A/N: I'd like to take a bit of space to thank a few people.. the amazing Tuelumi (as she goes by here on fictionpress), who is not only the authoress of the epic Madrugada (which, if you don't read, you definitely should) but she is also kind enough to beta for me in addition to her general, overall awesomeness.

And I'd also like to thank you, for taking the time to read both my random prattle and that of Gabriel. :)

I can recall very clearly the day that it all began. It was a fine day in autumn, though the speeds at which Ioq was traveling prevented the trees' discarded leaves from actually remaining on the ground for too long. As was usual at the time, I was deeply involved in some bit of paperwork, reading over lengthy documents and contemplating various reports of mine production, raw and processed material orders, and a million and one other things. Despite becoming Praetor of Ioq roughly two years prior, it seemed that I would never get to the point where I could actually relax a bit. Even now, I wonder how my father was able to do it, and make it seem so effortless. A knock sounded on my office door, and a voice identified the person as my secretary. Waiting to make sure that I didn't shout at him to leave me alone (a very necessary precaution), he opened the door and entered.

He carried a sizable metal object, which rang dully against the door as he shut it behind him. He was dressed to perfection, as always, in crisp, muted colors, with his black hair slicked back against his head. Chiore was efficient, subtle, and one of the best liars I had ever met; fitting qualities for someone who had to deal with situations involving the fate of Eme nearly ever day. Of course, I didn't trust him. I trusted no one, and that was one of the reasons that I replaced my entire cabinet as soon as my father's funeral was finished and, coincidentally, one of the reasons that basically everyone on this chunk of rock thought me quite insane. My current assistants I simply mistrusted slightly less than the others.

"Sir," he said, crossing towards my desk, "we have a problem with digger number three."

"Again?" I said distractedly, "The engine? That's something for Tess, then, not-"

"No, sir," he interrupted. "The blades. One shattered, and one literally sheared off." He placed the metallic object he was carrying on my desk, and when I finally shifted my attention from my papers, I recognized it as the last foot and a half of one of the three large digging blades that, normally, was securely fitted to the front of a rather powerful machine that took three people to operate properly.

I looked up at him. "What? Those blades are diamond-coated tithellium! It's unbreakable, for all practical purposes."

"Precisely. I would hardly believe it myself, were the evidence," he said, gesturing at the piece of metal I held, "not currently sitting in your hands. Yet we have several witnesses who adamantly swear that they saw the digger's blades spark on some deposit of rock, catch on it, and cause the digger itself to flip itself over several times." He paused, then added, "And, of course, there are also the operators, who are all currently in the infirmary. If you want to question them, you would have to wait until they wake up."

"Any fatalities?" I inquired, inspecting the edge of the blade. The edge was strangely smooth, as though it had been sliced with infinite precision. Oh, Tess was just going to love this... she treated that blasted digger like her own child, and wouldn't let anyone else touch it.

"Luckily, no."

"Good." I thought for a moment, then asked, "What caused it? Do we know yet?"

Chiore hesitated. "Not yet. I've taken the liberty of sending a team down to inspect it, and they should report back within the hour."

I fixed him with a steely gaze. If he was hiding something from me, he normally would do a better job of it. That meant it must be serious. "Chiore, are you certain there is nothing else?" I said evenly.

He cleared his throat, and almost unwillingly brought out a rough, clouded stone from his pocket. "One of the miners had this clutched in his hand. Though he was unconscious, we still had to pry it from his hands. One of the healers feared he would have had to break the man's fingers to obtain it." I continued to watch Chiore. He tentatively extended his left arm toward my desk, then almost as if the stone was burning, dropped it quickly. It landed with a thud on a few papers scattered on the polished mahogany. He made a cursory and polite bow- more a jerky nod of the head than anything else- then turned and left my office.

While there are various metal deposits across Eme, the purest and most plentiful are found in the northern mines of the Quartz Kingdom. The province of Ioq was (and still is, in a way) the center of the Kingdom's production. We also possess alloy techniques that can increase the strength of the metals ten-, thirty-, even hundredfold- and the facilities to mass-produce them.

The metals we make are used literally everywhere in Eme, from commonplace objects to advanced weaponry: most of our metals are eventually made into airship engines and other mechanical parts, tithellian swords and pistols, and, of course, the legendary buda-katanas of the ninjas. Ioq is the only place you can get sufficient quantities of the materials needed to outfit an army with these weapons. Two armies, to be specific: both the High Admiral of the pirates and the Grand Priest of the ninjas have always dealt with the Praetor. As the pirates and ninjas have had a bitter rivalry for practically as long as both have existed, these dealings are normally very delicate exercises in diplomacy; you see, it's quite difficult when each side knows you are fueling the other side's war as well. But many generations before my father or my grandfather, there was some wise Praetor who realized that he could manipulate the situation to his advantage. He crafted the grand and secret non-aggression pact that is the reason why there are no more all-out wars between the pirates and ninjas any more, only skirmishes and raids enough to settle both sides' blood lust. I was named for that Praetor, incidentally enough (along with three of my ancestors, and one Gabrielle).

