A year ago I thought of creating an RPG setting… again. I started work on the world, but like many times before, I stopped when I realized I had a setting but no system.
Recently I created a plan for my fiction and short stories. I decided I want to create a collection of short stories all in one setting, and the Tri-Star setting was the perfect choice. It is varied, has chances for ‘legendary moments’, and is nice and strange sci-fi. So here is a story now, Maja’s Lesson.
Trigger Warning: Ridiculous sci-fi names.
“This is foolish, and you know it.”
Maja was looking back toward camp. She could hear Chan, but she didn’t want to look at him, not now. Instead she looked at her tribesmen. Dark shapes moving in and out of tan tents against the grey and black backdrop of the rock hills. They were moving fast because of her, making last moment preparations and calculations.
“Give it another moon,” Chan said, “there is still more to learn. You are throwing away your life for nothing.”
She was wearing a tie sealed suit. Maja could feel the material biting into her neck, ankles, and wrists. It all felt heavy, like a full pack before the journey. In reality, the only load she carried was a small brown bag at her side.
“Please, Maja,” Chan said, putting a hand on her arm, “give me more time.”
Maja took a deep breath, “What is Rake’s lesson?”
She could hear Chan’s gloves as his free hand squeezed tight.
“Ignorance now, breeds strife.”
She turned, but she looked past Chan to the towering doorway before her. Though calling it a doorway was her own biased response. To Chan, it was a deathtrap, laid out for Maja and their team.
It was tall enough to drag the great monument of Dainus through. Wide enough that the whole team, twenty strong, could walk through side by side with ease. The edge was some shimmering crystal, brighter than anything she had seen in her life, swimming with shades of blue that were unheard of across the world. In the center of the circular shape was a shifting reflective surface. At some angles you could see through to the opposite side, and others you would be looking back at yourself. It moved with time, slow motions that their study had yet to explain.
“I’m going through,” Maja said, “That is the end of it.”
Mayen’s Mirror, that is what they called it. Named after the one and only god, the crafter of the raw. The ambient energy that poured out of it was greater than any other artifact, and yet it did nothing. Nothing came out of it, and objects thrown in did not return. They prodded it with tools, and they returned unscathed.
They didn’t know a lot, but what they did know spoke volumes: It gave off the energy of god, there was no air to breath on the opposite side, there was no sunlight on the opposite side, there was no soil on the opposite side. Animals immediately returned when forced through, but any that were forced far into the Mirror, did not return at all. Whatever they saw, spooked them enough that they couldn’t be returned to herd or pack.
“He is coming,” Chan said. She could hear the depression in his tone. He was having trouble hiding his feelings on this matter.
Maja turned and saw Chief Lohae and his entourage walking toward them. Two men on each side, speaking rapidly, reading off information from notebooks.
The man himself was the perfect picture of importance. He was taller than his aides, his back straight and his eyes focused ahead. His tunic was old, weathered, with patches of rare colored cloth from past rulers. The red band of Chief Jaem. The blue trinket of Chief Tayaj. His headress has color to it as well, as it sweeps down around shoulders.
Maja and Chan both fall to one knee when the Chief stops.
“Maja,” He says, “I am proud to be here today. When I heard that your team was finally going to reveal the secret Mayen left behind the Mirror, I knew I had to be here personally.”
Chan spoke, his head down, “We don’t know what will happen today, Chief.”
She could see the Chief’s aides move aside as the Chief turned.
“Chan,” The Chief began, “You doubt this expedition? I heard you were Maja’s most trusted hand?”
“He is,” Maja said, looking at Chan out of the corner of her eyes.
“Which is why I have to voice my disagreement,” Chan added. He matched her angry glare.
“The time for indirect observation is over,” Maja said, “We cannot wait here forever. What we don’t know, can very well kill us.”
“Ah,” The Chief said with a note of appreciation, “Dainus’s Lesson.”
