When Star and Ash Collide

*

I have heard rumors of strange

anomalies in the desert. I cannot

but explore them.

– From Jahlu’s journal

* 

Before she left the Misty City, Lani had taken access to water entirely for granted. Clean, warm baths seemed a thing of another age as she sat naked in the sand, rubbing the grit from her body. Somehow, the desert seemed to get everywhere, even places covered by multiple layers of clothing. What she wouldn’t give for a real bathing experience right now!

     “We may have a good chance of seeing it tonight,” Jahlu said.

     A private bathing experience, Lani thought ruefully, refraining from glancing behind her at her male traveling companion, who was also naked, several feet away, washing the grime from his body.

     Jahlu did not gawk, didn’t even glance her way. The young man had shown absolutely no sexual interest in his partner in exploration, and for that, Lani was exceedingly grateful. Any opportunity for real privacy had vanished the instant they entered the desert. Lani had been laid bare—pun intended—before this man who, up until a few months ago, had been a complete stranger. This lack of modesty had been an unfortunate necessity in the dangerous desert wastes. Step too far from the light of their campfire and the Splinter web they placed around their camp at night to take a piss, and Jahlu might find her gnawed on bones the next morning. Choose not to take a bath in order to avoid embarrassment, and she might be infected by the poisonous ash the desert dwellers called Skakk. Choose to take that bath in the oasis instead of sitting bare-breasted on the sand, and she’d possibly poison their drinking water. Given the choice between embarrassment and death . . . well, it hardly seemed a choice.

     So, all semblance of modesty had been quite literally stripped from Lani. She’d never been in the presence of a naked man before the desert; now she was every day. Still, she was grateful that, since she had to provide him such a humiliating view, he didn’t take the chance to enjoy it.

     Not that there’s much to look at, she thought.

     She was Burdosi, one of an ever-dwindling people group known for having some of the most beautiful women on the planet. Rather short, full-lipped, bright-eyed despite deep, rich skin tones, and graced with a figure to match. Lani had been given the shortness and the full lips, but her eyes were as brown as any Ahavan’s, and her figure was . . . lacking.

     Before she’d come to the desert, Lani would have been forced to admit she wanted to lose five to ten pounds of unwanted belly fat; now she’d take those five or ten back and add another five or ten on top of it and be quite content with the result. El’Ajyh above! but didn’t this desert have a way of eating you alive?

     Had she but known what life in the desert as the research assistant to a mad scholar would do to her, she might well have stayed home . . . No, she wouldn’t have. Who was she fooling? At home, she would have been nothing but a wealthy baby maker.

     The Burdosi population was shrinking as fast as the desert was expanding, and every young woman was given a fertility test. Some Splinter device had been developed that would react with the Othersoul of women who were most likely to be fertile. Those women became the salvation of the population, particularly if they came from wealthy, talented families. They were quickly married off to eligible young men.

     Divorce was common among the Burdosi people. The same fertility test was not available for males, and if a fertile female was unable to have children, it was assumed that something was wrong with the man. After a brief waiting period, the state would forcibly separate the couple and suggest new pairings for the woman while the man would be shipped off to some menial labor or the military. A single woman might be married as many as six or seven times in her life.

     Lani had come from a rich family. She had passed the fertility test, escaping service as some handmaiden to a wealthier woman or some scribe in a dusty archive. That simply meant that she had become a pawn to be passed off to the first ruddy male who looked like he could father strong, healthy children.

     But Lani didn’t want to be a baby maker. She wanted to be a scholar, a researcher. To see the world, to travel, to go on adventures.

     And that was when Jahlu had appeared. He was an Ahavan man, an independent researcher looking for an assistant. She’d managed to get an interview with him, and he’d selected her. He had warned her that the journey would be hard, the desert unforgiving. He’d also warned her about the fact that she would have to lose all sense of modesty pretty quick. Lani hadn’t cared; she wanted out of her dying city. She hadn’t been approved to go, not exactly, but some falsified papers and cleverly crafted letters had gotten her away, spirited off into the desert where no one would even try to find her.

     And so, she was living her dreams, which happened to be a lot more dusty, dirty, and . . . naked than she’d imagined they would be.

     “Are you listening, Lani?” Jahlu asked.

     “Sorry,” she muttered. “I was kind of daydreaming.”

     He snorted. Though not much older than her own eighteen years, Jahlu gave off the air of being a cantankerous old man who had been a scholar since before she was born.

     “I said, we’ll have a good chance of seeing it tonight, I think,” he said, impatient at having to repeat himself. What was his problem? It wasn’t like he was going anywhere butt-naked. “The conditions are right, and it has been weeks since the last report of one, which means we’re about due.”

