Pass the Torch
"No daughter of mine is going to get killed saving the world," I said, gently but firmly. The Conductor of Rhythms arched one delicate eyebrow at me over his cup of tea. My two-year-old daughter watched the two of us curiously from her crib; like everything else in my cozy brick house, I'd built the crib with my own two hands.
"I find that to be entirely correct. With your tutelage, Striker, she will be more than an adequate match for whatever threats the next generation will face."
"I am sure that I will do the same," I said, "There is no reason why it must be my daughter who is ground up in the gears of war."
"Perhaps you can do the same now. But in thirty years? Fifty? Sixty? We're getting old, Striker." The Conductor wafted the steam from my whistling teakettle up with two thin fingers, shaping the wispy little clouds into images. Clashing blades, burning cities, yawning chasms. "In the Rhythms of the world I see a future we will never touch, a future which postdates our deaths by a decade. You must pass on your craft, Striker, or leave your daughter in a world bereaved of its staunchest protectors."
"I don't care what you think. I'll be there for my daughter, no matter what." I blew out a breath, like a child extinguishing a candle; a gale-force wind rattled through the house, scattering the Conductor's magical images.
The Conductor sighed, standing up and pushing in his chair. "Nobody lives forever. Not even a Striker of Winds. I thank you for your hospitality, and hope you reconsider my offer."
I nodded, never breaking eye contact. "It was nice to see you again, Conductor. Tell the rest of the gang I said hi."
The Conductor next found me two years later. My five-year-old daughter had just scraped her knee on a rock, and I'd just finished pounding the offending hilltop into dust. It was a little rough, but if you looked at it from the right angle, the crater resembled my daughter's face, in profile.
"Subtle," the Conductor observed, looking out at the clouds of dust. He held up one hand and flicked it lightly to the side; the obscuring fog vanished, leaving the two of us to contemplate my image of my daughter.
"What're you doing here, Conductor?" I finally asked, "Last I heard, you were settling down. Opening up a university."
"That was a year and a half ago. The world moves fast when you are a Conductor of Rhythms; my first class starts next year. I am accepting students as old as forty—" he looked meaningfully at me— "to students as young as six." His gaze returned to my daughter, who was running towards us.
"No," I said. "You're not turning my daughter into the next Conductor."
"I would never consider it," the Conductor said primly. "However, since you have made no move as to her education since we last spoke... well, there is common ground between the Rhythms and the Wind. If you lack the time to train her yourself—"
"Conductor!" I spun around, furious. "I am not turning my daughter into one of us! We take on the burdens we do so that we can protect people, not hurl them onto the front lines! Gods and goblins, Conductor, what happened to you over the years? What happened to the man who saw the innocence in a child's laugh? The man who fought to protect the weak? The man who tried to make the whole damn world safe?"
"He grew up." The Conductor drew himself up to his full height. Webs of faintly luminous lines spread out from his fingers, and his voice grew resonant and bright. Showing off. "Nothing lasts forever, Striker. If you will not educate your daughter in your legacy, then I will take it onto myself. Stars as my witness, songs as my voice, I will prepare our children for the future if I have to raise my hand against my oldest friend to do it."
I folded my arms. The sky went dark as storm clouds unfolded, the hills around us becoming devoid of light—save for a pool of sun centered on me. Lightning crackled directly overhead as I said, "You think you would survive raising your hand against me? I've killed kings for lesser threats! If you value our past, if you value me, if you value my daughter, then stop trying to make her into something she is not, and never will be. Stop trying to—"
"Dad?" A voice snapped me out of my trance, the only voice that could. My daughter's voice. I blinked, the Wind fading from my veins. "Dad, why's it gone dark?"
For a frozen moment, both the Conductor and I stared at the girl between us. Then I sighed. "It's nothing, sweetie. Just a disagreement with an old friend."
"Oh." She seemed to consider this for a few seconds before pouting. "I fell over in the dark. I dropped my necklace."
"You dropped your necklace?" Slowly, the spinning darkness overhead broke apart and cleared away. "Sweetheart, I told you not to take it off."
"Perhaps this old Conductor may offer his services? I excel in finding what is lost," the Conductor said.
I regarded him wearily for a heartbeat. "...I'd like that very much, Conductor."
My old friend smiled. "As would I, Striker."
