Sephonei’s satchel slid from her shoulder and fell to the rocky shore. Before her knees hit the ground, her hands came to her face in an effort to muffle the three long sobs that escaped her. When she lifted her head, she saw the ferry disappear along the horizon, leaving a trail of sea foam in its wake. Sephonei was alone—utterly alone, for the first time in her life.
She quickly wiped the salty tear streaking down her face—she didn’t want her squadron’s first impression of her to be this: a girl on her knees sobbing for her parents.
Sephonei scanned her surroundings. She was on a rocky shore under the shadow of a looming coastal mountain on the outskirts of Atlantea. The only exit was a dark cavern at the toe of the mountain, which, she thought, could lead anywhere. She shivered.
The last few days had been a blur of events. She had been on her parents’ merchant barge selling wares when soldiers boarded and drafted her into the League of Crystal Hunters. It was under the order of the High Priest of Atlantea himself.
Neither Sephonei nor her parents could protest—the soldiers allowed her to pack one bag before escorting her to the compound, no exceptions. She tried to question them, but they gave her no answers, only stern looks and pointed tridents. She knew nothing about being a Crystal Hunter—she didn’t even know they existed. Living in Atlantea her whole life, how had she never heard of them before?
She was forced into two days of intense training, starting with drills that covered the basics of Crystal Hunting. The trainers, if you could call them that, explained what the eternal stones were, then hammered her with the severity of the upcoming mission. It was too much in too little time. To top it off, she learned that her mission was to retrieve a rare eternal stone from a cavern on the outskirts of Atlantea. There, she would meet her squadron for the first time.
Success was the only option; the Order swore that failure meant death.
Who were the Order?
Why hadn’t she heard of them either?
What was going on?
Despite the intensity of the training, Sephonei felt ill-prepared. She never realized the eternal stones did anything more than power the merchant ships of Atlantea. How could she… Before now, her life had been simple and routine.
Sephonei fiddled with the pink ribbon that tied her long, aqua braid—it was one of the few things she was able to bring with her. It reminded her of home.
Her mind retraced the last few days. The recruits at the compound had said this mission to retrieve the eternal stone had taken many lives—the pool of Crystal Hunter apprentices had been depleted. Now, the Order relied on conscription to fill their ranks. If they were relying on her, they must be desperate; what did she know about retrieving a stone?
Her orders were to wait at the base of the mountain, outside the cavern until her squadron found her. She didn’t want to be here. She missed her parents: the smell of the spices, the drift of the merchant barge, and the harmony of the string and wind instruments at the merchant parties. When she closed her eyes, she could almost feel the gentle rhythm of the barge, as it floated along the channels of Atlantea. Briny air filled her lungs, and the sounds of the sea lapping on the shore echoed off the toe of the mountain.
“Great, another apprentice. How many do we have to go through before we can get out of here? Is it me, or are they getting younger and younger? Lookin’ at this one, we won’t be goin’ home anytime soon.”
The thick Atlantean accent caught Sephonei off guard—not only was the accent thicker than she’d ever heard, it also had an odd ring to it. Being a merchant’s daughter afforded Sephonei the privilege of meeting many exotic traders and the common folk of Atlantea too; she knew people in different regions spoke different ways.
At the sound of the voices, Sephonei opened her eyes and stood. Two figures appeared from the cavern entrance. A woman about Sephonei’s height came into view—her presence making her seem taller than she actually was. Her hair was shaved on one side, and the long curls on the other side rested on her shoulder. She walked with purpose and had a stern look about her. A scar ran down her face; the reddened tissue above her eyebrow drew a jagged line down to beneath her chin.
The second figure, tall and lean, followed the woman. A crop of green, greased hair reflected the light of the morning sun. Sephonei stepped back when she looked at his face. She gasped quietly and brought her hand to her mouth. Something unnaturally reflective was fused to his face where his left eye should have been. The contraption splayed shards of light in all directions as he walked.
