Chapter 25: DIAMOND DUST
Climbing out of the Knucker hole was no easy task. Sloley’s nose led them to an opening in one of the tunnels. The light from the crevice streamed out into the darkness like a message from the heavens, follow me and you will be saved. Though spacious enough to crawl through initially, the gap narrowed rapidly as they climbed until Linden struggled to continue. However, as the tunnel steepened he was able to use his bulk and strength to push his way up to the surface. Once out he let down the rope and effortlessly pulled the others up to join him.
The sun had all but set. A smudge of amber on the horizon the only indication of its passing. The temperature had dropped markedly. Rose did not feel the effects of the cold, but the others gathered their cloaks tightly around themselves, blowing into cupped hands and vigorously stamping their feet.
As she watched them, Rose stepped up onto a small rise. The freezing wind whipped at her cloak, and it billowed out behind her caressing her quivering mantle of silver-white hair.
“I’m going to call the Fae,” she said, peering ahead into the snowy tundra.
The soft white snow of the open tundra had shifted, dimming into a kaleidoscope of infinite grey hues.
“We need the diamond dust, and though you are the Alchemist Lee, I think it would be wise if I collected it alone,” Rose knew the Fae did not care for Bloods, and who could blame them, had it not been a Blood that had damned them to eternal purgatory.
Lee nodded, without speaking, though she wondered if this affirmation was merely an exaggeration of his violent shivering. Lee withdrew a trembling hand from the warmth of his cloak and handed Rose the flask of Knucker spew.
“Hey there buddy,” said Ash with a grin, “no need to be so anxious, I’ll protect you.”
Lee drew his arm back inside his cloak, wrapping it tightly around his body.
“I need to get warm, I am literally freezing,” his voice was shaking almost as much the rest of his body.
“Really,” said Ash, quirking an eyebrow, “literally?”
Rose pointed to a circle of large boulders a few hundred yards away.
“There,” she said, “the pillars should give us some shelter from the wind. Heat up one of the rocks, and we’ll camp there for the night. I’ll join you when I’m done.”
“Rose, you’re not meeting the Fae alone?” said Ash.
“They did me no harm earlier Ash and they won’t now either. I’ll be okay,” Rose felt a strange fluttering in her chest as she caught his look of concern and she found herself paying unusually close attention to his expression.
“…and you are confident of that because?” His voice wavered slightly, his eyes avoiding her gaze.
She found herself smiling.
“I just am…” she murmured, “I promise you have nothing to fear. I must do this alone Ash.”
She placed a hand lightly on his arm before leaving him to climb to the summit of the small knoll about a hundred feet above the Knucker hole.
Rose struggled more with each step, the deep snow clawing at her robes as she walked. She felt Ash’s eyes on her for a long while, until she was swallowed up by the descending greyness. Suddenly Rose felt very alone.
When she reached the summit, looking out over the broad expanse of tundra, Rose could make out little but sporadic patches of grey and white shrouded in shadow. Raising her arms, like a delicately carved figurehead at the bow of a ship, she leant forward against the wind, her silver hair streaming out behind.
“I call on you, my kith and kin,” Rose shouted the words, but they were taken instantly by the wind, “I beseech you, my family, to come to me, come here to me now…”
The wind whistled about her, stifling her words and scattering their vestiges across the tundra. She felt dejected. How can they possibly hear me, they could be hundreds of miles away by now. Cupping her hands around her mouth, she called out once more, and again. Then, as suddenly as before, the scent of snow roses filled her senses as she watched the glistening white cloud approaching through the darkness. Like one enormous entity, it billowed forward, travelling rapidly and against the direction of the wind.
Then Gydion was before her, ahead of the bank of swirling mist, hovering a few feet above the snow, in all his ethereal majesty.
“Rose of the Whyte,” his words were crystal, chiming in the air, impervious to the winds attempt to carry them off. “I did not expect to hear from you so soon my friends. What can we do for you?”
Rose waivered, she would never get used to being addressed as an assemblage. To Rose, the four souls she carried were indistinguishable from herself. They were one. Not to Gydion, it would seem.
