and murmured her son’s name as the little lights spun away.  Nightingale looked back to see the last of them rise, like a chorus of fireflies flashing the final notes of their requiem, leaving the slab bare.  “Au revoir, Etienne,” she said, and she too smiled at the path of the lone tear tumbling over her cheek.

Adelyra and Kathaline released their hands.  They bowed to Nightingale and Elyssia.  Nods of thanks were exchanged.  The sisters retreated silently to the path through the woods, their duties in this matter complete and their new life about to begin.

Regrettably, the greatest poets in history had never, among their many sublime literary accomplishments, managed to produce the proper words for a parent who had just buried their child.  Nightingale too knew nothing she could say to Elyssia that would be more suitable than respectful silence.  She reached out and lay her hand on Elyssia’s shoulder.  She felt Elyssia’s fingers clasp hers.

The women embraced.

“Thank you.  For everything,” Elyssia whispered.

“I’ll see you again soon,” said Nightingale.

Elyssia smiled.  Etienne’s eyes were mirrored in hers, even behind drying tears.  Mother and son were very much the same.  Intelligent, resolute, courageous and passionate, yet touched by a deep vulnerability.  Formidable and arresting, perhaps even fear-inducing under the darkest of circumstances, but always achingly, longingly human.  Born dreamers and wish-makers who’d lost sight of the stars but managed to find the road back to who they were always meant to be.  Many others like them were still waiting for their own awakening.  Some would welcome the chance.  Others would not be so willing.

There was so much still left to do.

Offering fond farewells, the sorceress lifted a hand and twisted her fingers.  A whirlwind of golden light threw itself around her.  She vanished inside it, leaving only a few lingering sparkles in the air that rushed to fill the abruptly empty space.  Nightingale pondered the foolishness of any remaining Bureau peon who ever again dared underestimate, or worse, take up arms against Elyssia de Navarre.

Nightingale was relieved beyond measure to be able to now call her a friend.

The witch drifted next to the empty stone slab and traced her fingertips along its edge.  She slouched against it and cast her gaze to the endless blue of the ocean beyond the busy harbor.  Perhaps a respite in one of those alien lands over the horizon would do her some good.  She could take in some new vistas, a few exotic meals, perhaps some even more exotic company.

She had earned it.

Leaves rustled in the trees, more generously than the breeze would warrant.  Nightingale shook her head and felt the corner of her mouth curl into a grin.  “I can hear you,” she said to the air.

The leaves rustled again.  Shadows shifted.  Something was moving behind the line of trees.  Shadows coalesced into an oil-slick, bluish-black furry form.  A panther.  It padded its way forward into the clearing, drooping muzzle dusting the ground as though it was embarrassed at being discovered.

Nightingale arched her eyebrow.  “Cats are supposed to be renowned for their stealth.”  The panther hissed.  The witch frowned.  “Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.”

Dancing energy cascaded about the form of the panther, reshaping its sleek body and muscular limbs into a slimmer, certifiably more human form.  The stringy-haired girl who appeared raked frantic nails over the nape of her own neck.  “You try being stealthy with fleas eating you alive,” she huffed.

“Then next time, cher Gen, become something with feathers instead,” Nightingale said.

Gen, or Genvieve, as she had introduced herself to Etienne and his company that ancient day, replied with a pout.  “You haven’t shown me how to do birds yet.”

“You will forgive me if a situation arose that was a little more urgent.”

“I know.  I’ve been trying to follow and keep an eye on you.”

Nightingale’s lips twisted south.  “How much have you been keeping an eye on?”

The girl’s jaw dropped.  “Not that!”  She waved her hands in protest.  “Oh dear heavens no.  Ugh!”  She shuddered.

Nightingale offered her a sheepish shrug.

Gen shaded somber, and stared past her to the smooth gray of the abandoned stone slab.  “Did you love him?  Truly?  With everything he had done to people like us?”

The witch thought on it a long moment, letting the breeze’s tweaking of the trees fill the lull in the conversation.  “I loved him enough,” she said finally.  Young Genvieve would have to be content with figuring out what she meant by that on her own.  Nightingale intended to say nothing more, and to tend to the memory of her ephemeral relationship with Etienne de Navarre in her own private way.  To look, at some future day when the skies clouded over again, to the quiet, recollected flickers of a brief light.

