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Prism

Prism

 

Matthew D. Ryan

 

 

The Shakespir Edition

 

Copyright 2016 by Matthew D. Ryan

 

To keep abreast of other writing by Matthew D. Ryan

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Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook novella is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

Fiction by Matthew D. Ryan

 

From the Ashes of Ruin

Drasmyr (The Prequel)

Book I: The Children of Lubrochius

Book II: The Sceptre of Morgulan

Book III: The Citadel*

 

Short Story Collections

Of Dragons, Love, and Poison

 

Novellas

Prism

 

Non-Fiction by Matthew D. Ryan

Delusions of Grandeur

 

 

  • Coming Soon

 

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Glossary

About the Author

Prologue (to Drasmyr)

Chapter 1

Akarra ran a three-fingered hand across her two antennae. Like her antennae, fingers, and hands, all the parts of her body were made of segmented quartz. Beneath her quartzflesh pulsed her lifelight: the powerful multi-hued energy that nourished her and expressed her deepest desires. She was a Quartzian, an inhabitant of the vast underground realm known simply as The Cavern.

She lived in Isha, the main village of the Ishod tribe, a complex of disparate caves and carven formations that housed the Quartzian people. Among this collection of dwellings, one stood out: the Shardshaper’s Cave, home to Yridia Felstaff, the Ishod Shardshaper, and Akarra’s instructor.

Akarra knelt expectantly on the floor near the back corner of Yridia’s Cave.

“Pattern matching is most important, dear,” Yridia said.

“I know, Mistress Shardshaper,” Akarra replied, head bowed in deference. “You’ve told me so—many times—but I just don’t see the use of geometry.” She was tired; it had been a long training session and she still wasn’t through.

The small but cozy cave—one in which she had spent many long hours engaged in study—had been hollowed out in the shape of a twelve-sided figure of exquisite design—a dodecahedron, it was called. It at once conveyed a sense of space, mystery, and power. Much like the element it represented: the ether. Each of the twelve faces of the shape formed a perfect pentagon—a five sided figure of further significance and meaning. The pentagon-shaped floor, of course, was made of clouded white quartz; the ceiling, clear. The pentagons on the walls alternated between white and clear. There were no cracks or fissures or blemishes; all the angles and divisions were neat, clean, and precise, thus regulating the temperature of the room perfectly. As Akarra perused the features of the cave, she felt contentment and peace, and her antennae glowed a pale greenish yellow in response. This was like a second home for her. She was the apprentice Shardshaper. One of the most respected members of the tribe.

Akarra watched Yridia move to the center of the pentagon floor and squat down in front of her. Yridai’s yenshi robe billowed out and she produced a crystal of transparent blue quartz in the shape of a perfect tetrahedron. Her Heartshard. A piece of the Heart Crystal itself, the source of the Shardshaper’s power.

Akarra could feel the Shard’s presence.

“Your next task shall involve manipulating the stonelight in the Heartshard,” Yridia said, holding the precious object out to Akarra. Akarra lifted her stumpy arms and grasped the shard with three thick fingers. She bowed her head to her Mistress, took the Shard into her possession, and patiently waited for Yridia to speak.

Suddenly, Yridia coughed violently and a shimmer of multi-colored lifelight passed through her quartzflesh body. Akarra looked on in concern; such coughing fits were becoming more and more frequent with Yridia.

But Yridia ignored it.

Instead, Yridia produced another crystal: a clump of cracked, twisted quartz. She placed it in front of Akarra and said, “I want you to shape this crystal into an icosahedron. Work quickly. Now, go.”

Akarra blanched: An icosahedron was the most complicated perfect solid known. It was a quasi-spherical shape consisting of twenty identical triangular sides. A correctly formed icosahedron would fit in a perfect sphere in such a way that every vertex of every triangle would just touch the inner surface of the sphere. Actually, that was true of all perfect solids.

Akarra lifted the Shard and pointed the flat face of one of its triangular faces towards the clump of crystal. She bowed her head in concentration, summoning the power of her will. Her mind reached into the Shard; she could sense the Bond it had made with Yridia. The Bond inhibited Akarra’s control of the Heartshard, but not entirely: she could still harness the power of the Shard, just at a less effective level. She did so, and the Shard began to glow in her hands. First it glowed red, pulsing with energy, temperature rising. Next, orange, and the temperature began to drop. Next, yellow and a flash of cold. The other colors followed in turn: green, blue, indigo, violet, and then finally, it went clear. She sensed the presence of deathlight, and saw it in her mind’s eye although her normal vision failed her. She discharged a thick beam of deathlight focused on the lump of crystal. Immediately, the crystal began to morph and ripple.

She altered the stonelight emitted by the Heartshard, adding a thin stream of blue to the deathlight.

The cracks in the crystal disappeared first. Then the clump of quartz bulged outward until it formed a rough sphere. The sphere became more exact; perfect in appearance. Then, a protrusion formed on its surface—something much like a tiny ridge—it was soon echoed by another, then another. The three formed a triangular face. The first of the twenty sides of the icosahedron. Once the first such side had formed, the others quickly followed. Soon, the quartz had been shaped into a perfectly formed twenty-sided polyhedron.

Akarra cut off the deathlight and lowered the Heartshard to the floor in front of her. She passed a cursory glance over the icosahedron, pleased with her work. Then, she expulsed a ripple of joyful golden lifelight. She’d never formed an icosahedron before, and was quite happy with her success.

Yridia smiled then doubled over as she was seized with a round of violent shimmering and coughing again. Her body flickered through a dozen colors, many not from the standard spectrum, but instead a mix from those basic colors. After a moment she straightened, cleared her throat, and said, “You have done well, student. Now name the five perfect solids, describe them, and tell me what they represent.”

It was an easy question, but Akarra bowed her head once again, and dutifully responded, “The first is the tetrahedron; it has four triangular sides and represents fire. The second is the hexahedron; it has six square sides and represents earth. Third is the octahedron with eight triangular sides; it represents air. Fourth is the dodecahedron; it has twelve pentagons for sides and represents ether. Finally, there is the icosahedron which I have just formed here—”she gestured toward the crystal. “It has twenty triangular sides and represents water.”

“Excellent,” Yridia said. “You have done well, student. Now, tell me: Which element can form a dual only with itself?”

Another easy question.

Pairing was the name given to combining one perfect solid with another—called its dual—by placing one inside the other so that the vertices of the inner solid would contact the outer solid. Such a process could be repeated, theoretically, an infinite number of times or at least as far as the meaning of spatial expansion would allow. For example, the cube and the octahedron were duals. One could place a cube—that is, a hexahedron—inside an octahedron. And then an octahedron inside a cube. And so on. Flipping back and forth between the two and getting smaller and smaller with each progression. Of the five perfect solids, there was only one shape that was a dual of itself.

“The tetrahedron, Mistress,” Akarra said. “Or fire.”

“Why is this?” Yridia asked.

“No one knows,” Akarra said. “It is a mystery why the opposite of Fire, Water, pairs with Ether and not Fire, while Earth and Air are quite content with each other.”

“Indeed,” Yridia said. “Now …” She paused and was once again wracked by a violent spasm. Sprinkles of multi-colored light flashed outward from her neck and shoulders. Suddenly, she crumpled in a heap on the floor, quaking.

“Mistress,” Akarra asked, alarmed, “what is wrong?” She arose and moved over to Yridia, placing a hand on her teacher’s shoulder.

At first, Yridia did not respond; she simply lay on the floor quivering and expelling flickering sparkles of lifelight. Finally, she managed to get her hands beneath her chest and push herself back into a sitting position. Her gaze met Akarra’s, and she seemed to shrink back from her concern.

“Mistress?” Akarra asked again.

“I did not want to worry you,” Yridia said.

“What is it?”

“I am sick. Very sick,” Yridia said.

“How sick?”

Yridia didn’t respond at first, she simply frowned and looked downward.

“How sick?” Akarra repeated, more firmly.

“I am dying,” Yridia said.

Akarra didn’t know how to respond, at first. Finally, she said, “You didn’t want to worry me? And you’re dying?

“Well, I would have told you eventually,” Yridia said.

“Assuming you lived to do so,” Akarra said, bitingly. She didn’t want to believe Yridia’s news. She didn’t know how to handle it. “What is wrong? Surely the Heartshard can help?”

“I have been using the Heartshard regularly for three great cycles now. And I continue to weaken.”

“That long,” Akarra said, softly.

“Yes,” Yridia said. “My end is soon.”

“But you can’t die!” Akarra said, now hurt, scared, and angry. Her antennae reflected as much, oscillating through a series of colors from black to red.

“Oh, but I can. And long have I waited for it. It will be my final peace.” Her crystalline eyes flickered with amber light, taking on a faraway look. A look of expectation and even longing. Then, suddenly, her expression changed. Her antennae twittered nervously, glowing grey with doubt, and her eyes took on a now haunted look. “… I hope.”

Akarra watched the transformation from eager Shaper to weary, even frightened, old she-quartz. At first, she tried to deny the truth of Yridia’s statement. Yridia had been like another mother to her, or perhaps even a grandmother. She had grown up in this cave, learning the ancient Shaper lore. Learning how to access and control the energy of Yridia’s Heartshard. She was the Shardshaper’s Apprentice. If Yridia died, Akarra would become the Shardshaper. That was a responsibility she did not feel prepared to take on. Nor could she reconcile her feelings of love for this she-quartz with the knowledge of her impending death. What would she do? Such an event would leave a hole in her heart, one she could never fill. She would miss her teacher greatly.

The pain was sharp, piercing the center of her being. Her antennae fluttered in sorrow, and emitted a spray of blue lifelight—the color of sadness. Suddenly, she sprang up from the floor, sobbed uncontrollably for a moment as she looked at the crumpled form of her teacher, and then ran from the room.

Outside the Shardshaper’s Cave she glanced around the Crystal Court, the large central square of her village. In the center of the square, four Lightshards—ten foot tall quartz crystal columns that glowed with white light—stuck up from the cracked crystal floor. A small group of younglings had gathered around the Lightshards and, using a plain prism to separate the light, they were sharing a quick meal.

Along the edges of the square, the edifices and homes of the most important members of the Ishod tribe sprang up. A collection of white quartz structures graced the edges of the square—a jumbled collection of polyhedrons and less well-shaped blobs of quartz. On her left, she saw the Caves of the Hierarchy, the five edifices in which the chieftain and elders of the tribe made their homes. Each was shaped in the likeness of one of the many imperfect arch-solids.

She headed toward those immediately.

The chieftain’s home was shaped like a truncated tetrahedron—a tetrahedron with every vertex sliced off; such formed a structure consisting of four hexagonal faces and four triangular faces. It was supposed to represent the power and energy of fire, but controlled by the wisdom of the chieftain. The foremost triangular face of the structure held an opening that led into the building proper. On either side of the doorway stood two quartzian soldiers holding glittering quartz spears and dressed in yenshi armor.

Akarra approached the two warriors and inclined her head slightly, jostling her antennae.

The two warriors replied in kind. The one on the left said, “Greetings Shaper’s Apprentice. Is everything all right? What do you need?”

Akarra quivered as another ripple of blue energy passed through her body and out through her antennae. She took a moment to compose herself then said, “My Mistress is ill. I wish to speak to Thaygos.”

The warrior on the left gave the other warrior a nod. That warrior in turn gave a salute then turned and disappeared into the Chieftain’s Hut.

Akarra crossed her arms to wait, her antennae drooping and glowing blue. The remaining guard looked at her, puzzled. “Is there anything I can do?” he asked. “Is it just because your Mistress is ill?”

“Yes,” Akarra said. She wanted to say more. To expound on all the pressure and the whole writhing clump of emotion that Yridia’s impending death created. And although she knew this warrior well—indeed, she knew every member of their tribe well—she did not feel it was appropriate to share her feelings with him. After all, he was only a warrior, one of the lowest castes in the tribe. Valued, yes, but still low in rank. Thaygos, her friend and lover, was a more appropriate sounding board.

And fortunately, before the warrior could inquire further, Thaygos emerged from the hut. Thaygos was tall for a quartzian measuring nearly five feet in height. His features were smooth and bright; he had glittering eyes—usually green in color—and two very long antennae that flickered back and forth with energy. There were no fissures or stress cracks anywhere along his body. His arms and legs were well-sculpted and powerful. Like the soldiers, he wore yenshi armor and carried a spear. As the Chieftain’s Son, his voice was second only to his father’s; he had a knack for fighting and naturally was the leader of the tribe’s warriors. What standing in the tribe the warriors lacked, he possessed.

He had a brief word with each of the warriors and then approached Akarra.

Immediately, Akarra wrapped her arms around him and buried her head in his powerful chest. His antennae flashed orange in bewilderment as he spread his arms in surprise. He placed his hands on Akarra’s shoulders and gently pushed her away so he could hold her at arms’ length and look into her eyes.

“What is wrong?” he asked, his antennae flickering between green and orange. Alarm.

Akarra’s shoulders slumped. “Yridia is dying. She told me this morning.”

“Oh,” Thaygos said. “I was afraid you would not take her news well.”

“You knew?” Akarra asked, now angry. Her antennae flashed red.

“Yes,” Thaygos said. “She told my father and I three days ago. She swore us to secrecy. She told us that she would tell you when you were ready and when the time was right. I’ve been wondering how you would react.”

“You wondered how I would react?” Akarra snapped. “You wondered?

“Please be calm, my shinsin,” Thaygos said, reaching up to cup her cheek.

“I am not your shinsin,” Akarra said, drawing away from his touch. “Or, at least, I won’t be so for much longer. When she dies, I will replace her. I will become Shardshaper. And we will be no more.”

“That remains to be seen,” Thaygos said.

“I am merely stating a fact,” she said.

Thaygos sighed, his shoulders slumping. “You should not be so determined to spurn me.”

“Not I, my … shinsin,” Akarra replied. “The Law of Tradition binds us as surely as the Words of Yin. When I become Shardshaper there will be no room in my life for a lifemate.” Her antennae pulsed blue.

She looked up at Thaygos and saw the blue light coursing in his antennae as well. Once more, she felt a piercing pain inside her. This one, though, was for a much more nebulous reason. To love and to lose … was there anything more dreadful?

Well, perhaps the death of someone close. Like Yridia. Was she being selfish worrying over her relationship with Thaygos when she should be worrying over her teacher? Surely, she could find time to do both. Even as she thought of it, the pain of Yridia’s impending death ravaged her soul.

Watching her, Thaygos’ antennae glowed purple, the color of compassion and concern. “We still have some time together left to us,” he said. “I know your heart aches for Yridia. Come. Walk with me. And trust me with the depths of your sorrow.”

