The midsummer sun blazed high in a cloudless sky above the Valley of the Caves, but deep in the earth, in the perpetual blackness of the inner caverns, the S'hazons drove back the dark with their radiance. Their light filled the vast cave with glory.
Her mind full of unanswered questions, Elinna Serru looked at the demiurge floating above her. Rainbows danced in the air as six wings of light moved in ever-changing patterns, weaving a dazzling veil. What lay behind that veil was a mystery. No human on Gaea had ever seen more than a glimpse of the demiurges beneath their cloaks of light, and now no one ever would. The S'hazons were about to depart through the inter-dimensional gate. For the first time in over a thousand years, the unseen sun above her would set upon a Gaea without its alien guardians.
With an effort, she looked away from the incredible beauty of the S'hazon and gazed across the cavern where a gateway to an alternate Gaea was beginning to open. Five other S'hazons hovered between the cavern floor and ceiling, their luminous bodies forming a perfect circle that marked the outer edge of the gate. Within that circle, a light began to grow, a light composed of pure energy from another dimension, breaking through to this one. Soon it would coalesce to form a tunnel to another world. Only inside this cavern deep within Gaea, shielded from the vibrations that filled the sky, could such a gate be opened.
Elinna shivered, a shiver not born of the damp chill here in the depths of the earth. The departure of the S'hazons was a victory of sorts, but a bitter one. The S'hazons were leaving Gaea after centuries as humanity's teachers and guides, but they were not going alone. They were taking with them hundreds of Gaea's people, Perceptors of the House of Lohenrin, adepts trained in the use of khi power. Their destination was another Gaea in an alternate universe, a world the S'hazons called Tarshan, a world where intelligent life had never developed.
Across the floor of the cavern stood row upon row of huge crystals. Each held a Perceptor frozen within, alive but in stasis. The S'hazons had created these crystals to protect the fragile human bodies as they were transported from one dimension to another.
All is ready! Come with us, young Master of Lohenrin, or you will be stranded here among the doomed.
The mindvoice of Shanasta broke into her thoughts, carrying with it a sense of urgency. Elinna shook her head, not bothering to speak. Her decision was made. She would stay on Gaea despite the risk.
The S'hazons had a good reason for leaving her world forever. Using the foresight given them by the Power, they had learned a comet would strike Gaea in ten years, destroying all life.
She did not doubt their prediction, but to leave would mean deserting her people, the people the Perceptors were sworn to serve. Too many of the House of Lohenrin had chosen to disregard that vow and flee, even though their training in the Power might be Gaea's only hope of survival. They put their own safety above the fate of the helpless thousands left behind.
But Elinna refused to abandon her people. If there was a way to stop the comet, she intended to find it.
I am surprised at your foolishness, young human. We offer you the certainty of survival, a rich world waiting to be populated, and the potential to form a glorious new race. If we, masters of the Power for uncountable eons, cannot turn the comet aside, what chance do you stand?
"Perhaps none, but I will try," Elinna said, drawn into argument against her will.
Something like laughter rippled through her mind. Then you are mad to stay. Yet I cannot believe that you are mad, not when I consider the centuries of careful breeding that led to your birth.
Elinna's dark eyes narrowed as she stared at the luminous creature above her. Once she had believed Shanasta to be a benefactor of humanity. Now she knew the harsh truth. "I'm not alone. Others of the House have chosen to stay behind as well. If we are mad to believe we will find a way to save Atlaua, what does it matter to you? Enough Perceptors are going with you to assure that you will have what you wanted all along, a seed group of humans to merge with. You'll be able to possess physical bodies once again."
The ever-moving wings slowed as if the S'hazon were distracted by its ancient memories. How many centuries did this creature recall? Shanasta might be immortal, older than Gaea herself, for all Elinna knew. The demiurge was the S'hazon who had first appeared to humans more than a thousand years ago, drawn from another dimension to the island continent of Atlaua by the psychic calling of Aren Lohenrin.
