Filarin’s cave is hidden within the ring, a circle of mountains that once surrounded a lush plateau home to Taluk, the most beautiful city of the old kingdom.
When Botzar used the sword, it erased every trace of the city, leaving an unnaturally thick forest always covered by clouds.
Within the trees is the Breath of Life, the place where I first found the sword, and must soon return, to release its energy.
The cave is deep within a mountain and difficult to reach, but I find a PathFinder gate that takes us there quickly.
Can this be the same place?
All of us shiver from the extreme cold, and fight the urge to escape from the dull, strange darkness that makes us feel heavy and old.
The green birthing crystal still covers the ceiling and walls, but the glow is extinguished and the air is stale.
Whatever protection the cave had is gone, and the web is as weak here as anywhere in the world.
Only the gifts still shine from within the red stone.
“It feels dead here,” says Shazira.
“It was bad when I came for the necklace,” says Dilasa, “but it’s worse now, like there’s a crack in the barrier between life and death.”
“We can’t stay here, ina.”
“Tell us how you retrieved your gift.”
“I forced myself to come, but was afraid from the moment I arrived.”
“There were no tremors, but before long I felt closed in and I believed that the mountain would crush the cave at any moment.”
“I searched for Filarin so I wouldn’t be alone, but he was gone.”
“You fought the Spiral,” says Berek.
“Why would you be afraid of an empty cave?”
“The Spiral killed my parents and attacked my world, again and again.”
“The necklace gave me the power to stop it.”
“What does that have to do with the cave?” asks Berek.
“I wasn’t afraid of the cave at first.”
“I was afraid of the necklace.”
“When I was little, it made me feel special.”
“And when I found out it was from my brother Sindar, I was thrilled.”
“But then ina learned about the sword and the way we’re all tied to it through the gifts.”
She fingers the necklace.
“We’re all cursed now, doomed to help destroy Siksa instead of saving it from the Kizak.”
“In the end,” says Berek, “you still took the necklace.”
“I had no choice.”
“The sun was killing us.”
“Someone had to take action.”
“So now we should sit and do nothing, instead of following ina who has never failed us?”
She turns away from Berek and places her palm on the stone.
“I choose the shining stars that serve the creator and sustain us,” says Dilasa.
She waits, but nothing happens.
“I don’t understand, ina.”
“When I was here before, a red crystal vessel appeared, and our gifts were stacked inside.”
“Was there any sign of the black necklace?” asks Berek.
“No. Not even the mark left when it disappeared.”
I reach for the stone and my hand tingles, but the surface is unchanged.
“Each gift blocks the ones below it, and only the master of the top object can remove it.”
“Somehow, Filarin took the Kralestone necklace that Berek left here.”
“Your gift was next, so you became the master of the stone, but only until you removed the necklace.”
“Why did you say, I choose the shining stars?” asks Berek.
“Remember what Filarin said to us?”
“Choose your power, and the gift will surrender to you.”
“It’s not simply our genetics which gives us control of the gifts; it’s the special strengths that were revealed to us in Tzina’s dream.”
“We harness our inner power by voicing it aloud.”
Tzina steps forward.
“I choose worlds of possibility.”
She reaches down so confidently that I expect the stone to shatter or disappear.
There’s a flash of red light and her hand rises clutching the silver bracelet with the large blue white crystal, and a ring of other stones.
Her face glows for a few seconds when she puts on her gift.
The red vessel appears, but my energy senses tell me that it’s only an illusion.
Looking past it, I see an opening in the stone, and a warm space where the gifts rest.
Shazira stands in front of the vessel.
“I choose to protect my family, my people, and the web.”
Slowly, she picks up the golden bracelet.
The Celtic knot design shines brightly when Shazira takes it.
The pattern blurs for a moment and the light stops, until a glowing silver-green dragon appears on the bracelet, at the center.
All light spreads from the dragon, along the lines of the endless knots, and around the bracelet.
Berek’s black necklace flies off his neck toward the vessel.
He reaches out to stop it, but the force is too strong, and the black stone pulls away from him and cuts his hand.
I pour healing energy over his hand.
The bleeding stops and the cut heals itself.
“What’s going on, ina?” he asks.
“You need to take your necklace from the stone, like the rest of us, in order to be ready to release the sword.”
“I choose the wild energy of storms,” he declares, and reaches forward.
The necklace offers no resistance, and soon it hangs from his neck again.
Now, only the sword remains.
I reach out a few inches toward it, then hesitate.
“I choose change that calls us to die to the old and be reborn.”
A tremor fills the cave as the disk rises and comes to rest on my hand.
“Are you afraid of it?” asks Shazira.
“Why didn’t you pick it up without using the web?”
“Don’t you remember when I first found it?”
“It came to me.”
“Your brothers could handle and use the sword,” says Berek, “but it knows that you are its true master.”
Shazira feels my uncertainty through the bond sense, but she doesn’t share that with Berek or the rest of my family.
They trust me far more than I trust myself.
Flying home, we soon reach the shining gorge, and fly above it for most of its fifty mile length.
The gorge is the largest on Siksa, found in Tshuan not far from the ring.
During the day, the sparkling smooth stone in the dry riverbed reflects the sky, infusing it with a rainbow of color.
At night the gorge is filled with colored light, brighter than the moon above.
The sword consumed the river and permanently twisted the energy.
Time has healed other sites, but not this one.
No master can bear the pain caused by the energy at close range.
Still, the effect is different for other Jiku.
Many visit the cliffs above the gorge, but few descend to its bottom.
The climb down is long and steep.
And the visitors return home mad, or full of strange recurring dreams.
We fly on.
Lights of Death
Disu moves toward the entrance when my family and I return to the house.
“The small disk is the sword?” he asks, staring at it.
“And that will wipe out the Kizak ships and heal the sun?!”
“It will restore the web, but after that, who knows?”
“What about the pulse mat?”
“When my father sees that you shattered the cage, he’ll activate the weapons.”
“There’s nothing more we can do.”
“We’re out of time.”
“The pulse disruptors are hidden within building walls and under walkways and plazas.”
“And each device covers itself with the energy patterns of its environment.”
“We have to be within ten feet to sense them.”
