The Crystal Caverns
“Can you see anything?” Isa whispered up impatiently.
Rika made a hand waving gesture downward, but otherwise kept her attention on the pocket telescope pressed to her eye. She was near the top of a tall fir tree, one of many covering the mountains surrounding the mines of Crystalis. They were observing one of the side entrances to the Crystalis mines, a massive system of tunnels beneath the mountain range cradling the city, the Cnoic Leathana. The entrance to the mine was a partially concealed archway on the slope opposite Rika’s perch. It was mostly covered in snow, but the sentries had, in a fit of boredom, built icy ramparts around it. According to the information provided by the Don (and Simon, who was from Crystalis), the guards’ shift change happened every four bells. Rika had therefore been up in a tree for much of that time, waiting and watching. And shivering. In spite of the warming crystals sewn into her clothes, it was deadly cold in the mountains. At times like this she liked to think of Roshan, snug and happy in the Resistance’s mountain village where they had left him last summer. At least one of them was warm.
The guards outside the entrance looked as bored and as miserable as she felt. No one came up into these mountains, especially not in winter. Crystalis’s upper class focused on academic pursuits, but punishing mining shifts kept the lower classes from having much leisure time. When they did, they preferred sedentary pursuits to being out in the mountains. From what Rika could had heard from Simon, the guards at this side entrance (essentially a glorified ventilation tunnel) were a courtesy more than for any security reason. Rika hoped that the city’s watch would come to regret that mistake.
Movement on the slope told her that the moment had arrived. Three more guards, clad in the navy blue and brass-gold of Crystalis had appeared out of the tunnels and were in the process of relieving the current sentries. The new guards walked on individual, circular paths around the entrance, following the tracks in the snow trampled by their predecessors, while the departing group stayed and chatted at the entrance to the tunnel. Rika couldn’t hear them, but she saw one pass a flask around, while another packed leaf into a pipe and happily lit it. They loitered until the three new guards returned from their patrols, before the three Rika had been observing all afternoon departed and their replacements took up their former positions. Rika checked her Fòrsic pocket-clock and nodded to herself; the clock showed that four bells had passed. Making sure that the rope was tied securely around her waist, she carefully rappelled down, moving in short bursts and keeping the massive trunk between her and any watchful eyes. Descending was much easier than climbing up had been, but Rika was still out of breath and covered in sticky sap when she reached the ground. Isa was waiting for her, practically bouncing back and forth, her impatience unmistakable even under her heavy winter cloak. “Well?” she demanded.
“Four bells on the dot,” she replied, tapping the face of the pocket-clock. The Fòrsic crystal in the clock was programmed to slowly fill the circle of the clock face with a color. This took a bell for each color, and the clock shifted slowly through the color wheel throughout the day, displaying warm colors when it was light out, and cool colors at night. “Our information appears to be correct. If so, we won’t have to wait much longer.”
Isa rubbed her mitten-clad hands together in anticipation. “Excellent,” she said. “I was getting tired of waiting and freezing. Another few days, and I would have trekked up to the entrance myself, at least to warm up and find some new partners for cards, if nothing else.” Rika gave Isa her best Syd look, and Isa smiled back. “Joking, just joking,” Isa assured her, and Rika laughed.
“Come on,” she said, “let’s get back before you do something crazy.”
The camp was in a thicket, about a hundred paces back from Rika’s observation post. She was sure it was impossible to see from the opposite slope, but Syd had insisted on no fires during the day, and only carefully banked ones at night. Cold as that made them, Rika had agreed. Security at this entrance might be light, but the whole complex was usually under heavy guard. It would be nearly impossible for them to escape, if discovered. As was her habit since the summer, Rika kept a careful eye on Isa. However, the dark-haired engineer was just as bouncy as ever, and evinced none of her earlier signs of weakness.
Isa pursed her lips and whistled a trilling call with three distinct rills, and Rika heard Trentor repeat it back twice. The group alerted to their approach, the two women pushed through the remaining brush and out into the small clearing. Trentor looked up as they approached. “And here are my two dyrads now,” he announced, smiling. “What do the tree spirits have to say?”
Rika rolled her eyes, and Isa made a rude noise. “How was sitting on your ass all day?” She shot back.
“I was warm inside a bedroll, and it was delightful. Thank you ever so much for asking.” Trentor replied smugly.
