My mother named me Beryn when I was born. I never learned her name because she disappeared before I learned how to speak, and nobody else remembered it. The Synterra Corporation knew her as Citizen-KL #4765347211.
The teachers at school used confusing words and illustrations to teach me about the virus that had ultimately caused her death. They said that it made our own bodies attack themselves because our people were ‘genetically deficient.’ Hundreds of infected workers died every day because of the disease. We had been quarantined deep beneath the surface of our planet, Kāla for generations - mining crystals for Synterra in exchange for food and medical services. Escape from the colony meant exposing our lethal contagion to the outer world and so was punishable by death. The alternative wasn’t much better.
My mother had lived until the end of what we miners considered to be a long life. She was seventeen years old when she was committed, seizing and screaming into the emergency containment ward. Nobody ever came back from there.
I grew up in a village called Midfield, which was a small row of tenements along the rim of a wide fissure. The people of my village gathered for a memorial in the town square every night. One of the cops would have us stand in a circle and chant prayers in a strange language. It was a dull, forced effort to bring some dignity to the victims who had died that day. I always mouthed the verses silently because I didn’t understand them, and I don’t play around with words.
Words are powerful.
Words have spread love and change and growth between the people of my world...but they have also wrought extreme devastation. We learned very few words in school, which made it difficult for any miner to explain what it was that felt so inherently wrong about our situation. I made a habit of eavesdropping on nearby cops to broaden my vocabulary and learned a few things in the process.
The mines had been colonized by Synterra, and marketed to the free people of Skye as a ’vibrant sub-terran co-operative′. Most of the workers knew that we had been essentially bred, due to the complete absence of parents. It was no secret that Synterra motivated breeding miners with safer assignments and housing, which were the only relevant incentives they could offer. Most people in the husbandry program died long before their children matured, so our parents were always eventually replaced by Synterra’s enforcers, the cops.
The cops wore insulated body suits with thin copper bands coiled around each of their forearms (which is why we called them cops). The coils were electrified by Synterra’s PXL engine, a thin metallic battery-backpack capable of discharging lethal voltages. Cops weren’t shy about showing it off, but you don’t have to prod broken miners. They started training us for our lives of strict obedience before we could even walk.
Cops in Midfield used a quiet, subtle device to control us..
Everything was regimented; food, school, work, memorial, sleep. If I had known what we were being fed, I would have rebelled...and probably failed. There was a lot about life that I didn’t understand, but ignorance has a seductive way of feeding on despair and I was not immune.
Out of desperation, I sought to become the most fearless worker in the Quaratz Mines. I had no desire to breed, so survival for me meant learning how to climb quickly. The cops saw and applauded my talents often, but that had never been my goal. I wanted to entertain my fellow miners during our short lives, and it was through one of them that I received a rare and powerful gift…understanding.
There was only one worker in our town who had been around longer than me when I turned nineteen. A woman named Iz. She had been taken out of the mines after many years and was currently assigned to work in the maternity district. She was a tall, mysterious woman with bright blue eyes that squinted in a delicate, fierce focus whenever she spoke.
Iz would tell stories to the younger miners before curfew and I always listened in, trying to rebuild the scenes in my head like I had when I was little. It was harder now. She told stories that older miners had told her as a girl...stories about strange creatures, hidden tunnels or what life on the surface might be like. Most of it was fiction, and I suspect that some of them were invented entirely by Iz herself. The tales would sometimes blend together, or the sequence of events would change... but one story was always the same. It felt more true to me than any other story she told because the details never shifted. Iz would tell that story in a different, slower voice and it always stirred me to the core...electrifying my imagination as I laid sleepless in bed at night. She called it The Seventh Stone, and this is my best recollection of it,
Long ago, the great Crystal, Vylda sprang roots and bore the Tree of Life into being. Vylda’s energy was borrowed from the stars and flowed freely through the Tree, creating a shield of glimmering auroras that enveloped the Two. This brilliant shield was a beacon to the many wild creatures who wandered the cosmos and became known as the Evenstar. Chaos reigned in the infinite space beyond this great light, but Vylda’s dominion was governed by seven forces that allowed for growth, beauty and balance.
