Qas’ke bustled between her notes and her telescope, her long and pointed ears bobbing as she leaned back and forth. A few choice rocks held down her notes at the corners, protecting them from the swift mountain wind. It all needed to be perfect, she just needed to make sure everything was in place. Inkwell and quill, check. She pulled the stopwatch from her pocket, and ran it, for the tenth time, to be sure it counted forward. Check.
She checked her telescope, squeezing her left eye shut and looking through the viewfinder. Deep in the night sky, she focused on a distant star, twinkling fitfully like a candle flame in a storm. Check.
Finally, Qas'ke lifted the handkerchief tucked in the collar of her buttoned-up shirt, moving it in front of her mouth. “Dancel? Are you ready?” she asked with more than a bit of nervousness, fingering the handkerchief as she spoke into it.
The response came in a quiet whisper from the handkerchief, a bit shrill, and certainly annoyed. “My'ru's bones, woman. Yes, I am ready. Yes, I have my notes. Yes, I have checked the alignment and focus of my telescope. I swear, weren’t I as desperate for these figures as you, I’d have burned this gods-damned whisperchief halfway up this frost-blasted mountain, just for the extra warmth.”
In a terrible habit, Qas’ke bit her lower lip in a protracted moment of silence.
“Have you checked your stopwatch?”
“Qas’ke, if this is what I can expect for the rest of this observation, I’m going to hand you over to one of my ruckmen, and you can talk to them while I watch a star die tonight. If I watch a star die tonight. How can you possibly be so sure it will happen tonight? We’ve been trying for months to catch one of these events.”
Qas’ke took in a resolute breath, taking a moment to tie back her long, raven-black hair. Wouldn't do to have that getting in the way. “I know it will, Dancel. We’re finally going to catch it. Something is smothering these stars, and I intend to find out how long it will be until whatever it is reaches us. Now keep your eyes on that telescope, and I’ll do the same. Tell me when-”
“It’s gone!” Dancel shouted through the whisperchief, and in her surprise, Qas’ke nearly dropped her stopwatch in her rush to start it, then stop it moments later as she watched the star struggle, blink, and then snuff out. She stared through the telescope for long seconds, waiting for any sign of the celestial light that once hung in the sky.
But it was gone. “Eighty cycles short of a full second.” Qas’ke said in a trembling voice. “Eighty cycles short of…”
She shook herself into motion, grabbing and inking her quill, and getting to work on her equations. She accounted for their difference in elevation, and carefully adjusted for her reaction time. She double, triple-checked her work, then fell back on her haunches, shivering. “That’s… less than a sun cycle at the speed of sunlight. Less than a year…”
“Qas’ke, that can’t be right.” Dancel’s voice floated through the whisperchief, sounding hesitant. “We must have been off.”
“We weren’t off, Dancel.”
“We can just try again next event, Qas’ke.”
“There may not be another.”
“Qas’ke, we can’t just-”
She didn’t hear what he said next, just staring up into the sky. What was out there, killing stars? Sure, one or two died every year, but seven? Lost in her thoughts, she almost didn’t notice the brightening horizon, and nearly ignored it until one of her ruckmen ran up to her in a panic. Was it sunrise already? How long had she just sat there?
“Lady Leitfoll! We need to go, it is nearly prismrise! We need to go!” He urgently pulled her to her feet, motioning at her equipment. “Lady, please!”
Qas’ke shook herself. Prismrise, right. She quickly folded and stowed the telescope, gathered her notes, and ran back to the camp to assist in the rest of the breakdown. How long did they have? She took out her chronorbiter, whose circular face showed the rise and fall of the sun, moon, and prism. Twenty minutes. Plenty of time to finish breaking down camp, and a minute to inscribe the teleposition circle. She scrambled to help disassemble the large pavilion tent, stuffing the poles and canopy away rather than folding and stowing it. Qas’ke then turned and pushed through the thin crowd of attendants, ruckfolk, and apprentices to begin inscribing the circle on a nearby stone outcropping.
She rummaged in her satchel, swiping aside notes, measuring equipment, and personal effects, and drew out her ritual chalk. Just a nubbin of the thing, really. The trip had been expensive, and she was confident what she had left was enough for the circle. She began to draw each component of the circle. Her hands were sweating, and she could feel the humidity begin to sharply rise from the direction of the approaching prismrise. Circle. Runes. Constructive lines. Binding conduits. Her hand flowed through the steps with the ease of a practiced translocator.
