“Captain, may I speak with you?” Za’reth asked as they approached the cabin.
“Of course,” replied the captain. He ushered the two girls in to the room, closing the door behind them. Sh’ra could barely make out their muffled voices through the thick wood. U’ri pulled her toward the bed where she gratefully laid down. Her friend knelt beside her, holding her hand and stroking her hair.
“I thought I had lost you,” U’ri whispered cautiously.
“You seemed ready enough for that, this morning.”
“Yes,” U’ri replied. “I can be a fool sometimes. Lu’rik always said I hold onto my anger long past when it serves me. When I saw you in Lu’rik’s tent, with your hand on the Shard… I… there are stories Sh’ra, stories of the Shards being used for terrible things.”
“What kinds of things?”
U’ri turned her face away.
“Do you know why Ee’rin created the Shards?”
Sh’ra shook her head. “No, why?”
“They mark places of power, Sh'ra. When he discovered these nexuses of power, Ee’rin placed the Shards as markers. They were meant to be seen from miles around, to bring relief, to give people hope. During his reign, he established the Ha’reth, the Keepers. He taught them the secrets of the Shards, how to draw power through them for healing, how to maintain the balance of the land needed for plants and animals to flourish. They were to be servants to all the people. And they remained so until his granddaughters, the children of Da’resh. They slaughtered the Ha’reth, leaving only the two of them who knew the secrets of the Shards. They split the kingdom in the east and west, each possessing three Shards. But it was not long before they turned on each other, desiring always more power. They laid waste to the land and its people as they waged wars across the plains, drawing ever more and more power, leaving the land parched and barren. Until the Champion.”
“Yes, Ur'tuk. She came from the East, over the mountains of Tu'rik. She rallied the people against the sisters for she drew power from a source separate from the Shards. It is said the earth itself responded to her command. She took back each of the Shards, finally crushing the two sisters with their own palaces. Then, she drew forth the six stones of power, one from each Shard, distributing one to each of the clans.”
“That is not right. She gave them to the Stone clan, as Stewards, one to each of the great houses.”
“That is the story you were told, but it is not the truth Sh’ra. Your Stone clan tricked the Bearers from each clan to move into their capital, until it controlled every stone. They thought it better to have all the stones together, instead of scattered across the countryside. They told the people it was for safekeeping, to prevent enemies from seizing them, and perhaps that was their motivation in the beginning. With the rise of the priesthood, it turned into something different, a centralization of power, the rise of the Stone clan over all the others.”
Sh’ra did not want to believe it, but the words rang true. She had been deceived, told the story that put her own people in the best light and disparaged the rest. She thought of Za’reth’s hazel eyes and of his wife’s piercing green-amber. Neither matched the gray of the Stone clan.
“The Champion Ur'tuk grew tired of combat and bloodshed. When she recognized the deception of the Stone clan she warned them, but they refused to heed her. Instead they threw her out, claiming she sought to rule over them as the daughters of Da’resh had. She fought back, but with the power of their six stones in combination, they were too much for her. They slew her with the stones she had made for them. With her final breath, she withdrew her blessing from the stones, choking the flow of power from the Shards.”
“But the stones still hold power.”
“Yes, she was not able to cut them off completely, or she decided not to. No one knows.” U’ri paused for a breath before resuming. “I did not know what you sought when you snuck into Lu’rik’s tent for the Shard. I thought you wanted only more power for yourself. Now, I can see that even you did not understand what you were doing. But I know Sh’ra. I know what you must do. Before we left, Lu’rik told me and I have been too afraid to tell you, too afraid of what it might do to you, to us. Sh’ra, my sister, you must release the Shards.”
“What do you mean?”
“I felt it when you finished with the Shard this morning, a wave of power rippling outward. This is what you must do for the remaining Shards. You must reawaken them, returning the power to the clans.”
“But there are only two stones left. How would that work?”
“Sh’ra, you must make them anew.”
“Make them anew? How could I do such a thing U’ri? I am not Ur'tuk. I am no Champion!”
“I don’t know yet. But you will figure it out. You must Sh’ra. This is the only path.”
Sh’ra sat up, her mind racing with the possibilities. Could she do it? Could she fabricate new stones of power from the Shards, creating a new balance among the clans? Seeing the confidence in U’ri’s gaze, she almost believed. Was this what Za’reth sought as well? Why had he not told her? She pushed back the deluge of onrushing thoughts, seeking the stillness of her experience, remembering.
“I have seen what the Champion did, though I did not understand it. The threads from each Shard were knotted together, straining them, obstructing their flow of energy. At each of the Shards, I have untangled the knot. I can sense the difference more now than I could with the first Shard. The flow of energy through the stone is increasing, just as you described. I have seen no hint of how to create a new stone of power though.”
“Lu’rik said the secret was in the stone, that any rock could be transformed into a stone of power with an… an adjustment of the its flow.”
She said the last bit as if she were reciting a lesson she had been made to repeat a thousand times.
“Have you examined the stone itself?”