One day, seven spirits known as the Gaians flew into the Evenstar and visited the Tree, taking the form of mighty Dragons as they passed through the auroral veil. They dwelt beneath Her branches for many ages and lived blissfully in the richness of Her realm. They spent their days gliding above the mountains, gardens and mighty fields that encircled the trunk and at night, they crawled through the maze of tunnels that wound about the roots below. It was there that the seven dragons discovered the Crystal in a spherical jade pool, wrapped in an elegant lattice of pearly roots. Vylda and the Tree loved the dragons deeply and so they offered each of the Gaian Sisters a shard from Their Crystal as a covenant between them. The sisters were sworn to embody the seven forces, and share Vylda’s secret of balance throughout the universe. The shards, in exchange would always reward the efforts of their bearer by fostering great elemental powers within them.
Six dragons returned from the Evenstar to the surrounding vacuum of space beyond. The clear shards they carried developed into deep colorful tones as they traversed the auroras. Kāla became keeper of the red crystal and Vælia keeps the violet. Nalya and Tulíra hold the indigo and orange, respectively. Ylíva keeps the yellow shard and Luka the blue. The Seventh dragon, Eliya remained within the Evenstar at the request of Vylda and the Tree of Life, her crystal turned to emerald when the others departed. These seven dragons used their mighty gifts to build worlds, planets unto themselves. They breathed clear fire and connected their seven worlds with air and clouds so that they would never become lost to one another. Their creation of my realm, Skye brought new vitality to the seven eternal forces which like the planets, are paired. Lava and Gravity, River and Ivy, Nova and Wave. The seventh force, Vortex is singular because it represents the complementary nature of all energy.
Over time, small gems chipped off of the massive shards and were scattered deep beneath the mountains of the planets. Rumors suggested that if one were to obtain a fragment from each of the seven shards, a magic door to the Tree’s home would appear and allow the bearer to enter Vylda’s domain. The six outer stones could be found by traveling to their respective planets, but the story says that the seventh stone is forged from within our heart through the trials of our life.
I called out to Kāla from deep in the mines whenever I was out of the cops’ hearing range. I don’t know what I was expecting, but She never responded. I thought Her silence was proof of Her disdain for me. I could ignore the resulting despair at work during the day, but at night it would sometimes keep me awake until the rising bell despite my body’s complete exhaustion. I cried a lot, frustrated by my inability to sleep and the increasingly apparent meaninglessness of my life. It was during one of those sleepless nights that I begged quietly for a purpose beyond the mines and an intensely lucid idea came into my mind. It was less like an answer and more like reassurance - encouraging me to move forward because I had been protected for a long time, and now had everything I needed. A sudden new awareness blossomed within me of the gentle guidance I had received throughout my entire life, and the mysterious woman who had shared it with me freely.
I left immediately, descending the cliff above her quarters to find Iz awake and smoking out of her open window. She noticed me quietly and beckoned with her eyes. I approached, sitting on the sill as we enjoyed the chasm’s relative silence. She exhaled a lengthy plume of fragrant vapor and spoke,
“What can I do for you, my dear?” she asked.
“I want to find the stones,” I said after some consideration.
Iz stepped inside and walked to a small desk by her bed where a white wooden box lay. She picked it up delicately and turned to face me as I stepped in from the window.
“This treasure is a powerful device once owned by a...protector of this world. It was crafted by an ancestor of our resident healer, Orla. She may be able to give you some instruction on its use,” Iz gazed at me.
I opened my mouth to thank her but before I could speak she caught my eyes and bowed deeply toward me, gesturing with the box. I bowed in return and exited stealthily, clutching my gift as I crept out of her window and back up the cliff to my room.
Excitement pulsed through me as I sat with the bright, rectangular box in my lap. The only irregularities in its glossy, unvarnished surface were the two tiny notches on one of the box’s narrow ends that signified its two hinged stoppers that held the thin wooden cover in place. A silver emblem was inlaid on the lid, it was an inwardly curved rectangle overlain by an inverted triangle. I unlatched the hinges and slid the top away to reveal an elegant silver bracelet. Three spiraling loops bore the form of a dragon with six colorful pearls along its mid-line. Violet, indigo, blue, gold, orange and a pale, fractured red one at the base of its tail.
I put it on immediately and fell asleep with a smile that my face had not known before.
My dreams were vivid that night. I saw my fellow miners dressed in beautiful robes as they greeted and reassured me. They were a hundred feet tall...or I was one inch tall. A beautiful woman sat upon an over-sized picture frame, smoking a long cigarette. She stepped out and walked toward me, but I was startled back into the dim reality of the mines by a wild shriek and an ensuing bellow of wind that blew my door wide open.
