Back at the stone circle again.
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"You ready?" Blake said.
"All right." Blake stood back and made an opening gesture with his hands. A small gate, no more than head height, appeared in the triangular space between two standing stones. "I'll keep it open from this side."
Isaac approached the gate. "This isn't disrupting Av- ah, Haven, is it?"
"Avalon," Blake said. "Is a fucking rock. Go on."
Isaac stepped through the gate.
There was one of those momentary bouts of vertigo, where he felt he might forget not just where but who he was, and then-
A chill wind was blowing.
Isaac looked out upon the ruin of a world, and was afraid.
There was something left of Knightsbridge, something like a corpse. The land was dark and dead, the shadows painted crisp upon its surfaces, like shadows on the face of the moon. The earth itself had been shattered by some final, unimaginable shock, and the pieces- each as big as the city itself- drifted in the endless void. The void was strewn with stars, but for the first time in his life, Isaac understood that he was looking out and not up at them. The thought made him want to crawl into a hole and hide.
He was not alone on this drifting shard. Bishop stood some distance away, gazing up at the wheeling stars. Their light reflected off his glasses.
Isaac went and stood next to him. "So," he said.
Bishop looked at him, but said nothing.
"You know," Isaac said. "For claiming not to be a leader or teacher, you still seem play the part an awful lot."
"I know," Bishop said. "It's a difficult habit to break." He raised his eyebrows at Isaac. "Why do you think I stand aside so often?"
"Look at something from a different perspective, and everything changes," Isaac said. "I used to think you just did it to seem cool and mysterious."
A smile twitched on Bishop's lips. "Perhaps a bit of that, too."
Isaac nodded, smiling a little. "So, I think I've got most of it," he said. "I told Blake it was a game, but that's not exactly right, is it? It's more like a test. A kind of Final Exam for the College and the Society. I don't mean it wasn't real- the dead people are really dead, this place is really dead- but there was a kind of...undercurrent? Is that right?"
"Any given situation," Bishop said. "Contains a number of arcs within it. Yours, Liam's, and others ran through the circle of Knightsbridge. Had you not gone there, you would still have come to face the same forces in your lives. Liam's brother. Your own understanding of yourself as magician. They would have caught up with you eventually."
"I figured as much." Isaac crossed his arms and turned away from the view. "So this is where I get lost. Who's orchestrating this? Who brought us there in the first place? I know damn well there's no such thing as coincidence, and I can feel someone's hand at work here. Who's was it? Yours?" He paused. "No, that doesn't feel right either. Blake's?"
"You would work it out for yourself if you took the time to sit down and collate all the contents of your mind," Bishop said. "But, in short, it comes down to Will. The old masters, the magicians gone by, tell us that if one is doing one's True Will, everything will fall into place. All too often, they stop there, leaving the student to puzzle over what True Will is supposed to be, and where it comes from. By description, it sounds like an outside force, what a friend of mine used to call the Giant Hand. The Giant Hand grabs us and moves us around like pieces on some grand chessboard- or so these misled magicians would have us think. This isn't surprising. It's a comforting thought, in a way. It puts ultimate responsibility in the hands- the Giant Hands, if you will- of another." Bishop's eyes met Isaac's. "But I happen to know that you encountered the force, energy, consciousness, or illusion which is sometimes called the Holy Guardian Angel."
"Yes," Isaac said. "Yes I did. And that's a stupid name."
"Yes, it is. That may be the only point of it." Bishop seemed to gather his thoughts. "Did you ask the Angel what it was?"
"Do you remember what it told you?"
"Yes..." Isaac looked away, his eyes troubled. After a moment, he looked back. "You're saying it was me, aren't you? That somehow I ran this game on myself."
"Yes," Bishop said. "But you might also ask yourself where you ends. When you touched Liam's mind, you didn't just encounter it, did you? You didn't even simply merge with it, you were-"
"I was it," Isaac said. "I was him. Just for a moment, but I was."
"Just for a moment, there was only one mind. A third mind. You may want to give this some thought."
Isaac crossed his arms. "You still should've just told me."
"It doesn't work that way. You know that."
"What was it Crowley said? Either I know or I doubt. I've still got my doubts."
"Time is not what you thought it was. Do you agree?"
"From what I've seen," Isaac said. "I've got no choice. Either I accept that something's up, or else I assume that I've gone mad and nothing matters. Which isn't very constructive."
"So, what, then?"
Bishop took a deep breath. "Your view of time as linear- your treatment of consciousness as something which grows in only one direction- forces a false perspective. What you do is ultimately governed by yourself, timed by yourself, and directed by yourself. I think that was the order."
"Not important. You choose your own times for enlightenment, and you do so with such perfection, with such Taoistic non-action, that you're unaware of any action taking place. You know this, instinctually, but you are unaware of it, like the sensation of your own breathing or heartbeat. And the reason you can't see it yet comes back to your perspective on time."
Isaac looked at him. "Always time."
Bishop said nothing.
"Answer me directly, then. Do you know what Time is?"
"The problem," Bishop said, "Is that the question is phrased in a limited...oh, to hell with it. I can't be bothered to remember what I said. No, Isaac, I don't. I suspect it's a byproduct of something else entirely. Beyond that, I can't tell you. I don't have the words."
Isaac turned, suddenly, and looked behind him, as if expecting to catch an eavesdropper. No one was there.
The wind whipped at his coat and hair. He felt haunted.
"Have we done this before?" He said. "Have we had this conversation before?"
"It is possible."
Isaac looked around. "This place gives me the creeps. Would you mind terribly if I got the hell out of here?" He looked back at the little rectangle of light where the gate stood.
"There is one more thing," Bishop said. "You can, if you wish, make this arc into a closed loop. It's a kind of tidying up, a way of closing the circle before moving on to the next curve of the spiral. This kind of ordering can be very useful for magicians."
"So you'd recommend it?"
Bishop said nothing.
Isaac grinned. "All right. Fair enough. What benefit would I get?"
"Peace of mind. Less sense of paradox eating at your thoughts. Closure." Bishop spread his hands. "Nature likes a circle."
"Yes. Yes it does. All right. What do I do?"
"Will likes to have an agent at the appropriate points. For the arc to curve back on itself into a circle, one would want that agent- you- to manifest that Will directly."
"You need to go back and tell yourself what to do."
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.