     “Uh-huh,” Lani replied noncommittedly, cleaning the last of the grime off. Though Jahlu was still ignoring her nudity, she lost no time in clothing herself again. The daily washings were necessary to keep the Skakk away, but she wouldn’t be naked around him any longer than necessary. At least the Ahavan desert tribesmen who had been serving as their guides had departed several days ago. With their rigid cultural guidelines, those young men had likely never seen a woman’s ankles before, and they did gawk.

     Unfortunately, the reason they’d left was because she and Jahlu had reached a section of the desert they said only a fool out of damnation would travel through. They refused to go any farther, demanding what pay they’d earned and leaving.

     Jahlu, of course, in blatant disregard of their warnings and offers to guide he and Lani back to civilization for free, had plowed on.

     Though they hadn’t seen any evil spirits or gargantuan monsters as the tribesmen swore they would, they were well and truly lost by now. Their provisions wouldn’t last too much longer, and they still had to think about the trip back. Of course, Lani knew Jahlu would gladly die for the research he was pursuing, but what good would that do him if all the notes he collected molded away in his dead hands while his bones bleached beneath the hot desert sun? Research was only valuable if the information was passed on.

     Not only that, but Lani’s ideas of adventure had not included dying. Not preferably. So, she, unlike her young master, was very much thinking about the trip back.

     “I hope we see one soon,” she said. “Otherwise, I’m worried we’re going to starve to death out here.”

     Jahlu snorted again, this time in derision rather than annoyance. “We’ll find one. I’ve a feeling in my gut it’ll be soon.” He stood and began to dress.

     “I do have one other question,” Lani said. As she thought to pose it, she wondered at herself for not asking it before.

     “What?” Jahlu said, throwing his cloak over his shoulder and wrapping it about himself.

     “If we have spent this entire time trying to avoid Skakk poisoning, how will we do so if we actually find one of these anomalies?”

     Jahlu shrugged. “We may not.”

     “Then what’s the point?” Lani demanded.

     “Science, my dear girl. Science.”

     Lani snorted, both at the assertion that science was worth dying a terrible death for and at the use of “girl” when he was only a few years older than her. “Well, I for one question the sanity of your plan. If we both get poisoned and die out here, who will get your research back to civilization to make it worth anything at all?”

     “Who says we’ll both be getting close enough to the anomaly to be poisoned?” Jahlu remarked casually, wrapping his face cloth about him.

     “What?”

     “It’s simple, is it not? One of us observes the phenomenon from a distance, taking notes; the other observes it from within, taking notes. If that person becomes poisoned, the other retrieves their notes in the morning and takes them back to civilization.”

     Lani stared at him in amazement. “And who’s going to be the one in the anomaly?”

     “Well . . . as to that. You see, I wish it could be me, but I’m afraid that’s not possible. I, being the more scientific mind, will be able to synthesize our notes into solid research far better than you.”

     “So, you dragged me out into the desert, let a bunch of men watch me rub sand on my ass, forced me to risk my life every day, just so you could throw me into the midst of a goddamn Splinterfall for the sake of your science!” Lani exploded.

     Jahlu stared at her, clearly confused. “Do you not care about science?” he asked. “Honestly, I am rather jealous of your position, getting to observe the anomaly from within, but there’s no help for it. My role must be to take the combined and evaluated research back.”

     Lani stood, mouth hung open, incredulous. “Jealous?” she said. “Jealous!”

     “Why, yes. You will be experiencing what no one ever has before.”

     “You’re out of your mind, Jahlu!” Lani cried. “This is outrageous! I was willing to take risks, but what you’re proposing sounds more like a bad way to commit suicide! I’m leaving!”

    She pulled her loaded pack off the ground and turned to stride away. Jahlu coughed behind her in a way that was both polite and exceedingly annoying at the same time.

     “What?” she demanded, whirling on him.

     “You’re going to the wrong way,” he said.

     Lani stared at him a moment, then gazed around at the vast desert around them. She realized in a moment how hopeless it would be to even consider trying to leave. She was not blessed with the greatest sense of direction and, until taking up with Jahlu, she had never traveled before. She didn’t have the least idea how to get back to the Burdosi city she came from, and even if she managed to survive the desert alone, what did she have to go back to? Becoming yet another member of breeding stock for the Burdosi’s failing population?

     She felt her shoulders visibly sag, the pack sliding a bit as they did.

     “I’m stuck, aren’t I?” she muttered.

     Jahlu shrugged. “I won’t keep you here,” he said nonchalantly. “You can leave if you wish.”