When the small men of the past lived as scattered tribes, scavenging for whatever they could find, they thought they could live their lives day by day. Then a storm came, a dust storm that ravaged every tribe known and unknown. It was Mayen’s judgement for their stupidity, their ignorance. One Chief, Dainus, did not fall to ignorance. His tribe studied the storms, and learned how long they would last, how harsh they would be. Mayen’s wrath was Dainus’s opportunity. When the storm ended, the Grand Expedition rode out, and in five years time, Dainus had more land to his name than any Chief before him.
“We just need more time,” Chan said.
“I disagree,” Lohae said, “Maja, I am glad you have volunteered to do what others refused to do. You are going to change the face of this tribe. I await your return.”
Then the Chief turned, and walked back toward the camp with his entourage in tow.
Maja stood, and realized her team was standing back in wait for the Chief to leave. They came forward with equipment in hand, setting up far enough from the Mirror that they could get accurate observations.
“What about the smaller mirrors?” Chan said as someone came and wrapped a metallic rope around her waist.
“I’ve heard,” Maja said, “Their discovery doesn’t change our focus.”
The rope was slipped tight, and the girl tying it, Talia, repeated their agreed upon instructions, “Tug three times if you wish to return.”
Maja nodded, and Talia went to check the anchor.
Chan snapped to get her attention, “What if the small mirrors prove volatile? What if the beasts that don’t return go past some threshold we haven’t seen yet? This is all worth researching.”
Another expedition found a smaller version of Mayen’s Mirror. In total, there were four of them, and the news surrounding these smaller mirrors was disturbing in comparison to the sleeping giant that was the Mirror proper. It kept her up at night, knowing others may study them first.
“And we will,” Maja said, inspecting the inside of her pouch, “When I return.”
He put his hands on her, squeezing at the shoulders, “Maja, please don’t go. I need you here, you know that.”
She looked him in the eyes, the black pupils scanning her face for any sign of agreement, any weakness. She couldn’t show it. It would shame her parents, her team, her tribe. In one moment, she could lose everything if she let Chan have his way.
“Confusing your wants and your needs leads to loss and starvation.” Those were the words of Injo, not hers.
“You and your cursed lessons,” Chan said turning his head away. He let her go, and reached into his bag. He pulled out a blue orb, glowing with energy. It fit into the palm of his hand.
“A tear?” Maja asked as her eyes widened.
“Take it with you,” Chan said, “It may come in handy.”
“It could be lost!” Maja shouted, “Don’t give that to me, do you know what the tribe would do if you lost it?”
He held the orb out, and she could feel the heat radiating from the jewel-like orb, “Don’t lose it then.”
He was an idiot. But that was why he was here.
She grabbed the Tear of Mayen, could feel power flowing through her arm, then placed it in her side bag.
When she turned back, Chan had her helmet in his hands. He leaned in and kissed her. It was meant to be calm, simple, but she could feel him trembling as they touched. Then he pulled the helmet down over her head. It was metal, with a cloth drape to tie to her body and seal it closed. A tube fed into the back, her air that could hopefully cross the barrier. She could see out through a small window of glass in the front, but already she could see that her vision would be limited, her periphery blocked by the rest of the helmet.
Chan waved at her to see if she was okay, and she waved in return, then turned to the mirror. Another teammate was standing there, doing a last check. He gave her the okay, and she started to walk.
The helmet was heavier than she believed it could be. With everything else, it was also hard to breath. It felt like she was siphoning from the tube directly. Though in reality, it was possible her nerves were to blame.
She got close to the Mirror, and through the window she could see a moving reflection of herself. A woman in layers of brown cloth, her dark helmet looked out of place, like something from a children’s story. She was a cautionary tale.
She reached her hand out and touched the surface. It broke at impact, like shattering glass that refused to break apart. But it didn’t resist her anymore than walking into a leather tarp. She pushed forward, and the break continued outwards, her arm swallowed up, and her body getting closer to the surface.
