Question: How does a teenaged author fit influences and inspirations from Andre Norton, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, and Madeleine L’Engle into a short story of fewer than three thousand words?
Answer: I’m still trying to figure out how it happened, and the story was written (and published in a small-press magazine) more than a quarter of a century ago.
This story is entirely mine, start to finish, so don’t blame Paul for anything in it.
I’m sharing this story as-is — it’s so old that there are double spaces after the ends of sentences (decades ago, that was the correct way to type) — so you can see what a certain genetically engineered grammar ninja was doing as a seventeen-year-old. 🙂 (If you’ve read “Solitude,” you may detect echoes of a setting in that story. One advantage of playing with a large multiverse is that I don’t have to justify recycling and repurposing story elements, because there’s a built-in reason for this sort of thing. Honestly, I just went through some of my old fiction, looking for a setting I could adapt, and the lone island in an apparent world-ocean said, “Pick me! Pick me!”)
Isarra woke suddenly, hearing the waves crash against the outer wall. Would this storm be the one, she wondered, finally to sweep the citadel from its precarious position atop the sharp spur of rock and into the abyss? As yet, the walls held, strengthened by the magics of Ellira and the other masters — but for how long? The citadel was nothing more than the home of a few thousand people, clinging desperately to the one bit of dry land. How long could any such fortress stand against the power of the deep?
She rose and dressed, moving with perfect silence through the perpetual gloom of the chamber. A heavy cloak wrapped around her shoulders protected her from the chill that came with storms like the one that now raged outside. It seemed that the storms were becoming more frequent of late; the air of the citadel was almost always unpleasantly cold and damp. Leaving her own room, Isarra followed the narrow corridor to the central hall in search of someone to talk to.
There she found Kallis, tending the Wardfire that was part of the citadel’s protective magic: beautiful, fierce, blind Kallis, who would have been a warrior if Fate had not made him a mage. He had not been born sightless, as many people believed. It was said by some that the young mage had been given the gift of othervision by Mother Ocean, and the ability to hear the voices of the sea. Blindness was the price of such power.
“Good day,” said Kallis, hearing her come in.
“Not this day,” she replied, “with a storm beating on the wall to be let in.”
He smiled faintly; looking at that lean, perfect face and thinking that maybe the smile was for her, Isarra felt as if her heart would burst into flames and become a new star.
“And what would you do,” Kallis asked, “if there were no storms?”
“Leave this place, for one thing, and go…”
“Anywhere! To the other side of the sea, where the towers shine in the eternal light,” she said, remembering the tales that had been her favorites as a child.
It was not possible to go to the other side of the sea, however, even if the storms were to be so obliging as to cease their constant intrusion into her life. There was no other side, no towers, shining or otherwise, except in those stories. In all the world, only the citadel offered any protection from the waves.
“What would Mother Ocean say,” he chided gently, “if she heard you speak of leaving her?”
“You’re the one who told me those stories, and you didn’t mind what I said then,” she complained.
“It would have been better if I hadn’t,” Kallis said. “You know that you cannot leave Tethys.”
“What about you, mage?” she demanded. “Where do you go, in your dreams and visions?”
Kallis winced, hurt by her anger. “I see only what Mother Ocean allows me to see, and I go nowhere.” Something appeared to be troubling him, and Isarra was sure that it was not her questions — or at least not just her questions.
A wave struck the wall, shouting in frustration at the one barrier between it and the defiant spire of stone. Kallis held his hands over the fire and spoke quietly to it, calling upon the magic to fight the storm. He was the creator of the Wardfire, as well as its guardian, and only he knew how to control it. “The tide is high this season,” he said to no one in particular.
“What does Tethys show you, Kallis?” Isarra asked.
He did not turn away from the fire. “I cannot tell you that. You should know that the magic is not to be spoken of.”
“Are you sure that it is the magic?” she persisted. “When I listen to you describe a vision, sometimes it is as if you have been there. Sometimes you actually leave, don’t you?”
Kallis sighed. “Yes, I do. Sometimes. But I have to fight the ‘gift’ of Mother Ocean to do so. The magic was never intended for –“
The warning tocsin sounded, its sharp clang loud enough to be heard over the rush of wind and water. Everyone in the citadel feared what such a warning meant: dragons had been sighted near the rock. In a matter of moments, the warriors were hurrying to their places on the parapets, ready to fight off any dragons that came too close.
Kallis stood. “Excuse me, Isarra,” he said. “I am needed outside.” With a gracefulness and sureness that one would have not expected in a blind man, he crossed the hall to the door. Turning back, he said, “There was a time when she wouldn’t even allow us to fight the dragons.” Then he was gone.
Isarra followed. Dragons always came with the bad storms, but only the worst attacks required magic-workers to drive them away. Having never seen that many dragons, she was curious as to how the warriors would fight them.
