When all is gone,
Despair`s work, done.
The final note, in the dark,
You`ll hear with your heart.
Part of ``Lament for a Lost World"
From the Academy Archives, Central Library.
Prologue, Part one:
A Little Hope
(Opal Realm, after the Fall, 17 years ago)
The moons and stars were out tonight, for the first time in ages. The clouds of dust and ash that sullied the sky had parted enough to actually see the pinpricks of light from the heavens. Pitch-black shadows lined the landscape, giving the impression of prison bars across the entire countryside. A gentle breeze whispered amongst the leaves on the dark trees of the forest, and now and again, the sound of an animal foraging quietly in the undergrowth could be heard. Nature was making certain to be as unobserved as possible, as the very world itself could still remember what happened to those that made themselves known. This remote region of the Opal Realm had been one of the first places attacked when They had come; They had destroyed its buildings and hunted down its inhabitants. Almost a year ago, this gentle culture had been crushed.
The tiny clouds of grey dust that rose from the footfalls of the six ragged souls were whipped away by the breeze, immediately starting to erase the tracks made by their passage. Most of them were counting on things staying this quiet for at least one more night, as they made their way into the ruins of the city. At least within the boundaries of the old capital, they would no longer have to fend off the surviving predators that had reclaimed this land, and just maybe, they might be able to finish what they had started, and then rest.
The broken highway they followed was merging with the remains of a traffic system that had been shattered beyond repair. Spanning the roadway, the remains of concrete overpasses built by teams of peridot and sapphire engineers decades ago had blast marks and spidery cracks, exposing the supporting crystal rods. Every now and then, deep craters holding the remains of shattered vehicles or road signs forced the travelers to skirt around them. The buildings were beginning to appear now. Empty industrial warehouses, crumbling office buildings, devastated factories moldered away, as wild growth asserted itself. All the decorative or functional crystals had been either destroyed, or stolen away long ago. The industrial belt that surrounded the city had been attacked first. This initial ring of destruction had closed off all escape routes for the hundreds of thousands that had lived here. The danger of renewed attack had kept most of the non-Opal looters far from this place, but that's not to say that things hadn't been picked over.
There had been no real resistance when destruction had started raining down from high in the sky. Sleek airships, as black as space, had dropped enough conventional bombs to cause panic in the populace. When chaos had reached a state of frenzy, the Invaders had used magnetic launchers from orbit to lob boulders down upon the city with the force of small atomic bombs. The clouds of dust and ash from these first attacks still floated about in the atmosphere, raining the scent of burnt defeat down upon the rest of this devastated world.
All of the guardians, the Adepts of the Opal Realm with all their myriad powers and abilities, had been marshaled, all right, but on the Allgem Plains to protect the Nexus and the Core. Sound strategy, they had been told by their leaders, the right course of action. However, the Dark forces had not tried to capture anything of military value . . . the cities and citizens were the target. The Adepts had tried to redeploy from the Plains, but the Invaders had systematically cut them off from any support then wiped them out. It had taken a tragically short amount of time.
Nothing had been spared, not hospitals nor schools, not wildlife nor landmarks. The leveling of the planetary capital had happened last, and this had been accomplished from a distance just as before. Once no stone was left upon another, the invading soldiers in their black armor descended and combed through the ruins, rooting out and annihilating any survivors. Only a very few had offered any real resistance, but futility had paralyzed most. A record of the utter violence that had been used against the Opal people showed itself everywhere, in hundreds of barbarous ways, and the echoes of it in the mind kept the weary travelers moving as briskly as they could.
A ragged young woman wearing a dun colored travel cloak, a green overstuffed rucksack and gently carrying a wrapped bundle in front of her, paused for a second to catch her breath. The tall young man in the red and brown cloak walking beside her, his larger backpack just as full as hers, his long sword in its sheath at his hip, joined her for a moment, putting a gentle arm across her shoulders. He lifted the pack up off her back for a little while, trying to lighten her load. She smiled weakly, caressing his face with her grimy hand, then batted him away, reclaiming her burden. They had to press on, till they reached the center of the city.
“We'll get there within the hour,” whispered the ancient woman at the head of the group, leaning heavily on her ornate staff. The others glanced at her, and nodded, acknowledging the wisdom of their family's matriarch, who was herself a Council member, possibly the last one left. She negotiated a large hole in the plasti-crete with some difficulty, but let none assist her. She was adamant about that. Each member of their party bore critical items and she refused to ask them to do anything but safeguard what they carried; she expected nothing less of herself, even if her load was only her Staff of Office and the amulet she wore on a simple chain around her neck.
