Diary of Aerithos: Entry One

30 Jul

Dear diary,

My name is Aerithos. I’m eleven years old. My mother gave you to me today as a starting school present. She told me that she had been given a diary when she started school, and that it helped her a lot because it gave her a place to say how she was feeling and what she was thinking. She said that it really helped when she read old entries and saw how things had gotten better, even if she thought they wouldn’t. She also said it helped her remember when good things happened, too.

So, like I said, today was my first day of school. It was really scary and uncomfortable. I was really out of place, being the only boy there. Everyone stared at me all the time. Like, I knew they would ‘cause school is for goddesses, not boys, but it still sucks. Having to wear clothes doesn’t help either, it just makes me stand out even more. I don’t think anyone likes me. They all think I’m a fake, that I somehow tricked the teachers into letting me into the school.

It’s hard to not feel like a fake. Why did my mother have to name me “Man of power” anyway? All it does is remind me how much of a weirdo I am, like I’m some sort of boy goddess. And, like, that sentence doesn’t even make sense! A boy goddess! What a joke. It’s just some big, fat, cosmic joke.

I talked to mom about it and she agreed that being a boy goddess does sound really weird, but she said that I just have to do the best I can given what I am. So I have to wear clothes like a boy does, but what about other things? Normally boys have to keep their head down and stay out of goddesses’ way. Unless they want you to do something for them, and then you have to do it. So what does that make me? Some sorta weirdo who has to do what the goddesses say because I’m a boy, but who can’t just hang out with other boys ‘cause I’m also a goddess? What a mess.

At least learning how to use my power is interesting. I could feel it move and channel through me as I did the motions that make up spells. That’s how it works, after all. Power must be carefully controlled, because if it isn’t, all sorts of horrible things can happen. That’s what the teachers keep saying, anyway. So we have these motions to control power, and by using them together we can make spells. I’ve seen mother do that. It’s actually a lot like the alphabet and words.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to learning more. I guess I’ll write later. Bye diary!

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The Mana Tree Emergency

17 Jul

“Ugh.”

Thasha awoke to the loud, high-pitched noise of the emergency resonator. She reluctantly climbed out of bed and glared at the device.

“OK, I’m up. Where?”

It responded, “Mana Tree.”

Thasha’s stomach dropped. That was not good, not good at all.

The elf hurried from her room, reaching the Mana Tree in record time. The tree itself was housed in a large, vertical chamber. The room was designed both to give the tree space as well as to display its beauty. Only, it wasn’t looking very beautiful right now. The leaves, normally glistening, had only a paltry sheen. This was definitely not good.

Korbist was pacing below the tree. She had never seen him look so worried before. Thasha approached him and asked, “How long has it been like this?”

“Not long…thirty minutes maybe? I’m very glad to see you here. Do you have any idea what’s wrong with it?”

In retrospect, it was obvious that it couldn’t have been long; she’d not been asleep more than maybe two hours.

“Not yet, I’ll need to give it a closer inspection.”

This she proceeded to do. She started by touching the trunk. She could feel it’s manaheart, a faint pulsing where a powerful thrum should’ve been. Panic began to race through her. It would be okay, she just had to remember her training. She hastily collected her thoughts, retracing her Botanical Engineering classes from over three decades ago. They had covered this sort of thing, she was sure of it, but in all her years as chief Botanical Engineer she had yet to encounter it. She didn’t even have anyone else to lean on; this was, by Elven standards, a small vessel. As such, she was the only Botanical Engineer aboard.

“Well crud. The manaheart is weak, and it’s been so long since those classes—and they’ve never come up!—that I don’t remember how to diagnose the cause. Is there anywhere we could land this thing?”

Korbist sighed. “I’ll check with navigation.”

“Thanks. I’m going to see if I can dig up any references.”

They parted, Korbist to the bridge and Thasha to the library.

She managed to maintain a walking pace. She desperately wanted to break into a panicked run but giving into panic would not help her in this situation.

It took longer to get to the library than she’d wanted. By necessity the Mana Tree grew from the bottom floor of the ship—which is why her quarters were also on that floor—but the library was up two floors. This was a simpler vessel, which meant only one central elevator. As the bridge was on the fifth and final floor, it had made sense for Korbist to take it. They’d both unconsciously agreed on this, but it meant that she’d had to take the stairs. Thankfully, she’d remembered which of the two staircases exited closest to the library.

Now inside, she scanned through book spines. It didn’t take her long to find the book she was looking for. She yanked it from the shelf and plopped it facedown on the nearest table, then opened to the glossary in the back of the book and quickly scanned through to the entry on the manaheart.

