Justine is tested. The die is cast. Set well before Maxwell. (Toffee 28. Abandon ship)
|The air was choked with smoke. Justine pressed down, flat against the floor, peering futilely around.
“Dirk?” She coughed, weakly. “Fuck. Dirk? Where are you?” She wasn’t sure how the fire started, but she did know that the workroom was at the center of the inferno. And she knew that Dirk had been in the workroom. She didn’t know what he’d been working on- Apprentices found out what their Masters were doing when they needed to know, and not a moment before.
“Master? Dirk? Hello?” Powerful sorcerers didn’t get killed in inexplicable house fires. That was just- it didn’t happen that way. It couldn’t. No. Justy crawled under the dinner table, checking her protective wards. She couldn’t hold out indefinitely. Something had to happen, and it had to happen soon.
Running would be the smart thing. The flames were focused in the workroom, slowly spreading out. She could still get to the window in a heartbeat. Even the front door. But- where was Dirk? Widdershins bounded past, her tail smoldering. Justine didn’t bother trying to stop her- cats could handle anything, given enough motivation. Something in the workroom must have caught fire- a belch of purplish flame spewed out of the gaping hole that had, at one point, been the door.
“Gods all damn it. Dirk! Dirk! Answer me!” She slapped the floor, and embers flew off the purple rug and rejoined the main body of flame. She racked her fingers though her hair. There was no air left. No...
Justine flung out tendrils of energy, wrapping them around the edges of the fire. She encased it, allowing nothing in or out. Once she was sure she’d gotten it all, she poured even more fire into the magical bubble. More, and more fire. It poured out of her, endless and filled with cold calm. Water burbled eagerly, making her giddy as it begged to be used. She ignored its babbling pleas, tunneling all the fire in her down her arms into the capsule. More, and more. As she burned, the oxygen was devoured, and the first fire shrank. She closed her circle in around it, squeezing it tighter and tighter as she funneled more and more energy into it. She felt lightheaded. She felt something brush against her shields, weak and kittenish. She swatted at it, crushing it into the floor as she burned.
She stumbled to her feet, following the fire as it retreated. Somewhere, Dirk was in that morass. She had to get to him. She swayed, and grabbed the back of a chair. The metal was still melty hot, and she screamed. She was almost blind, and she could barely breath. She flailed, her physical body howling as it died around her. Her mind, however, was still a laser of focus as it corralled the inferno, suffocating it as she moved closer and closer.
“Dirk? Dirk, where are you? You rotten bastard, where are you?” Again, that strange presence against her mind. No time. She slapped away the stinging little insect, fierce in her search as she finally found the doorway into the workroom. She braced herself against the doorframe, and felt Dirk’s magic, twined with hers after so many long years, reach out to her. Press against her. Try to- what?
“Dirk? What do you want? I can’t- I can’t hear you...” She sank to her knees. She could feel him. He seemed faint, distant. She pinned the fire down, poured herself into it until there was nothing left. She blinked, bleary eyed, into the dark room. There were- people?
“Dirk?” She felt so weak...
An impossibly tall woman with skin so black it shone blue crossed the room to kneel beside Justy.
“Can you hear me, child?”
“I- where’s Dirk? There- what’s going on? Where’s Dirk?”
“Do you know me?” Justine lifted her head, peering at the woman.
“I can’t hardly see. I- the smoke. I can’t see. Where’s Dirk?” The woman took Justine’s chin in her hand.
“It is important that you listen to me now. I am-“ The water, left unbalanced with no fire left in her, leapt out of its secure cubby hole and ran wild through Justine’s body. The burns on her arms healed in seconds. Her lungs cleared, and she gasped in air. Her eyes cleared, and she saw the workroom clearly.
There was no damage from the fire. There was, actually, no sign of fire at all. Justine looked around at the room, which was the same as it had always been. Dirk liked things neat and orderly- there wasn’t a single bundle of drying herbs out of its proper place. Every jar was in its proper spot on the shelf, the precise labels turned into the light.
There was a group of people gathered against the far wall. She didn’t recognize them, but no normal person runs around in flowing robes. It was sort of a dead give away. She’d never met the Elders before, and she would have liked to have the time to wonder what they were doing here, and why they hadn’t helped put out the fire, but she had a slightly more pressing mission.
“Where. Is. Dirk?” The dark skinned woman pointed, and Justine followed the line of her arm to a charred heap at the feet of the Elders.
“Oh, sweet Gods no.” She dragged herself to the tangled mess of rags and bones and clinging flesh. Dirk’s medallion was fused to his sternum, warped like a clock in a Salvador Dali painting as the gold dripped through his exposed ribs. “No.”
“Justine Bloodwood, do you know who we are?” Asked an old man with a two-pronged bead.
“No.” She pressed her hands over her face. “No.”
“We are the-“
“NO!” They all took a step back, eyeing her warily. In fear. Her guts twisted. “What. Happened?”
“It is a test. To see if you will save yourself or another. You are not a coward,” The old man offered, as though it was some sort of consolation for her loss. She punched the ground, blood roaring in her ears.
“A coward? You- you idiots. I sent the fire back to its source. He was doomed as soon as I closed the circle! Why didn’t you stop him? Why didn’t you stop me?”
“We- that is-“
“Oh, Gods. How can you do this? What kind of a test is it to see if I’ll kill a man trying to save him? What kind of a test is that?” She was shrieking, her words running together into a shill wail of rage.
“He wasn’t supposed to die. The fire was harmless! It was just to scare you!”
“But mine wasn’t! Mine was real! Oh, Gods. Dirk. Dirk. Oh, Gods...”
“Miss Bloodwood, you have to understand, this has never happened before.”
“What? No one else tried to put out the fire? The hell they didn’t.”
“No, many do. Some even do it your way, by magically turning the fire back to find their supposedly trapped Master. But...” He trailed off, looking to his confederates for support.
“But what?” She snarled through her tears. They cringed.
“We stopped the others before they...”
“Before they murdered someone. You useless whoresons! What good are you if you can’t protect one man against one little girl?” They shrank, withdrawing against the stone wall. Justine put her hands on Dirk’s smoldering ribcage and cried.
Eventually, the Elders declared her a full sorceress without any sort of pomp or ceremony and left her alone. Justine cried.
Widdershins curled up against her, whining for food. Justine cried.
Three days after she burnt her lover to a blackened husk, Justine buried him in the cemetery at the crossroads. The stone was plain, just a smooth slice of plain gray stone with a handful of words etched onto it.
We Will Meet In the Clearing
At The End of The Path
And Love Again