The two wore similar long, dark jackets, high boots and fitted trousers. They stopped and stared at Sephonei.
The woman extended her glove. “I’m Ku-aya.” She pointed to the green-haired man. “This is Abil.”
Abil nodded. “The pleasure is yours, I’m sure.” He forced a tight smile, barely making eye contact with Sephonei.
Sephonei took Ku-aya’s gloved hand and shook it. “I’m Sephonei. I’m the recruit.”
Abil snorted as he looked down at her hands. “Ai, we kinda figured. You’re the fifth recruit this week. An’ a li’l fistler at that.”
Sephonei looked down and stopped fidgeting with her pink ribbon. “I’m not a fistler. Nervous is all.”
Abil snorted and gave a dry smile.
Ku-aya tilted her head at Abil and gave him a stern look. “Ai now, boyo, don’t be scarin’ her off before we see what she can do. We gotta get her on board and up to speed, yaa?”
Abil scanned the horizon mockingly. “Where exactly is she gonna go?”
The northern tip of the outer ring of Atlantea was mountainous and only navigable by ferry.
A knot twisted in Sephonei’s stomach. “What do you mean, I’m ‘the fifth recruit this week’?”
Ku-aya sighed. “Ai. We are having an issue with the recruits. The last eternal stone in Atlantea, a powerful stone, is located in this cavern behind me.” Ku-aya gestured with her thumb to the dark opening in the mountain's foot. “It’s our job to retrieve it. Well, in this case, it’s your job, yaa.”
From her basic training, Sephonei understood what the stones were for. She thought of her parents’ merchant barge and how it floated along the many water channels—the mech gears fed off the energy of the stones.
Sephonei twirled her pink ribbon around her finger. “My job? I don’t know how to retrieve it. Three days ago, I was on my parents’ merchant barge in the commons, playin’ lute at a party. Now I’m here.”
Ku-aya snapped to attention. “What? Are you tellin’ me you only had two days’ trainin’?” She raised her eyebrows at Abil, then turned back to Sephonei. “Explain.”
Sephonei let her braid fall to her side. “Ai. Like I said, I’m a merchant’s daughter, an’ I don’t know anythin’ about Crystal Huntin’ except what they force-fed me in orientation.”
Ku-aya crossed her arms and tilted her head. Her eyes scanned Sephonei for answers. “What could you have possibly learned in two days?”
Sephonei mimicked Ku-aya and crossed her arms. “A copper top snatched me away an’ dropped me off at some barracks. My parents couldn’t object. The guards were forceful. They told me basic stuff about the eternal stones, there was some trainin’ on combat techniques, then they pushed me on the ferry an’ sent me here to wait for you. I feel like a prisoner.”
Ku-aya’s eyebrows drew together, then her features stilled. “Ladgeful. This is a mess. Not sure why you got pressed into service.” She squinted one eye and tilted her head at Sephonei. “Stick with me, kid. I’ll learn you the ropes, yaa?”
Abil shook his head. “Ai, this is a clarty mess if I ever saw one.”
Ku-aya’s foot tapped on the ground. “Ai. But if you’re gonna be on my crew, we gotta get some things straight. First, I’m in charge. If I say move, you move. Got it?”
Sephonei nodded, but inside, confusion and anger bubbled. Who was this woman barking orders at her, and why did she have to do this? She wanted to be with her parents, selling wares, and in her comfortable bed each night, not at the edge of Atlantea about to search some gloomy dark cave.
Ku-aya’s arms fell to her hips, and her weight shifted. “Second, never touch the stones, especially the more powerful ones, like the one that’s supposed to be in the cave. Yaa?”
Sephonei nodded as she toyed with her ribbon. This woman sure had a lot of rules. Sephonei worried she wouldn’t remember all of them. Was she a prisoner? She didn’t have a say in being here. Why was collecting these stones so important?