“Gydion, we apologise for disturbing you my friend,” said Rose, thinking that it could do little harm to humour him, “but I… we, need to acquire some diamond dust, and we believe you may be able to provide us with some.”
“Indeed,” he said, “have you an appropriate substrate in which to store it?”
Rose held out the flask.
“Knucker’s spew?” he asked, “I am encouraged to see that you have retained your audacity and your expertise, my friends. In which case…”
Gydion waved a bony hand towards the curling white cloud, his tattered sleeve flailing in the air as he let out a piercing wail, the shrill sound making her ears buzz and pop. Wincing, Rose pressed her palms hard against them.
The haze responded immediately. It billowed out towards them until it drew close enough for Rose to see the ocean of wraithlike faces gazing out. Hundreds of ghostly, broken souls soaring and diving within the glittering mist like a brood of jellyfish buoyed along on a star spangled sea. Then the fog engulfed them and an all-consuming sense of dread descended on her, ‘if they pass through you, they freeze you solid’.
The miasma swirled around her, suffocating her with its intoxicating fragrance, the shrill howling of its quickening, turbulent current deafening her ears. Thousands of glittering particles stung her face, catching in her hair and frosting her lashes. Her head swam, as with each icy breath she sucked the frosted dust deeper into her lungs until she could inhale no more.
Sounds faded to a distant hum. She felt no pain, no fear, nothing but the isolation of eternal purgatory. Whatever we may like to think, ultimately, we are all on our own.
Staring at the shimmering aura with unblinking eyes, Rose became mesmerised by the rhythmic eddying of the icy crystals as they floated around her. Beautiful... her last thought, as consciousness finally escaped her and her lids fluttered closed.
Frosted lashes, expanding like blossoming feathers, tickled her skin, awakening her senses. A window opened, and the world burst upon her once more. Sensations flooded back, each wave pushing her, invigorating her; wake up, shouted the blast of icy cold, wake up, the maelstrom whistled all around her, arise with me, beckoned the scent of white roses.
Forcing open her eyes, Rose willed them to focus; to look past the mist and into the faces of the Fae. They were all around her, soaring above her, crowding in. Rose saw her terror reflected in their glassy eyes. She sensed something; rage, envy, love, hate… sorrow? The intense aura of conflicting emotions unnerved her, but she could not afford to be distracted from her purpose.
Uncapping the flask of spew Rose drew the mouth of the jar through the air, capturing millions of glistening particles. She secured the bung, slipping the phial into her occultus; her hands trembled as she fastened the straps.
The heavily scented miasma grew denser, as the Fae drew ever closer, their cold breath on her skin. Her heart fluttered like a caged bird. Where are you when I need you?
They were with her almost instantly, their words bursting from her like birdsong, the unfamiliar sounds uttered instinctively, without memory or thought.
“We are Rose the Whyte,” a choir of voices rang out into the whistling, swirling mist. “We are Ruzha, Ogin, Sevti and Eldwyn and we remember you. We remember you Myza, Lilith, Ocra, Levin and Sergin. We remember you Beni, Glynith, Sami… Phedra… We remember you, and we know well the evil that brought you here. We return to settle the great debt that is owed to you. Time will come when together we will take back our lands, rid our world of Djinn and restore sovereignty to the Afterlands. Until then, we ask for your patience, and your allegiance. Rhodium is our land, we will return to take our place once more in this world, and our spirits will be restored.”
Gaunt faces closed in on her, barely a breath away, their vacant eyes burning into her. Rose could not find her breath. If they stretched out their fingers, they could finish me now.
The wailing maelstrom intensified, whirling around her, twisting her cloak around her body, wrapping her so tightly that she could barely move.
One by one the figures twirled, rising above her like cinders, ragged wafers of charred paper buoyed along on the current. As the cloud lifted and moved away, their wailing cries grew indistinct.
’When you call us, we will come…”
A thousand years ago, they had believed that the four great wizards of Rhodium would protect them. Eldwyn had let them down. Where do they find the faith to trust again?
“This time, it will be different,” she whispered.
