No dreams followed when I awakened from my deep sleep.
But in the quiet, after my tumult of thought dissipated, a voice stirred me.
I had once overheard my father say the voice of a spirit means the listener could be a shaman. For a long time after, I had waited to hear the air talk. It never did.
There again. It whispered my name, "Giels."
My body stiffened. I opened my eyes.
It was darker than usual. No shadows highlighted the textures of concrete and stone on my bedroom walls.
The Sun seemed hours off, but the moon-gods reveal time only if you understand them. If I were a shaman, I would understand the moons, and which of their light conspired to enter my bedroom window. But the council and my father never saw the magic in me. So I had no training.
My body relaxed. I knew the voice as much as I knew my own—Cleo.
"Shhhh. We're leaving," she said.
In that leadened light, my eyes adjusted a little, revealing the vaguest outlines of their figures. Cleo, Erikal, Meritus, and Alana. They were like the brightest stars my eyes stray to at night.
Not being awake enough to question their presence, I nonetheless felt awash with relief to see my best friends. My momentary belief that I heard a magical voice had suddenly expelled my fascination with the possibility.
Cleo wrapped her fingers around my wrist and pulled, and I followed her gentle tug as if a doll on a string. My feet felt the cold, fieldstone floor. Alana shoved a pair of shoes against my chest, which I unquestioningly grabbed with my free hand. And all four friends pushed me to my room's smooth metal door. It slid aside.
"Stay quiet," Cleo said. "You don't want your parents asking questions."
Alana moved her lips close to my ear. "Especially questions about where we're going."
"Shhhh," Cleo and Alana said in unison.
The pair wrapped their arms under mine to help me stagger through the house, into the concrete and limestone passageway, and towards the main glass entry. Erikal and Meritus followed. The door slid up between hewn stones.
The light of at least two moons, I could not see which ones, filtered through the forest canopy.
The girls pulled me to something that made me believe I might have still been asleep. The vehicle looked natural, perhaps like a giant, mythical insect, clad in intricate and curving plate-metal and glass. But in the dark, I hardly had a moment to take in Erikal's newest invention before he lifted me through its door—I was not small, he just had that strength.
"Isn't it amazing?" Meritus said.
I did not answer but pushed my body onto a pile of pillows on the floor next to the lefthand sidewall.
Several tiny green lamps blinked on throughout the oblong vaulted interior. The intricate chromate and copper paneling of the vehicle's enclosure struck me with its beauty, especially in the green hue. Every cab—a vehicle of the Deoan style—was not much more than a hull with wings. This one was no different except, being spacious enough for us with plenty of room to spare, it had to be the largest in the Deo.
Meritus tossed me a piece of dried meat as he entered. "I helped him build this cab."
"We all helped," Cleo said, taking a sampling of the snack as she passed him.
"I...really only helped pack," Alana said, grabbing handholds and pulling herself onto the door's threshold.
"And you were excellent at that," Meritus said.
I rubbed my eyes and stared as they talked excitedly. Meritus and Alana slid across the carpet to sit against the sidewall opposite me.
"You look confused," Meritus said.
"He's been so busy with storytelling practice," Erikal said, entering the cab. "Did we forgot to tell him?" A broad, perfect, grin stretched across his face.
I had not been to Erikal's house for the past few weeks. Cleo had mentioned he had been busy on a vehicle, but I would have assumed she would tell me in advance of any adventure. She leaned against the front window and gave a slight eye roll. "We didn't forget anything—between busily finishing the vehicle and you not being around..."
"Cleo, you can tell him it's my fault," Meritus said.
Cleo suddenly looked a little coy.
Meritus looked square at me. "I told them to surprise you."
“Surprise me with what?”
Instead of answering, Meritus threw another piece of meat, but I blocked it with my palm, ricocheting it back. He opened his mouth to catch it but missed.
