The great hall of the Yshari Sanctum was a massive octagonal room with vaulted ceilings painted with the history of the mage clans. Eight sets of doors led to hallways and other chambers, though none as grand as this one. Every inch of the walls was covered in spectacular tapestries, and the stone tiles of the floor were quarried from the lands beyond the Twin Seas.
When I entered, Li-Ming was standing at the center of the room, regarding the patterns on the floor. The chamber was empty but for the two of us.
"I did not wish to depart before telling you that I was going," she said when she heard my footsteps. "I believed that I owed you that much."
"And where are you going?" I asked.
"A star streaked across the heavens today and fell to the west. It is the sign I have waited for. You have read the books of prophecy as I have. You know what this means. We expected the invasion of Hell twenty years ago, and it never came. The stories of grim tidings I hear every day in the bazaar have made me certain. My time has come."
"Your place is here as a student at the Yshari Sanctum. You are a dangerous spark, and the world is dry and given to the flame. You cannot control yourself, and if I allow you to leave, what you might do is worse than any other doom I can imagine."
"There is nothing left for me to learn from you," she said.
"Do you remember the day we first met, Li-Ming? You know more than you did then, but you have gained little wisdom. If you leave, you will only be a wizard."
"Your wisdom I do not need. I am a wizard, and I will protect the world if the mages will not." She turned away from me. "Let me go to my fate. You will be safe here with your books and your fears."
I raised my hands and, channeling a thin trickle of the arcane, pulled the doors leading from the Sanctum shut. One by one, they crashed closed until we were trapped within the hall.
"Then I must stop you." I carefully rolled up the long sleeves of my robe. "You were my greatest student, Li-Ming, and I believed that in time you might succeed me and lead the mage clans. I believed you could surpass me. I am sorry that it has come to this. Perhaps it is I who has failed."
"You were a good teacher, Master. And I did learn your lessons. But you will never understand the gift we were given. That is why I will surpass you," she said, her words echoing in the room.
I saw her eyes narrowing as she focused inward. The torches in their sconces high up on the walls flickered as we began to draw in the energy around us. Li-Ming's hands went to either side, her fingers curling as we stood facing each other like two immovable rocks in the middle of a river. I lowered my staff and held it before me, using it as a focus for my own power.
"Have you ever wondered, Master, whether I was stronger than you?" she asked.
"No." I smiled. "I have not."
I waited for Li-Ming to act first. She conjured balls of flame that absorbed the light from the torches and seemed to dim the light from outside, but that was just a trick of my eyes as they adjusted to the darkness. She flung the burning orbs at me. I pushed them away and threw them to the tiles, where they scorched the marble but did not touch me. The air ignited, and I felt a shortness of breath. Li-Ming looked at me with an amused expression, but she readied her next attack. She tore massive pieces of stone from the ceiling, setting them ablaze and showering them toward where I was standing. I raised my staff above my head and unleashed a wave of force that grew outward, forming a shimmering dome that expanded and caught the falling meteors, shattering them into a film of dust and some larger fragments that pinged against the floor. The translucent shield had protected me from the attack, but the reverberation of it echoed painfully through my body. In my younger days, it would have affected me less, but now it drove me to a knee. Around me the marble tiles cracked and tore from the shock like a broken mirror, and even Li-Ming was driven backward.
"You will have to do better than that," I said.
Li-Ming growled in frustration, and this time fire shot from the palms of her hands in thin beams of iridescent flame that carved toward me, and it was all I could do to dodge and avoid their scything arcs. Where they struck stone, they sheared clean through like the cut of a knife. They rent the marble tiles, and I could feel the floor begin to fall away. I extended my grasp outward, finding the stones that threatened to crumble and binding them with invisible thread. If I released it, the floor would collapse, and I with it. Below the great hall are catacombs, not solid earth, and I did not believe I could survive that fall. The strain of holding everything together was great, and my knuckles turned white as I gripped my staff.
Li-Ming looked to my side of the hall, where the floor was cracked and broken. She moved her hand, and the stone beneath my feet gave way, shattering into nothing. Isendra had taught me a trick once, and it came to me unconsciously. One moment I was standing on the collapsing tile. The next, I appeared a few feet away with surer footing. The agony of teleportation, even across such a short distance, was immense. I felt as if I had been torn into a thousand pieces, then sewn back together with burning thread. It was hard to know which had caused the greater pain. Li-Ming methodically destroyed my new perch, and I moved again. We repeated this dance for a while longer, but my reactions were slowing with each exchange, and I could feel the battle taking its toll upon my old, frail body.
I drove my staff down to the floor, and thunder rumbled from the impact. In the blink of an eye, arcs of lightning shot through the hall, and where they struck, the floor exploded, throwing up shards of the marble tile. The lightning burst with a percussive explosion and lanced toward Li-Ming. But it never found her. The jagged streaks of light were frozen in the air, while Li-Ming had her arms extended, concentrating intensely. Undeterred, I continued to summon the lightning, and the storm grew worse and worse. The lightning hung over Li-Ming like an unfurled fan until she could hold it at bay no longer. The electricity arced through her, driving her to the floor and exploding around her in a cascade of sparks and white light.
Unsure of her intentions, I ignited the storm, which turned from electricity to a raging inferno that filled the entirety of the great hall and seared my own flesh, threatening to exhaust the last of my strength. When Li-Ming blinked into view again, she was engulfed in flames. I heard her scream as the fire burned her. The tiles shifted beneath my feet as I approached. Clinging to the spell that kept the floor from falling, I leveled my staff at her crumpled form.
The ground felt solid as I stood before Li-Ming, and I was relieved that it supported my weight.
"You still have much to learn, Li-Ming."
I thrust my staff at her, but where I should have struck flesh, Li-Ming's body dissipated into nothing.
I turned just in time to see her behind me. I opened my mouth and tried to grasp a spell, any spell, but an explosion rocked my vision. I lost control of the spell, lost my hold on the broken floor beneath me. It heaved and shattered, and everything fell away. I fell and fell, tumbling into darkness, until I crashed into the cold stone floor of the catacombs.
As I lay there, my body battered, I was surrounded by the smell of fire and dust. Li-Ming floated down from above and landed, kneeling next to me.
She said, "You believe that I have not learned your lessons, but I have. I learned the lesson of Isendra's death. But I was given my power for a reason, and it is my burden to use it. I will use it, not fear it as you do."
"What if you cannot control it?" My voice came in a rasp. "With your power, you could break the world."
"Then the world will weep." She turned her back to me. "There is one thing I must ask you, Master."
I was silent, for I knew what must follow. There was nothing else that Li-Ming had to learn from me.
"Why did Isendra die? Tell me the truth," she said.
"I know no more than you."
Li-Ming nodded and stepped into the air.
I opened my mouth to speak again, but the shadows consumed everything.