Akarra looked up at him again; his antennae shifted to pink, the color of love. She felt a similar response in herself. So, taking his arm in hers, she let him lead her across the square.

They talked. And she wept. Until the pain was less.

 

 

Chapter 2

Akarra stood before the entrance of Yridia’s cave; the pentagonal opening held a gathering of shadows. Behind her, the Lightshards in the center of the square entered their dim phase. It was the end of another day.

She paused to examine the necklace of prisms Thaygos had bought for her today as a keepsake. A spray of iridescent stonelights splashed into her eyes making her blink repeatedly. Six of the seven basic colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and indigo. Violet, of course, was missing—it was too dangerous and slightly obscene. Today had been long and tiring. She’d spent an hour talking to Thaygos. Although she and Thaygos had their troubles, by far the most pressing issue of the day was Yridia’s news. Separating from a lover was one thing—even if such was coming on suddenly. Accepting the fact that someone you cared for was about to die was quite another. Death was such an absolute thing. The end. Complete and final. No one knew what lay on the other side. Legend said there was an afterlife. An existence better than this one in Gorinna, The Cave of Paradise. But no one knew for sure. No one had ever returned from such a place to bring news of hope or joy. And so, death remained an utter mystery.

And now she was about to lose Yridia to that mystery.

Once more, she felt the blue lifelight pulsing through her body, welling up from the pits of her soul to radiate outward from her antennae. She must be a sorry sight, standing here before the Shardshapers Cave, shoulders slumped, weeping for anyone to see. She indulged herself but only a moment more. Then she straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and steeled herself to enter the cave. It was unbecoming for the Shardshaper’s Apprentice to weep too much. Some, perhaps, but not too much.

She strode into the cave. On her left a tetrahedron crystal glowed with white stonelight. Yridia lay nearby, her body covered by a yenshi robe and a yenshi blanket, both of which failed to keep her from shivering. There was no one to attend her. Among her many other tasks, the Shardshaper served as healer to the tribe. If anyone should attend to her needs, it was Akarra herself. She could not have used the Heartshard, but she could have helped in other ways.

Akarra felt suddenly guilty. She’d been lax, squandering her time on romantic frippery. She should have been here. Yridia needed her.

Moving over to Yridia, Akarra knelt and placed her hand on the top of Yridia’s head. It felt strangely warm. Most noticeable was the blue and black lifelight cascading from her antennae, the signs of sadness and fear.

Yridia turned her head and opened her eyes. They sparkled briefly with golden joy before lapsing back into charcoal fear. She turned on her side and pushed herself up into a sitting position.

“Should you not rest, Mistress?” Akarra asked.

“Posh,” Yridia said. “I can spare a few moments for my apprentice.”

“Tell me what to do, Mistress,” Akarra said. “Surely there must be some way to treat your illness.”

“If so, do you not think I would have done so already?” Yridia said. “Even now, I feel the cold, dark hand of death reaching toward me. My light is running out. My life will soon end.” She convulsed. Once. Twice. A third time. Ripples of multi-colored lifelight effused from her body. And after every convulsion, the light seemed weaker, dimmer.

“Then what am I to do, Mistress?” Akarra asked.

In response, Yridia reached into her robe and pulled out her Heartshard. She lifted it before her. “Do you see this?” she said.

“Of course,” Akarra replied.

“It is my Heartshard. A piece of my heart. I am bonded to it. Only I can wield it to its full potential.”

“Yes, I know, Mistress Shardshaper. I have always felt your connection with it and I have always felt how it bore my touch with resignation. You have taught me much on how to use it, but I have always known its full powers are beyond me.”

“They are not beyond you,” Yridia said. “They are blocked from you.” She lowered the Shard and bent over it like a miser hoarding coin. “This precious object comes from the Heart Crystal in the center of the Cavern. When I die it will absorb my soul. When this happens you must bring my Heartshard to the Cave of the Heart Crystal and …” She paused, searching for words. A haunted expression flashed across her face and her features grew dark with black lifelight. “And … restore it to its former place. Then, when this is done, you must claim your own Shard and bond with it. You are my heiress. You will be the next Shardshaper of our clan.”

“Of course, Mistress,” Akarra said. “I will do as you command.”

“Go, then, and prepare for your journey, for my time grows short.”

“No.”

“No?” Yridia asked. “You are not Shardshaper yet. By what authority do you resist my command?”

“There will be time for preparations later,” Akarra said. “I would rather spend your last moments in this world comforting you as a true friend would.”

Blue light effused from Yridia’s antennae. She straightened slightly and stared at Akarra for a moment. “You have grown strong, my youngling. And wise. I will grant your last request. Remain here with me for a little while.” She shivered. “But take this now, lest we both forget.” She handed her Heartshard to Akarra, then convulsed again, radiating more lifelight. Exhausted, she slumped down to the warm quartz floor at Akarra’s knees. “So … tired.”

Akarra spent the next hour watching over Yridia. As she watched, Death advanced with slow, steady surety. The lifelight coursing through Yridia’s body grew dimmer and dimmer. Akarra’s own lifelight was tinged blue. Blue-tinged tears appeared on her face; one fell to the floor while her antennae drooped.

Akarra placed a hand on Yridia’s forehead. The warm quartzflesh exuded tiny ripples of light at her touch. She pulled her hand away, and Yridia convulsed a final time. Blue and black lights flashed across her body; her antennae whipped about for a moment then grew stiff.

As Akarra watched, a misty white mantle of light rose out of Yridia’s body, flowed across the short distance between them and settled down upon the now gleaming Heartshard. The Shard drew in the light, capturing it and holding it for the journey ahead. At the same time, Yridia’s quartz body began to change, to decompose. Bits and pieces of her quartzflesh disintegrated, raining down in a shower of powdery white. The process accelerated: first the feet disappeared; then the hands and the chest. Soon only the outline of a vaguely bipedal shape composed of white salt remained on the floor.

She was gone.

Akarra gently picked up the Shard. She held it a moment, noting the odd gleam it seemed to have acquired before placing it in the pocket of her own yenshi robe. She stood and struggling to contain the emotions within her, moved across the chamber, exited the building and stepped out into the Dimlight. There were few passersby at this time, only a few younglings holding discrete rendezvous.

She walked across the square, her hand grasping the Shard in her pocket. She made it past the four Lightshards in the center of the square before her control broke. First, there was a flicker of blue light in her antennae, followed by ripples of the same through all her quartzflesh. Then, a single tear broke free and slid slowly down her cheek.

She started to run, then. Across the square. Down the path behind the yenshi shop to another path that led to her own home, a small hemispherical quartz building only fifteen feet across. She staggered through the opening and threw herself to the ground.

Then, in the safety of the shadows, she began to sob and weep.

 

 

Chapter 3

The next day, nearly one-hundred-fifty quartzians gathered around the Pool of the Fallen, the small pool of green water in the glistening quartz cliffs behind the village. The pool sat back in a small flat clearing amidst several large stalas—columns of quartz much like Lightshards, but shedding no light. Spread amongst them at large intervals, a handful of living Lightshards glowed. It had been a tiring journey up to this place. The path was … ragged … lined with broken stalas and the occasional Lightshard. In this section of The Cavern, the quartz formed its most perfect crystals, long rods of clear crystal topped with a six-sided prism structure. Such formations grew in abundance here.

She was more controlled today. More at peace. She’d wept for hours the previous Dimlight before falling asleep emotionally exhausted. The tears had been a release, a purge of all the negative light and energy within her. Quartzians rarely cried. Most of their emotional displays were expressed through the interplay of their varied lifelights, the energy that sustained their quartz bodies and gave life to their souls.

Looking across the crowd that had gathered to see her Mistress’s remains put to rest, Akarra saw myriad flickering blue antennae, some weak, some strong, but none as heartfelt and powerful as her own.

All the gathered quartzians looked at her expectantly.

She sighed. As the new Shardshaper—although she had not officially received that title yet; she still must complete her Heartquest—she was responsible for conducting the funeral. She was not in the mood for a long service, but she had to at least speak.

She glanced at the quartz urn that held Yridia’s physical remains—about two pounds of salt. The urn lay on the ceremonial quartz pedestal on her right. Grabbing either side of the urn, she lifted it over her head.

“My fellow clan members,” she began. “Our lifelights are dim and blue. We lost a valued member of our community yesterday, one who will be sorely missed. One who served us all faithfully and well as our clan’s Shardshaper. Yridia was her name. May it be recorded in the annals of our history; may we remember her life forever, for hers was a life of service, truth, and love.” She lowered the urn so that she now held it at waist level while she faced the pool.

The pool’s calm green waters rippled just enough to unsettle the surface. Yridia had once explained to her that an underground stream of some sort passed nearby providing just enough turbulence to keep the pool quivering. Akarra had never fully understood. The pool was high up the Cliffs of Garn; she could not fathom how the water had gotten so high. Unless…. She looked up at the roof of The Cavern. It hung above her many hundreds of feet away, its surface covered with gleaming crystal of an unidentifiable type at this distance. Most likely quartz. And if quartz were up so high, why could not water be up that high as well?

She reached into the urn and grabbed a handful of Yridia’s salt. “Quick and safe parting,” she said, and tossed the salt into the water. It showered down like a cloud of dust collecting briefly on the surface of the water before dissolving. She turned to face the crowd of her clanspeople.

“It is time,” she said.

One by one the elders of the clan approached, starting with the Chieftain and ending with the Yenshimaster. Each one reached into the urn, approached the pool, and tossed the salt into the pool as they uttered the same farewell, “Quick and safe parting.” When the elders were finished, the urn still contained a goodly amount of Yridia’s salt. Akarra approached the pool again and poured the remaining salt into the water. It dissolved much like the rest of it had.

“It is done,” Akarra said turning away.

The crowd of quartzians broke up and headed back down the path to the village proper. Akarra stood with her back to the pool, holding the quartz urn, and looked back on a life well spent. A life that would be greatly missed.

A hand touched her shoulder.

She looked up and saw Thaygos standing by her. His antennae radiated the purple of concern. “Are you going to be all right?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Good. You will make an excellent Shardshaper,” he continued. “You are strong and capable.”

“Yes,” a new voice said.

Turning, she saw the Chieftain himself, Thaygos’ father, Glovin. She curtsied slightly as he approached. He responded with a nod and said, “Are you prepared for your Heartquest?”

She blinked. So soon? she thought. Am I not even allowed time to grieve? “I’m not sure,” she said. “I have Yridia’s Shard and I have to gather a few things, but I can be ready in an hour or two, if required. But must I leave so soon?”

“The clan is now without a Shardshaper,” Glovin said. He placed a strong hand on her shoulder. “We will mark the passing of Yridia with fasting and prayer. But we cannot go for long without a proper Shardshaper to replace her. You must be about your quest as soon as possible.”

Akarra was about to argue. These last two days had taken a toll on her … emotionally. She felt ill-suited to go on any type of quest, let alone a Heartquest. But she knew how much she was needed. The Heartshard was the most formidable protection the clan had against the Light-eaters, the shadowy predators that roamed the inner regions of the Cavern. Although she was skilled enough to protect the clan for now, the Shard she now possessed would soon grow cool and die. It could not sustain itself without its bond to its master. So the clan needed a new Shardshaper with a fresh Heartshard as soon as possible. That meant she had to hurry in her quest. They could not afford to be Shardless for long. The Light-eaters were not known for being merciful.

“I can’t go alone,” Akarra said. “Someone must share the journey if for no other reason than to guard my sleep.”

“Thaygos will go with you as your protector,” Glovin said.

Thaygos straightened, his antennae sparkling orange in bewilderment. “Father?”

“You are the most skilled warrior we have,” Glovin said. “You can put your skills to good use. Protecting a Shardshaper is a great honor. And besides, this will give you a chance to say goodbye to each other.”

Akarra exchanged looks with Thaygos, their antennae noting their astonishment. Finally, she returned her gaze to the Chieftain. “We will be on our way within the hour,” she said.

 

 

Chapter 4

Akarra and Thaygos set out from the village shortly after the funeral, their mood subdued. They both knew what this quest meant, that it would be their last chance to be together. Neither one knew what to say.

Akarra carried little else besides the Heartshard; she wore only a set of yenshi robes, held together by a yenshi belt around her waist. Thaygos, dressed in his armor, carried a spear. He also carried a yenshi sack full of several other necessities: a rope, a quartzite drinking shell, several miscellaneous prisms, and a few other odds and ends.

In the beginning, they followed a wide, well-used path, guarded on both sides only by the occasional pile of tumbled quartz. The small protrusions stuck up from the ground like fallen soldiers or lay scattered in a haphazard fashion as if they had fallen from the nearby cliffs. Plentiful in number, they were often cracked and distorted. Akarra knew that natural quartz formed crystals with hexagonal columns that terminated in six-sided prism structures on the top and bottom. But a perfect such crystal was rare. More often than not, the quartz crystals formed twinned, distorted, or specific inter-grown shapes. Regardless, once the crystals had formed and lay exposed to the natural light, they would not remain so shaped; no, they often morphed and changed into a variety of geometric shapes. Like the ones she saw here.

As Akarra and Thaygos travelled, the terrain changed. At first it consisted largely of quartz cliffs, rubble, the occasional stala, and, of course, numerous interspersed Lightshards. Then the cliffs became less frequent and the terrain opened into a vast plain covered with various skree and other quartz formations. They had not gone far before the Lightshards began to dim. The darkening landscape threw a crazy array of shadows.

“We should stop and make camp,” Akarra said.

“I agree,” Thaygos replied. “Wait here. I shall scout the terrain.”

Akarra nodded. As Thaygos disappeared off the trail, she turned her attention to the Heartshard she carried. She had not consumed nourishment in several hours. So, she grasped the Heartshard on either side and summoned its power. The Shard lit up, glowing red, then orange, then yellow, and finally green. It stopped its ascension there and began to pulsate, generating green waves of stonelight.

She opened herself to the energy, letting it cascade across her face and antennae. She drew it in, savoring its sweet flavor. The light coursed into her being, oscillating as it poured down her throat. When her hunger abated, she lowered the Shard.

As she returned the Heartshard to the folds of her robe, her heart grew troubled. She thought back to those last moments with Yridia. She felt a clump of sadness constrict her throat and her antennae turned blue as she replayed the tragedy inside her head. Facing death always was difficult despite what the legends of Gorinna said. Yridia had faced her death well. She had been frightened some, but there was also a sense of expectant relief. And then … something else. There had been a moment when she had looked haunted, as if by some terrible guilt she kept secret and closely guarded around her soul. She had looked at Akarra with pain. But what could have caused such a thing? Yridia had never done anything to wrong her, had she? Akarra wracked her brain to find such a thing, such a terrible event that had plagued her Mistress’ conscience at the point of her death. But there was nothing. They had had friction at times—something normal for any student-teacher relationship—but nothing serious. What could it be?

