The Root of All Things

“One cannot catch a fish if one is always looking at the horizon.” –Ansauan Proverb

Bordan Island
2nd day of Okivla, 471 AC

The porous black rock of the cave walls looked like a petrified sponge, more void than substance. When Danika touched it she could feel the tiny sharp edges against her skin. The center of the path was worn down to a smooth surface, but if she strayed to either side it crunched under he feet.

As she continued deeper into the cave, the light from the opening faded, until she finally had to use her Ao, which created a dim sphere of light around her. She began to see shocks of ika leaves sprouting from the walls and ceiling, not yet picked clean. Her Ao was soon the only light source, causing the shadows to dance with every step she took.

Finally, after what seemed like hours in the darkness, she began to see mature leaves ranging from the size of her palm to the length of her entire arm. She didn‘t need much, a little ika went a long way, so she began to saw at one of the medium sized leaves with a glass knife that she had borrowed from her friend Rune. Even with the glass as sharp as it was, it was slow going, and it wasn‘t long before sweat was running into her eyes and her arm was burning.

Eventually it came free, and she was holding a pale green leaf that was about the length of her forearm. It went into the canvas pouch that she had brought with her for that purpose. She picked another one about the same size, and lifted the glass blade. It felt as though it had tripled in weight. She resheathed the knife and paused to press a five Ve coin into the Seal on her left arm. Immediately a pleasant cold tingling spread out from the tattoo, taking aches and fatigue, until she felt it in her entire body.

It was time for another tactic. She grabbed the smallest of the mature leaves. It was a paler green than the one she had just cut, but it was just as rough in her hand, like sharkskin . She pulled, starting with just a little pressure, and pulling harder and harder until she was braced against the wall with one foot.

The ika came out of the wall a little bit at a time, finally breaking free when root strands four or five times as long as the actual leaf were strung taut in front of her. She held the light up to the section of wall that the leaf had sprouted from, and could see a small crater where the roots had pulled out part of the rock with them. It followed the first leaf into the pouch.

For the third leaf, she picked another small one and pulled it until she could get at the roots, which she cut with the knife. It still took some doing, but it was still the easiest of the three to remove.

When she turned to leave, a sparkling in the walls caught her eye. She knelt down and saw what looked like strands of silver hair running the porous stone. They were roots to ika plants. She moved along the bottom of the wall in a crouch, and the deeper she moved into the cave, the more strands she saw, converging and twisting to form a lustrous cable that wove in and out of the wall. The cave began to narrow, but as it did, the ika cable collected more strands, growing gradually thicker until Danika came to an abrupt wall through which the cable disappeared. There was nothing to do but turn back.

Leaving the cave, the darkness at the edge of her light’s circumference took on different meaning. When she had been making her way deeper, she had been focused on the ika, and the darkness ahead seemed a good sign, a sure sign of new knowledge to be found if she were to follow it. On the way out, she realized that she had lost track of how deep she had gone, and the darkness made a part of her doubt that she would ever see the sunlight again. The longer she walked with no sign of daylight, the more feeble her artificial light seemed.

After what felt like hours, the tunnel ahead of her lightened, and before long, she could see a bit of sky again. Outside, day had passed into twilight, but there was enough light to find her way.

She made her way along the coastal path to the small town of Vask only to find that she had missed the last ferry back to Rektval. She was tired, but she had spent almost all of her money on supplies for her project, and didn’t think that she would be able to sleep anyway even if she had enough money to rent a room for the night. So she refilled her water bottle and began walking on the road that would lead her to Rektval.

The keyposts that marked the beginning of the road indicated that Rektval was only seven kilometers away, but as night fell, her feet started to hurt and the ache in her shoulders and neck made its way to the front of her mind. It was the first time she had been on the countryside at night, and it was strangely peaceful. Other than the faint glow of Kinav across the water, the only illumination came from the stars and fractioned moon overhead. She wanted to use the twenty Ve coin in her purse to give her the burning energy that would allow her to run all the way home, but resisted.

