Speechless in Achten Tan
Eighteen-year-old Mila hasn't spoken in the five years since she became an Onra, a first level Everfall witch. After failing the test to control her magic and reclaim her voice, her mentor sends Mila to Achten Tan – City of Dust and Bones – a dangerous desert town, built in the massive ribcage of an extinct leviathan.
Mila must steal a magical staff capable of releasing her power, from the sky-high lair of the Bone Master, Chief Opu Haku.
Her only resources are the magical luminous elixirs of the cursed caverns where she grew up, and a band of unlikely allies; a quirky inventor, a giant-ant rider, a healer, a librarian's assistant, a Tar-tule rider, and the chief's playboy son.
But in the City of Bones, enemies and friends are not who they seem and trusting the wrong person can be deadly.
If Mila fails, she will never speak again and her bones may be added to the wasteland.
Chapter 1– Across the Everfall
This time I have to succeed.
The ray 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. As the sun's first rays creep across the falls I breathe in the cool mist, wicking my skin with moisture. I ignore the clammy feeling as it coats my skin. Humming with power my skin warms, dissipating the damp. I raise my hands to focus my inner magic, concentrating on a stripe of rainbow-colored sunlight as it refracts through the vapor.
The waterfall is steeped in magic. I must harness its power and for one brief moment pause the mighty flow.
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, I've been reduced 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 mist swirls and writhes, evading my hold. The mighty flow crests momentarily, building into a wave, shooting up above the falls when it should be falling down.
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 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 to choose, I definitely wouldn't jump. As it is my knees tremble being this close to the edge of the falls. 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 sound, or the wind, or my own 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 the crowd gathered beyond the falls. To my parents' disappointed faces, my father clutching my mother's shoulder in support. My Nora's weathered face, her sage expression is unchanged, nothing ever flusters her, but I can see 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. Looking at them all, I truly contemplate throwing myself over the edge, instead of having to face them but I won'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 own skin, its glow brightened by my racing pulse. My pulse jumps again 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 Achten Tanians believe these caverns cursed. Ignorance and superstition. 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 is in our blood and bones. In the shine of our skin.
Still, even amongst the algae farmers not many venture into the back passages deep in the rock.
Geb finds me in my favorite place, as I knew he would.
We're in a cavern found by my friend Shashi, as they excavated the hidden depths. Located higher up in the cliffs, directly behind the waterfall. 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.
I don't hear his footsteps approach, rustling softly on the rock. Geb always treads lightly, my ears are sharp but this cavern is loud. The sound of water is a dull roar. Here Geb and I are on even footing. It's so loud, speech is useless.
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, almost as much as the flowers and leaves I weave into my hair. 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. Eyes shining with warmth and intelligence, especially when they look at me.
He's my best friend. We've been inseparable since childhood. At eight and ten we always tried to evade my brother Turosh, who tagged along after us, like an eager puppy. We felt too big to be playing with a six-year-old.
He'd be sixteen now, if he had lived.
I'd take it back if I could. I'd have been a better sister. I'd have taken better care of him. 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, as if getting too close would crush the fragile remembrance. It's all we have left of him.
We sit on a rock, side by side and 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 cohort have found 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 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 is unheard of. I shudder, and rub my red puffy eyes. Geb's eyes catch the light, twinkling at me. In the noise 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 not many 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 light, his back straight and strong. I raise my left hand and point to my knife and skull tattoos on the inside on my index finger. I have most of my threats and swear words in less visible places.
Laughing even 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 with and plants a soft kiss on the joint and my breath catches. His golden eyes grip mine, humming with words he mustn’t speak and I snatch my hand out of his.
We can't. You know why.
I don't speak or sigh. He knows.
A sliver of pain passes through his gaze but he drops his face, his broad shoulders drooping.
"Come on," he signs, taking my hand in his large palm and pulling me to my feet. I can't avoid it any longer. I must make an appearance.
The largest cavern is full of light and sound. Our whole community is in attendance, celebrating the ascension of the girls who passed their test.
Tables are laden with moist and filling algae breads along with great smoked sides of giant deep-water dwellers, from the underground lakes, the fish flavored with spices from beyond the Everfall.
The middle of the space is full of couples dancing.
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 and it's enough to make Geb's eyes dart to me, then back to Kado and a grin tilts his lips.
Kado stops next to Geb.
"Can you tell her I'm sorry about today. I was hoping for her success."
"I'm not deaf," I tap in frustration and 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. I still 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."
I punch his 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.
Kado's face falls.
"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 at his interference. I lift my elbow to tap the tattoo saying 'Yes', but to my surprise Geb grabs it before I can touch the symbol.
"She can't, because she's escorting me"
Kado looks as sad as a Dasu pup with no mother but somehow that makes me want to laugh. 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 becoming 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 ghosting over my face, "I need you as my escort."
I look up into his golden eyes reflecting the firelight. He's serious. I shake my head. Touch the 'No' and the 'Go' sighs.
He shouldn't be participating in the choosing. It isn't an accident that he hadn't mentioned it to me before.
As the new Misra's celebration winds down, Ozruhar, Master of Potions takes the stage. Every year he chooses a new apprentice from the boys. The tasks set by Ozruhar are notoriously hard and dangerous.
He raises his palm and the cavern grows quiet.
"Participants, approach the fire."
I cling to Geb's arm. Shake my head, plead with my eyes. No. But he gently peels my fingers off and approaches. Around the fire stand warriors, smiths, the community's bravest youths. They are all brawn and muscle. Geb is the only healer.
I exhale in frustration, my skin tingling with apprehension. I don't understand why he's doing this. He has nothing to prove.
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.
Not Geb, I pray silently, Not Geb. Please not him.
The cloud of smoke reaches Geb, curling around his feet, rising higher and higher till he's encased in a swirling vortex. He turns, finding my gaze and his eyes reflect the color of the smoke, shining in excitement tinged with fear. I knew he'd be chosen. His magic is strong and his heart is true and it's going to be the death of him.
Unable to hold his gaze I retreat from the celebration.
Hours later, I'm woken from a fitful sleep by a knock on the door of the dormitory I share with other Onra. Stepping into the hallway outside the sleeping hall 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 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 and I gasp. The bog that holds the wizard C'naga's tower, "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 says softly, "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 instead, 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 finity.
"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.