Fiction‎ > ‎

EARTHCORE: initiation

by Grace Bridges

Author's note: This story occurs after Earthcore Book 3, but is intended to be read first.
Order EARTHCORE BOOK 1 now at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0714Q4T9W



Ko ahau te taniwha. I am the taniwha, that legendary beast called dragon by the ignorant. Some call me kaitiaki—the guardian—others call me mythical. Ha! As if their beliefs on the matter make any difference to the fact. I am here. My siblings are many. And you will be hearing more about us soon, very soon, for we have allowed ourselves to be seen by some of your mortal fellows, and given them gifts.

This is not usual.

We kaitiaki generally keep to ourselves unless our interests are at stake. And we have indeed been roused, as you may have already learned.

It has become clear to us that the ephemeral nature of the gifts is a liability to those we wanted to assist. We have argued through many nights and days: how this could be changed, by what ritual, by what authority.

Now it is time to set our plan into motion.

 • •

Anira Fraser sat on a pale grey beach near the south end of Lake Rotorua’s western shore, gazing out over the water. The late afternoon light and clear sky touched the view with a golden flush, from the bush-clad hump of Mokoia Island to the translucent waves lapping just past her feet, from the distant suburbs across the lake to the higher pasture hills beyond. Even the long, hulking peaks of Mount Tarawera, normally dark and ominous, gave the impression of basking in sunshine.

Her legs were plunged almost to the knee in a steaming pool of hot spring water. She’d dug the hole in the pumice sand until the water had come up to meet her, bubbling up from below. She glanced at the rolling boil of the water bubbling between her toes, wobbling the outline of her feet. She smiled. For her, it was as safe as the cold lake. Not only that—it did things to her mind, made her thoughts clearer, and several other odd effects which she would predictably forget as soon as she’d been out of contact with this spring’s water for more than a day or two.

She hung her head over her sand-hole and breathed deeply of the mineral steam, closing her eyes and enjoying a moment of clarity as the effect pushed into all the corners of her mind. The pumice shifted under her hands, falling in from the side of the hole and partly burying her feet. She’d dug her hole too deep for it to remain stable.

Then the whole beach jolted. More than the beach—she eyed the next bay, where she’d once seen a geyser erupt out of the water. It seemed calm enough now, though, and she traced the horizon to the right of the hospital hill. She squinted. Was there more steam over Kuirau Park than usual? Perhaps she’d better get Tiger to come have a look.

As she was scrambling to her feet, the earth heaved again and a dark glut splashed into the sky above the trees. A mud eruption? It wouldn’t be the first—the area was famous for it. She crawled out of her hole and pushed upright, almost losing her balance as the ground shook yet again. When it stilled, Anira crossed the beach in three strides, topped the dune, and broke into a run.

 • •

Tiger McRae had his curtains closed and the volume on his gaming console turned up all the way, since his mum was out and couldn’t complain. Anira had asked him to go down to the water with her, but honestly? He’d just be bored.

There was a low boom and he turned his avatar this way and that, shifting his onscreen view. Where had it come from? Nothing. Weird. He flicked up a virtual console, a map that would show enemies nearby—there were none. Great. A glitch in the game. The front door slammed.

Anira appeared, panting, in the hallway, and there was another boom, louder this time. The explosion wasn’t in his game. He hit the off button and was on his feet in a moment. “What is it?”

Anira jabbed a thumb over her shoulder. “Mud eruption—at Kuirau—I think. But I can’t see it clearly.” The whites of her eyes gleamed in the dimness of his room. He stepped past her and hauled the front door open again.

From here, trees close by obscured the view to the south, but his powerful vision caught the droplets of grey mud fountaining out into the open sky. “You’re right,” he said. “Let’s get over there.”

 • •

Manaia Martin bundled her squirming one-year-old into the sling and struggled to get it securely fastened so he wouldn’t escape. He was really too big for it now, but she’d be less mobile if she had to push a pram instead. “Would you keep still, Wiremu!”