“The sleepers and I destroyed the ones we could find, but we think there are at least a hundred more.”
“I hope the emperor will delay his attack, and give us time to negotiate.”
“You hope?!” asks Shazira.
“Why would he wait?”
“He won’t admit it, but I can sense his fear when we’re together.”
“He’s scared of what you can do with the web,” says Shazira.
“Eliminate the cage and you can be sure he’ll attack.”
“In a way you’re right.”
“I showed him just how dangerous the curses can be.”
“He saw me move and kill at unnatural speed, change shape, die and come back to life.”
“But that’s not all he’s afraid of.”
“I’m a highly skilled tech and had access to details of the most powerful Kizak weapons.”
“He knows it and expects me to arm the Jiku.”
“Tonight, I’ll transfer weapons to key areas across Siksa, so the sleepers and others will be prepared to fight.”
“You think he’s afraid of war?” asks Berek.
“Not if he thinks he can win.”
“But Teyus wonders how much I know about Madar and other alien tech.”
“I showed him strange weapons that can wipe out his fleet.”
“How can he fight me, an enemy that won’t stay dead, and will take revenge again and again?”
“I’ve threatened to lead Kizak rebels again his homeworld.”
“Will he start a war that will never end?”
“The emperor claims he doesn’t believe my threats, but his eyes tell me he’s lying.”
“No more killing,” says Disu.
“He told you to send me to him.”
“It will calm him down, and give you more time to prepare.”
“If he’s determined to attack, he’ll do it whether or not you go to him.”
“We have another problem,” says Hukal.
“An hour ago, the Kizak flooded the infonet with their AIs, and blocked all Jiku access.”
“Our messages and data pass through the net.”
“We can’t fight a war without maps, sensor data, and communication.”
“What about private military networks?” asks Berek.
“The AIs penetrated and compromised every network attached to the net.”
“But I have a plan.”
Shazira looks at the young boy, wondering if he’s as smart as he seems.
I’ve told her that Hukal is a genius, but she never believed me.
“Yagrin gave me the latest plans for the Kizak AIs, and alien tech from the tower races.”
“Together I’ve designed AIs that are far more powerful than anything the Kizak have.”
“Why haven’t you released your AIs to fight with the others?”
“I need help getting them in.”
He puts five cubes on a nearby table.
“The infonet is heavily dependent on twenty-three satellites in orbit and twenty-three supernodes on the ground.”
“If we destroy seven of the satellites and three of the supernodes in the right sequence, it will create a temporary weakness across the entire net.”
“Bring these cubes to five other supernodes within thirty seconds of the last satellite explosion, and place them on the control interfaces.”
I activate the house’s weapons systems and turn toward my family.
“Get some rest.”
“We leave for the forest a few hours before first sun.”
“I’ll deliver the cubes while you sleep.”
“Disu and Hukal will stay awake to warn you if the house AI detects any danger.”
“In the morning, before we leave, I’ll take Keela and them to the blue city.”
“Tshuan isn’t safe, especially this house.”
“No,” says Keela.
“I won’t leave Tshuan and hide beneath the ocean!”
“The Kizak will look for a chance to kill you,” says Berek.
“Will you die for Tshuan after it rejected you?”
“I won’t abandon my people just because they abandoned me.”
“The sword is dangerous.”
“We don’t know what it will do.”
“The water will protect you.”
“Do you think I want to live if Tshuan is destroyed?”
“It’s just until midday tomorrow,” says Berek.
“You can return when we’re done with the sword, and ina neutralizes the Kizak weapons.”
“Please, do it for me.”
“The blue city is half way around the world.”
“There’s a place much closer where I can go.”
Chessa is a an island nation not part of Tshuan or the guild lands, only seven hundred miles from the Tshuan coast.
It’s a wild place that values its independence.
Chessa Ri is the largest city, with a population of fifty thousand.
“Not there, Keela,” says Berek.
“They have no respect for authority or law.”
“What do you think they’ll do to a Tshuan Queen?”
“I have a small house, under a false name.”
“The Chessans have been quiet about the aliens, not praising or criticizing them.”
“And Chessa never voted about joining the empire.”
“They’ll wait to see what happens with the rest of Siksa.”
“It’s unlikely the Kizak will attack them.”
“The Chessans are cowards,” says Berek, “refusing to take a stand.”
“I agree, but I’ll be safe there.”
“They’re murderers and thieves.”
“Have you ever met one?”
“Their nation is beautiful, and they don’t want to be overrun by fools on vacation.”
“Chessa cultivates a wild reputation to keep us away, but they watch over those who come, and they welcome healers.”
“They’re unpredictable, but in many ways I like them.”
“And I can defend myself.”
“I don’t like it,” says Berek.
“It’s not up to you,” says Keela.
“If it makes you feel better, I’ll let Master Yagrin change my form.”
“You can do that, right?”
I change her face and hair, and make her a few inches shorter.
Keela looks in a mirror.
“Strange, but not bad.”
She hugs Berek and Ilaz, and I take her to a dark corner of a Tshuan park near a transport platform.
I sense that she’s troubled.
“Are you all right?”
“What will the world be like tomorrow?
“Will I see you and Berek again?”
“I hope so, but I don’t know what the sword will do.”
“The royal family guarded the shield of Tshuan for centuries, waiting for the moment when someone would come and use it to protect you.”
“Now is the time, and Berek carries the shield.”
“Do you doubt him?”
“Good luck, Master Yagrin.”
“Take care of Berek,” she whispers, walking away.
When I return, each of my children hugs me before turning toward the sleeping rooms.
Shazira stands by, watching as the others go.
When she approaches, she hugs me harder and longer than the rest, and I feel her sadness and isolation through the bondsense.
Finally she pulls away and looks into my eyes, and drops her mind shield.
“Will you come to bed after you repair the infonet?”
“There’s too much to do.”
“You always find reasons for us to be apart!”
“Don’t you realize we may die tomorrow.”
Tears fill her eyes.
“Do you think I want to isolate myself?”
“You like having time alone.”
“That’s the way you’re built.”
“Yes, I love my quiet moments, but I always come back to you.”
The fear and uncertainty rises within me, circling like a hungry animal around my other feelings.
She looks shocked, and steps back, thinking that the uncertainty is about her.