Erikal joined Cleo at the large forward windows. Their hands took the controls underneath and adjusted the two wings' many facets to catch the invisible, divine magic we are taught rises from the ground. The imperceptible energy pushed on the facets, lifting the enormous cab. We hovered several feet above the dew and moonlight-soaked garden of my family's home.
The machine's exterior Sun-fire lights remained deactivated. Even so, Meritus and Alana watched through the side windows as we silently floated away from the earthen berm under which my home lay.
Maybe they mean to circle back around, pretending we were going somewhere?
Meritus and Erikal had gotten into the habit of pranking one another around their birthdays. I thought it might be my turn. "Erikal, my eighteenth birthday was months ago. It's a little late for one of your stunts."
Everyone laughed as though I made a joke.
"Do you plan to tell me where we're going?" I asked, rubbing the pain I had just noticed in my temples.
Cleo turned. A slight smile pushed up her smooth cheeks. She held me with her bright gaze as if to build up my anticipation. Watching her full lips reminded me they once had touched mine—something youths seldom do except for those who plan to marry. Shocked by her kiss, I had foolishly run away. But I knew it would happen again.
"We're going to the cave," she said as sweet as syrup. Based on her casual tone, she might as well have been saying "to a friends house." But I knew to what she referred—the Wind Cave.
My friends enjoyed testing the boundaries of our tribe's rules, but I had not imagined we would go somewhere requiring them to take me away in secrecy at night. Our traditional stories, with which I was well versed, often talked about the cave's magic and dangers, and the impossibility of entering. Only shamans on rare occasions visited its entrance for prayer and ceremony. None of us had ever strayed very far from the Deo Forest, let alone gone to take a look at the sacred opening for ourselves. Even so, keeping such a journey secret seemed overblown.
And as exciting as such an adventure might be with them, the timing could not have been worse. The most important meeting of my life was days away.
I watched the dark outside, still a little disoriented and not fully believing they planned to go such a distance.
Erikal and Cleo followed the Deo stream, which passed in front of my home. After an hour, I saw no more of the little front lights that advertised homesteads, and we banked left into dense forest.
Never had I gone past the furthest home. My realization clicked that my friends actually intended to go to the cave. "Cleo, Erikal. I'm meeting with Elder Treehaven in three days."
"About the Equis recitation. We know," Cleo said. "Everybody knows."
"That's why we're hurrying," Erikal said.
Wholly focused on driving, neither of the pair had turned around when talking.
"I can't go. It'll take a week just to get to the cave."
"I think Erikal's trying to prove something—like it's a challenge," Meritus said. "Why else leave three days before you need to return?"
"What is a foregone conclusion cannot be a challenge," Erikal said. "We'll get you back in time for your meeting, Giels."
"Erikal, that's impossible." I looked at Meritus for agreement.
He shrugged one shoulder.
Erikal had a talent for designing on the computer, but no cab has come close to the speed he suggested. The most recent generation of shamans has declined to go on pilgrimages to the cave because of the journey's difficulty.
The vehicle made a hard right, and dark thickets of leaves and underbrush thrashed the windows. The wings outside clanged in staccato repetition. Alana cried out.
Erikal turned. "Just trees."
I sighed, but not because of his casualness to the danger of traveling unknown lands at speed in the dark, but because of their irresponsibility. They certainly knew my discussion with the elder would be crucial for my future.
"Fiends, the elder may request that I recite at our meeting," I said, to suggest I cannot be gone at all. "I have nothing ready."
"Told you he wouldn't go if he knew," Meritus said to the others.
Cleo turned to me. "Giels, you—" the sound of branches whipping against the windows interrupted her— "...you can read several stories backwards. You're fine."
She knew me too well.
"The esteemed elder's going to decide your fate, huh?" Meritus said and tossed me another slice of cured meat. This time I caught it.
"If it were fate, I wouldn't worry about showing up."