She frowned at the window, now flecked with tiny drops of ash-laden volcanic mud. In the street, steam pumped from the crack in the road—it was usually just a wisp. Her trembling fingers fumbled with the knots. If that was Kuirau erupting again…it was just a couple of blocks from here. They had to get out of the danger zone, even if only on foot.

Manaia finally got the stiff fabric in place and bent to wrap a kerchief over the little one’s mouth and nose. He complained loudly at this and tried to yank it off, but she tied it at the back of his head before rigging a similar mask for herself.

She opened the door, stepped over the threshhold, and locked the house behind her. When she turned to the street, the air was already gritty and dense. The rising steam called to her irresistibly as she passed the vent. She’d never seen it this strong before. Just for a moment, she covered Wiremu’s head with her arms and leaned her face into the fumes.

Whoa. The minerals—the heat—it was almost too much. It pushed into her lungs until nothing more would fit, and she staggered back a step, gasping. She’d been so sure she had to get away, but now she wasn’t convinced. At all.

“Manaia!” Tiger and Anira came apace on their bikes from the direction of the lake, coming to a halt a safe distance beyond the billowing fissure. “Did you feel it too?” Anira called out.

Manaia nodded. “At first I wanted to get a safe distance away. But then I smelled this steam. We’re wanted over there.”

“You’ll be all right walking?” Tiger indicated the sling.

“It’s not far. Go ahead, I’ll be right behind you.”

“See you in a minute, then.” The two cycled away into the increasing gloom. Manaia straightened her back and set off as fast as she could, Wiremu giggling at the burst of speed.

 • •

Graeme Guptill sat fishing in his tour boat, the Funky Pukeko, about halfway between the city lakefront and Mokoia Island. He’d finished his day’s work of showing tourists around the island, but had resisted showing them his old trick of summoning the birds. Now that he knew it was a gift from a taniwha, he wasn’t sure he wanted it. He did miss the sense of belonging when hundreds of little creatures swarmed him, perching on his head and outstretched arms, flying and singing in intricate patterns around him—but only when he stood in the stream fed from the island’s thermal spring.

The fish had no intentions of showing him any love today. Oh well. He enjoyed being out here on the water, away from the bustle. Everything was silent.

Too silent, actually. He surveyed the surface of the lake, unnaturally smooth, mirroring the golden-blue sky. The summer air hung heavily over the shore, the town. He’d only heard this kind of silence one other time, immediately before a violent eruption in the bay at Ohinemutu: the visible interference of several taniwha in human affairs.

The first boom crossed the lake. He stowed his rod and spun to look at Ohinemutu, setting the boat bobbing as he did.

There was nothing happening at Ohinemutu. But beyond it…just past the main road into town…mud gurgled into the sky in a towering stream. Rumbling echoed from all directions; the lake floor must be shaking. Its identity as an ancient crater held no comfort now. Sudden waves stood up in sharp, choppy edges, only to drop down again and be replaced by others. The Pukeko pitched and he grabbed a railing.

A flapping and fluttering reached Graeme from the opposite direction. He turned towards Mokoia and gulped. A swarm of birds of all kinds—his birds, the birds that lived on the island—headed straight for the eruption on the mainland. They passed over him in the Pukeko. He stared up at the stately kereru, the sleek tui, the tiny fantails and silvereyes, even a pukeko or two with their red legs stretched behind them. All rushed headlong towards danger.

Well, if that isn’t a sign, I don’t know what is.

He had to get back to land. Graeme clambered to his outboard motor and yanked the cord to bring it to life. The harsh sputter shattered the atmosphere. He sped towards the dock, thinking ahead: he’d tie up at his mooring and hop in his van. It wasn’t far to where he thought the eruption was, but walking would take too long and expose him to ash. He gripped the steering wheel and willed the Pukeko to fly like her namesake.

 • •

Bethany Rutherford waved goodbye to her colleague and locked the door of the information office, sighing. The lass had hinted again that Bethany might need to retire soon. Bethany didn’t see why; she liked her job and was just as good at it as anyone else. She withdrew the key from the lock and quickly set the alarm using the panel at the side of the entrance.