“It’s not you,” I tell her, moving forward and taking her hand.
“I’m never unsure about you.”
“You’re afraid of it!”
“You think it will kill us all.”
“I’m sure it can save us, but I don’t know how to direct it.”
She hugs me again.
“Don’t be afraid, Yagrin.”
“Remember when you heard the Watchtower’s song?”
“Choose when there is no choice, and go, when all the paths are broken.”
“You’re the PathFinder, the one who finds the way where there is none.”
“Trust yourself to find that path when it’s time.”
“Wake me an hour before the others,” she says aloud, “so we can have a little time together.”
I take Hukal’s cubes, and pick up fifteen of the sleepers.
There are few guards at the five supernodes on the ground.
I send them all naked to a distant wilderness, with no way to contact anyone.
Then I seal three sleepers in each building with a cube.
“Wait by the interface, ready to activate the cube.”
“I’ll let you know when it’s time.”
I find a barren spot far from the city, and locate PathFinder gates to the targeted satellites and supernodes.
My energy blasts rush through four or five gates at once to disable the tech.
When I’m done, I pass quickly from building to building where I left the sleepers, and give them all the same message.
“Load the cubes.”
Soon, the last cube shuts off and goes dark.
“My commdisk is still blocked,” says one of the sleepers.
“It’s too soon to tell if the plan worked.”
“I’ll take you all home.”
The sleepers live in Tshuan in a few plain buildings, still owned by Keela.
They enter quietly.
I’ll come back for them later in the night, as we arranged.
It’s much harder to connect with the sisters.
They’re scattered in small groups all over Siksa with the children they care for.
I visit each house to confirm the plans made several days ago.
We all have our roles to play when it’s time to release the sword.
My body is still strong, refreshed with healing energy, but my spirit is tired of the struggle.
I brush those thoughts and feelings aside and return to the house.
The familiar space comforts me as I hand the cubes to Hukal.
My eyes turn to the message wall, lit up again with video and document links.
Disu has his back to me, reading a Kizak document.
“My AIs multiplied and spread through the infonet,” says Hukal.
“Now, we control it.”
“Should I cut off access to the Kizak?”
“There’s no reason to announce what we’ve done.”
“You and Disu should get some sleep.”
Disu touches one of the icons and a map of Siksa fills the wall, dotted with blinking lights like stars.
“What is this?
“My AIs found it in a Kizak network,” says Hukal.
“It shows the active pulse disruptors and their locations.”
“It must be old.”
“We destroyed many of the devices.”
“It was updated a few minutes ago.”
“The disruptors connect to the Kizak network for a few milliseconds every ten minutes to report their status and listen for commands.”
“Can we destroy them remotely?”
“I have the command guide, and the sequence that powers them down.”
“It leaves them unshielded and unable to receive command transmissions.”
“They can’t be restarted remotely.”
“Too bad we can’t destroy the device map.”
“The Kizak will notice when we shut down the network of disruptors.”
“And then the guard will go out to reactivate them.”
“The Kizak will never know.”
“My AIs will hide the true status map, and substitute one where the pulse disruptors appear active.”
“Someone would have to examine each device’s control panel to discover the lie.”
“Have you tested the down command?”
“The interface is protected with complex security passcodes.”
“And only three attempts are allowed during each reporting interval.”
“My AIs will never break through with such limited access.”
“And you won’t find a list of passcodes lying around the network, says Disu.
“Weapon codes are carefully guarded and changed often.”
“I’ll go out tonight and destroy the disruptors,” I tell them.
“At least I know where they are.”
“I can make it easier,” says Disu.
“There’s another set of hidden access codes.”
“They’re called emergency or emperor codes.”
“For two hundred years, every major weapon has been built with the eCodes encrypted and embedded in the control systems, giving the emperor’s family a way to defend itself in any situation.”
“There are seven hundred eCodes known to the emperor and his children.”
“The codes have been changed over the generations, but my father rarely touches them.”
Disu slips a small necklace out of his shirt and takes it off.
“I was taught at a young age to carry the eCodes and encryption algorithms with me.”
“Even though I abandoned my father and the homeworld, I still wear it.”
“Habit, I guess.”
Disu holds the necklace to his eyes and speaks in Kizak.
It scans his retinas and then glows brightly.
“Download the codes and algorithms quickly, Hukal,” he says, handing it over.
“The device remains unlocked for only thirty seconds after it leaves my hand.”
Hukal takes it and uploads the data to his AIs.
In the next forty minutes all of the lights on the map go out, replaced with icons.
“Now, we can forget about the pulse disruptors,” says Disu.
“No,” I tell him.
“I can’t leave the weapons there, even if they’re shut down.”
I memorize the map, and open a gate near the first location.
“I’ll be back in two or three hours, after I’ve destroyed them all.”
When I return I send Disu and Hukal to bed.
They need sleep and I need time alone.
I close my eyes and savor the memories of my time on Siksa with my family, searching the visions and stories of the sword, looking for something that will help us be successful where my brothers failed.
But I find nothing, and that scares me.
What if the key to the sword is the one who uses it?
Am I so different from my brothers who used the sword to fight against their enemies?
Benzu made his homeworld uninhabitable and lost his life. Only Sindar and a small group of Jiku survived.
Botzar killed his family along with millions of Jiku, but over time the planet healed.
An inner voice calls me to let go of thoughts and let only my love from Shazira and the children remain.
The emotions circle around me stronger and stronger.
I lie down and familiar images appear.
A large mirror spins as it travels across an empty world.
At first the object is covered in darkness except for a dim glow from its outside edge.
I continue to focus on it, and see a bright shadow of myself reflected in the glass.
The endless spinning fills the world with a single pure tone.
When the darkness clears, the mirror shows a lightstorm that stretches across the whole planet.
We rise higher and faster to leave the storm behind, and greet the light of an immense sun.
Sindar set the rules for the tower guardians.
All must learn the way of the mirror, an ancient meditation from his homeworld.
It was part of my training, and I repeat it every day.
The other guardians rarely practice the exercise, but it touches something deep within me.
It helps me remember my brother, and feel his presence, watching over us.
Imagine a paper-thin oval of dark blue crystal, six feet tall, wrapped in fire that races around the edge, ever faster, and bursts across the surface.
