Heya. I wrote this thing as soon as I finished reading Games Wizards Play which, granted, was over a year ago, but hey, here it is anyway. It was fun to write and I hope you enjoy it. And if you do enjoy it, why not leave a review? Reviews are cookies for the soul.
From the Darkness Shines
Millions of years before the evolution of life around a small yellow star, even before the dust and debris of the young sun's accretion disk began to coalesce and take the forms of planets, another star farther down the main sequence, orange and dim, was dying.
The star was host to five planets, three terrestrial, two gas giants. Of the terrestrials, one was much too close to its sun to support life, tidally locked and tectonically unstable. One was too far, a frozen silicate body too small to hold an atmosphere and scarred by the long string of debris whose orbits crossed every thousand years. But the second, in orbit between the first terrestrial and the innermost gas giant glowed with sunlight reflected off thick atmosphere and below layers of water clouds was the distinct green, blue, and beige of a world sustaining carbon-based life.
Every revolution around the star, the farthest terrestrial, undiscovered and so unnamed, watched with growing concern and sensing the unease in the star's increased activity with every perihelion. He had gained sentience long before life had evolved on the second world and had been content to watch it grow. But life had evolved too late and now it seemed would die off without ever having gained the knowledge and ability to save itself. The outermost "watched," if a planet can watch, in dismay for there was nothing he could do. He let his consciousness drift and would have slept except that something happened which he had never before experienced. There was a brief surge of energy on one of the flatter planes of his surface. A moment later, he felt the slight impacts of the feet of living beings on his barren, cold, and up until then, lifeless world.
The team of wizards had brought their own air and an unfamiliar warmth. They were all manner of beings, bipedal, amphibious, some with fins or claws or talons, some with long, sweeping tails, two eyes or more. They all stood and shuffled and accustomed themselves to the low gravity. From here, the sun was just a bright star, orange, distant. Farther down the sky, almost vanishing beneath the near horizon, was the bright yellow point of light that was the outermost gas giant. The wizards looked beyond that toward the sun and the rocky planet they could not see but which was the reason for their coming here.
"The problem isn't so much that we can't help them," one of them said, a thin biped with purplish-blue skin and delicate, rubbery tentacles that grew from her back, waving absentmindedly in the gravity. "It's that our helping them will come as quite a shock. In more ways than one."
The planet was unusual in that while wizardry itself wasn't practiced in secret, the society was also asdurrafrith, unaware of alien life. Even more, the species had outright rejected even the possibility of alien life, believing themselves the only race that existed or the only that mattered. It was severe enough that the local wizards had kept quiet about it.
"It's worse than that, though," said the biped's companion, a sleek canid with long legs, a long face, and very short gray fur. He crouched on his haunches, the top of his head coming up to her shoulder.
There was a slight pop of displaced air that stirred up a slight breeze in the confines of the communal force field as another wizard appeared. He was bipedal, his skin gray and hairless. His head was shaped almost like a diamond prism, two large dark eyes set in deep sockets far enough apart to give him adequate side vision and another eye was located in the back of the head, the eyes evenly spaced and giving him 360 degree vision. Several vertical slits below the eyes might have been nostrils. He took a step toward the wizard and gave an elaborate bow. "Dai stihó."
"Dai stihó," the first wizard said, mimicking his bow, followed closely by her companion. "You must be Gu'a'ung." She tried to get the name right from what she'd read in her précis. The 'Ng'a language was all deep in the throat and she'd found herself stumbling over its awkward articulation. "I really hope I said that right."
"You did," Gu'a'ung said in the Speech which all things understood. When he spoke, something moved in his throat, articulating the sounds and she could understand why the language had evolved the way it had with the lack of a proper mouth. She briefly wondered how he ate.
To her surprise, he held his hand, palm out in the greeting of her own people. He had three fingers spaced farther out than her own four and the tips of his fingers were flat and round as if they'd been squished. She touched her fingers to his which were slightly sticky. "You are Eleisid and Celevere, yes?"
"That's right," Eleisid said.
Gu'a'ung tilted his head to one side and somehow managed to convey sadness and regret on a face which hardly seemed to convey emotion at all. "I thank you for coming, though it is perhaps more than my people deserve. It will be a challenge for you."
"From what I read in the précis, things are getting pretty tough for you, aren't they?"