Turning to walk away, she was stopped short by the pavement jolting under her feet. She scanned the area, her gift not showing any unseen creature here, but they must be close. If she wasn’t very much mistaken, that was the song of a taniwha.

People on Fenton Street stopped in clusters, glancing at the sky. Step by step she reached the corner and peered around into Arawa Street; it led all the way to Kuirau Park. With a canyon of clear air between her and the source, the voice became intelligible.

“Haere mai ra, e te whanau o kaitiaki wairua!”

How odd for the taniwha to initiate a ritual welcome without being face to face. In her mind’s eye the whole city suddenly became the expanse of a marae. The singer was calling her, Bethany, and the rest of the “spirit family”, to its home. Would they know to come? But she was already so close to Kuirau…she’d just drive down and phone them from there if she needed to. She paused and responded with a soft chant of her own: “Karanga mai, e ngā kaitiaki o te tapu,” then she slipped around the back of the building and into her car.

 • •

Anira and Tiger cycled along Tarewa Street through the ever-thickening clouds of damp ash and skidded to a stop in front of a pair of police officers in paper breathing masks, setting up a barrier.

“Get out of here,” said one of them, her eyes stern above the mask.

Anira shrugged at Tiger and they wheeled the bikes away, stopping when the police car was invisible in the whirling ash. They met Manaia at the next corner and explained.

“Let’s go round the other way, then,” she said. “We can get into the park from the main road.”

But when they got there, all was silent and still. Well, as silent as it could be for a large boiling pond with a minor eruption nearby.

“Not much action here,” said Tiger. They continued to the parking area opposite the hospital.

A crowd had gathered to watch the spectacular mud fountain. Here too a cordon had been set up, and a couple of officers tried in vain to make people leave.

Manaia pointed. “Look, it’s my cuzzies.” Ngaire and Rangi were all up in a policeman’s face, gesturing into the park. Hanging back a little, eyes downcast, was Hana.

“One guess,” said Tiger. “They feel the need to get in there too.”

Gravel pinged behind them. Graeme’s black van peeled into the carpark from the north. Moments later, Bethany drove in from the south. Both leaped out and talked at the same time.

“My birds! They came straight here.” Graeme pointed at a circling mass above, just out of reach of the ash.

“A taniwha is calling us to come in close.” Bethany waved a hand towards the hot interior of the park.

Anira gulped. Had suspected as much. Didn’t mean she relished the thought of approaching a live spewing volcano, even if it wasn’t the kind with lava. But they were being summoned, and go they must.

“Come on then,” she said, and led the troop through the spectators to where Ngaire and Rangi cajoled the cop.

“Please, sir,” said Ngaire. “That volcano is caused by a taniwha, and we’re taniwha people. We need to get in there.”

“Pull the other one,” said the cop. “That’s the lamest excuse for a rubbernecker that I ever heard.” He looked up as the rest of the gang gathered around behind them. “And who’s all this then? More volcano watchers? Just don’t land yourselves in hospital from inhalation.”

Anira surveyed her team. Tiger, Graeme, Manaia and child, her cousins, Hana and Bethany. Harley’s missing. But Harley hated crowds, so another way in would probably be best. Perhaps they’d meet in the middle. She forced a smile and turned to the officer. “Excuse me, sir, but did you hear what happened in Picton just before Christmas?”

The man’s eyes grew round. “The taniwha people. I thought that was a made-up story.”

The other cop came over, a well-built Māori even taller than Graeme. “Everything all right here?” At his side stood Koro Wāhi, the elder from Whakarewarewa. The old man nodded at the gathered Earthcore.

“These people say they need to get in,” said the white cop. “They’re the same folks that did that thing in Picton.”

“Ko ngā uri o Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga,” murmured the Māori. Descendants of Māui. The legendary demigod, their powers kin to his.

“Ae,” said Wāhi. “It is so. They need to go in.” He raised his hands over them. “May it go well with you.”

