The Five abide by three rules.
Audun, 969 After Landing (AL)
The bluff of razor-sharp sand darkens the underground city of Principal Rift. A woman in royal blue faces it. White light radiates from her chest as wind assails her raven black hair. The bluff howls, fueled by the wasteland of nothing but dunes and dessert behind it. As it prepares to smatter the upper levels of the Rift, smothering those in its wake, she opens her arms to it. It swells, swallows her, and enters Principal Rift.
At the bottom of the Rift, in the Overseer’s Keep, Devi startles awake. Something’s wrong. The low whistle of the storm raging on the surface absorbs the soft gales and silence of the Rift. It’s all she can hear beside the steady ache in her chest telling her something’s happened.
Her cocoon molds to her body. The Dawning designed it to protect her lungs from the residual damage of sand. She should be grateful for it, but being wrapped in it every night makes her feel like she’s being pinched into a crack in the wall. The mesh fabric flaps against her mouth with every inhale. It’s wet with her own sweat and recycled oxygen. Her chest tightens as the sensation of wet fabric rubs against her skin. She can’t stand it. Outside, the sand howls. She unzips the cocoon and grasps for air. Real air. The rusty taste of sand settles on her tongue and lips. She licks it without thought.
A wave of shame washes over her.
“Protect me from the unnatural desires of the Unrest,” she prays to the Martyr.“The sand is potent. The surface is vile.” The prayer melts around her. It’s fast becoming habit.
She scans the Keep. A wall of pitch black meets her. On night’s like this, when a surfacestorm strikes, it’s always dark and heavy, but this feels darker. More complete.
“Khaalida?” she asks the dark.
Before the surfacestorm raged, she fell asleep to the comforting presence of Khaalida in the bed beside her.
“Khaalida?” she says again, her eyes heavy with tiredness.
Outside the Keep, sandy wind batters her curtain. Only the growl of the storm sweeping the High Hall answers her. Not Khaalida. Her slick, sweaty body tightens. Where’s Khaalida? The older woman has been her mentor and guide since her assent to Overseership two years ago. Devi asks her to stay in the Keep when she needs comfort, and Khaalida never refuses. She needs extra comfort on the nights of surfacestorms. They strike every few days. More frequently than ever, giving the Rifters little time to recover from the damages. They both know what the exposure of too much sand is doing to the dwindling numbers of the Rifts. They’re dying younger, in great rashes, more than they had under her father’s Overseership. The morning will bring a toll of lives lost.
In the dark, she can’t sense Khaalida’s presence. The comfort she felt slips away, replaced by the damning pound of her heart. She can’t explain how she knows, but she knows. Something’s happened. Loneliness waits for her as she zips up her cocoon and fights for air.
Fragmented nightmares about Nebulaana are the first sign. Devi’s experienced the dreams for years, long before her assent to Overseer. Tremoring in the wrists is the second sign. It’s harder to hide. The third sign, a thirst for the sand, leads to an overwhelming madness called the Unrest.
Her father’s fate––the late Overseer of Principal Rift.
The tremoring started a month ago.
She swallows the ache of consuming nothing but her own oxygen all night. Saliva pools before she swallows again. She started thirsting for the sand a few days ago, but she hasn’t told anyone. Not even Khaalida.
The Unrest claimed her father and left her with the inheritance of Overseeing five Rifts. Eventually, every Overseer succumbs to it. It’s only a matter of time. It’s in their DNA. Eventually, the tremors overtake their bodies, the dreams disrupt their sleep, and the thirst becomes intolerable, driving them feral and corrupting their line of reasoning. The madness can only be cured by death.
She grips her wrist.
Only Khaalida knows about the tremor. No one else.
She won’t allow the Unrest to overtake her before she makes a dent in saving Audun from Nebulaana. She’s too young to go mad. Unlike her father, who began his Overseership at forty and lived to the healthy age of seventy, Devi is only twenty. The corruption of the Unrest is happening much younger to her than any Overseer before her, and she has no idea why. Her grandmother hadn’t felt it until her eighth decade.
Her tremoring fades as footsteps approach and someone comes to rest outside the drawn curtain of the Overseer’s Keep. In Principal Rift, no doors separate dwelling spaces. Only clothe and naturally formed rock. All space is common space, except the Overseer’s Keep and the Council’s Chamber.
“Forgive me for disturbing you this early, Overseer Devi,” the Reverend’s thin voice says.
“Give me a moment, Reverend.”
She unwraps from the cocoon, slick with sweat, and slips into her plain Overseer garments: a rust-coloured dress that hangs to her ankles and hides her soft curves, a robe made from the same mesh as her cocoon, and a separated hood made from scaled lizard skin. Sand sifts off the crumpled cocoon around her feet as she braids her dark, curly hair. The ceremonial braid reaches just past her shoulders––a point of pride for the Overseers. When their Overseership starts, they stop cutting their hair. The unsevered growth shows the length of their service to the Rifts.
Sand sticks to the wet between her elbow creases. Even down here, at the bottom of the Rift, the surfacestorm leaves its mark. A thin layer of sand coats her bed and the ground. It will be worse outside.
