Lucia had sobbed for hours, inconsolable. ‘Why?’ she kept saying. ‘Why, why, why?’
I tried to explain to her the motives of the self-appointed Defenders of the First Age – fanatics, hellbent on curbing the changes to the Edge caused by the harnessing of the power of stormphrax. They wish to return to a simpler time – as they see it, a nobler time – when the sacred crystals of lightning were used for nothing more sinister than weighting down the floating rock of Old Sanctaphrax.
To an extent, I understand their longing for the past. After all, that was why I left Hive for this isolated outpost of the Farrow Ridges. I too yearned for a simpler – a nobler - way of life. And yet, even though stone sickness has finally been cured, and buoyant rocks are once again growing in the distant Stone Gardens, I recognize that our new technology can never be unlearned.
‘I’ll build you a new loom,’ I told Laria and, when she looked doubtful, added, ‘I did it once, I can do it again.’
As I set to work, I discovered that the loom wasn’t quite as badly damaged as I’d at first thought. Although most of the wood had indeed been reduced to splinters, some of the metal parts were salvageable. Slowly, methodically, I constructed a new frame, and the carved spindles and rods that would house the shuttle-spools. Two weeks later the loom was ready, but for it to work, I needed a crystal of phrax large enough to power it. I had no idea how I could come by such a thing.
So I set off to think this problem over in a peaceful, tranquil place – fishing on the Farrow Lake in my coracle. As the sun was beginning to set, I pulled in my net, and along with the usual haul of reedtench, mudtrout and chubblings, I saw an unexploded phraxshell. It must have gone astray during a bombardment of the Battle of Farrow Lake. It was half a stride long, dull grey, ironwood-tipped and with brass bolts holding the panelled casing in place – a casing that enclosed the explosive device which, if I wasn’t careful, would blow me to Open Sky.
I laid the phraxshell gingerly down at the bottom of the tiny vessel and paddled back to shore as fast as my shaking hands would allow. I dragged the coracle up the beach and ran to fetch my tool-belt from my hive-house, relieved to find that Laria had gone out, and taken Vitus with her. Back at the waterside, I placed the phraxshell on a folded blanket, selected a boltdriver, its head the same size as the bolts, and set to work.
In all my life, time has never moved so slowly. Seconds took minutes. Minutes seemed to last for hours. My hands shook and my brow was beaded with sweat as I undid first one bolt from the upper panel, then another, and another. By the time the fourth bolt came free, and I laid the piece of casing to one side, my shirt was drenched.
I studied the inside of the explosive device; the fluted brass disc, the latticed phraxball and the heavy, coiled iron spring that, on impact, would have driven the disc backwards, crushing the crystal of stormphrax and causing the whole lot to explode. This shell had had no hard impact though. When it struck the water, it had simply plunged down into the depths of the lake, where it had remained – unexploded, yet deadly – waiting for my fishing net to scoop it up. The trick would be to extract the spring without allowing it to slam into the disc.
I pulled a pair of pliers from my belt and gripped one end of the spring. Then, wedging the end of the boltdriver into the small gap at the other end, I started to lever the coiled metal out of its moorings. A drip of sweat fell down onto the latticed phraxball and I held my breath, terrified the whole lot was about to go up. When it didn’t, I resumed the careful levering, easing the end of the coil slowly – so slowly – upwards.
All at once, there was a scrape of metal and a soft click, and the taut spring leaped free of the phraxshell. I heard a splash behind me as it landed in the water. Inside the phraxshell, the disc slipped back and the phraxball rolled harmlessly to one side.
I picked it up, then unscrewed the two halves of the outer shell and squinted down at the brightly glittering shard of phraxcrystal nestling inside its glowwormskin ‘twilight’ sheath.
I could scarcely believe I was still alive. I had to admit that my hand was shaking. This was a splinter of solidified lightning, a shard of immense energy that could easily have blown me to Open Sky and oblivion. As my fingers closed around the glowing phraxcrystal, and my hand balled to a fist, I silently vowed to catch and unmask the so-called Defenders of the First Age – and to do that, I had to bait a trap…