I have been here before. Many times.
I have been here. So often that I could describe every inch of the scene laid out before me with my eyes shut. Which is apt. For each visit has been in my dreams, beneath a blanket of warm, re-assuring sleep.
Behind me is the city. Here I was born, grew old. Through slow and painful teaching I learnt the secrets of the Guild. From a simple twisting of light to create illusion and entertainment I progressed to shaping, then creating matter. Finally, as my Mistress, my mentor and friend prepared to part this world, I learnt the opening of the cosmic portals: corridors connecting here to there across all of space and time.
To me, and to a handful of my classmates, the Guild surrendered its ultimate knowledge. Finally, the day arrived when I, too, put on the white mantle, signifying ultimate achievement.
Before me, the spring sun illuminates with cheerful optimism a clearing at the opposite edge of the bridge. Its brightness belies the slight chill that still permeates the air. Winter is not quite gone: yet there are hints of returning life. A scurry of rabbits run hither and thither across the space. In the trees behind, birds sing courting songs: their chorus of hope cuts through the sharpness of the morn. They have no inkling of the inferno to come.
All is as I remember: as it was each and every time before. Save one detail. She is not here. She, from my order, stood defiantly mid-bridge. In my dreams, it is always this woman I remember first.
Alone yet exuding quiet confidence. A slight wind blows over, tugging at the folds of her white robe. A wisp of hair dances around her ear. She stands, stood, should stand calmly waiting the fires of the Enemy.
This is the moment I fear more than any. The moment that my dreams turn to nightmare. For just as I recall each detail of a world stirring from winter slumber, so I know – have always known – after my first dreaming of it, what comes next.
I was nine when this vision first came to me. Nine and innocent and happy to stand by and watch and absorb the simple pleasure of it all. Perhaps I wondered what this woman was doing here. But I was not worried. Why should I be?
For seconds, minutes, hours – dream time passes strangely – I was content to observe.
Nothing could prepare me for what came next. The rush of heat and fire that came down the woodland road, turning trees, in an instant, from promise of life to come, into so much charred and blackened ash. The creatures, no warning given, were incinerated where they stood.
All that beauty changed, in an instant, to the stench of flame and death. This, I learnt later, was the mark of Him, the Tyrant, Hater of Life. So many worlds destroyed. So many lives lost. For what? Legend spoke of a searing intolerance for any and every thing He could not own, control, possess. This world, every world, if He prevailed, must be remade in his image – or it must burn.
There is never a time, in the years since, that I do not feel my body curl in upon itself in revulsion. The hot tears spring to my eyes: and I recoil, in disgust that any can have so little concern for their fellow beings.
And yet, each time, just as I feel myself plunging into the despair of this moment, she steps forward. My fear redoubles. What can she, this frail and elderly woman do against such violence?
“Go back!”, I want to cry. “Save yourself!” But no words will come. In this dream I have no part. I am but mute observer.
She does nothing, except perhaps shift her weight slightly, leaning forward on the stout wooden staff she carries. She tilts her head and speaks, so softly that the first few dreamings I missed her words entirely.
“Not this time”.
A whisper. A statement of fact, as all around her the air boils and the forest burns.
“Not this time”.
With a scream of rage, He is through the trees – what little remains of them – and He is there, across the bridge. I sense his presence more than see him: dark heart haloed by bloody red fire. A flame tongue darts out, narrowing the distance between the two: surely she must be consumed.
But no. Somehow the flame sputters and dies yards before her feet. It comes again. Again it dies. And again and again. So quickly, now, flame follows flame, that the woman seems surrounded: an oasis of tranquillity outlined in blood.
She has not moved. Nor has He. Impasse. I know – I do not know how I know – that unless she give way, he can come no further. That, so long as she stands, whether for a minute or an age, the city is safe. Behind her, life goes on as before. Or perhaps not.
She is here to buy time. She will hold Him at bay as long as it takes, while others prepare their escape. Her resistance is futile. In the end, He will prevail. For He is destroyer of worlds and she is but one woman alone.
Already I see the flames licking closer, wearing her down. Whether it come today, tomorrow, or the day after, the end is inevitable.
And then: nothing. Here, always, my dream ends. A woman alone on a bridge fighting a battle she cannot win. No matter how many times I have dreamed this, never have I dreamed past this moment. There is but one way this can end. But never have I seen that end. I am thankful for that.
So here I am again, on the bridge. Detached observer no more, I watch rabbits run, while birds sing in the trees. The moment is arrived and, as I have long feared, the dream was not nightmare, but prophesy. I cannot see him. Yet, behind those woods I feel His presence: the anger and violence that mark His coming.
All is as I dreamed, save one detail. Here I am on the bridge. Alone. And I know now that she is not coming. For she is here already.
I am not nine any more. I have grown old in the service of the Guild, whose white robe I wear. My hair is thin and grey. I waved goodbye to vanity many years hence. I carry a wooden staff, token of power and seniority. I, alone, can face the enemy and, for a short while hold him back.
I am not afraid any more. For this I have spent a lifetime preparing.
Across the clearing a blast of heat and energy reduces the tallest trees to nothing.
I shift slightly, leaning forward on my staff for balance. I turn my head. To myself and to no-one I whisper softly: “Not this time”.