Non-aggression pact or not, the leaders of these factions were not generally known for their patience. If there was not enough metal to meet each of their latest orders, they would not react kindly. Digger three was one of the most important diggers, especially as it was normally assigned to mine bidellium- an ingredient in nearly every one of the alloys we produced. It should be fixed as soon as possible, and so I tried to concentrate on the damage that the blade took.

Normally, such an anomaly would have kept my interest quite easily, especially when the other alternative was continuing the monotony of paperwork. There was no natural force that could make the blade shear off like that; there were very few unnatural forces that could do it, either. Yet my eyes and attention were still inexorably drawn to the apparently unremarkable chunk of rock sitting on my desk.

Finally, I picked it up. It was cool to the touch, but still plain; nothing worthy of the distraction it had been causing me. I marveled slightly that something so surprisingly light was able to effectively ruin our most powerful and sturdy digger. It clearly was none the worse for it, either; while pitted and terribly uneven, the gem bore no scratches, not even slight ones. Its surface was clouded, and I absently rubbed at it with the cuff of one of my sleeves, though that hardly improved its condition. It suddenly struck me that there was none of the grime of dirt or mud that should have caked such a stone upon removal from the mines. Chiore must have cleaned it, or perhaps the man who had unearthed it originally had done so.

Though it was hard to tell what was beneath that imperfect surface, the crystal almost appeared to be filled with smoke. As I peered deeper into the stone, I nearly imagined I could see the smoke swirl in dark eddies and corkscrew twists, nearly hypnotizing in their complexity. It curved and spun and curled back in on itself in serpentine arcs, undulating and-

I came back to myself with a start. I had almost literally been entranced by the stone, and found myself hunched over my desk and the gem, my nose scant inches from its (now strangely opaque again) surface. Time had passed, and though I wasn't immediately aware of exactly how much, I knew it was much more than I should have spent looking at a rock, no matter how perplexing it may be.

I am not a man prone to flights of fancy. In fact, my imagination has always been rather lacking, even when I was a child. Yet this hunk of rough crystal, in the infinite fascination it held, disconcerted me. I set it down, and resolved to get a team in the lab on it, with a word of warning to them first.

After all, I thought to myself, it might be dangerous.

No, I quickly thought, it can't possibly be. It's just a stone. But it should be kept close, very close. No one else should be allowed to see it, or even be told of it.

At least, I assumed the thought was mine. It slipped into my mind so quietly, just a hint barely put into words or given shape at all, that I nearly mistook its source as the background of my mind. I slowly pushed the crystal away and leaned back in my chair. I was afraid for a moment that I might have a conscience- but a conscience wouldn't encourage someone to be selfish and secretive, would it? Also, I assumed that if I actually had a conscience, I would have heard from it some time before in my twenty-seven years. That idea ruled out, I relaxed slightly.

The thought had to have come from somewhere, though. Something outside of my normal thoughts. That left two possibilities: I was either hearing voices in my crazed state, or something—perhaps the stone?-was implanting suggestions into my brain.

I realized that there was a third possibility that combined the other two: I was mad and imagining that the stone was whispering into my mind. It was equally possible. It didn't phase me, much; I was younger, then, and convinced that if I wasn't already crazy, I would soon crack under the workload I had prematurely come into. I had inherited leadership as well as vast mental instability: both trademarks and legacy of the Norris family. Fortunately, foreseeing that one day my mental health might become questionable, I had taken elaborate measures to assure people of my sanity.

Unfortunately, all those measures backfired, and everyone assumed I was insane anyway. Through my pale hair I ran paler fingers, and closed my eyes. I would have to figure out my madness' method later. The blade wasn't going to magically re-forge itself, no matter how many pretty rocks I stared at that morning, or how thoroughly I dissected my mind. No, the only thing to do was to get in contact with the one person who could fix that digger: my head engineer, Tess.

I tried to get in contact with Tess through her office, almost certain that I wouldn't find her there. Her assistant confirmed in a hurried voice that she hadn't been around for several hours. He sounded flustered by that fact, though he should have known her well enough to realize she would not stay behind a desk unless physically forced. I thanked him anyway and gazed out my window, tapping my fingers idly on my desk.

There was no way around it. I'd have to go seek out Tess myself. I reached for the stone, and secured it in my pocket, realizing as I did so that I reached with my left hand. I never did that, partially because I was right-handed, and partially because of a badly-healed injury in my youth that caused my fingers on that hand to be slightly stiff and less willing to bend or grip. Yet I had done so, seemingly without thinking. I ran the fingers of my right hand along my left palm, tracing its various lines and scars as I shook my head.

This stone, I thought with a frustrated exhalation. I just know that this stone is going to ruin my day.

It seemed that the thought-voice laughed quietly. I told it to shut up, and left my office.