A name, adrift amidst the sea of foggy, clinging darkness that threatened to pull her back under, back into the clutches of the black and dreamless slumber.
The name, again. The breeze grew heavier, condensing into a shifting, swirling mass. Smoke-like, smudges and streaks of gray against the Black. It swirled into a shape, a delicately pointed chin, pale lips, hollow cheeks. The lips parted, spoke.
Not smoke… there was no heat, but cold — biting cold, wearing away at the comforting warmth that was the Black Sleep. She scrabbled, clutching at the tatters of warmth, but they slid through her fingers, borne away on a wind gone cold as the frozen lands over the rim of the world, where the summer suns weren’t even enough to drive away the chill of the winds and sleet from the Everstorm.
The voice in the frozen wind grew teeth, and used them when next it called the name.
Her name, she realized, as the last of the Black slipped away.
She drew a breath of her own, on reflex, though she began to remember— too late — from the last Cycle that she should not.
The fluid, at least, was still warm, but the thin veil of steam was not enough to keep the chill of the northern night off her skin, and Nova’s shivering grew nearly as violent as the coughing.
She wiped streaming hair from her eyes, blinking through a greenish-orange haze of containment gel and revitalization solution.
“Awake, are we?” The voice was as only slightly warmer than the air, but as brittle as the coating of frost that slicked the rim of the Well. The sting of the ice against her hands helped in driving the mists of the Black Sleep from Nova’s senses.
It was dark, or nearly so. The runelight for Awakening was already fading, as was the warmth from the gel. There was very little sound, save the languid sloshing of the revitalization soup about the young woman’s thighs. It took three tries before she could haul herself up and onto the Well’s rim. There were no hands of her sisters to assist her. Which also meant there was nobody to bring robe or blanket
The last of the greenish tint to the light went out as she slipped free of the Well’s liquid embrace, which left only a single point of dim blue light halfway across the room. Even that seemed as the sun to Nova’s reawakened eyes, and she squinted as she stumbled towards it.
“You might wish to—“
The words were lost to a billow of dust, a good portion of which Nova had inhaled, and her coughing fit began anew.
“To your right, at the Hydra’s hour.”
Nova fumbled, her fingers sliding over the softness of supple leather, of cleanly-woven linens. At the chill voice’s advice, she reached further right, and up, the rough stone beneath her fingertips giving way to a cold rounded surface of metal.
Fingers closed, and she lifted a bowl in two shaking hands, lifting it to her lips. The water was sweet, and how it could be so cold and not freeze, she did not question. It chased the last of the cobwebs of Black Sleep from her mind as it cleansed the coating of dust she’d breathed in.
“You were to wash in that.”
Nova choked, hurriedly setting down the bowl. The icy water sloshed over her fingers, and she straightened, sputtering, wiping at her lips.
She blinked. It was somewhat brighter, and not just a trick of her returning vision. The water had spilled over the large gemstone, washing away an age of dust, and it glimmered now with the deep blue of the sky just after sunset. It was set in silver, crafted to look like wings, or ridges of waves from the sea, depending on how one turned it. Deep within, as the sky outside, points of cold, silvery light gleamed.
“Beryl,” Nova said, as she picked up the stone.
“You might wish to garb yourself before working the clasp.” The icy voice came dry, in the air all about her, yet generated somehow by the stone itself. “I know how easily you bruise after Awakening.”
“Some more light might be nice,” Nova said. The stone complied, the silvery points brightening, until the stone shone like a small, many-wicked candle.
Nova dressed slowly. Woolen hose slid over small feet, up legs crossed here and there by pale lines of scar tissue, faint, but still noticeable. Wounds that would have killed Men, or left them terribly maimed, she thought. Her gaze drifted to the cluster of four milky stones set in a flower pattern around a larger emerald-like gem, all of them entwined in the impossibly intricate network of golden metal that swirled and twined and braided its way from just below her elbow to the back of each hand, a black stone flanked by two smaller red ones adorning her left hand, a larger red stone bound in golden swirls along the back of her right.