Gu'a'ung made a deep rumble like a sigh. "It has been difficult, yes. My people have never truly understood a wizards' role in the universe. They believe we are all prophets of ŋ'gau, the sun god. Perhaps, in a way, we are. It was the only way they could believe in wizardry as a force for good. But now, the sun is dying. When we tried to tell our people, they believed it was because ŋ'gau was angry. They looked to us to appease him, but there was nothing we could do. It is simply our sun's time. It was useless trying to tell them that, though. Now some of them think us to be false prophets, that our god is angry with us for being wizards and that if we all went away, things will settle down." Another rumbling sigh. "It is hard to be a wizard right now."
"I'm sorry," Eleisid said. "We'll do whatever we can to save your people. We have suitable worlds ready for habitation. And we still have plenty of time before your star runs out of hydrogen." She smiled then, a reassuring smile that she wasn't sure the 'Ng'a would understand. "Come on. I'll introduce you to the others." And she led him across the force field to join the other wizards who'd hung back at first in deference to his society's situation. Now they came forward and introduced themselves and though Gu'a'ung seemed nervous at first, he was quickly put at ease.
The group was discussing whether or not to use a shape change – some thought it could help to earn the 'Ng'a's trust, others thought just the opposite – when Gu'a'ung nodded his head at Eleisid, blinking. "That one of your group, too?"
Eleisid turned to look where he nodded then did a double take. It wasn't someone she recognized, though it would be hard to tell through the cloak of shadow that seemed to envelop him. What startled her more than his unexpected presence was the fact that he was standing outside the force field and he wore none of his own.
Her first instinct was to reach for her own emergency backup field but then she stopped herself. The figure seemed to have no trouble with the vacuum. Even as she watched, he took several steps forward, stumbling not so much from the low gravity but more like he was unused to having legs, and stepped right through the barrier. Eleisid stared, tried to make out features beneath the shadows but could only catch the glint of his eyes.
"I-I am on errantry and I greet you," she stammered, still unnerved. There was something about him that spoke of power, that seemed to transcend this physical form in which he appeared.
The figure nodded but his attention seemed riveted on Gu'a'ung. "You are leaving this system for another," he said. His voice was soft.
"Er, yes, that is the plan."
"It is good. The star will die soon. I've felt it for a while."
"You've…" There was definitely something strange going on. Something Eleisid should have known but for some reason it eluded her. His gaze flickered in her direction as if wondering if she would get it.
"No…" It was Celevere who spoke now and there was awe in his voice and in his eyes. "You…you're the planet, aren't you? This one, I mean."
The figure nodded.
Eleisid looked from the figure to Celevere and back again. "You mean…what, the planet's…soul?"
He nodded again.
Eleisid let out an explosive breath. "Wow." She knew that even inanimate objects, if anything could truly be said to be inanimate, had their own form of sentience, that when spoken to in the Speech, they would understand it and even respond if they felt like it. She knew you could talk to a planet just as you could talk to a rock or a plant. But it hadn't really occurred to her that a planet's soul could take a living form. She realized, in a moment of panic, that she couldn't remember the planet's name from her précis.
"I've sorry and I feel stupid for asking this, but what are you called?"
He tilted his head as if the idea of being called anything hadn't occurred to him. "I am not called anything. I was never named."
Eleisid glanced sideways at Gu'a'ung. He raised a hand in a shrug without turning his head, looking at her through his right eye. "My people haven't discovered this planet yet. Our telescopes aren't strong enough."
Eleisid felt an acute embarrassment as the unnamed Outermost watched them. It was impossible to tell what he might be feeling or even if he could feel at all.
'I have been observing your planet, feeling its energy every time our orbits grow near. The life that evolved there is something new and intrigued me. For most of the planet's life, it remained a barren, saline world with only the simplest of life forms. To me, you haven't been there for very long at all. But now you must leave. Whatever problems the individuals of your species have, you must resolve them."
Gu'a'ung blinked his three eyes in rapid succession. "If you don't mind my asking, why are you here? Why do you care what happens to us?"
Eleisid shot Gu'a'ung a quick look.
"I have never had life walk my surface before," the Outermost said, perfectly calm. "What you call life is…different than the life I am used to, the souls of the planets and of the sun. It is no less precious, no less vital."
