Chapter One: Bursting into Death
"The aeriph is the union of every spirit in existence," Professor Vowen recited patiently.
His old body arched from too many years spent poring over obscure manuscripts, and his bright orlish eyes had lost some of their startling orange hue. He spoke with the wet, gravelly tones of a typical orl, but his voice was slow and methodical, sliding carefully over each syllable. The professor was also unusually tall, stooping at just over five feet.
Hol, Vowen's only student, was a relative giant. The adolescent phoen was just seventeen, but had already made impressive progress in his studies of riphology. He came from a wealthy Parasidian family, and his parents had paid for him to travel to the city of Krithen, home of Professor Vowen and his world-famous riphology academy.
"And the number of spirits in existence is constantly rising," the wrinkled academic continued, "Because even when we die," he poked Hol's chest, "Even when your body gives up, your riph survives."
"But don't riphs perish on contact with clear air?" the teenager asked, trying to see the small object that the professor was retrieving from a cupboard.
"They certainly do. But how clear do you think the air is? Especially in a dusty little room like this," Vowen placed a crude metal cage on the table in the centre of the laboratory. The tiny mouse inside scampered to the furthest corner of its miniature prison.
"I've placed nifix sap on this grain," the professor stuffed a handful of small seeds between the rusty bars, before turning and carefully placing the bottle of the deadly fluid on a high counter behind him.
"Not much - the mouse couldn't possibly detect it - but more than enough to be lethal if eaten. Now, watch through the aeriph as our companion eats his last meal."
Hol obeyed and let his mind recline into a mild trance. The laboratory drained from view like thin sand in the wind, revealing a dark world of subtle lights and strange, dim colours. He could see Professor Vowen's riph clearly beside him, and his own giving off a faint glow. The wooden desk was barely visible, a grey smudge in the darkness, but the mouse was a vivid little blip, its agitated riph showing up clearly in the spirit plane.
The ball of life moved fluidly to the edge of its cage and began to eat the poisoned food. Within moments the mouse's riph was an intense orb of light, flickering with pain and fear. A second later it burst into a pretty, sprawling cloud that quickly vanished, as if burning up. The image made Hol think of a raindrop landing on a red hot plate, rushing out as steam and disappearing.
"Our four-legged friend has learnt something about the effectiveness of nifix sap, but that's not the only lesson to be learned here. The mouse is dead, and its riph has been destroyed by the air, as you said. But look closer."
Hol peered at the space where the puny riph of the mouse had disintegrated a moment before. Maintaining his concentration on the spirit plane, he could see a faint, almost invisible field of tiny lights, suspended in the air like flour.
"What you're seeing," Vowen murmured, inspecting the particles himself, "Is the remains of the mouse's riph.