In Serein

1-2-8 Fire & Stone

In the red and black study, Lucian sat at his writing desk, his fingertips steepled before his mouth. He looked to and through the stained glass windows into the grey day beyond that might as well not exist at all in this space. I went and sat on the floor before the huge fireplace and looked into its blackened interior, imagining a fire burning there. In the cinders and ashes, a small flame licked up and started to burn brightly, in spite of the fact there was nothing for it to feed on.

Lucian had obliged. He was very good at making fires. Perhaps one day, if we survived the storm that was to come, he could teach me how to do that. It was a neat trick.

I looked into the fire and let myself drift off, allowing any thought that would to come to my attention. From way below deep, fire memories began to flicker through my mind, earliest memories watching my mother fanning the tiny kindling, a miniature bonfire she had erected, and I liked that the best, before she made it big and frightening and too hot to be too close.

A fire I had set myself once on the common, other children laughing and then our laughter turned to horror as the fire spread through the dried grass. No-one ever found out it was me who burned the common down and old man Tanim’s barn and shed into the bargain, and I had walked away with a whole new founded respect of fire and never set another without creating careful barriers of sand and stone, perhaps wider and further than was strictly necessary, from then on.

A huge burning manor house, stout stone that had stood for a thousand years and now was crumbling as the mortar turned to sand beneath the heat of the fire. People screaming and flinging themselves heedlessly from the windows and the rooftop. A woman throwing a baby that falls through the night, its blankets streaming behind, fluttering like a bird’s wings; soldiers shouting, beating with swords and clubs at the ones who had fallen from the house and tried to limp and crawl into the safety of the darkness beyond, a total terror and a fear that was freezing my very heart’s blood.

I startled aware – that was not mine, that was not something I had ever experienced. I looked over towards Lucian who was sitting as still as any stone. He either did not listen in to me anymore or did not want to be addressed, and so with care I edged back into the memory, my heart beating fast still, and resolving to just observe, not experience.

I focussed back into the fire and sought to recreate the burning manor house. The fire rushed and sparked and shifted to another scene – a terrible screaming from many voices, terrifying beyond measure, sounds like should not be made by any human, a stench so terrible it made my stomach churn, a row of stakes, a hilltop at sunset, a night wind flaring high the white and yellow flames that were burning the people tied to the stakes – three or more on each one, women, children, men, their voices creating a terrible harmony and the flames burned higher still and there was a point at which their bindings burned through and burning limbs began to reach and twist and point and the flames flared higher and higher until the screaming stopped, one by one and silence crackled with the fire and black clouds of greasy smoke that blew across to where the horses were tethered and frightening them, used to battle’s sound and dying as they were. I raised a languid hand to order them to be moved, and with absolute horror realise that I am Lucian, standing on the hilltop, that I had ordered the burnings and that watching the villagers die had been vaguely satisfying, the end to a good day’s work and a job well done.

I reeled out of the memory, gasping and shaking, my hand went to my mouth that all of a sudden seemed as dry as sand.

Lucian pushed the chair back and stood. Still staring straight ahead and at the window, he said evenly, “I can ask them to purge you.”

I tried to speak but found I couldn’t make a sound. With difficulty, I swallowed and I tried to moisten my mouth with my tongue and my lips, cleared my throat and tried again. My voice was small and mouselike.

“Remove the memories? Can they do that?”

He nodded just once.

“It would be all your memories.” He paused and added, “Not just mine.”

I could not consider this with clarity. In my mind, I could still smell the fire, hear the screaming. I tried to shut it off but could not.

“Lucian, …” I said, but could not go any further. The black smoke was in my mouth, my nose, my throat and it was choking me. The screaming crested, higher and higher still and I was joining into the screaming –

-- my head exploded and I fell to the ground and into blissful silence and a wonderful pain on my elbows and shoulder where I had struck the hearth stones. Lucian had hit me hard across the head and for good measure, with his mind as well and he had succeeded in stopping the screaming.

He crouched before me, checking me over, distant and unconcerned, completely contained and with that brilliant icy coldness I knew so well.