Abil rolled his eyes, picked up a stone, and skipped it on the surface of the water. It bounced several times before it sank from the press of the unrelenting surf.
Ku-aya didn’t take her eyes off Sephonei. “Third rule of basic training: We are a team, an’ we stick together. Never forget your place on my team. I am a master Crystal Hunter with over seven years’ experience. Abil here is a journeyman with five years’. An’ you… well, if you make it past today’s field trial and live, then you can call yourself my apprentice, yaa?”
Ku-aya turned and strode into the darkened cavern. “Don’t stand idle.”
Sephonei clutched the rope, her knuckles raw with tension. Swinging high above a seemingly bottomless pit was not her idea of fun. Her hands trembled as she inched down the rope. Ku-aya barked encouragement from below while Abil chastised her.
He tugged on the rope, causing it to sway and ripple. “Come on, li’l fistler, we don’t have all day. This is a simple four-hundred-cubit drop! Nothin’ your training didn’t prepare you for. You’re takin’ too long! Hurry up!”
Her orientation may have been short, but Sephonei remembered each cubit was the length from her elbow to the tip of her finger. Nausea washed over her when she dared to look down the dark crevasse. She closed her eyes and held even tighter… Her feet stuck in place as she gripped the rope, and her fingers felt like they would fuse to the rope fibers.
Ku-aya clubbed Abil with her gloved hand. The moist glove squelched, leaving a damp mark on his nekker. “Dammit, Abil, shut up, yaa? You’re not helpin’.”
Abil straightened his nekker and tucked it back into his vest, ignoring the damp glove print. “Ai. This is a bust before it even started. Might as well tell Sin to send another fledgling; no way this one’s going to make it.”
Sephonei peeked down. Mist glinted against the dim shards of light that penetrated the dank space. It gave her hope of a bottom to the pit. She inched down farther.
“A little more, and you’re there, Sephonei,” Ku-aya said.
Abil gave the rope another tug.
“Stop it,” Ku-aya snapped. “What’s gotten into you? I know you’re usually prickly, but come on, boyo. Get it together.”
Abil rolled his eyes and kicked at the hard-packed stone, sending several loose pebbles over the edge of the crevasse. “I hate this damn cave. It’s dark, it’s dank, an’ I’m tired of all these new apprentices. Why are we doin’ so many dummy runs?”
“Quit gripin’, boyo.” Ku-aya shot back. “You know full well what we’re doin’ here.”
“Ai, but why do three of us need to go to the mainland? Why are we goin’ through all of this?”
Ku-aya tapped her foot and held the rope steady. “How do you know the next hunt’ll be on the mainland? Sin hasn’t given us the location yet. Or are you in cahoots with the big bull?”
Abil ran his hand through his slick hair and turned away from Ku-aya. “Where else would it be but on the mainland?”
Ku-aya huffed. “Ai. You have a point there. Seems like the most logical place for it. You know Sin as well as I do. Hell, you probably know him better than I do; I’ve seen you in his chambers without me. What do you guys talk about in there?”
Abil darted his eyes, then said, “Get the kid down, an’ let’s get out of this grimy dump.”
Sephonei toed the ground. She tapped, tentatively at first, until she felt solid rock beneath her feet, then she let go of the rope.
Ku-aya slapped Sephonei on the back. “Good job, yaa.”
Sephonei hunched over and sucked in a cool, moist breath. Her hands trembled and rested on her shaky knees.
“Ai. We almost there?” Sephonei breathed heavily. “Why are eternal stones so important? I mean, I know they run the barges’ but—”
“Oh, to the gods…” Abil flipped his hands in the air and spun on his heel. “I can’t take this anymore. This li’l fistler is also a ninnyhammer.” He stalked to the ledge of the crevasse and peered below.
Ku-aya rested her hand on Sephonei’s shoulder. “Don’t mind him. It’s been a tough week. We’ve been in this cave for days on end without rest.”
