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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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…