The Māori officer lifted the cordon tape and Manaia surged forwards with Wiremu in the sling at the head of the line. Anira shrugged and followed after.

Soft drizzle now pattered onto the park, dulling the sunlight. The trees and fences and rocks blurred in the mist, though Anira couldn’t tell if it was because of the rain or rather the volcanic steam that pumped out of the earth somewhere not far ahead, beyond a stand of manuka trees. The earth rumbled gently from time to time. Anira glanced back; Tiger was behind her. Other shapes followed through the sudden gloom—not the fall of night, but ash floating in the air.

Around a large rock, she came face to face with the end of the world. Well, not really. But here, near ground zero of the new outbreak, grey mud hung thickly as droplets in the air, covered every branch of every tree, every inch of path and fence. 

She squinted ahead, then forced her unwilling legs to step forward until she stood beside Manaia.

The source. They were still several paces away, but Anira was just fine with staying right here. The mudhole was maybe four metres across, a black tomo that fell to unseen depths where mud blubbered noisily.

Slowly the group assembled, mere shadows in the haze. Harley materialised out of the gloom. “I see we’re all the same kind of crazy, then.”

Anira was about to reply with something snarky, but was interrupted by silence: the hole stopped bubbling, the steam stopped hissing. Only the mud and ash fragments floated down onto the landscape with a sound like falling snow.

Bethany drew in a sharp breath and pointed at the crater. She grabbed Graeme, who jolted as her touch transferred the gift of seeing the unseen. He reached for Manaia, who joined hands with Tiger, who held out a hand for Anira, but Hana seized it first.

Anira took in the awed faces of her friends and that Ngaire and Rangi were about to connect with Bethany on the other side, then hooked herself into the line.

The air came alive with iridescence. Taniwha of all shapes and sizes whirled around the new volcano; Anira barely noticed Harley taking her other hand as she stared into the intricate dance.

From the centre of the crater rose a huge head, its glittering eyes regarding each person in turn. The shape reminded Anira of a traditional half-bird, half-human figure, but different in some way she failed to grasp. Its body, incorporeal, remained underground.

The creature opened its mouth—or was it a beak?—and spoke in Māori through the sharing of Bethany’s gift.

“Kua kite matou i a koutou.” We have seen you. “We have seen your steadfastness against those who wish to harness our taniwha power for harm. And we have seen that it is difficult for you when you must stay close to our springs to retain the gifts.”

Tiger frowned; Anira hoped he understood the language well enough. He’d only recently begun to learn Te Reo. Noticing her attention, he gave a slight nod and a smile. He was making do.

The immense taniwha rumbled on. “We have decided that you need these gifts at all times. This is not an easy thing. Therefore, we have called you here to fulfil a ritual that will change you forever—not just for a day.”

Ritual? Anira gulped. This is serious.

“You must complete the circle around me,” said the taniwha, turning a slow gaze from side to side. “Have no fear. You will not be harmed. Keep the contact.”

The huddled group spread out around the edge of the small crater. The line stretched and almost encompassed the great head. Harley reached for Rangi, but couldn’t quite traverse the gap to the boy’s hand. They regarded each other helplessly; the taniwha was silent.

Anira regarded the mud-caked grass at the edge of the precipice just beyond her toes. She took a deep breath. “Look, guys, I know you’re not going to like this, but if we all step inwards just a little bit, we can do it.”

“Faaa,” said Tiger. “That’s cutting it fine.” But he set his jaw and took a step until his toes almost hung over the muddy edge.

There was shuffling as the others followed his example and spread out even more. Anira extended her arms as far as possible while still gripping Hana’s and Harley’s fingers on either side. She drew her head back sharply as the centre of balance threatened to tip her into the hole.

Rangi made contact with Harley, and as they took hold of each other, the stretch became so wide that Anira teetered. Tiger pulled her back just in time.

Her footing was anything but steady. Every breath jeopardised her balance.

The taniwha inspected them. “Ka pai. You have done well. You are ready to receive what we give. Remember, no harm will come to you. Do not move until I tell you it is done.” The head withdrew into the ground.

