FOUR HOURS AGO
Hana scurried into the inner sanctum of the Azure Tower like she had piranhas biting at her heels, her cloak falling from her head.
“You’re late,” Mei Yu, her mentor, said without turning around to look at her. She stood in the center of the sanctum in front of an immense beam of blue shardlight. It hummed as the energy pulsed from the depths of the earth to the tip of the tower.
“I know,” Hana said between labored breaths. She dipped her head and the hood of her cloak covered her again. “My apologies.”
“None of the other Iakuma were late,” she said, flicking her wrists around the air lazily, manipulating ten glowing shards in front of her. They buzzed like magnets, reacting to the proximity to the tower’s shardlight. If not for Mei Yu’s mastery of them, Hana knew the shards would zip around the sanctum like bullets. “It seems only fair that you pay for your indiscretion.”
Hana dipped her head even lower. Her shoulders sagged. She should have expected this. Mei Yu was a powerful channeler, a champion of District Stormheld and the leader of the magical Iakuma. Yet even her power did not come free; it, like all other power, came from the shardlight of the Towers. No shardlight was gained without sacrifice.
“Tell me what I must do,” Hana said, scarcely a whisper.
“Come child,” Mei Yu said.
Hana did as she was told, walking past robed Iakuma warriors lining the walls of the circular sanctum. Their hoods shrouded their faces in shadow so that Hana could only see the eerie matching blue of their eyes, staring as if directly into her soul. They were impossible to tell apart, each one an acolyte of the Iakuma, ready and willing to lay down their lives for Mei Yu and their mission: Scientific progress at the cost of all else.
Progress, of course, being a relative term.
“Here,” Mei Yu said, taking Hana by the shoulders and directing her to stand in front of the leyline of blue power.
Hana had seen the leyline of shardlight before, of course, but she’d never been this close. It didn’t simply pulse. It breathed. The energy flowed like life from the vein, crackling and popping as bursts of energy lapped the air around it. Hana felt her breath catch in her throat as Mei Yu placed a hand on the small of her back and pushed.
Hana tumbled past the ten shards and fell into the leyline itself. She tried screaming but the energy filled her mouth and lungs so that she couldn’t make any noise at all. She hovered, frozen in the light, eyes and skin turning blue, then white. She felt a hard pull in her chest, as if a giant were crushing her heart, and then a wrenching as pieces of her soul shattered.
The Towers of Power demanded a sacrifice. The Azure Tower demanded souls.
A wave rippled up and down the leyline as it accepted the pieces of Hana’s soul. Each of Mei Yu’s ten shards, along with each of the Iakuma warriors lined around the room, were infused with shardlight.
Mei Yu reached into the leyline and grabbed Hana by the robe, pulling her free. She tumbled to the floor, half dead. Mei Yu knelt next to her and drained a third of one of her shards, channeling the light into Hana. Feeling began to seep back into her limbs. “We must each sacrifice,” Mei Yu said ominously. “Now come.”
With that, the sanctum glowed with a hundred-hundred points of light as all of the Iakuma warriors channeled the light from their shards. Mei Yu leapt into the air, flying along the leyline all the way to the top of the tower and through an observation opening into the sky.
Hana struggled to get to her feet. She felt… broken. As if a part of her was gone and she could never get it back. She supposed that was an accurate assessment. The tower had taken a piece of her soul. As far as she knew, souls weren’t replaceable.
As feeling returned to her body, she noticed something sharp and jagged digging into the flesh of her palm. It was a shard. But this shard was unlike any she’d ever seen; clearer, more pristine somehow.
This shard wasn’t a conduit of energy, like most shards were. This shard was made of energy.
It floated above her palm and expanded rapidly, a cyclone of water and light, until resettling into the form of a frog.
It looked up at her, cocked its head, and said, “Ribbit.”