She pauses on her side of the curtain, not quite ready to face a new day with the same weight of responsibility.
“How many lives has the surfacestorm stolen, Reverend?” she asks.
She braces for the numbers. She should be used to hearing the tally of loss by now, but death has always been sharp with her. New every time. She lost her mother to a lung infection, and every surfacestorm is a reminder of how small and insignificant the Rifters compare to the black hole knocking at their door. Last surfacestorm they lost twelve lives. Three of them had been children. Suffocated in the night. It’s harder to live on the higher levels of the Rift. For those closer to the surface, each breath erodes their lungs like sandpaper. Yet many risk the nourishment of daylight over a longer life in the dark.
Audun is a desolate, hostile planet. The Primaries never should have landed on it and colonized the Rifts.
On the other side of the curtain, the Reverend shuffles. Her silence hangs heavy.
“Well?” Devi asks. She should be numb to the heaviness of being the Overseer, but she’s not. She’s tired. She just woke up and she yearns to return to a fetal position. She’s ready but never ready.
“Primary Khaalida is gone,” the Reverend says.
Her breath catches. She swipes the curtain open. Her first instinct is to laugh at the practical joke, but the Reverend isn’t known for making light of a serious situation, and the furrow between her thick eyebrows tells her laughter would be a mistake.
The cryptic shadows of the Reverend’s under eyes frighten her. Tension pulls at the old lines of her tan face. She removes a letter from a belled sleeve.
“Primary Khaalida couldn’t be found in her chambers this morning,” she says. “She left you this.”
Devi reluctantly takes the letter and tears the Dawning signet.
Ask about the one-with-seven-names. I have gone to seek atonement for my sins. Do not search for me, little kindling. I am beyond saving.
She mumbles the words.
Reads them again.
The Reverend lingers. Behind her, the sand-coated High Hall arches into darkness. Her heavy robe, made with layers of the same mesh as Devi’s cocoon, branches behind her, leaving a trail of its shape in the sand. The Dawning prefer not to associate with the sand. They don’t like it on them. They prefer it on the surface where they never wander and on the ground under their feet. The Reverend’s arms fold into the belled sleeves of her robe. The mesh hood hides her bald, tattooed head.
She skims the letter again. Ask about the one-with-seven-names. Such an odd phrase. She’s never heard of one person carrying seven names. What does it mean?
The Reverend contemplates her. The members of the Dawning tend to keep their affairs under lock and key, especially the oldest and most revered members. Their sole purpose is to end the Unraveling and advise the Council of Audun.
Primary Khaalida leads them as their Head.
So why had she forsaken them in the middle of a surfacestorm?
The Reverend’s hazel eyes are pools of secrets. She won’t answer Devi unless asked the right questions.
She meets the Reverend’s gaze. “Did…she mention any of this to you?”
“I found the letter in my chambers this morning with instructions to deliver it to you.”
“I understand.” She doesn’t, but showing uncertainty never bodes well with the Dawning. They are void of most emotions. They believe emotions cloud judgment
“Call a Council meeting,” she says. “Her absence must be addressed.”
“And thank you, Reverend.”
With her arms still folded, she bows. “It is my honor, Overseer Devi. If you desire advice from the Dawning in light of Primary Khaalida’s absence, you are welcome to seek me out. The Sanctuary is open to you.” She bows lower. “Always.”
“I will, Reverend.”
She turns. “May the Martyr be with you, Overseer." The vast echo of the High Hall carries her voice upward. The tan walls of the Rift narrow, stopping at a mouth of inky sky fifty feet up.
“May the Martyr be with you, Reverend,” she repeats.
After pulling the curtain shut, she sinks to the ground.
She’s not ready for this. She’ll never be ready for more loss. Stress worsens the tremoring. She grips her left wrist and whispers a prayer. “Martyr of Audun, please, take this affliction from me. Hide it from those who doubt my Overseership. Veil it from the eyes of the Council.”
She presses a thumb to her pulse and drops her head between her legs.
Khaalida is gone. The last of the Primaries. The Head of the Dawning. The Elder of History. Gone without an explanation. She’s used to losing people, but not like this, not on the brink of planetary collapse. Two years ago, after the Unrest claimed her father, Khaalida became her closest advisor. Since then, she’s been like a mother to her––a light in the dark, a guiding hand, a comfort on the hard days.
I have gone to seek atonement for my sins. Do not search for me, little kindling. She reads the final sentence out loud. “I am beyond saving.”
What does the most powerful woman on Audun need saving from? What sins had she committed to warrant atonement? She only knows Khaalida as a source of certainty and comfort. As the Head of the Dawning, she created unity and hope. In the face of the surfacestorms and quakes and the prophecy of the Unraveling, she’s acted as a beacon of strength amid doom. She’s served the Rifts and the Overseers of Audun for centuries with an unwavering veracity.
Had it all been a ruse?
Devi wipes the residue of sand from her tear-streaked face. Khaalida forsook her. In the hour of her greatest need, Khaalida left her to save a crumbling, nearly uninhabitable planet from the grip of a planet hungry black hole.