Based on our conversation, Elder Treehaven was to decide whether I would be ready to do the recitation at the Equis—our tribe's most lavish annual ceremony.
What my parents had not said when they had set up the meeting, but which I knew, was that if the elder approved me, the entire council of seven elders and their storyteller advisors would be eyeing my habits and character until the Equis. And on the day of, they would heavily scrutinize my performance. All to help them decide if I could someday take on the esteemed title of Lead Storyteller. The role was second only to members of the council. And, undoubtedly, as many as a hundred, all older than me, wanted the honor.
A lot of benefits came with the weighty responsibility, including inheriting my family's beautiful home, which someone having both my surname and an important tribal role lived there by tradition. And that was just one of the advantages.
My gaze fell upon Cleo, and her nicely tailored mantle. Large spots of color, like elongated circles, and warped teardrops covered the chest and arms. From what I could tell in the dim green light, it looked to be one of her designs. The others, too, wore similar garments, but it flattered her most.
Girls, I knew by then, are not only attracted to wit but what a boy may become.
Spears of sidelong golden-yellow morning light penetrated the forest canopy. Chirps and yelps from creatures echoed off the massive trunks and hilly terrain. The towering trees populating the wood had smooth, umber bark and dark, rounded leaves; similar to the Deo trees of our forest, but magnitudes taller and much closer together. The place seemed enchanted.
Anticipation and wonder washed over my friends' faces. Seldom had this group of four been dull. Erikal, Cleo, and Meritus recently entertained themselves by outdoing one another with their cab designs. Erikal always seemed to do the best, especially with speed and agility. I knew that because Meritus had started a tradition of racing vehicles through our commons grounds.
But they well outdid themselves with this vehicle and adventure.
The large craft could not fit through many of the narrow spaces of the ancient forest. Meritus went outside numerous times to guide the two drivers through mazes of bushes, boulders, and trees. At each such snag, I nervously felt the minutes pass and in my mind rehearsed explaining my delay to Elder Treehaven. I would not allow myself to imagine the vehicle crashing or becoming lost.
Seldom did I feel any friction between us, and all had been minor. Honestly, I did not know how to be angry with them. Even if I did not want to demand they turn around, I needed to say something.
"How do you know the way?" I asked Erikal.
"I talked to several knowledgeable people, including the Treespeaker and Elder Treehaven. I asked them to describe distant lands as they saw fit—you know, so they'd not be suspicious. From their various stories, I pieced together a map in my mind, including this route."
I believed him. Erikal never claimed he knew something that he had not. A few years before, when we had first met, I had immediately seen a blinding brightness about him, as though he easily understood everything. I leaned against the window and watched the world pass, hoping this time was no exception.
We moved quickly through a stand of massive trees where no underbrush grew. Once we started following a rocky streambed, the cab swayed a little from the uneven ground, but our pace quickened further. And considering the terrain, it was incredibly smooth and fast. Instead of moving at the speed of a hurried walker like other cabs, we darted faster than the quickest Deoan sprinter. The speed of the vehicle astounded me, but I still did not believe we could return in time.
Hours passed as I watched unknown forests go by. The back of my mind shouted for me to tell my friends to return. But seeing our pace, I said to that voice, perhaps with some self-deception, that we would be fine.
We will be fine. I closed my eyes and chanted the thought to myself a few more times.
I don’t want to ruin their fun. I will look back and be glad I joined them.
The stream we had followed joined other streams and slowly widened into a river.
Erikal and Cleo pushed the vehicle to its maximum over the sandy banks.
"The Lost River," Erikal declared. A waterway which I had heard referenced only a few times.
The river skirted the periphery of the Lost Forest, which tickled our minds with numerous legends of mysterious people and monsters. But we encountered no people or monsters until Alana insisted that she saw someone watching us from deep within the forest.
"He had fierce eyes," she said, "and a filthy face and hair."