Both window and mirror, as it spins through water, stone, and air.
See yourself as a ghostlike image resting on the crystal, traveling with the mirror.
Watch as strange images come and go, and objects are pulled in to be quickly consumed by the flames.
The challenge is to stay aware of your own presence while viewing the scenes that drift around you.
With that double-edged energy that reflects you and the world and sees past it to the awareness that hides within both, everything is sharper.
The next step in the meditation is to call objects, people, settings, or intentions into the mirror
and watch for where the mirror travels, what it reflects, and what my inner voice tells me.
I’ve brought the sword, my family, and the Kizak into the mirror on other days, but today calls for something different.
Whatever I bring into the mirror, I merge with my own image.
When Teyus and I join together, I see a vision of the two of us bloody and still, on a ruined landscape.
The sword is worse. It destroys every sign of life on the planet, moments before the world explodes.
And I see my fire self watching it all.
One at a time, I merge with my family, and they all burn from the inside. I hear their screams and watch them die painful deaths.
Everything is cursed by my touch.
Then something strange happens.
My family rises from the dead, wearing their gifts.
Teyus rises, takes Tzina’s hand and they all stand beside me in the mirror.
Siksa appears, healthy and full of life, and its people come toward us.
The sun joins the procession, and hundred of billions of stars follow.
Great masses of Kizak and other races fly with us.
We circle around each other, together.
The sword floats above us and spreads its energy over two galaxies from end to end.
Every star sparkles a deep blue, and I hear the song of the web, strong and clear, rising from an endless ocean of worlds.
I open my eyes and Shazira is there, looking worried.
I sit up, and she sits on a nearby cushion and hugs me.
“Are you sick, Yagrin?”
“You sounded like a wounded animal, groaning and crying out in your sleep.”
“I felt your sorrow, and it woke me.”
“When I came here you were quiet, but pale and completely still.”
“I was meditating, not sleeping, and caught in a world where everything I touched was shattered, and everyone I loved was dead.”
“But then it all changed.”
“I know what to do.”
I start to speak, but she touches her fingers to my lips.
“Later,” she says.
“For a little while let’s forget about the sword.”
We rest together, and wait for the night to end.
The Long Night
I wake before Shazira, and cover her with a blanket.
A sound in the next room draws my attention, and I find Hukal standing there by the message wall.
“Did I disturb you?” he asks when I approach.
“No, this is the time I planned to get up.”
“Why are you here?”
“I was restless, worried what the emperor would do if his people discover my AIs, so I’ve been monitoring Kizak communications, whatever my AIs can decode.”
“The guard knows that the infonet is open again.”
“And the level of messaging is unusually high, especially in the last hour.”
“The Kizak are planning something.”
“Yes, but there’s no ship movement yet.”
“I’ll be back.”
I activate the shields at the five sleeper buildings and wake them.
“The aliens are planning an attack, and you’ll be one of the first targets.”
“Get dressed, eat, and prepare to go.”
“Stay inside the shields!”
“I’ll return as soon as I take the sisters to safety.”
I move quickly through the schools scattered across Siksa that house the sisters.
Ilaz is with them.
“You’re in danger and we have to move now,” I tell them.
“There’s no time to dress or gather anything.”
“I’ll follow with your things after I get you to safety.”
It takes me fifteen minutes to transport the sisters, their students, and their possessions to the blue underwater city.
Clothes and other objects are piled up according to the rooms I took them from, and spread out across a large open plaza.
“You scared us all, Yagrin,” says Niyta after we arrive.
“Why did you need to move us with only a few minutes warning?”
“It’s still hours to first light.”
“You weren’t safe on the surface.”
“The Kizak know where you sleep, and they’re going to attack.”
We sit together in the plaza, the smaller children sitting on the sisters’ laps, or crowded around them.
Hukal’s brother and sister, the twins with the Bizra eyes, remember that I healed them, and approach.
Tsuni and Lessa stop a few feet away, and I smile.
“Did you know Hukal lives with me in my house?”
“We miss him.”
“Things will get better soon, and you’ll see him every day.”
“Would you like to sit with me?” I ask.
They hesitate but come and sit on my lap.
I spread my listener across the web, and connect with the peaceful, powerful rhythms of energy that feed all life.
Soon I become a heartbeat that pull the children and sisters into this calm world.
Our minds are light, and we let the web lead us deeper into the quiet.
The songs are back.
Long ago, in the Fiklow universe, the Jiku lived on Sinesu, and there was a place there called the river of sound.
It was destroyed in the Fiklow wars, just after the Jiku exiles came to this universe and Siksa.
But somehow, in a sim, I visited the river of sound, and it changed me.
I gained a new sense that can hear the essence of each living thing as a song, derived from its energy, but much more.
The Bizra have a similar sense, but theirs is focused on what something is, while mine is focused on possibility, on what something could become, and its power to connect to and change the world around it.
I can use that power.
I focus on a particular song, then amplify and direct it toward the world around me, as I did when I used the song of the sun to heal the twins.
That sense faded away when Sindar was killed and I lost all my strength.
Most of the sisters and children will stay in the city when I activate the sword.
Twenty-three of each will be transformed by the Bizra into dragons and enter the ocean.
An equal number will come with me and my family to the ring.
I told Niyta she should decide who belongs in each group.
But now, an inner voice tells me to choose, and hundreds of songs wash over me.
I don’t know consciously what I’m looking for, but when I hear a person’s song I can tell if they belong in the dragon, forest, or city group.
I memorize the forty-six faces for each group.
Then I let the connection go, gently move the twins aside, and stand up.
“Everyone should stay seated,” I announce, as I take Niyta’s hand and pull her up.
We walk through the crowd together, and she writes down their names of the people I identify.
“It’s not good, Yagrin,” she says when we’re done.
“The twins are split between the two special groups.”
“They get frantic when they’re apart for more than a few minutes, so we always keep them together.”
We return to where I left the twins.
“Will you help me?” I ask.
“I need you to be apart for a few hours.”
I look at Tsuni, the boy.
“Come with Niyta and me to a beautiful forest, while your sister swims as a dragon in the ocean.”
“You’ll watch me?”