“That is indeed good to hear,” Gydion’s eyes creased as Rose flinched, startled at his presence. “However, you are small in number, and you have not yet unified the incantatio. We are with you, my friends but take care not to promise again, something that you are unable to deliver. Our memories are long and our vengeance legendary. You believe that we need you to win back this land for us. We do not. The Fae rule here now, there are no Whytes, but for you of course.”
“There are more of us than you are aware Gydion,” said Rose, “you may be surprised when you see them for yourself. We have formed an allegiance with the Twocasts of the Ebony Forest. Many have at least one Whyte ancestor, and I do not doubt that these people are our kin. They are led by Elder, an extremely powerful Witch. She is the child of two Whyte ascendants.”
“Ruzha and Sevti’s child survives?” Gydion’s black eyes were like bottomless pits.
“Ruzha and Sevti’s child?” Rose gasped at the enormity of this revelation.
“I see you were unaware of this,” said Gydion. “That a child such as this should survive for over a thousand years... You understand what this means Rose?”
Rose knew exactly what it meant; Elder was her family, and not only because she was a Whyte. No, they were related in the much more fundamental sense of the word. Now Rose understood why, from the first time she had set eyes on Elder, she had felt a connection to the woman.
“Rose, you share the same spirit vapour,” Gydion spoke slowly, his words stilted as if talking to a child. “Inside this woman fractions of Ruzha and Sevti’s essence live on. It is the source of her magical ability and her longevity. How powerful is Elder’s magic?”
“Considerable, from what I have seen,” said Rose, “why do you ask?”
“Do you know the fate that generally befalls the children of two Ascendants Rose?”
Rose shook her head. Something twisted in her stomach.
“That… that’s barbaric!” Rose’s hand flew to her mouth.
“It was thought to be the only way to preserve the potens,” said Gydion, “Fractioned vapours are released, allowing them to flow back to their rightful Ascendant. This prevents dilution and maintains the integrity of the potens for future ascents,” he hesitated. “The power of an Ascendant is compromised by the presence of living offspring. Terribly compromised... any Ascendant Rose.”
He can’t mean... Rose’s eyes brimmed with tears as she levelled them squarely at Gydion. “What exactly are you trying to tell me Gydion?”
Vacant eyes skirted the ground before returning to confront Rose’s narrowed glare.
“Rose, it is my duty to tell you that you will not possess the power required to cast the incantatio unless the Elder Witch’s reign comes to a very abrupt end.”
Rose, haunted by Gydion’s words, slept little that night. Now, as they trudged northwards along the shores of Knucker Bay and towards the Frozen Falls, her thoughts remained in turmoil. Could killing one person to save the lives of millions of innocents ever be justified? Even if it could, am I really capable of taking the life of my friend, my family, part of my very soul?
They all walked in silence, the others quickly noticing her mood as Rose set off at a pace that actively discouraged conversation. The majority of the group lagged way behind her now, and even Ash struggled to keep up.
She tugged her mind from its chaotic quandary, choosing to focus her attention on the rhythmic crunch of their boots on the snow, which was bizarrely comforting though the relief was only temporary. A seabird screeched as it soared above her, climbing high into the sapphire sky and piercing her concentration, allowing her thoughts to flood back in once more, like a tsunami of pain.
Pausing, Rose closed her eyes, drawing in a long breath. The moist air tasted of salt and seaweed. It dried on her skin, leaving a fine powdery residue.
“You okay?” Ash cupped her elbow in his hand.
“No, I’m not okay,” The words were spoken so softly that she had not expected him to hear them.
She watched his angular features cloud in concern. His cheeks were crimson splotches, whipped by the brisk sea breeze. His eyebrows and the edges of his chestnut hair glistened white with salt and frost. The effect was comical, and despite her melancholy, Rose could not prevent her lips from lifting.
“You look like a Twocast,” she said, her grin widening, “by the time we get to Isingwilde your hair will be as white as mine.”
“Don’t change the subject, Rose,” Ash cast a glance back to the others who were quickly gaining on them. “You’ve been acting strange ever since you came back from your meeting with the Fae. What did Gydion say to you, has someone died? Did they say something about Vega and the others, or Aureus? Is it Lord Dux?”
