Chapter 1– Across the Everfall
This time, I have to succeed.
A glimmer of light parts the mist rising from the Everfall, the massive waterfall tumbling from the plateau above Achten Tan into the underground caverns where we live. The waterfall is steeped in magic. To pass my test, I must harness its power, and pause the mighty flow for one brief moment.
The cool spray wicks my skin with moisture as the sun's first rays creep across the falls. I raise my hands to focus my magic and breathe deep, concentrating on a stripe of rainbow-colored sunlight refracting through the vapor. The water on my skin evaporates as it warms, humming with power.
I gather the threads of ether to me, weaving them one by one into a spell. I cannot speak it out loud. Since the magic took my voice five years ago, it has reduced me to hand signals, gestures, and the words tattooed on my skin. But if the magic obeys me today, I will ascend to the next level, and be able to speak once more.
STOP. I command the water. The water swirls and writhes like a hissing serpent, escaping my hold. The mighty flow crests momentarily, building into a wave, shooting up above the falls when it should fall downward. Joy and hope flood my chest.
The gathered spectators gasp.
Even at this early hour, I have an audience: other hopefuls, their families, and friends. The other girls are taking their test for the first, or second, or at worst, the third time. This is my fourth try. A fourth failure might drive me to throw myself off the Everfall.
It's a truly spectacular way to die.
I should know, it’s how my brother died.
But I don't want to die. And if I had a choice, I definitely wouldn't jump. As it is, being this close to the edge of the falls makes my knees tremble. I just want to pass my trial and ascend from Onra, first-level cavern witch, to Misra, the second level, trusted to use her voice and powers.
Distracted by the crowd—or the wind, or my frail ability—the water breaks from my grasp, collapsing over the falls with a mighty slap, blowing wind and water back into my face like the insult it is.
I raise my dripping face to view the people gathered beyond the falls. I spot my parents' disappointed faces, my father clutching my mother's shoulder in support. My Nora's weathered visage rarely shows emotion, but I can tell her discontent by the tightening of her jaw, the whitening of her knuckles on her staff. And behind them, sweet Geb, standing a head taller than the rest. He wanted me to succeed so badly. His golden eyes find mine, holding nothing but sympathy. Still, looking at them all, I truly contemplate throwing myself over the edge, rather than having to face them as a failure once more.
I shake my head to dislodge such thoughts. I can't put them through that again.
Instead, I swallow my shame, hold back my tears, and flee.
The underground lake shimmers as I push off the boat and grab the scull. I need no lamp. The water glows with a soft greenish hue, as do the walls and my skin, its glow brightened by my racing pulse. My heart jumps as a splash in the lake rocks the boat. It's just a fish, I scold myself. Or one of the dark creatures that feed on them.
Though they eagerly purchase our algae products and elixirs, the ignorant and superstitious Achten Tanians believe these caverns are cursed. They don't understand the magic steeped in these caves, but the magic is a path we cavern gnomes have walked for as long as we've lived here. It's in our blood and bones, in the shine of our skin.
Even other algae farmers refrain from venturing into the back passages deep in the rock, where the darkness is thick and the air heavy.
Geb finds me in my favorite place, as I knew he would.
It's a cave located high in the cliffs, directly behind the waterfall. My friend Shashi found it, as they excavated the hidden depths of the mountain. Sunlight refracts through the falls into the open mouth of the cave, glinting off the crystals in the walls, filling the space with rainbows. It's magical.
My ears are sharp, but this cavern is loud and Geb always treads lightly. I don't hear his footsteps approach, rustling softly on the rock, but I sense his presence. Geb taps my shoulder and I turn and throw myself into his arms, allowing the tears of humiliation I held back earlier to flow freely. I soak a damp patch on his leather vest, taking comfort in his minty green scent. As a healer, his coat is always full of herbs and leaves, and the scent mixes with the flowers and leaves I weave into my hair to use for my magic. Together, we make a fragrant couple.
Eventually, I cry myself out and Geb takes my chin and tilts it up so he can look into my eyes. Like all cavern folk, Geb is pale-skinned and fair-haired, with golden eyes. His eyes shine with warmth and intelligence, especially when they look at me.
He's my best friend. We've been inseparable since childhood, always trying to evade my brother Turosh, who tagged along after us like an eager puppy. Back when I was eight and Geb was ten, we'd thought ourselves too big to play with a six-year-old. We were foolish.
Turosh would have been sixteen now if he'd lived.
If I could, I'd take it back. I'd have been a better sister, taken proper care of him, cherished every moment spent together. But it's too late now.
Many in the community believe Geb and I are more than friends, but we aren't. We can't be. We hold Turosh's memory between us, refraining from closing the distance, afraid to crush the fragile remembrance. It's all we have left of him.
Now we sit on a rock in the rainbow cavern, side by side. I peek at Geb's profile, dreading his reaction to my failure. I smart with the shame and frustration to still be an Onra at eighteen when all my cohorts have harnessed their words of power and become Misra. My Nora, our cavern wise woman, my teacher, and mentor, thinks something is holding me back. Something I lost…
… or someone, but he can never be recovered.