Some secrets were meant to remain locked in the heart, or to use an analogy Etienne might have appreciated, corked in the bottle.

Gen nodded, accepting that she should tread this particular path no further.  “Do you think you’ll be coming home now?” she asked instead.  “The winter grapes are starting to bud.  Everyone’s really excited.  It’s going to be one of the best harvests ever.”

“I wouldn’t miss it,” Nightingale said.  “But you should go on ahead.  I’ll be along.”

“You’re going to change, though, right?  You’re not going to arrive like this.”

Nightingale sampled a quick glimpse of herself.  “Why?  What’s the difference?”

Gen sighed.  “I hate being the only person whose grandmother looks younger than I do.”

“You’d prefer this?”  A dazzling amaranthine flash, and the familiar shape of the ethereal, enigmatic woman who had first enraptured Etienne de Navarre on the night road from Montagnes-les-grands was usurped by that of the elderly, bramble-haired crone whose neck his men had once threatened to slice open with a sword.

She wondered if he had ever imagined.

“That’s better,” Gen said.  “I don’t feel as strange calling you grand-mère.  And I don’t have to think about… that other thing.”

“Genvieve, ma petite cocette.”  The old woman tugged lovingly at her cherished little one’s cheek.  “When will you learn?  People really are like wine.”

Gen smirked.  “Sour and prone to spoil?”

“Not quite,” laughed her grandmother, sparks of magic forever alive in her eyes and in her smile.  “The older vintages are always the best.”

LA FIN

***

If interest warrants, I may have some concluding thoughts to offer on the process of putting this story together at a later (but not too much later) date.  In the meantime I think I’ll have a glass of shiraz tonight…

Vintage, Part Twenty-Six

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Been a long journey – 17 months to be precise, but the conclusion draws ever nearer.  Here we go.

In that first moment, the golden light was everywhere.  As if it had always been there.  Infusing itself into remote corners inside every living mind and quashing conscious thoughts like a thousand-ton stone pressing down on blades of grass.  Four million souls in its thrall accepted the light as truth.  In the next moment, it was gone, snapped instantly like overstretched rubber.  The thousand-ton stone splintered into dust, and the grass was free to rise toward the sun once more.

Dizziness, headaches and bewilderment lingered in its wake.

On the blood-flecked manicured lawns of the courtyard of the Bureau headquarters, on the perimeter of the gaping hole in the center of it from which the light had erupted, and in the shadow of the flames and the black smoke that had burst from the archive floors to consume the rest of the building, soldiers and rebels stood in wait.  They were but game pieces prepared to execute the strategy of an unseen, omnipotent master.  As the light rolled back, mass awareness painted itself in one restored color at a time.  Recognition dawned about the nature of their immediate circumstance.  Questions about what had just happened could wait:  hands tightened around the hilts of swords, and glances darted about the courtyard for an unfamiliar face who could be attacked.

The battle resumed.

The notorious character who went by the audacious moniker of Le Taureau shook off his disorientation and looked quickly to rally the six men who remained in his squad.  His oversized physique was festooned in ribbons of blood, but only what oozed from the annoying gash in his side was his own.  Incredibly, he and the others had managed to fight their way from the top of the burning building to its front door, fending off better-trained professional soldiers with the sheer force of will known only to the desperate.  The company of misfits had made great advantage of surprise, confusion, narrow passages and the rapid progress of the fire they had set, not to mention the arrogance of Bureau men who simply could not believe anyone would dare attack them on their home soil.

There had been significant cost.  Old friends had been cut down.  But as Le Taureau and the others hacked and slashed their way to escape they had begun to sense an impossible yet growing hope that they might indeed survive this day.  Now, though, wounded, tired, they stared out at a hundred fresh soldiers bearing down on them, girded themselves and resolved, silently to a man, to take as many of the bastards with them as they could.

Howling a war cry suitable for a mammoth, let alone a bull, Le Taureau leaped at the nearest target:  a scrawny, scared private who could barely hold his sword straight.  He batted the opposition’s weapon away quickly and drew back his own blade to plunge it into the boy’s stomach.

A cacophony of whistles, like the morning complaints of a gaggle of atonal birds, punctured the eardrums of every man still vertical.

For the second time this morning, the fighting stopped.

