Quintessence Sky Preview
Paul and Thomas had reported seeing something unusual—a blight, they called it, a region of forest where the plants were dying. It was just one of a host of strange things that had been happening on the island recently. Ferocious lightning storms blocked the sun and deluged the colony with rain nearly every night. More alarmingly, the salt harvest had been declining for weeks. Salt was the fuel by which they generated a flow of quintessence, and without quintessence, they couldn’t make food or fresh water or do any of the other miraculous things they needed to survive.
If this blight could shed some light on the salt shortage, it would be worth the trip. Despite Matthew’s concerns for her safety, Catherine knew she was the best person for this expedition. She knew the forest, she could speak the manticore language, and she was one of the best experimentalists in the Quintessence Society.
The manticores reappeared, beckoning her in a new direction. As they ran, she asked them about recent politics among their various tribes. It was always hard to stay current with which leaders were growing in power, which tribes had allied with each other, and which had become enemies.
“A new river is rising,” Thomas said in his own language. Manticores referred to their tribes using water imagery, which seemed apt to Catherine, considering that a tribe represented a long stream of memories shared from member to member across generations. Tribe loyalties were based less on physical families than on these memory families, and tribes could merge and split and trade members as alliances shifted. It made it difficult for the humans to keep track.
“What is this new river?” she asked.
“Rinchirith hates the humans, and he draws many to his course. The river of Christ grows wider, but as it does, there are even more who wish the humans gone.”
It was bad news, but not surprising. As the colony grew stronger, more manticores were drawn to join the converts—whether or not they truly understood the gospel—and ally themselves with a growing power. That very strength, however, drew the hatred of many others, especially those who had died at human hands in the battle for the colony the previous year. Catherine thought she remembered Rinchirith.
“His brother died on the wall last year, didn’t he?” she asked.
“Two of his brothers,” Thomas said. “His hatred is strong.” Paul was quiet, but his tails waved a grim assent.
By the time the sun had passed its zenith, they had left the beetlewood forest far behind and crossed the plains, where herds of grazing fire buffalo cropped the grasses. In the distance, Catherine saw a puff dragon, a reptile the size of an ox that could make itself light enough to float through the air. It drifted on the breeze, trying to get in position over a buffalo, at which point it would plummet, crushing its prey under its suddenly substantial weight.
The sun grew huge as it moved toward the west, and the air grew steadily warmer. Since Horizon was so close to the edge of the world, the sun was cold and distant in the mornings, but vast and blazingly hot in the evenings, nearly filling the western sky. The animals that thrived in the cool took shelter, while reptiles and others that craved the heat began to appear. More sophisticated animals changed color or extruded spines to help radiate heat away from their bodies, allowing them to remain active all day.
The fire buffalos caught flame, burning away the thick hair they had grown during the night to insulate them from the cold. Eventually, Catherine and the manticores sat and rested for a time, tired after hours of traveling. Catherine caught the scent of burnt hair on the wind.
“I don’t understand why some manticores hate us so much,” Catherine said. “I know we made some mistakes early on, but there’s no reason our races can’t be friendly now. You two have learned English, learned to read, even accepted the gospel. Why can’t they all be like you?”
The two manticores didn’t answer, but she sensed something was wrong. The poses of their tails were—what—disbelieving? And from Paul, a sense even of animosity.
“Can you truly not understand?” Paul said. There was a rough edge to his voice.
“You humans have changed everything, our security, our way of life. Hundreds have died because of you. Ancient memory fountains destroyed. The structure of tribes and families shifts, some following human ways, some hating them, but all revolving around you. All choices must now consider, what will the humans do? And how many more will come? Everything is different. And you do not understand why some would hate you?”
Catherine was taken aback by the venom in his tone.
“But you’re a friend,” she said. “You worship God now. You can read and write. You probably know more Greek than I do.”
Paul stared straight ahead, not looking at her. “Because I see the writing on the wall, as the king did in your book of Daniel. I know that to survive in this new world, I must know the human language, the human beliefs, the human thought. It does not mean that’s what I wish for myself. Or for my people.”
“Then, you don’t truly believe in Christ?”
“My father sent me to convert, for the benefit of my memory family. It is who I am now. It is what must be done.”
Catherine didn’t know what to say. The humans had brought culture to this island, hadn’t they? They had taught the manticores to read, shared with them the Bible and the ancient writings of the Greeks, taught them the gospel as well as mathematics and rhetoric. They had given them the key to civilization. It had never occurred to her that they might not want it.
“Paul exaggerates,” Thomas said. “There is much we have learned from you.”
Paul lashed his central tail in the equivalent of a scowl. “My name is Hakrahinik,” he said.
THEY RAN on, through growing shadows. The conversation unnerved Catherine, as did the news about Rinchirith, and she was glad Matthew had insisted on her manticore bodyguard. It still irked her, though, that he had tried to prevent her from going. They had shouted at each other, and she’d cried despite herself. He said he expected her to continue to pursue scientific exploration and experimentation after their marriage, but did he really mean it? Or would he expect her to stay at home and give those things up? He’d tried to apologize, but she hadn’t given him the chance. She’d simply taken her pack and headed off without saying goodbye.