When the S'hazons materialized in Atlaua's skies, shining like gods, they encouraged the warring humans they found to lay down their weapons and live in peace -- so the legends of the House declared. Humans were quick to obey these new demigods who offered humanity a treasure beyond price. The S'hazons taught how to tap into the khi power, a power that blessed the land, healed the sick, uncovered the secrets of any mind, and opened doorways to other dimensions.
Soon Aren Lohenrin founded the House of Lohenrin as a center for the teaching of the Power. There, those with sufficient ability came to be trained before they went out again to the cities of the land as helpers and guides.
Elinna frowned as she remembered the almost deserted House she'd left two days ago to journey to this cavern. Somehow she must raise it to glory again. The task was terrifying in its scope. But she'd endured other challenges that had seemed insurmountable and survived. The horrors of the past year were etched on her face, in the wide dark eyes full of serious purpose, the slanted brows pulled into a frown of concentration, the softly curved mouth pressed into a thin, determined line. Once young and open, her face had become a mask that hid her emotions. Emotions were for the weak, for those who could not control their teeming thoughts. Her thoughts were as disciplined as the honey-dark hair pulled straight back from her head into the severe braid that hung down her back.
Now the days and nights of intoxicating study under the tutelage of the S'hazons were gone forever -- but that was her choice. With the godlike confidence of one accustomed to being revered and obeyed, Shanasta had invited her to come with them to Tarshan, the world where humans and S'hazons could merge into one race.
Shanasta's mindvoice broke into her memories, the demiurge's thoughts cold with the emotionless logic of its race. Let go of your anger and feelings of betrayal, human. Yes, we have molded your people for our purposes, but in return we gave you centuries of peace and plenty, far more than you would ever have known on your own. War and death would have reigned here without us.
Elinna stood silent, her face impassive. She wondered how true the S'hazons' version of Atlaua's history -- the one she had always accepted -- was. But true or not, she was weary of the S'hazons' justifications, and she feared for those who still trusted the demiurges. What fate would await them on Tarshan? She shuddered and pulled her cloak tightly around her.
Shanasta's mindvoice continued to speak. We need creatures such as you who have the gift of khi power so that there is a hope of merging. Will you hate us because we long to possess physical bodies again, as you do? Will you forget all we did for your race? Remember this about us, at least: the Perceptors we rescue today will live on, while the rest of you will certainly die.
For a second Elinna's anger at the creature above her wavered. Perhaps Shanasta was right. The Perceptors who were leaving Gaea for Tarshan would be safe. The rest of humanity might perish ten years from now in the comet's strike.
Yet Shanasta's justifications ignored one truth: Gaea would have had a vastly different history if the S'hazons had never come. Without the S'hazons or the Sky Gods, those mysterious guardians of light she had once considered a myth, humanity would have studied the khi on its own and might have found its own ways of using the Power. She might have faced the coming comet with gifts undreamed of by the S'hazons.
It was too late for such a possibility. Only ten years remained. Ten years to find an answer. Elinna deepened her frown and pressed her lips into an even firmer line. Around her, the air begin to tingle with mounting energy. The gate was almost ready. Until this moment, the departure of the S'hazons had seemed like a dream, impossible to imagine in reality. The S'hazons were the heart of the Atlaua she had always known. What would life be without them?
Already she could feel the weight of responsibility on her shoulders, heavier than the great mass of rock above her in this cavern. The climb back up to the surface would be the beginning of a difficult journey.
"In the end, whatever you did, you did for yourselves," she said at last.
All beings do the same. We possess powers that are still beyond your comprehension, even with all the training we have given you. Yet the incomparable richness of a physical life is denied us.
"You made the choice to leave your physical bodies behind eons ago. Once you taught us that was humanity's destiny, too."
No choice need ever be final. We have spent centuries breeding those among you with the khi power, making your race stronger. Our purpose was always to merge our minds with yours and share bodies with you. It will benefit both our races. We will be able to touch, to see, to feel again. And you... you will be demiurges, young gods with a world to rule!
"I have a world," Elinna said.
So be it. We will not force you. The merging cannot take place with the unwilling. It is too delicate for that. A shining wing of light brushed over her hair as if imparting a final blessing. I would give much if things were different, young pupil. I could have taught you to be a god. You would be willing to come with us now if you had never listened to Mesor Tethays.