I sat upright and massaged my head. “Thank you,” I said.

He snorted but did not move otherwise, watching me warily, ready to strike me again if necessary. But the memories had receded and there was only a bad tasting resonance remaining, a stench or the trail a monster leaves behind as it returns to its secret lair.

I sighed very deeply. “I’m okay, it’s alright now,” I said, but my voice was unsteady and both of us heard the afterthought loud and clear, until the next time this is going to happen to me.

Lucian got up and returned to his chair behind the writing desk. He did not sit down, however, but remained standing, one hand on the carved back rest.

He surprised me by starting to talk in a low voice.

“These memories, they were never meant for anyone but me. I never thought that one day, they might be shared by another.”

It set me thinking about my own memories and how he had those, too. If I’d ever conceived that one day, another might look through my eyes as though they were their own, would I have thought and done and acted differently?

I had to ask him.

“How do you cope with them?”

He traced the carvings absentmindedly with his fingertips and answered with a directness and an honesty that surprised me.

“Sometimes, I let them run their course, other times I create a barrier around them.” He glanced over his shoulder at me. “If we have the time, I could teach you how to do it.”

I nodded and then together the thought occurred to us both at the same time that if I held all his memories, then I would also know how to make that barrier. There was nothing he could teach me now, I knew everything he knew. A fast track apprenticeship indeed. With added demons, for free. The thought amused me in spite of the very direness of the situation, if not even because of it.

“Here,” he said and broke my train of thought, “come and look at this.”

I got up and joined him at the table, where the large exquisitely bound book of brown black leather lay. Around its centre was a copper band that joined in an oval seal, about the size of the palm of my hand.

“Open it,” he said.

I reached out toward the seal and remembered how to do this. It was just a little flick in just the right way, a push with your mind from just the right angle, and there was a loud click and the copper band sprang wide open, its tension finally released.

I turned the cover over, revealing a thick, yellowish rich parchment, subtly veined in the softest hint of orange/pink strands like tiny lightning, and writing and symbols on the page, clear and perfect outline black with never an ink blotch and so even, a small army marching to a silent beat.

I could read it. I knew what the book was. I knew what was inside it, most intimately, page by page, and I also knew why he wanted me to see it. I turned to the last page.

There, carefully, oh so carefully stitched to the parchment was my attempted drawing of the patterns inside that crystal he had set me to do.

I saw the drawing through his eyes, and re-experienced the intense pain he had experienced when first he saw its richness and intricacy, how I had managed to capture a perfection that had eluded him for all of his long and harmful life. I saw the me through my eyes, the one that could do such a thing and the one he had been ordered to destroy in any way that he saw fit. I felt the intense hatred of who he was to be tasked in this way spiral through him and out, finding it’s target in me, and in hurting me, hurting himself as much as he was capable of hurting.

I touched the drawing with a fingertip and understood that this was his attempt to – not apologise, nor ask for my forgiveness, but somehow to right one little thing before the Serein descended on us both and ended us for good.

At my shoulder, he said quietly, “I would save you if I could.”

I appreciated that statement. I had seen my mother saying to my brother and the baby, “Shh, it’s going to be alright. Everything’s going to be alright …” and had wished with fervour that she would not make these promises that were not in her power to bestow.

It was never alright and she could never make it so.

Lucian knew this too. He must have heard it being said a thousand times, just before he brought fire and sword to those he brought it to.

My attention went back to the drawing and I allowed myself, luxuriously, to re-create Lucian’s instant assessment of that understanding of its richness and intricacy and my gift for perceiving those things which I had done nothing to earn or to deserve.

Silently, I spoke to Lucian mind to mind.

If I can read your book, can you not read this pattern, now?

Surprise, then doubt flooded to me through the link and then a tiny spark of hope that was immediately and reflexively extinguished hard and clear with clear blue ice.

Yet, he turned his attention to the pattern and sought to remember how he drew it on his own command but there was only a faint tingle, a flavour of recognition, that was all. I could feel his anger and frustration, an anger and frustration that was so old and sore that it was like a wound, over and over raked and bled and raked and bled so it had turned into a black and suppurating mess that could never now heal nor even become a scar in time.