The combatants gawped at the street, where a legion in coats of gold-trimmed sky blue, gleaming sabers at their shoulders, were advancing on them in crisp ranks of twenty abreast.  A shifting sea of helmeted heads followed with boot heels slapping at concrete in rhythmic unison.  At the ruins of the courtyard the new arrivals divided into equal columns and circled the edge of the giant pit.  They filtered through the groupings of fighters and took up sentry positions among them, spreading out so every bluecoat soldier stood within a blade’s reach of three men belonging to the Bureau.  Snapped at attention with weapons drawn, they peered out from beneath helmets perched low on their foreheads in a steeled silence that made them seem even less human than the men they were guarding.  A bluecoat parked himself in front of Le Taureau, and a puzzled Le Taureau held out a cautionary hand to his men, advising them to stand down.  They were dead no matter what, so Le Taureau preferred to witness first what evolved from this latest development.

A youngish, clean-cut man sporting a trim mustache waxed to curled points stepped to forefront of the troop.  Gold-braided epaulets decorated his shoulders and commander’s insignia adorned his sleeves.  He removed his helmet, and with surprising nonchalance drew a square from his pocket and polished at a scuff on the helmet’s edge.  Satisfied, he tucked the helmet under his arm, dabbed his mouth with the square and returned it to his pocket.  He cleared his throat.  Despite having marched into a battle, despite the spectacle of the Bureau building burning down only a hundred yards in front of him, he acted with no greater urgency than a man asked to wait a few extra moments to be seated at his favorite table.  “Might I inquire as to who is in charge?” he asked with a splendid, mannered ennui.

“Thank the blessed dieux you are here at last!” came the breathless reply from the soot-stained features of the harried fellow who shuffled forward to present himself – a man whose escape from the facility had been as unlikely as that of Le Taureau’s band.  He slid a cutting glance at Le Taureau.  “Michel Ste-Selin,” he wheezed.  “Directeur, Bureau Centrale.”

The points of the mustache twitched as a sneer peeked through.  “Dominique Kyliere, capitaine général.  Commandant, Gardes du Royaume, 19th Division.  Armée Royale.”  He eyed the two bluecoats nearest him and nodded toward Ste-Selin.

“As you can see,” Ste-Selin said, pointing to Le Taureau, “we have been besieged by an enemy force, led by a traitor from within.  We have sustained considerable losses, and–”  He stopped abruptly as cold iron bit at his wrists.  A face had never flashed purple with such dispatch.  Ste-Selin vented fury as though he could melt the manacles off with his voice alone.  “What is the meaning of this?!”

General Kyliere reached into his inner breast pocket and teased the folded edge of a piece of paper.  “We received a disturbing report a few days ago from an informant inside the Bureau, one of your own Commissionaires in fact, that the Bureau was engaged in dubious and highly illegal practices involving the use of magic.  Naturally we were disinclined to believe such wild allegations, but based on the spectacle you unleashed on us a few moments ago…”  He cocked his head.

Grunts of disbelieving protest arose throughout the courtyard as the bluecoats began arresting the Bureau soldiers.  Weapons fell to the ground, arms were bound behind backs, scores of men were herded into orderly lines and marched at the points of swords back down to the street, where a long line of horse-drawn wagons was being readied to ferry the lot of them to who knew where.  “I don’t understand,” Ste-Selin protested.  “What Commissionaire gave you this information?”

“What was his name… ah, yes.  Etienne de Navarre.”

Le Taureau did not think it was physically possible for a man’s eyes to leap further from their sockets.  “That’s the traitor!” Ste-Selin screamed.  “Of course he would tell you that!”

“I should think the people are fortunate to have such a patriot within the ranks of an organization that has clearly… exceeded its mandate, shall we say?”

“This is absurd,” said Ste-Selin.  “You take the word of a piece of paper over the most important institution in the country?”

“Quite frankly, monsieur le Directeur,” said Kyliere, a palpable irritation salting his tone, “there are those in the government who grow quite troubled by the extent of the Bureau’s reach, its lack of accountability.  For some time now there have been legitimate suspicions of your activities, which you were helpful enough to confirm for us in one giant burst.  But don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll have every opportunity to make your case before the tribunals.  You do recall what the penalty for magic is, yes?”