Gu'a'ung tilted his head to the Outermost. "It is truly an honor to meet you," he said. "I will try my best to persuade my people." He tilted his head slightly in Eleisid's and Celevere's direction. "My people won't take it well when aliens transit in. But it might be the only way to get their attention." It was weird, Eleisid thought, how he switched his attention without turning his head. He would be impossible to sneak up on. "They believe the sun is never-changing, immortal, the brilliant light shining from the body of God. They will not believe me when I tell them that it is dying. That same stricture tells them that they are the all important creation, the center, beloved by the only God. In their minds, aliens cannot exist." He made a strangled sound in his throat. "If you come, it will break the delusion. They will be forced to confront the existence of other life in the universe. Perhaps that will make it easier to believe in the sun's mortality."
Eleisid stared at the 'Ng'a. She wasn't yet sure how to read his species' emotions but his eyes were clouded, perhaps his version of averting his gaze. What he said came dangerously close to breaking the oath to which she and all wizards swore.
"You're talking about tearing down your whole belief system," Celevere said softly. "That…that will have socio-political implications we can't even begin to guess at. I've read the précis. It will cause stress to your people's mental and emotions well-being. Governments will fall. It would be chaos."
"Do not get me wrong," Gu'a'ung said. "Our God is more than a single sun and in time, my people will come to realize this. But right now…the chaos that our sun's death will cause will be even greater. It will grow cool and dim and expand and my world will be incinerated. Nothing comes back from that. But this way…at least we will stand a chance."
But in what condition? Celevere's thought was quiet but that didn't stop Eleisid from overhearing it and the emotion behind it.
"What about you?" she said. "This has got to be pretty hard on you."
Gu'a'ung hesitated and then sighed. "I know the truth at least. Our God is the One and Its will is that we do all we can to save my people."
Eleisid let out a slow breath and thought back to the words of the Wizard's Oath that she had learned by heart. I will guard growth and ease pain. I will not change any life unless it or the system in which it is a part are threatened. This situation sure counted as a threat. By all rights, she and her team should be able to go ahead with Gu'a'ung's plan. All the same, the prospect left a bitter taste in her throat.
"We'll discuss it, see if there are any alternatives."
Gu'a'ung blinked slowly in agreement but it was resigned. He didn't think there were any alternatives.
Something occurred to Eleisid then and she turned to the Outermost but the question she wanted to ask died in her throat. The figure cloaked in shadow was gone.
Eleisid was still uncertain. The star was due to start expanding any minute now in astronomical terms, meaning they still had plenty of time to evacuate the planet and preserve its culture. In the meantime, she wanted to get a closer look at the planet, get a feel for its people. She, Celevere, and a Hrashta named Faashra accepted the shape-changes Gu'a'ung had prepared for them. Eleisid took the intricate web of wizardry and shook it out, giving it an admiring glance before throwing it over herself and shrugging into its unfamiliar contours. When the spell settled, she let her body adjust to the alien body and switched on its senses. Instantly, the wizardly lights within the field dimmed considerably. Colors shifted toward the shorter end of the spectrum and she could see colors she had no name for, including UV which had a sort of disorienting, sleepy feel to it until she got used to it. She turned to look at her companions to find them getting settled into the wizardry, each blinking triple eyes and getting used to the shape as she was. She adjusted the wizardry to bring back her own vision and now she could see through the skin of the spell Faashra's rich red leaves run through with green veins and the green vines on which he walked.
"Everyone ready?" Gu'a'ung said.
"All set," Eleisid said and the others made gestures of confirmation.
"Alright. Just check your names and we'll go." Gu'a'ung took a step back and Eleisid checked her name, a flowing line of Speech in artistic curls and loops. Everything was in order. She stepped into the circle and a moment later was joined by the others. Not more than a minute later, they vanished.
And reappeared on the surface of 'Ng'a. The sun's brightness made Eleisid flinch, too used as she was to the dim red star of her own home. She switched to the shape-change's way of seeing and relaxed as the light dimmed. Stepping out of the transit circle, she looked up into a sky with just the barest hint of violet and saw the sun's disc, small and low to the horizon, only taking up half a degree in the sky. Her own star, though dimmer, was much larger due to her planet's closer proximity. Around the wizards, large plants grew and towered above them, plants with broad leaves and winding, snake-like roots and vines and skin such a deep violet that it was almost black. They'd landed on the planet's northern hemisphere during the winter but due to the planet's atmospheric circulation and oceanic currents, there were very little temperature fluctuations through the year.