     “And go where?” Lani asked. “I have no reason to return to my people, and I likely wouldn’t survive the trip home even if I tried.” She heaved a sigh. “I guess I’m dying for science then.”

     Jahlu nodded, almost admiringly. “I knew you’d come to see it that way, Lani. You’re a true researcher.”

     Or a true fool, Lani thought regretfully as she hoisted her pack higher on her shoulders and trudged after her employer, whom she was now completely convinced was quite mad.

*

They traveled into the late afternoon before Jahlu found what he was looking for. In a shallow valley, strewn about with a few rocks poking from the sand and little else, the young man grew excited.

     “This is it,” he said, kneeling and tracing a pattern with his finger in the sand. “There is definitely Skakk underneath this sand, and the signs of a Splinterfall are all about this place. We set up here!”

     Lani glanced doubtfully about, unsure how he saw evidence for either Skakk or a Splinterfall, and growing even more deeply concerned. The “anomaly” they were supposed to be studying was the interaction between a Splinterfall—a deadly rain of crystal shards from the sky—and Skakk—a deathly poison. How Lani was ending up in the center of this and how exactly she was supposed to survive it, she wasn’t sure.

     She probably wasn’t supposed to survive it, honestly. Jahlu could always find another research assistant. There had to be plenty more knowledgeable than her, anyway. She only hoped that if she had to die it would be impaled through the brain by a falling Splinter rather than being Skakk-poisoned. She’d heard horrific things about it from the desert tribesmen, many of whom claimed it did not kill a person but, rather, stole their Othersoul and left them a hollowed-out shell of a human, a monster. Lani struggled to believe those tales, but what she didn’t struggle to believe what that being Skakk-poisoned was agonizing, not a way she wanted to go.

     You could be back in Burdosi land, making babies, Lani reminded herself. This, at least, was more thrilling. Though, given the choice between death and pregnancy, it seemed hardly a choice at all.

     “How exactly am I supposed to survive this, to even have a chance?” Lani asked, pointing to the valley floor. “It’s not like there will be much shelter once the sharp, pointy crystals start being hurled from the heavens.”

     “Never fear,” Jahlu replied, somewhat dramatically. “I have a solution for that.”

     The “solution” did not ease Lani’s feelings of discomfort in the least. It turned out to be what amounted to a tiny tent but, rather than being made of cloth, it was formed of poles with interwoven Splinter light between. It was, admittedly, beautiful and of brilliant design, but Lani saw no reason to believe it would stop a falling chunk of crystal coming out of the sky.

     “What is even the point of this?” she demanded.

     “It is my special design,” Jahlu said. “I based it off of some detailed plans I found in an old Ahavan library. Apparently before the Reclamation, these sorts of tents existed. The light itself forms the cloth and, if Thread Woven correctly, it will repel falling Splinters away from you.”

     “What do you mean, if?” Lani asked.

     “Well, it has been tested in my laboratory, but it has never been put to so . . . potentially dangerous a test.”

     “You know,” Lani growled, “You’re just full of encouragement today, Jahlu.”

     He shrugged. “I never said this kind of research would be without personal risk.”

     “You neglected to mention ‘certain death’ as one of the conditions of signing on.”

     “Oh, come now! Certain death is an exaggeration. In truth, my design should be able to keep you safe. I have complete faith in the Weaving!”

     Not enough faith to get in it yourself, Lani thought.

     Evening came, then the twilight time. The Splinterveil, interwoven patterns of green, blue, orange, and purple light, glowed in the sky over the valley. It was especially vibrant, a sign that a Splinterfall was likely. The events rarely happened during the day for some odd reason, and this one was no exception.

     “Well, best get into the tent now, Lani,” Jahlu coaxed, setting up a small portable table, a mere foot and a half high, and sitting cross-legged behind it. He laid out his journal and a Splinter-powered lamp, handing her a second journal and lamp to take with her.

     “Take whatever notes you can. If the worst should happen and you become either Skakk-poisoned or impaled, please take comfort in knowing that your sacrifice will be the doorway to indispensable knowledge for the world.”

     “Praise be to God,” Lani muttered, taking the journal and lamp and trudging off down the slope, into the valley.

     She felt her throat go dry with dread anticipation as she bundled herself into the small Splinter-Woven tent, tapping the necessary crystals to bind the entire thing shut. Gazing around through the shimmering light of the tent’s transparent Weaving, Lani felt no reassurance that she would be surviving this night.