Sephonei straightened. She found her resolve, and her balance restored. “Why?”
Ku-aya sighed. “We are Crystal Hunters. We hunt eternal stones. Sin, the High Priest, the leader of the Order of the Sons—basically the guy in charge of our civilization—needs the stones to power our world an’ do other stately things. He pays us to find them. And for whatever reason, they are sending us apprentice after apprentice. It’s been a terrible slog to get this damn stone.”
Sephonei scrunched her nose. “Why this stone? Why did the Order of the Sons draft me and the other apprentices? How did they recruit them before?”
Ku-aya looked at Abil, who leaned against the wall of the crevasse, absently plucking at the cord of his crossbow. The metal of the bow glinted against the dark red stain of the handle and trigger mechanism.
Ku-aya focused on Sephonei and shook her head. “So many questions. You’re part of my crew now, so you’re not a prisoner. The Order of the Sons are a collective of… how can I put this? They are a bunch of old guys who run stuff in Atlantea. Sin is their head, and they advise the king on how to do things. I guess they ran out of apprentices. Poor timing is all. We are preparing for a bigger stone quest soon. An’ we need some new recruits, yaa.”
Sephonei took a deep breath. “Is it true all the other apprentices died?”
Ku-aya paused. She narrowed her eyes, her foot stopped tapping, then started again. “They didn’t pass the challenge.”
Sephonei pressed further. “Did they die?”
Ku-aya’s gaze didn’t waver; she held her chin up. “Ai.”
Sephonei looked down and released her ribbon. She couldn’t keep her hands still. She took a long slow breath like her dad had taught her to do when she was anxious, then released the breath slowly and counted in her head. She sure felt like a prisoner.
Ku-aya marched over to Abil and pointed deeper into the cave.
Abil snickered. “You comin’, kid? Or do I need to hold your hand? Gonna be hard since you’re always fistlin’ with that ribbon of yours.”
She already didn’t like the green-haired, one-eyed, crossbow-toting sidekick. She wasn’t sure of Ku-aya yet. Time would tell.
The deeper they trudged into the cavern, the darker it became. The long, gray stone tunnel opened up into a large open cavern. A hole in the ceiling let in a dim ray of light that rested in the middle of the room in an oblong pattern. Dark gray stone lined the walls, and milky water dripped from the stalactites spiraling from above. It splattered on the stone in a melodic rhythm; Sephonei held back her instinct to move to the beat.
The sound reminded her of the merchant parties her parents threw where she would perform for the guests. Sephonei played many instruments, but she preferred the strings above the rest. Sephonei had a talent for creating; she could draw just as well as she could play any instrument. Sephonei reached back into her worn satchel. Good, it was still there. The familiar leather binding of her sketchbook was in its rightful place: by her side.
Ku-aya stopped midway through the cavern and stamped her foot. “Here we are. There’s your door. Come back when you have it.” She pointed to a large stone opening at the end of the even larger cavern.
Sephonei looked at Ku-aya. “Aren’t you comin’ in?”
Ku-aya shook her head. “No. This is all yours, kid.”
She reached into her satchel, pulled out a metallic orb, and handed it to Sephonei. Tiny stones were fused to the sphere, creating patterns around its poles. A fine line circled the center of the sphere.
Sephonei spun it in her hand. “What’s this?”
Ku-aya tapped her foot and squinted. “What did they teach you in orientation? This is bloody ladgeful. What’s the Order comin’ to?” She paused, then crossed her arms. “That is a mech container. Remember when I said not to touch the stones? We use this device to contain the stone’s power. When you get close to the stone, it will light up and open. Once it’s open, you carefully encase the eternal stone, an’ the unit will snap shut. Then you bring the mech container to me, yaa?”