Just then, Thaygos returned from the rocky lands on the left hand side of the path. He raised a hand to get Akarra’s attention and said, “I found a nice spot to make camp. There’s a small pool of water and a handful of yenshi roots. Come. Follow me.”

Thaygos led Akarra off the path across the rocky quartz terrain. They rounded a towering Lightshard near a large pyramidal quartz formation—milky white, so it generated a strong aura of heat. On the other side of the formation, in the hollow of a massive quartz cliff—one of the last in the plain—they found, as promised, a diminutive pool of water and a few scraggly yenshi roots—long, brown flexible roots that sprouted from a series of tiny fissures at the base of the cliff. The roots wrapped around the edge of the pool and terminated several inches beneath the surface of the water. The points of the roots were covered with tiny hairs.

The hollow maintained a comfortable temperature. The pyramid provided heat and the cracked, shattered cliff face provided a wall to enclose the warmth. It made an excellent camp site: warm and sheltered from view.

Thaygos placed his yenshi sack on the ground in front of him, rummaged around in it for a few moments then pulled out his quartzite drinking shell. He offered Akarra the shell saying, “You must need refreshment after our long journey.”

Akarra effused the yellow lifelight of amusement. She lifted the Heartshard. “I have all that I need to survive with this.” Then, to emphasize her point, she summoned the power of the Heartshard and began ascending through the colors of stonelight: red, orange, yellow, green, and blue. She stopped at blue, the color of water. She opened herself to the energy and absorbed the equivalent of three mouthfuls; then she offered the Heartshard to Thaygos. He effused the faint yellow-orange of good-humored chastisement. He lowered the drinking shell and took the Heartshard. After absorbing his fill, he handed it back to Akarra. Akarra took it without comment and returned the Shard to the inner folds of her yenshi robe.

“You can make green stonelight with that, too. Can’t you?” Thaygos asked.

“Of course,” Akarra replied.

“Then I really don’t need this either do I,” he said. He lifted a small prism—just a standard nourishment crystal capable of extracting green stonelight from white.

“No, you don’t,” Akarra said.

“All right,” Thaygos said. “That’s two less things I have to worry about.” He took a moment to survey their surroundings. “We better settle down for the night. We are about halfway to the Plain of Stalas. If we set out at first light tomorrow, we should reach the plain around midday.”

“We are making good time,” Akarra said. She sat, folding her legs beneath herself. Thaygos followed suit. Just then, the nearest Lightshard, which had been dimming consistently for the past half hour, dropped suddenly to baseline, a state in which it emitted just the barest traces of light.

Another day had passed.

In the pale ghostlight of Dimlight, Akarra glanced across the campsite at Thaygos’ face. He clasped his spear across his lap and looked out into the near darkness around them. “You should get some sleep,” he said, his voice faintly strained. “I’ll keep first watch.” Something was bothering him, but he seemed disinclined to speak.

“What is it?” Akarra asked.

“What do you mean?” Thaygos replied, turning now to look at her. Their eyes met in the darkness. His were strong, steady, and reassuring; yet, she knew him well enough to see that there was also pain.

“Something’s bothering you,” she said. “What is it?”

He hesitated several long minutes, looking down at his lap. Finally, he looked up and reacquired her gaze, his now tinged red with anger. “What do you think it is?” he said, tightly.

“Me?” Akarra said. “What did I do?”

He motioned to include their surroundings. “This,” he said. “This whole quest of yours. You know what this means. Once you are Shardshaper, we are no more.”

“I can’t help that,” she said, defensively, “and neither can you. It’s Tradition. The Law of the Clan. As Shardshaper I must serve everyone. I can’t have close relationships. I am a servant of the people.”

“But what about us?” Thaygos said. “We’ve spent seven grand cycles together. Does that count for nothing?”

“You act like I have some choice in the matter,” Akarra said. “What would you have me do?”

“Be my lifemate,” Thaygos said, jutting his chin forward stubbornly. “Give up your right to being Shardshaper and choose me.” His antennae flickered in the darkness oscillating from the red of anger to the pink of love.

Akarra felt a sickening sensation within. Part of her wanted to do as he asked. Part of her wanted to fling herself into his arms and whisper sweet promises of eternity. To be Lifemate of the Chieftain’s Son; it was a position as prestigious and honorable as that of Shardshaper. But who would replace her? The clan needed a Shardshaper. It was as critical to the survival of the clan as the position of Chieftain. The Shardshaper controlled the Heartshard, and by extension the production of light-splitting prisms—items which the entire clan relied upon. Theoretically, the clan could produce prisms the old fashioned way with hammer and chisel, but that was a long and laborious process, knowledge of which had almost faded from memory. If that had been the only issue, she might very well have taken him up on his offer. But she also possessed one of the most potent weapons against the Light-eaters. And that was not something to be tossed aside lightly.

She looked down. She could not meet his eyes. Those accusing eyes filled so much with hurt. But she was not about to change her course. It was her calling to be a Shardshaper as much a part of her as her love for him. To remove such a part of her would change her in profound and unpredictable ways. Unthinkable ways. What else could be said or done? “I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “I wish you understood. I can’t—”

“Don’t you care? About us?” Thaygos snapped. “About anything but your own desires?”

Now, that went too far. Her head came up and her chin jutted forward. “I don’t care?” she retorted crisply. “If our positions were reversed would you be so willing to give up becoming Chieftain for me?”

He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. His antennae, however, betrayed him; they flashed the grey light of doubt.

Akarra snorted. “It is not so easy to give up one’s life calling, one’s very identity for the sake of something as tenuous and unpredictable as love.”

“You think my love is tenuous? Unpredictable?” Thaygos said, his antennae once again flashing red in anger.

“All love is,” Akarra said. “Not yours alone. When we are through, you will find another—like Leanna. And I will be left with my life to live. Alone.”

“I don’t want Leanna,” Thaygos said. “I want you.”

“Am I supposed to go all weepy and weak in the knees because of that?” Akarra said, tersely. “My whole life hinges on this. Why should I be forced to give up who I am? It is unconscionable. My very identity is wrapped in being Shardshaper. I will not give that up. And as soon-to-be Chieftain, you shouldn’t even ask me to. The clan needs a Shardshaper; and I’m the only one who can fill that position. You should realize that.”

Thaygos grunted. His antennae glowed red but he didn’t reply to her, he simply sat in the corner of the hollow shaking his head and muttering to himself. Akarra could not hear all his words clearly, but she caught several that were downright rude.

“You’re being selfish, you know,” Akarra said.

“And you’re being a martyr for your place in the clan,” Thaygos snapped.

A martyr? she thought. Perhaps I am. But it is necessary. She reached out, leaned forward, and placed a hand on Thaygos’ shoulder. “Please understand, Thay,” she said. “I’m disappointed, too, my shinsin.”

He gave her a matter-of-fact look and said, “Sometimes I think you look for ways to be disappointed.” Then he shrugged off her touch and turned so as to look out into the night. “You should get some sleep, now.”

“But you’re still angry,” she said. “We have to talk this through.”

“We’ve talked enough,” he said. “And I know you well enough to tell when you are not about to change your mind. Good night.”

Her arm dropped to her side. She sat staring at Thaygos’ back for a while. And that’s it? she thought. He’s gone away; crawled inside himself to worry at a problem he cannot fix. He’d done such before, and she knew enough that pestering him to talk about it like he should would not help. He acted much like a Light-eater before a deathlight—or perhaps, like anything before a deathlight. Run and hide. Escape to safety. A typical he-quartz, unable to express anything meaningful when it mattered; always closing up.

She sighed. Well, she could not resolve this all in one night. She lay down to get some sleep.

Thaygos woke her in the middle of the Dimlight to change watch. He never said a word; he simply shook her awake, pointed to the front of the hollow, and lay down on the far side away from the opening.

Once more, Akarra sighed. But rather than comment on Thaygos’ childish silence, she pulled out her Heartshard, and moved to the front opening. She glanced back at Thaygos, her antennae glowing with irritation, but said nothing and simply waited to pass the night away with her arms wrapped around her knees.

In the morning they spent firstmeal barely saying a word to each other—nothing more than that which consumption of nourishment required. She wanted to press him, to make him talk, but she recognized his mood. He would have to break the silence first; else there would be no end of hurt feelings and unwise words.

After firstmeal they gathered their things and broke camp. They returned to the main path and continued their journey on foot, Thaygos taking the lead with his spear at the ready. The terrain was much the same as it had been yesterday, but with fewer cliffs. A clear path wound through a field of broken columns and scattered pieces of detritus; pockets of spherical nodules lay near other short angular pieces of quartz, some cracked and fissured, others clear or cloudy; all misshapen and suggesting great turmoil. Occasionally they passed actual shapes on the landscape—small tetrahedrons, hexahedrons, and other perfect solids. Plus representatives of the imperfect arch-solids: truncated cubes, cuboctahedrons, and many, many more.

They’d been traveling about an hour through another such field of shaped and broken quartz formations when they spotted a small pit filled with a handful of spherical quartz nodules on the side of the path.

Thaygos glanced back at her. “I have always understood that quartz does not grow as a sphere,” he said. He nodded to the small collection of nearby nodules. “It makes only angular formations. Like all these others.” He waved his hand about as if to encompass the rest of the terrain. “Or so I have been told.”

Finally, Akarra thought, he speaks. Sometimes she was surprised by his immaturity—to let matters set for so long. “Actually,” she answered, “the natural form of quartz is that of a hexagonal column capped by a six-sided prism on top and on bottom. It doesn’t grow any other way.”

Thaygos stopped and looked at her. His expression was one of sheer bafflement. “Really? But there is a pile of spherical nodules right there,” he said, pointing. “And over there, there is a flat trapezoid, and there, a cube. How—?”

“Natural deathlight,” Akarra said. It was good to hear him talking, even if the topic wasn’t particularly important.

Thaygos still looked bewildered so Akarra explained. “There, there, and there are three Lightshards. They produce white stonelight which, in turn, contains deathlight—”

“They do? But—”

“Please, don’t interrupt,” she said, her words more terse than her tone. “Since the deathlight is contained in the white light, it is rendered harmless.” She reached up and scratched the base of her scalp. “However, as it flows across the land, sometimes the white light encounters a natural prism, which in turn splits the light into its various colors—including deathlight, which is of a color we cannot see. This deathlight, once it is split out of the other colors, may strike another crystal somewhere out across the landscape.” She turned and gestured to the surrounding terrain as if trying to convey a sense of majesty or the sublime. “This means that the crystal so struck will begin to take on a new shape as dictated by the presence of deathlight and the balance of other natural stonelight striking its surface.” She gestured to a nearby cube. “This hexahedron, for example, was formed by deathlight and a slight imbalance in favor of yellow stonelight.”

“So, right now,” Thaygos asked, nervously. “We might be being barraged with deathlight?”

“Yes,” Akarra said, laughing wickedly. “Most assuredly. But don’t worry too much about it. Natural deathlight is generally very dilute. You would have to stand in the same spot for a grand cycle or two before you really started to feel anything.”

“Oh,” Thaygos said. “Good to know.”

They continued walking in silence for a while. Then, Thaygos said, “I’m sorry I got angry with you, Akarra. It is your life and your place in the tribe. I should not have tried to press you to make a different decision.”

“It’s okay,” Akarra said. “I understand.” She did. Truly she did. Part of her had wanted to take Thaygos up on his offer, to become his lifemate and cease to be Shardshaper, but she could not reconcile such desires with her duty to the clan. She owed the clan her service. There was no getting around that. It was all part of the decision she had made many grand cycles ago when she had decided to become apprentice to the Shardshaper. There was no going back now.

Around midday the features of the landscape changed as they entered the Plain of Stalas. The path still held true, leading in a generally straight direction, but now instead of all the misshapen blobs and angular polyhedral shapes that had decorated the landscape previously, endless rows and other scattered patterns of enormous stalas—huge columns of natural quartz topped with six-sided prisms—spread across the landscape. Interspersed throughout was the occasional Lightshard, gleaming in the distance like a beacon at the heart of Dimlight.

Akarra sensed Thaygos’ question before he even asked it. “If what you said before is true,” he said, “why haven’t these stalas changed? Surely there must be some natural deathlight around.”

“No one knows,” Akarra said. “It is a mystery as old as this plain. Maybe there is some kind of foreign element in the quartz that keeps it from changing, or maybe the deathlight simply is not strong enough, or never split, or what-have-you. It is a mystery.”

“Well, at least we’re not in any danger,” Thaygos said.

“Not from the stalas or the Lightshards,” Akarra said, “but we’re now in Light-eater territory. So danger is still high on the list.”

 

 

Chapter 5

The trail led through the heart of the plain. They passed stalas and Lightshards on either side. The quartz floor of the Cavern was smooth and mostly a foggy white in color; so, the temperature was at least warm, if not hot. The sloping roof of the cavern rose above them many hundreds of feet; legend said that it carried many dozens of quartz stalactites on its surface—protrusions of quartz-rock much like the stalas below but hanging down instead of pointing up. When Akarra craned her neck back and squinted, she could see in the distance tiny glimmering points of light in some places. Were the stalactites above reflecting light from here below? Or were there gleaming Lightshards up there as well? She didn’t know.

An hour before Dimlight, the first of the great pillars came into view. It sprang up from the floor, its base many dozen times around more than the biggest stalas. Like everything else, it was made entirely of quartz but it towered into the heights of the cavern until it disappeared from view—until the grey fog of the upper regions obscured it from sight. There were three such great pillars, Akarra knew. All of them located in the Plain of Stalas. Each one far too big to be a stala yet defying every other possible explanation for its origin.

It dominated the landscape: a tower of quartz, glittering and implacable.

Over the course of their remaining hour of light, they gradually approached it. It continued to grow in apparent size until it filled the front of their field of vision. When the path reached the base of the pillar, it banked to the side to follow its edge around in a grand semicircle. They followed the path, reaching the halfway point along the rim of the pillar before the light began to fade.

Thaygos did a quick survey of the area and found a water-stala a short distance from the path. A typical stala made of clear quartz—and therefore very cold—the water-stala collected fluid from the surrounding warm air. The water beaded on its sides and trickled down to form a small pool at its base. With Akarra’s skills with the Hearshard, they did not need the water-stala for its precious fluid; but it made a convenient camp site: three other large stalas sprouted up nearby, forming an almost perfect shield wall to hide them from the view of the trail.

