Chapter 1: Upon The Ash
A cinder cone stood prominent in the flatness of the landscape. A boy of fifteen walked along the edge of it, halting by an embankment of gray alluvium that fanned out from a steep wash. The night was bright and his eyes could follow the dry stream bed up to the small mountain's cratered peak. Durai scrambled atop the sediment, releasing ash into the steady breeze.
"Do you see any shards?" his twin sister asked from below.
"Come on up, Quan," the boy replied. "It looks like a good spot to search. I'll keep climbing." He glanced at his grandfather below, hoping he would not object.
The Oramore nodded his approval.
With the ease of youth, Durai hopped along lava remnants partly buried in the ash fall, then paused by a scatter of sharp stones to catch his breath. The alluvial fan below sparkled under a host of moons and stars.
The boy knelt down to search through the soft sediment. It would have been much easier to find the shards of volcanic glass in daylight, he thought as he watched his sister scamper up the slope. Durai's eyes caught movement in the sky to the south, and instinctively he ducked behind a large block of lava. "Quan, get down," he whispered and scanned the barren plains for dust clouds as his grandfather had taught him. Seeing nothing, the boy listened for the warning hum of League vehicles. All was silent.
"What do you see?" the girl asked, joining him behind the pockmarked, black stone.
He pointed to the falling object. Whatever it was, it made no sound. It was small, or far away perhaps, and seemed to be drifting in the wind. He felt his sister pull him by the arm.
"Hurry," she whispered.
Durai could feel her tension as they descended the loosely packed slope of stone and cinder. "I don't think it's the League," he replied.
"What else could it be?"
They told the Oramore what they had seen. Durai followed his grandfather and his together-born around the alluvial fan, trailing his hand along the soft regolith. The feel of his fingers scouring the soft ash comforted him.
"There." The boy pointed to the south. Red light from a rising sun colored one side of what appeared to be a billowing form. Tethered below it was a far smaller thing, spherical in shape. Durai watched it all disappear behind a long dune. "Grandfather, do you know what it is?"
"Something we should avoid," he said.
"It makes no sound," Quan pointed out.
"No," the Oramore replied, "it does not."
Durai could see curiosity in his grandfather's eyes and took advantage of it. "But should we not find out what it is?"
The many moons of the Vicani gas giant cast a star of shadows around a lone figure walking along the rise of a large dune. In the first light of the rising planet, a billow of sediment caught the stranger's eye. A plume of dark ash snaked upward into the thin, lunar air and coiled across the plains until it petered out in the distance. The landmark she sought eluded her, and so she set off toward the remnant swirls of black ash the dust devil had spread across a moonscape of short, linear dunes.
The emptiness around her was dizzying. She felt so exposed. Krynna paused, raised her hand to her heart, and tried to calm her breath. Her trainers had drilled her on the warning signs for hypoxia. She reached into her pocket, brought a small canister to her lips, and filled her lungs with moisture-laden oxygen. The lack of breathable air was more disconcerting than she had imagined, and she had to remind herself that it was indeed possible for her to survive her mission here. She was the emissary, the one to make contact with the enigmatic nomads of Od-Siing, and that was that.
The indigenous cloak draped around her gave her a small measure of comfort. She was the first of her kind to come to this desert moon, and it was critical that the colonial authority, the League, knew nothing of her presence.
"Here I am," she spoke out loud, curious how sound would propagate in the lunar atmosphere. The words were taken from her lips as if the land starved for them. Her voice was as skeletal as the air itself, yet the thin wind held enough force to raise the ashy sediment and lash her exposed cheeks. No matter what she told herself, the cadence of her breath simply felt wrong. The tightness in her chest grew. How could a people have made this place their home?
To distract herself from her fears, the girl counted the moons of the Vicani gas giant. This moon, she mused, was like a dream, a place that could not truly exist. The very thinness of the sky allowed for such majesty. The night sky was far grander and more intricate than on her perpetually cloudy ocean world. Here the stars shone blue, yellow, and even deep red. It was all so strange and so beautiful, but was such splendor worth the scant oxygen or the lack of a moist, ocean wind? This was not her world.
Despite all her training and preparedness, she could not master her fears nor vanquish the isolation that had settled in her heart. Nothing about the place made sense, she thought not the intense magnetic field or the forever drifting cinders from the many active volcanoes. At least, she told herself as she adjusted her native cloak, all this walking was keeping her from freezing.
The girl focused on the pale, crackling sound of her footfalls on the desert pavement, and after a while her mind began to settle. The landscape drew flat, broken by an occasional cinder cone and outcroppings of jagged rock. In the early light of the first sun she could see the landmark that had first eluded her, a silhouetted cylinder of hard stone she knew to be a pyre of solidified magma, all that remained of an ancient volcano. There would be rebels there, at least according to the last reports.
At some indeterminable point of the early day, Krynna took notice that the uneven breeze had given way to stillness. The mother sun, Shaelyn, and her smaller but more brilliant mate, Valara, now shone in the eastern sky. She made her breath still so that her heart was the only sound that existed, closed her eyes, and felt the world slowly spin. Without thought she took a puff of oxygen.
An incredible stillness settled over the land, a quietness so profound it was like the world had lost a dimension and become flatter somehow. She removed her goggles and pulled the scarf from her face. The anxiety within her subsided. Krynna's soul, her very being, rested on the worship of silence, a long-held spiritual tradition of the Daalv. She would trust the reverence of her people and surrender to the stillness that had claimed the lunar landscape. Perhaps, she wondered, such moments of peace balanced the harshness and isolation and made living on this moon possible.
Caught up in the serenity, she soon forgot about the oxygen canister nestled in her pocket. She was as still as all the sky was grand. There was nothing to latch onto, not the ubiquitous thoughts of others, not sounds or smells of life. The Daalvyn girl surrendered to the crystalline dust below and the celestial spheres above. Like a petal shed from a stem, Krynna fell onto the ashy sediment. As her body made contact with the flat, featureless surface, fine dust raised into gray swirls. Wistfully, Krynna watched the ash fall back on the ground like snow, then closed her eyes and imagined being home again, on Ondas, her ocean world, until the darkness overcame her.
From atop a dune, the three pairs of eyes watched the stranger fall. A small, gray plume rose and slowly settled back down onto the ashy plains. The three figures ran down the dark slope until reaching the fallen traveler. For a moment they stood in scrutiny, and then one of the three lifted her body off the powdered earth. The stranger felt thin and light. Her cheeks were unusually colored and freckled.
"She doesn't look like a soldier," Quan whispered.
"No," Grandfather replied, "She does not."
"What is wrong with her?" Durai asked as he held her.
The Oramore placed his hand on her chest. "She is dying," he said. His brow narrowed. With his fingers he traced the lines of her unusual face. He removed her gloves to study her hands.
Durai noticed his grandfather's eyes widen.
"What is it?" Quan asked.
"A legend," he whispered.