Sephonei looked to the door and gulped as the knot in her belly returned. The opening at the end of the cavern was pitch black. She circled around the edge of the room and tried to peer in—she saw nothing and heard nothing. She stepped in and walked to the end of the room. There was a carved stone door blocking her from entering. She felt around for a latch or something to push. A stone plate sunk as her hand brushed against it, and the stone door lurched open. A damp draft blew out of the room, making Sephonei shiver.
She stepped into the room, and the stone door slammed shut behind her.
She heard Abil call out, “Ai, li’l fistler! Don’t die in there! I don’t want to have to watch another apprentice traipse down the crevasse wall so daintily again…”
Sephonei heard the sound of leather on leather as Ku-aya clubbed Abil.
The room was black and silent, save for a low hum that permeated the darkness. Inching forward, Sephonei extended her hands, probing for an obstruction. She stumbled and kicked a hard object, sending it into motion. The object clanked and rattled as it sailed into the darkness. A clunking noise echoed off the far wall and reverberated through the small room, halting Sephonei in her tracks.
The hum intensified. A dim glow lit in the darkest corner and made its way across the room until it surrounded her. Sephonei stopped breathing as the light revealed the source of the humming.
Hundreds of hard-shelled creatures, half her size, clung to the darkened stone walls. Their transparent wings beat together, the force of the collisions sparking and lighting the room with a blue glow.
A stone pedestal stood prominently in the center of the room. On it was a pale blue, stringed instrument. It resembled her lute she was forced to leave at home, but the shape, size, and color were different. It was more elegant than any she had ever seen. The wood on the face of the instrument was etched with intricate white heart-shaped decals.
Sephonei stood motionless as a secondary rhythm became audible—a tonal pattern emerged from the clacking of the winged creatures’ mandibles.
Clack, clack, clack.
Sephonei felt paralyzed as the clacking intensified.
What was she supposed to do? She stood still. The creatures didn’t seem to notice her, save for the winged beats and the clacking. What was the instrument here for? What was this test? Her eyes moved to the corners of the room where wall met floor. Bones were stacked on the ground, some piles more recognizable than others. Seated in the corner was a dusty skeleton with a dagger in hand. The cobwebs were so thick that only half of the bones were visible.
Glancing down, Sephonei caught sight of the rock she had kicked. Turned out it was a skull.
She gulped and made eye contact with one of the winged creatures next to her. It turned its head. Thousands of tiny red cells formed the huge, bulging eyes of the creature; Sephonei saw her own image reflected thousands of times. The creature’s mandibles snapped.
Sephonei launched herself into the center of the room, and her back slammed against the pedestal and slid down. A flurry of blue sparks erupted when the creatures’ wings collided as they became more agitated, and the room filled with blinding blue light. The flapping sound of the wings echoed and intensified throughout the chamber. She held her hands to her ears—then the creatures were airborne.
The room was filled with a dark blue hue. Bodies zinged by. One connected with her, its mandible snapping shut against her side. The cloth of her shirt tore as the creature yanked down. Sephonei scrambled up and swatted at the surrounding calamity, her hand swiped and caught the hard shell of the creature.
The creature pitched sideways and flew into the wall. It burst on impact—a glowing, green liquid pasted the wall and oozed in gobs to the floor.
Sephonei screamed and stumbled back, knocking the pedestal again. The stringed instrument fell to the floor, the stone muting the wood’s hollow ringing. Sephonei felt a blunt impact as one of the creatures slammed into the back of her head. She crumpled to the ground.
When she opened her eyes, the stringed instrument’s handle lay on the floor near her face. The metallic fret markers glinted blue and off-green, and the etched markings were more intricate than any she had ever seen in the merchant district. The creatures scuttled around her, biting at her leather slippers and her clothes, but she could only focus on the instrument.
She reached for it, and several creatures came into view, lurching for her face. The pull of the instrument helped her to remain calm. When she finally grasped it in her hands, the instrument felt cool to the touch, then it warmed and seemed to glow. She instinctively strummed it once, then again and again.