I attempted ascension for the first time when I was sixteen. Failure meant another half year of study and preparation. Most girls fail their first ascension. Many fail their second. To fail four times, however, is unheard of. I shudder and rub my puffy eyes. Geb's eyes twinkle at me, catching the light. The sound of water is a dull roar. Here Geb and I are on even footing. It's so loud, speech is useless, so he's reduced to signing.
"That went well," he signs.
I shove him hard with my shoulder. He doesn't budge, but he chuckles. Most cave folk understand Onra sign language, but few bother to learn how to use it. Geb is smarter than most and has learned all the ways to converse with me since magic took my voice at thirteen.
His golden hair seems brighter in the fragmented sunlight, his back straight and strong. I raise my left hand and point to the knife and skull tattoos on the inside of my index finger. Threats and swear words are hidden in less visible places.
Laughing harder, he presses his lips close to my ear and whispers, "Nah, you won't kill me. You'd miss me too much."
He takes the knuckle I used to threaten him and plants a soft kiss on the joint. My breath catches. His golden eyes grip mine, humming with words he mustn’t speak. I snatch my hand out of his.
We can't. You know why. I don't speak or sign. A look is enough. He knows.
A sliver of pain creases his forehead before he drops his face, his broad shoulders slumping. Then he sighs and stands, smiling once more.
"Come on," he signs, taking my hand in his large palm and pulling me to my feet. "You can't avoid it any longer. You have to make an appearance."
I hate it, but he's right.
The largest cavern is full of light and sound. Our entire community is in attendance, celebrating the ascension of the girls who passed their test. As much as I'd like to lurk in the dark and nurse my shame, hiding will only cement my embarrassment.
The celebration is in full swing by the time we arrive. The middle of the space is full of couples dancing. By the cavern walls are tables laden with food: sticky cakes, moist and filling algae bread. Giant platters of smoked fish- deep-water dwellers from the underground lakes- each as large as an adult gnome, flavored with spices from beyond the Everfall.
I don't feel like dancing, or eating, or any of the things I usually love to do. My humiliation is a living weight around my neck, closing off my airway, making it hard to breathe.
As I hover by the wall with Geb, Kado approaches us through the dancers, firelight glinting off his sweat-slicked bare shoulders. I try not to stare at the width of his exposed body, but I take a small gulp of air. It's enough to make Geb's eyes dart to me, then back to Kado. A grin tilts his lips as Kado stops next to Geb.
"Can you tell her I'm sorry about today? I was hoping for her success," he shouts to Geb over the music.
"I'm not deaf," I sign in frustration. Kado's eyebrows scrunch as though he's trying to calculate the ingredients to a difficult potion.
Geb snickers. To him, my signs are as clear as day, but Kado isn't the brightest glowing algae in the cavern. Still, I wouldn't mind taking a spin in those arms.
Geb steps in as translator. "She said she's very disappointed at the outcome and would like time to meditate on her next ascension."
Kado's face falls.
I punch Geb's arm, which only hurts my hand, making me notice he's grown almost as muscled as Kado. Though what Kado lacks in intellect, Geb has in spades.
"Oh. I was going to ask Mila if she would like to escort me to the choosing ceremony." I don't miss the way he flexes his muscles, and neither does Geb.
I dart Geb a dark look, lifting my elbow to tap the tattoo saying 'Yes', but Geb grabs it before I can touch the symbol.
"She can't because she's escorting me."
I am? That's news to me.
Kado looks as sad as a Dasu pup begging for food, but I need to interrogate Geb about his sudden announcement. I reach past Geb and squeeze Kado's arm to comfort him, and also because I deserve at least to feel what I'm missing.
"Sorry, friend," Geb intones seriously, and only if you know him as well as I do can you hear how much he's enjoying this. Kado turns and slinks back into the jumping shadows of the firelight and I slap Geb's arm.
“What was that?” I sign.
No longer trying to hold in his laughter, Geb doubles over. I watch him crack up, hands on my hips and shoulders pulled back, trying to be furious with him and almost succeeding.
Geb wipes tears of laughter out of the corners of his eyes and exhales. His face becomes more serious.
"Mila, he isn't worthy of your time. He's as dumb as a bag of rocks."
I feel my bicep and lift my eyebrows at him.
"Seriously?" Geb looks mildly offended. "You can do better. I'm just looking out for you."
I slap his chest, and he grabs my hand, holding it there. I try not to blush as warmth seeps through his clothes into my palm. His heartbeat is rapid and strong beneath my hand. My own heart speeds up to match his.
"Anyway, I wasn't joking." He lowers his voice, and I bend closer to hear him. His breath ghosts over my face. "I need you as my escort."
I look up into his golden eyes, reflecting the firelight. He's serious.