"My home, Aŋya'a, is just this way," Gu'a'ung said, gesturing in one direction through the vegetation. "I thought it best we be discreet in our arrival."
"Of course," Eleisid said. "Lead the way."
According to the précis, the 'Ng'a were a very primitive people living in loosely associated tribes and using bronze tools and weapons. Each tribe was led by a chieftain who also fulfilled the role of shaman. Tribes formed alliances when such an alliance was favorable, either for trade or tactical significance. There were also wars, tribes each fighting in the name of their sun god and so convinced that their enemies were in the wrong that it didn't matter that they shared the same blood, breathed the same air, worshipped the same god. Eleisid's planet had had so few wars that reading up on 'Ng'a history and politics had unnerved her.
It was only a few minutes walking before they emerged into a clearing if it could ever be called that. The broadleafs still rose up from the ground but were less densely packed and grew among buildings and homes. The structures were made of thick plant skins and in the same dark shades of violet and blue. These seemed to merge seamlessly with speckled rock and there was the glint of precious metals inlaid into the stone around circular windows, the most common of them the yellowish brown of bronze.
"I will introduce you as wizards of an allied tribe," Gu'a'ung said as they approached a structure situated somewhat in the middle of the village, a large domed home made of the same rock and plant skins with the greatest abundance of yellow, red, and gold metals inlaid in the stone.
Gu'a'ung stopped and rapped on the stone with the back of his hand. A moment later, another 'Ng'a appeared through the curtained doorway.
"Revered Angrara U'aoh," Gu'a'ung said and bowed, closing all his eyes at once. Eleisid listened to the alien words through the Speech. The 'Ng'a word Angrara, pronounced deep in the throat, roughly translated, meant "gift from the sun." "Allow me to introduce esteemed wizards from the Aŋ to the north, E'eizhi', Zhe'e'ere, and 'Aashra," he went on, gesturing with one hand to each wizard in turn, pronouncing their names in a heavily accented, deep-throated manner. Each wizard bowed to the Angrara as his or her name was said.
There was very little in the way of emotion that showed on U'aoh's face, but Eleisid got the impression he was not thrilled with their presence.
"Revered Angrara, we are here on the Sun's business and greet you with the breath the All-Hallowed in his grace, has seen to give us," Celevere said, the local greeting by wizards to those of superior status.
"Esteemed wizards," U'aoh said with the barest tilt of his head, as much a sign of displeasure as ever Eleisid had seen. "On one level, I understand and appreciate why you are here, but I will have to turn you away. We have no need for wizards who would believe in a faulty Sun."
Eleisid hadn't been prepared for such a quick rejection. "But that's just it," she said. "Belief has nothing to do with it. The sun will change no matter what we believe."
"Your words are dangerous. I know the wizards have helped us in the past and I would like to think they could continue to do so in the future, but not by spreading these lies. Some have already been executed as false prophets. I would like not to have to do it to you. But continue what you're doing and I will have no choice."
Eleisid blanched beneath the shape change, taken aback. On her left, Gu'a'ung held very still.
"So just like that you're going to ignore what we have to say," Celevere said. His voice was unusually quiet. "This world is going to die and you would just let everyone die with it."
"Celevere," Faashra said warningly. Eleisid was still staring at U'aoh, unable to believe how a culture could be so close-minded.
"That cannot happen," U'aoh said, sounding like he was running out of patience. "When the Harbinger walks the earth and when his darkness outshines the sun and his voice heralds the end of all who live beneath the light, only then, only on that day, will I believe what you say. So until then, I suggest you cease this heresy."
Celvere looked like he wanted to say something more but thankfully thought better of it and kept quiet while Eleisid was thinking Harbinger?
"I have grown tired of this exchange," U'aoh said with a dismissive flick of his wrist and he closed all his eyes, turning away. "Leave me."
"Angrara," Gu'a'ung said with a bow and then he turned and strode away. Eleisid cast a frustrated glance at the Angrara before turning as well with Faashra. Celevere hesitated. Still riled up, his frustration brushing at the edge of Eleisid's mind before finally turning away to follow his companions.