It was as though she were alone in the world, walking without destination across the rolling landscape, and she let herself settle into the rhythm of the journey. Whenever she started to get tired, she used a single Ve that would take the edge off for a while.

Danika crested a hill and saw the scattered lights of Rektval. The trees that crowded up against the inland side of the road gradually gave way to farmland which in turn became the outskirts of Rektval. She walked through the slumbering streets to where she lived on the far side of the city. In the central square, clerks were setting the stone calendar to the next day.

The lights were on at her apartment, and Valia was waiting inside for her, a blank piece of paper in front of her. She set the paper down in front of her and rubbed her eyes, smearing charcoal on her skin in the process.

“I was worried, I couldn’t help but think that something in one of those caves had eaten you,” she said.

“Then you should have come with,” Danika said. “Surely a fierce Guardswoman would have ensured my safety.” The charcoal around her eyes made her look like she was playing the part of a greiving mother at the theater and Danika had to hold back a smile or risk having Valia do the same to her.

“Ha! You were the one who told me that a Guard’s biggest enemy is boredom, back when I first joined,” Valia said. “Did you get what you needed?”

“Yeah.” Danika tried to pull the canvas bag off, but after she had gotten the strap over her head, the bag pulled against her skin. She gave it a small tug, and felt it come partially loose, but it was painful, like pulling a bandage off without first soaking it. She pulled again and it came free. When she looked closely, she could see what looked like fine hairs pushing through the weave of the canvas.

“Your shirt,” Valia said, pointing.

Danika twisted around to look at her shirt. Dots of blood were beginning to appear where the bag had been sitting.

----------- Bordan -----------

“This is the plant that did this to you?” Eir asked, holding one of the ika leaves, careful to avoid touching the tangle of roots that dangled from its base.

“Yes. So how does it look?” Danika asked.

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Eir said. “I’ve never seen anything like this, mostly I deal with muscles, ligaments, and bones. The Guard doesn’t run into plants taking root in their bodies very often.” She smiled, but it was the smile that Danika remembered from her days in the Guard, the smile that she would give when she was about to set a bone or sever a mishealed wound so that she could make the body reheal it correctly. “You haven’t used any Ve, have you?”

“Just a little, to keep me awake when I was walking home last night.” She didn‘t know why she lied about how much she had used, but she couldn‘t bring herself to tell the truth.

“Then you need to get to Kinav, and soon. The ika might stay put, or it may may work its way into your heart and brain. Wait here.” With that, Eir left the room, and Danika could hear her talking to her assistant outside. She heard the main entry open and shut, then Eir came back into the room. “I’ve sent a message out to Sefa, you’ll need to wait here.”

----------- Kinav -----------

Danika woke to a man standing over her. As the world came into focus around her, she could see others, all of them looking at her, none of them talking.

“How do you feel?“ the man asked.

“A little tingly,“ she said, realizing as she did how odd that was. Eir had said that the roots went pretty deep, so that meant that whatever they had done to fix it, it wouln‘t be painless. “Were you able to get them all out?“

Most of the rest of the faces around her turned or looked away. She stared at the man who had spoken.

“Actually, we weren‘t able to get any of them out. The ika responds to Ve, so our options are limited to procedures that we can do that don‘t require Ve healing.“

“Can‘t you remove it all and then heal me?“ Danika sat up and saw that she was in a large round room with a ceiling made up almost entirely of large panels of glass. All around her were plants, growing on stands, hanging from the ceiling, climbing ropes and trellises. She had expected to wake up in a surgeon’s theater, but instead she was in a botanical garden.

“If it were in an extremity, maybe. In your case, no.“

“What did the doctors say? Is there any way you can neutralize it?” The questions came out of her mouth faster and faster, fuelled by a growing panic.

“The doctors asked us, and trust me, if there were any way to remove the ika plant from your body, it would have already been done. If we could cut it all out, then we could heal you, but it is so deep in your body we can’t get it all, and whatever was left would quickly make its way into your organs and kill you when we tried to heal you.” Listening to his words an image of hair-thin roots burrowing themselves into her body, vining themselves along her veins and tendons, came to mind. After seeing how the roots had penetrated the rocks so easily in the cave, it was easy to believe.