“Okay, page 371…where is that…” Thasha muttered to herself as she flipped to the proper page. “There! Okay, let’s see…There! ‘Diagnosing…’ yes, this is it.”

She picked up the book and made her way out of the library to the walkway. Resting the book on the railing, she looked at the Mana Tree. It towered from the bottom of the ship to the top. Opposite her was the giant window that allowed the Mana Tree to receive starlight. She often liked to sit under the tree and stare off into space, contemplating the wonders of the universe. Right now, however, she alternated scanning through the book and staring at the tree, contemplating what could be wrong with it.

The hiss of the elevator made her jump. She looked towards it to see Korbist step out. The look on his face was not encouraging.

“Well, there’s some good news and some bad news.”

“Ugh. Bad news first, I guess?”

“It…doesn’t really work…look, there is a nearby colony where we could land. Unfortunately, it is the only nearby colony where we could land and it is controlled pretty heavily by fiscfolk. Also, the only ‘dry’ land are active volcanoes.”

“Well crud.”

Now she really hoped she could figure out what was wrong with the Mana Tree. Not that she hadn’t been motivated to find a solution before, of course, but this only served to heighten the stress she was feeling.

They could land the ship in water, but it wouldn’t be much of an improvement over being in space. An active volcano, however, was completely out of the question. And on top of that, fiscfolk tended to be pretty xenophobic, so unless these were unusually friendly, the elves could expect no help from them.

Korbist continued, “Shae is attempting to contact the colony, but needless to say…”

“Yeah.”

They stood there in awkward silence for a moment before Thasha returned her focus to the book.

“Anything?” Korbist asked.

“Not yet.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

“I wish.” She punctuated this with a sigh.

“Well, let me know if you get your wish.”

She couldn’t help but smile in response. “I will.”

He turned to stare at the tree and she returned to her pattern of reading the book and inspecting the tree. After a while, she headed down to the bottom floor again, where she could do more of a hands-on examination.

“No, that’s not it…maybe? No, not this either…hrm…” she muttered. She flipped the page and shouted, “Wait, that’s all?! No, no, no, no, no! That can’t be the end of it!”

She thought she had been experiencing panic, but what took hold of her now was as a wildfire to a torch.

“No, please, that can’t be it!”

She desperately flipped back to the start of the section and read it again. How could that be it? She sat down on the ground, setting the book down before her, searching desperately for anything—anything at all that could help.

Her manic frenzy was interrupted by Shaethanna, her sororier. She blinked.

“Shae, what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be up on the bridge?” Thasha felt confused.

Shaethanna shook her head. “No, flower. I should be here, letting you know that we got a response from the fiscfolk. Apparently a dragon had been living with them, and has agreed to meet with us. Hopefully she can help us.”

“Do you really think so?”

Shaethanna wrapped Thasha in an embrace, and she closed her eyes and took comfort in her sororier’s arms.

“I don’t know, but I hope so. We should be landing soon.”

Thasha buried herself in Shaethanna’s calming presence, their embrace only ending when the ship stopped. They had landed.

“Thanks,” Thasha said as she rose.

Shaethanna smiled. “Of course, love.”

Thasha made her way towards the entry area. As this was predominately a small survey ship, the entry section was a broad space with a wide ramp. To her left was a garage where several vehicles were stored. On her right was a sort of warehouse area designed to store all manner of things taken as samples from visited planets.

Thasha took a deep breath as the ramp lowered. She hadn’t met a dragon before. At least, she didn’t think she had. They were rumored to be incredibly powerful beings, capable of magic beyond the conception of any other species.

The ramp finished opening with a loud splash, and a fiscfolk swam onto the now submerged lip of the ramp. Thasha’s initial surprise at this changed to shock as the fiscfolk before her transformed into an elf. The elf stood up from where she had been lying in the water.

“Lethuasha?!”

The fiscfolk-turned-elf blinked. “You’ve heard of me?”

“Heard of you?! Of course I’ve heard of you! You pioneered the entire field of Mana Tree breeding! I’ve read your book!”

“My book?”

“Err, well, not your book, I guess. I mean, you didn’t write it? But it’s all about your work.”

“Huh. I admit, I’m rather surprised. That was…what, three? four? hundred years ago.”

They stood there a moment, neither really sure what to say next. Lethuasha finally broke the silence, “Right, so you have a sick Mana Tree you needed help with, right?”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right. Just over here.”