When enough distance was put between the wizards and the dome into which U'aoh had vanished, Eleisid let out a sigh. "I knew what we were getting into but I didn't actually think it would be this bad."
"I apologize," Gu'a'ung said, rubbing the spot between his right and back eyes with one finger. "My people are stubborn. I did not think he would openly threaten you the way he has."
"Us," Celevere corrected him. "Not because we were aliens. He's condemning his own people."
"His world view is limited. Just as mine once was, you should know. I too once thought the sun was eternal and never changing. Until I found the Powers and they opened my eyes and I realized the truth of our universe. I wish it were so easy to convince my people."
Celevere seemed to think about that.
"Well, we're not done yet," Eleisid said. "We still have a whole world to convince. It'll be work, but we have the time. Maybe someone will listen."
"Yes," Gu'a'ung said, but he didn't sound convinced. "Maybe."
Many more expeditions were sent to the planet and audiences were gained with many of the planet's Angrara. Some were cordial while others were met with outright hostility. There was a lot of ground to cover. If they managed to get past the business of the sun's mortality, people were skeptical about the idea of there being other habitable worlds out there. Worlds that orbited other suns. Which would mean there were other gods, the 'Ng'a reasoned, speaking the thought almost fearlessly. But there is only one! Such was their logic that flew in the face of the wizards' plan.
Eleisid grew more and more frustrated by the day and not all of it was her own. Celevere, whose thoughts and emotions often bled into her own, was on the verge of giving up entirely. When Eleisid was not testing her patience speaking to the 'Ng'a or evoking outright fear showing off her own alienness – for they'd tried the shock tactic which had merely made the 'Ng'a distrust them all the more – she was sitting in her own force bubble on the Outermost world, thinking. Occasionally, the Outermost would appear in his flesh-and-blood form and they would speak. There was so much about biological life that he did not know and he worried for the life on the second planet. Their situations had him deeply troubled.
One day, when Eleisid came back from a particularly painful talk with one of the more hostile Angrara, she transited back in a hurry, not caring about air displacement, and wanted to scream in frustration. The whole world was insane, she'd concluded. No matter how much they tried to talk sense into them, tried to infect them with their own urgency, the 'Ng'a were steadfast in their beliefs. Only when the sun ran out of hydrogen, started to fuse helium, and expand would they look up into the sky and say to themselves, "You know, maybe we were wrong."
By then, it would be too late.
Gu'a'ung came to sit beside her, their air bubbles merging so they could speak.
"I'm sorry," Eleisid said.
Gu'a'ung blinked one eye at her.
"I thought that if the Powers That Be had sent us to solve this problem, we'd be able to solve it." Her voice lowered to almost a whisper. "I guess we were wrong."
"If the Powers sent you, they knew what they were doing," Gu'a'ung said finally. "And you know They are never wrong."
Eleisid nodded absently. "There's something I've been meaning to ask you. What's the Harbinger?"
"It's a figure in our religion. The opposite of the Sun. His arrival is supposed to usher in an era of great change for our people."
"Is it the Lone Power, do you think?" A shudder ran through her at even the mention of his name. The memory of the fear she'd felt upon meeting him during her Ordeal was still very fresh in her mind.
"I don't think so," Gu'a'ung said. "The Harbinger is not an evil force. Darkness is not evil because it opposes the light, but rather enhances which creates it."
Eleisid nodded again. Gu'a'ung stood then and excused himself before vanishing. She sat still for a long time after that, feeling better than she had. But only slightly.
Beneath the wizards' feet, the Outermost turned slowly and breathed the breath of planets. Sensing the comforting blanket of microwaves that streamed over him, and the distant UV rays from the sun. It was nice to have life on his surface, so immediate and intriguing. But he always turned his attention back to the plight of the second most world.
He still remembered the moment he realized he'd achieved consciousness. It had happened nearly one-hundred-thousand years ago, the blink of an eye as a planet registers time. He had been at the perihelion of his unusually elliptical orbit, the sun bombarding him with more UV and gamma rays than he'd felt in a long time. Beyond the sun, he'd become aware of the second planet and had felt the beginnings of sentient life creep out of the swamps and dry itself under a brilliant, gold sun.