Alarms sounded in the distant villages before they reached Midfield, signalling a rare evacuation from the peripheral mines. Cops swarmed past my door on hover-bikes, corralling people toward the transport barges. A river of people flowed through the alleys along the tenements. I used them for cover and crept stealthily upstream into a narrow crevasse that led to the wharf by way of a narrow lava tube. I pulled the sleeve of my threadmail shirt over my new bracelet and gripped it in my palm before jumping down into the dark, slimy chute.
I landed in a warm sulfurous lake and swam to find Orla at the base of the lighthouse. The ancient tower had been hijacked by Synterra and used as the nucleus for a web of mining tunnels that sprawled out beyond the wharf.
I showed Orla the bracelet and she gestured for me to come inside. She spoke as though we had known each other for years, though we had never actually met.
“Alonis Faradae is dead, and the seeds she bore with her are lost in the mines…if you think you can access the Evyrdör, now is your only chance. The stones you seek are upon your wrist, but it will require a seed more powerful than your own to heal this magmite. I will teach you to see, but it is you who must do the looking…” she said with a smile.
Orla placed her right hand on the center of my chest and her left thumb on the center of my forehead. Her eyes flashed as a soft light glowed from beneath her robes. Several luminous needles materialized from the air around my body, then pierced into me at various points.
I felt like a living radio antenna. Millions of images flashed through my mind; memories of pain, loss, guilt and sadness peeled away in layers until the only thing I could see was a bright green emerald. It was tucked into a small crevice on a cliff side… about one thousand feet above Quaratz City, Synterra’s subterranean capital on Kāla.
A deluge of mine carts buzzed throughout the wharf as I exited the lighthouse. Cops were wrangling a group of confused young workers into levitating rock-carts that had been re-tracked as evacuation vessels. I joined them, and the cart barreled out of the mines into darkness. There were about thirty of us piled into the small container, each avoiding the large rusty holes on the floor that showed the ground passing by below the cart. We slowed as we reached the incline to Quaratz and I slipped through one of them, rolling to a stop as the cart sped away toward the outskirts of the city.
The mag-lev tracks emitted a piercing blue light that illuminated anything nearby. I scrambled away from them and into the darkness. My eyes slowly adjusted as I moved toward the silhouetted monolith from my vision, a mighty arc of granite that framed the foggy underground city’s neon skyline.
I approached the looming cliff, rabidly dismissing the thought that this was the dumbest free climb I had ever attempted. More than half of it was an overhang of slick, featureless stone. My body shook violently and my mind screamed it’s critiques, but then everything became quiet as my hands touched the rock. The anxious internal monologue ceased entirely as I ascended and I became keenly aware of every scent and subtle sound. It felt less like climbing, and more like dancing to a song I had heard a thousand times before. I knew all the moves and timing without even looking up. I actually closed my eyes after the halfway point and barely noticed that I had arrived when I pulled myself up over the top of a stone ledge. Green light spilled out of a crevice beside me, and within it was the emerald from my vision.
I reached to grab the gem and its radiance flared brightly. The light would have exposed me to local patrols, but it dimmed as I withdrew my hand. I tore off a piece of my threadmail and used it to wrap the stone before stashing it carefully in the waist of my pants. I stepped back onto the roof and looked over the ledge at my descent. Panic slowly infected my sense of accomplishment as I realized that there was no way down without a rope. The fear paralyzed me, and I felt a growing sense of pressure from below. My bare feet throbbed with pain as the rock beneath them pressed intolerably into my bones. The sensation was excruciating and I thought I was going to collapse under the increasing weight of my body. A dark veil leaked slowly into my vision from the periphery, luring me into submission until I was startled back to consciousness by a cold, deep CRACK!
The thick stone ledge that I had been standing on broke free of the cliff-side and carried me down into the darkness.
I would have screamed if I could have mustered a breath, but instead I marveled silently as the ground sped toward both me and the boulder. I had resigned myself to the inevitable but upon impact, the chunk of rock that I stood upon disintegrated smoothly into a bed of soft, powdery sand. I sat up and shook the loose grains out of my beard and greasy black hair, unable to believe what had happened. Molten glass hardened in splatters around me and I scrambled away to the evacuation camps as a patrol vessel floated down to investigate.
We were returned to our quarters when the alarms ceased and I collapsed onto the floor, hoping for answers to all of the growing questions in my mind. I was so excited, but so confused. What should I do next? What was happening?
I laid sleepless on the ground in my room, breathing steadily to calm myself. The concealed emerald rested atop my heart and glowed through the cloth with a soft, calming light. I had nearly fallen asleep when the bedrock around me fractured and fell away from the floor, carrying me down into the core of Kāla.