Rika looked around. “Syd and Simon aren’t back yet?” she asked with a twinge of worry. The two had planned to stock up on supplies, but the camp wasn’t that far from the city, even through the snow, and they should have been back by now.
Trentor fluttered his hand in seeming unconcern. “Our fearless leader and her boon companion are sure to return shortly,” he said, and then continued on in a more serious tone. “Simon said they would be back later than planned when they left, something about picking up the mail.”
Isa nodded, and went to perform her arm strengthening exercises. Rika had more questions, but she was not sure that Trentor would be able to answer them. She would just have to wait until Syd and Simon returned, but she’d been worrying more, lately. Across Alis-Dak, regime patrols were stepping up, and it was getting harder to catch people by surprise. The resistance had thrived in the shadows for a long time, distributing their message and hitting open targets, but never anything too valuable. Rika knew that they were emphatically not ready for open conflict. She hoped the Don had a plan for what was happening, but he had not said anything when they had been at headquarters. Isa hadn’t noticed the increased tension, Rika was sure, but Syd had been more distant than usual lately, and often held whispered conversations with Simon late into the night. Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, she chose to change the subject. “We were right,” she said, “Shift change is right on schedule.”
Trentor stretched his arms out, “that’s nice to hear,” he yawned. “That means the rest of our information is, too.”
“Let’s hope. We’re moving in tomorrow?”
“So Syd has said,” he responded, nodding.
“I can’t wait to see what it’s like inside,” Isa added eagerly from across the clearing. Trentor and Syd had been to Crystalis before, but of the group, only Simon had actually been into the Fòrsic mines, during a brief stint as a miner. The whole mining system, despite holding the crucial position of supplying nearly all Fòrsic crystals used in Alis-Dak, was shrouded in mystery. Secrets like that grated on Isa.
“Me too, my friend, me too,” Trentor said. “I hope it’s warm in there.”
They continued to discuss what was in the mine’s for a time, as Trentor made dinner and she and Isa started to check their Fòrsic equipment. Almost a full bell later, Rika heard the bird call that denoted Syd and Simon’s approach. Trentor whistled the countersign, and the two pushed through the brush and into the clearing. Rika was relieved to see that they looked unharmed.
“How was the market, oh stoic ones?” Trentor inquired as they dismantled their sacks of goods and distributed the contents throughout the rest of the group’s saddlebags.
Syd said nothing, but Simon looked at him, shrugging. Trentor waited a few more beats, and then grinned. “Well played, reticent as always, I see,” he said.
Ignoring him, Syd looked at Rika and Isa. “Did you verify our information?”
Rika nodded her assent, and Syd reached into her bag and produced a small, plain looking scroll on newly pulped paper, spooled around a wooden rod. She tossed it to Rika, who caught it deftly. “What’s this?” She asked, confused.
“What we are here for,” Syd replied, turning back to her task. “You and Isa will memorize it, and then destroy the scroll.”
“We picked it up this morning,” Simon added helpfully. “The Don sent it in a package of blank scrolls, which we sold for as a cover and for some extra money.”
“Huh,” Isa said, curious. She collapsed the staff she had been inspecting and came over to sit beside Rika as she unfurled the scroll. The inside appeared as simple as the outside. It depicted one detailed picture with notations, over a short, written letter.
Rika peered closely at the letter and recognized the signature at the bottom with delight. “What do you know?” She exclaimed, “It’s from Roshan!” They hadn’t heard from the young scholar since they had left him behind at Resistance headquarters nearly half a year ago. Last Rika had seen him, he’d been happily ensconced in the resistance library, talking excitedly about new avenues of Fòrsic research. As she had departed, his interest had appeared split between the thousands of new volumes and Eithne, the attractive librarian in charge of them. Although she and the others missed his company and Fòrsic expertise, complaining about his new life of leisure compared to their ongoing hardships had become something of a running joke.
“Really?” Isa asked. She snatched the scroll from Rika.
“Is he writing to compare the softness of his pillows to ours?” Trentor asked helpfully.
“Hush,” Isa chided, and began to read the letter to the group.
“Dear Isa and Rika (And Syd, Simon, and Trentor)…”
“Hey!” Trentor interjected, “Why am the afterthought?”
Isa shushed him, and he subsided, grumbling under his breath. She read on:
“I hope this missive finds you well. The winter here has been eye-opening -- so much snow! Fortunately, there was a spate of good weather so that we could get a package out through the passes. The Don claims he would have been able to deliver this message regardless, but I digress. I apologize for not sending this with you when the Don first dispatched you towards Crystalis, but I admit I wasn’t quite sure what you would be looking for. Now I am sure.