The first two guards tried to stop me. I didn't even give them a second thought; with a whispered word, I sucked the breath from their lips. They fell silently, unconscious.
The great double doors stood wide open, a steady trickle of students entering. Pitiful security measures. Was the Conductor truly that arrogant? The students took one look at my stormy approach and turned to run.
I growled, a guttural and animalistic thing, and the air fled the room. In the utter silence of a complete vacuum, the forty-odd students all silently fell to the floor, useless screams falling from impotent throats. When I was sure they were unconscious, I snapped my fingers, removing the vacuum bubble with a faint pop.
I stood in the grand entry hall of the College of Rhythms, looking around the opulence and splendor, then closed my eyes and inhaled. All the scents the Wind remembered flooded into my mind, and my eyes snapped open. They were in a lecture hall. I could tell with absolute certainty that the Conductor himself was speaking—the leashed power of a Conductor of Rhythms had a distinctive scent.
My body blurred apart to Wind, and I burst into the lecture hall with the howl of an arctic gale. I recoalesced in the heart of a miniature cyclone, to the gasps and screams of the students below, and bellowed, "CONDUCTOR!"
I could barely see him, as far below me as he was, but I would recognize that scent anywhere. He looked up at me, and for a moment I paused. His hair was longer, his back straighter than I remembered. How old friends changed. "Striker of Winds? Is that you?"
"Who else would it be, you blithering fool! Where is my daughter?" The gawking students below had quickly realized that being in the same room as a Conductor of Rhythms and a Striker of Winds angry with each other was a great way to be reduced to purée, and rapidly filed out.
All but one.
My nineteen-year-old daughter stood up from the crowd and shouted up, "Dad! Gods and goblins, what are you doing here?"
"What am I doing here?" I shouted, thunder in every word, "I am not the one who enrolled in the College of Rhythms, against my explicit orders. I am not the one who desired to become a being whose only purpose is war. I am not a self-destructive, ungrateful, rebellious bitch!"
There was silence in the College of Rhythms.
Then my daughter stood up, and there was something of the Winds about her.
"Dad," she said, quietly, and the Wind tasted her tears. "Dad, you don't understand. I know you love me, I know you're just trying to protect me, but—"
"I've done things that would make your blood freeze, I've slaughtered my way across a dark continent, I've stood fast against nightmares which would drive you mad if I spoke their names, and I did all of this so that one day—this day—it could all be over. All the violence, all the struggles, all the wars—I've brought peace to the world. What are you afraid of?"
"I'm afraid of when you won't be here anymore," she whispered.
I clenched my fists. "That won't be for a long, long time."
"I know. But if I kept hiding behind your legs and waiting for you to obliterate everything that threatened me—"
"THAT'S MY JOB!" I spun to the Conductor of Rhythms. "You! Conductor! You're gone too far, and this time, I'll damn well kill you if it's the only thing that'll stop you!" I blurred towards the man on the stage—
She wasn't a man.
She was a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties or late teens. She held that unmistakable, unshakable air of calm that the last Conductor of Rhythms had about him, an aura of command which let her hold fast in the face of the oncoming storm.
And she was not the Conductor of Rhythms I'd grown up with.
"Who... where is the Conductor of Rhythms?" I said, faintly. But I already knew the answer.
The new Conductor smiled sadly. "Dead. A heart attack. He passed on his mantle to me. Just as one day you'll have to pass yours on to her."
And suddenly, all the fury whipping around me shattered. The storm petered out. "He... he died?"
"This morning. He saw it coming." She bowed her head. "He left a message for you."
"I don't want to hear anything that corrupted fool has to say," I said. But there wasn't any venom left in it.
The Conductor of Rhythms cleared her throat. "'We don't always get what we want.'"
I looked up sharply. "What did you say?"
"Those were his last words."
"What? That's it?" I flashed forwards and hoisted the new Conductor up by the front of her shirt. "THAT'S IT? After everything he did? That's all he has to say to me?"
"'We don't always get what we want,'" she repeated.
I stared at the young woman wearing the mantle of the best man I'd ever known. And then I sagged, putting her down, letting her go. I looked up to my daughter.
She knelt down and smiled.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart," I croaked, weakly, "I... I'm sorry."
She hugged me. "It's okay, Dad. It's all going to be okay, in the end."