“I don’t want to be a dragon,” says Lessa.
“It’s really important to help us, and it’ll be fun.”
“You’ll swim with a group of sisters and children.”
“Can Ilaz and Hukal come?”
“They’re not part of your group.”
“Let me join the dragon group,” says Ilaz.
“What does it matter?”
“Each group must be perfectly balanced, and you’re not meant to be part of any of the groups.”
“Lessa, what if Hukal and Ilaz follow you in a ship, wherever you go?”
“Can I see their faces?”
“No, but they’ll be watching from the moment you become a dragon, until you’re back in the city and Tsuni returns.”
“We don’t have any ships, Yagrin,” says Niyta quietly.
“Get everyone ready.”
“I’ll be back with Hukal an hour before first light.”
“It’s a bad idea,” says Disu.
“Hukal is needed here to speak with the AIs.”
“The ship’s AI can direct itself, and has a good connection with the infonet.”
“Hukal can even help her upgrade her algorithms to his latest design.”
“I need the twins to split up, and the girl won’t agree unless Hukal watches her.”
“Where will you get the ship?”
“We’ve had one for years,” says Berek.
“Right now, it’s hiding in the ocean awaiting orders.”
“What’s really bothering you?”
He turns to me.
“Everyone else has a role in this, Yagrin, while I’m stuck here waiting for the guard to attack the house.”
“The weapons systems won’t stop them for long.”
“I never intended for you to stay here.”
“Let me join the sleepers in the forest.”
“I know I’m not that advanced in energy ways, but Tzina’s sims have really helped me the last few days.”
“What have you done with the sleepers?” asks Tzina.
“An unarmed group of twenty-three is waiting in the forest outside the Breath of Life.”
“I divided the rest into small groups, gave them weapons, and scattered them all over Siksa.”
I turn to Disu.
“The forest is not for you.”
“You belong in the sea.”
“I want you to watch over the blue city.”
“There’s a small ship waiting for you underwater — a new, more powerful design.”
“The inside isn’t completely finished, so you won’t be that comfortable, but everything works, and the AI is programmed to accept your commands.”
“The city’s not in danger,” says Disu.
“It’s hidden within the ensai disk.”
“How will the guards find it within a thousand mile stretch of water that can’t be scanned?”
“And they hate the ocean.”
“We communicated with the city a few times when we rescued the sisters.”
“The guards don’t have an exact location, but they identified a seventy-five mile area.”
“The city is located there.”
“I hate the empire, Yagrin, but I don’t want to kill my own people.”
“The ship’s AI can defend the city without you.”
“You don’t have to do anything.”
“You want me to watch while the ship kills the guards?!”
“I’m sending you there to be safe, Disu.”
“The sea is the last place they’ll attack, or look for you.”
“This is just talk,” says Dilasa.
“We don’t know when the Kizak are planning an attack.”
Shazira senses my feelings.
“You’re hiding something,” she says.
“Hukal’s AIs deciphered a message fragment that speaks of an attack at first light today.”
“How could you hide that from us?!”
“We should be here to defend Siksa,” says Shazira, “not hiding in the forest.”
“Push off the sword’s release.”
“The full moon peaks just before first light, and there’s an eclipse at that exact moment.”
“It’s the perfect time.”
“I’m sure there are more pulse disruptors that weren’t on the map.”
“I can’t find them without my full strength.”
Warning icons start flashing on the wall.
“Small earthquakes all over Siksa,” says Hukal.
“The buildings that housed the sisters and sleepers.”
“The Kizak are attacking!” says Dilasa.
“They still haven’t launched any ships.”
I touch Disu’s shoulder.
“I have another job for you before you retreat to the sea.”
“Hukal’s AIs will track what the Kizak are doing and report.”
“Stay here as long as you can.”
“My commdisk will be off, but leave me status messages.”
“I’ll take action as soon as the cage is shattered.”
“Stay near the transport platform.”
“It’s programmed to take you to the ship, whenever you’re ready.”
I bring Hukal to the city.
He hugs Lessa before she enters the airlock, and then I bring him and Ilaz to the ship.
We watch from the seabed as Lessa is transformed into a dragon.
She swims through the opening, enjoying the strength of her new body.
We feel a strong mind touch.
Are you there?
“Yes, Lessa,” answers Hukal.
“Dragons have powerful thoughts.”
“You’ll be able to speak with me and Ilaz while you swim.”
The ship follows as the group swims away from the city.
I transport the twenty-three sisters and children to the forest.
Then I take my family there, leaving Disu alone in the house.
The round clearing in the forest is called the Breath of Life.
No radiation reaches here, and the web is strong.
Twenty-two glowing crystal tables are spaced evenly along its edge, with one in the center.
A sister and a child stands near each table, Niyta and Tsuni in the center.
The sleepers remain in the forest, just outside the clearing.
The eclipse peaks, and we drop our mind walls.
“Begin,” I tell the sleepers.
They flow a dome of sea water above the tree canopy covering the clearing, and hold it there.
Half a world away, the dragons begin the greeting to the sun.
In the blue city, the sisters and children watch and dance with them.
I focus on Dilasa’s song, full of stars, amplify it, and radiate it through the whole group.
Her eyes shine brightly, and a green light moves through us.
“I choose light that serves the creator and sustains us,” says Dilasa.
She leads us, and we all dance.
Our heartbeats and the rhythm of our brain waves align.
Just before the dance ends, the sisters everywhere project the symbol of peace, drops of light falling like rain into our hearts.
Here in the clearing, the sisters and children climb onto the round tables, as my family surrounds the center table.
The gifts are covered with a soft purple glow, and a pure tone fills the area.
I bathe the disk in the energy patterns called the mothers.
It turns from metal and crystal into a bundle of dark blue, sparkling energy.
I draw the energy into my heart center, and it jumps to Shazira and the children.
It moves in ten paths between us.
A round cobalt blue platform takes shape beneath us, twenty-five feet across, five feet high, and reaches to the outer tables.
At the edge, it’s a flat ring, but the center curves in like a satellite dish.
Tzina’s song burns within me, and I broadcast it through her.
A spiral of energy forms, spinning through the clearing.
She whispers her intention, and her words echo, again and again:
“I choose possibility for us, stronger and stranger than we can imagine.”