I caught him from the spiral of anger and despair and steadied him for a moment which was enough for him to regain control and push me away. The link snapped and he reached across me, shut the book with such force that the table creaked and moved.

“I can not do this,” he hissed it through clenched jaw and turned away.

Gently, I moved the resisting bands of copper across the book once more and let the seal snap into place. I straightened the book and had a thought.

For whatever reason, he found it hard to find the me inside of him. Perhaps it was because he was so old and I was young, my memories were few and I had not been living with such depth of shadow for so long. But that didn’t really matter, how or why, I could easily reach to his abilities and his knowing, it just came to me like when I tried to know the book. That being so, perhaps I could revive my singing stone for I was sure that with the help it could give me, not only could I stand to face Lucian’s memories, but even help him so he could possibly face mine.

I left the room and stopped dead. There was Dareon, with the candles by his side keeping the vigil where we would not. I slowly circled the arrangement and then ran up the steps, with the weight and pressure of the makeshift tomb behind me, and into Lucian’s room.

The huge bed was a mess and left exactly as it had been. I found the stone under the covers, pale and lifeless, yet resistant to my touch as it had been when first we met and after Lucian put the spell on it or me.

I used the bed cloth to manoeuvre it around as I was too aware that the very ground I stood on was the place where Dareon had died and I could not shut out the thought of his real body nor of seeing him in the dream, melting into that strange cave.

I picked up the whole sheet and with it, the stone it contained and carried it to my bedroom down the hall.

I sat cross-legged on the bed and unwrapped the large sheet, slid the stone from it and then dropped it to the ground. That was still too close and too much resonance was coming from the sheet, so I got up again, picked it off the floor and took it out on the landing, hanging it over the banister. It would need a good scrubbing and a few days in the sunshine to remove the scent of what had transpired in its presence.

I re-entered my room and closed the door behind me. It occurred to me that the fittings on this door were copper, like the bindings of the book, and I thought although I had no idea what kind of furnishings exist in rich men's houses (yes I do, I have been in many, and destroyed many more – oh do go away!) it would be fitting for Lucian’s kind of magic that this may be locked and unlocked. I felt into the door with my mind and found or remembered the right twist to make it work – a loud snapping sound informed me that the door was locked now and I could get on with my task in relative privacy.

As I went back to my bed, I glanced at the empty fireplace. A good test for my new found reservoir of tricks. I shifted my awareness towards being more like Lucian, and held a candle flame firmly in my mind lest other horrors from his past should come upon me. The trick was simple enough and I flicked a little pattern like you flick the reigns of a sleepy horse, and a tiny flame, about the size of a candle flame, sprang up out of nowhere and burned happily in the entirely empty fireplace.

I laughed to myself and this time, I held a good sized merry fire in my mind. The flicking motion was much the same but required just a little more energy and whoosh! the merry fire materialised as easily as that. I turned my attention away from it and it disappeared instantly. A little annoyed, I made it re-appear and then looked around within my mind for knowledge on how to keep it going without me having to keep it steady. The answer was a most simple feedback loop that connected easily from the fire's energy itself back to its original starting point and would run forever, or until the stars fell, whichever came sooner.

“Well,” I said out loud into the silence of the room, “that will take the misery out of fetching firewood for sure.” I set the loop into place and this time, when I turned my attention deliberately upon the window and it’s dusty small panes in their lead bindings, the fire remained.

I sighed and looked down at the stone on the blanket in front of me. Shifted my position a number of times but couldn’t get quite comfortable. In the end, I moved the blanket so the stone was at pillow height and I lay down beside it, looking at it.

It was not until then that it occurred to me that I didn’t really want to attempt to free us from the spell. Surprised, I looked for the reasons for this resistance. The stone had probably been the best thing that had ever happened to me in my life. It had welcomed me, accepted me and helped me without fail or question and without asking for anything in return. It had given me a power I had never dreamed of and it had helped me save the traveller’s child.

I let the memories run from one to the other, a small part of me staying aware and searching for the resistance, and then I found it.