They walked the short distance over to the Mana Tree and Lethuasha touched its trunk. She held her hand there for a moment, then pressed her pointy ear against it, as if listening for something. She then walked around the tree, sniffed the air a few times, and stroked a couple of the willowy, leafy branches. She then backed towards the large window opposite the entry area and decks, looking up at the tree.

She half muttered, “Hmmm…well, I must say that I’m quite impressed with the elves’ progress…”

After a moment Lethuasha took a breath, opened her mouth to say something, then abruptly paused. She closed her mouth, tilted her head, blinked, then said, “Err, what was your name?”

“Thasha, Botanical Engineer!”

“Okay. Thasha, about how many crew members are there on this ship?”

“Hmm…Let’s see…” Thasha began counting on her fingers while half muttering various names or positions. After a moment, she looked up. “There’s about a dozen of us. Why?”

“Ah. That explains it, then. The good news is that there is nothing inherently wrong with your Mana Tree.”

“That is good news, but if that’s the case, then what’s happening to it?”

“If you’ve read my research, then you know how Mana Trees make mana, right?”

“Yeah, they release it as a byproduct of photosynthesis.”

“Exactly. And what is needed for photosynthesis?”

“Water, carbon dioxide, and light.”

“Precisely. It seems this Mana Tree can produce quite a lot of mana. From what I can tell, this happens because it’s bred to have extremely inefficient photosynthesis. A lot of the effort goes into creating waste mana, which means it has to do an awful lot of photosynthesis to generate the nutrients it needs.”

Thasha nodded. “That’s why we have the big window behind you and make sure it gets plenty of water.”

Lethuasha nodded. “But is it getting enough carbon dioxide?”

Thasha mulled this thought over in her head. There was plenty of air, for sure, and the ventilation system cycled it around the ship. The Mana Tree wasn’t exactly deprived for air. But did air mean enough carbon dioxide? Where did it come from? She thought over the various ship systems; systems for converting mana into various useable forms, systems for handling waste, systems for purifying water, systems for filtering air. Wait, systems for filtering the air!

“Oh. Ooooh. OH! That’s it! That’s why you asked about the number of crew!”

Lethuasha smiled.

Thasha continued, “Now I feel kinda stupid for not realizing it earlier. Then again, you’d think they’d have realized it back on Aethir. Hrm.”

Captain Nexilus—Thasha wondered when he’d gotten here—spoke, “Care to explain?”

Thasha turned to face him and nodded. “Essentially, the Mana Tree is suffocating. It uses loads of carbon dioxide, and releases mana and oxygen. We,” she waved her hands around in a broad gesture, “use the mana to power our ship. We also breath in the oxygen and breath out carbon dioxide.”

Nexilus nodded. “Sure, that’s why we don’t need any sort of carbon dioxide-oxygen exchange system like the dwarves use.”

“Exactly. But this Mana Tree needs a lot of carbon dioxide, and it needs it at a rate higher than what we produce. Basically, we don’t have enough crew members to convert oxygen into carbon dioxide fast enough.”

“Ah, so that’s why you said it was suffocating, then. It’s just like if we didn’t have enough oxygen.”

“Exactly,” Thasha nodded enthusiastically.

“I see…” Nexilus looked down and held his chin. “Then I suppose we ought to head back to Aethir and discuss a solution to this particular problem.”

“Sounds reasonable to me!” Thasha said. She turned to face Lethuasha. “Thanks so much for your help.”

Lethuasha smiled. “Of course. Though, please don’t mention you met me. I left the way I did for a reason. I don’t need a bunch of elves trying to get me to return to Aethir.”

Nexilus replied, “Of course. We won’t tell anyone, will we?” He looked pointedly at Thasha, who blushed slightly.

“O-of course not!”

Lethuasha smiled. “Good. Well, take care. I’ve got an entire school of fiscfolk to teach.” With that, she returned to the ramp, dove into the water, transformed back into a fiscfolk, and left.

Nexilus turned back to Thasha. “It’ll take us about three days to get back to Aethir if we head directly there. Do you think the Mana Tree will be okay during that time?”

Thasha shrugged. “I’m not entirely sure. We should probably stay here a day or so and let our ship’s air normalize with the atmosphere. That should work as a temporary fix.”

Nexilus nodded. “Sounds good. I’ll get things arranged. Dismissed!”

Thasha yawned. “Yessir! If you don’t mind, now that all of the excitement has died down, I rather think I’d like to get back to sleep.”

“Rest well, Thasha.”

“Thanks, sir.”

He turned and headed towards the bridge. As Thasha turned to return to her room, she noticed Korbist. Their eyes met and he said, “Well, I’m quite glad to have gotten that figured out. By the way, why didn’t you take the elevator with me?”