When she opened her eyes, the surrounding hum had ceased. The creatures did not flutter anymore; they did not move at all. Instead, they watched. Sephonei stood and strummed, not losing her beat. She eyed the room and found the door. How long could she hold their attention? She stepped backwards to the door and hit it with her back.
The door swung open. She passed through the threshold and pressed the door shut. She relaxed her hand and turned to see Abil and Ku-aya standing there, stunned.
Sephonei stumbled towards them, holding out the stringed instrument. “This is all I found.”
Abil threw his hands in the air, kicked at the dirt, then pivoted. “We are gonna get flogged for this. Where is the stone?”
Ku-aya tore the instrument from Sephonei’s hands. She held it to her face, rotating it like a piece of pork on a spit. “This is it? What else was in the room?”
Sephonei shrugged. “This was it. There was nothin’ else in the room, other than hundreds of giant beetles that sparked when their wings clicked together.”
“So, how d'you escape?” Ku-aya asked.
Sephonei shrugged again. She paused and reached for her ribbon. “I played the instrument—”
Abil laughed coldly. “You sang to them? That’s it? That’s ladgeful, li’l fistler. We can’t go back to Sin empty handed. But I’m done with this place.” He stalked through the tunnel where they had come.
Ku-aya tossed the instrument to the floor and stalked after Abil. “Ai, boyo, stop! Come back here! You can leave when I say so—”
The cave shook. Stones and rubble fell from the cavern walls. Sephonei braced herself but fell, anyway.
Ku-aya scanned the room, then yelled, “Run! The cavern is collapsin’!”
Through the turmoil, Sephonei heard the distinct rhythm of the winged creatures as they burst through the rubble of the collapsed stone door. Hesitating for only a second to grab the lute from the floor, she turned and fled.
Boulders crashed and dust billowed around Sephonei as she scrambled up the knotted rope. Abil raced ahead without looking back. Sephonei and Ku-aya pushed onward, not sparing a glance behind them. Sephonei’s legs burned—she hadn’t realized when they entered the cavern that they had been walking downhill the whole time. Her pace slowed, and Ku-aya and Abil ran ahead.
A large boulder dropped in front of Sephonei, rolling towards her. There was no room in the tight tunnel to go around the boulder, and she couldn’t outrun it. She turned, and up ahead there was a small notch in the tunnel; it looked just big enough for her to fit. She pitched ahead and squeezed into the notch before the stone whipped by. She poked her head out to see if the way was clear. A small boulder struck Sephonei’s head, and she buckled.
When Sephonei opened her eyes, she was on the stone floor in the tunnel with her feet tucked into the notch. “Ku-aya! Abil! Help!”
Abil turned and saw her on the ground, looked at the collapsing tunnel behind them, made a series of faces, and kept running.
Ku-aya looked over her shoulder. “Dammit.” She skidded to a stop and raced back, grabbing Sephonei and dragging her to the light at the end of the cavern. The noise of the falling rubble drowned out Ku-aya’s yelling. Her face contorted through a series of exaggerated expressions—Sephonei knew there should be sound, but all she heard was the booming of the chaos behind them. As they stumbled out of the cavern and collapsed onto the ground, the blinding light of midday stole their vision.
The three Crystal Hunters sprawled outside the cave entrance, gasping for breath. The cavern crumpled in on itself, blocking any future entry back into the cave.
Ku-aya broke the silence long after the last rock had settled. “This was not supposed to happen like this. Sin’ll be furious. I am not sure how we left the stone behind, but we better get on the same page about what happened in there. Sin doesn’t put up with failure, an’ that was a monumental failure.”
Sephonei sat up and glared at Abil. “You left me! I saw you look back, an’ you left me lyin’ there…”
Abil sat up and glowered at Sephonei. “Ai. It was your fault, you li’l fistler. You grabbed a lute instead of the stone—you might as well have let that rock crush your head ’cause it’s better than what Sin’ll do to you.”