The metal, an alloy of purest gold and an antimagical metal pulled from the very center of the world, no alchemist had blended it, no hands -- elven, dwarven, or gnomish -- had smithed it. Men had tried to tear the metal free, to find that it was bound to each arm just as the flesh was bound to bone. Nova winced at the memory, a finger absently tracing a swooping spiral. The stones could ensure recovery from such wounds, but they still caused pain, and Nova and each of her battle-sisters shared it, as they shared all things: thoughts, feelings, dreams.
“Yes?” When Nova did not immediately respond, the stone sent a flicker through the silvery points of light. Was it annoyance? “Your query?”
“Beryl, why do I not feel any others on the thoughtshare?”
“Come now, Nova. You do not need my output to solve this riddle.”
The young woman sighed. Not so much as another whispered thought, no flickering of fear, save her own.
“Where have they gone?”
“They are no more, Nova.”
“All of them?”
“You are the last. You were in no shape to rejoin the fighting, and they voted unanimously that you should sleep.”
Nova sank to the low stone table, rubbing her eyes. The memories were there, from the other side of the Black Sleep, dim, distant.
Beast Men, hulking, shadowy brutes, and behind them, the fiery red eyes, the matching crimson-flamed sword of the Lich King….
Nova looked down. The scar was there, still raised, a line from hip to just below her sternum.
“Had you organs, like those elves—“
“Yes, I know, thank you, Beryl.” She’d seen enough of that in the fighting, as well. She buckled on the wide leather sword belt. “The armory?”
“Breached a century ago. The blast took out one and a half companies of the Aggressor’s forces.”
“A drop in the ocean.” She tugged perhaps a bit too hard in pulling on her other boot.
“They are not numberless.”
“They may as well be. What am I to do for arms?”
“The Aged One provided, before departing.”
Nova paused, just about to secure the gray, shimmering cloak about her shoulders. “Drayden is dead?”
“Not as such.”
Nova clasped the gem into place at her throat, swept her gaze over the chamber one last time. The low stone slab that served as a table, the Well, and the heap of still-steaming slag from the decommissioned suspension module were all that the stone chamber contained. The only footprints were those Nova herself had made, in stumbling from the Well to the table. The alcoves along the wall were dark, empty, when they should have contained starmetal suspension pods, with more shrikes like herself bound in the Black Sleep, awaiting the Master Shard’s call to Awaken.
Nova closed her eyes, again, listening. But she was alone with merely her own thoughts.
"What is it the Master Shard bids?" she asked.
"You were not awakened by the Shard."
"Not the Shard?" Nova's golden eyes widened as the realization sent a shiver of fear up and down her spine. Her steps quickened, and she hurried towards the stairs that spiraled up around the Chamber of the Well of Souls, up through a thousand feet of the roots of the Hyborean Ranges.
The Master Shard had not spoken to shrike or siren since the fall of the Nightbound Empire, far to the east, when the southmost edge of the continent cracked and fell into the sea.
With the last of the Stone Bearers wiped out along with the two flocks of shrikes and the choir of sirens, Nova, as the last, would have slept the Black Sleep eternally, or until the Master Shard came back online.
"Starfire has been invoked?"
"Well it is good to see that the cobwebs have finally cleared from your brains, Nova," the stone said. "Fortunately, there hasn't been a Throne in place here since the end of the Second Crusade."
The green stone at the center of the blossom configuration of stones winked, and began to burn with a steady greenish-gold light. Nova herself blinked, to reappear a dozen steps up the staircase. Another blink, another dozen-step jump.
"Why the hurry to get to the surface?" the blue stone at her throat asked. "There is likely nothing left there."
"There well may not be if I don't hurry," Nova said. "The White Tree would only sound the fortresses call to arms if it were in dire need!"