Thasha blinked. “Um…that’s a good question? Why didn’t I? Dunno, for some reason I’d gotten it in my head that you were using the elevator, so I couldn’t. I blame panic and a lack of sleep.”

Korbist chuckled. “Have a good sleep, Thasha.”

“Thanks.”

With that, Thasha wandered back over to her quarters, yawning along the way. She closed the door behind her, slid into her bed, and closed her eyes.

Kralkorak — Chapter 1: Hope Ignites

17 Jun

Baratus stood, hands resting on the sill of the open window. He looked out at the farms beyond the citadel with downcast eyes and a sorrowful heart. His time training would soon come to an end. From that point on, he’d simply be yet another soldier. Here at the citadel he had the faintest bit of room to be himself. He longed for more of that.

Not that he objected to fighting, not when the cause had merit. He would just rather have a life of peace, or at least a life where he could claim his own identity. He longed for a House—to be someone. As it was, he was only Baratus of Middlefield, as insignificant as anyone named for the place they were born.

And so he contemplated what he might accomplish to earn his own House, or at the very least a place in a House. Such honors were rarely given for such honors were rarely merited. He sighed. Perhaps a better goal would be to grow old enough to teach in one of the great citadels. Even that was unlikely. Really, the only practical hope would be hoping to survive his first tour of duty. If he did that, he could at least have children—not that he would ever get to meet any of them. But it would at least give him something personal to fight for.

Regardless of what he might accomplish, he knew that it would have to come from war, for all roads a man might take to greatness began upon the battlefield. He wondered, as he sometimes did at times like these, whether or not it would have been better to have been born a woman. Truly, they did not face the frontline threat of the war. But what heartbreak! For every child was born to a singular destiny: Boys grew up to be soldiers, and girls grew up to sustain the war by giving birth to yet more soldiers and by attending to the farms that kept all sustained. Such was the despairing cost of this blasted war.

Not that anyone had hope that the war would ever end. For every villainous monster struck down, another rose to take its place. Humanity had managed to hang on, but barely. The clergy, those lucky enough to be born into a House, yet unlucky enough to be born powerless, tried to instill hope that Althoran would rise to end the war. It was a notion that Baratus had hoped in…the idea that the old god would choose to end this endless war during his lifetime…

This chain of reverie was broken when his closest classmate, Horun, exclaimed, “Baratus, have you heard the news!”

“Nothing that would have you so excited.”

Horun grinned broadly, his teeth standing out brilliantly against his dark skin. “Then allow me to have the privilege of telling you!” Without waiting for Baratus’s assent, he continued on, “A god has arrived to end the war!”

He continued speaking, but Baratus could hear none of it. His mind was sent reeling. Could that old hope be true? Had Althoran finally returned? He so desperately wanted it, wanted all that such a hope promised, and yet, he could barely believe it.

“Baratus…Baratus, are you listening?”

“Err, sorry. I…I can’t believe it. Has Althoran really returned?”

“Ha, you weren’t listening at all, then! No, Althoran hasn’t returned.”

Baratus felt his heart fall. Maybe he had misheard his friend?

Horun continued, “Another god, Zorak they said, has seen our plight and desires to free us of it. He says that he’ll end the war. There’ll be a grand tournament, one for each citadel, and the winners will become generals who will train personally under Zorak himself. They’ll even get their own Houses!”

Baratus felt something ignite in his chest. He had to win this tournament.

Journey Through the Great Ravine

11 Mar

Ethan emerged from the forest and found himself at the edge of a Great Ravine. He sighed—he had spent a week going around the last one he’d come across, and he wasn’t looking forward to lengthening his journey by yet another several hundred additional kilometers. He scanned the other side, which was rather far away, and was relieved to spot a narrow footpath leading up and out of the ravine. It didn’t take him long to find the corresponding path on his side. He only hoped that they were still connected by a bridge. Dismounting from his horse, he headed down the path.

For whatever reason, this particular path had been carved straight, rather than having switchbacks. He found it odd, but was pleased to not have to attempt what would undoubtedly be a very hazardous turn for his horse. The path itself stretched on for a long ways, however, and Ethan had the sudden realization that he should have perhaps given some consideration to the time of day before heading down. Nothing much for it at this point—on a path this narrow, there wasn’t space to turn his horse around.

