I know we’ve arrived by the light. The tunnel we’ve been travelling down flares out and then curves around like the lower part of a teardrop. We’ve been travelling for so long in such a heavy cloud of silence that the sudden illumination hurts my eyes. The light appears to be coming from the figure suspended in the air in front of us. Books and scrolls move gently around her in a breeze that she also appears to be creating. She floats above a wooden table which holds books and scrolls which overflow from the tabletop onto the floor, combining with the puddles of literature that pools around the bookcases lining the walls. Various urns and bowls containing assorted stones, pieces of sand-softened glass and dusts are scattered throughout the mess. Dark curls flutter around her shoulders just as they always did. Knowing that it’s Lina just makes the knot in my stomach tighten along with my chest. I know that no matter what happens she won’t be walking out here as the person she used to be.
“So our wonderful leader and her guard dog approach us, dear ones.” Her voice startles us both. It’s so much shriller than the last time we spoke and it echoes in on itself. It’s as though several voices are speaking with her but not all at once, picking up and trailing off at random moments. As soon as they have gathered together to form those words, the separate voices seem to trail off in various directions.
“Lina, it’s Kindie,” I try again. I know I said this last time but I keep hoping. I’ve come a long way since I last ran through the gardens with her, but in that moment all I can see in her is my childhood friend. I hope she sees me the same way. Lina always called me by my birth name, Kindene Celestrya, which literally translates as ‘Princess of the Stars’ in the old tongue. My mother had such imagination.
“Oh except that you aren’t, are you? You are Our Benevolent Guide, Star-Born Lady Annalisa Celeste Ilhae Elisabella Kindene Darletfora, Leader of the North-Lands and its People.” What a wonderful favour the Watchers did me by choosing that name and title for me. I can still recall the fresh horror as they revealed it for the first time to me, having just transferred the ancestral powers. No doubt my mother had a hand in it.
“The name doesn’t make me what I am,” my voice is slow and deliberate. I don’t have the answers to her jealousy. I can’t give her what she wants. If I could have given her enough of my Power to make her happy, I would have done.
“No, that is true enough. However, you are named after what you are,” She’s getting at my titles and the fact that all of my names, except Annalisa, once belonged to those I am descended from. Lina wasn’t ever jealous of my position. I know that her envy is purely about magic.
I glance across at Aeron. He’s quite obviously deep in thought – little furrows have appeared on his forehead and between his eyes and his mouth pulled down slightly at the corners. If this were an organised diplomatic meeting, I would call a break and discuss matters with him. It feels ironic that the time when the consequences are so much more than ever before, the desirable options are unavailable to me. She continues before I can decide on a course of action alone.
“Those in power can always get the things they want, can’t they? Sometimes they are just born with the things that others would trade worlds for.” It is jealously. Not of my power but of my Power. Of course I had always known that she was ungifted and I had always known that that was a disappointment to her but she’d never begrudged me my own Power, especially when she knew the responsibilities chained to it. I don’t know if it’s really her or the things she’s given herself over to that are saying these things.
“What did you trade for it, Lina?” It’s a whisper but this is the opening for me to bring this all back on her. Her eyes, which have been focused on me until now, drift to the rocky roof.
“I traded all I had to give. I have it now though, don’t I? I know it all. I see everything. I know the answers to the questions that chase you down, even now as you come to hunt me,” her voice is quieter but she sounds no more like Lina. I consider asking her for help with our problems concerning Arlenfen, but the thought is gone before it’s even had a chance to grow. She wouldn’t help. She is concerned with nothing more than learning more and more. I don’t even have any knowledge I can barter with her. She’ll have heard anything of value I know from those around me.
“We didn’t want this, Lina,” I didn’t mean to sound defensive. So many more will die if I don’t stop her but I can’t help but see my childhood friend.
“It isn’t her anymore, Annie,” Aeron whispers from beside me. I worry that she’ll know he said that for a brief moment before realising that it doesn’t matter. What can she do other than what she’s already doing?
“I know you didn’t want this. Do you forget, magnificent leader, that I know more that you could ever conceive of? Oh the wonders I know of. You wouldn’t believe,” She’s confident we can’t stop her. Knowledge may be power but sometimes the powerful make the mistake of forgetting they’re mortal. It’s all we have. We can’t outsmart her or cut her off from what she has accepted into herself but we need to get close to her to achieve our aim. I mourn the loss of our arrows in the waterfall and then freeze out all but the tactics of what we are attempting.
As though she’s read my thoughts- I remind myself once again that that’s impossible- an obviously directed strong gust of air swirls around us, ruffling our hair and stirring our clothes. Aeron’s dramatic wizard garb flutters in the wind, exposing his weapons. A smirk crosses her lovely features. I take a couple of steps forward and Aeron follows suit.
“What of those who you’ve killed, Lina? Do they not matter?” I’m hoping to draw her attention to me so that Aeron can get her or, should that fail, buy us some time to both get closer. It would be unwise for him to lunge at her from here, especially with his Power being useless against her.
“The knowledge is what matters. What is a person but their thoughts? They live on in me and I can collate all of that knowledge, putting it to good use,” she says, her face breaks out into a radiant smile. The light around her intensifies and the winds knock us back all of the ground we had gained. I need to change tactic.