After a brief discussion, they bedded down for the night. Again, Thaygos took first watch, but this time he did not seem as ill-disposed as the night before. Akarra lay back, closed her eyes, and went to sleep. Around mid-Dimlight, Thaygos woke her and she took her turn on watch, peering out into the semi-darkness and occasionally glancing back to study Thaygos’ jawline. In the morning, they had a quick firstmeal then gathered their few things and traveled on.

The day passed, largely uneventful and without conversation, until about midday right before they stopped for lunch.

“Yesterday you said we were in Light-eater territory,” Thaygos said. “I’ve been keeping my eyes open and I’ve seen no sign of one.”

“They are very rare creatures,” Akarra replied. “They always have been. Ever since they were first encountered so many grand cycles ago.”

“When they were first encountered?” Thaygos said. “Does anyone know where they came from?”

“No, no one knows,” Akarra said. “The first one was spotted during the term of Mikalla Brightheart, the second Shardshaper of our clan.”

“The second Shardshaper?” Thaygos said. “Haven’t we always had Shardshapers?”

“No,” Akarra answered. She effused a brief trickle of gold lifelight. She had many fond memories of learning history at Yridia’s feet. It was good to have someone to pass that lore onto. Even if he probably wouldn’t remember beyond a day or two. “Alayla Thunshood was the first Shardshaper; she founded our order.” She continued, “She discovered the Cave of the Heart Crystal during the Great Crystal Blight.”

“The what?”

“The Great Crystal Blight,” Akarra explained. “It happened close to three hundred grand cycles ago, now.” She looked wistfully off into the distance as she tried to imagine such an enormous length of time. “The quartz crystals throughout the Cavern were contracting a terrible disease that rendered them so brittle that even walking by them could shake them to pieces. Our whole world was being threatened. Alayla went on a retreat into the depths of the Cavern. She discovered the Cave of the Heart Crystal and went inside. Three days later she emerged with the first Heartshard and the ability to shape quartz and heal the land.”

“And drive off Light-eaters,” Thaygos said.

“To be honest, I don’t think she ever encountered one,” Akarra said. “The Light-eaters didn’t appear until Mikalla’s term. As for us, we may go the entire journey and not encounter a single one.”

“I pray we do,” Thaygos said. “I have no wish to tangle with one. My spear is all but useless in such a fight.”

“We have the Heartshard,” Akarra said. “I can drive it off if it comes to that.”

“Some warrior escort I’ll be then,” Thaygos said, laughing, “watching while my she-quartz charge drives away the foe.”

Akarra felt a pinch of irritation at his mention of she-quartz—as if that mattered—but she did not say anything about it. Instead, she said, “It’s not your fault your weapons cannot harm such a creature. By all accounts, you’d be justified in running.”

He looked at her, his face taking on a look of pain while his antennae shone with a mix of grey, black, and blue light. Then a flash of deep maroon. A painful memory. “I saw one, once, you know,” he said, shambling to a stop.

Akarra’s antennae flickered from the purple of concern to the pale green of surprise and then back again. “You saw one?” she asked, stunned. She stopped as well. “A Light-eater?” He nodded yes. “You are lucky to be alive. When? How?”

“About two grand cycles before I met you,” he said. “I was still quite young, then, just learning to use my spear.” He looked away. Grey. Black. And blue. Then deep maroon again. “I was out in the Shattered Field just south of the yenshi gardens back home. I was with Gordin Galldar. I don’t know if you remember him; he was my best friend at the time.”

Akarra bent her antennae in thought. Gordin Galldar. The name did sound vaguely familiar. She scurried through her memories. Yes, she recalled that the young he-quartz warrior had died in a confrontation with a Light-eater. A Light-eater that had gotten dangerously close to the village before it was driven off by her mistress, Yridia.

She blinked, her antennae straightening and glowing pale green in surprise again. She had not realized that the Chieftain’s Son had been involved. If she had, she would have remembered it for sure.

“Neither one of us had been a warrior apprentice for more than a cycle,” Thaygos said. He wasn’t looking at her anymore; he was caught up in the memory and his antennae were still oscillating through a handful of dark colors. “We were just kids. We were out playing … practice dueling with our spears … just having fun.” A blue tear welled up at the corner of his eye and traced a path down his cheek. “We were playing, and then one of the Lightshards started to go dim. We both saw it at the same time. I’ll never forget what it looked like: a horrid wiry thing of black light and shadow. It was hard to tell where it ended and the darkness it created began. It had wrapped itself around the Lightshard and simply sat there sucking the stonelight out of it. Gordin—he was always a brash fellow—grabbed his spear and charged. I tried to support him. I even threw my spear at the thing, but it passed right through. Then the Light-eater was on him. I’ll hear his screams until my dying day. It just sucked all the lifelight out of him in a matter of moments. And just like that—” he snapped his fingers “—he was gone.”

Akarra said nothing. What could she say? She reached out a hand and placed it on his shoulder. Scintillating blue tears flowed freely down his face now. His shoulders slumped. Then he took a long, heavy breath.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’ve never told anyone this, but I’ve always felt that it was my fault. I was the one with rank. I should have ordered him to retreat. I just didn’t understand our danger.”

“It’s not your fault,” Akarra said. “Light-eaters are the most dangerous creatures of The Cavern. And you were young; you could not have understood your peril.”

“But—” he began.

“No,” she said, firmly. “I am a Shardshaper. I know what a Light-eater is. I know what it can do. If you both had fled, you may have led it into the village and other innocents may have died. You did your best. There was nothing else you could have done. Trust me.” Tenderly, she lifted both her palms in the air in invitation. He looked at her hands for a moment then lifted his own. They touched palms and gently nuzzled antennae that glowed pink. For a moment, they shared thoughts. His were dark and grey, filled with pain; hers were warm and forgiving; they drove away that pain. They held each other that way for several long moments, an ethereal kiss. Then they released each other, and he looked at her with a renewed strength and vigor.

“Thank you,” he said. “I needed that.”

She felt a shiver of golden lifelight pass through her being. It was so good to see him in good spirits. “Well, then, let’s get a move on,” she said. “We have a journey to complete.”

“A journey that ends in our separation,” he said with a touch of the old sadness in it.

She sighed. So much for good spirits. “Let us just enjoy the time we have left together,” she said. “Here, take my arm. We will walk together for a ways. If we keep a good pace, we should make it to the Labyrinth of Vit by Dimlight.”

He wrapped his arm around hers. “To brief interludes and the eternity of their memory,” he said.

She looked up at him and smiled. Now, it was her turn to feel sad.

 

 

Chapter 6

Towards the end of the day, they came upon the entrance of the Labyrinth of Vit, a massive cliff face of quartz along the edge of the vast Shield Wall that cut across the Plain of Stalas truncating its reach to the south.

The entrance consisted of a single triangular-shaped hole, ten feet wide at the base, and twenty feet up the sharp slope of the cliff side. The trail they had been walking on led to the edge of the plain then disappeared in the transition to the new terrain.

Akarra looked at the slope, trying to determine if there was an easy way up. But the angle looked remarkably steep, and as a quartzian she was not good at climbing. They did have one piece of luck, though: cut up pieces of quartz lay in angular formations along the cliff face. And much of the rest of the quartzface was filled with fissures and cracks—indicative of a meeting between clear and clouded crystal—hence, it was a mild, comfortable temperature and it offered plentiful handholds and footholds. Still, a bad fall threatened to chip quartzflesh. She was not looking forward to the climb.

But Thaygos allayed her fears. Being more agile, he climbed the small cliff face using the divots and cracks to assist him. After a few minutes of determined effort, he reached the cave opening. He looked about, making sure the area was secure, then he tossed his yenshi rope back down to Akarra. Surprised, but pleased, she grabbed the end and climbed up with only little difficulty to join him.

Once inside, they moved half a dozen paces down the path away from the treacherous cave lip. Then they sat down to rest. No sooner had they sat down than the lights began to dim. The day was ending.

“I’ve never been this far south of the village before,” Thaygos said. “I hope you know the way.”

“It’s not difficult,” Akarra said. “It’s a labyrinth.”

He looked at her puzzled. “Yeah, precisely. How are we going to find our way through without getting lost?”

Akarra’s antennae lit up yellow in amusement. “I think you are confusing a labyrinth with a maze.”

“Aren’t they the same thing?” Thaygos asked.

“No, not at all,” Akarra replied. “A labyrinth consists of a single, long convoluted path. It’s impossible to get lost in a labyrinth. You just keep following the path and eventually it will lead you out. A maze consists of many interconnecting pathways. Generally, there are only one or two correct pathways through a maze, but many decision points along the way, so it is easy to get lost.”

“Oh,” Thaygos said. “I never knew that.”

“It is a common error,” Akarra said. She leaned back against the tunnel wall—an uncomfortable position because of its angled surface. “You’re taking first watch again?”

“Yes,” Thaygos said. “Get some sleep.”

Akarra lay down and turned her back to Thaygos. She wasn’t tired yet, but she knew she needed to sleep. She did not know what she would find when she reached the Heart Crystal. She’d never been there. It was forbidden territory for all Quartzians save Shardshapers and their apprentices. And an apprentice could only go there when, like Akarra, she was preparing to become a Shardshaper herself. It was a place wrapped in mystery. Rumors said it was dangerous, but no one knew exactly why. Yet, as far as Akarra knew, not a single Shardshaper had ever died in the Cave of the Heart Crystal. So how could it be dangerous?

Still, she remembered that final look on Yridia’s face. Something had frightened her. Some devilish horror from the past. Her eyes and antennae had looked haunted and grim, as if she were fighting an enemy she could not vanquish. An enemy she did not know how to vanquish. But whatever it was, she had never mentioned it to Akarra.

What was it? Was there some strange entity at the Cave of the Heart Crystal? A protector for the Heart Crystal perhaps? No, it couldn’t be. Surely Yridia would have warned her. What could it be?

“You don’t seem to be sleeping,” Thaygos said. “What’s on your mind?”

Akarra turned onto her back and folded her hands behind her head. “The Cave of the Heart Crystal,” she said. “What will I find there?”

“I can’t help you there,” Thaygos said. “We’re already out of the territory I am familiar with. I’m only a warrior, after all.”

“You are the Chieftain’s Son,” Akarra said. “Has the Chieftain ever spoken of the Cave of the Heart Crystal?” Perhaps Glovin knew more; if only she had thought to ask him before they had set out.

“No,” Thaygos said. “Not to me anyway. All I know is what everybody knows. The cave contains the Heart Crystal, the source of the mystical Heartshards that give the Shardshapers their power. My understanding is that the Heartshards are pieces of the Heart Crystal. They can’t be broken or destroyed, and every Shardshaper must journey to the Heart Crystal to obtain a Heartshard of her own. That’s about it.”

“You know nothing of the Bond?” she asked.

“I’ve heard rumors,” he said, “but that is a secret of your trade. You need not explain it to me.”

“I’ve been told the Heartshards are living things,” Akarra said, turning over and propping herself up on one elbow. “The Heart Crystal itself is a living thing and the Heartshards are like appendages of the greater being. I’ve never sensed that, but that is what Yridia told me.” She drummed the fingers of her free hand across the smooth floor of the tunnel, absently tapping out the rhythm of a little ditty she made up on the spot. “As a Shardshaper Apprentice I was trained with the skills to manipulate the energy of a Heartshard. I can use a shard to summon and control any color of stonelight, even the deadly deathlight; so, I can provide nourishment for myself or others, or even shape crystals and prisms to my own desire.” She increased the tempo of her ditty, adding in a pair of staccato-like notes to every sequence. “However, to gain complete power over the Shard, I must bond with it. A Bond will connect my consciousness to that of the Shard’s. When I do this, I will learn how to manipulate lifelight as well, so that I can bring healing and comfort to those who require it.” She stopped drumming.

“What of Yridia’s Shard? Why can you not bond with that?” Thaygos asked.

“She is still bound to it,” Akarra explained. “Indeed her very life essence is contained within this Shard. I go to the Cave of the Heart Crystal not only to bond with my own Shard but to release her spirit as well.”

“I see,” Thaygos said. “If Yridia is ever to achieve her final rest …”

“I must release her,” Akarra completed for him.

He nodded his head then sank into silence. His antennae glowed with the purple-grey of deep thought.

Deciding their conversation was finished Akarra rolled back over and closed her eyes. Soon she fell asleep. She dreamed of crystals and shards, lifelights and prism patterns. Then, someone was shaking her.

She blearily opened her eyes.

“Your turn,” Thaygos said.

“So soon?” she asked. Her antennae glittered with the deep dark green of sleepiness.

“Soon?” Thaygos asked, looking at her strangely. “It’s the middle of the Dimlight. You’ve slept for six hours.”

“Okay,” she said, sitting up. “I’ll take over from here.” Thaygos lay down beside her and she scanned the surrounding area for trouble. This far away from the village a number of possible threats existed. There were the Light-eaters, of course. But also the Quarzings—sluggish worm-like creatures that fed on quartz and grew to a size as large as six feet in length—plus there was also the possibility of encountering Quartzians from other clans. That last wasn’t necessarily bad, but it wasn’t necessarily good either. All such encounters were touchy by nature. Clanfights had been started in the past by random encounters in the depths of The Cavern. Granted, encountering Quartzians was less likely during Dimlight, but she still hoped to avoid the matter entirely and encounter nothing and no one.

And for that Dimlight, at least, her wish was granted.

Thaygos awoke in the morning beside her. They had their firstmeal and then set off into the fabled Labyrinth of Vit. The passage was shaped like an equilateral triangle with the floor lying flat and the walls angling up to meet where one would normally find a ceiling. The most unusual thing was, though, it wasn’t made of quartz—at least, not anymore. It was made of glass, or more specifically, quartz that had been vitrified by extreme heat sometime in the distant past. The sides were smooth and sleek like regular quartz, but every crack and fissure that marred its perfect surface was glossed over. The walls and floor behind the glass were, as far as Akarra could tell, made of quartz: foggy white and hot, so that the temperature of the entire tunnel was far warmer than outside.

The smooth floor of the tunnel made travel difficult, forcing them to scrabble along from handhold to handhold. It was lit by Lightshards placed at periodic intervals so that the shadows had very little opportunity to grow during the day. The occasional slope forced them to navigate on their knees, but they had Thaygos’ rope and his small collection of quartz cutting tools so that they could deal with virtually any obstacle that came before them. The route itself was convoluted and twisted, turning back on itself time and time again, but always leading forward offering no side branches or exits.

After two hours of such travel, Akarra called a halt. The high temperature in the tunnel made the exertion exhausting and by this time she was quite ready to take a break. She slumped down by the side of the tunnel, but, again, the angle of the wall made it difficult to lean against. “Let’s just rest a few minutes,” she said.