It had been late by then, and the Sun cast the world in its deep dusk-yellow glow. Little light could penetrate the thick wood. We tried to suggest it was impossible to see a person there. But she insisted and eyed the trees and bit her nails.
Meritus had recently introduced us to Alana. He tended to bring people together—sometimes I mused that he knew everyone. She was still a mystery to me—often quiet and disquieted, and nervous, as she was then. None of us were particularly close to her, and yet since I met her, she was there like she had been part of our group for years.
Seeing her chew at her nails, I hoped I did not look so anxious.
The watercourse, by then at times forty feet in width, was by far grander than anything near home. But nothing suggested people lived nearby.
We continued through the night and next day over the river, and the further we went, the more the unfamiliar the fauna, including a small kite gliding between the trees, and one huge lumbering furry thing we needed to scare out of our way.
Seeing the Sun approaching the horizon for a second time, I estimated we had been gone nearly a day and a half. I pulled in a deep breath, I could not remain silent.
“Erikal.” He turned, a sparkle in his eye. I could not let his enjoyment risk everything for me, even if I needed to demand. I hesitated a moment. “It’s time—you need to turn around.”
He gave me a broad smile. “Now, my friend? When we’re here?”
In the gathering dark, we wound back and forth up the south bank, which had become increasingly high. We crested over the top to arrive on the fabled Boromount Plateau, named for the giant beasts that lived there. But despite its name, from tales I had heard I knew the place more for the cave.
Looking around, I expected to see a large hole in the earth, perhaps with a torrent of magic mist and dust flying about it. But Erikal pointed to a distant tall rock outcropping of spires at a far edge of the grassy plane. "There."
We approached, floating over the tall grasses. The spires straddled the edge of the plateau where it dropped off in a cliff to the endless Western Sea. At the bottom of the outcropping, where it met the plateau, sat a modest black opening.
"Call her the Silver Dare!" Erikal said, breaking our attentive silence. "She has brought us out here." He slapped an empty part of the control panel several times. Indeed, no other cab could have taken us over the rough terrain with so much ease.
The cab stopped. We fell silent. Never had we seen a landscape highlighted with such intense moonglow—like twilight. We stepped out into the cool air. The pale light of the moon gods Emba and Palis played upon the waves in the distance and dew-soaked grasses around our feet. Our homeland and most of our world was dense forest, but above us, we saw for the first time a sky unimpeded by trees and glistening with endless stars—the lesser gods and souls of newborn mortals. The place overwhelmed me with feelings of unreality.
I marveled at the scene. It was as though magic surrounded us. The gods and souls adorned our nighttime sky, glowing in the velvet robes of Morgoreth, the great veil of the night. The Silver Dare's wings, made up of curving metal panels of varying sizes like a string of leaves connected by struts shaped like thin bones, picked up pale glints like the waves and grasses. And my friend's faces, like the stars, seemed to cull the light of the heavens. It was not only their faces that I saw shine at that moment but their very selves. The grandiosity of the night accentuated my awareness of them. I watched their wonder and curiosity and, feeling so overcome, comparisons between them and the stars—the lesser gods—came into my mind unbidden.
But I did not compare them to the minor gods casually. Something in me knew they had been destined to change our world. As I stood looking at the stars and my friends, I did not realize how soon that moment would come.
I sucked in the strange sea air to have a last taste as we filed back into the cab, feeling relieved that we could return in time. I anticipated Erikal would turn the vehicle back towards home, but he did not.
It was only then I realized the true reason for my friend's secrecy. "Let's give this a try!" Erikal shouted and shoved forward a lever, pushing the vehicle at its fastest speed towards the cave.
"Oh, hell," I said, letting out the curse unexpectedly as we approached the opening, "it'll kill us!" Feeling too stunned to protest more, I held the handrail and watched in disbelief as Erikal attempted the impossible.
We did the very thing that our tribe's ancient stories said could not be done and should not be tried.
We glided into the forbidden mouth leading to the Underworld.