He worried for her safety; she appreciated that. But she didn’t want to be protected, not if that meant keeping her tied up at home. What would it be like when he was her legal husband, and had the authority to command her? Could she trust him to keep his promises? She was afraid that, once married, he might decide that treating a wife as an equal was too much to ask. And what if they had children? Would he take time away from his research to help care for them, or would he leave all the work to her? The closer she got to her wedding day, the more she wanted to avoid it.
Catherine had to admit that a big reason she had wanted to come was to prove to herself that she really could accomplish something on her own. On the ship, she’d been unconscious, a helpless victim to the manticore bond, and her father had rescued her. When the Spanish had captured Matthew, her rescue attempt had gone sour, and her father had rescued her again, using quintessence to resurrect her. When the manticores attacked, she had figured out a way to fight them off, but in doing so, she had burned the settlement to the ground.
Worst of all was Maasha Kaatra, the servant of Christopher Sinclair’s whose death she couldn’t get out of her dreams. It had been her job to manage the void. Her responsibility. It had been her first time doing so, but that didn’t excuse her lapse. The wonder of what Sinclair was doing had distracted her, and the void grew out of control. By the time she noticed, it was too late. Maasha Kaatra had seen a vision of his murdered daughters that day, just before he plummeted into the void. Instead of trying to pull him back, Catherine had pushed away from him, thinking only of freeing herself from his grasp. He had fallen, fallen, tumbling endlessly into the empty space behind the fabric of reality. She could still see his dwindling form in the darkness when she closed her eyes.
This trip was her chance, finally, to do something that mattered and get it right.
They reached the far side of the plains and entered the thicker, wetter forest at the foot of the great mountains. Dark clouds swept in on swift winds, and distant thunder thrummed. The mossy foliage of the treetops grew thicker overhead, leaving the forest floor splotchy with patches of deep darkness. Another storm was on its way.
Catherine fished her bell-box out of her pack and pushed the lever in a rapid pattern. Back at the settlement, the bell on the box’s twin would chime just as if she were pulling its string. Matthew would be listening, and would be glad to know she was all right.
The code by which they communicated had improved over the years, and Catherine and Matthew used it often enough that they had developed their own shorthand references. She let him know approximately where she was and that she was safe. When she finished, her bell began ringing in swift patterns, Matthew wishing her luck and urging her to be cautious. She wanted to say more, to make some gesture of reconciliation, but the code wasn’t subtle enough to transmit expression or feeling adequately. It would have to wait until she returned.
Catherine checked her compass beetles, as she had throughout the trip, to be certain of her heading. The beetles always tried to crawl toward their home—even across oceans—which made them an ideal tool for navigation. She was carrying two: one that lived in the forest near the settlement, and one from another beetle colony they had found elsewhere on the island. Using a rough estimate of the angle between the directions each was facing, she could calculate her position on the island with fair accuracy.
The beetles were black with wing covers traced with tiny curlicues of pale green. As soon as she opened their box, however, she could tell that something was wrong. They were motionless, not scrabbling against the side as they usually would be, trying to move toward their homes. Tentatively, she reached in and touched one. It was stiff and clearly dead. What had happened to them?
She pulled out a knife and cut one of them in half lengthwise, from its mandibles to the top of its abdomen. Its flesh was laced with layers of salt and stone, just as the sailors of the Western Star had been when her father had dissected them so long ago. But that had been in London. These beetles were here, on Horizon, where the sky dipped near the earth and flooded it with quintessence power. They weren’t supposed to run out of quintessence here.
Catherine suddenly realized how quiet it was. She ought to hear something—the whir of a Hades helmet fly, the chirp of a honeyguide, the scratch of a marmoset’s claws in the canopy above—but the forest was silent. The trees on this part of the island were thicker, the trunks steaming with humidity that blanketed the air, unlike the dry, scuttling sounds of the forests further south that rattled when the wind blew. Still . . .
“Thomas?” she called. “Paul?” Her voice seemed small, and there was no response.
Best to be prepared. She licked her finger and dipped it in the salt pouch at her belt. It came out dusted with the small white granules. She licked again, spreading the salt out on her tongue, and felt a warm tingle as it reacted with the quintessence in her bloodstream. She could feel the salt spark and burn inside her, giving her power. A glowing sheen appeared on her skin.
Dark clouds roiled above her. The ground had been steadily sloping downward for some time, and now it became swampy. Reeds grew in clumps around stagnant pools, and she had to step carefully to avoid sinking up to her ankle in mud. She reached a break in the undergrowth where the ground dropped away more suddenly, affording her a wider view, and she saw corpses everywhere, littering the landscape. Dead fish and frogs floated white and rotting in putrid water. A boarcat lay half submerged in a muddy pool, only matted fur and one ear visible, without so much as a ripple in the pools of water around it.