As he witnessed the rest of the Bureau personnel being led off in irons, Ste-Selin seemed to acquiesce to what he could not stop, and true to his nature he opted for the least honorable tactic available.  “Wait,” he said, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.  “You should know, I am not really a Directeur of the Bureau Centrale.  I’m merely a stand-in for the man who is truly responsible for these unspeakable actions.  I’m more than willing to cooperate.  There must be some sort of equitable arrangement we can come to, n’est-ce pas?”

Kyliere’s eyeroll was so pronounced it was almost audible.

Ste-Selin began to weep as the bluecoats dragged him away.  Le Taureau and his compatriots remained untouched and apparently unnoticed.  They exchanged glances with one another, none knowing exactly what they should do, if they should dare speak.  It was Le Taureau, of course, who chose finally to abandon caution, doing so with a genuine politeness that anyone who knew him well would have been astonished to think was within his capacity.  “Excusez-moi, monsieur le général…”

Kyliere arched a fractionally interested eyebrow.  “You are?”

“Corben Fisserand,” replied Le Taureau.  It was the first time anyone save his late wife had heard his full, true name spoken aloud.  “My men and I were assisting Monsieur Navarre.”

“Were you?” said the general.  “Well, thank you for your service to your country.”  General Dominique Kyliere replaced his helmet, pivoted on his heel and moved to depart.

The sergeant next to him touched his sleeve.  “Monsieur.  The building?”

Kyliere gave it a halfhearted glance over his shoulder.  His was the face of a man who felt he had many more important matters to attend to, one of which might possibly include the re-waxing of his mustache.  He sighed.  “It’s just a building.  Let it burn.”

Off he went.

Le Taureau watched him go.  Behind them, the blackened concrete walls of the Bureau building cracked and began to crumble.  The ground at its base exhaled billows of smoke into the sky.

Even a world as dark as theirs was not without its sense of humor.

Le Taureau felt the strange sensation of a grin creeping across his lips, recognizing that his initial reaction was paradoxically one of deep disappointment, that he would not get to soar off the mortal plane by way of glorious victory.  At least not today.  He had to give credit to Etienne’s foresight, while acknowledging that had he known the man had alerted the gods-damned Armée Royale to their plan, he would have bisected him with his bare hands.  Perhaps that was why Le Taureau had never been fond of gambling.  He preferred the dependability of the strength of the arm, not the tenuous trust in the variable workings of the mind, or the misanthropic whims of luck.  It was his arms, after all, that had enabled him to achieve some measure of peace for his darling wife.

He hoped very much that she would have been proud.

As Le Taureau stood with his surviving friends amidst the smoldering cinders of the Bureau Centrale and peered down into the enormous hole in the earth, there was but one statement to be made, and there was perhaps not a man alive who could have phrased it with more singular eloquence.

“Merde.”

Six storeys below, Etienne was cold.  Numbing ice nibbled at his fingers, his toes, skipped along the hairs of his neck.  And yet, as he lay slumped against the rocks, staring up into high morning sunlight pouring down from above, soothing warmth gathered at his back, as though he were being cushioned by a hot spring.  Leaden weights sagged his eyelids and the promise of sleep tugged at him like velvet ropes pulling at his feet.  He was surprised at how normal it felt, how the experience was akin to a pampering bath in the best suite of the Splendide followed by a lazy crawl between silk sheets and onto down pillows as the sun set over the balcony.  Etienne could taste the complimentary strawberries and chocolate on his lips, instead of the sharp metal flavor of blood that pooled both at the corners of his mouth and the deep, jagged punctures in his spine.  It was an illusion, naturally, the desperate acts of a failing body diverting ebbing resources to the organs and abandoning those parts of itself deemed less crucial to the task of preserving a few more precious minutes of life.

Noeme’s blade had cut too deep.

“Etienne!” he heard someone call out from the darkness, yanking him back.  The blurry form of Nightingale stumbled over the debris and fell to her knees next to him.  She looked harried, exhausted, but still as beautiful as the first time he had seen her.  “I’m here.  It’s okay,” she said, laying her hands on his chest.  A familiar purple glow surrounded them and seeped into his body.

Steel spikes pried his ribs apart.  Etienne moaned and thrashed beneath her, spitting up a toxic foam of blood and saliva and bile.  Nightingale frowned and stretched her fingers.  She chewed through her lip against the strain of effort as her healing light intensified, burned white hot.