Thaygos nodded and slumped down beside her. “Good idea,” he said, laying his spear across his lap.

For a short time, neither one spoke. Then, all of a sudden, Thaygos said, “My father is passing the Crystal Rod to me when we get back. I will be Chieftain soon.”

“That is good,” Akarra said, even though inside she felt misgivings. “I am very proud of you.” She trailed off. What would it be like to work alongside Thaygos as Shardshaper while he was Chieftain? To be so near so often? To work with him closely, but chastely for all that time? She would see him every day with Leanna or whomever he chose as lifemate in her stead. Could she do that? Surely, it would be difficult.

As if reading her mind, Thaygos said, “I wish you would reconsider your decision about being Shardshaper. I love you like none other. I don’t know how I’ll be able to function as Chieftain without you by my side.”

For a moment, Akarra felt a pulse of commiseration. But a moment later, it turned to anger. Why couldn’t he accept it: it just was not to be? Akarra’s antennae flared red. “Must you keep harping on this?” she asked. “Life requires sacrifice. My position as Shardshaper requires sacrifice.”

“Sacrifice?” Thaygos asked. “Why must our future together be such a sacrifice? This is our final time together as we are.”

“Yes,” Akarra said, angrily. “Soon we must go our separate paths. We should be spending this time we have by reconciling ourselves to that fact.”

“It’s not a fact,” Thaygos said, “It’s your choice. A choice you don’t have to make.”

“Is it?” she said, heatedly. “You never answered me before: Would you give up being Chieftain to be with me?”

“What does that have to do with it?” he replied.

“Would you?” she asked.

“Of course, I would,” he answered, but there was a trace of grey in his antennae. “But my being Chieftain is not what is keeping us apart. Being Chieftain does not preclude me from being someone’s lifemate. You being a Shardshaper does.”

“But it’s the same choice,” she replied. “I’m trying to get you to appreciate the gravity of what you are asking me to do. Being Shardshaper is all I know. I can’t just toss that aside and pretend that I’m going to be happy. I have a purpose and a place in this world: and it’s being the Shardshaper.”

“You’re an impossible she-quartz,” he said. His antennae were now a mix of pink and red. Their gazes met then he looked away.

She sighed, wondering if they would spend the entire trip fighting about this. She had thought that they had already settled the issue; that he had accepted the inevitable. But no; he still did not understand. He offered her love, yes, but sometimes love just was not enough. There were other considerations: duty, honor, and justice. Her duty was to the clan. It was her honor to serve them. Failure to live up to her oath to do so would be a terrible injustice.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just can’t do what you ask.”

The pink in his antennae turned blue and he still refused to look at her.

“Come,” she said, firmly; her antennae flickered a deep iron grey—not doubt, but stern resolve. “Our rest is over. We must be on our way.”

He gave her a glance as she slowly stood. She did likewise. He rose as well. They set out again with him leading the way, spear propped on his shoulder, head tilted downward as if he were studying the floor. She followed, arms crossed, yenshi robes billowing about her.

The path turned back on itself again and entered a lengthy straight-away that stretched as far as they could see into the distance. Undisturbed, they plodded forward. The yards turned to a mile then another, and still they plodded on. Minutes turned to hours, hours to whole segments of the day. Finally, about midday they reached a spot where the nature of the quartz surrounding them changed; it turned clear, and, therefore, cold.

At first, the temperature was a welcome change from the blistering heat, but soon they found themselves longing for the warmth of the earlier passages. An hour’s worth of chill seeping into their frames left them chattering and shaking. Their quartzflesh clouded over in an attempt to keep them warm, but even that was not enough. Finally, they were forced to take direct action. Thaygos pulled a tetraflame from his sack and set it aglow with red stonelight. Akarra did likewise with her Heartshard, and they continued the journey in much more reasonable comfort.

When they reached the end of the long hall, it banked around a Lightshard and turned back in the direction they had just come. The walls changed back to foggy colored quartz and the natural temperature improved immeasurably. On the opposite side of the wall stood a water stala of clear quartz taking advantage of the differential in temperature between itself and the air that surrounded it.

They took a moment to taste the water—even though with her Heartshard it wasn’t necessary. They found the water to their liking and decided to camp there. It was late in the day and the temperature was a comfortable lukewarm.

They spent an hour talking that evening; neither one wanted to fight any more so they avoided the difficulties that loomed over them and kept the talk on superficial things: like how far it was to the Cave of the Heart Crystal, how must things be in the village in their absence, and similar such things.

Finally, the nearby Lightshards hit baseline, the Dimlight began, and Akarra lay down to sleep.

 

 

Chapter 7

Akarra awoke with a start; it felt like someone had kicked her. She sat up only to find Thaygos’ hand on her mouth.

“Quiet,” he whispered. “Something’s wrong.”

She looked at him, her antennae orange with puzzlement. “What is it?” she asked.

He pointed down the corridor that lay before them. It was dark in the distance. Too dark. She knew the passageway, like the others they had traversed, was lined with periodic Lightshards. It was the middle of the Dimlight. The light the Lightshards produced should be subdued, not gone entirely. Yet she looked down a hall with only two Lightshards producing any light at all. Beyond them, it was as black as a shardless cave.

She quietly arose and retrieved her Heartshard.

“What is it?” Thaygos asked.

“A Light-eater,” Akarra replied. “I can think of no other explanation.”

“Should we turn back?” he asked, gripping his spear. Such a weapon was nearly useless against a Light-eater. They fed on light. They lived in darkness. And their bodies were thin and wiry, resembling some kind of condensed shadow.

“Perhaps. If there is more than one,” Akarra said, squatting low and carefully holding her Shard before her. “Otherwise, we fight.” Encountering more than one Light-eater at a time was exceedingly rare and quite dangerous. They were intelligent beings and they used their numbers to outflank opponents. It was not common, but Akarra knew of at least one former Shardshaper who had fallen to a pair of Light-eaters—Ilyaya. Yridia’s former mentor.

“Okay,” Thaygos said. “What do I do?”

“You wait here,” Akarra said. Then she started to creep forward.

“Wait here?” Thaygos said. “I’m supposed to protect you.”

“Not from this,” she replied.

Up ahead, the furthest of the two still-glowing Lightshards went completely dark. Akarra peered in that direction, straining her eyes to make out what details she could. But there was nothing; it was all black. Fighting Light-eaters in the dark was sheer folly. You could not target what you could not see.

Fortunately, she had a remedy for that.

She lifted her Heartshard and concentrated. It glowed with stonelight: first red, then orange, then yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet: it changed to the invisible deathlight which hurt her hands, then surged with even more power. A beam of pure white stonelight—all colors and more—shot out and struck the nearest Lightshard.

The Lightshard burst afire with light and energy, glowing like it was midday. It cast its light down the hall in both directions. Thaygos, encouraged by the sudden visibility of things, moved up beside her brandishing his spear. She cast a single sidelong glance at him, but said nothing; he was a he-quartz, convinced that if there was fighting to be done, it should be done by him. Even though this foe had him completely outmatched.

It was a Light-eater. Two, in fact. The first glided forward into the light of the one remaining Lightshard. It was a thing of shadow surrounding itself in a mantle of darkness. Akarra could not make anything out about the creature; it was simply a dark, amorphous shape, a living shadow that moved rapidly down the hall toward them. The second, moving just as rapidly, followed perhaps ten feet behind the first.

Akarra lifted her Shard.

And Thaygos stepped right in front of her holding his spear at the ready.

“Out of the way!” she snapped, and shoved Thaygos roughly to the side.

“Sister Shardshaper,” one of the Light-eaters hissed in a haunting, empty voice sounding like scraping quartz. “Surrender your Heartshard and we will grant you passage. Resist, and we will … suck … you … dry.” The words were weapons in themselves; they scratched at her ears, biting into her mind, worrying into her thoughts like a yenshi digger. Beside her, Thaygos grunted, dropped his spear, and lifted his hands to cup his ears. His antennae turned the deep maroon of pain. He staggered.

Akarra grimaced, blocking out the words as best she could before leveling her Shard at the nearer of the two Light-eaters. The pulsing piece of crystal ascended through the spectrum of colors until it reached the deathlight. It gathered its strength then shot out a pure beam of deadly energy. The beam was invisible; so Akarra could not see it, only sense it like a vague presence in the back of her mind. Still, it was her will that controlled it; she could aim it and target it as readily as any other beam of light.

It struck the first Light-eater head on garnering an intense shriek of pain from the creature and driving it back a full ten yards. Unfortunately, though, with Akarra’s attention on the first Light-eater, she could do nothing to stop the second. It glided forward the remaining few yards and wrapped itself around Thaygos.

This close, Akarra could see the creature’s form through its mantle of shadow. It was a spider-like creature of black light; a thing of spindly legs and hideous deformity borne up by wings of shadow and darkness. Its eyes glowed red, soulless orbs of grim countenance. Akarra shivered in spite of herself.

Thaygos screamed in pain. His antennae pulsed a deep maroon that seemed to break apart and flicker out from his antennae like dust might rise from a heavy footfall, sparkling all the way until it was consumed by the Light-eater’s hungry maw. He managed to retrieve his spear and strike the creature once with it, but the blow had little effect. A moment later, he collapsed in a heap on the tunnel floor.

The Light-eater dropped down to make the kill.

Akarra turned her deathlight upon the second creature just in time, blasting it in the side and driving it backwards into the wall, away from Thaygos. The creature shrieked, much like the other one, and rapidly flew backwards down the hall; Akarra harried it with the deathlight the whole way.

Only then, did she notice that the other Light-eater had not fled. Although clearly injured, it remained functional and very dangerous; it began moving down the hall toward them again, but instead of targeting her, it moved to the one remaining Lightshard, wrapped it in shadow, and began consuming its precious stonelight.

Visibility dropped by nearly a third before Akarra managed to target her Shard on the threat. It dropped by another third as her weapon ascended the spectrum of light. Finally, she managed to blast the Light-eater square on with a beam of deathlight. It shrieked one final time, then fled back down the hall into the darkness, where it quickly became invisible.

Alarmed now at the darkness—for she could see neither Light-eater in the poor visibility and either one might take the opportunity to slip into their camp unawares and attack them—she summoned another burst of powerful white light. She could still make out the dim form of the last Lightshard the Light-eater had attacked. She blasted it with full power. Immediately, it came to life, glowing with renewed light and energy.

Unfortunately, its entire surface was now cracked and shattered from its encounter with the Light-eater, and in that state, Akarra could only nurse about half of its normal level of light. Furthermore, since she was not bonded to this Heartshard, she could make no effort to repair the Lightshard.

But such limited efforts would have to do. At the very least, they would prevent the Light-eaters from sneaking up on them undiscovered.

A groan on her right reminded her of Thaygos. He’d been injured in the fight.

Turning, she knelt by his side and laid a hand on his neck. The Light-eater had drained a good portion of his lifelight. His antennae oscillated between black and deep maroon. That, at least, was a good sign; he had the strength to register his feelings.

As she had never bonded with the Heartshard, she lacked the ability to heal him, much like she lacked the ability to repair the Lightshard. She could use deathlight to reshape either one, but that would kill Thaygos and ruin the Lightshard.

She sat down beside him. She would have to be patient and nurse him back to health the old-fashioned way. Pulling out her Shard, she ascended through the spectrum until she reached the green of nourishment. Pulling him close to her, she let him feed. Then, she ascended to blue and let him drink. When he was finished she took a few victuals herself and said a brief prayer. For the remainder of the evening, she kept watch, silently trying to will the damaged Lightshard to produce more light.

Eventually, morning came. Although the hall ahead remained dark, the hall behind her around the corner lit up and told her a new day had begun. The drained Lightshards would repair themselves slowly over the course of the next great cycle—a full thirty-six oscillations between day and Dimlight—but she could not afford to wait that long.

She nudged Thaygos. “How do you feel?” she asked as he opened his eyes.

“Rotten,” he said. His antennae pulsed a deep maroon as he flopped himself onto his stomach and, using both arms, brought himself into a kneeling position. Then he lurched to the side and kicked his feet out so that he could sit with his back to the angled wall across from Akarra. “And hungry.” He pulled out his own nourishment prism, held it up to the dim light around them, and activated it, scattering the bulk of the colors of stonelight and only allowing the green of nourishment to pass through. After a while, he lowered the prism to the ground. “I’m thirsty,” he said. He glanced at the nearby water stala.

“It’s simpler if I do it,” Akarra said. She lifted her Shard and summoned the blue light of refreshment. He drank it in deeply. Eventually, he lifted a hand to signal her to stop. “Now, how do you feel?” she asked.

“Rotten,” he said. Then he smiled. “But sated.”

“We’ll rest here,” Akarra said. “A day or two. Then we must move on.”

They wound up resting for three days during which Thaygos ate and drank his fill and slept more than he was awake. Finally, on the fourth day he judged that he had regained the strength to continue the journey.

Akarra helped Thaygos to his feet and they set out down the hall. The passageway was long and straight, continuing in parallel to the passage they had just left. After a short while, the quartz here—or rather, the quartz behind the glass—turned clear again. The temperature dropped to an uncomfortable level forcing them to make use of Thaygos’ tetraflame. From the specially cut prism they generated sufficient heat to keep themselves, if not necessarily comfortable, at least, healthy and out of danger.

As they traveled they noted each of the Lightshards they passed; after the first, each one was dark, all stonelight drained, at least for the foreseeable future. Also, each pillar of crystal held numerous cracks and fissures—a sure sign that they had been victims of a Light-eater’s attack. Akarra was forced to use her Heartshard to produce the light they needed to see by.

Eventually they reached the end of the straightaway they were on and the passage folded back on itself. Then, it did it again. Soon, it was twisting and turning and folding about itself in a dizzying path to the unknown.

At noon, they stopped to rest by a water stala and a damaged Lightshard. They had a quick meal and Thaygos took a brief nap. Just enough to close his eyes and regain some strength. No more than thirty minutes.

When the time came, Akarra woke him with a gentle nudge and they set out again. A few hours later, after meandering through numerous more twists and turns in the passage they approached a triangular egress.

“Finally,” Thaygos said, using his spear to support himself. “I can hardly wait to be out of this forsaken labyrinth.” He started limping toward the exit more rapidly.

“Careful,” Akarra said. “Do not rush this. The Cave of the Heart Crystal is not far from the exit and I am uncertain what challenges it will set before us.”

“There are obstacles?” Thaygos said, stopping to look at her. “At the Cave of the Heart Crystal? Surely they can’t be worse than the Light-eaters.”

“We shall see,” Akarra said. Then, she took Thaygos by the arm and led him out into the light.

