To Kill For
The venom of the sea wasp is the deadliest in the world and has caused over 5,500 deaths since 1954—more than those caused by sharks and grizzly bears combined.
—The Thirteenth Korus of the Sapphire Tree
Curled within the poisoned tip of his telson—the business end of his eight-foot-long scorpion tail—the fire agate didn’t look all that big to StormWing. True, it would’ve been of record size had it been mined on Earth, but here in TerraTopia, where he literally tripped over them, the bulbous rock that glowed with such iridescent light actually seemed small. It was probably a trick of the light. Or, given what was holding it, more like a trick of his tail.
StormWing extended a cloaked arm. Grasping the agate in the lethal tips of his single pedipalp—the scorpion claw that used to be his right hand—he held the rock to the light. It shimmered against his insectoid armor, the rock taking its cues from the reflected flames that licked a nearby brazier.
He had to admit the fire agate’s flame was mesmerizing. “How easy it must be for you to change color,” StormWing rasped, envying the stone’s unique ability. “To go from red to green to blue…”
He dropped the rock into his left hand, his human hand, then licked it, tasting it for its subtle colloidal silica signature. With his tongue he sought the fine silica particles suspended within the stone that ultimately determined a fire agate’s worth. The more silica, the more fire, the greater the fire, the greater the agate’s value. StormWing taste-tested the rock a second time, trying to decide whether it was silica he detected or more iron oxide. Decisions, decisions…
It took but a moment before his mouth curved into a smile. “Not bad,” he declared, spitting out the aftertaste. He held the stone up to the light once more. A fire agate was more rare than a diamond, and one couldn’t help but be impressed when staring into the quiet inferno of a gem-quality stone. Especially when it was the size of your fist.
“Change comes so easily to you doesn’t it, Stone? Like changing one’s mind. You wake up one morning and decide you don’t want to be a worthless blue anymore, so you change.
You summon the difference and you change. You become red or purple, go from yellow to green. How fortunate.”
He turned and spat again, the saliva splattering the hundreds of other stones beneath his feet. Not only fire agates but also silver ore, diamond-encrusted coal, raw emeralds and rubies, sapphires, morganite, amber…The stones seemed as numerous as grains of sand along a beach and formed a dune-studded shoreline from which he could see an infinite ocean of possibility.
He chuckled at his cleverness. Indeed, piles of precious stones rising twenty feet into the air edged a sea of slick, black liquid—a sea of alkanes, cycloalkanes, and aromatic hydrocarbons that after spending, oh, about a million years getting to know one another, created one simple thing:
Miles of it. Miles and miles of crude oil, all locked within a labyrinth of gigantic limestone caves hidden deep beneath the surface of the land he now ruled.
“Tell me, Stone, what color would you pick if you never had any color to begin with?” StormWing stared at the agate. “That should be easy—.” Flicking his wrist, StormWing tossed the agate in the air. Then, with a lightning fast strike of his tail—THWACK!—he swatted the stone into the ebon lake. “You’d choose black, of course. Deep, dark, rich black. You know why?” He smiled as the agate skipped across the inky surface. “Because every color looks absolutely stunning against it, and yet no one realizes it’s all about the darkness.”
After several hops, the agate disappeared into the oil.
“There. What’d I tell you? Darkness takes the ribbon. Again.”
Wrapping himself in his worn crimson robe, hiding the transformation that was slowly consuming him, StormWing pulled the black hood low, turned from his private sea of crude, and strode up his precious beach.
“Is it over?” he called into the nothingness. Half crawling, half walking—he did everything in halves now—StormWing made his way to a flat limestone ledge bordering his priceless strand.
Hidden within the recesses of a looming cascade of stalactites forty feet tall, three dagger-like amethyst crystals stood as if stabbed into a round table of obsidian. They were laid out like points on a compass or directions on a Native American medicine wheel. An empty fourth hole suggested a missing crystal or, more important, a missing direction.
Of the crystals before him, each was over three feet high and nearly half as wide—and on fire. On purple fire. As StormWing approached, he could feel their heat, their flames not only dancing within
their centers but also lashing out at the corpse chained to the table.
StormWing swallowed the urge to vomit.
Before him, on the obsidian, lay the charred body of a woman. Well, perhaps woman was an exaggeration. That suggested she was human, and she hadn’t been that for a very long time. The warring Tokas of the Sea Wasp, Alligator, and Locust had seen to that when they began battling each other for dominance over her body years ago. Gauging from the translucent tentacles that spilled from her mouth and the gelatinous membrane that exploded from her chest—a membrane containing twenty-four eyes, no less—it appeared the Sea Wasp had finally won. Still, add the mutation of round locust eyes and antennae, her protruding, scaled snout, and a whip-like reptilian tail…there was no doubt as to its current identity: Skaarsgard.
It’s overrrrrrr, the crystals flared, speaking in silky, feminine unison. Then again, one didn’t exactly hear the Burning Stones, StormWing reminded
himself. If they wanted to communicate with you, you simply became aware of their message.
“Funny. I would’ve bet on the alligator.” He tried to control the tremor in his voice. “How long did she last? After splintering, I mean.”
Three cyclessssss, returned the Stones.
StormWing massaged the back of his head where he heard the Stones most clearly.
“Three months? And none of the bleeding worked? The cauterizing? Removing the excess appendages? Did you try–?”
StormWing blinked. For a moment, he blanked. He struggled to recapture his thoughts. “Wait! Did you–?”
The unfinished question hung in the air. With strained effort, he dug through his mind, dragging himself back into the moment he’d temporarily lost. The Burning Stones had the ability to shuttle forward in time in order to avoid certain subjects, often taking their inquisitors along for the ride.
“Stop it!” StormWing screamed.
She’s gonnnnne. Purple flame filled the cavern. Isn’t that enoughffffff?
“Not for me,” he declared. “Not for me.”
StormWing turned and stared toward the horizon of his endless sea. “It’s Wicket that’s the problem. He’s about to splinter. With Anvilla and the rest, I’ve got time. They granted long after Wicket and I, but Wicket…”
StormWing cast a disgusted glance at the disc of obsidian, the Stones, and the failed experiment atop the table. “Her problem was she was too greedy. She wanted too much power, too quickly. She should’ve listened, but she wouldn’t. She had to find the child…the answer…”
We are throughhhh. The Stones’ flames waned.
StormWing zeroed back in on the Stones. “You’re through when I say so,” he hissed. “That’s how slavery works.”
No morrrrrre!! This time the Stones’ flaming awareness came with needle sharp pain. StormWing grimaced, clutching his skull.
“Fine. Then consider your sister destroyed.”
Must have liffffe.
“Noo-o-o.” The needles of pain in his head began to recede.
The voices in his head grew faint.
Must have lifffe. Must tickkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk.
The cavern surrounding the circle of obsidian grew dark and quiet. “I thought so.” StormWing exhaled with a satisfied nod. Taking a deep breath, he again retreated into his thoughts. For how long, he didn’t know. When he resumed his place at the table, he looked at the corpse a final time.
Destroy your wiffffffe?
“My wife has been dead for a long, long time.” StormWing swallowed the burning words even as he said them. “Destroy it. Now.”
Without looking back, StormWing left the Burning Stones to finish their work.
Three months after splintering? Damn! The end had come so quickly. A pity it had to be her. With Sequoia and his Keepers running loose, time was not on his side. He must find new recruits, and soon. He was running out of Skaarsgard.