She was the only member of the deposed ruling body that still lived. Only purest opaluck had let her escape the Hunters and monsters that had claimed her peers and friends. Pausing only for the tiniest of moments, she looked at her entourage stopping to rest for a moment and had to smile. Her two grown sons were the vanguards; both well trained in survival and defense from their times on Sapphire and Ruby. They both carried heavy packs on their strong backs and large bladed weapons loosely in their hands which had been used against hunger-maddened animals or worse entirely too many times. Their eyes never stopped scanning for the next danger, the next threat . . . they usually found it, too. She herself came next, wearing the last shreds of her Council robes, and the only remaining Council amulet not seized or destroyed by the Invaders. Her staff, topped by an opal the size of her fist, found its way through the debris, supporting her occasionally unsteady steps. She would need every iota of power in the amulet, the staff, and from within herself, for the task that lay before them. In one sense, despite everything, getting to their destination was the easy part.
Her daughter followed close behind. She was young, strong, and followed her mother resolutely. She was layered in her appearance, due to her rucksack that bulged in strange ways, her shawls, poncho, and hooded cloak. Her husband brought up the rear, he being a native Ruby, and therefore the strongest of them all here, and most able to protect the sixth member of their party.
In his mother's arms, bundled against the night and the cold, a tiny baby boy slept. His mother lifted his face covering to check on him, and kiss his soft, fuzzy head of dark hair. He stirred, in some happy dream, infant mouth sucking in sleep. The gentle baby sound was louder than any other at that moment, and it brought a smile to his entire family.
“He's dreaming,” his father said, in hushed tones, proud grin flashing across his face. “He's part Turquoise. I tell ya. He can see the glory of Opal in his dreams!”
“Doesn't that make him part Pearl then?” replied one of the brothers, grinning back. In past times, these two might have started a friendly argument over that sort of comment. This time they just exchanged knowing grins.
“Either way, he'll find his Path once he gets there, I'm sure of it,” the father finished. The old woman nodded her head in agreement here, pausing herself for a breath.
“That's our hope,” she said, intensely. “He has the Gifts. He’ll be able to call on the Powers when he learns how. Even if he achieves only half of his potential, he'll be the first real hope our world has had since the attack.” She started walking again, waving her staff to the group to get them all moving again.
Several hours later, they reached the center of the old capital. The moon had sunk below the horizon, granting them almost total darkness as they navigated the streets. Only the crumbling pieces of structural silicate falling from one building or another made them pause. Doggedly, they made their way to the center of the city.
They entered the remains of the municipal building, where the elected officials and the Opal Council itself would have overseen the comings and goings of the entire Opal Realm, and even in decay, the carved tourmaline pillars with their blue and red bands and the wrought metal fittings in the walls and doorways were magnificent. There were blackened, shattered opals of varying sizes imbedded everywhere – which was to be expected. When the Invaders had come here, the first thing they had done was destroy any and all gems that had even a little bit of Power within them. The Darkness had snuffed out anything that was connected to this realm's Power, and, as had been proven time and time again over the past year, searched continuously for any resurgence.
The party made their way deep into the office buildings, led unerringly by the old woman, who, though she had been retired for a decade, could read all the hidden little signs that told her which way to go: a little crack in the floor led them down this hallway, a pattern of scratches in a message board led then down that one. They left the main hallways, turning here, going through subtle, unmarked doors there. None of the mechanisms that opened the automatic doors worked, and the only light came from lanterns carried by the men. No gem-power was used for light; they couldn't risk being discovered yet. They went down, into basements, then sub-basements that no average citizen would have ever known about.
“You're sure it's down here?” inquired the other brother, forcing open another door with his bardishe. “Underground Transit is over us by now.”
“We haven't gotten to the bottom yet, and that's where it'll be, closest to the Core,” said the old woman, who was moving more easily. The closer they got to their destination, the more her opal Powers resonated with the power of the Core of the Opal world. That strengthened her. Hopefully, the babe wouldn't feel this resonance himself. If he started crying, then his untrained powers would flare like a beacon. They didn't have time to fend off an attack and finish their task. The old woman approached the cleaning closet, opened the door, and then tapped her opal-tipped staff on the far wall. A brief flash of light spread out from the gem, and the back wall opened, revealing many layers of shielding, and a narrow corridor.
“And here we go. That will have alerted Them. Be ready. We don't have much time now.” And with that, she led them down the hallway.
That tiny flash of opal Power had indeed been noticed. Far away, in a hastily set-up barracks a soldier in dented but immaculately polished black body armor glanced at his sensor screen and saw a slight spike of energy. It had been many months since any power source had been detected here. It could have been a piece of machinery firing off, or not. Either way, he followed protocol and sent the signal to his commanders. That spike would be absorbed or destroyed soon enough. From the corridor behind him, he could hear the responding march of the troops and the clicking claws of the attack beasts moving toward the transport room.