Maja noted to herself that it was cold on the other side.
When her face pushed through, she had to force her eyes open. It was awful, a swarming wall of light and color that almost turned her on the spot. It was like looking down a cave tunnel, but the walls were crystal.
She pushed herself through to the other side, and took a deep breath. She expected to be blind, but there was more than enough light to see. It wasn’t coming from behind her either. The walls of the tunnel, they were giving off their own glow, or reflecting something else. Maja could see streaks in the surface, lines of light that spiraled on and on away from her and toward her and crossing where they could.
No wonder the animals turned to leave, it was a terrifying beauty.
She took her first steps, feeling out each one before she put her weight on it. The ground beneath her was solid, and didn’t seem to be the same crystal as the rest. It was like a path, and it was wide and sturdy. If they wanted to, a full expedition could walk through.
Maja looked ahead, and saw that there was a point of light in the distance. She decided to move faster, she wanted to know what god was hiding right in front of them.
As she walked, she put a hand out to the wall. She wanted to know if the crystal was the same as the crystal outside, that framed the Mirror itself. As she got closer, it felt warm, like the surface of heated stove. It was energy, maybe even pure.
Her first guess was that this was a door into the raw, that chaotic energy that god used to craft everything. If that was true, just the prospect of it being true, had her both giddy and afraid. That was the material no man should forge. It held the secrets of power itself. If she was right, she was just on the other side of a crystalline membrane from ultimate power.
She made contact with the wall, and a jolt of pain went through her arm. Electricity? No, raw energy that sent her reeling until she fell in the middle of the tunnel. Her arm was wracked with pain, and her heart was pounding. It was hard enough to breath without the sudden shock, but now she felt like she was suffocating.
Maja got back to her feet, and looked back the way she came. It seemed dark, distant, and growing ever dimmer. Still, the portal she came through was a point of light, like the one ahead.
She put the pain behind her, and continued forward. Every journey begins with the pain of loss, not every journey ends the same; Pachi’s lesson.
Maja caught sight of something in the corner of her vision. A shadow, moving along the crystal tunnel. She didn’t think before to look for her own shadow. When she looked around her feet, she didn’t have one. All the light coming into the tunnel from outside was distant, ephemeral, and left no sign that she was even there. She looked to the tunnel wall, and saw it was more than a shadow. It looked like spilled ink, trailing its way toward her.
Her heart skipped a beat when she looked to the opposite wall, and saw a matching mark, shifting shadows that were following behind her from outside the cave, reaching out to her. She looked ahead, the point of light was becoming clearer, she didn’t have far. She could examine this later.
She walked, looking to her sides every few dozen steps. The darkness was following her, and worse, swallowing up the light behind her. She could barely see her own side of the Mirror, the place where she left Chan, and her team.
When she looked closer, she almost thought the shadows were trying to get through. Her curiosity got the better of her, and she took a step closer, trying to focus on the otherworldly crystal that surrounded her. As she watched, a small corner of the crystal broke, and a needle like point of shadow reached in. It pointed at her, grew longer by the second, but stopped well short of her.
Maja stood up and took a step back, then looked behind her. Was this same darkness all over the tunnel? It was no mere shadow, it seemed to have a will.
She looked ahead, and pressed on faster. The weight of her suit was getting to her, and even moments of this jogging pace made it hard to breath or concentrate. Maja bent down to catch her breath, and saw something by her feet, a reaching bit of shadow. She gasped, and started to run, or try to run.
It was impossible to ignore now. Even from ahead of her, the tunnel was growing dark. Pouring in from the walls were long points of darkness, reaching for the floor, sliding out toward her. Seeing the crystal itself was growing impossible, small regions of rock in a growing wave of black. There was no mistaking it, it was coming for her. The shadow was making it impossible to see, there was nothing ahead, nothing behind her. It was just her, and the oncoming evil.
