Chapter 1: Pursuit
“You can’t get out, you know,” said the girl quietly. “At least not by collecting more obsidian than the others.”
“Wasn’t that how you did, though?” said Cio, scooping a chunk of magma from the river, fishing for obsidian. He’d tried to get Silvie to tell the truth for as long as he’d known her. He’d prepared a new angle. “I thought you said you showed promise. I thought if I—”
“I showed promise as a child, Cio. That’s why the Outer Circle gave me a chance in the training grounds which led to my half-time work as a grower.” Cio turned up one corner of his mouth. Not quite the answer he so desperately wanted. For just once, he wanted her to admit that not all the rules applied to her, that it wasn’t her merit that gained her the special arrangement, but something else Cio couldn’t see.
There wasn’t a day gone by Cio didn’t regret losing that fight seven major tremors ago. When he was so small, there was no way of knowing how important the fight would be. He’d spent too much time in the rock playground learning the shapes of the stones and not enough time sparring the other kids. One fight had changed everything. Had set him on this dead-end path.
Silvie brushed her strange golden hair aside so Cio could look into her eyes. “How long have you been here, Cio?”
Cio shook his head. “You know that, Sil. Not nearly as long as most of the others.” He tried not to think about the long way ahead. Thinking like a stone would slow is progress.
Hearing Cio’s comment, the hunched man next to him grunted. Sil smiled apologetically to him, but it didn’t stop him adding his two stones. “You know, Cio,” said the man, shovel in one hand, adjusting his clothing, heat-resistant jag skins shed by live jags, with the other hand, “we don’t think much of you, either.” The man rose from his hunch.
“Sorry Beed’n,” said Cio, nodding his head to suggest Beed’n duck back down into line to avoid the jag’s attention. Larger cousins of the slate lizards, the jags patrolled the obsidian miner line, making sure the workers worked themselves to their limits each day. “Mining obsidian is important, but now I’m clearly capable of doing more for the Rahz.” Like growing, or exploring. And maybe more. Beed’n had told him about ani, the wisps of emotion he felt through the air, had warned him not to tell anyone else about it unless he wanted an early return to Julan, god of seeds by way of the Abyss.
Yes, Cio knew he had something the other miners didn’t. Even though he’d failed the Trials, he had the skills and didn’t deserve to work on the lowest rung of Rienna’s system. Maybe Beed’n even agreed with him a little. The man grunted again, but returned to stabbing his shovel into the magma.
Cio thought about bringing up how even Beed’n had done many major tremor’s worth of work in the growing caverns before being sent down. Cio didn’t say it, though, because Beed’n didn’t like being reminded of how both his hands had lost their sense of touch, burned by the ice. He’d only convinced the Outer Circle not to submit his name for sacrifice because he could still will his fingers into a firm grip on the shovel. He could still pull obsidian from the fire.
Cio turned back to Silvie. “I got here two major tremors before you did.”
Silvie kept her voice down this time. “You’re missing the point, Cio. The first four tremors you learned the trade, sorting the obsidian scraps from the rubble. Then by your ninth tremor you joined the lava river line. The last three you thought if only…if only you could outdo your peers again and again the guardian would take notice and pluck you like a jag plucks an earthlight from the flow.”
Cio stuck his shovel into the magma again and sifted another shovel’s-worth.
“You might be right,” said Cio, but he didn’t think it. He remembered the aches and pains from his brawl with the other children in the Trials. He’d knocked Cio down so many times Cio eventually just crawled out of the circle of stones, admitting defeat. If he’d stayed in and taken a beating he would have at least had another shot against a fairer opponent, but Cio had forfeited that chance by giving up, by crawling away on hands and knees.
But somehow Silvie’s words stung more than those memories. Still unable to mount a proper defense of his relentless pursuit to outdo his peers in the obsidian line, he thrust his shovel into the lava again, then pulled out more magma.
Silvie shrugged and put her weight into thrusting in her own shovel.