The wind outside threatened to tear her from the narrow catwalk and dash her upon the rock. Every wave that hit the outermost wall shook the entire structure; between the gale and the sea, Isarra was at times sure that she would fall. Ahead, the slender figure of Kallis struggled against the storm, hands on the railing and head bent forward.
A high, keening wail rose above the general cacophony. The head of something peered momentarily over the wall the blocked Isarra’s view, eyes blinking wisely even as it grinned at her with a mouthful of dagger teeth. Then it was gone, leaving her shaking in awe and fear on the catwalk.
That thing was huge! Isarra had seen dragons before, though most had been not quite twice her size. Why, the head alone of that creature was bigger than that! Surely she’d just seen one of the legendary monsters of the deep, a son of Tethys herself.
Running as best she could against the wind, Isarra reached the second wall a moment after Kallis. All of the magic-workers stood upon the parapet, but they were doing nothing to drive the dragons back into the far waters. Dismay clouded some of their faces. What could so frighten the masters that they were not fighting to save the citadel?
Only Kallis seemed untroubled… or concerned with something other than the dragons. He stood tall against the storm’s onslaught, as if daring the waves to reach up for him.
Another dragon screamed and leaped into the air. A spear flew from some higher point and struck the creature, only to bounce off its thick hide. These monsters were not to be slain by the weapons of mortal men.
“Enough!” Kallis shouted above the storm’s voice. “This quarrel is between you and me, Tethys!”
The wind tore at his garments and hair with iron claws, but the dragons remained in the water. Ellira stood behind Kallis on the parapet, wringing her hands helplessly. Clearly she had never heard anyone speak to Mother Ocean in such a manner.
“I told you, Tethys, on the day you took my sight from me and gave me this othervision, that a gift can become a weapon. So had you sought to bind me to your will — Behold, Tethys, that I am not bound!”
Even Isarra was beginning to doubt his sanity; it was sheer folly to challenge Mother Ocean. Yet the wind had fallen oddly silent as he spoke, and the dragons only circled around the rock. Not understanding what was happening or what her friend was doing, she could only watch and listen.
“You cannot hold back this tide, Tethys,” he went on. “It will rise whether you will it or not.”
What did he mean, hold back the tide? Was it not Tethys who made the tides to rise and fall, just as she made the storms come? She would never hold them back, surely.
The sea roiled. Slowly, ever so slowly, a dragon surfaced, one that dwarfed the monster Isarra had seen even as that one had dwarfed all other dragons. Every ridge along that immense back seemed as tall as the spire on which the citadel stood. The dragon’s eyes shone like twin suns, and its hide was the shade of the storm.
On the head of that nightmare stood a woman who somehow looked more fearsome than her steed. Wearing only a cape of sea grey, she carried in her left hand a scepter made of dragon bones and shells. Mother Ocean, Isarra thought.
“How dare you?” she hissed at Kallis, the size of the dragon putting her at eye level with him. “How dare you turn the gift I gave you against me?”
“I told you that I would someday, if you remember,” he said quietly. “And it is hardly a gift, at such a price.”
His calmness but served to increase her rage. “You have no right –!”
“And you have no right to keep us here, Tethys. The others are all gone, and we do not belong here anymore.”
“What do you know of such matters, mortal creature?” Mother Ocean shrieked.
“I know that you have held this place under your control with your dragons and your storms, trying to prevent us from changing in any way. I know that we grow tired of the horrors that you send to us.
“Change must come, Tethys. Let the children see the towers.”
She raised her scepter, and the wind howled despairingly. “I loved you, Kallis. Even at first, when you chose to throw your lot in with these mortals and live as one of them, I loved you. Come back, Kallis, and be the god of the sky again.”
So Kallis the mage was not what he seemed to be, but a god himself, Isarra thought. Somehow, she was not too surprised.
“I cannot, Tethys. The others have all gone with their people out among the stars, becoming star-wanderers like them. Now look at this planet, flooded and dying, just to keep back the changes that you know are inevitable. What next, Tethys?”
Powers protect us, Isarra thought, for we are caught between warring gods. Watching Kallis, though, she did not see one whose magic matched that of Mother Ocean, but the same Kallis who had been her friend all of her life. That Kallis, she had no need to fear.
“Do you not grow weary,” said Tethys, “of this mortal flesh? The gift I gave you is but a taste of what your powers could be again. Forget this –”
“You cannot hold back the tides,” he repeated. “The tides of time move by no one’s command. You have held this world behind a wall long enough. Release –”
“Never!” Mother Ocean swung her scepter at Kallis and struck him with the full force of her power. With a cry, he stumbled backward, but Isarra was there to catch him in her arms and keep him from falling. “You chose to live as a mortal, Kallis. Now die as one!”