Evil, that was the word she was afraid to label it with before. She could feel it, a malice to the shadows that were now forming a wall around her, reaching out like a wall of knives that was waiting to make that fatal strike. Then there was nothing to see, no gap to get light, just darkness.
Her line, she didn’t think about it. Could they even feel her at this point? was it even connected? She tugged on it, three hard yanks on the taut metal rope. Nothing happened.
She could feel a pinprick on her right shoulder, and shifted left only to find another waiting for her there. It was closing in on her, going to crush her. She was going to learn the fate of those animals they sent to their death. Children would learn of Maja’s lesson, the woman who vanished in her haste. The woman who lost her tribe the favor of the Great Chief, and lost an artifact of god.
Maja whispered, “The tear.”
She felt small cuts across her arms as she reached for her bag. When the strong was loosened, a light poured out, the light of Mayen. She could swear the darkness screamed. It backed away, enough to give her space to move. Maja reached her hand into the bag, and pulled the orb out, watched it glow with that blue light she had never appreciated enough before.
The shadow, the darkness, it fled from all around her, fled back through the crystal walls. She could see, the path, the crystal, those streaking lines of light outside. Maja could see the other portal, it was so close now.
Through it, she could see something strange, alien. It was green, distorted visions of hills, a bright blue sky.
Mayen the deliverer. They sat there for so long, wondering what Mayen could be hiding behind the mirror. He hid the one thing the tribes of Ceti wanted most, paradise.
Then Maja was yanked off of her feet. She held the Tear close as she crashed to the ground. At first she didn’t understand what was happening, then she realized she was being dragged back.
She wanted to stop, she wanted to tell them to let her go to the other side. Instead the green hills faded away, as she was pulled through that odd place back to the bleak and dying lands she had known her whole life.
Maja came through the portal, and it wasn’t until they pulled the helmet from her head that she realized how labored her breathing was. She looked around, her vision was blurry, and her whole body felt chilly.
“You’re okay,” She could hear Chan saying, “Thank god you’re okay.”
He hugged her, comforted her, but the atmosphere was all wrong. There was no sense of celebration, just tension.
She pulled herself to her knees, and looked to see why.
Chief Lohae was in attendance.
“Maja, you have done it,” The Chief said, “Amazing. My men and I wanted to be the first to greet you when you returned.”
“I’m grateful, Chief,” Maja said as she tried to calm her heart, “The journey was as fruitful as I expected.”
She caught a glance from Chan, she couldn’t tell what he was trying to tell her. It was possible it was nothing but concern for her, but she was now safe, though not unchanged.
“Is that so?” The Chief said, “Tell me, what is beyond god’s Mirror?”
Lying wasn’t an option. This was her leader, the man who made her research possible. She took a deep breath.
“There was a tunnel, awe inspiring in its beauty. It was strange, and it was terrible.”
“And?” Lohae said. He looked like a man waiting for his meal, hungry for what he absolutely needed.
“And,” Maja said, “There was another mirror, one that didn’t seem to lead to any place I have seen.”
“Excellent,” The Chief said, “If that’s true, then you really have changed everything.”
“It was dangerous as well,” Maja said, speaking so fast that the Chief gave her a stern glance.
“I’m sure you, of all people, know Gohai’s lesson.”
The greater danger holds the deeper truth.
Maja looked down at the dirt, “Chief, something is in there, something dangerous.”
“Which is why we will explore it,” The Chief said as he turned and began to walk away, “Call for warriors from the local villages, we will start an expedition immediately.”
Maja stood, and when she teetered, Chan supported her. She watched the Chief and his entourage, walking back toward the camp.
They couldn’t understand what they were dealing with. Even thinking of the darkness, that evil, made her skin prickle. Still, there was something there, and she knew that when they reached it, she wanted to be the first to step foot in paradise.
“Are you okay?” Chan asked.
Maja looked at him, and she put a hand on him, “Yes, thank you. We have a lot to talk about though, and even more to do.”