The mask that was her face hardened even more. "I think not," she said, willing the S'hazon to leave.
Mesor, I'll be back at your side soon. She sent the thought to him although she knew he could not hear it. Mesor Tethays, Inheritor of the realm of Atlaua, waited on the surface with their horses, keeping watch for her at the entrance to the valley. Again this morning they'd argued over Elinna's plan to witness the Vanishing. Elinna believed Shanasta's promise that it would not kidnap her at the last moment. Enough Perceptors were going voluntarily; one more did not matter. But Mesor would never trust the S'hazons. He'd witnessed firsthand what they could do to a human when they overpowered a mind. She could imagine the worried look on his lean, tanned face.
It was a mistake to let you humans keep your rulers all these centuries. But it drains us to spend time at this lower vibration of reality. We had no choice.
"Your weakness allowed us to discover the truth," Elinna said, remembering the awe she once felt for this radiant creature. Until Mesor came to her with an incredible accusation -- that the S'hazons were concealing some monstrous secret in the Valley of the Caves. The valley and the caves beneath belonged to the S'hazons by ancient right. There -- far beneath Gaea's surface and protected from the vibrations of the outer world -- they taught elite Masters of the House their most subtle techniques.
Since only Masters were allowed to enter the valley, Mesor asked Elinna to investigate the rumors for him.
Shanasta had followed her thoughts. The light around him flared to an almost painful intensity in the shadowed cave. His mental voice rang with an accusation. Mesor! We underestimated the Inheritor. He persuaded you to spy on us.
"Not Mesor alone. Hasmonea asked me to investigate the caves as well."
Yes, your friend from the Temple. Human government and human religion. The two curses of your people. They will return to haunt you when we are gone.
Elinna felt a knife blade of hot anger twist in her stomach. "I don't think anything will ever haunt me as much as this scene, Shanasta."
"What do you see that is so horrible?" a cold voice asked from the shadows. Jaspat Domeni stepped into the light cast by the S'hazon, a triumphant smirk on his proud face. He was a young man with clean-cut features, but the look of arrogance he wore was already habitual. "I see a glorious sight -- the moment when the human race embarks on its greatest adventure. A pity you will miss it."
Elinna stiffened, startled by his presence. Why wasn't he already entombed in crystal? "I doubt very much you'll regret my absence."
The newly named High Master of the House of Lohenrin shook his head. His cold blue eyes lit with a secret amusement. "You're wrong. The day when we were enemies is past." He clasped his hands in front of his heart and made the small traditional bow of respect.
Though she suspected Jaspat's sincerity, Elinna did the same. This was not the time to relive old battles. Her only wish was for the S'hazons to leave and the Vanishing to be over.
She lifted her head and examined the young man in front of her. Even though they were hundreds of feet under the earth, Jaspat was dressed as if for a formal audience in the Crystal Chamber of the House. He wore the wide-brimmed hat of the High Master and formal white robes with the blue edging allowed only to the High Master. In his right hand, he held the staff of his office, handed down from one High Master to the next for over a thousand years.
Her eyes narrowed at that sight. "What need do you have for the staff, Jaspat? It is part of the heritage of the House. Leave it with me. The House will survive this Vanishing."
Jaspat chuckled, although there was no malice in the sound. "For how long? Ten years? This staff belonged to Aren Lohenrin. It is fitting that it go with us and the S'hazons to our new world."
A part of her wanted to reach out and grab it from his hand, but she knew the gesture would be pointless. He was stronger than she, physically, and her equal in the Power. And if he did not stop her, Shanasta would.
Controlling her outrage, she forced a serene smile to her lips. "Then we'll have to start a new tradition -- one that will serve us well for the thousands of years to come."
"Ever the dreamer, Elinna. Well, I wish you success." Jaspat lifted an eyebrow as he turned his face upwards toward the demiurge. "All the Perceptors who have chosen to go are ready, Shanasta."
