One thousand years ago…
The young, short haired woman eased her way down into the deep crater, each step, and the occasional slide drawing a collective gasp from those assembled. She paused each time, more so to regain her balance than for dramatic effect.
It had been thirty passages since the great Fire in the Sky, which had brought something from the skies down to them, and cleaving a hole in good, arable land in the process. It was all as sign the clerics had said, that the sacrifice of the fertile land was small compared to the gifts the gods had placed inside their chariot.
Even though she wore the purple ritual robes and markings of the priesthood, she was no true believer. But a person of her breeding had obligations and she would fulfill them. What she lacked in faith though, she made up for in other gifts, including the silent tongue. She could speak to others without thinking and also project her thoughts to them, but only when she touched them. Just her family knew, and her father had forbidden her from sharing the truth with others.
While she considered the silent tongue a gift, others among her kind thought it was a curse. So she had hidden her true talent, like she had buried her faithlessness. Reaching the bottom of the hole, she paused, taking in the lump, which appeared to be a misshapen lump of crystal and iron.
She remembered the stories she had first heard, of the hardy souls that tried to go touch the great Sunstone. Some had been burned to a crisp, others horrifically scarred for their remaining years. Still more had died of poisons spewing from within the darkened environs.
“This will be a test of faith,” her rector-superior had told her, “Your test.” Perhaps he had wanted to be rid of her and merely devised a clever means to do so. Perhaps he had seen her lack of faith and was giving her a way to bow out of the priesthood. But this she could not do, because of family obligation.
So she had made the trek here to this crater, to gaze upon the already fabled Sunstone and then to attempt to divine its mysteries. She walked slowly towards it, again less for drama, and more out of fear. Insane thoughts ran through her mind of abandoning her quest, throwing away her robes, and moving far from her family and their damnable demands of tradition and duty.
She stilled those disquieting thoughts, lest they become too tempting. She inched glacially toward the Sunstone, the gathering above her watching her every step, their breaths hitching at every pause.
Now at the entrance, or rather hole within the stone, she paused once more, to gaze up at all of the anxious and hopeful faces, as if taking in her last glimpse of life. She fingered the sun medallion hanging from her neck. Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and stepping inside.
She walked slowly, letting her breaths out in small bursts, testing each inhalation as if she knew what poison smelled like. As she walked deeper into the Sunstone, she realized it was much more than a rock. She didn’t quite know how to describe it. The best she could come up with was like a ship, like the barge that had ferried her here.
Now that her curiosity had taken hold, she continued going deeper inside. She was careful though to take slow, measured steps. Sharp objects jutted from the walls and were spread across the floor.
She lost track of time as she walked throughout the barge. It didn’t take her long to find the bodies. She had jumped at first, the crystalline creatures reminding her of the crawlers that pestered her and sometimes despoiled her food. The first sight of the larger crawlers had almost made her flee, but she had stanched that impulse and approached one. Poking it with the heel of her boot, she had realized that the creature was dead.
If it was a creature at all, because even through her boot toe hill she could tell it was not made of skin. The exterior felt hard and as crystal like as its appearance.
She wondered what manner of beings they were. Nothing in her texts had said such creatures existed. Looking forward to stupefying the sanctimonious rectors back at the rectory, she ventured even further, searching for other things she could use to upend their cloistered views.
Turning a corner, she eyed a soft, mesmerizing orange glow. In one room, off to the side she saw a large crystalline screen, with diagonal patterns. It gleaming, pulsing if not with life, some kind of power. And if she didn’t know better, it almost felt as if was calling her.
Stepping over one dead creature to reach it, she paused only a second before placing her hand against its smooth crystalline exterior. She shrieked, her body twitching in spasms as a torrent of images and emotions poured into her. She was touching a lattice, a way that these being communicated with each other, shared and stored their thoughts, and there were so many thoughts, a chorus of them, and so many images that came from a well of memories, for hundreds of years.
Her mind nearly shut down as it struggled to contain them all, much less make it all understandable to her.
Even after she wrenched her hand free, the woman, still in the clutches of the device, fell to the ground. Her mind reeled as she absorbed what she could, learning of beings and times that didn’t yet exist, from worlds far beyond her own. She didn’t know how long she stayed on the ground, only that when she was released, her stomach felt like it was eating itself and the smell of her own body clung around her.
She was dirty, she was stiff, tired and famished, but none of that mattered. Because she had communed with beings of fire, and now she believed. Not only that, they had told her of a great object of enormous power, even greater than the lattice, that would make her people great, so magnificent that they too would one day stride among the stars like the Fire Beings. That great power, like a sacred fire, was nestled within this barge.
She stood up, shaking off the tiredness and stiffness, allowing the knowledge of the Fire Beings to fill her and to guide her to the sacred fire and to her destiny.