“I don’t understand, why doesn’t this sort of thing happen all the time?” she asked. She had been through so much, been stabbed clean through once, but had survived each time. She had felt that there was no problem that could not be overcome by the application of Ve.

“The ika plant, it is what we use as a conduit for the Ve,” the botanist said. “It is in the ink in your tattoos, and mixed into the ceramic for the coins, everything that involves Ve depends on ika. But the harvesters are careful to only take the leaves, not the roots, and to carry them only in boiled leather pouches. There aren’t many who are capable of removing even the smallest of leaves, but it does happen. The harvesters occasionally find bodies in the caves, their flesh consumed by the plant.”

“So what do I do?” she asked after a few minutes of silence. “Just wait for this thing to kill me?”

“The ika will only grow when it is exposed to Ve. So long as you don’t use any, there is no reason that you can’t live until old age,” he said.

Danika looked at him, looked at his carefully pruned beard and the leaves and roots that filled his skill graph, and started to relax. Her breathing slowed and she felt her shoulders drop as the tension went out of her muscles. A few of the other botanists took half steps forward before realizing that she wasn’t dying. There was nothing she could do, no action that she could take, and so the only path forward was for her to accept what was happening.

----------- Kinav -----------

Danika couldn’t stop looking at her arm as she wandered around the city island of Kinav. She had only been out of the Vaarplikt for a few years but her skill graph was already more than half full. Her entire life seemed like it had been a quest to learn, to create, and now it seemed as though it was all for nothing, all of the Seals she had acquired were just decoration.

The central area of Kinav was a hill, and though it was not nearly as steep or high as the outer slopes of the barrier islands, in her weakened state she wasn’t sure that she could actually make it to the top. When the road flattened out, she found herself in what seemed to be an entirely different city. As the location of the General Council, the buildings and people were all filled with purpose, even the people walking slowly along the paths that wound through the campus.

Eventually she found what she was looking for, a freshly cleared area around a stone plinth. The Beacon. The dark grey stone was polished, and its top was inset with a map of the island in white. After all the news and controversy that had gone on when it was built, it was sort of disappointing. Still, looking at it, she felt a tingling sensation moving through her body.

“Not much to look at, is it.“

Danika jumped, but relaxed when she saw who had spoken. The man looked like he was her father‘s age, and had that same sense of patience, as though he knew that if he waited long enough, what he wanted would come to him.

“I don‘t know, I kind of expected it to glow or something.“

“At least you’re honest, everyone around here thinks the same but says the opposite. Sometimes I ask if it was worth it, if this will really do what I thought it would do, but then I got this.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a round piece of wood roughly the size of his palm. One of its surfaces was inlaid with a replica of the map that was on the plinth, but there was a ring around it. The point of the ring closest to the Beacon was glowing.

“How does it work?” Something about it reminded Danika of the paper she had seen at the shop. She wanted to snatch it out of his hands.

“I don’t quite know, something about rods embedded in the wood to catch the particular energy that the Beacon puts out. They tried to explain it to me, but I didn’t understand most of what they were saying.”

A clerk came running up from behind him, panting.

“Councilor Traaski,” the clerk said, his speech coming in rhythm with his laboured breathing. “The Council, they are waiting, on you.”

“Go tell them I’ll be there in a minute,” the Councilor said. The clerk’s face fell, he clearly had been hoping to rest and walk back to the Council chambers. “No need to run, they can wait.”

The clerk smiled his thanks and started back.

“I really should be going,” he said. “It wouldn’t be good to keep them waiting too long on my first day back.”

“Thanks,” Danika said. She immediately started walking back towards the botanists with a new sense of urgency. She needed to get everything taken care, she had work to do at home.

----------- Bordan -----------

“So you really think that a watermark is what did it?“ Valia asked.

“That‘s what I‘m hoping.“ Danika was bent over the deckle, weaving the Ansauan seal into the wire mesh.