Then you are the last. It is well. Prepare yourself, Jaspat Domeni!
The High Master threw a glance at Elinna, a look almost of pity, and stepped a few feet away from the S'hazon and her. His gaze fastened on the glowing gateway, and then he closed his eyes.
Elinna watched Jaspat enter a deep trance. As he did, the S'hazon above her raised its wings. Power pulsed out of the creature as it flowed past her toward the waiting High Master. When it touched him, his body rose several feet into the air.
Luminous rays began to converge around Jaspat, forming an aura of glowing mist, a white and radiant fog. It engulfed his feet, his legs, his chest, but he did not move. Then the white mist rose over his head. For a single heartbeat, he was hidden from sight, as the mist swirled and hardened, taking on a long, rectangular shape. As it hardened, it cleared, becoming diamond-bright, a container of solid energy to protect him on the dangerous journey ahead.
She looked beyond Jaspat at all the other crystalline coffins, row upon row. To see the House decimated, its Perceptors locked in crystal, was painful enough. But she must also watch the beings she once worshipped as near gods flee her world to save themselves. For a moment she wished the light would vanish from the cavern, wished the pitch black would swallow her up so she could hide here forever in the bowels of Gaea, far from the chaos and panic taking shape above.
It hurt to think of the part she had played in creating that panic. Two moons ago, she had traveled to this underground cave where the S'hazons had long before created three pyramidal structures by using the Power to shape energy into matter. The buildings were coated with gold, and there, deep with the earth, shielded by rock and precious metal from the vibrations of the outer world, she'd studied the Power in an atmosphere of great purity.
The center pyramid was used for teaching, but access to the other two was forbidden. After her lesson, she waited until Shanasta returned to the higher plane where the S'hazons dwelt when not making the difficult descent to Gaea's level, then used her Power to break the seal barring her from entering one of the forbidden pyramids. There she found hundreds of Perceptors encased in crystal. Whether they were unconscious or dead, she could not tell.
She had stood in stunned betrayal, staring. Among the entombed, she recognized Perceptors she had thought dead. After the death of a Perceptor, the House conducted a ceremony that transformed their bodies into pure energy. The S'hazons must have perverted that ceremony, stolen the transformed energy and transported the Perceptors to this secret chamber where they were rematerialized within the crystals -- for what purpose she could not imagine. Perhaps the S'hazons had even caused the Perceptors' "deaths" by casting them into a deep trance, without pulse or breath.
Her faith in the demiurges destroyed, Elinna fled the caverns, intending to warn the House. Instead, a S'hazon, alerted by her flight, captured her and imprisoned her in crystal to keep her silent.
She might be one of those making the journey to Tarshan today had not Mesor and Hasmonea managed to rescue her. With the S'hazons' secret about to be revealed, Shanasta materialized before her with a shocking explanation. A comet would destroy Gaea, but the S'hazons planned to take those Perceptors preserved in crystal, as well as those yet living, to a new world where they would be safe. There the S'hazons and the Perceptors would join minds to merge into a new race.
Meanwhile, the people of Gaea would not be told what was happening. The S'hazons and Perceptors would simply vanish, and those left behind would live their final years in ignorant peace. But with Elinna's discovery, too many people knew the secret. The S'hazons were forced to accelerate their plans. Rumors spread. In the land above, panic mounted.
For all of living memory and beyond, the House and the S'hazons had guarded and protected Atlaua. The people would demand to know the reason behind the Vanishing. More than that, Elinna feared the few Perceptors remaining would suffer a backlash for the part the House had played in this disaster. Truth to tell, she too tasted bitter disappointment that so many Perceptors had put their own safety above Atlaua.
Including even the High Master. Despite her proud words to Jaspat, she wondered if the House could indeed survive this blow.
"This is a black day," she told Shanasta. "It is fitting the end comes here, hidden from the sun, in this cavern of eternal night."
The wings stopped. The S'hazon floated in the cold air of the cavern, a ball of glowing light.
Light but no warmth, Elinna realized. Why did I never notice it before?