The bereavement and sadness and loss I had experienced when Lucian had separated us and made the stone dead and unresponsive to me was so painful, I could hardly stand even touching it from a distance. I could feel a searing pain in my stomach, my chest, and rising up to my throat and neck and – stop!

With an effort, I turned around inside my mind and looked for Lucian’s memories on the subject of the stone. Whatever he had done, by being him when he did it would give me what I needed to reverse the process and to heal the stone.

Unlike to him, for me it was so easy to pick out the strands of memory that belonged to Lucian. They were a different colour, a different texture, a different size – just different to my own in every way imaginable. That and the fact that they were always black and heavy made it easy to first find the layer where they were, and then to simply merge with them.

It was not so easy, however, to both keep focus on the stone – just stone memories, no other memories, just memories about the stone, nothing else, just the stone – and still keep track of the heavy currents of Lucian’s life, and to avoid suddenly rising swells and tentacles that could so easily suck me in and give me another fire-like experience.

A memory came upon me – stone, stone, nothing but stone – and I let myself move into it.

Cold, freezing cold. Hungry. Hurt, pain. Humiliation. Hatred, pain. So hungry. So cold. As cold as the stone my face is pressed against, cold stone. A voice above my head. “You forsaken whelp, you spawn of the devil.” A tearing pain as the whip strikes again. “I will beat this insolence out of you, so help me the creator.” More pain, pain, pain. My face grinding into the cobble stones. But the pain does not stop …

I struggled free of that memory and found I was breathing hard and that I was sweating.  I didn’t even want to think what that had been all about. I waited until my heart had returned to beating normally, and set to trying again. This time, I refined my chant as I cautiously approached the writhing black ocean of Lucian’s memories inside my own mind.

Isca’s stone, Isca’s stone, Isca’s stone, the singing stone, Isca’s stone …

I am standing in the resting room. The fire is hot on my skin and my body is powerful, tense all over. I am big and strong, my arms are far wider apart than I am used to and there is a feeling of barely contained energy within me that is shocking. I see sharply and precisely, a girl with long hair, wet black and straggly, in a short white undergarment that clearly marks her breasts and hips, taking a stone from a wet blue cloak and touching it lovingly, caressingly, receiving a gentleness response in return.

A streak of red fury runs through me I recognise so well, a terrifying desire to rush in and to tear the stone from her hand, smash it into a million splinters on the hearthstone, then crush her fragile body …. I reach for the blue white ice within and it descends like a glacier, making my breath slow and cold and everything moving far, far away, becoming minute and unimportant, like insects you can trample on but it’s not even worth your while ….

I surface and let out a breath I did not even know for how long I held it. So this is how he did it. Experimentally, I reached out just like he had done with the expectation of there being the blue white ice somewhere inside and it was like I dived straight through all the layers and at the very core of all the memories, there it was, a silence and coldness so profound that you only had to think of it and it would encompass you, destroy you and re-birth you in its own image, endless, ageless, fearless, sleepless, loveless, an intensity that made you so that you could cut as easily as the sharpest, fiercest sword.

It was most horrifying in its addictiveness and I found it bound me and I fought for escape from it and in the end had to scatter it with a high pitched scream to let it fall away, but then I found myself inside the dark black ocean and it was only the tiny part of my mind that kept on chanting my own name that brought me back at this time.

I rolled onto my back and covered my eyes with my hands. For the first time, I had serious doubts as to whether I could learn to ride the currents of these memories and powers, never mind learn to master them. I might in time, but what would come first - the time it took to learn or the time when I would simply go insane?