Endless possible worlds appear as overlapping thin disks covered in images hovering all around us.
I see Shazira’s song, and within it are traces of all of our family, the Jiku and the web.
At the same time, I hear the songs of every race I’ve encountered, including the Kizak.
I mix them all together, amplify, and broadcast it.
Her intention bursts out, different than before:
“I choose to protect all of life, together.”
Berek squeezes the black necklace and his eyes glow.
His song speaks of endless energy waiting to take form.
I grow it, and project it back at the necklace.
“I choose the wild energy that threatens creation, and call on it to serve life.”
His intention echoes loud around us, shaking the ground and the trees.
I smile at Shazira for a moment, and spread my arms high.
The sword energy in my heart center is restless, ready to burst out.
I can’t control it or contain it, but I can accept and join with it.
My physical body resists, but I push past it, and pour all my strength into my song and merge the song with the blue energy that moves within me and my family.
“We are all here,” I declare, “and no life is left behind.”
“I choose change that calls us to die to the old and be reborn.”
At the center of the clearing, a gentle blue flame flickers, spins around the center table, then pours through the lens of seawater above to cover the whole planet.
The energy rages, threatening to destroy everything, and reaches into space as a bright river in the shape of a sword.
A column of spinning light takes shape at the tip of the sword and continues to the sun.
I see the blue of the sea and sky, and the green of every growing thing mix with the sun’s light.
Energy spreads out in multiple spinning funnels from the sun, then combines into an immense spherical wave.
Gateways open to every sun in this galaxy and the next, allowing the wave to pass through and enter the heart of each star.
There’s a subtle change in each star, strengthening the blue and the green, so the cage can never take hold of the stars again.
Chains of Life and Death
I awake with the sun well above the horizon.
Where have I been the last hour?
What took my awareness, and where is my body?
My physical senses are missing, but my energy senses are brighter than ever.
When I taste the web, I find it much stronger than it was before the cage.
A strange rhythm draws my attention.
The edge of the clearing behind the tables is filled with wilu, seven foot tall plants with blue and yellow flowers that surround a black seed pod.
They make a high, sweet sound when touched by direct sunlight, and, on rare occasions, they glow.
The sword awoke them, and they danced as though a great rhythmic wind swept through the Breath of Life that only they could feel.
Now everything is still.
The only sign of the endless energy are the sparkling colors of the wilu, and clear sky above the forest, at last free of clouds and radiation.
For a thousand years, a canopy of trees protected the clearing, but no more.
The wilu are touched by bright sunlight for the first time, and they’re singing.
Shazira, my children, and the others are standing around, frustrated, sad, and afraid.
Tzina is wearing a new body, transformed into a Kizak version of herself, with traces of the sword’s energy in it.
Did the sword do that?
Why is everyone still here?
Are they looking for me?
I scan the clearing.
An energy barrier holds us, its source a glowing body that lies dead and burnt on the ground.
I think flow and my other abilities are back to normal after I test them, but when I try to turn the corpse into water or air, nothing happens.
I throw fire, energy, wind, and water at the body but nothing can touch it.
And I can’t connect with Shazira or any of the other minds.
I look carefully at my old body.
The disk rests again on my belt.
Looking deeper, I find a trace of the sword’s energy circling through the bones, generating the field around us, and keeping my fire body tethered to it.
Shazira stops what she’s doing and looks around, sensing my presence.
I burn a message into the grass in front of her.
Destroy the body.
I can’t heal it.
It’s bound to the sword, and holding us here.
Berek moves everyone to the edge of the clearing and sends lightning against the body.
Shazira and Tzina reluctantly try flow, while Dilasa covers it in a stream of star energy.
We left our weapons behind when we came to the Breath of Life, the place of peace.
Besides, they would be useless against the power of the sword.
I can’t hear the voices or thoughts of my family, but I read their lips with energy sight.
“We have to escape,” says Tzina.
“The Kizak will attack any moment.”
“We’ve been stuck here for an hour,” says Dilasa.
“What makes you think they haven’t attacked?”
“Why are you in a hurry to leave this place?” asks Shazira.
“You can’t fight among the Jiku with that body.”
“Your own people will kill you.”
“What do we do?” asks Berek.
“We’ve tried everything to shatter the barrier.”
“Ina will find a way,” says Dilasa.
Can I still use the gates?
I open a PathFinder gate to the blue city, and push the sisters and their students through.
Next, I send the sleepers to join one of the armed groups in Tshuan.
Finally, I try to send my family through a gate, but they can’t pass through.
We’re trapped here.
I shape a message to them in colored smoke.
We can’t pass through the gates.
The gifts are holding us back.
“Then we’ll abandon the gifts,” says Dilasa.
“And leave ina here?” asks Berek.
“Besides, we’re tied to our gifts.”
“Putting them on the ground won’t break the connection.”
Shazira looks thoughtful.
“We need to awaken the Breath of Life as Yagrin did to first reach the gifts.”
“Then we’ll put them back in the place where we found them.”
“That will break their link to us.”
“My necklace was never hidden here,” says Dilasa.
“Nor mine,” adds Berek.
“True,” says Shazira, “but all the gifts belong together.”
“Yagrin, if you can hear us, open the storage box.”
I give them another message in blue smoke.
Surround the table, and no matter what happens, dance the greeting until I tell you to stop.
As they begin, I rise above the central table to the top of the clearing, just inside the barrier.
We need to open the Breath of Life again, but the opening will be different this time.
Berek and Dilasa are here with their gifts, and the rest of us have changed.
I draw on the remnant of sword energy that still moves through my dead body, and pour blue light into each of the eight energy wells.
The wells answer with eight fountains, each one colored with the well’s energy, and sparks of blue.
One by one, I form an exact duplicate of each of the twenty-two tables and bind my energy to the twin.
Then I spin each table faster and faster until it vanishes with a flash of light.
Finally, I take on the shape of the central table.
As I spin, I direct the green fountain from my heart well into the heart wells of my family.
Streams form between the five of us, leaping and sparkling throughout the clearing.
And then the streams jump to all the tables at once, creating a web of light.
I draw power from the web and the sun to shape five energy images of the Gen symbol called the whisheeku, and plunge the images into our heart centers.