A wave that seemed big enough to swallow the entire citadel rose up behind her. A sweep of her arm sent it toward the citadel — and it stopped.
Kallis looked up at her, his face grim. “I am still stronger, Tethys. Mortal I may be, but I am still stronger.”
“Stronger, yes,” Tethys said, “but strength can be a hole in one’s armor, as well.” She gestured once more at Kallis. Suddenly he cried out in pain, clenching his blind eyes shut in vain against the terrible visions that swarmed at the edges of his mind.
“Do you now understand,” she said, “what receptiveness to visions can do? That which you see now, dear enemy, is what awaits these people if they leave this place. You have my word on that.”
She went on, looking at Kallis where he lay in Isarra’s arms, fighting the visions that Tethys was sending him. “This is my world. No one goes — not them, not you. Especially not you, Kallis. We are bound to each other, despite your best efforts to make it otherwise.”
Isarra was furious as well as afraid. Even a goddess had no right to cause such suffering! How could Tethys claim to love him and then do this? She wondered if Kallis had ever loved Mother Ocean in return.
She looked down at Kallis. He was very pale, and his eyes were still shut, though he seemed to have overcome the worst of the visions. “Isarra,” he whispered weakly, “help… to the railing. Stop Tethys.”
Not understanding what he wanted, she nevertheless helped him to stand, thankful for once that she was taller and stronger than most women of the citadel. If Mother Ocean noticed them, she paid no attention, convinced that Kallis was unable to do anything against her.
After what felt like ages, they reached the railing. “Now,” Kallis said, “over…”
At last, she understood. He meant to kill himself on the rocks! “Kallis, please don’t!” Isarra said. “You can beat her –“
“I know,” he said. “Only way… I die, we both die. Like Tethys said… bound to each other. Hadn’t realized, until she didn’t kill me… when she had the chance. Help me, Isarra.”
How could she deny him anything that he asked? As gently as a lover, she lifted him to the top of the low wall. Though only a few feet above the walkway, the far side of the wall plunged down forever before meeting with the jagged rocks. Isarra took one look and turned away, sick with fear for Kallis. “Why?” she asked him.
“This world hasn’t changed in more years than even the stars remember. Tethys and I have been fighting over that for a very long time. It isn’t right, what she is doing to this place.”
He took a deep breath before continuing. “Finally I decided to do something a bit more… drastic… to make her face the truth. But as a mortal, I was also subject to her control. Tethys took away my eyesight and gave me the visions instead — as a way to punish, should I ever try to fight her again.”
“And you used the othervision in a way she didn’t expect.”
He nodded. “I tried to contact the others — the ones that you would call ‘gods’ — and ask them for help. But she had used more of her power than I knew at the time. The visions bound me to Tethys, and she is bound by her own magic to the sea. I had to fight the magic to get away from this world, if only in spirit, and then had little strength to spend in searching for the others. If they are even still there.”
Isarra had one question that she had to ask. “Did you… love her, Kallis?”
He seemed surprised. “Never, though she would perhaps have wished it otherwise. Tethys… loves only power, no matter what she may say to the contrary. She keeps us here because she wants to be worshipped. She keeps me here to prove that she has beaten me. It made her very angry when I escaped her control, even for a moment. Have you ever noticed how the worst storms always followed one of my ‘visions’ when I actually left?”
Isarra had never noticed that, and said so. “But what happens after…?” She couldn’t make herself say it.
“Listen carefully,” Kallis said. “After this… things are going to start changing rather rapidly for a while. It will slow down once this world catches up with the rest of the universe, so don’t let it frighten you.” He wiped a tear from her cheek.
Then he rose painfully to his feet. “Tethys!” he called.
She had been directing her dragons around the citadel; now Tethys turned toward him, an expression of utter horror distorting her pale features. “What are you doing?” she shrieked.
“What should have been done long ago,” Kallis answered. “The tides of time must not be held back by any wall, not even yours, Tethys.”
With those words, he leapt from the wall: Kallis, who would have been a warrior if Fate had not made him a mage; Kallis, who would have been a god if his own choice had not made him mortal. Isarra’s cry of grief was echoed by Tethys’ wail of dismay — just as Mother Ocean faded away like the mists of morning, and Isarra knew that Kallis was dead.
He’s gone, she thought, and I never got the chance to tell him… What? That I shall miss him? I think he knows…
Someone jostled her aside to reach the wall and look over the edge. Were they looking for his body? she wondered distantly. It would not be there.
The sun sank below the western sea that for once was calm and blue; Isarra had not realized how much time had passed. Overhead, a star glimmered, a star that had not been there before, and glided as if riding the wind. You were right, dear Kallis, she thought. Change has come.
The plot is far from one of my best, but I’m not embarrassed by the way the words are strung together, at least.