“What about when there are no people left to collect knowledge for you to take? If you take them all, who will supply you?” I’d hoped the winds would drop but they don’t. She appears to be totally unfazed.
“I will be careful, dearest Kindie,” the term of endearment is twisted into a mockery of me. She sees no threat from me in the slightest. I am a joke to her. “I will consume no more than the world can spare: an old monk’s knowledge taken in the darkness, a child’s curiosity poached in broad daylight. There is no difference. I need both. What is knowledge without a thirst for more?” her voice rises and falls with exaggerated tone.
Her cavalier attitude to the deaths I have witnessed on the outside of these stone walls chills me to the core. I saw the old man’s body, robbed of the spirit that meant all loved him. The heap of the dead boy on the side of the street flashes into my mind; the first victim I saw. The childish joy gone from his features and a heartbreaking vacancy left in its place. There was something about them all that was so much worse than a normal death. Looking back now, I understand why. It wasn’t just that all that they were had gone, but that she’d made it as though it never existed.
“What if something else happens and you misjudge it? A natural disaster and you lose the group you had been keeping alive? You’d have no purpose in life,” again, she doesn’t even consider this a threat to her. I step forward only to be buffeted back.
“I would never be so...careless so as to have all my eggs in one basket, so to speak,” she smirks at me. Her gorgeous face contorts in arrogance and then shock. That is how I know it is done. I can only hope all of the letters I sent before we left have reached their new owners. Aeron provided the spell and Marlin has done it. He has cloaked the minds of all of the people in Aernorth. I take three steps forward. Aeron circles to her left.
Her face remains totally blank as she searches for the mind of someone who can explain this loss to her. Frustration builds and builds in those eyes that I know to be the same shade of green as ivy leaves in sunlight. Horror strikes again. Hearing of Marlin’s success through the wizards’ talkways, Idolun has succeeded in pulling off the same feat in Eldostra. I am grateful that those two cities have bought me the time I needed as I couldn’t have set up anything on a larger scale with less talented city wizards in so little time. I am practically nose to nose with her- having vaulted onto the tabletop- thanks to my greater height by the time her fury is turned on me. I prepare to be shoved back by her winds, doubting that Aeron will make it in time.
Her fury turns to pain and then apoplexy as pottery showers her, getting caught in her hair and robes and covering her in the dust that the urn Aeron just hit her with contained. She goes to turn and I push my ornate silver knife into her chest. I just miss where I know her heart to be.
A primal cry emanates from her, but doesn’t leave through her mouth. I was close enough to my mark that she will die, just not immediately. Her light begins to dim as the power she used to maintain the souls of others dissipates. I realise that she must have killed more to have achieved the increase we saw earlier. Bewilderment, rather than pain or anger, colours her beautiful face. She begins to descend until the tips of her toes brush the table and then she’s flat-footed but supported by the power. After a moment, even that begins to fail and she ends up being lowered into kneeling at my feet. The screaming from her body increases in volume and pitch until I can barely stand it. Suddenly, silence. I stand perfectly still, refusing to allow myself to think about what is occurring until the smack of her full body weight hitting the table can be heard and a tiny voice calls out to me.
“Kindie?” No trace of mockery taints the word, only fear and confusion. I drop to my knees and only vaguely register Aeron backing off into a corner, giving me as much space as is possible in this dank prison.
“Yes, Lina, it’s me.” I sound as though I’ve been crying. I probably have but now is not the time to check.
I stare at her suddenly guileless face as bewilderment gives way to realisation, gut-wrenching horror and then pain so obvious I can feel it in my own chest as it plays across her features. She chokes on words as the colour drains from her face and I know she doesn’t have long left. There are a few moment when she appears thoroughly lost in her own memories, which obviously appear to her as alien as someone else’s. She appears to pull herself together slightly as she realises her impending death for herself.
“I’m so sorry...I never meant...I never thought...” she appears to be completely incapable of finishing that sentence and so I nod, hoping this releases her from that thought so she can begin the next while she still can, “There’s money...in the darkest urn...the families...I know it wont...make up for...but...” again, she can’t finish.
“Okay, Lina. I’ll make sure they get it,” I promise. I don’t tell her that it will mean nothing because she already knows but she’s dying. I know it is naive and I owe more to those who have died than to be so sentimental, but I hold her close. Her blood soaks my own tunic, a startlingly physical metaphor for what I have wrought upon her life. I know by showing such affection, I am sending her a message. I know that message says that I forgive her. I can’t say the words, because they wouldn’t be true, but they will be one day. I couldn’t hold something against anyone for forever and so I don’t bother to pretend now. Her original mistake, which has destroyed so much, was small - the malice behind it even smaller – and that is why I know my anger can’t last. My forgiveness, wrong as it may be, will be true one day but now is the only chance I will ever get, so this will have to suffice. Just as I think she’s gone because her breathing becomes so shallow it’s almost nonexistent, she whispers into my ear.
“The answers you seek for the problems you face will not come from the storm outside but the storm within.” The voice is distant, yet oddly desperate.
As her body goes limp against me, I lean back into the comforting arms I already knew would be reaching out to me.