A whisheeku appears on each table, and then a large one appears on the ground, filling the clearing.
I pull my family into the air.
They stop moving except for Shazira.
“Keep dancing,” she shouts, and they resume moving their arms and legs as before.
It starts as rhythms of energy, but as it moves through the family and tables, it shows itself as sound and light.
The outer ring of tables rise into the air, leaving the central table in place.
All the land within the clearing moves downward, forming a sunken, sloping amphitheatre.
The table splits into two halves that move five feet apart, revealing a dark blue metal sphere in the ground.
As we watch, the sphere opens.
A wooden box rests there, tightly closed, as fierce winds circle around it.
It spins and rises through the air, stopping near Shazira.
The winds continue, pulling at my family, and I can barely hold them in place.
I pour words into my energy song, and a second later they echo through the clearing:
Open it together.
I move my fire body toward the box, pulling my family and corpse on a path to meet the wooden surface at the same instant.
Dilasa and Berek are frightened by the movement of the charred body, and pull back their hands to avoid contacting it.
“NO!” yells Shazira, grabbing them.
When we meet, there’s a great flash of blue light.
My old body disappears, and the open box falls to the ground, into the open sphere.
The disk drops into the box, and the wind immediately stops.
I bring everyone gently down.
Each of the other gifts floats off those that carry them, and fall gently into place.
The box seals itself and the sphere closes.
A wave of energy, an energy wind, pushes my family and my fire body into the air.
Twenty-two crystal tables reappear, and then, began to shake, as an earthquake strikes the clearing.
A deep crack opens in the earth and swallows the central table and the sphere.
The other tables crumble into fragments that melt into bundles of light, rising into the air and out of sight.
Soon the amphitheatre is gone, and the clearing is empty except for the wilu and us.
My senses spread out across Siksa and above it, to see what the sword did to the planet.
There are scattered fires wherever I look, and more burnt buildings and people, even where the fires have gone out.
Thousands are dead or dying, and most of of the cities have no power.
I was a fool to think the sword would do no harm, and have no cost.
The energy wave damaged half the electronics on Siksa, seemingly at random, and drained away every trace of stored power.
The infonet is down.
Its ground nodes are damaged.
Most of the satellites are intact but drained of power.
When the working satellites complete their recharge cycle from the sun, will the net will come back up?
The web is so strong, I can extinguish fires in a fraction of a second.
Still, there is no time to put them all out.
The emperor is a greater threat with every second that passes.
I don’t know why the Kizak haven’t attacked Siksa yet, but I need all the speed I can find.
My family is waiting for me to appear.
Tzina is troubled, still wearing a Kizak body with traces of the sword’s energy within it.
I try, but can’t change her back.
“Don’t let anything distract you!” I tell myself.
“Go after the emperor.”
My thoughts reach out to my family.
“I’m all right but I have to stop the Kizak, and I’ll be faster without a body.”
“I’ll send you to the blue city so you’ll be safe.”
“There are fires and power failures all over Siksa.”
“And who knows what the emperor will do?”
“I’ll come back as soon as I can.”
“We’re not babies,” says Shazira.
“You needed us to safely release the sword.”
“Now we’re useless?!”
“The Jiku need our help.”
“There’s no time to argue.”
“Then don’t argue.”
“We won’t go.”
I leave them there and fly.
Gen speed is not enough.
I look into the energy wells for help that waits for me.
Energy that shows itself as a crystal staff, spinning at an impossible speed.
Eighteen crystal wheels appear around it, each spinning at its own speed, each carrying its own tone.
The sounds of the wheels reflect off the staff like a mirror and fill all my senses.
I feel them spinning; I am the wheels.
A moment later, they spin together, and slow to one turn every eighteen seconds.
The world around me comes to a virtual stop, as my awareness speeds up.
I race across the planet, scanning populated areas for pulse disruptors,
I destroy the dozens that I find, but they’re no threat.
They’ve all been drained of power.
Though untouched by fire, ruined buildings in a few cities indicate a small scale Kizak attack, sometime before first light.
And there are more than a hundred small Kizak ships shattered on the ground, along with a smaller number of Jiku airships.
The ships are broken, with dead aboard, but only a few ships were fired on before they fell.
Wherever there are energy masters, they’re working to put out fires and help the injured.
For a few minutes I race across the planet, putting out most of the fires I find, and healing those I can.
But I dare not spend more time.
Finally, my attention turns back to the emperor and I jump to his ship.
It suffered the least damage of any ship in the fleet.
I enter its network to view the recent logs.
For an hour, power vanished and everything stopped on the ships, until the wave passed.
Even emergency power was out.
Only living things were unaffected.
Circuit overloads and fires damaged many parts of the ship including containment systems.
The medical center is radioactive and abandoned.
Hundreds are dead on the ships and hundreds more are dying.
The main weapons on the emperor’s ship are under repair, and soon, they’ll be ready to be activated at full power.
With less than a thought, I leave the network, and flow every ship’s weapons to air.
Then I disable the small ships in the hanger bays, and a few intact ships on Siksa.
I return my awareness to normal speed, so I can listen to the emperor’s thoughts.
“Great father,” says the ship’s captain, “after the energy wave passed and power returned we finished repairs on the weapons and completed a successful diagnostic.”
“I know that.”
“We’re ready to destroy the planet.”
“The weapons just vanished from all the ships, along with our spare parts.”
“Even the object printers are missing.”
“We have no way to shape parts needed for additional repairs.”
“Shields and drive systems are functional on our ship for the moment, but it’s not safe to travel like this.”
“Yagrin and his curses are responsible.”
“Activate the remaining pulse disruptors.”
“They don’t answer, great father.”
“They’re gone or they’ve lost power.”
“I will not let the Jiku win!”
“Crash the ships into their cities, and time the drive systems to overload just before the crash.”
“That should wipe out all life on the planet.”
“Only this ship can fly at the moment, great father.”
“You’ll die, along with thousands of your loyal guards!”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“Let’s retreat from this star system to be safe from Jiku attack.”
“There are probes nearby.”
“We sent a message to them, and a few responded.”
“Their power was drained, but some survived and they’re already recharging from the stars.”