     The last dying rays of light faded into the west and, as total darkness settled over the land, save for the rising moons and the Splinterveil, Lani struggled to relax her tense muscles. It seemed impossible that she should make it through this ordeal alive. She wondered if anyone would miss her should she die. She supposed her parents loved her, but true affection was at a premium among the Burdosi where the continued survival of their people was the only thing that truly mattered. To them, she might well be seen as a traitor—a fertile woman, capable of continuing the race, neglecting her duty to wander off into the desert with an Ahavan who had clearly been out in the sun too long.

     Where do I fit? she wondered. Who am I, even?

     She had thought herself a natural-born researcher and adventurer, but her thirst for questing the desert for hidden knowledge had long since been quenched, and huddling in the tent, trying not to completely panic, she couldn’t quite say she made the finest researcher of all time. She had no desire to be a mother, either. No desire to find a man. No desire to be anything, really.

     What is my purpose?

     She looked up at the sky overhead. The Splinterveil seemed to be thickening, as though pieces of it were solidifying. Lani swallowed. She knew what this meant—the crystals would begin to rain down at any moment. She had watched it happen before, but always from a distance. Being directly underneath as the sky pulsed madly, she nearly lost her nerve and fled.

     Thankfully for her, that instinct was not given a chance to be acted upon; otherwise, she would have met a swift end. For not three seconds after she had the thought to run, the first crystals fell, hurtling down from the heavens with horrific speed, sharp needles of death.

     Lani screamed . . .

     And somehow, she did not die.

     The crystals landed all around her little tent with dreadful thumps and cracks into the sand, but the tent’s magic repelled them from reaching her. They were hurtled away, as though repulsed by some unseen force, and not a single Splinter found its way through the Weaving.

     Lani’s scream turned into a triumphant whoop of excitement as she realized that she was in the midst of one of the most dangerous and yet beautiful displays nature could put on and was totally safe. She began to understand why someone like Jahlu might have a slight feeling of jealousy knowing what she was experiencing and not getting to experience it himself.

     “God above,” she breathed, as she watched the multi-hued crystals land all around her, falling like the rain in her own homeland.

     She remembered her mission and swiftly began to write.

 

The Weaving of the tent keeps the

Splinters at bay, and allows the

most beautiful sight these eyes

have ever beheld. As if the stars

themselves were falling about me.

 

Lani forced herself to remember that she was not here to wax poetic, and turned her attention from the awestruck wonder to the more scientific details, trying to record her observations in a way that would impress Jahlu. He had already corrected her multiple times—and rather harshly—on the technicalities of her notes throughout the course of their journey, and she felt a sudden desire to impress him.

     Why not? It no longer seemed that she would be dying tonight, so she might as well earn the admiration of this man, as it might well earn her employer’s approval and maybe a long-term job as well. That thought in mind, Lani returned to her notes.

The interaction between the Splinters

and the tent is remarkable. On close

inspection, they are, quite literally,

being expelled from the vicinity of

the tent. Turning attention upward,

it is possible to catch glimpses of

the Splinters forming within the veil.

From this vantage, they are but specks,

but, like rain, they seem to condense

together from Threads of light, forming

a hardened surface and falling. The

reaction must be rapid, as some are the

size of a human fist or larger when

they fall. Returning to the ground . . .

 

And then Lani’s notes quite literally trailed off as she saw what was happening on the ground. It was what Jahlu had been looking for, the whole reason he had risked so much to travel the desert. It had been mere rumor before, but now she was seeing it with her own eyes.

     As the Splinters hit the sand with tremendous force, flecks of black began to rise, seemingly dislodged. Skakk, clearly. Though Lani had never seen it, she’d heard enough about it to know what it looked like. The flakes of ash-like substance, dark and sinister, rose from the ground around where the Splinters fell. Initially, it simply appeared as though they had been shaken loose by the force of the Splinters’ impacts, but as Lani looked closer, she found something far more fantastic to be going on.

     The Skakk collected around the Splinters, as though drawn to them by some force, attaching to the crystals’ surface almost possessively. Some of the Splinters’ lights began to dim as more and more Skakk attached itself to them.

There is a strange relationship between

the Skakk and the Splinters, almost as

though both were alive and drawn to

one another. The attraction may be

mutual, though it would seem that the

Splinters are drawing the Skakk flakes.

 

Lani’s assumption that the interaction was benign was soon shattered as the flakes began to burn, not a fiery demise, but simply dissolving in the light of the Splinters. She watched with morbid fascination as some Splinters particularly near to the tent burned away the Skakk.

     She was so absorbed watching one Splinter that was being particularly coated in Skakk, that she was completely taken by surprise when the light of its center suddenly went out and the Splinter cracked, shattering and sending shards flying at her and all around. She threw her hand up instinctively, but the bits of Splinter were repelled and flew away.