“This is it? An empty room with four benches in it?” one of the brothers said, slightly louder than he had intended to. The others paused their tasks and looked over at him ruefully. He shrugged back to them, knowing he'd voiced the question that most were thinking. The baby was awake now, and being fed by his mother. The baby's father was busy setting up a small apparatus with the short poles and components that they had each been carrying in their packs..
“Yes, this is a Communing Room. Only the Nexus on the Allgem Plains is a stronger focus point for the Core. And when we're done, he’ll be safe.” the old woman finished, sitting on a bench near to where her sons were setting up the device. The poles made a geometric shape resembling both a cube and a pyramid. The screen and tiny controls attached to it was dormant, waiting.
“All we need now,” she continued, “is this.” And with that, the matriarch pulled off her amulet, and opened the front cover. A glittering blue-and-green opal was revealed. It caught the light of the torches and played it back in many colors. It also glowed, ever so faintly. She rose and placed it on the floor, in the middle of the now finished structure. She backed up a few paces, then went over to where she had laid her staff down, against the bench. Her daughter and grandson were sitting there. The wide-awake infant was getting cleaned up from his messy meal. His baby-blue eyes were sparkling with curiosity, and his pudgy hands waved about. He saw his grandma and reached out to her, ba-ba'ing happily.
“He’ll not be harmed?” the young woman asked again, setting aside the feeding spoon and the last jar of food they had for him. She held him close to her face, drinking in his scent, his sound. The grandmother came forward and let her finger get gently captured by questing little hands.
“No, love,” she said, tenderly. “This is the absolutely safest way to get him out of the Opal realm.” She bent over and looked into the little one’s eyes as he tried to chomp down on her finger. “He’ll have his chance there,” she murmured.
“Then best it was done quickly, then,” said his father, turning the little monitor on. The assembled components started warming up, humming gently. The Opal Councilwoman nodded, kissed the baby on both cheeks, and rose to her feet. She took up position in front of the apparatus, and gripped her staff firmly. The hidden crystalline badge on her left shoulder started to glow, as well as the tip of her staff. Instead of trying to conceal her powers, she now called on all them as strongly as she could. She struck the floor with her staff twice, and a panel on the far wall opened, revealing a huge, energized opal. The jewel on her staff flared brilliantly in resonance with the native stone, and an aura of swirling multicolored light enveloped her. She sent forth a bright beam of light from the opal on her staff, aimed at the amulet on the floor. In the next moments, the Talisman lit up, and started to grow.
“Yes, we're picking up a power surge from the old Council building!” yelled the same black-armored soldier into the com-unit in his helmet from a street outside the city. “It's getting stronger by the second. That's full-bore Opal power in use! Level's high enough to be seen from orbit.” His unit was running double time march, weapons drawn, and the enormous, four-legged tracking beasts had been released from their leashes. They were growling and baying into the night, following the distinctive scent that energy had.
“Find that woman, soldier, and take her down. She's the last of that accursed opal Council. Once she's gone, this planet will be done, and we can get on with the next phase.” The neutral voice almost sounded satisfied.
“Yes sir!” the soldier shouted. He turned off the com-unit, and followed the sounds of the hunt. Maybe she would resist; maybe she had an escort, bodyguards even. He almost felt . . . excitement.
The pyramid was filled with a swirling, milky, multicolored light, as energy gathered there. There was the faintest sound of rushing wind coming from it, as well as the loud crackle of power flowing. From the maelstrom, a strong clear voice emerged.
“You ARE alive, after all!” The words came from the coalescing image of an older man, dressed in a yellow and orange ceremonial robe, akin to the old woman's. He also held a staff similar to hers, but the gem glowing at its tip was a brilliant yellow, instead of multicolored swirls.
“Yes, I'm alive, as well as what's left of my family,” the old woman said, effort clearly showing in her voice and on her face. “It’s time. Are you going to be able to help us?”
“You mean you're ready to send him, already?” he replied, startled. He looked around himself then peered closely at her. “There has been no news for weeks now. It's gotten that bad, then, has it?”
“I believe that we are possibly the last living souls left here. Our world has been destroyed.” She let the importance of those words sink in for a second. Changing the subject, she nodded toward her grandchild and said: “He's only a baby, but also our last, best hope. You must see him safely hidden.”
“He's truly opal-gifted,” the boy's mother piped up. “He should be able to adapt to wherever he grows up. And he'll always see things differently than the children in your Realm.” She moved to stand directly beside her mother. "Please, sir, help him. I beg you.”