Right up until she felt a sharp snap between her fingers, and the chalk went to dust, blown away by the headwind of the approaching prismrise. Qas’ke stared at her fingers, probably for far too long, before swaying to her feet, beginning to tremble. She felt herself utter the word “run”, her stomach a tight knot inside her. Then, she heard herself say it louder, though it sounded muffled to her ears, almost distant, as she turned and began to clumsily rush back toward the camp. Then, she decided to begin screaming it.
They ran as a group at suicidal speeds along the gently sloped mountainside, westward. They had come east along this route, between the sheer mountain peaks above to the north, and the damp forests below to the south. Had they passed any caves along the mountainside as they traveled? Qas'ke hadn't thought to keep an eye out as they went. Minutes passed, and she could begin to feel gentle warmth at the base of her neck, behind her. The landscape was brightening, becoming more visible as the prism rose with it's usual startling speed.
Qas'ke could hear the growth now, and she risked a glance behind her, trusting her feet to carry her true on the rocky mountain footing. She watched in horror as Tepu, one of the apprentice ruckmen, fell hard, his pack slinging awkwardly over his head as he skidded to a painful stop. He didn't rise. She turned her attention back to her retreat, and cringed as she heard Tepu's cries fading off in the distance until they cut off with a shrill scream, and the sound of the growth.
Her legs began to burn. For an elf, she was not unfit by any means, but she did spend much of her days at a desk, hunched over star charts and notes. She had to keep running. To her left, the mountain face cut in and soared up in the remnants of an old landslide, the ground becoming loose scree as time weathered the fallen, pulverized stone. Pulling closer to the cliff face could buy them precious minutes in their search for safety, but that gravel could be hell to run over. She had to make a decision.
"To the left, against the cliff and continue west!" Qas'ke screamed to her following crew, a sizable mix of athletic ruckfolk, loyal attendants, and studious apprentices and colleagues. They followed her direction, it was her expedition after all, and cut to the cliff to continue westward in the extended shadow of the mountain. As they fled, the first true rays of prismlight began to sweep over the clear path to their right they had run before, and the bare stone exploded with life. Vines, bushes, flowers, even small trees erupted from earth where the light bathed it, growing and writhing upward and outward, drinking in the prismlight.
Behind her, Qas'ke's fears soon became manifest, as she heard body after body lose footing on the loose stone, clattering to the ground, laden with supplies. Surely, some got up and kept running, but she didn't know, she couldn't look, with how unstable the ground was here. She just had to keep running.
Finally, on her left, she saw their salvation, a crack in the rocky face, a cave. Ty'mee send that they could get there in time. The shadow of the mountain rapidly approached in front of them, and they piled into the cave. Qas'ke collapsed thirty feet into the cave, rolling onto her back, and looking to the mouth. As she watched, two ruckfolk screamed as vines exploded below them, carrying them up, and away from the cave. Their cries for help stopped soon after, and the growing density of plant life plunged the cave into darkness.
It felt like ages before someone finally struck a torch alight, revealing the haggard group huddled into the large cave. She hesitated to take a headcount, but counted anyway. Twenty survivors, and herself. Nine deaths, effectively a third of her team. Nine people. Nine lives she-
Qas'ke felt a gentle, wet slapping at her chest. Her whisperchief was soaked, which made it much harder to use, and she had to hold it right up to her ear to hear the muffled message.
"-ay, Qas'ke? Why haven't you answered?"
"Dancel!" she shouted into the whisperchief. Gods above, her voice was rattling. "I'm safe! I... Oh Gods, Dancel..."
"Qas'ke? What's wrong? You sound terrible! Have you been running?!"
"Prismrise," she said, feeling a new moisture on her cheeks as she began to weep, "I lost track of time, and I lost my chalk, and..."
"Damnit, Leitfoll, slow down! Deep breaths, is everyone okay?"
"No!" Qas'ke wailed. Everyone was looking at her now. She could feel their eyes on her, judging her, damning her, looking to her for guidance. She had none. There was a protracted silence from the whisperchief before Dancel finally spoke again. "How many, Qas'ke? Beh'shi's curses, Leitfoll, how many? The Assembly will want-"
But Qas'ke didn't hear the rest, as she collapsed back to the cavern floor, curled up, and proceeded to sob.
