A deep groan filled the cavern, followed by a series of loud cracks. Chad climbed onto the wide ledge and then swiveled to look down at Dae on a thick slab jutting out over the ravine. His backpack toppled to the side as he set his torch down and angled it to shine over the twelve-foot drop. The climb wouldn’t be so bad if the stream they had crossed a month ago hadn’t grown into a manic river.
The rapids raced along the gorge in angry fluxes, shadows collapsing, reforming. Spray flew upward as the tides rammed into boulders. The dank scent coated his airways with an iron tang.
Where did all the water come from?
Chad tossed the rope to Dae. She reached to grab it, but her boots slipped on the slick rock and the line fell. It tripped and tugged along the wild current. His breath hitched as her arms flew wide, and she buckled to regain her balance.
He quickly reeled the rope in to try again. “Don’t lean so far over. I’ll throw it harder.”
She nodded and swiped the wet hair from her face.
Thick splashes hammered into the channel to Chad’s right, and he glanced at the wall at the head of the ravine. The light from his torch highlighted the falls as they surged from the fissure near the low ceiling. A series of deafening pops echoed through the canyon, and as if the mouth of the stream was made of crusty dirt, it crumbled. A large fracture traveled up the length of the partition.
He flung the rope to Dae again, and she snatched it from the air. “Don’t try to climb! Tie it around your waist. I’ll pull you up.”
Her hands fumbled the rope into a knot and then she gripped the line. “Okay, I am ready.”
As he wedged his boots for a firm hold, water spewed from the fissure and blasted rock through the canyon. Dae’s scream rode the roar of water as it swept her from the thick slab. The rope snapped tight, and air punched from Chad’s lungs as he clung on with everything he had. He threw a glance at the hooks wedged between two stalagmites and hoped by all that was good they’d hold. He cursed himself for not securing the line more fully before he’d tossed it to Dae. But something had told him to act fast and get her up there.
He tugged on Dae’s rope and quickly wound it around his arm, inching her closer. “Dae?”
No answer rose from the din.
He pulled harder, leaning into sidesteps for more leverage. “Dae!”
Her hand rose from the currents, and she rolled, coughing.
“Unclip your pack!”
She craned her neck and bit at the clip on her shoulder strap. The large canvas bag whisked away, and the weight on the line lessened. He quickly tugged again, and Dae reached up the tether. Three more hauls and then Chad dropped to his knees to reach for her.
She clung to the leash, shoulders above the water’s crest, as her gasps parted the sheet of hair over her face.
“Dae, give me your hand.”
She looked up, her lips pinched together as she peered at his hand through drenched locks. “I cannot touch you. You are my Keeper.”
She’s worried about that right now? He tempered a growl at the idiotic placement decrees imposed on their peoples. “I’m well aware of the appropriate actions of a server. Will you disobey a direct command? Dae, give me your hand!”
She inched up the rope. He dropped to his belly, grasped her wrist, and then dragged her along the rough ravine wall and out of the water. As soon as she came within better reach, he hooked his finger through the shoulder weaves on her tunic. Hefting her over the ledge, he thanked the Fates she’d made her clothes with such care to durability.
Containers attached to her belt clanked against the rock ledge as Dae rolled onto her back. Chad joined her, draping a forearm over his brow. His ribcage jumped with each hard thump of his heart. Had it been hammering like that the whole time? He heaved a breath and then rolled his head to look at her.
Shadows hid most of her heart-shaped face, but the torch cast a slight glow along her profile. He traced it with his gaze. Her chin trembled, and her chest rose and fell in a jittery rhythm. But she was safe—safe and lying three feet from him.
He blew a long stream of air through his pursed lips.
Fates, what if I had lost her?
Quivers spider-walked along his arms, and he dragged his hands down his face to regain composure. The last thing Dae needed right now was to have her Keeper show weakness.
She brushed her long hair back and then let her arms drop. Her mouth moved with silent words. Rolling to the side, she pushed herself onto her knees. Small tremors shook her hands as she placed them on the ground and bowed her head low. “I questioned your command,” she whispered with a croaky voice. “I will serve penitence.”
Chad sat up and rested his arm on his knee. “No penitence is necessary, Dae. But…” She’d been born to his family’s keep when he was two years old, and he couldn’t keep his eyes off her since. Now, at nineteen, how could he bear to live without her? “Don’t you understand I can’t lose you?”
She lifted her gaze. “I am sorry. Do you require service now?”
He sighed. Of course he would require vitality again at some point, but that wasn’t what he meant by the comment. A glower tempted to erase the proper response he should give as master.
It’s always about the service. Always. He allowed a low rumble in his throat to dispel the urge to spit the fact from him. Placement. Never forget your placement. Picking up the torch, he leaned into a stand. “No, Dae, I don’t require service.”
~ * ~
Styne’s thrill of adventure diminished as a howl reached into the narrow vein of the cave. He lifted his crystal-lit torch as if it would hush the mourning sound, but the light seemed to pulse with each beat of his heart. Gathering his nerve, he inched down the steep trail. Pebbles rolled beneath his feet, and he grasped at the granite wall to secure his balance.