Music trickled into my ears. It was faint at first, but became increasingly sonorous as I descended. The drums matched the beat of my heart, and were followed by accents from chimes and plucked strings. The enclosed channel opened into a wide cavern and the music rang clearly through the expanse of warm air. My thin stone platform vibrated and I sat upright as it landed on an island of black rock surrounded by a lake of bubbling, molten lava.
A woman with flaming hair stood upon the island. She held a black marbled crucible gently in her hands and held it out to me. It was teeming with frothy orange magma. I stood and walked toward her, then unraveled the emerald and allowed it to glow brightly in my hand before dropping it into the cup. The woman bowed her head slightly and I took the crucible from her with both of my hands.
The people who had been making music on the shore stopped playing in unison. Each of their faces reminded me of friends who had died and whom I missed dearly. The echoes reverberated and slowly receded into a complete and powerful silence that accented the slowing beat of my heart.
I looked into the woman’s eyes, bowed my head and drank the entire cup.
My heart started racing, faster and deeper than I had ever felt. Lava boiled up from my throat into my mouth and nostrils. It oozed out from my pores and burned every gangly black hair from my face and body. My mind exploded in a beautiful fury of intricate geometric shapes, colors, concepts and memories until all at once, it stopped. Silence returned for a moment. Then drums, accented by the glowing tones of hammered woodblocks. The skin on the center of my chest burned with a fierce itching sensation. I scratched, tore open my threadmail shirt and dug until two women approached me silently from behind. Each put a hand on my back and a calm washed over me, which really helped as I watched the bubbling sore in the middle of my chest erupt with blood, then lava.
The woman on my left laid me down, then reached with her free hand toward my little sternum volcano. Her hand turned to sparkling water and froze the magma into a small mound of porous black rock. The woman on my right cupped her hand over the concretion. The blood vessels on her arm and hand illuminated in a brilliant crimson web as small grains of ebony sand fell away to expose the emerald disc glowing underneath.
I sat up slowly and felt that six other discs had settled into my skin along the mid-line of my body. They were evenly spaced, from the top of my head to the bottom of my torso. I watched as their rhythmic glow matched the pace of my breath and noticed that my bracelet was gone.
The fiery haired woman stood proudly with her two helpers and smiled at me. The first woman went to join the musicians on the shore of the lava lake, striding gracefully across steamy bricks that froze beneath her feet as she stepped. I was helped up from my bed by the second woman as the luminosity in her veins diminished. She guided me to a pearly inlaid mandala that was etched into the surface of the island outcropping. She and the fiery haired woman then moved to stand on similar points.
Our three mandalas marked the vertices of a triangle, whose connecting lines illuminated as the women stood upon them. A triangular frame elevated slowly from the floor between us, exposing a vertically mirrored pair of luminous cyclones that spun neon red particles out of a small point of light that beamed wildly from their center.
I walked into the thick, stone armature and the point of light dilated widely enough to walk through. The woman with fiery hair smiled warmly from a distance as the other approached me, speaking sweetly through dark curly hair,
“The time has come for you to journey home, young one. Many become lost when they pass through this door and so I offer you this guidance. Listen, and you will remember yourself.”
I passed through the Evyrdör into a blizzard. Hail pelted my face as I fell hundreds of feet, past two gigantic ruby spires. They formed the tips of a forked, crystalline volcano - the base of which was covered in heaping mounds of snow. A great frosted ocean undulated in the distance around me, holding six islands in its icy grip beyond the central isle that I was plummeting toward. I landed and slid to the bottom of an icy slope at the foot of the mountain.
The cold shocked my body and I shivered, breathing in spastic increments until my lungs acclimated. I longed for the warm embrace of the lava lake, but a gust of wind drove me to stand and start trudging through the waist-deep powder. There was a light that shone through the falling snow from a small cape that stretched away from the volcano, and I marched toward it.
A crystal atrium emerged from the haze as I approached. It was nestled beneath a cliff next to a wide frozen waterfall. The cataract had melted at the bottom and I could see my reflection in the glossy mirror. I looked completely different. My pale face and chest were completely hairless. The strings and loops of curly black hair atop my head were gone, replaced by thin golden-white tassels in the center that fell away below my chin on either side. A tiny braid dangled behind my left ear and a thicker one swung gently behind my shoulders. I looked like a woman, and I felt like one too. The rest of my body hadn’t changed, but I could feel that a new presence had awoken within me. A stronger, more lucid presence with an eerily familiar voice. A woman’s voice.