Even after traveling for an hour, the path continued to stretch on before him, its straightness obscuring its length. But it had to be long, for it went down one of the Great Ravines. He had been told that they were carved long ago by human hands, but he had no idea how, given that they had their depths in the earth’s inner fire. Even if people could have made the ravines, Ethan had no idea why they would. He mused on that point yet again, but still couldn’t really come up with much of a purpose. They certainly made travel harder, and he’d often found himself pondering these things whenever his travel was impeded by them.

Ethan could see mist further ahead as the path continued deeper into the ravine. He’d been expecting it sooner or later—he’d journeyed into a few Great Ravines at this point, and all of them had had steam lurking in them once he’d gotten deep enough.

It took quite a while—long enough that Ethan and his horse were so thoroughly engulfed in the warm fog that he could barely see two meters in front of him—but he finally reached the end of the path. Thankfully, the expected bridge was still there. An even more welcome sight, however, was a decently sized flat space at the end of the path, which provided an area big enough to both turn around and rest. The latter was what appealed to him—he was exhausted from walking and drenched from steam and sweat.

Ethan settled down in front of the bridge, creating a very temporary campsite consisting of a stake halfheartedly hammered into the ground to restrain his horse and his pack placed on the ground as a pillow. He ate from his rations, fed his horse, and fell asleep quickly.

Ethan awoke feeling miserable. He had slept poorly, uncomfortable as he was from the hot wet air, the hard ground, and his aching knees. Still, any sleep was better than no sleep, and he certainly wasn’t going to stick around here hoping for better. He eyed the bridge while eating. He hoped it would hold both him and his horse. He feared that it might give way—it did look somewhat old, as he examined it—and even if it did hold up, there was always the worry about slipping off of it, given that it would likely be quite slick from the steam suffusing the atmosphere here.

Ethan got everything packed away more quickly than he would have liked. He was not looking forward to crossing this bridge. He slowly let out a deep breath. Not much for it but to do it. He certainly didn’t want to stay down here. He took the lead line of his horse and began to slowly make his way across.

Ethan found himself studying the bridge as he carefully traversed it. It was made of thick logs, which was typical of what he’d seen in other Great Ravines. It must have been horrendous work, putting it together. The landing where he’d slept had likely been important to the construction effort, as it would’ve given space to orient the logs, as well as given room for any sort of cart, or similar contraption, to be turned around in order to retrieve more logs for constructing the bridge.

Ethan briefly wondered how the bridge’s constructors knew how wide the ravine was here—they’d need logs long enough to cross it, after all, and steam obscured the other side. This thought was rudely interrupted by his foot slipping on the wet logs. He caught himself, but it was a near thing, and it left him hyperventilating for a few moments. When his nerves had finally recovered, he continued forward, slightly more cautiously this time. He chided himself for getting lost in thought when he knew how treacherous wet logs could be.

It thankfully didn’t take much longer before the other end came into view, emerging from the steam. He swallowed his excitement, lest it propel him unduly fast across the remainder of the bridge. He certainly didn’t want to fall, especially at the end, though on reflection he decided that the end wasn’t any worse to fall from, not really, not when falling from anywhere on the bridge would be lethal.

The next several minutes were filled with intense concentration. And then he was across, and so was his horse! Profound relief flooded Ethan, and he promptly sat down next to the cliff at the edge of the landing on this side. He realized he was trembling, and he laughed the slightly maniacal laugh of one who has survived something that is extremely dangerous.

It was several more minutes before Ethan could muster up the will to stand, and it took another moment before he was steady enough on his feet to begin making his way up this side of the ravine. He checked on his horse before starting up, and she seemed to give him a look that said, “Well, what’s taking you so long? Let’s get out of here!” Or maybe that was his strained nerves; it wasn’t like his horse was particularly inclined to giving looks. Nevertheless, he decided he agreed with his mad interpretation of his horse’s face and began to steadily, though still somewhat shakily, make his way up the side of the ravine.

Fortunately, the trip was extremely uneventful, if exhausting. It had taken him hours to get down, and it had left his knees sore. His thighs now burned from climbing back up that same length. He also felt cold, his body having gotten used to the increased temperature from lower down in the Great Ravine, even though he hadn’t enjoyed it. He walked a solid distance from the edge of the cliff and into the woods before sitting down. It felt wonderful to stretch his legs out in front of him. His horse also seemed to appreciate the plants to eat, and Ethan took the opportunity to eat something himself.

The late afternoon was pleasant, and he felt exhaustion creeping up on him. With a grunt and a sigh he stood up, and, with the Great Ravine at his back, he continued onward. He sincerely hoped that that was the last of those blasted things he’d have to cross on his way to the great tower that stood always on the horizon, a glittering beacon of hope. The tower known as Tanavor.