Her first attempts to replicate the paper had focused on the recipe alone, which had in turn led to the caves after buying enough ika proved too expensive. When the councillor had mentioned the rods embedded in the Beacon compass, she had realized that the watermark had almost certainly played a role as well.

She had panicked at the mass of possibilities when the idea of the watermark had first occurred to her, but once she was sure that ika was part of the solution, it narrowed things down. There weren‘t many people who could afford to have paper made with ika, and fewer still who would have any reason to, which meant that the paper had been commissioned by the Bordan Council. After that, it had been a relatively simple matter of looking up the seal that would have been watermarked into the paper.

Valia‘s attention went back to her sketch pad, and Danika continued to work on the watermark. By midday, it was finished and Danika poured pulp in for the first sheet.

Danika‘s stomach growled, and her hunger rapidly bubbled to the front of her mind. Her first instinct was to reach for a coin and keep on working, and she had the coin out of her pocket and halfway to the seal on her arm before she realized what she was doing. The coin fell from her fingers and clattered over the scarred and uneven wood of the table.

“Sorry,“ Danika said in response to Valia‘s look of surprise. “I need to go out and get something to eat, do you need anything?“

“No thanks.“

Danika arranged everything neatly on the table and left the apartment in search of food. It was a strange feeling.

----------- Bordan -----------

“Danika, we need to talk,” Sefa said.

The serious tone of his voice was compounded by the fact that he was waiting for her by the gate to the Guard compound stopped her mid-step, and the bottom dropped out of her stomach, like it was trying to instinctively curl up into a ball and hide. She knew what it was that he wanted to talk about.

“Sefa, I wanted to tell you, but–”

“Not here,” he said, turning and starting to make his way back to his office. Several times on the way her comrades started to ask him something, but stopped when they saw the look on his face. After he had passed, they gave looks of encouragement to Danika. She tried to smile back, but doubted that she was very convincing.

“Eir told me,” he said after they had reached his office. “What were you doing harvesting ika?”

It wasn’t the question she expected, and she just stood there for a moment, unable to do anything but keep her mouth shut.

“I needed it for something I’ve been working on,” she said.

“What could you possibly need that much ika for? Do you need money? Are you in trouble?” He looked sad, disappointed. “Why didn’t you come to me?”

Something inside of her unclenched and she sat down opposite him. “No, I’m not in trouble.”

“Then what?”

“Before I came to the guard I worked for a paper shop in Rektval.”

“I remember, you had never held a stave or knot before.”

“Yes.” Danika felt herself flush at the embarrassment of her first days with the Guard. “On my first day at the paper shop, I was wrapping up a ream of paper and the light happened to go out in the drying room. In the dark, I could see that one of the reams of paper was glowing. I was fascinated, and I needed to know how it worked. When Savea, the owner of the shop, discovered what I was doing, she kicked me out, and I was sent here.”

“A fortunate accident for us,” he said, his suspicion starting to fade. “But what does this have to do with you harvesting ika?”

“Ever since, I’ve been trying to reproduce that paper. Earlier this year, I decided to try ika after I heard that it had something to do with Ve. My first batch didn’t work out, and I figured that I probably wasn’t using enough of it. I couldn’t afford any more, so I went and harvested some.”

“Did it work?” he asked.

“I don’t know. The new batch is still drying.”

“Hmm, I hope it does.” Sefa shook his head when Danika started to get up out of her chair and she sat back down. He continued, “There is something else. Eir told me that you can no longer use Ve.”

“Yes,” she said. “I had planned on telling you, but I was so excited by what I learned while I was in Kinav that I got sidetracked.”

“This is a problem. Without access to the Ve, you cannot be a member of the Guard.”

“What?” Danika had expected him to be upset, but not to end her career.

“Think about it, on the Guard you breathe Ve. We use it to keep us up, we use it for a physical advantage, we use it to heal when we get hurt. You can no longer do any of those things. You would be a liability.”

Danika had no response.

