Chapter 1 of Through Fire

Moonlight and Broken Stone

 She awoke in a flash and stretched in the moonlight. Reluctant joints creaked and popped by way of futile complaint against this sudden call to motion. Her long-unused digits scrabbled at the rock beneath her and her legs throbbed with returning sensation as the residual crackles of fire from her flash snaked across her dark skin. The pinions of two pairs of wings trembled as they extended out into the cool night air. Four faintly luminous eyes blinked out of sync with one another as she peered into a landscape awash in the wan light of the moon and dimmer gleam of the stars.

Odd, she thought, when her surroundings came into focus. 

She should have been surrounded by seawater and the stone walls of a cave. Instead, a breeze blew against her skin and her eyes were met with a crumpled landscape of dry stone and verdure. Echoes of rattling stone drifted up to her from the surrounding valleys, where the remnants of the mountainside were coming to rest. The thick blanket of the galaxy was strewn across the night sky. Some of the familiar, bright points winked at her from new locations.   She awoke in a flash and stretched in the moonlight. Reluctant joints creaked and popped by way of futile complaint against this sudden call to motion. Her long-unused digits scrabbled at the rock beneath her and her legs throbbed with returning sensation as the residual crackles of fire from her flash snaked across her dark skin. The pinions of two pairs of wings trembled as they extended out into the cool night air. Four faintly luminous eyes blinked out of sync with one another as she peered into a landscape awash in the wan light of the moon and dimmer gleam of the stars.

This slumber had been longer than usual, she noted. A closer study of the stars’ positions relative to one another verified what the aches of her joints had suggested before: it had been long, indeed. Twenty-three million cycles around this world’s star, give or take a few hundred thousand, had gone by since she had curled into her nest. Her hibernations were usually only wont to last five or six million. While she pondered the potential cause for the deviation, her survey of the surrounding environment continued.   She awoke in a flash and stretched in the moonlight. Reluctant joints creaked and popped by way of futile complaint against this sudden call to motion. Her long-unused digits scrabbled at the rock beneath her and her legs throbbed with returning sensation as the residual crackles of fire from her flash snaked across her dark skin. The pinions of two pairs of wings trembled as they extended out into the cool night air. Four faintly luminous eyes blinked out of sync with one another as she peered into a landscape awash in the wan light of the moon and dimmer gleam of the stars.

She was accustomed to seeing the slow evolution that landscapes underwent with the passing of time; however, waking up to such a drastic change was rare enough to be unsettling. Between this and the rearranged stars, it was like she was on a different planet. The familiar stone of the cave floor, though melted smooth and discolored where it remained intact, served as confirmation that she was in the same place where she had drifted into dormancy. Her eyes told her that the formations of the stone beneath the surface were roughly as they had been before. It was clear, however, that the location of the cave had been shifted relative to the planet’s surface, not only in elevation but in lateral position as well. Her nest had been a natural cave, set deep in the mud and stone of a rift that lay beneath a shallow, warm sea. The strata of the exposed rock around her suggested that the seabed had deepened with layer after layer of sediment and had subsequently been heaved up into the sky, part of a massive range of mountains that reached past the horizon to either side of her. These new mountains had since been under siege by the weather. What sharp edges they must once have possessed had been worn off and were now piled as talus upon their lower slopes or ground to dust. Most of the rubble shone silvery white in the reflected light of the moon; but, across the heaps and fields of broken stone, dark new shards were strewn. These streaks of blackened rock were a testament to the violence of her reawakening. With no sea to subdue the release of her fires and absorb the shock, her flash had ejected almost half of the mountain that had gathered over her while she slept.

From the pull of the cosmos and the relative motion of the stars across the sky, she determined that she was facing in the same direction as the planet’s rotation and its revolution around its star. The mountain range ran a course that pointed roughly from one pole to the other. Away to the right, she could see no end to the land. Far to the left, the landscape faded into white with increased snow and thick glaciers sagging within the valleys. Since the average elevation did not increase in that direction, it suggested that she was located nearer to one of the poles than to the central region where her cave had once been situated. The lands behind her were blocked by a neighboring peak, though she would find upon exploration that there was but a narrow strip of low land there between the mountains and the sea. Before her, the terrain stretched for a great distance until it reached the dark swath of a vast ocean near the horizon. Between the mountains and the sea were wide forests and grasslands. Several rivers glinted in the moonlight among the trees and between the hills. She resolved to explore this altered landscape and set out on a slow, meandering course.

Though the explosive fire of her awakening had waned and her energy reserves were diminished from the long hibernation, her body still naturally radiated an intense heat. The air around her skin wavered with it, and the mountain scrub ignited around her as she roamed. She paid little heed to the burning vegetation and fleeing animals; it was ever the way that her internal fires should run at such odds with the life of this world. There was no reason for her to be concerned with the consequences of her passage. The woods would grow back in time and the creatures that fled from the conflagration would find new homes or return to the burnt areas when plant life returned.

She paused frequently to catalog new sights, scents, and sounds; and to note the absent ones. A nostalgic individual might have missed the sounds and smells of the bygone, but she had been with this planet since it had formed. Nothing was permanent—not even her kind. That thought dredged up an ancient memory from before her hatching, which she opted to push back down. It wouldn’t do to muse over such things now.