Etienne’s back spasmed.  Blood soaked through his shirt.  The spikes were wrenching at him now, and searing him from the inside out.  Arms flailed, pounded at the rocks beneath him.

He tried to shove Nightingale away.

“I don’t understand!” cried the witch.  “Why isn’t it working?”  She summoned her power for another attempt.  Energy sparked and churned in her palms.

“Because wounds made by those weapons… can’t be healed by magic,” said someone else.

Etienne caught the scent before he saw the face.

Pomegranates.

It was Elyssia de Navarre.

The real Elyssia de Navarre.

The one Etienne remembered kissing him good night when he was a boy.

She was standing there gathering her bearings like a fawn newly born, or awoken from a long sleep, perhaps only tangentially aware of the events going on around her.  The angry scars on her face were gone.  Stark white hair was restored to its natural soft auburn, her eyes were their rightful shade of deep brown.  Her skin had lost the pallor of death, and the garish garments and aesthetics that had been forced upon her were likewise forgotten.  Every trace of the avatar of dark power that had wrought the devastation surrounding them had been erased.  Though the physical effects of twenty years of imprisonment had disappeared, the unsteadiness of her steps, the broken timbre, the sorrow deep within her eyes proved that the horrific and unwanted clarity of every single day of the experience was engraved forever on her soul, an obscene sketch scratched for the sake of puerile amusement onto a unique and irreplaceable work of art.

Elyssia looked at Etienne as repressed memories burst from behind the bricks that imprisonment had laid.  She drew upon an old ability she thought she had lost somewhere along the course of those long, dark years, and made herself smile.  “My sweet fils,” she said quietly.

Nightingale shot her a pained glance.  “Can’t you do something?”

Elyssia’s gaze drifted away, and hardened suddenly.  “Not for him.”

Nightingale looked to see what had caught her attention.

Over the piles of rock and twisted metal debris that sloped in from the walls of the cavern, someone was trying to climb out.

Girard Noeme, the fingers of his right hand broken by Etienne’s boot, was grasping at ridges of stone with his left and hoisting himself awkwardly up the edge of the hole in the earth at a pace no greater than that of a crippled snail.  The prospect of escape was a function for him only of denial and stubbornness, especially as a vengeful Elyssia closed in, her steps now marked by assured intent.

“Girard!” she bellowed.  Her projected voice clanged inside his skull.  She reached out and waved her hand.  Noeme was plucked from the wall like an apple from a tree and thrown hard against the opposite side.  A loud crunch, seashells being crushed, was followed by a piercing wail as every bone in Noeme’s back shattered.  He slid to the ground.  He tried to move his legs, lift his arms, but the connections had been severed by the break.  He could do little more than raise his head, and stare up into the face of the woman he had tortured for twenty years.  The fog had lifted from her mind, and Elyssia knew who he was and what he had done.

“You took my life,” she said.  “You took me from my son.  You made me into a monster.”

“You’re so ungrateful.”  Noeme panted undying defiance.  “I made you powerful.”

Elyssia shook her head.  “No.  I was always powerful.”

Her eyes ignited with golden light as the sum of two decades of rage and hate spewed from her outstretched hands in the form of lightning and fire.

Noeme had time only to gasp.

In the instant of a breath, flesh and muscle and nerve and blood and bone was stripped away and vaporized.  All that was Girard Noeme was incinerated, purged from the very fabric of existence, and when it was done, and the fire was snuffed and the lightning fizzled, there was nothing left of him, not even ash.  Only a fell shadow burned into the stone.

Elyssia’s heart sprinted at the exercise of that much pure power, the giddy thrill of it surging inside her veins touched with the melancholy of accepting the grim truth of what she had wanted to do for so long.  She was a sorceress.  She knew that there was nothing to be gained in denying her nature anymore.  She had her life back at long last, and she wanted to begin living it as the person she truly was.  To be powerful and accept the consequences of having, and using, that power, whatever they would be.  But as her pulse quieted, she resolved that this, here, would be the last dark spell she would ever cast.  That part of her would die with Girard Noeme.

Etienne whimpered, his strength too far gone for a moan.

Nightingale covered his hand with hers.  “Etienne.  Please.  Try to hold on.”  She looked to where the other woman was seemingly lost in her own thoughts.  “Elyssia.  Elyssia!”  The sorceress joined her at Etienne’s side, her movements understandably but frustratingly languid.  “You’re much stronger than I am,” Nightingale told her.  “Together, can’t we…”

The resigned silence from Elyssia was the answer she feared.