It was a sullen, strung out group, led by Qas'ke's head navigator, that left the cave twenty-four hours later, beginning the journey on foot back to civilization. Qas'ke trailed behind, her head still swimming with what she had done. She had never killed anything in her admittedly short life, and yesterday, she killed nine people. You didn't kill those people, Qas'ke, the pragmatic part of her mind kept telling her, but she felt those deaths. If she had been more careful. If she had prepared more thoroughly. If she had never chased this damnable idea-
No. She firmly scolded herself for the idea. She had to know. The need to know burned in her mind like a struggling fire, and she fed it, using the warmth and light to drive away her despair. She would not let this drive her off her course.
Qas'ke finally looked up from her feet, shifted her satchel on her shoulder, and strode to the front of the pack to lead her people home.
The Assembly is glad to know that this letter finds you well. Your successful return from your recent endeavor has been in our thoughts and prayers for the better part of the two weeks since your departure. However, the full scope and cost of your work has been made known to us by another assembly member, Dancel Keeneye. We are sure you desire the opportunity to make your case before us personally, and we've anticipated this would best be done when you have had sufficient time to recover from your harrowing experiences. That being said, The Assembly decided unanimously that immediate and decisive action is required in such extenuating circumstance, and we have prepared our response as such.
While your research and endeavors, and truly that of every member of the Assembly, are priceless to the community as a whole, that pricelessness assumes a cost which is monetary. Your flagrant disregard for your own safety, and that of your team, partially composed of some of our junior members, has incurred a cost too steep for this academic body. Henceforth, we regret to inform you that, while your services as a masterful translocator and peerless astronomer remain welcome within The Assembly, we can no longer, in good conscience, provide you with funding or personnel for any future endeavors, until such a time that The Assembly reconvenes to amend or strike this restriction.
We hope you recover well, and we are here when you are prepared to make your case before us.
The Assembly of Astronomers, Depien Guild
The letter was signed by all thirteen senior members of The Assembly. Qas'ke read the letter again, taking in the full weight of her failure. She had been on her way out into the upper city when the delivery came to her by hand, dropped off by one of the junior astronomers. Now, she shut the front door of her small home, and slumped into the chair by her dining table. It seemed that the stars, like her dreams, were dying.
Even once she rose some time later, Qas'ke didn't feel she had the energy to face The Assembly. So she left through the upper door, into the surface city. Well cobbled streets, some as wide as twenty feet, were flanked by flat-sided stone buildings. Most only reaching a single story, they had flat roofs, often with patios, or ornamental plants, on top. Windows were rare, small, and heavily glazed, often positioned near the top edges of walls. Trees, trellises, shrubberies, and gardens decorated the front of some houses. Qas'ke loved Depien for how quiet and idyllic it often felt.
She needed some new chalk, as well as some paper, so she headed to De'nah's Desk. Along the way, she slowly realized how empty the streets were, despite the hour being nearly lunch time. She took out her chronorbiter, checking the dials. Prismrise later today. She sighed, tucking the device away, and slipping into the shop that was her destination.
A short set of stairs led down into the shop, whose main room was sunken halfway below street level. Beside the stairs up to the entrance were another short flight of stairs, heading further down, seemingly to another entrance. Shelves, covered in writing supplies, spell ingredients, and arcane implements made orderly lines through the room, and a high counter ran along the back wall, by another door, where the shop owner sat upon a stool.
Pellow was old, even for a human. His wispy white hair clung desperately to a liver-spotted scalp, the crowning piece to a head and face crisscrossed with wrinkles like chasms. The whole lot swiveled laboriously on a neck that creaked as he looked up from his game of four towers, belatedly reacting to the upper door bell that rang as Qas'ke entered De'nah's Desk.
"Ohhhh, lady Leitfoll!" Pellow said, with all the excitement he could muster, in a voice that bore the heavy sanding of time, and probably a few too many nights with the pipe. It was, however, a welcoming and warm voice, grandfatherly and caring. He took his time standing, a process that involved both the counter and a cane, and ambled into the center of the shop, looking like someone searching for a dropped Stithing. He came to a careful stop, supporting himself with both hands on his cane, so he could crane his neck to look up at Qas'ke. "I didn't realize you were back in the city."
"I got back about a week ago, Pellow, I've just been resting." Qas'ke said, bobbing a deep bow, which earned her a scoff and a dismissive hand wave from Pellow, though his face held a smile.