It is a profound moment in every planet's life when it discovered biological life, even more so when it forms on the planet's own surface. But the Outermost was too small and too cold and would never feel such growth. And so he contented himself to observing the 'Ng'a as they grew and evolved.
He was not satisfied with the way things were going. He was no longer content to watch the wizards do all the work. A feeling he had no name for and which came unbidden to him told him what he should do.
The surface of the Outermost was still, the wizardly activity quiet for the moment. Something changed then, but those wizards still on his surface noticed nothing different.
Eleisid was in another exhausting argument of logic with one of the Angrara when she heard the screams. They were strange, deep, mournful sounds, cries of shock and awe, she realized. Perhaps a little of fear. She and Celevere and Gu'a'ung ran toward the source, ignoring the incredulous look on the Angrara's face.
Those who had cried out had fallen to their knees in the dark grass, the expressions on their faces indescribable and instantly putting Eleisid on edge. But then she stopped and she too would have fallen to her knees in awe if she hadn't recognized the figure in the center of the village, taller even than the tallest 'Ng'a and more imposing than the sternest Angrara.
With the shade wizardry lifted from her eyes, the sun was incredibly bright, almost blindingly so. But the figure of the Outermost was of the purest shadow, such a contrast that he seemed almost to absorb the sunlight and if darkness could blind, it would have.
Whispers started to go around the clearing as the 'Ng'a raised their hands to each other and the sky and the darkness that impeded it. "The Harbinger," the whispers said and the air became charged with uncertainty and excitement and fear. "The Harbinger has come!"
It was surreal when the 'Ng'a finally accepted the wizards' help and wholeheartedly let the evacuation of their world commence. They still thought they were the hottest thing in the universe, still the only beloved of the only god. But they would survive and grow and that was all that mattered.
Eleisid took a brief respite from the massive relocation efforts and allowed herself to just relax and breathe on the surface of the Outermost even as he joined her.
"So it turns out you were the solution all along," Eleisid said.
"So it would seem," the Outermost said in his quiet voice.
"I'm glad it happened the way it did, though. To tell you the truth, if I had to talk to one more close-minded, hostile Angrara, I would have ripped my tentacles out."
The Outermost made an amused sound. "I'm glad it didn't come to that."
Eleisid smiled and opened her mouth to say something more when she felt a buzz in her mind that indicated someone trying to communicate to her.
You'd better get down here, Celevere said. The world gate's acting up again and you know it won't listen to me!
Eleisid's grin widened and she rolled her eyes. Alright, alright, I'm coming. Keep your fur on.
She stretched and stood. "I have to go," she said to the Outermost as she mentally prepared her transit spell. But before she could implement it, she hesitated. "What's going to happen to you?"
The Outermost tilted his head but said nothing.
"I mean, you might not be devoured when the sun expands, but eventually it will die. What will happen to you then?"
The Outermost shrugged. "Whatever happens happens. I am content either way, now that I know the second's people will survive."
Eleisid nodded, but she was still uncertain.
The Outermost's bright eyes glinted from within the shadows. "I will survive, I think. I look forward to seeing what will happen next."
Eleisid let out a breath, still uncertain, but more secure somehow. The uncertainty would always be there, whenever there was a future ahead. She had nothing more to say. Giving the Outermost one last look, she dropped the transit circle and promptly vanished.
Everything seemed to go so fast once the sun used up the last of its hydrogen. Intense solar activity had long since torn away the atmosphere of the second most world and scorched its surface, rendering it unable to host life. Fortunately, the life that had lived there were long gone.
The sun began to expand. It swallowed the first planet and then the second. The third was devoured and the fourth had all its hydrogen ripped away, leaving a small, pitiful core in unstable orbit. The heat warmed the Outermost's surface and blocked out the stars. In the blink of an eye, the red giant ran out of helium and began to shrink again, fusing heavier and heavier elements but ultimately doomed to die and become a dark, cold ember.
Having survived the ordeal, the Outermost's drastically altered orbit now sent him out of range of the dead star's gravitational pull and drifting aimlessly through the vacuum. He spiraled, cold and alone, no longer knowing the caress of a star's radiation. He drifted for an eternity but by a planet's reckoning, it was the blink of an eye.
And somewhere out of the endless darkness, there was the spark of an alien, yet somehow familiar, new star.