“I know that it’s not what either of us wants, but it sounds like you have plenty of other things going on. I can give you two months paid leave. I’m sorry.”

Like every member of the Guard, Danika had trained to remain composed and she reached into that training, focusing her whole awareness onto breathing, shutting everything else out. But still tears welled in her eyes as she left the compound.

----------- Bordan -----------

Valia was waiting for her at the apartment, seeming to bounce in place and her face glowing with excitement.

“I know I wasn’t supposed to look, but I did,” she said. “You did it, you– What’s wrong?”

“Sefa said that since I can’t use Ve any more, I have to leave the Guard.”

The lilt went out of Valia and she grabbed her friend in a hug, as though she could squeeze the hurt out.

“Are you going to be OK?” Valia asked after she released Danika.

“Sefa is giving me two months paid leave before I’m released,” Danika said.

“Well, that’s something at least. Is there anything I can do?”

“Let me see the paper, maybe this will have been worth it.”

Valia ran to the closet and pulled out the crate, grunting at the weight. She pulled the stones off the top, stacking them on the floor one by one, and put the crate on the table before moving aside so that Danika could see.

Inside was a stack of paper, off-white with flecks of green and blue from the ika. Valia ran and closed the blinds, as she had done many times before for earlier attempts. Each time before, disappointment had set in as the room had simply gone black. But when the last rays of light had fled the room, a faint glow was coming from the top of the crate, like the gleaming of a merfolk treasure chest in a story.

There was silence as Danika reached down into the crate, putting her hands into the channels in the sides and pulling the ream of paper out by the board at the bottom. Outside of its wooden enclosure, the paper’s glow was stronger, almost reaching the edges of the room.

They both looked at the paper, neither willing to move until Danika reached down and pulled the top sheet off. It stopped glowing as soon as it had lost contact with the stack. Danika held it up and examined both sides, then handed it it Valia and peeled off another sheet, with the same effect. She put the sheets back on the stack and Valia went to open the curtains.

“Why does it only glow when it’s part of the stack?” Valia asked.

“I have no idea, but I’m sure that I can figure it out,” Danika said.

“What are you going to do with it?”

“I don’t know that, either.” A wave of fatigue hit her, and her vision swam for a minute. “I think that I need to go lie down for a bit.”

“Are you alright?” Valia asked.

“I’m fine, it’s just been a wreck of a day, you know?”

“I can imagine.”

“Do you mind putting the stones back on for me?” Danika asked as she started to make her way to her room. Valia started to grab the stones and waved her off.

In her room, Danika collapsed with exhaustion, but sleep didn’t come to claim her. It had been three years since she had been kicked out of Savea’s shop, and she was more a part of the world of the Guard than she had been of any other. She had always defined herself by her passions, not her career, but still she couldn’t imagine any other.

----------- Bordan -----------

The next morning found her again at the Guard compound, waiting for Sefa to arrive. When he did, he looked as startled to find her waiting as she had the previous day.

“Danika. Is something wrong?” he asked.

“I want to stay with the Guard,” she said. She had gone over it a hundred times in her head, thought of clever and convincing ways to make her case, but in the end she had realized that she should just say it.

“We went over this,” he said.

“Yes. But I disagree. I’m an asset here, and though my inability to use Ve will make things difficult, I don’t think that it fundamentally changes anything. This is important to me.”

“I don’t think that you realize how much you rely on Ve,” he said.

“Then give me a chance. If you’re right, I’ll leave.”

“Maybe,” he said.

“What do I need to do?” she asked.

“I said maybe, not yes. You need to rest,” he said. “Take your leave and get better, then we’ll figure it out.”

“Thank you,” she said. It was only a chance, but a chance was enough.

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This short story is just one part of a larger story, use the links above or the navigation at the top and sidebar of this page to see the rest.

Notes: This was a tricky story to write. I had the idea for Danika’s character, then a story formed itself around her. The only trouble was, I had no idea how to actually write that story. Eventually I figured it out, and I had a great time writing it, hopefully you had as much fun reading it.