First Movement: Echoes Eternal
Three sounds came through the world.
The first in a trickle. Its timbre a tickling trace of melancholy for a thing lonely and lost, a lover's lingering gaze upon the tangled past. Was the trickle of rings from a point of severe impact?
The second sound came in a wave. Out of a minor crest in the trickle's down swing, and, in its upbeat, the possibility of a rising out of this eternal suffering.
The third sound was the most mysterious of the three. Depending on how it found you, its origins might seem unclear. But if one listened carefully up to but not beyond the point of madness, a venture could be made: there was meaning in the interval between the trickle and the wave and meaning too in what came after the wave's rise proved unsustainable. The accumulating strength. Tumble. Crash.
The sound wanted to share this meaning. But listening to it wasn't enough. A start, though, it certainly was.
Verse One: Tremors
Shay wasn’t fond of the Flame Mistress's outbursts, but tremors were part of life in the Known Caverns. Great seas of fire were said to rest beneath their subterranean world, and She could stir them to make the caverns shake. She was in your heart too. Step wrong and she rattled your insides.
To pass the time and keep their wits, the wilders sang. The great musical mammals with their multitude of vocal chords conjured irresistible vibrations. Their musical mélange carried a strange quality, beauty, and grace that brought the sea bats from their cliff dens and the glowworm colonies to life in the cave's corners, writhing uncontrollably in a light-emitting dance.
The cave shook anew. Tight to her chest Shay held her knees, scraped from a rare mistake she'd made hunting, and nuzzled deeper into Nim's coarse yet comforting furs.
Shay had been with the wilders for three intervals--the time between quakes--as she struggled to fit in with humans here in the Shadows. This particular troupe of wilder outcasts produced improvisational riffs on thousand-interval wilder themes. As outcasts detached from their origin troupes, though, they also intentionally strayed and energetically explored the landscape of sound. It seemed effortless and their mistakes were either quickly discarded or embraced by their peers as novelties. Guttural hums like the wind through a cavern, the trill of avian song, even the growls and hisses of the jags. In their leisure time, they crafted instruments with nimble fingers, toes, claws, and teeth. Stone, bone, even a spider's web; each was a material of their craft. To the wilders, any salvaged thing contained potentialities.
Despite Nim's encouraging Shay only infrequently joined in; during a tremor was not one of those moments. She put her hand on his furry chest and felt its expansion. Between his tusks, one broken in half, he breathed. His flattened nose was small for a wilder, but buoyed by an enduring intake of air, he vocalized uninterrupted. His head rocked and his foreleg claws trickled through the space as his tones rippled between a baritone and a false bass. He played with phonemes Shay might have produced if she'd been taught them as a child, and with others foreign to her human vocal endowments. Ginna, the least agreeable but perhaps most creative of the wilder females, provided a counter melody, injecting lyrics that mirrored Nim's but announced themselves at half-step increments from his opening weave. Jallak, the largest male, encouraged their musical dialogue with punctuated crashes produced by pushing air forcefully through his finger-thick lips. The music arose in Shay first discomfort, then fear, then a fall to depression, a lingering there, and finally a reestablishment of order only long enough for relief's sentiment to lower her defenses. Then came a fresh stream of fear. Even under the warm wilder arm, Shay could imagine dangers without.
Husef, whose braids were crosshatched in his favorite pattern and his norm to give them luck through the tremors, added a murmur that Shay could scarcely hear but could impressively feel through the cave's stone. Clinik tapped his claws against his tusk with his moth-shaped ears, leaning forward to collect the sound. Rabul and Rabelle, brother and sister, had so far mingled whistles and clicks of their riveted and absurdly complex tongues. But now as the musical argument was well underway they rose on their hind legs and held the other with their forelegs, stumbling awkwardly in a dance-step wilders weren't meant for, their tusks steadying them when their own clumsiness or the tremor's aftershock brought them near to falling. Shay moved her head to the various nuances of the percussion or the roaming bassline or Nim's transition to an intricate staccato melody. As always, the vibrations through the stone made her wonder what sounds outside her ken those spacious wilder ears could detect, what territory of meaning they might traverse. She closed her eyes, let her head bob against the movements of Nim's chest, and tried not to identify the sounds, but rather allow what emerged--their composition--seep into her being. At the peaks of her fear and anxiety, Shay liked to imagine the wilders sung habitability back into the caverns upon which the Flame Mistress had flung her chaos.