One more time. One more time. I was getting closer. I would have to be more precise in what I was asking to see and to experience. How? The chant that came to me was thus and it felt right so I put aside my trepidations and began:

Binding the stone, binding Isca’s stone, binding Isca’s stone, I am binding the girl’s stone, I am …

I am in the tower room. I am furious with myself and everyone that ever existed. I am close to becoming fury itself and just before the point I know so well where I would be losing control altogether, I focus it and use this fury to power my limited abilities and I reach out and around and I find the girl (fury yet now, unclean emotions spoiling the perfect vibration of the rage) and shift awareness till I find the stone she stole from Meyon Heights. It is pure Serein and now my rage becomes perfection once more, aligning until there is only one mind, one volition, I am rage and I am the most destructive force in the universe and I focus it all onto the stone and let it all explode, and it’s fragile outer receptors are shattered and explode in a cascade of overload, black surface, sealing the screaming of broken perfection inside itself ….

My work is done. I am satisfied. And so exhausted that I sink into my knees, and have hardly the strength to fight an onslaught of sadness that descends on me, thick and fast, but there is always the blue ice …

With a gasp I emerged from the memory. Shocked and horrified, again, once more but not alone at his doings, his wrongdoings but because that was exactly what I did as well, using my anger to power myself, only he had had so much longer, and so much more anger stored up, he was in fact what I would become, given enough passage of time.

I understood then why the Serein had sent me to him, and that it had not been a punishment at all, but that they had been glad to find another, perhaps to take Lucian’s place when he burned out in his own hell fires, to do such work that they could not because they could not rage like we both did.

I trembled and shook then, and for the first time faced the possibility that those who had declared me evil all this time might have been right, that indeed I was born evil and would never visit anything but hatred and destruction on all around me, just like Lucian did.

I could not take the thought of such a fate or such a decision, and I made myself turn back and look at the stone, try and forget everything else and just somehow come to its rescue, now that I knew it was not dead but simply sealed inside itself, lonely, desperate, calling to me but I could not hear, not understanding why I did not respond or why I was not there anymore.

I looked at the stone through Lucian’s eyes and saw the outer shell, burned black and pitted, focussed in closer until it grew larger and larger still, like a land that had been decimated in a terrible fire. Closer still, until I could perceive the layers of black ash, soft at the top, harder towards the surface of the stone beneath. Experimentally, I attempted to move some of the ash, but nothing happened and I was perplexed, until it occurred to me to change perspective to myself again. There was a crunching sensation in my mind, and I saw the landscape again but this time, it was very different. There was the grey and blackness of what had seemed like ash but also and just below that layer there were the structures that had been, aching, re-growing and regenerating, pushing against the layer above like new skin pushes against a scab so it would itch and you would scratch it clean away.

I reached for the grayness and it dissipated under my touch, a small vortex appearing through the layers, spinning, cutting into the blackness and until there was a brilliant white light breaking forth from the centre of the vortex, and with the light a singing and a rushing of delight and welcome that embraced me, healed me, made my very soul ring clear and bright. The vortex grew, the light grew stronger, wider and itself now widening the vortex, spread around the landscape rapidly, the grey receding like swiftly passing clouds, the black below it cracking open, here and there, and light streaming from the cracks, widening them, brighter, brighter, lighter, lighter ….

When I came to, the room was dark apart from the fire, still dancing in the hearth, and warm. By my side and in line with my eyes, softly humming and luminous, opalescent, more beautiful than I had ever seen before, lay the singing stone. I reached for it and the familiar blue and green enveloped me; I drank it in hungrily, so hungrily, and soaked it into myself until at last I was sated and at ease.

I sat up and picked it up lovingly, held it close to my heart, and for the first time in how many weeks, was absolutely happy. I could not stand the thought of putting it into my pocket as I had previously done, and instead, I tore some of the sheeting off my bed with my teeth and then across the weave, and tied a long strip around my undergarment, just below my breasts. I slid the stone through the neck hole and it rested easily, comfortably and warmly there, the perfect place, near my heart and my centre, its pulsing aliveness resonating all of me, refreshing me, keeping me safe and balanced.

I was so happy I could have cried.

I needed to see Lucian.

I needed to have him know that I loved him more than the stone, and that I was a better comrade-in-arms for having it back.

I needed to have him understand that he could do everything that I could do and more, and that I could show him how if he would only let me.

I needed to talk to him about us both being evil.

But in the very moment that the copper lock snapped open, the sense of a great tolling bell reverberated all around the house.

The Serein had arrived.