Every year Ozruhar, Master of Potions, chooses a new apprentice from the boys. The tasks set by Ozruhar are notoriously hard and dangerous.
I shake my head. Touch the 'No' and the 'Go' signs. He shouldn't be taking part in the choosing. It isn't an accident he hadn't mentioned it to me before.
"I need to do this," Geb says, already heading towards the center of the cavern.
"Why? Stop this," I sign. When he doesn't stop, I grab his arm and plant my feet, but he drags me easily, approaching the leaping fire in the center of the cavern.
"Don't worry," he says. "I probably won't even get picked. We all know master Ozruhar prefers the big brawny types who can carry logs in one hand."
I scrub a hand over my face. "No, you're right. Probably not," I sign, though the tension in my shoulders tells me that's wishful thinking.
Geb's smile droops at my agreement. Scat. I've hurt his feelings again. Before I can apologize, he steps forward into the circle. Kado is already there wearing a cocky grin but no shirt. Other boys step out of the crowd. They're all bigger and wider than Geb. Maybe he's right and strength is the first thing master Ozruhar looks for. A hush falls over the crowd as Ozruhar takes the stage. He raises his palm, and the cavern grows so quiet I can hear logs snapping, spitting sparks.
"Candidates, approach the fire."
Frantic, I grab Geb's arm. Shake my head, plead with my eyes. No. I know I'm making a scene, but I don't care. I can't lose him too, but Geb gently peels my fingers off and approaches the flames.
Around the fire stand warriors, smiths, the community's bravest youths. They are all brawn and muscle. Geb is the only healer. He's as tall as the rest of them, but while they've spent their time building muscle, he's been sharpening his mind. Studying remedies and learning the uses of the plants.
I exhale in frustration, my skin tingling with apprehension. He's a healer. The community needs him. I need him. I don't understand why he's doing this. He has nothing to prove.
"Are there any other volunteers?" Ozruhar looks around. The people in the crowd move back, leaving more space between them and the boys in the circle. He nods. "Then let the choosing begin."
Ozruhar raises his palms again, sprinkling a powder over the fire. It erupts in a cloud of purple smoke. The smoke takes form, curling and looping like a snake, dancing and weaving its way around the circle, twisting between the participants. Geb is right in front of me. I move around the other side of the fire so I can see his face.
Not Geb, I pray silently as I move. Not Geb. Please, not him. I'm tempted to use my power to blow the smoke away from him, but I know Ozruhar's magic is stronger than mine.
The cloud of smoke makes its way around the circle, touching one boy and then another. It seems to settle around Kado, and he puffs out his chest, a look of victory on his face. I let out a long breath, relaxing my fists, but the smoke moves again.
It creeps closer and closer to Geb. I'm not breathing at all as the smoke reaches Geb and, curling around his feet, it rises higher and higher till he's encased in a swirling vortex. He finds my gaze across the leaping flames. His eyes reflect the color of the smoke, shining in excitement tinged with fear. I knew he'd be chosen. His magic is powerful and his heart is true and it's going to be the death of him.
Unable to hold his gaze, I turn and run for my parents' lake boat.
Hours later, I'm woken from a fitful sleep by a knock on the door. Stepping out onto the deck, I find Geb already in traveling clothes, carrying a pack.
I cross my arms to hide my trembling hands. Geb looks shamefaced, yet somehow defiant.
"I have to leave, but I didn't want to go without saying goodbye."
I shake my head, signing. 'No goodbyes. I'll go with you.' I turn to go pack my bag. He grasps my shoulder, turning me back towards him.
"You can't. You know you can't."
He's right. I am bound to my Nora until I ascend to Misra. I cannot leave without her permission. My shoulders drop.
'Where?' I sign.
"Flantestate," he says. I gasp. The dark bog where the wizard C'naga's tower lies. "The plants there have magical properties, like no others. I must gather them to complete my assignment."
'Danger.' I sign. He nods. He knows as well as I do.
'Why?' I sign and my eyes ask the question I can't voice. What do you need to prove?
"I need to know I'm worthy," he whispers, "maybe then you'll look at me the way you look at Kado."
I snort because that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. I look at Kado the way I look at algae cakes when I want a snack. But Geb is my air, the strength at my back, the person I curl up next to when I'm feeling the weight of the world. I can't say it, so I throw my arms around his waist, press my face to his chest. You can't go on a quest. I need you here.
His chest heaves as he blows out a resigned breath.
'Don't go.' I sign. I touch my heart sign and the sign for brother. It's the way I've always told him I love him, but this time, emotion flashes in his eyes as I touch the heart.
He presses a kiss to my forehead, his shoulders heaving in uncharacteristic solemnity.
"When I get back…" He pauses and I look up into his shimmering eyes, "maybe things will be different between us."
I squeeze him tighter and he wraps his arms around me, pulling me so close I can barely breathe. I inhale, soaking in his scent, his strength, and all the things we haven't said yet. His arms release me, his footsteps recede.
When I open my eyes, he's gone.