The moon was descending toward the jagged skyline behind her when the sun burst from the opposite horizon, greeting her with its kindred heat. Standing upon a bare ridge, she smiled at the bright sphere as it mounted quickly into the sky. A bright, glittering smudge of reflection wandered across the surface of the sea, mirroring the star’s course. Her eyes, able to detect nearly the full spectrum of energy emitted by the star, blinked asynchronously as she observed the light’s composition.

Changes there, too, she mused.

It was nothing strange for the composition of the stellar radiation to be different from the time before her hibernation. Indeed, she had been expecting it. The great orb was exhausting one fuel, and another soon would begin to burn. Memories of other such stars—part of the legacy of her kind’s knowledge, bestowed to each new hatchling’s mind before their shell broke—told her that it would take only another few eons for the star to enter a new life-stage. Its surface would expand and things would once again get turbulent here; even more so than when the planet formed and she descended to its surface. Perhaps, if that time did not find her napping over-long, she would use the opportunity to move on to another world. Her brow furrowed at the thought. Leaving did not appeal to her in the least; and the prospect of being tossed around through the magnetic fury and the roiling, chaotic plasma of an expanding star was even less appealing. Again the memory tickled the back of her mind and again she forced it away.

Regardless of the star’s present composition or its future metamorphosis, the rays that it emitted now were just what she needed after too long asleep. The light of the sun was swallowed by the dark expanse of her skin. No reflection or glint of light shone upon the surface of her hide; but myriad pale rainbows danced like brief aurorae amid the blackness, muted whispers of the nebula where she had hatched. In the eyes of the birds and other animals of the scrubby woodlands she transformed suddenly from a flat, formless shadow to a dark beast painted with shifting streaks of muted color. In the past, she had reached into their minds and seen herself with their sight. The intensity of her heat hid the effects of the light from her own vision. To one pair of her eyes, she was as they saw her, a void. With her skin swallowing all radiation but heat, there was no remaining light by which to glimpse her outer form or inner workings. To the other pair of eyes, every part of her surface shone with a brightness that diffused into the air around her. As formlessly dark as she and her kind appeared to the denizens of this planet, they were just as formlessly brilliant to their own.

Already she could feel the rays reinvigorating her cells and little-by-little restoring the energy she had exhausted between sleeping and exploring—as well as that which had burned off in her waking flash. Structures within her skin converted the radiation into the energy appropriate for fueling her cells and matter for building new ones. Excess energy would be stored in reserve to sustain her through long periods cut off from light. The only radiant energy that her cells could not make use of was heat. Her body also temporarily stored this; however, it remained in a separate reserve from the nutritive energy.

This reserve could not contain all of the waste energy, and thermal energy which could not be contained was cast off through the entire surface area of her skin. It radiated more intensely from her wings, which aided in atmospheric flight. Assisted by her heat —and, if necessary, converted energy from her nutritive reserves—her wings could bring her high enough to escape the outer boundary of the atmosphere. Once at the fringes of the atmosphere, the organs which allowed her kind to manipulate gravity and magnetism could take over. It would take several rotation cycles for her internal fires to reach their proper intensity; and at least one cycle of the moon’s shadow for her nutritive stores to reach a point that would make the strenuous process of escape possible. Time, though, was not a matter that her kind gave a great deal of consideration. She had arrived during the youth of this galaxy and had watched the birth of this system of planets. Before her allotted time was up, she could see the end of all of it and the inevitable beginnings of the ones to follow.

For now, food was all she craved. She rolled onto her back on the stony ridge where the sun had greeted her. Her six legs stretched into the air and flexed back to hover, feet unconsciously twitching from time to time, over her broad chest and smooth belly. All four wings stretched out to the sides, their vanes—through which the light refracted more vigorously—splayed to capture the maximum amount of energy. Her tail swished back and forth across the stone. Equalling her body in length, it was broad, strong, flexible, and tapered to a soft point between two translucent, horizontal vanes that resembled those of her wings. Her mouth cracked in a lazy grin at the little birds capering about in the shrubs far enough down the slope to avoid her heat. Raptors and carrion fowl swirled above her, riding the column of hot air that persisted over her body. Fluffy mammals squeaked to each other from the rocks. Not for the first time, she pondered the life of this world and others.

Echoes of memory from her innumerable forebears told her that no member of her kind had ever found a world with preexisting life; however, the worlds often teemed with it when they departed, unless the world had somehow been destroyed. Something in the memory suggested that perhaps something of them went into the atmosphere, the seas, and the lands wherein they resided. Perhaps the life that had grown up around her on this world was, in some fashion, built upon some part of her. It was an interesting thought that left her wondering how the living things around her could have somehow come from her being, yet be unable to withstand her fires. She continued to muse upon these curiosities throughout the day, as she basked in the sun’s radiation to replenish her depleted reserves.

Days and nights passed as she wandered her new environment. During the days she resumed taking in the sunlight, until she felt that her strength and energy had returned to such an extent that she could expand her exploration. Each night, as she roamed the mountains, she noticed a small cluster of lights out in the dawnward plains and fainter ones at varied distances. Daylight would come and the lights would vanish; leaving only timid wisps of smoke to mark their places. Each night the lights would again flicker into view. She was accustomed to seeing fires spring up that were not results of her heat; but, these were random and widespread. Nothing which she had seen before could explain fires that occurred consistently in the same locations and were contained within such small areas. She found herself at a loss for what could have brought fire to such specific places, night after night. Animals seemed to gather near them, if the motes of body heat that appeared to mill around the closest flames were any indication. Curious, she changed her course to investigate the nearest cluster.

* * *

Feedback encouraged, critique appreciated!