A clash echoed through the catacomb, and he angled the beam down, squinting to see the bottom of the tunnel better. Water rose and then ebbed at the threshold, a tall stalagmite breaking the flow. His stomach knotted. No wonder the Chambers haven’t come to serve us yet. They must be scared to death.
Trotting down the pitch, he rode the gravel giving way to his quick pace. As he entered the belly of the hollow, waves crashed against the bluff. Bolts of light flashed beyond thick sheets of water like strobes. The fallout pounded onto the landing. Waves swept along the tongue of the cave and filled the gullies in a rush. Mats and crystals swirled with loose rock as the flow carried away the remnants from their earlier gathering.
He inched into the wide dome, gaze glued on the panoramic view. Awe locked logical thought as he scanned the vast World Above. Confusion passed his lips in a low mumble. “Chad said there would be stars, a moon…” It’s the real reason I agreed to come back down here and get the Chambers!
His steps slipped on the slick rock as he approached the open stage. He reached for the wet boulder at his side and braced his stand, digging his boot into the crevice at its base. Lifting his torch beyond the ledge of the ceiling, he drew it across the upper scope. The illumination from the crystal did nothing to penetrate the ominous cover. “What…what is this?”
Light shot across the horizon, and then a web of silent flares netted the expanse, highlighting the battle among the crests of the black sea. The sky turned musty gray as thick vapors morphed into engorged billows. Shock quaked his stomach as he tried to make sense of it all.
The heavens clashed, shaking the world around him. His heart jumped to his throat, and his arms flew over his head. A salty scent assaulted his nasal cavity as water clashed against the mountain. Thick sheets sprayed skyward and pelted him with heavy falls. He threw his hands out at his sides to keep balanced and then swiped his palm down his face.
The sky flashed white. Blinded, Styne shot his gaze toward the back of the cave, to the safety of the World Beneath the Rock. Fear held him rooted.
From the far left corner, a small light bobbed within the blob of white branded in his retinas. He scrubbed his eyes with the heels of his thumbs to clear his vision and then squinted in the same direction. Stafford waded through the waist-high current, his torch casting light across his pale face. The servant’s voice reached Styne in spasms. “Master Styne! They…taken! I tried… Great waters!”
Styne stepped toward him, an urgent command to halt on his tongue. His footing slipped. “Stafford, don’t…”
Reaching the open cave, and free of the water, Stafford’s feet hit gravel. His long legs launched into a sprint. “Master Styne! They are gone!”
“Wait! It’s…” Styne threw his hands out for balance and struggled to gain composure. “Don’t…” Desperate to warn Stafford of the slick surface, his demand roared from deep in his chest. “Stop!”
Stafford jarred to a halt, his last stride slapping against the landing. His feet flew from under him, and his crystal torch clattered on the ground. The light flashed in his frantic eyes as he skidded past Styne, his master, his Keeper…the one entrusted to guide and keep him safe. Clawing at the wet surface, he disappeared over the ledge of the cliff.
The sky rumbled.
Styne’s mind reeled. A gasp punched from his lungs. Words wouldn’t form. “St…”
He blinked and scrubbed his eyes with his palms. Another wave clashed into the bluff, and as it rose before the cave, a hungry howl moaned throughout the hollow.
Scrambling back into the depths, Styne swung himself past the stalagmite to the steep tunnel. Wild shadows danced around him as his torch revealed every frantic lunge up the rocky pitch. Flashes of the wild World Above swirled in his mind.
He fell against a boulder and squeezed his lids shut, heart pounding. Choppy breaths punched from his cheeks. His arms and legs shook, and he bunched his shirt with his fist to control the quakes in his stomach.
How could such a change take place in the short time they’d been in the upper chamber of the cave? The evening had been pure beauty, pink and orange ribbons trying to trap the sun as it descended beyond the horizon. Soft waves had lulled them as they sat around the crystal fire.
Shaking his head, Styne willed himself to master his actions. He filled his lungs with the familiar scent of sediment and focused on the safety around him. Fortification. Security. Control.
He opened his eyes to the reliable environment of the World Below. Silence rested on him. Soft light flowed from the crystal torch, illuminating the climb to his family camp. Lifting his chin, he set his resolve to maintain a dignified demeanor and reached to heave himself up the rocks. A cluster of crickets sprang from the ledge.
Shock rushed his edged nerves, and he threw his hand to the side. Stafford’s panicked face crossed his inner eye. Tremors returned. Sliding down the rough wall to the ground, he allowed the juts to graze his shoulder.
How could he not show strength during chaos for his server’s sake? He was frightened and I couldn’t warn him. What Keeper shows such weakness? He pressed his fists to his head and knotted his fingers in his hair. Irritation boiled in his gut as shame riddled his heart. Temper this! You’re not a child.
Clutching a fistful of gravel, he cast it at the wall to expel the guilt of his failure. What would his family think? They can’t see me like this. Not now. I’m to be a Father of the Nation. He shoved himself to a stand and then strode into the pass. I’ve got to gain control before I stand before Father.