     She watched in shock as the Skakk, having successfully destroyed the crystal, floated away through the air, migrating towards another fallen Splinter.

     This isn’t mere attraction, Lani realized. This is a war.

     The Skakk and the Splinters were at odds with one another, as surely as midday and midnight could not coincide. The Splinterfall was not merely a disruption to the bed of Skakk in this valley—it was an attack. The two forces of nature, one darkness and decay, the other light and energy, could not coexist. They must destroy one another.

     But over what?

     Lani wrote furiously, scribbling notes, hypotheses, predictions about the outcome of this strange battle. She was so absorbed that the sounds of the Splinterfall seemed to fade from her consciousness. She was one with her notebook, frantically trying to take down all the notes she could, every little detail she was able to observe, before the anomaly ended and the chance to make sense of it all was gone.

     She wrote and wrote, the world outside thundering and blazing with light. Even as the Splinterfall began to slow, fewer chunks of crystal falling than before, Lani finished her last notes and half rose.

     She coughed.

     Then she coughed again.

     For a moment, it was nothing. Then, and only then, did Lani notice the tiny flecks of black rising around her . . .

     Within the tent.

     For a few seconds, she simply stared, breathed in and out instinctively, felt the now poisoned air enter her lungs. Then she let out a single, horrified scream that was drowned by the still falling crystals.

     Then she panicked.

     Lani dropped the notebook and pencil. She clawed at her throat, desperately, hitting herself in the chest as though the simple gesture could rid her lungs of the poisonous Skakk. She knew, however, that it was futile. The desert tribesmen had warned them, cautioned them, cajoled them to be careful.

     Once poisoned, there was little that could be done.

     Lani was going to die.

     She shrieked, thrashing about, trying to figure out what to do. The Splinterfall continued, lessened but far from over. The Skakk outside continued to make its war with the crystals while the Skakk inside continued to make its war with her lungs.

     She felt her hand hit something hard—one of the crystals that made up the base of the tent. It twisted, turning and changing the pattern of the Weaving. Then the tent, to her horror, fell away.

     The first Splinter impaled her almost immediately, small enough not to kill her as it imbedded in her shoulder, but with enough force to break bone and cause agonizing pain. She fell to her knees as more rained down on her, piercing, cutting.

     She screamed into the sand and coughed as more poison filled her lungs. She felt it changing her, deadening her. Supposedly Skakk would turn one into a mindless monster, incapable of feeling, lacking a soul. She could feel the change occurring already, her mind slowly being taken over by the black poison within.

     Her hands clawed into the sand as pain began to give way to numbness. Her hands found something hard, something . . . alive? She closed her fingers about it and pulled it out. It was a large Splinter, deep red, glowing within as though on fire. A pair of piercing lights, yellowish-gold, lit within the crystal, like two eyes.

     They locked on her, and she gasped.

     You are the one, she heard a voice in her head. Take me and live, child.

     Instinctively, Lani tightened her grip on the crystal, and suddenly her mind came alight, as though a whole new reality had come upon her. She felt her awareness expand. First, the numbness vanished, and she felt a black presence leaving her skin, the Skakk evaporating before the fire that raged through her.

     Then came the pain, as she began to feel every cut and broken bone from the falling shards of crystal that had buried themselves in her. But the pain began to flee as well. She reached out, and fell into her Othersoul, something she rarely did. She had never really known what her Othersoul could do, but now she felt a purpose, a power, another consciousness seamlessly meshing with hers.

     I am Ala’khan’hai’inihka, Bhakari, keeper of the World Shard. You are mine now, and I am yours, Lani, heir of the stars.

     Lani’s brain could find no response. She simply allowed the presence to overwhelm her. She felt the shards fly from her, her body lifted, her bones mending, her cuts sealing shut. She rose, hovering above the ground, red light surging around her. The world came to life. She felt the Splinters as though they were long lost friends, and they began to react to her, falling where she directed. She felt the Skakk as an enemy and directed her power there.

     The Splinterveil, which had begun to dim, pulsed again, sending a fresh wave of Splinters falling on the foe, their light consuming, burning through the dark ash, setting fire to the decay, bathing the desert valley in new life. Lani cried, and the presence within her cried, and the very Splinters themselves seemed to echo the call. Lani saw and felt the Skakk being annihilated in the fire of heaven until not a fleck remained. The valley was littered with sparkling crystal, the air humming gently with the pulse of life. Threads of Splinter light, green, blue, purple, and orange, floated almost lazily in the air. And Lani hung, suspended in the ether, the glowing red Splinter clutched in her hands.

     And around her, the desert was silent and still.

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