The cold ceased to bother me, and warmth emanated from the emerald disc on my chest. A small thought sprouted in my mind, and I said it aloud before it had fully formed,
Vapor hissed through the air behind me and a door in the crystal wall of the atrium slid open, exposing a warm, vegetated domicile within. I stepped inside and was instantly awash with fragrances from the many trees and flowers that awaited me.
I explored the immaculately spaced garden and stopped to look at everything. I had never breathed air so fresh. I wandered through a tunnel of ivy that led to some stairs and a balcony above the canopy. Orange light spilled from thick amber globes onto a book that was opened to an empty page. A feather quill lay across the binding and pointed to a well of dark red ink that had been set into the desk. .
I wrote my new name in the book and a roar filled the air. The vaulted crystal ceiling extended open and sank smoothly into the ground along with the walls. The frozen waterfall shattered and steam rose from the pool at its base as liquid water surged over the top. A seismic hum from the crystal volcano drew my gaze as its ruby fork illuminated and bathed the landscape in warm red light. Clouds of steam billowed into the air from the thawing ocean as the tundra transformed into an archipelago of seven tropical islands connected by vivid blue water. Grey clouds loomed endlessly above me, punctuated only by the light of the portal that I had fallen through. The scene became very beautiful as the fog began to clear, but the widening panorama disoriented me terribly and I became consumed by the desire to return.
I deliberated internally as to how I might ascend the glossy walls of the volcano and the ground rumbled in response. The dirt below my feet twisted and compressed with incredible force. I inhaled deeply and bent my knees as the quivering stone beneath me released its tension and launched me high into the air.
Water vapor condensed around my body as I pierced the sound barrier and two crimson wings grew luminously from my spine. I flapped once and felt an almost intolerable heat burst from my heart into all of my extremities. It sharpened my focus on the door and coursed out from my fingers and toes in fiery jets of glittering crimson that thrusted me forward with incredible precision. I passed through the door with a bright flash that was followed by the dim red light of the lava lake. The people were gone. My little rectangular stone bed was the only object left on the outcropping other than the Evyrdör, which slid back into the floor as I passed through it. I laid upon the slab, exhausted and slept.
* * *
“Who the fuck are you?!” barked the cop as he electrocuted me off the floor.
“I always love giving you girls a good reason to stay out of the male quarters,” he said with a sickening grin.
“Rising bell was two hours ago sweetheart,” chimed his lackey. “You know what that means?”
I relaxed my face, trying to stay as expressionless as possible.
“Extra breakfast, followed by a little... recreation, conducted by yours truly,” he said, walking slowly toward me.
Our food was riddled with amphetamines, so second helpings tended to be highly fatal. They funneled the grey sludge into my throat, and plugged my nose when I gasped for breath. My heart began racing again, and lava coursed through my veins. My vision sharpened as I stood against the strength of the two large men. The cops stepped back and their PXL capacitors whined with an audibly lethal voltage. I stomped my heel into the ground and the stone floor rippled around me, flinging their bodies into the walls of my room and rendering them unconscious.
I smiled and realized that my experience had not been a dream. My heart continued to race, pumping magma to every part of my body. I did not fight it and watched as my pale skin turned to obsidian, then crimson crystal. I launched up through my ceiling and several miles of bedrock that separated the mines from Kāla’s surface. Bubbles exploded around me as I punched through the ocean floor and ascended in a plume of steam above the rolling clouds, high into the stratosphere.
It was such a marvelous experience to see Skye for the first time. I had lived in a cave my whole life and couldn’t even register the magnificent scene until a few minutes had passed. The clouds glowed red beneath me and the expanse of blue air beyond stretched farther than my eyes could see. It was punctuated by six other orbs of light, varying in distance and color. The Evenstar was the largest, and brightest by far. It shone brilliantly from the center and produced a silver light with barely perceptible green hues. Huge clouds of sparkling white vapor moved between the planets and lent an enormous sense of depth to the panorama.
I was so lost in awe that I barely noticed the pair of Synterra airships that had followed me through the cloud cover. They ascended slowly, so I flew high over them and rocketed into deep orbit around Kāla where I discovered a large stone satellite.
It was the likeness of two hands connected at the thumb and forefinger to form a teardrop shaped portal. I approached to admire its imposing size and was enveloped by many luminous multi-chromatic particles. They drew me into the portal where I hovered briefly as they spun wildly about my body. The air pressure intensified around me as the discs upon my mid-line flared to life. Deep resonant tones rang ominously through the surrounding air before a crack of thunder launched me across the breadth of Skye in a flowering rainbow vortex.