“We’ll send the fastest ones to the homeworld and request another transport ship to help us with repairs.”
“Don’t be a fool.”
“The Jiku know how to destroy the cage!”
“I won’t let them escape to spread their curse across the empire.”
I initiate a shutdown of the drive systems, and sever the connections to the control network so the Kizak can’t stop the process.
A moment later, I extinguish any remaining fires, and flood the ships with healing energy.
The dying stops and the radiation disappears.
I’ll return later to negotiate their surrender.
For now, let the Kizak wonder about their fate.
Siksa’s oceans are bright with energy when I hover a few feet over the water near the Tshuan coast.
What happened to the ships that carried Disu, Ilaz and Hukal?
There’s no trace of them on land or in the air.
Are they safe in the water?
I dive, surrounded by an ocean of energy that’s a mirror to the sea.
Twenty ruined Kizak ships are scattered on the seabed, thirty miles from the blue city.
The energy residue is too familiar.
I know who they’ve been fighting with.
Soon I find what I feared: Ilaz’s ship, torn in half.
And then another just like it.
Where did the second one come from?
I scan them.
There’s no trace of the energy left by living beings.
These are Mayla’s ships, but neither of them is the one I left with Ilaz.
Maybe there are answers in the blue city.
I pass three more of Mayla’s ships on the way, one mostly intact.
The drive system is damaged, but the ship still has power and air.
Once inside, I shape a new body and bind myself to it.
“Yagrin, identity confirmed.”
“How did you get here?”
“Your ship’s AI sent a Jiku distress call that it was facing thirty ships.”
“Mayla heard and sent five ships to assist.”
“How could she risk revealing the City of Life’s location?”
“In the last few days we built a hanger far underground that opens into the deep sea.”
“The risk is minimal.”
“There were only five ships in the hanger.”
“The aliens launched several missiles at the undersea area that blocks sensors.”
“Then they sent multiple ships to go underwater and investigate the area directly.”
“How do you know this?”
“Your ship told us.”
“One of her passengers received advanced warning from AIs within the Kizak networks.”
“The pilot directed her to engage the Kizak above the water before we arrived, and we joined in the fight.”
“Our ships are faster than the Kizak, with more powerful weapons, but they have better shields.”
“Your ship is different than the one Mayla built for me.”
“True, he improved the design on our ships, but your original ship has also been modified.”
“Your AI and shields use unknown tech, and are clearly superior to the Kizak ships and ours.”
“With your ship leading the attack, we succeeded in disabling or destroying all enemy ships, although the five of us were also disabled.”
“Did you lose power when the energy wave passed by?”
“There was no such event during the battle, but our fight ended just before first light.”
“The wave must have come after that, when I was already here, and the water could have blocked it.”
“Where’s my ship?”
“She was severely damaged, trying to reach land when I lost key systems and sank.”
“My communications are down, so I don’t know if she made it.”
“What about her passengers?”
“There were two when we started the battle, but sensors only registered one weak life sign aboard at the end.”
“When communications are back online, I’ll contact Mayla.”
“Maybe she knows something about your ship.”
I open a gate to the blue city and pass through.
No one is in sight, and I can’t detect any life signs, but the Jiku and Bizra may be hiding behind an energy shield.
Where are the sisters that I sent here from the clearing?
I push out a strong mental message.
Is anyone here?
A map appears in my head for a few seconds, and then vanishes.
I follow it to a small building and a storage basement.
One of the Bizra is here in the shadows.
A neat pile of building materials slides away, revealing a transportation pad.
When I step on it, it activates.
Several weapons are pointed at me when I reappear, and then quickly lowered.
“Yagrin,” says Niyta.
“Where are we?”
“Deep under the seabed.”
“The Bizra built this shelter in case the city was attacked.”
“Why are you here?”
“There’s no damage to the city.”
“The Kizak fired missiles into the ocean a half hour before first light, that landed fifty miles away.”
“The Bizra wanted to evacuate the sisters and children immediately, but the sisters knew you were depending on them, so they refused to go until after the greeting.”
“One of the Bizra stayed behind in the city to guide the returning dragons and others to safety.”
“Ilaz and Hukal went out in the ship and contacted Hukal’s AIs.”
“The AIs reported that thirty scout ships were moving toward the ocean.”
“Ilaz took the ship out of the water to intercept the Kizak.”
“One ship against thirty?”
“What was he thinking?”
“Ilaz wanted to protect us,” shouts Niyta.
“He brought the ship to a distant area of the ocean at the edge of the ensai disk before he surfaced, to lure away the Kizak.”
“Ilaz hoped the aliens would track his flight path and refocus their attack on that location.”
“He took Hukal with him?”
“There’s a transportation platform on the ship.”
“Ilaz sent Hukal back to the city before the ship surfaced.”
The boy is standing nearby, looking unhappy.
“Did you find him, Yagrin?” he asks.
“Not yet, but I know he survived the battle.”
“Are the Kizak attack ships still searching the ocean?” asks Niyta.
“Did the emperor attack Tshuan or the guild lands?”
“What’s it like up there?”
“The thirty ships sent to the ocean all crashed.”
“Pulse disruptors destroyed your schools and the buildings where the sleepers lived.”
“Other Kizak ships went after my house and other targets.”
“A few hundred Jiku were killed.”
“Was Disu still in the house?” asks Hukal.
“I gave him another ship and told him to watch over the city.”
“It was a silver sphere, which narrowed to sharp black points at two opposite ends.”
“Did you see it?”
“No other ship approached the city,” says Hukal.
“What will you do about the Kizak transports in orbit, Yagrin?” asks Niyta.
“They can destroy the whole planet!”
“When we released the sword, it launched a flood of energy that damaged the Kizak transports, and caused every ship flying on Siksa to crash, including a few Jiku airships.”
“Thank the creator, it was early, so there were few Jiku ships in the air, but some died.”
“When I got free of the sword, I raced into space and found the emperor’s ship with its weapons ready.”
“He was planning to destroy Siksa, but I stopped him.”
“All Kizak ships and weapons, in space or on Siksa, are neutralized.”
“You killed them all?!”
“I destroyed their weapons and disabled their ships.”
“I’m going to send them home, not kill them.”