This is a piece of flash fiction written last year – I just got around to going through the notebook it was in lately and transcribing the fictional bits. This didn’t take too much cleaning up. For context, think of the hills of southern California, and a writing retreat with no other human beings around, and thinking a great deal about fantasy and epic fantasy at the time.
Is this a Tabat story? Naw. Just a little flash piece.
The magician gestured. Out of the pool came musicians, the very first thing the tip of a flute, sounding, so it was as though the music pulled the musician forth, accompanied by others: grave-faced singers and merry drummers; guitarists and mandolinists with great dark eyes in which all the secrets of the moon were written; and one great brassy instrument made of others interlocked, so it took six to play it, all puffing away at their appointed mouthpiece. All of them bowed down to the priestess who stood watching, her sand-colored eyes impersonal and face stone-smooth.
“Very pretty,” she said, and yawned with a feline grace, perhaps even accentuating the similarity in a knowing way with a head tilt.
The magician smiled, just as catlike, just as calm. “You can do better, I am sure,” he said.
She shrugged, her manner diffident, but rather than reply, she pursed her lips and whistled. Birds formed, swooping down, and wherever they flew, they erased a swathe of the musicians, left great arcs of nothingness hanging as the seemingly oblivious players continued, their music slowly diminishing as they vanished, the instruments going one by one. The last thing to hang, trembling in the air, was an unaccompanied hand, holding up a triangle that emitted not a sound.
Landing, the birds began to sing. Though the music was not particularly sweet, there was a naturalness about it that somehow rebuked the mechanical precision of the song theirs succeeded. As they sang, more and more birds appeared, and the music swelled, washing like a river over the pair where they stood.
The priestess patted the air with the flat of her hand and the birds winked out of existence, leaving the two of them in a great white room, the antechamber of her temple.
“Will you go further in, then?” she said, her voice still casual.
The magician’s eyes were green as new grass and the black beard on his chin, which grew to a double point, was oiled and smelled of attar-of-roses. He considered her as though this was the smallest of debates, and finally stepped forward.
“We are still evenly matched,” he said.
She inclined her head and replied, “But my strength will only swell as we go deeper, and we have far to go before we reach the center of My Lady’s temple.”
His grin spread, as though encouraged by her lack of smile. As though he had some secret hidden about himself and was unafraid to admit it. She forced an expression to match it, and they stood there smiling at each other in hostility for some moments before she stepped aside and gestured him on.
The tunnels were made of adamant and alabaster, concentric rings that shrank then grew larger, then shrank and grew again and again until it was as though they walked inside an immense, undulating worm.
As they walked, they cast spells at each other, dueling lightly, a magical clash and flicker of blades with a deadly energy at its heart. This was a long quarrel between them, the strength of his magic and the might of her goddess, from whom all her power was borrowed. He maintained that while they might be well-matched, the fact was that she, a conduit, could never resonate to the degree of cosmic energy that he, a producer of such energy, could.
She had at one point asked him why it mattered. They’d been drinking in a tavern, an ordinary tavern where adventurers came. They both liked to come and watch those parties, scarred by magic and monsters, assemble and spin stories a thousand times more dangerous than any foe they had to face.
“It matters because there must always be an answer to such questions,” he said with decisiveness, not pausing a moment to think. “If there are no answers, then all in life is random.”
“Could not some of it be random?” she asked, wistfully.
He shook his head. “Randomness is the refuge of the feebleminded who cannot handle answers.” He paused when he saw her flinch. “Not you of course.”
“Of course,” she echoed.
Now they paced along and she put that conversation from her mind.
In the end they came out in a vast courtyard, in a cavern that stretched so far overhead that it would have swallowed a cathedral. The image of the goddess was carved into that ceiling, her arms outstretched, seeming to encompass everything, her serene face beaming down.
The priestess stepped aside, looking to the magician, for he had defeated her every effort along the way. Now they had come to the confrontation he desired.
He stared upward, and for a moment his face seemed daunted. Then he sneered and tugged at the necklace around his throat.
“Face me in direct challenge, you sham,” he said. “The gods are nothing but those with more power than ourselves, and this artefact will amplify mine till I can throw you down unhindered.”
“Indeed you can,” the stone lips said, in a voice sweet and merry and powerful. “For I am less than my handmaiden, much less indeed.”
He frowned. “She is your channel.”
“Ah, no,” said the Goddess. One great hand stretched itself from the ceiling and began to descend towards him. “You have misunderstood the nature of gods entirely.”
Sparks danced from his fingers, formed shining columns all around him, but the massive fingers disregarded them.
“They are not our channels,” she said as the hand closed around him. “Rather, we are theirs.”
And across the world, every worshipper lifted their head, and every priestess stopped, as the Goddess swallowed the magician whole, and then gave him to them, disassembled into fuel for their own magic, and then smiled, and began the climb back towards the ceiling and her accustomed position there.
But the priestess sighed, looking at the spot where the magician had been, and only his shadow remained. He had been good company, now and again, and now he was only embers in her heart.