Nightingale felt a faint brush at her arm.  “It’s all right,” Etienne whispered, letting his hand fall back.  The shaking and the shivers had silenced, and stillness held him now.

“Etienne, don’t be ridiculous.  We can save you.”

“We said we were going to destroy the Bureau.”  He found a grin.  “Every last part of it.”

“Not you,” Nightingale pleaded.  “Not you.”

“Maman?” said Etienne.

“I’m here,” said Elyssia.  “I’m here, Etienne.  My beautiful little boy.  I am so sorry I left you.  I wish I could have watched you grow up, that you could have been spared this.”

A mere index of everything Etienne wanted to say to his mother would have occupied a dozen libraries, and yet, he could feel precious minutes eluding his increasingly tenuous grasp, washing away beneath an insistent tide.  Truly, the mother and the son did not know each other, and the lifetime they needed to mend the broken bond would not be theirs.  “I’m sorry for who I became without you.  I’m sorry for what I did to those like you.”

She touched a delicate hand to his forehead.  “You saved me.  You were the only one who could.  Our paths were always meant to meet again, even if they strayed farther than we would like.”

“I wish…”

Elyssia smiled again.  “I know.”

“Nightingale will need your help now,” Etienne said.  “There’s so much left to do.”

“You’ll be helping me too,” Nightingale interrupted.  “I’m not giving up.”  She lay her hands on his chest again.  Motes of energy sparked at her fingers, spun together and melted into Etienne’s chest.

Nothing.

There was no reaction from Etienne, no twitches or spasms.  Only a sad smile.

“You have to let me go,” he said.

Tears gathered in Nightingale’s throat, and she forced them back down.  “No.”

“Do you remember the dream I told you about back there, on the beach?” he asked.  “This is always how it was going to end.  Just… a little sooner than expected.”

Etienne could feel very little of himself now, only the warmth at his back.  He was so tired.  The siren call of sleep was overwhelming, even though he knew he would never wake.

He gazed up at the two women, sorceress and witch, who had come to bookend his life, and in his eyes there was only admiration and gratitude.  He had loved them both.  One had brought him into the world and given him the confidence to take it on, while the other had guided him to atonement for what he had taken from it.  He recalled, in those old days when he had thought himself invulnerable, how little regard he had sought from anyone, and he recognized now that a man’s character would always be shaped by those he met along his journey, both in his capacity for greatness and for ill.  These women had believed in him, and what he had owed them in return was a life worthy of their faith.  Had he failed in that?  There could be no forgiveness for, or from, the hundreds he had condemned as a Commissionaire.  Those were cherished voices that had gone silent because of him, and he knew that the price he was paying for those sins was justified, even if it gave them little rest.  As he had told Noeme, the villain’s tale was not meant to reach the final pages.

But he had at least given Nightingale and his mother, and the thousands of their surviving sister witches throughout their country, a bold chance for something better:  a life, liberated and full.  As the light dimmed, he dared allow himself a breath of hope, that priceless treasure Nightingale had once told him was the province of magic itself.  It seemed at last appropriate for the only son of Elyssia – and Reynand – de Navarre.  “You are both free now,” he said.  “Go make the world we want.  The one people like me aren’t meant to live in.”

Nightingale leaned in closer.  There was only one thing left to say.

“Etienne… my name.  My real name, it’s…”

He spoke before she could finish.  “I love you… my nightingale.  Au revoir.”

Nightingale laughed through her tears.  She nodded, and reached up to hold her palm over his face.  Gentle violet light glowed at her fingers.

A last magical gift.

Suddenly, Etienne felt cool, wet sand beneath his bare toes, and heard the roar of surf in his ears.  Clean salt air ruffled the lapels of his open shirt and roused his lungs.  There was no pain.  Instead of the emptiness he had feared, the world before him was a promise in scorching cerulean as pure ocean kissed clear sky.

Etienne lifted his face to the warm sun and spread his arms wide.

Home.

“Oh,” he said with a child’s surprise and wonder.  “It’s so…”

Elyssia wept.  Nightingale closed her eyes.

In a land that had suffered the pangs of drought for a thirsty eternity, it began to rain.

***

One last chapter awaits.  Should be very soon.  Watch this space…