The dried lava moved beneath their feet. Already leaning toward the moving magma, Silvie teetered off balance. She was going to fall in. Cio stretched and grabbed her arm, pulling her back to safety. She fell on top of him. Ooph. Silvie yelped. Remnants of a small horn on Cio’s jag skin had scraped her arm, drawing blood. Silvie ignored it, pushed herself up, thanking Cio. She likely wouldn’t have died, but would have been badly burned.
So another tremor had struck. There had been more lately. That was all their guardian would tell them though. Silvie hadn’t had more to share from outside either.
Cio heard a growl from behind them. He turned to see a jag, the larger horn-backed and horn-tailed cousins of the stone lizards, addressing their group. It forked its tongue and growled again. Break time. A collective sigh let out from the group around them. They’d just worked four hours without rest. And, if another tremor followed the first, no one wanted to be standing on the edge of the lava when it shook the world.
Cio glanced out onto the expanse of lava flowing by. He often did this. Thinking. Watching.
Then he saw it. Clear across the river in the fastest flowing section. A floating obsidian cluster. Dried, volcanic glass. Cio’s skin prickled with excitement. It would be the biggest take in several major tremors if he pulled it off. Silvie would see what he could do, too. And so would the others.
“It’s too far,” said Silvie, barely hedging her own wonder. Silvie was right, but they hadn’t seen a piece of black rock…ever. A fraction of the cluster alone would be worth months of work. Cio turned, his grin smoothing back to determination. “We’ll see.”
How many times did he have to show he could before they’d see him? Well, at least one more time. It was time to walk on fire.
Shovel in hand, Cio left the safe banks of the lava river. He smiled thinking of what the other workers might be saying about him. But he didn’t need their approval. He knew his intentions were good.
He tiptoed on floating rocks towards the river’s center, feeling both the burn on his already charred toes and the enthusiasm of a potential catch. His movements were delicate, like a slate spider sewing its net or the ceph’s methodical swim. The air’s ani, subtle emotional notes in the swirling above the river, were as important as the heat he felt through stone underfoot in choosing a path. No, the ani was more important. Somehow the air knew what he was after and helped him get it.
A continuous route formed in Cio’s mind: there a stable rock, there the next. Through a pricking apprehensive emotion, the ani warned him of a nearby fire bubble eager to sneeze. Cio changed course, leaping to the next stone just as magma sprayed. He ducked under a larger globule of fire water, guarding his face with his shovel’s head. He bit his tongue as some of it burned the skin on his calf.
Cio reassessed his position. The obsidian cluster was mere strides away. He used the base of his shovel to vault the last gap. The ani rushed excitement past his cheeks as his feet found purchase on pure obsidian. He landed in a victorious crouch.
But the work was far from over. Cio wiped sweat from his brow with his uniform, admiring this boulder of obsidian. It must have been obstructed a long time up river to cool to black, only finally breaking free. Here it was.
And here was Cio.
If he worked efficiently he could return for a second sack-load before the floating rock disappeared down river. He jabbed his shovel into the stone. It didn’t break like he wanted, but he felt a piece begin to separate.
Cio struck again, dislodging one of the lower stones. But other stones above it shifted and Cio saw them falling toward him. He rolled to avoid it but they struck and trapped his leg. Pain surged through his thigh.
Now I’ve done it, he thought. Silvie was right. The others would shake their heads, especially the wrinkly-faced ones. He felt the lava’s heat against his hairless scalp, only an arm’s length away.
No, I’m okay. He’d be fine. He had to be. He could move the stones one by one, get them off. Maybe he could wriggle free. No, he couldn’t get leverage without the strength of his full body.
Cio felt the ani’s concern. It came from the shore where the other workers and the guardian probably watched. So someone did care.
Cio wished to move the stones. He willed them. But willing didn’t change how things actually were. He didn’t know where the lava river went. Only the Flame Mistress knew that. Out and back. A continuous, endless cycle. But he would be lost forever. The memory of him crawling out of the Trial’s circle of stones flooded his thoughts.
No, not like this. Cio felt his shovel lodged under his waist. He tried to twist his torso to reach it. His view shifted from the cavern’s distant gray roof to the rock trapping him. There was a twist of brown vine on it. Strange. There was a flame peaking around the stone too. Could it be a blooming spice plant? If so, how was it growing on the obsidian?