 

 

Chapter 8

The light revealed a complicated landscape. It was largely flat, but populated with a vast number of geometric figures fashioned from quartz lying about in virtually every direction imaginable. There were natural tetrahedrons, hexahedrons, and other perfect solids. There were truncated octahedrons, snub cubes and a vast array of varied imperfect arch-solids. Finally, there was a multifarious collection of more common shapes—rhombohedrons, spheres, and cylinders. Altogether, it looked as if some mad Shardshaper had gone to work to shape as many geometric variants as could be imagined. All the formations were made of pure quartz and were of differing sizes. Some towered above Akarra; others were small enough to trip over. Some of the crystals looked clear; some fogged; and even others bore colors: red, purple, blue, and yellow.

Almost immediately, Akarra could sense her goal. In the distance, some two hundred yards away stood a massive angular formation of quartz. It consisted of all gradients; some parts looked clear, some looked white, and still others looked cracked and fissured. The formation drew Akarra’s gaze as soon as she exited the Labyrinth. Something was there; some presence, some aura, perhaps even an intelligence. She felt her Heartshard grow warm of its own accord and she knew immediately that she could have found that mound of quartz even with her eyes closed. She started walking in that direction.

Thaygos moved up beside her, his spear at the ready. “Where are we heading?”

Akarra nodded toward the mound. “There,” she said.

Thaygos looked around. “All these formations. Were they formed by …?”

“Same as before, just more abundantly,” Akarra said. “Light from—”she pointed to three nearby Lightshards in rapid succession—“those, refracted by the many natural prisms. It’s amazing that it produced so many different forms. We’ll have to be careful. We might get exposed to deathlight here.” But even as she said it, she knew it to be untrue. This … this … garden of quartz stones was not a random thing; no, it may have relied upon the natural characteristics of light and quartz, but some intelligence had played a hand in forging it.

She looked down at a beautiful orange twinned formation consisting of two six-sided prisms joined together along one face. It was neither a perfect solid, nor an imperfect arch-solid—it wasn’t even an ordinary polyhedron—but its beauty and elegance were well-suited to this place. Akarra stooped down to trace a finger across one of its planes; it was warm to the touch, of course, and her finger slid smoothly across the glassy surface. She straightened then continued on, threading her way through the many formations. “I wonder why this was built?” she asked, rhetorically.

“Built?” Thaygos answered. “I thought you said—”

“No,” Akarra said, “something this abundant must have had a maker, a designer. It’s beautiful.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better,” Thaygos said. “There’s something wrong here.”

They approached a tall cylindrical pillar of quartz—something unheard of—and the angular white-colored mound drew near. Akarra stopped long enough to study the mound from a distance. It rose high—nearly one hundred feet—but was equally wide. It consisted of myriad angles and crevices and broken pillars of glass; some of the pillars were encased in the sides of the quartz mound and yet others stood out tall on their own. Three different caves led within, each one shaped like a different polygon—a triangle, a square, and a pentagon.

“Which one do we try?” Thaygos asked.

“I don’t know,” Akarra replied.

“Pick one,” Thaygos said.

Akarra glanced back at the triangular passage of the labyrinth then said, “Well, we started with a triangle, let’s try the square.” Boldly striding forward she stepped into the tunnel.

Thaygos started to follow her, but then he drew to a stop at the edge of the passage.

“Are you coming?” Akarra asked, looking back at him.

Thaygos lifted a hand and pressed it forward. It stopped in mid-air as if it had met some kind of resistance, an invisible wall of sorts. Akarra turned around and stepped out of the tunnel. “What is the problem?”

“I don’t think I can enter,” Thaygos said. He pounded his fist against an inviolable barrier to no avail.

“Here,” Akarra said, handing him the Heartshard. “Try now.” He stepped forward and immediately ran into resistance again. She stepped to his side then moved forward again. “Well, it’s not the Shard. Let’s try the other passages.”

They tried both the triangular shaped passage and the pentagonal shaped passage. Neither one allowed Thaygos entry.

“Well, I guess you’ll have to wait here,” Akarra said, retrieving the Heartshard from Thaygos and returning it to the folds of her yenshi robe.

“I don’t think you should go in,” Thaygos said. “It’s too dangerous.”

“Who rescued whom from the Light-eaters?” she said matter-of-factly. “I’ll be fine.”

“I don’t like it,” Thaygos said.

“It is my quest,” she said. “I will see it through to the end.”

“But—”

“I’ll be okay,” she said, then, turning to him, she lifted both palms up facing toward him. Her antennae glowed pink with love. He returned the gesture and they touched, palm to palm, antenna to antenna. For a moment, their thoughts were one and she sensed a transcendental togetherness that defied all explanation. Oh, how she yearned for this he-quartz. And to think, this would be their last chance to bond like this. She was about to enter the Cave of the Heart Crystal. When she came out, she would be bonded to her own Heartshard, and no longer available to any he-quartz. He sensed those thoughts as well and for a moment their pink love was tinged with blue.

They broke contact.

Struggling to keep her emotions in check, she turned back to the square-shaped passage and stepped inside. She walked forward resolutely refusing to look back. This was her quest; her ambition; there was no more room for love.

The corridor led downward at a gentle angle, a very gentle angle—which was fortunate because the floor, even though covered with cracks and fissures, had been polished until it was as smooth as glass. Several times, she came very near to slipping and falling in an undignified manner. But each time she managed to twist her feet until her yenshi shoes caught against the floor. The natural fibers and bark of the root gripped polished quartz much more effectively than her bare feet.

As she regained her footing, she took note of a handful of Lightshards lying horizontally and buried beneath the surface of the floor. They provided copious light for her journey, but their unusual positioning and placement piqued her curiosity. Why had the Lightshards been buried? What had caused it?

No obvious answer presented itself.

It didn’t matter. She wasn’t here to solve a riddle. Ignoring the Lightshards, she continued down the passage. It banked first left, then right, and soon the opening where Thaygos waited was no longer visible.

She entered a large chamber and immediately noticed several things: first, she saw that the chamber had been hollowed out in the shape of a dodecahedron—a uniform twelve-sided figure; second, she saw that all the quartz of the chamber was foggy white. This indicated that the chamber should be incredibly warm—hot, even—but that was not the case; in fact, the chamber was cold, and it grew even colder as she entered—so cold, in fact, that her quartz hide grew cloudy to compensate, generating heat from her precious lifelight.

Buried in the floor she saw two more Lightshards, glowing brilliantly and spreading light throughout the room. In the back of the chamber, attached to one of the walls, she saw a large blue quartz crystal shaped much like an icosahedron—a perfect twenty-sided figure—except not so perfect: one of the faces on the crystal was missing as if someone had cut out a tetrahedron-shaped piece of quartz.

She pulled out the Heartshard: it was a tetrahedron in shape, made of transparent blue quartz, and just about the right size. What had Yridia said? Restore her Heartshard to its former place? Clearly that was what she was meant to do: return the Shard to the missing section of the Heart Crystal. But something held her back, uncertain. Now that she was here, after her long journey and struggle, she once again recalled the haunted look that had hid in Yridia’s eyes and the silent fear that had flowed from Yridia’s antennae. What about this place had her late mentor found so disturbing?

She continued her inventory of the room.

A large stela of carven quartzite stood in the center, looking odd if for no other reason than the material from which it had been fabricated: quartzite—a type of rock formed from super-heating quartz. It sprouted from the floor with a surface of cracked and shattered glass, fused together as if also transformed by great heat. She walked over to the stela.

There was writing on it made by the contortions of several lines of black glass. The writing covered the stela from top to bottom in four demarcated sections. The first section read: Greetings, Shardshaper. Behold the Heart Crystal. The source of your power. Restore your master’s Heartshard to the Heart Crystal and claim your own. Half a hand’s breadth lower it read: Power comes and power goes. Until your living essence is not your own. In her current mood, that sounded particularly sinister, but Akarra could not quite figure out what it meant.

She continued reading. The next section read: Five we are in number. Revered by the councils of the wise. The very building blocks of all that is. Designed in defiance of all lies.

“A riddle?” she said out loud. “I came all this way and you are wasting my time with children’s games?” As she spoke, her voice echoed back to her. Then, a cavernous hum started, rumbling forward from the back of the room, its ultimate origin a mystery.

She continued reading the next section. It, too, was a riddle. The faces of the forms are few in number; their beauty, unparalleled. Of these faces, I am both least and most, a shadow of the complexity I allow. What am I?

By the sacred songs of her ancestors, what was going on? Her gaze lifted back to the top of the stela. That line at least was clear. If she followed the instructions, she should move up and return Yridia’s Heartshard to the empty space in the icosahedron. But the next line seemed to be a warning of some sort. “I mean, ‘Until your living essence is not your own?’” she said aloud again. Power comes. Power goes. What did it mean?

Just then, the vibration in the room rose a pitch, drawing her attention to the back of the room and the Heart Crystal. The Heart Crystal had started to glow, dark morbid colors, that seemed somehow menacing. Great, she thought, riddles with a time limit. Even as she thought the words a change manifested in the depths of the giant jewel.

A shadow formed within, dark and sinister. Then, the shadow rose and emerged from its surface, an all too familiar thing of twisted black light and wings: a Light-eater. Akarra took a step back as her innermost lifelights started pulsing in fear. A trickle of black light emerged from her antennae. She lifted the Heartshard and said, “At least there’s only—”

But even as she spoke, a second Light-eater emerged. Then, a third. Horror entered her heart as realization dawned. The Heart Crystal was the home of the Light-eaters. It was their very source. Why hadn’t Yridia told her?

Because, perhaps, she hadn’t known. Regardless, it didn’t matter now. Akarra had a problem.

Akarra looked down at the Heartshard in her hands. The container for Yridia’s life essence. She took another step back. If she placed Yridia’s Heartshard back in its respective place, what would happen to her life essence? Until your living essence is not your own. The words of the stela, the threat it bore, became all too clear.

The first Light-eater flowed forward its hideous mouth opening to form words. “Give us our sister, young one, and we will spare your life.”

Akarra froze in utter horror. Their sister! Yridia, a dead Shardshaper, was the Light-eaters’ sister. That meant that the Light-eaters were …

Dead Shardshapers.

No, she thought. It can’t be. She took another step back. That meant all her years of training, all her hard work, had been preparation for the most horrible fate she could imagine: becoming a Light-eater when she died. She turned, about to run only to find one of the Light-eaters sweeping in to block her egress. She was trapped. Trapped in a chamber with three Light-eaters.

No. There had to be a way out.

The riddles.

They must hold the clue!

She glanced back at the stela. The gravity and meaning of the first riddle was all too apparent: to obtain the power of a Shardshaper one must sacrifice one’s living essence. Only a warning, no help there.

The first Light-eater floated forward. Akarra activated the Heartshard and blasted the creature with a beam of pure deathlight. It shrieked and turned away.

“You cannot stop us all,” another hissed. Two more Light-eaters emerged from the Heart Crystal, living shadows of darkness.

Think quickly! Akarra thought. She glanced back at the stela at the second riddle: Five we are in number. Revered by the councils of the wise. The very building blocks of all that is. Designed in defiance of all lies. What could it mean? Five things.

Five things.

From learned affairs. The building blocks … the elements! The five elements. Represented by the five perfect solids, maybe? Designed in defiance of all lies? The opposite of a lie is the truth and … and … the most perfect truths are those found in mathematics. Pattern matching was a sub-discipline of mathematics. So, it is the five perfect solids.

Two of the Light-eaters charged her, hurtling through the air like deadly spears. She dove to the side and rolled—a difficult task for any quartzian, but even more so for one in such dire straits as she! She shot a beam of deathlight at one of the Light-eaters, but missed.

A second later she heard a rumbling from the square-shaped passage that led out.

She clambered back to her feet just as the tunnel started to collapse. Slabs of quartz and shattered glass rained down to choke her exit. There was no running now. What had happened? She glanced at the Heart Crystal. Perhaps she had hit the Heart Crystal with the deathlight and it had scattered it back across the room. Fortunately, it had struck the tunnel and not the roof of the ceiling here or, worse yet, herself.

One of the Light-eaters sank down into the floor where a Lightshard lay buried. Almost immediately, it began to grow dim.

No! Akarra thought. If I lose the light, I’m finished. Frantic now, she glanced back at the stela. If the answer to the second riddle was the five perfect solids, what did that mean? There were only two such perfect solids nearby. The first was the room itself, shaped like a perfect dodecahedron—a twelve-sided figure. The second was the Heart Crystal, shaped like a icosahedron—twenty sides, well, nineteen as this one was missing a face. Missing a face? Did that mean something?

She glanced at the final riddle: The faces of the forms are few in number; their beauty, unparalleled. Of these faces, I am both least and most, a shadow of the complexity I allow. What am I?

Okay, she thought as she backed toward the wall. The Light-eaters swarmed about her. If the forms are a reference to the perfect solids, because they are the most beautiful of all geometric solids and they were also the answer to the previous riddle, then we are talking about the faces of the perfect solids. Tetrahedrons bear triangles; hexahedrons bear squares; octahedrons, triangles; dodecahedrons, pentagons; and icosahedrons, triangles. Least and most? Triangles, she thought, have the least number of sides yet account for the most number of faces.

So, the answer to the second riddle is a triangle, she thought. What does that give me?

Again, two nearby Light-eaters charged her. She dodged to the side; the first Light-eater passed by her, but as she tumbled and rolled, she scrambled to her feet right in front of the second. It swept straight through her. Fortunately, it was going too fast to stop and engage her directly, but it still made contact. She shrieked in agony as the Light-eater dragged a trail of glittering pieces of light—her lifelight—behind it.

She collapsed to the floor, pain seizing all her joints. She was going to die, she knew. There were no two ways about it.

No, I can’t give up, she thought. She struggled to her feet. There is only one triangle of any significance in this room. The empty face on the Heart Crystal where Yridia’s Heartshard is supposed to go.

Turning, she gripped the Heartshard with both her aching hands, lifted it to her chest, and summoned its power. There. The open triangle.

The Heartshard began glowing red, then orange, then yellow. The first Lightshard in the room went out. The other one—all her remaining light—started to grow dim. Three Light-eaters swept toward her, moving in for the kill. Green. Blue. Indigo.

The Light-eaters were upon her. Agony flared through her body. She crumpled to her knees, using all her strength to steady the Heartshard.

Violet. Then … a beam of deathlight flashed from the Heartshard and struck the Heart Crystal in its open void. A resounding crack sounded. The Light-eaters shrieked in unison.

And the Heart Crystal exploded.

 

 

Chapter 9

Akarra awoke to the sound of worried voices. Blearily, she opened her eyes. Every joint ached and her antennae throbbed with deep maroon lifelight and pain. Slowly and carefully, she sat up.