“Ash, if I knew anything like that do you really think I’d keep that from you?”
“No… I’m sorry, of course not,” Ash squirmed, “but I know you… it’s something awful isn’t it?”
“I don’t want…” Rose hesitated as Linden and the others approached them. “I can’t talk about it now Ash and to be honest, I’m not sure that I’ll ever be able to discuss it. Please don’t press me on this.”
“Alright Rose,” his voice dropped to a whisper, “but remember, the tree that stands alone is destroyed by the storm while those in the forest grow taller.”
“Ash? That’s from Ka’s Unification.” Rose could not keep the note of surprise from her voice. “Have you been reading Auriel’s books?”
“No, of course not,” Ash flushed. “Dux made us all read it before we left, although I only got about half way through. It’s really long and incredibly dull, but there are one or two quotes of his that just seem to cut right to it, you know what I mean?”
“Yes, I do,” Rose knew exactly what he meant. Despite much of the bigoted rhetoric that was said to originate from Lord Ka, The Unification unveiled many truths that cried out to be told, and much of the prose was remarkably moving. If only his motivations had been as pure as many of his words. If he had not ultimately been driven more by the pursuit of power, maybe they would be fighting on the same side.”
“You heard it too then?” Linden approached them with his hand outstretched, gesturing beyond them to the North. “We must be getting close to the falls.” He met their questioning looks with a wry smile. “Whatever you two were talking about must have been riveting, if you failed to hear that.”
Having grown accustomed to the rhythmical pounding of the ocean as they journeyed along the shoreline, Rose hadn’t noticed the distant hissing rumble. The alternating hiss of the ebbing and flowing waves had been replaced by a constant, pounding roar.
“I thought that the Frozen Falls were…well… frozen,” Said Ash, “so how come they’re making so much noise?”
“They’re only completely frozen in the winter,” said Auriel, breathlessly as she took the last few steps towards them up the incline. “In the spring, the central channel thaws but the majority of the falls stay frozen right the way through summer.”
“How big are they?” asked Ash.
“About five hundred feet wide and two hundred high, the source of the water is the glacier way up in the centre of the Ice Mountains,” Auriel said, expertly extracting the relevant information from the collection of encyclopaedias that was her memory.
“Jeez,” Ash scratched his head, dislodging some of the snow that had collected in his hair as he did so. He let out a shrill whistle through clenched teeth. “You know how much I hate reading Auriel, but I have to admit, you Memorix do get to learn about some fascinating stuff.”
“Maybe you should take it up,” said Lee, “Remember what Lady Tesler said, words are more powerful even than magic.”
“Yeah, well when faced with a Djinn, I know which I’d rather rely on,” Ash scoffed, “I doubt that words would be of much use then.”
“The power of words is constantly underestimated,” Auriel raised her chin, her jaw tightening. The merest hint of a frown creased her brow, “with words you can injure or heal, create or destroy. Words justify our existence and define our character. Even magic is useless without words.”
“Don’t be too hard on Ash,” Rose put out her hand to assist Auriel to the summit of the slippery incline. “I don’t think he’s grasped the synergy of the cell system yet.”
“Synergy?” Ash raised a brow.
“We are Ascendants,” said Lee, “we ascend four to a cell each one of us possessing a key magical potens. Yet we each have the capability to utilise all of those potens, but whenever we act together, our powers are magnified many times. We are more than the sum of our individual potens.”
“I, for one, do not believe that this design is by chance,” said Rose, “because it means that none of us is indispensable.”
“Except, our cell is unlike any other,” said Ash, “because you are not dispensable Rose. Without you we cannot function, without you, we would not be here. We would have ascended with four of our own cast like every other Ascendant throughout history.”
“That may, or may not be the case.” Rose shrugged her shoulders, “I remain to be convinced of my own worth above anyone else, but either way, discussing it gets us nowhere and we need to arrive at the falls before dark.”
Turning, Rose strode away without looking back.
Ash and Auriel exchanged a glance.
“I know,” said Ash, “there’s something wrong isn’t there?”