The flame seemed to bend toward him instead of up to the cavern ceiling. Odd as it was, the plant couldn’t get him out of there. His will nor the spice plant’s mattered. They were both heading to the end of this lava river if Cio didn’t do something. Cio saw himself crawling out of the circle of stones all that time ago, only stopping a moment to catch his breath. Words Beed’n had mentioned to him several tremors ago entered Cio’s mind: Stay conscious.
Then the ani changed, tickling Cio’s ear and his emotions. Fear. From where, though? And why? Because he couldn’t move otherwise, Cio turned his neck upside down to look back at the lava river. The fire was above him, the cavern roof below.
The hot surface of the lava swelled. Cio struggled again but was unable to move. Then a dark shape swept by. More urgent ani raise hairs on his neck. Cio couldn’t believe it. Rocks jostled around him and jaws clamped his arm, pulled him from the obsidian trap.
A pointy-faced beast stared at him through fiery eyes. A jag. Why had it come for him? The beast turned its head aggressively, as if pointing behind Cio.
Cio ignored the tooth marks and the blood on his arm, turning. Something was rising from the lava. It was twice the size of their obsidian island. Wide-eyed, Cio grabbed an obsidian piece from the broken pile and put it in his sack. Then grabbed for another.
The jag’s tail swept Cio onto its scaly back. Cio’s rib jammed into its protruding exoskeleton. Oooffff. The second shard of obsidian was knocked from his hand. He realized what was happening and grabbed one of the jag’s horns. The jag leapt from the obsidian as the lava swell parted. Its padded feet flicked the thick lava aside to keep it on the surface.
Cio turned his head to see a dark shape and a dark mouth as wide as he was tall rise from the fire to engulf the obsidian. Having swallowed its prize, it splashed back into the lava sending a wave in pursuit of Cio and his rescuer. Cio held tight to the jag’s horns and dug his knees into its body, pulling his feet back above above the lava’s heat.
The wave rose and fell but the jag’s feet moved faster, carrying them to shore.
Cio spilled off the jag onto his back. He felt the shore’s cooler stones. Their firmness. Their safety.
He felt a penetrating throbbing as his breathing slowed. My arm… He jolted upright to inspect it. There were streams of blood from—
“Those are bite marks,” barked the guardian, rushing over. “Don’t worry, it didn’t put any poison in you.”
“You sent it,” said Cio, unsure why. Workers could be spared. And jags never saved workers from missteps on the lava. “Here,” Cio said. He pulled the single obsidian piece from his sack. The shard was long and thick as Cio’s lean forearm.
“Yes,” said the rough man, accepting the stone slowly, not believing Cio had managed to carry it back while riding the jag. He stepped back one pace. “Or he might have sent me to the Abyss.”
Another man stepped in front of the guardian to Cio’s side. He was shorter and thinner than the guardian, but the guardian’s jag that just saved Cio cowered away from the man in a jag vestment.
“You nearly didn’t make it,” said the man. His tenor was nonchalant. He wouldn’t have cared so much if Cio died. Cio was just a miner. The fire spirits needed to eat, too.
“Yeah, what was that?” Cio asked, forgetting his place. Cio’s obsidian guardian drew in breath.
But the man only shrugged, his dark gray jag vest rising and falling. “Oh, I guess there’s no hiding it.” The man’s jag vest was much darker than the workers’ skins, probably from a jag killed on a hunt. The worker skins were the discarded shedding of jags. The man played with his necklace, a combination of obsidian and bird bone. “It was a stone beetle. Big ass buggers. Long as four or five jags, weigh the same as ten. They need obsidian as much as we do. Except they eat it. They usually clean the lake’s center of the largest obsidian before it reaches here. But they must be moving on to other lakes.”
Other lakes? “Who are you?” asked Cio.
“My name’s Dimas,” said the man, opening his rough charred hands and extending them to Cio. “The others are calling you Firewalker. You’re being called up.”