For a moment she didn’t remember where she was or what had happened.

Gathered around her was a collection of … entities. She counted seventeen in total, each a glowing form of shifting, multi-colored light in the vague shape of a quartzian. They stood in a semi-circle around her, their faces showing their worry. As her memory returned, understanding dawned. These were the souls of the fallen Shardshapers who had preceded her: the Shardshapers who had fallen victim to the Heart Crystal and the lure its power had provided. Glancing around, she saw a pile of broken quartz where once the Heart Crystal had been. It wouldn’t hurt anyone else ever again.

She struggled to her feet.

“Careful, Sister,” a disembodied voice said from nearby. She looked up and her eyes met those of one of the glittering forms standing before her. “You received a tremendous blow to the head,” the spirit said.

Akarra lifted a hand to her head; she felt a crack there and sensed the fizzing lifelight that leaked out. She felt fortunate to be a quartzian; quartz was tough stuff. As she moved, she felt woozy, but it only lasted a moment or two. “I’ll be all right,” she said. “Thank you for your concern.”

“No,” the spirit said. “It is we who should be thanking you. You have freed us.”

Akarra glanced from spirit to spirit, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. Not from fear—the spirits did not seem to be malevolent in any way—but from being the focus of so much attention. It was overwhelming. “I freed you?”

“Yes,” another of the spirits said. “Long have we waited to be free. Sister, by destroying the Heart Crystal and the Heartshard you released us. We are forever in your debt.”

“The Heartshard is destroyed, as well?” Akarra asked. Thought of the shard left her feeling strangely naked without it.

“Yes,” a third voice said. “It was linked to the Heart Crystal. When the deathlight struck the Heart Crystal, the Heartshard overloaded and crumbled into dust.”

“I still don’t fully understand,” Akarra said. “What—”

“The Heart Crystal was a parasite,” another voice explained. “It fed on our lifelight; it held us prisoner; and changed us into Light-eaters while it did so. Now that it is gone we are free. And in your debt.”

“Yes,” another voice explained. “I was the first. I found the Heart Crystal in this cave during the Great Crystal Blight many grand cycles ago. It was surrounded by blight, but strangely unaffected by it. I tried to take a piece to examine and that is how it ensnared me—although I did not realize such until much later.”

“Where did the stela come from?” Akarra asked.

“That, I don’t know; it appeared sometime between my bonding and my death. I think it was part of the Heart Crystal organism and part of its curse, but I am not sure.”

Akarra felt a moment of uncertainty. “There is no Heartshard for me?” she said. “What am I to do now?” Her heart sank and her lifelights dimmed. “My whole life has been a preparation for a life path that is no longer open to me. I was meant to be Shardshaper. Now, I am purposeless.”

“Your life path must change,” it was Yridia’s voice. “Sister, you would have made a fine Shardshaper—the best in history—if not for the curse. Now, though, you must use what you have learned to find a new path.

“Go now in peace and love, and return to our people.”

Akarra glanced at the collapsed tunnel. Easier said than done, she thought. Moving over to the nearby pile of rubble she began to dig. It was slow, tiring work. But she was a quartzian; quartzians were strong and hardy. She set to with a fervor, tossing aside broken pieces of quartz, and clearing a pathway for herself.

She’d progressed some fifteen feet when she saw movement ahead of her. Someone was digging toward her.

“Akarra!” Thaygos’ voice was muffled but understandable. “Are you there?”

“I am here,” she called out, suddenly re-energized by the nearness of escape. She had to get out of this accursed hole!

Shortly, they cleared the final pieces of debris from her path and Thaygos stood before her. Suddenly, he lurched toward her and wrapped his arms about her in a warm hug; pink lifelight pulsed in his antennae. It was echoed in her own.

“What happened?” he asked after loosening his embrace, placing both hands on her shoulders, and holding her at a distance as if to study her. His antennae remained glowing.

“I’ll explain later,” she said. “Let’s just get out of here.”

They exited the tunnel and started the return journey home. Along the way, Akarra explained all that she understood of the Heart Crystal, its nature, and the fate she had so narrowly avoided.

“So, the Heart Crystal was …” Thaygos began, looking as if she had just told him up was down.

“An evil parasite,” she completed for him. “And the Light-eaters were the imprisoned souls of former Shardshapers.”

“Unbelievable,” he said. “I never would have imagined it.”

“Me neither,” Akarra said.

He looked at her. His antennae showed different shades of grey: hesitation and doubt. The question he wanted to ask was clear on his face. But he failed to find the words.

She stopped. “I know what you are thinking,” she said. “I am no longer a Shardshaper and I am therefore free of the restrictions that office imposed upon me.”

“Then, you’ll consider …” Thaygos began.

“I’m not sure,” Akarra said, hesitantly. “You have to understand, my whole life I’ve been preparing for my chosen life path. It was difficult and grueling, and it changed me forever. I will not be content to serve as merely an echo to your roar. I have learning and knowledge and skills. I have pride and dignity. Being your lifemate and only your lifemate will not be enough. I cannot let my past be wasted.”

“You do not wish to be my lifemate?” Thaygos asked, the deep maroon of pain dribbling from his antennae.

“I did not say that,” she said.

“Come, then. Join with me, my shinsin,” he said, drawing himself up to his full height. He thrust his chin out and held her with his gaze. “I shall call you Chieftain’s Wife and together we shall rule our people as one. Equals in rank and distinction, from now until our deaths.”

She looked at him warmly. She could not suppress the pink glow that emanated now from her whole body. That’s more like it, she thought, a challenge I can look forward to.

She wrapped an arm around Thaygos’ arm, and together they started the journey home.

 

The End

 

 

Glossary for Prism

 

The importance of light and its various colors are of great importance in this novella. There are two different types of light in this story:

 

Stonelight: is light that is contained in or is generated by quartz crystals or other stones. This includes Lightshards, prisms, and even the Heartshard. The basic spectrum of colors of stonelight is essentially the same as ours, but each color has a different pronounced effect. Additionally, some colors have associated geometrical shapes. All such properties are detailed, as follows:

—White: all colors of light whose properties cancel each other out so that white stonelight does nothing.

—Red: is very hot; associated with the tetrahedron

—Orange: is warm.

—Yellow: is cold; associated with the hexahedron (cube)

—Green: provides nourishment analogous to regular food for humans; associated with the octahedron

—Blue: provides liquid-like nourishment analogous to regular drink for humans; associated with the icosahedron

—Indigo: generates sound; associated with the dodecahedron.

—Violet: euphoric pleasure, like a drug; even causes temporary distortions in quartz

—Deathlight (ultraviolet): invisible, kills quartzians, injures Light-eaters, and shapes physical quartz.

Additional colors are associated with different geometric shapes in numbers too numerous to provide.

 

Lifelight: is light that is contained in or is generated by living beings like quartzians. The basic spectrum of colors of lifelight is essentially the same as ours, but each color has a different pronounced effect and associated emotion, as follows:

—White: all colors of light whose properties cancel each other out so that white lifelight does nothing.

—Red: anger

—Orange: bewilderment

—Yellow: humor

—Green: excitement and curiousity

—Blue: sadness

—Indigo: mild pleasure

—Violet: sensuality and sexuality

—Deathlight (ultraviolet): generally not found as lifelight.

Additional colors are associated with even more emotions and psychological affectations:

——pink: love

——deep maroon: pain

——gold: joy

——grey: doubt

——iron-grey: stern

——purple-grey: deep thought

——purple: concern

——black: fear

——pale green: surprise

——pale green-yellow: contentment, peace

——deep dark green: sleepy

 

Measurements of Time:

--Day: a complete twenty-four hour period spanning twelve hours of daylight (from Lightshards) --and twelve hours of Dimlight.

—Cycle: twelve complete days.

—Great Cycle: three cycles or thirty-six days.

—Grand Cycle: twelve complete Great Cycles or thirty-six cycles or four hundred thirty two days.

 

Miscellaneous:

—quartzflesh: the bodies or physical “flesh”-equivalent for quartzians.

—quartzians: the inhabitants of the Cavern

—quarzings: sluggish worm-like creatures that feed on quartz and grow to a size as large as six feet in length

—yenshi: a root that grows in and around quartz and is often used in weaving; it has many varied uses from clothes to armour to what-have-you.

 

 

About the Author

 

Matthew D. Ryan is a published writer with a background in philosophy, mathematics, and computer science. He lives in upstate New York on the shores of Lake Champlain. He believes he saw the Lake Champlain Monster (a.k.a. Champy) once, and he has a cat named Confucius. Please visit the following web sites for more information on Matthew D. Ryan, his writings, and the world of Athron:

Author’s Shakespir Page: http://www.Shakespir.com/profile/view/matthewdryan

Author’s Book Page: https://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/131156

Author’s Web Site: http://matthewdryan.com

Author’s Twitter Handle: @MatthewDRyan1

Author’s Goodreads Page: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/579148.Matthew_D_Ryan

 

Don’t forget: sign up to receive Matthew D. Ryan’s newsletter and stay apprised of his work.

 

 

Fiction by Matthew D. Ryan

 

From the Ashes of Ruin

Drasmyr (The Prequel)

Book I: The Children of Lubrochius

Book II: The Sceptre of Morgulan

Book III: The Citadel*

 

Short Story Collections

Of Dragons, Love, and Poison

 

Novellas

Prism

 

Non-Fiction by Matthew D. Ryan

Delusions of Grandeur

 

 

  • Coming Soon

 

 

Check out Drasmyr by Matthew D. Ryan at your favorite e-book retailer. It is a full-length novel that serves as the prequel to his exciting fantasy series: From the Ashes of Ruin. As of March 2016, Drasmyr is available for free.

 

Drasmyr

Prologue

 

There’s a woman in chain mail standing across the room from me; her sword is leveled at my chest. I can smell the enchantment on the blade, it’s a strong one; maybe even strong enough to cause me harm. Still, I’m not too concerned; it’s at least a ten-foot lunge and I know I move faster than she does. Indeed, she’s the one who is looking worried. My display of strength and the death of her comrade have shaken her resolve.

She’s got a pretty face, flushed with excitement but strong and in control. It is her neck that really draws me, though, so soft and inviting, filled with the warm blood I desire. The curve of her flesh glistens, waiting for a well-placed gentle kiss.

She’s breathing rapidly now, her breath coming in shallow gasps. Her trek up through the castle has sapped much of her strength. And the fear she feels is naked in her eyes. Now, she’s getting ready to pounce, just a little too much tension in her stance, her eyes just a little too focused. She couldn’t give me more warning if she were to ask my permission first.

She moves in with remarkable speed, her blade striking out like a serpent’s tongue. Even winded, she still manages to cut my cape, then prances away with her back toward the wall, ready for anything. Anything, except me.

I close the distance and with a clean sweep of my hand knock her sword clattering across the room. Stepping forward, I place myself between her and her weapon. What will she do now, I wonder? Oh, the dagger. That’s good. There’s no enchantment on that one. Not much good that, even if she could grip it well in her bloodied hand.

I laugh a little, loud enough so she can hear me, exulting in the terror I see contorting her features. She’s backing toward the door, looking for escape.

I move toward her with the speed of my kind. My hand closes over her wrist and with a quick snap, the bones are shattered and the useless dagger is sent to the floor. Vainly she flails at me with her other hand. Despite the pain in her wrist she is trying to pull free. In desperation, she brings her knee upward in a fierce jab. If I were a man, I’m sure I’d be on the ground right now. Unfortunately for her, I am no longer a man.

Her struggles are growing weaker. Perhaps the pain or the fear is wearing her down. She collapses on the ground. Her helm falls to the floor with a loud metallic clang and her long, golden tresses drape down to shroud her face. Reaching down with a lover’s touch, I cup her chin and raise her eyes to mine. Tears stream down her cheeks, sparkling in the moonlight. She’s really quite beautiful with a face befitting an angel; it is a great irony that she should fall to a devil such as I.

For the first time this evening, I speak. “Well, intruder, did you not know there is a penalty for trespassing in my lair?”

“Please, please, let me go,” she begs. “I’ll never come back, I’ll do anything you want.”

“Then tell me why you are here. Who sent you?”

“We came for the sceptre.” She glances askance at the crumpled ruin that was once her companion.

I nod in the dead man’s direction. “Yes, perhaps you can reach him. Perhaps you can take the wooden stake from his chest and drive it through my heart, thus ridding this pestilent world of my accursed presence … and perhaps I will rip your arm off if you try. Now answer the question, my dear. Who sent you?”

The naked terror in her face highlights her beauty. For a fleeting moment, I am loathe to wreck such a delicate flower. Indeed, it is the irony of her reply that seals my decision.

“It was Arcalian … the mage. Please … I don’t want to die.”

A warm, almost human smile crawls across my lips. “Don’t worry, my dear, you won’t.”

A brief flash of relief evaporates from her face changing into the gruesome horror of realization as I lunge for her throat. My teeth pierce her neck, freeing a flow of warm, sweet blood. As I feed her body goes limp in my arms and her struggles cease.

Time passes.

She is very nearly drained and quite ready. A quick movement of my hand and my left breast is exposed. Another slash and a gentle trickle of rapidly cooling blood is flowing down my chest. I gaze at my victim. Her breath is coming in ragged gasps; a moment more and she will expire. Ever so slowly I pull her to her knees before me. With my hand behind her head I pull her up and force her lips to my breast. She murmurs a weak protest, but her will, as her blood, is all but gone.

I whisper softly in the woman’s ear, “Drink, my love, and the pain and the weariness shall pass from you forever. I know you are thirsty, my love, I know you hunger. I can ease your suffering, your unendurable torments. Drink, and you shall cast off this paltry existence, this mortal shell of such feeble constitution and you shall become as I: strong, immortal, invincible.”

A moment passes before she begins to suck on the wound. I feel the blood flowing from my chest. As time slips away her strength begins to return. The flow from my chest grows stronger and I am forced to restrain her. At long last, she is finished and I lift her in my arms. Several long strides take me to the old bedchamber. She can rest here for the remainder of the evening. It may be several nights before she can hunt on her own, and I have other business to attend to.

 

Arcalian the mage. I had so hoped our dealings would have been more profitable, but it seems the allure of the sceptre proved too strong for him. I should have known better than to grant a wizard mercy. I should have killed him outright when he first turned up snooping around my lair. But no, I listened to that whining old man beg for his life in exchange for what? The promise of young fresh victims? An apprentice here and there plucked from the guild at the appointed times. No one misses the occasional apprentice. Wizards’ apprentices run away or die all the time. Very few survive to become a true mage. It was a brilliant plan: diabolical in every detail, sadistic in every nuance. It impressed even me with the depths of its perversity. Perhaps, after I dispense with Arcalian I can induce another member of his sorcerous guild to go along with a similar plan. After all, my newfound love may need a little practice before she starts hunting on her own. I’ll have to be more careful, though. No one can be allowed even a hint of where my lair is; that is one mistake which will never be repeated. In the mean time, I believe it’s time I paid Arcalian a visit.