No natural creature killed this many animals and then abandoned the meat to rot. Catherine had spent enough time in the forest to know what death looked like. Nature cleaned up after itself. The death of one animal was food for others: flies, grubs, and scavengers both on land and in the air. But here, even the flies were dead. They littered the ground like seed sown in a crop field. Carrion birds lay crashed on the ground with their wings outstretched and their bodies broken as if they had died mid-flight and plummeted to the earth. There was even a dead opteryx—a scavenging reptile that, despite its large size, floated high on the breeze like a vulture in search of rotting flesh to eat.
It was as if everything that came within this rough circle of earth had died. Plants drooped, wilted and brown, and mossy clumps rotted on the branches of the trees. The smell of putrefaction was thick and turned her stomach. What had happened here?
She called again for her manticore bodyguards, but got no response. Were they dead as well? Invisible, they could be lying at her feet, and she wouldn’t know it. She took a step back and fished a tiny bottle from her pack. The bottle held the tears of a seer skink, a blue liquid which the skink excreted from glands around its eyes, and which enabled it to see and catch its prey, the normally-invisible Hades helmet fly.
Catherine covered the mouth of the bottle and upended it briefly, leaving a small drop behind on her finger, which she smeared into her left eye. Pain seared her eye. That always happened, but once it passed, the world would come alive with light and color. Tiny networks of light would cross through the air, connecting trees and rocks, some stretching out of sight or into the sky. It was like clearing a film from your eyes that you never knew had been there.
The threads of light were quintessence, the foundation of the miracles they did every day: turning sand into food, building homes of diamond and gold, communicating across miles. The threads were everywhere, connecting every living thing, reaching even beyond the grave. There was some disagreement among members of the Quintessence Society about just what quintessence was. Was it really the light itself? Was it something behind the light, something intrinsic to the way the atoms of the material world were stitched together? Or was it spiritual, a matter for prayer and meditation rather than experimentation?
Regardless, it was closer and more powerful here on Horizon. Some said it was because here, at the edge of the world, the sun and stars dipped down close to the Earth. Some said the quintessence came from the animals; some that the animals simply benefitted from it. Sinclair had even suggested that the animals used to be ordinary, and only became extraordinary when their island had floated to the edge of the world. Whatever was true, quintessence was everywhere you looked.
Except here. As the pain subsided, Catherine looked around and saw nothing. No light. No quintessence. That explained all the death, at least. She could picture the opteryx, drifting close, then suddenly reverting to its true weight and plunging to earth. Every living thing on Horizon, from the grass to the insects to the giant bovine herds, relied on quintessence for survival. Including her.
Catherine reached inside herself for the familiar flow of quintessence that would allow her to run quickly for safety or leap to the top of one of these trees, but it was gone. She turned and ran, stumbling over roots. She felt clumsy running without the help of quintessence. But no, it was worse than that. Her feet felt heavy and her ankles didn’t bend the way they should. She knew what was happening. Without quintessence, the food and water she had consumed over the last year was transforming back into salt and sand.
She tripped again, and fell on her face. Her legs were stiffening fast. She clambered up again, but she could barely move her knees. It was like walking on stilts. Her legs were turning to stone.
An image flashed into her mind, of Mad Admiral Chelsey and the original explorers, their bodies stiff with stone and encrusted salt. Their bodies had changed more slowly than this on their return voyage, but they had only gradually moved away from the source of quintessence, too.
She screamed for help, but with little hope. Thomas and Paul must have already succumbed, dying before they could alert her. They were, after all, native Horizon creatures, even more dependent on quintessence than she was.
She fell into the mud again, and this time she couldn’t get up again. She couldn’t bend her knees or get any traction against the swampy ground. Her legs burned with pain. A vine creeper next to her was still green and laced with purple flowers. She knew the variety — an innocent-looking bloom with sweet smelling nectar, safe for insects that would spread its pollen, but bearing invisible poisoned barbs to kill any larger animal (or human) inclined to touch it. Catherine had no intention of touching it. The point was, it was still alive. It must be outside the range of the blight. She was close!
She grabbed an exposed root and pulled herself through the muck, trying to get her legs out of the dead zone. As she pulled, however, she saw the creeper turn brown and its bright flowers wither. Whatever was causing the circle of death, one thing was clear. It was spreading.
She saw it spread past her to other plants, too fast for her to escape. The stiffness crept up her torso, and she cried out from the pain of it. Then, helped by her skink tears, she saw a single quintessence thread burning, leading from her pack back toward the settlement. Her bell-box. She pulled it out. At least she could tell Matthew what was happening. She worked the handle, beginning a message, but before she could say anything, the bright thread snapped, and she was left with a useless wooden box of bones. She cried out in frustration and flung the box aside.
The rain clouds above blocked the sun, leaving her in near-darkness. She made one last, desperate attempt to pull herself forward, but the ground was slick with mud, and there was nothing to hold on to. The circle of death was spreading too fast. It seemed that Matthew’s fears for her safety would prove warranted after all.
The dark clouds broke open, and it started to rain.