Sh’ra looked at it in her hand, realizing she had never given it much thought. It was a tool she used, nothing more. She was a carpenter, not a blacksmith. She used the tool. She did not make it. But that was foolishness. Why could she not make the tools she used? Who better to do so? Hope stirred within her, belief. She raised the stone level with her eyes. She could sense U’ri’s excitement mounting. She tried her best to ignore it, but could not prevent her heart from racing. Instead of pushing her awareness through the stone, she pushing into it. It felt… constricting, as if she had come to a halt in a highly trafficked corridor. There was pressure from behind and before to move, move any way, do anything but stand still. Corridors are not for standing. Bracing herself against the pressure, she held herself there, striving to work out its shape. What held it together? What kept it open? What drew her awareness through and what allowed it to recede?
A yell and thud of something heavy against the door broke her attention. The flow pushed her awareness back into there body. She glared at the door, frustrated at the interruption. U’ri rushed to it, turned the handle and pushed. The door did not budge. Sh’ra was on her feet, yelling at the men outside, pounding on the door, but no one responded. U’ri backed away from the door, her eyes narrowed into readiness as she scanned the room. There were no other exits, just a small window neither of them would fit through in the back wall. U’ri made for the window nonetheless. She looked out of it for an instant before diving away and to the right. She grabbed Sh’ra, pinning her to the wall behind the bed as the opposite wall crumpled. The ship slammed into a reef, throwing them both onto the floor. Water sprayed through the cracks. The rock tore the side of the ship as if it were parchment. Then the boat rolled away from the reef as the water receded beneath it. Before either of them could regain their feet, another wave lifted the ship high. A moment of stillness, of calm, and then Sh’ra felt her stomach drop as they were smashed again into the reef. The wall to their left with the door in it bent and broke beneath the pressure, flinging massive splintered pieces of wood in all directions. U’ri shielded her from the blast. The cabin rolled backward and they were plunged beneath the foam.
Sh’ra reacted first, grabbing U’ri and pulling her toward the opening created by the destruction. With both legs she pushed off the wall behind them, launching them into the clear, out and away from the sinking remains of the ship. She reached the surface and had time for a single breath before the next wave took her. She clung desperately to U’ri’s limp form, looping her arm around her friend’s body, digging her fingers into flesh. The wave rolled over them, leaving her disoriented when she breached the surface again. She scanned for any safe place along the shore. It took two more waves for her to see the break, the calm water and sand of safety. Dragging U’ri behind her she angled her body for the spot, using the waves to propel her forward.
After what felt like an age, with every muscle in her body strained beyond capacity, screaming for relief, she drug them both onto the sand, U’ri coughing and heaving water from her stomach and lungs before collapsing. In the calm of the cove, Sh’ra slept.
U’ri shook her awake.
“You must go, Sh’ra.”
“What?” Sh’ra asked blearily, her mind not registering her location.
“Sh’ra! You must go.”
This time, it registered. She drug herself to her feet, turning to see U’ri had propped herself up on her elbows. Sh’ra reached a hand down to help her friend up, but U’ri shook her head.
“You must go alone. I will wait here for the rescue party from the Water Clan. The K’al cannot be trusted Sh’ra. I couldn’t tell you while Za’reth could over hear. I was not sure of his loyalties. But you cannot trust the K’al. Once you are in his keep, he will not let you go free again, even if he does protect you from Ur’in’s fanatics. No, you must follow the coastline to the north, to the Air clan. Reclaim the other stone, teach them to use it. Set them free Sh’ra. They have the strength you need.”
“I cannot leave you U’ri.”
“You must. And you will. I will be fine. The K’al’s men will find me soon enough. You must be gone before they do. I will tell them you were lost to the sea. They will believe it. It is what they wanted.”
“Why can you not come with me?”
“I do not have the strength. I would delay you and you need speed now more than anything else.”
“Enough, Sh’ra. Go!”
Sh’ra embraced her friend for what she hoped would not be the last time. She kissed U’ri on the forehead, holding her as long as she dared. The patrols would be there soon. They would come scrambling down from the rocks above. Finally, against every desire in her body, she tore herself away and ran, feeling she was leaving most of herself behind, the thought tearing at her that she was leaving one more friend to die. She reassured herself. U’ri would be okay. The patrols would come for her. They would take her to the Water keep where she would be safe.
U’ri watched her go, the stabbing pain in her leg was growing dull now. She knew this to be a bad sign. She could no longer move her toes. Out over the water, the sun was dipping into the waves. The tide was coming in. She was not high enough to avoid it. These sands would be covered soon. She would be dragged back out to sea and battered mercilessly against the surf. Then it would regurgitate her lifeless body back ashore to be picked at by the birds until her bones were pulled back into the deep.
Her head sank into the cooling sands and the day warm surf crept up her heels. She dragged herself forward out of its reach. She rested. Soon it was licking her heels once more. Again she dragged herself forward and again she rested, her body limp and soggy, the red streak of blood quickly washed away by the pursuing tide. The sun was completely down now. The water grew colder. She reached forward and he arm struck something hard. She rolled to find herself surround by high canyon walls on every side. The only way out, back the way she had come. And that was a wall higher than any.
She tried to to sit up, to stand, but had no strength left in her, her last measure expended. . She had lied in reassuring her friend she would survive. She had said whatever she needed to say so Sh’ra would leave, so she would not see her in these last moments when her strength gave out. Before the exhaustion took her, she drew the sign of thanks in the sand next to her. She would have spoken it, but her throat stung from the salt water and she found he had no voice with which to cry out. As the blackness took her, she sent her gratitude out, to the East for Lu’rik, to the western setting sun, and to North for her only friend who now traveled alone.