A quick glance assures me my love still lies upon the bed as if fast asleep. The room is dark, the windows shuttered with the curtains drawn; the Sun shall not touch her when He rises. Silent as death I move through the chambers and halls of the long abandoned keep. Nothing stirs save the wind outside and the rats dining on my newfound bride’s late companion. Irritated with the mess, I throw his carcass to the courtyard below and look out into the night.

Silgaren, the great moon, hangs in the sky, full and bright. Its smaller companion, Neerie, is not yet visible, although a golden glow limns the clouds far to the southeast. Spread beneath the greater moon, the Forest of Shrouding Mists fills the valley brim to brim. It is an old and ancient woodland whose unnamed horrors have always been sufficient guard to keep my castle safe—that is, until that treacherous wizard sent those assassins into my keep. Arcalian must die, as must all others who know of my existence. I’ll wring his foul neck for names.

I change shape and take to the air. It is a clear, cold night, with no clouds to hinder my vision. Below me, the dark canopy of the forest bears an even darker scar: the trail of the old river and its sister road to town and Arcalian.

Despite my near limitless power, I am cautious about openly wandering in a human city on a clear night. I have had run-ins with them before and I have no wish to draw undue notice. I soar in a long gliding circle to free my mind for concentration.

It takes but a moment.

Then the storm begins to build, drawing in clouds from the distant sea. They roil and churn in the darkening night, reaching forth with long writhing tendrils as if to grasp the town with a shadowy hand. A chilling gust of wind sweeps through the forest trees and the mists boil forth from the valley floor. All told, I spend an hour circling the town while the storm gathers its strength. Then, as the first lightnings begin to flash and the rains begin to fall, I descend on shadowy wings into the heart of Drisdak, the city on the Sea of Sorrows.

The mages guild is easy to find; its rancid stench of magic can be smelled from blocks away. It’s a tall building, made of stone, looking more like a miniature keep than a guild house. Five circular towers loom up from a central stone edifice. I have no doubt that Arcalian can be found in the highest tower in the room of the guild master, undoubtedly basking in the luxuries my services provided.

At the gate of the guild house, two armored men, spears at the ready, stand sheltered in an alcove as the rain begins to pour. I take a moment to consider my options, then wrap my dark cape about myself to hide my current attire. As I approach the guards, their spears lower to bar my way. I could kill them, of course, but that would not help me get inside.

“Oh please, sirs.” My voice takes on a pitiful, pleading tone. “I know it’s past curfew, but I was resolving some important business for my master on the far side of town and I got held up … and then the storm came … Now I’m all soaked-through without the coin to get a room.”

One guard snorts disgustedly. “So what? You know the rules. Spend the night in the gutter for all I care.”

The other man is somewhat more inquisitive. “Business? Who’s your master?”

“Why it’s the guild master Arcalian, sir.”

They exchange glances, and the first guard snorts again. “You, you’re always looking for favors, you make me sick.”

The second guard smiles. “Of course, my friend, we’ll be happy to let you in. Ignore my rude comrade here, I’ll let you in the gate myself. Just remember ol’ Peredrin, and I’ll be happy to help you anytime.” Not a noble invitation, but it will appease the ancient stricture.

The guard pulls out a key and unlocks the gate. Within moments I am inside a dry hall lit by an oil lamp hanging on the wall. If the guards were truly observant, they might notice that I cast no shadow. But guards being guards, they notice not. As they start to swing the gate shut, I turn and face them.

“Guards …” I say.

The first guard, looking perturbed, does not reply, but the second brightens immediately. “Yes, my friend …” he answers.

Their minds are weak, and the compulsion is easy. “You will not remember me.”

A glazed look comes into their eyes as I retreat down the hall. In moments, I have vanished from their sight and the first guard shakes his head. “Peredrin! Are you daft, man? Close that blasted gate.”

Peredrin’s reply is muffled by the clanging sound of iron slamming into stone. From the shadows, I smile. “Have a nice night, gentlemen.”

Turning, I proceed down the hall. After a few moments in solitude I encounter a young apprentice doing some of his own late night wanderings. He manages a quick glance in my direction, then tries to hurry past. I grab his arm.

“Do you know the way to Arcalian’s chamber?”

“Uh … yes.”

“Good. You will take me to him at once. Take the shortest route and waste no time. And when I take my leave of you, you shall have no memory of ever having seen me. Is that understood?”

His voice comes out soft, airy, almost lifeless. “Yes.”

We make rapid progress through the quiet halls until at last we reach a winding staircase. “Arcalian’s chamber is on the highest floor,” the apprentice says, pointing. Having no further need for him, I send him on his way and start climbing the stairs. They end in a large oak door smelling faintly of magic, guarded by a lone man in chain armor, long sword at his side. He bars my way with hand on hilt.

“Master Arcalian is not to be disturbed.”

Annoyed, I kill him.

I move to sniff the door. Yes, there is a ward, but it is far too weak to affect me. Arcalian is not the mage the former guild master was. In a playful mood, I knock on the time-worn wood. There is no reply. I knock again.

Finally, Arcalian’s voice answers. “Guard, I told you I was not to be disturbed. Guard …”

I hear a second voice, muffled by the door, but still loud enough for my ears to discern. “Perhaps, the guard is asleep or indisposed.”

“Then we shall find a new guard. Answer the door and get rid of whoever it is, Aristoceles … and then find that guard.”

Footsteps approach the door from the far side. “Sir, didn’t you put a ward on the door?”

“Yes, but it was just to ward off common thieves and such—it would have no effect on any of the higher mages—now open the door!”

“Perhaps a stronger ward may be warranted. Talamarius always preferred the ward of concealment to hide his private study.”

“I am not Talamarius, nor do I have any wish to seclude myself to the extent that even the council cannot reach me if the need arises. Now, for the last time Aristoceles, open the door!”

“As you wish, sir.”

The door swings inward. A grey haired man in pale yellow robes stands in the doorway, one hand on the handle, the other on the doorframe. “The master wishes not to be distur—”

Stepping forward with hands extended, I snap the man’s neck with a violent twist, then turn toward Arcalian. “Greetings, wizard.” The body drops to the floor.

With a startled yelp, Arcalian leaps back from his desk. “Lucian, you’re ali—”

“My dear friend, I have not been alive for a thousand years. You of all people should be aware of that.” I step slowly and deliberately past the robed man’s body.

With obvious effort, Arcalian regains his composure. He sinks slowly back into his chair and rests his elbows on the oak desk, his hands folded beneath his chin. The tome splayed out before him is thick and leather-bound. The oil lamp flickers in a draft and the mage’s shadow dances across the wall. “You have killed Aristoceles.”

My hand motions to the doorway. “And your guard. Their deaths amused me.”

“The guard will be easy to replace, but Aristoceles may prove more difficult.”

“Oh really, why is that? He didn’t smell particularly strong.” I fold my arms across my chest; there is no rush to kill this man. Indeed, it is enjoyable watching his discomfort grow. “What use was he to you?”

The wizard makes an explanatory gesture with his left hand. “Very little in the magical sense, he was always more interested in philosophy than the true arts of sorcery. But he was naive enough to be considerably loyal to me, and he had a knack for many things others might find difficult.”

I glance down at the crumpled body. “Philosophy? If I had known, I could have made him immortal. Many a lonely night have I spent pondering the mysteries of the universe. It might prove amusing to have someone who thinks he is learned in such affairs to talk to. Could you imagine, though, an immortal vampire wandering the world spending half his time drinking blood and the other half trying to justify his existence as a murderer of men? I’m sure the emotional turmoil would be agonizing, far more so than any caused by any one of his ridiculous paradoxes, be it on place, motion, or the meaning of time.”

“Lucian, my friend,” Arcalian says, leaning back in his chair, “you always seem to amaze me with your knowledge of things both common and obscure. Are you truly as well-read as you seem?” He masks his fear well, but the smell of magic has a new companion, the odor of human sweat. A lonely bead of perspiration dripping from the wizard’s brow betrays the man’s true feelings.

“A thousand years leaves one ample time to read.”

“I suppose it does. I am curious, however. Something you suggested intrigues me. If you were to change my friend into a vampire—”

“It is too late. He is dead and I didn’t even bite him.”

“Yes, but if he were to become a vampire would he retain that much of his original identity? Would he still be a philosopher in mind, yet a vampire in body?”

“I’m not really sure. It’s been so long since I was mortal, I truly don’t remember.”

“It’s a shame that you killed him so quickly, perhaps if you had been more patient.”

This discussion is growing tedious. It will be best if I end it. “It doesn’t matter, I can always find another philosopher if I become overly curious. Perhaps even a mage.”

Arcalian’s lips thin and his complexion pales. Nevertheless, he still tries to continue the charade. “A mage? What an interesting idea. Imagine, a vampire with the power of magic at his beck and call …”

“Don’t worry. It won’t be you. I intend to kill you outright. I don’t like you enough to give you that much power. The woman you sent to destroy me, though, she, I intend to keep.”

Arcalian looks at me with a forcibly puzzled expression on his face. There is a hint of panic in his eyes. “The woman I sent… I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean.”

“Come now, don’t you remember? She had blond hair, blue eyes, and a magical sword capable of severing my head. And I mustn’t forget her companion—the small dark-haired fellow with the wooden stakes—awfully handy to have around when you’re hunting vampires. They almost succeeded too, but tragically, they were running just a little late. Imagine my surprise this evening when I awoke to the grating sound of my own coffin being opened. Well, the rogue now wears his favorite stake, and the woman … she is now my bride! Do you remember now?”

“You are mistaken. I … have no knowledge of these … things.” He makes a furtive glance toward the wand lying beside the book on his desk, within easy reach if I moved as slowly as a mortal.

“Mistaken? I think not. ‘Lucian, you’re alive!’ Your performance at my entrance has already convicted you of your crime.” I place both my hands on his desk and lean toward him, snarling. “And with no court at hand, I am forced to pass judgment myself.” I straighten, locking my eyes with his.

With human slowness, he makes a lunge for his wand. I too lunge, hurling his desk aside like a desiccated leaf in the autumn wind. My left hand clasps his right and twists it back almost to the point of breaking but not quite, not yet. He gasps in pain and a bolt of energy unleashed from the wand goes awry to reduce a far bookshelf to a smoking ruin.

“Before I send you to the grave, old friend, I need to know one thing. Who else amongst your scholarly kindred have you told of my existence? Answer me!” I apply a trace more pressure to his wrist, grinding the bones together with excruciating force.

His face contorts in pain, yet he still manages to work defiance into his glare. “I’d rather swallow my own tongue.”

“I had so hoped it wouldn’t end like this,” I whisper gently in his ear. With a sudden twist I snap his forearm and crush his wrist, eliciting a scream of pain echoed by a lightning flash at the window. Ever so gently, I wrap the fingers of my right hand around his throat.

His eyes glow with hatred. “Burn in Hell, you undead bastard.” Shrieking, he thrusts his other hand toward my face, a hand which bursts into flame as it touches my skin.

The pain … The little mortal hurt me. He hurt me. I shove him away and step back. My vision in one eye is gone and my face is wracked with agony. I see him there, leaning against the toppled wreckage of his desk, panting. His left hand is wreathed with fire and a silver ring on his finger pulses with a liquid light.

“Not as easy as you thought, am I, Lucian.” He has an evil, almost confident look in his eye. A small gesture from his left hand and the flames sprout into a sword of fire.

I finger my left eye and the side of my face; it is quite numb now. I return my attention to the wizard and his sword. “Your late master gave me worse.”

“Talamarius? He was a knave. I could have taken him myself. I didn’t need you. I don’t need you.”

He lunges forward swinging his sword in a wide arc. With my right hand I catch his wrist, with my left I grasp his throat.

“You haven’t … won … yet,” he says, gasping.

The five fingers of his left hand open wide. The sword of fire melts into a wave of flames rolling across my arm, coursing toward my shoulder. Agony erupts along my body and with a howl I lunge, sinking my teeth deep into his neck. Still he struggles on, scourging my arm with his unearthly fire. But though the pain is great, my probing teeth have found an artery and I know his time is short. In violent spurts his lifeblood gushes from him, smearing my face and shirt and running in warm rivulets down my throat. Within moments, the flame dies down. The pain, however, remains; it is much slower in the ebbing.

For nearly half an hour I remain there, feeding. When his white body finally sags to the floor, my vision is beginning to return.

“Well, Arcalian.” I say, studying his corpse. “It was almost a battle, but I will not honor you by calling you adversary. No, I will treat you as you deserve; my ravens are always hungry, and I’m sure you’ll make a fine repast.”

Minutes later, I am leaning out the window clutching Arcalian’s body with one hand. My gaze lingers in the center of the room where a conflagration is beginning amidst a pile of broken furniture and broken bodies. The scent of old magics mingles sickeningly with the scent of burning flesh. With one last parting smile and a leap into the night, I scurry across the roof of the guild house dragging the old wizard’s body in the rain. With his corpse in tow, it may take several hours to reach my castle, but Silgaren is only an hour past its zenith. I have time.

 


Prism

The Cavern. A Place of Myth, Magic, and Mystery: In a world of fantasy, a place of enchanted quartz crystals and sinister beings of shadow, live a magical people as strong and hearty as the crystalline rocks from which they have been fashioned: they are the Quartzians: A people secluded, distrustful of outsiders yet noble of spirit and magnanimous of heart. Noble Akarra is Apprentice Shardshaper and Maker of Prisms: Can She Master the Magic of the Mythical Heartshard? The young apprentice Shardshaper, Akarra, seeks to control the mythical Heartshard—a fragment of a greater crystal known as the Heart Crystal--and its magic. With the mythical prism in hand, Akarra can shape and bend light, and through that alter the shape of the many quartz crystals that surround her—it is a powerful magic indeed. But will that be enough to see her through her Heartquest? For it is a journey of great peril, a fantasy quest which will change her, shape her, and force her to choose between her destiny as Shardshaper and the he-quartz she loves: the Chieftain’s Son, Thaygos. Find out more now. Download Prism the latest fantasy fiction by Matthew D. Ryan.

  • ISBN: 9781370254217
  • Author: Matthew D. Ryan
  • Published: 2017-01-01 19:20:11
  • Words: 23901
Prism Prism