A torrent of boiling grey mud shot out of the crater. One of the younger kids screamed. Anira wobbled. Heat blasted outwards. Did the taniwha really know what a human could withstand? Had it remembered that Wiremu was here too? She couldn’t step back; someone might fall into the hole and be boiled alive. Pure terror washed through Anira from head to toe. No time to think, move, escape, anything.

A few seconds more and the mud fell on her, on them all, from above—a heavy, ash-filled, smothering, burning liquid.

Except it didn’t burn. It did not scald or even overheat, although all Anira’s nerves told her it was still close to boiling. She grinned behind a thickening layer of it as it piled heavy upon her shoulders, her embracing arms…her heart.

She needed to breathe. She tipped her face down to escape the fall of mud, felt it layer the back of her head, opened her mouth open and sucked in some superheated air. It was probably so toxic it shouldn’t even be called air any more. Nothing will harm me. Nothing will harm me.

Another rumble. She blinked, unable to see for more than a second before more mud ran down her face, unable to let go of her companions to wipe her eyes. But in that second, the eruption exploded sideways from the hole.

Mud filled her mouth and nose. Hardened over her tightly-shut eyes. Weighed down her outstretched arms. There was nothing except the mud and the firm grip of her friends on either side.

She cleared the mud from her mouth with her tongue, not without swallowing a good deal of it, but the torrent still pummelled her face. She held her breath, hoping the barrage wouldn’t last longer than her oxygen.

Just as that thought passed through her mind, the flow stopped. She spat, breathed, and forced her eyes to open.

Mud-splattered, the Earthcore stood immobilised, the ashy mud having well buried their feet and ankles. They looked more like stone statues than people, but for the astonishment in their eyes.

The tallest statue—Graeme?—tried to free a leg.

“No,” Anira croaked. “We’re not finished yet.”

There was another rumble, but of a different timbre, a higher pitch, a hissing, rushing sound reaching her through mud-plugged ears.

“Here we go!”

Anira’s cry was drowned out by an explosion of water from below the ground, a clear, sizzling geyser. Steam hit her full on, stealing her breath again, slamming the mud from her body in chunks where it had begun to dry. The steam wormed into her brain, wakening the hidden corners like the stream did, slotting new puzzle pieces into place.

As with the mud, the towering water soon reached its zenith and turned to fall on them. Anira gasped, the weight of water cutting away wet ash, leaving her practically clean again, her feet clear of muck.

The crater became quiet. Then the great taniwha’s head reared once more, gleeful laughs pealing out.

“It is done!” he roared. “You may break the circle. Each of you shall now enjoy your own gift at all times, in all places. Such gifts that are able to be transferred by touch are now bestowed on all of you. Bear them well.”

The creature swirled back into the ground, only to burst out of the park’s pond a short distance away, its enormous mass climbing into the sky carried by diaphanous wings.

“Ae,” said Graeme, staring after the taniwha as he rubbed his hands together. “It is done. I still see him even though I’m not holding onto Bethany.”

Others nodded, watching until the taniwha had flown out of sight. Little Wiremu turned his head, freed a hand from the sling, and waved.

“Hey,” said Harley. “Does this mean I can run on any water?”

“I won’t need glasses, even out of town,” said Tiger.

Anira sighed. The extra memory power would be useful, but would she ever sleep again? She would find out soon enough what the taniwha had decided.

The wind picked up and blew away what remained of the ash cloud. Above, the last light of evening set the sky aglow, a few stars sparkling into view on the dark east side of the firmament, Graeme’s island birds circling the park. Fog still clung to the ground. Anira was the first to step out of the ring and back towards the path. Already she heard shouts from the crowd, and caught sight of Harley dodging into the trees to escape. She smiled. Some things would never change.

Tiger came up beside her, nodding at the haze ahead. “Get ready for a media circus. Reckon they’re planning on making us famous.”

She peered at the bright lights set up beyond the next hillock, and grimaced.

Some things would never be the same again.


Comments