The drawing above, done by the estimable Eithne…”
“Heh” Rika smirked before apologizing as Isa shot her a glare.
“The drawing above, done by the estimable Eithne, is of the utmost importance. It is of the Foinse-stone. I believe I may have discovered a potential solution to the problem of dissipating Fòrsic energies, but it will require this stone. The Foinse-stone is thought to be unique, but the vein it came from spawned a twin. While the Foinse is in a museum on Ater-Volantis, the twin is still held within the mine. I know that retrieving it will be dangerous, and know I would not ask this of you if there were any other way. Good luck, and go with Alos.
P.S. To explain why it is needed is far too complicated for the written word, thus you have a reason to return home so that I may further elaborate on my theories to you.”
“Condescending git,” Rika said fondly as Isa finished reading.
“He’s probably right, you know – this does look quite complex,” Isa said, looking closer at the diagram.
“Maybe, but he could have given it a minimal effort.”
“I’m less interested in the complexity of his theories and more in the bit where he sends us into a heavily guarded mine to look for a rock,” Trentor interjected. “Why does cozy scholar-boy get to order us about?”
“The Don has decreed it so,” Syd stated simply.
Syd only shrugged. “It is not our place to question.” She turned to Rika and Isa, “I do admit to some curiosity of my own. I have not heard of this Foinse-stone.”
Isa shrugged, looking at Rika. “He seemed to assume we knew what it was. Do you?”
Rika grabbed the scroll back from Rika and looked at the drawing. The stone was long and narrow, shaped a bit like a flute except with crystalline protrusions where on a flute, there would be holes. She nodded decisively. “I have seen a drawing like this before, at University. The Foinse-stone is an interesting aberration in Fòrsic theory.” She looked around at the group, “bear with me if you have heard this before,” she said to Isa, and when she nodded, she continued on behalf of the others, her voice slipping into a lecturing tone honed during her days as a teaching assistant. “Normally, a Fòrsic crystal is imbued with a small amount of energy and then uses that energy to draw power from elsewhere. When it has drawn a certain amount, the crystal’s fòirceann, it ceases to function. If it draws too much, too fast, it cracks or shatters. In recent years, stones have been failing unexpectedly because they are losing their internal energy altogether, well before they reach fòirceann.
However, the Foinse-stone doesn’t need to draw other energy, at least from what scholars have been able to tell. Instead, it appears, pending further experimentation, to have unlimited energy already within it.”
“I see!” Isa exclaimed. “He must think he can affect some type of energy transfer, to empower stones whose energy has been lost!”
Rika nodded, growing excited. “If you’re right, and he’s capable of doing this, it’s only on a limited basis. That said, we could slow this crisis down, and give ourselves a chance to explore why it is happening and come up with a more permanent solution.”
“Hmmm,” Simon mused. “And if the Resistance develops this power while the government does not…” he trailed off thoughtfully.
“Exactly!” Rika and Isa said together.
“We must retrieve this Foinse-stone, then,” Trentor said. “Does the scroll say where in the mine it is being held?”
Rika looked over the scroll, but there was nothing in the letter or on the drawing. “I don’t think so,” she said. “As usual, the little details are left up to us.”
“There is a vault in the mine,” Simon put in. “Special crystals are held there, among other valuables. It’s a museum of sorts.”
“If museums were hidden from public view and kept under heavy guard,” Trentor interjected.
“I think that’s probably where it is,” Isa said. “Are there any other options?”
“Hmmm,” Simon said, thinking carefully. “The overseer’s office, perhaps? It’s the only other place that is secure enough.”
“We’ll have to check both,” Rika added.
“Fortunately,” Syd said, “Simon and I have discussed possibilities for what we might be… fetching from the mine. The vault came up, and so we have a plan of attack – if, indeed, the Foinse is being stored there. We will hit the vault first, and then the office”
Simon nodded, “the office has a window to the outside, we could blow our way out, if necessary.”
“Excellent,” Isa said, rubbing her hands together with a wicked gleam in her eyes. “Let’s go!”
Syd made a calming gesture. "Patience," she said, and turned to the rest of the group. "Check your gear. We will go in at dawn tomorrow." Rika and Isa exchanged excited glances. "Now," Syd continued, "let us have dinner, and then we will familiarize ourselves with the approach."
Chapter 13 can be found here.