The man on the other side of the portal stepped forward, to the very boundary that separated them. His eyes set and glowing bright yellow with intensity, he said: “Dear girl, I have been a friend to the Opal Realm since I was a child. Your mother will attest to that. I swear, by the Heart of Light, that I will care for him as if he were my own.” He paused, the light in his eyes growing darker orange-red. “The Necromancers and their spies will NEVER find him, this I also swear!”
“Mother!” the baby's father shouted, staring more closely at the little screen on the apparatus. “We have a squad of hunters in the building: ten soldiers, three or four beasts. We have three minutes before they get here, at best.” He tossed aside his traveling gear, and donned a battered, bright red, light-armor vest. His natural ruby strength would not be hindered now. He drew his long sword from its sheath, pressing a button on the hilt which set it shimmering with destructive scarlet power, and moved closer to the door. The brothers, who had been battle-ready from the start of their trip, retrieved their weapons and took up a triangular placement around the women and the portal.
“We have no more time,” the matriarch said, drawing even more Opal power into herself from the Core of their world. “Bring him to the portal. When Saul reaches across the threshold, pass him over.” The crackle of Opal power was rising in intensity again, reaching its highest point. “I’m very old . . . I'll only be able to hold it open for a few seconds. Be ready, both of you.”
The baby watched the lights of the portal mutely, absently stroking his mother's arm around his belly. The young woman burst into tears, sobbing once, then moved toward the nimbus of power. The image of the man became suddenly sharper, more in focus. The topaz man on the other side braced himself, and then reached through the barrier, grimacing slightly as crackling power licked up and down his arms.
“Now! Give him to me now!” he grunted loudly, voice nearly concealed by the cry of opal power holding this doorway between worlds open.
Drawing the baby close, one last time, she said to him: “Fate favor you, dear Toivo,” Kissing him one more time, she quickly placed the baby into the man's arms. Trembling with effort, they enfolded the child protectively, and brought him through into another Realm. The amulet that was the focus of this portal was whipped through after the baby, and landed at the man’s feet.
Holding the infant to his shoulder with practiced ease, the old man hooked the amulet with the end of his staff and flipped it lightly into the air. He caught it with the glowing topaz at the top, then lifted his staff high, declaring in a voice strong enough for both worlds to hear: “It is done! He is safe across. Be at peace. You have done your part. I will take care of things now.” A brilliant aura of yellow and white light came from the man's staff. It blinded them all for just a second, then, in an instant, it faded. Man and baby were gone.
Mother and grandmother cried openly, both relieved and agonized at the same time. Through a curtain of tears, the old woman let her face relax. Without the amulet for focus, the flow of Opal power started to diminish, the mad swirling of colors slowing and fading. She let go of her staff with one hand and let it fall against her shoulder. Only her indomitable willpower kept her standing. She felt her daughter put an arm around her waist, and she let herself be hugged, in thanks and sympathy. The giant opal gem slowly returned to its hiding place in the wall.
Then, with a deafening crash, something hit the wall from behind. Another crash occurred, and a blast of energy punched through from the other side, destroying the Gem and sending clouds of dust into the air. The Hunters finally entered the last sanctuary of the Opal world. The soldiers paused only long enough for the dust to settle; the tall, four-legged, black and grey beasts did not, leaping through the jagged and crumbling hole with their red claws clattering on the stone and leaving scratches as they moved, baying wildly in triumph. They had found their prey.
The three men backed up to make a defensive circle. The women hugged each other for a moment, and then turned themselves toward the soldiers as well. The younger woman drew a smaller, scintillating sword, a rapier, no less dangerous than her husband's, and activated a small shield on her forearm. The old woman, eyes wild and furious, took her staff in both hands. She blinked once, and the round opal at its tip turned from blue-green to a sharp sided, red crystal that had what looked like flames boiling inside of it. A haze of fire seemed to envelop her.
As one, they started humming the note A - one pure note. The same note that the very Heart of their world sang. It filled the room with more than simply sound; it seemed to raise the dust around them in shimmering little whirlwinds. It quickly got louder, and stronger, as a very old type of Opal power responded to their call. The soldiers waited for a moment, not sure what to make of this. Finally, the single note got louder and louder until it shattered into an enraged scream, and with the dust and the very air helping them, the family leaped to attack. Fear, anger, sorrow . . . all of their pent-up feelings lent them strength and focus. Finally, they had a clear and visible enemy to fight. They held nothing back as they clashed weapons with their destroyers, all blind with berserker rage, with a determination comparable to Sapphires and a fury that would have daunted Rubies.
When it was over, beasts leashed and weapons holstered, the lieutenant commanding this strike force noted in his voice-log that five opal refugees had been prevented from escaping at such and such date and time. As a personal note, he added that they had lasted longer than anyone his team has hunted to this point, and that he had to admit that he respected that. No survivors . . . of course.