You judge us harshly, human. We gave you centuries of peace, we taught you the Power, and we blessed your land and made it bountiful. Today we save the best of your people from certain destruction. We are not the villains you wish us to be, Elinna Serru. Do not deny yourself the chance for life because you hate us for imprisoning you in the crystal.
Elinna glanced again at the rows of crystal, then let her gaze slide away. She couldn't bear to look at them for long. She shuddered to think of these supposed benefactors, stockpiling Perceptors like so many logs for a winter's fire.
The Perceptors waited, each in an individual prison, scattered over the cavern floor. She knew from her own experience that they were not completely unconscious. They were trapped in a kind of fitful sleep, filled with nightmarish dreams.
She longed for the Power to stop this travesty. It galled her to stand here and watch it happen. Yet when Shanasta had invited her to witness the Vanishing, she knew she must come. She owed it to these who were once her comrades to see what became of them in their final moments on Gaea.
"I don't hate you," she told Shanasta. "I simply choose not to serve you any longer. I am a servant of my people now."
We wish you well in your choice, Elinna Serru!
"And I in yours." She heard the bitterness in her voice and did not care
The five other S'hazons began to pulse in a hypnotic rhythm, sending waves of light flashing through the enormous cave. It glared off the stalagmites and stalactites and made grotesque shadows dance across the rocky floor.
It is time. Stand here. Do not approach any closer.
Shanasta turned in the air and flew across the vast cavern to join the perfect circle that hovered above the rocky floor. The other demiurges spread further apart, expanding the circle to accommodate Shanasta's presence.
Their pulsing stopped and became a steady glow, while the fainter light within the circle flickered, then mounted into a dazzling radiance. For a moment a multitude of colors danced across the surface like ripples across a pond, then they all melted into a white blaze of Power. It was like gazing into the heart of the sun. Elinna threw up a hand to keep from being blinded.
A soft humming began to come from the S'hazons, a sound of infinite beauty. The vibration filled the cavern, and as it did, the crystals on the floor began to rise. Her fellow Perceptors, willing or not, were leaving her world.
Tears filled Elinna's eyes, and for a moment everything blurred. She blinked hard, calling upon the iron discipline of a Master. She must observe, not be swept away by emotion. She must learn whatever she could about the dimensional gate the S'hazons used. Gates worked two ways. With enough knowledge, perhaps she could make sure the alien demiurges never returned.
The crystals lifted into the air, more quickly than she would have thought possible given their size and weight. A powerful force was drawing them toward the gateway. She felt it herself, like a strong wind plucking at her skirts. She drew back a step and wrapped one arm around an outcropping of rock next to where she stood.
The last of the crystals levitated into the air. They hung high above the floor of the cavern, each one a sparkling teardrop of light, then hurled themselves one by one into the fiery heart of the gate.
The humming rose to a higher pitch, impossibly high, piercing through her brain. She cringed as the sharp sound hurt her ears. The final coffin plunged into the fiery circle and vanished.
One by one the S'hazons followed, dropping out of the circle to fall into the white core, now brighter than any sun. Shanasta was the last to go. For a moment it hovered over the gate, all six wings spread wide, and she caught the barest glimpse of a long form with a narrow head. Then the wings closed again and the last S'hazon turned, plummeting into the light.
The gate flared and shattered, falling into itself, gone before she finished drawing in a gasp of surprise. The Vanishing was over. Gaea belonged to humanity again, at last.
Elinna blinked, still clinging to the rock pillar at her side. Afterimages of dazzling brilliance danced across her vision like sparks fading into the darkness. With the S'hazons gone, silence and eternal night engulfed the cavern once more.
It was time to return to the upper world and to her task. She had already spoken to a few of the remaining Perceptors of the House. They'd agreed to ask their fellow Perceptors to work together to stop the comet, but in private each one came to her to ask how they would achieve such an impossible task. She only wished she knew the answer.
Releasing the pillar, she reached for the glowlamp at her feet and touched it. Its feeble circle of light reached only a few paces beyond her, but it would be enough to guide her on the path up into the world above. A world that waited, caught between hope and terror.
Copyright © 2004 by Jeanine Berry