"You know that isn't necessary, my lady. I'm no lord to show deference to." Pellow turned and slowly walked back to the counter, talking along the way. "I take it you're here for paper? I just got a new shipment in from the south, the good stuff." Pellow reached the counter, lifting and waving a sheaf of loose paper in her direction.
Qas'ke let a small, genuine smile through. Pellow did certainly know her too well. "Yes, my friend. I also need some ritual chalk, I... ran out." As she spoke, she perused the shelves, partially out of curiosity, but mostly to hide the sour look on her face.
Pellow stopped waving the paper. "Didn't I just sell you some three weeks ago?" His voice cut right through her with the concern it bore, and she had to turn aside, lest he see her face flush.
"You did. I ran out."
"Huh," Pellow intoned, digging under the counter and bringing up a metal lock box, fiddling with the combination lock. "Not like you, lady Leitfoll. What have you been working on, dear?"
And there was the question. Qas'ke's insides coiled up, like someone had tied ropes around them. How could she explain to Pellow what she had done? She couldn't.
"Stars have been dying, Pellow, too many, too quickly. But nobody seems to believe me that something is wrong." That would have to do. She couldn't say more. Not about what she had done.
Pellow finally popped open the lock box, putting aside a stick of chalk, wrapped in purple paper. "Hmm. That certainly seems concerning." He shut the box, slowly scrambling the combination before putting it back under the counter, then sat to regard Qas'ke for a few silent, contemplative moments, before asking "How can I help you with this, my lady?"
Qas'ke was stunned by the offer, though she knew she should have expected it. This time, she could not hold back her tears, though they were few, and probably seemed the tears of frustration. "I don't know, Pellow. I've hit a standstill, and I won't be receiving any further support from The Assembly. I just... don't know where to go from here."
"No further support?" Pellow asked, furrowing his brow. "I suppose history has a habit of repeating itself. Why must The Assembly so often spurn the bright minds among them? I swear, those sky heads don't want anyone to learn anything, let alone make groundbreaking discoveries."
Pellow's fiery incrimination of The Assembly continued, but Qas'ke had stopped listening. "History has a habit of repeating itself." she mumbled to herself under her breath, then she composed herself, and looked up at Pellow.
"Pellow, do you think stars dying like this has happened before?"
Pellow stopped mid-tirade, pausing to consider the question. "I assume you mean pre-Prism? I don't rightly know, my lady. I'm not sure anyone would. You know records from those times are scarce as best."
"There must still be something out there," Qas'ke rebutted, feeling the fire within her slowly build again. "Something must have survived. It can't all be gone."
"Anything remaining would have to be buried in some of the old ruins." Pellow said, shaking his head. "I don't know of any, and even then, I doubt that going into one would be safe."
"Perhaps some of the outsteaders know something?" Qas'ke mused, tapping her chin and beginning to pace in thought.
"They may..." Pellow said hesitantly. "But who will go with you, my lady?"
"Oh, I'll just go myself." Qas'ke said dismissively, still pacing in thought, her mind racing with ideas and preparations. "No, no, this will be perfect. Thank you for the help, Pellow!"
Qas'ke turned to quickly leave, but was stopped as Pellow called out to her. "Lady Leitfoll! Your paper and chalk?"
Qas'ke jogged back to the counter, apologizing and paying for the goods, tucking them into her satchel, then turning to leave through the upper door again, before she was halted by Pellow once more.
"My lady, the lower door. Prismrise should have hit by now."
Qas'ke hid a blush of embarrassment in her excited state. "Thank you again, Pellow! I'll let you know how everything goes!" She pushed through the lower door of De'nah's Desk, into the subterranean streets below Depien.
The lower streets were large tunnels, usually twenty feet or so across, and ten or fifteen feet high. Most of the tunnels were lit by magically sustained sconces, giving off a pale blue light, with no flame to speak of. People thronged here, much as Qas'ke would have expected up above, had a prismrise not been imminent.
Qas'ke quickly navigated home, the tunnels matching the streets above, and entered through the lower door. She grabbed her expedition pack, quickly filling it with the supplies she would need to strike out on her own. It quickly became heavy, but she was determined, she could handle it.
From below the pack, the corner of a folded sheet of paper stuck out. Qas'ke pulled it free, unfolding it to look again at the letter The Assembly had sent her. With a flick of her hand, she transposed the letter into her fireplace. She would burn it when she returned successful.