Most wilder troupes had conducts, but this outcast septet was leaderless. And so their roles in percussion, harmony, lead, and improvisation fluidly shifted. This organizational fact Shay found out through Kemba, her short-lived human lover. Kemba thought Nim had forced him out. But, since Nim and Shay didn't share a language, Shay didn't know for certain. Once, while she and Kemba made love in her corner of the cave, Nim had merely tapped Kemba on the shoulder. Shay scolded Kemba for accusing her of cross-species love; she doubted she'd survive a romantic encounter with Nim or any wilder. Besides, she and Nim were just friends. Kemba had no response for this except to emphasize he'd rather not risk a second and potentially more violent rendezvous with a wilder tusk. There were other women for a handsome and hardworking merchant like Kemba. It hurt to be used this way and discarded; Shay often wondered if this was why Mama had left her father in Rienna so long ago. She wanted to know if that was why Mama wanted to leave the Known Caverns altogether. She wanted to know if that was why she'd tried to hide the truth of it all from Shay. No one had tried to find them, at least so it seemed then, and partly this and partly wanting the truth for herself had brought Shay to the shores of the Shadows.
In her own case, Shay was far from forgotten. Through stories likely told by Kemba himself she became his mysterious conquest. To have bedded a beast like the Shade of the Shadows only increased his status. Infuriating as it was, Shay couldn't go to High Point to correct his embellished stories. That would mean risking more danger than she was already in. She'd been wrong about her mother's warnings. Someone, though it wasn't clear who, was looking for her mother.
This Shay knew from the sound of stone.
But despite her head attempting to persuade her otherwise, her heart still wished to go to Rienna where she might learn of her father. If he was still alive. Why? To get his side of the story. To get any side, really. But she'd have to cross the Shadows' Low Side to the north, or take the tunnels the Road carved eastward. The prospect of facing either path had paralyzed her for three intervals.
The wilders came to an interlude to rest their lips and coax water from ice to soothe their throats. Shay realized that in recalling her time with Kemba she'd nearly worn away her nails with the onyx filing. She vowed not to think of him again. At least not in that way. They were done.
A few bats came and went with snippets from the cliffside. Ginna, more agreeable outside of sound design, spared a moment to chirp with them. She liked gossip from their corners of the Shadows. But the musical rhythms did not die. Even as the aftershocks of the quake went on, the wilders used their tusks to tap stones and shaped clay and instrumental bones. Nim liked to use Shay's mask. Shay had found it in an abandoned alcove just up the cliff. Later she learned the story of the departed Lumos, the half mammal half avian artisans of the Tumult's expansive southern wall, and that this skull was one of theirs. While simultaneously tucking the Lumos skull between his tusks onto his fat lips and covering its perforations with his smallest front toes, Nim's wind produced airy flute-like tones. And so the interlude was sustained. This kept the memory of their compositions close to mind, near to heart.
A wilder's skill, size, and probably intelligence was greater than Shay's, but there was one thing, at least, Shay had on a wilder: she could hear the sound of stone. Most humans couldn't, and neither could the wilders as far as she could tell. This was how Shay got her news, gossip, and, when it came down to it, how she survived.
Throughout the tremor and its aftershocks, she kept a sapphire, emerald, and the nail-destroying onyx in her pocket. Their stories comforted her: a jag looking out on the Black Sea under crystal light; an avian gliding just above its waters; a young woman carried in the murky currents to the Shadows in the ravaged shell of a stone beetle.
These wilder outcasts trusted the stone to protect them. From predators and tremors and quakes, the tremendous tremors occurring every three hundred turns of the sandshell after a series of seven smaller ones. This was the fifth tremor since the last quake, but like the previous four tremors, it was much too early in the interval. If the wilders were concerned about this, they didn't show it. For these outcasts, any disruption to the Known Caverns' rhythms was simply an excuse to make more music. Yet, for all Shay knew, they could be discussing this very problem through the music itself.
When the wilder troupe began anew, their vibrations calmed Shay slightly, and the numbing vine root she'd consumed slightly more. The glowworm skin she chewed on kept her teeth from grinding away. Their song was a reprise on the previous motifs. They were restating their positions. Nim altered his approach to incorporate Ginna's nuances, and Ginna to acknowledge Nim, each affording the other generosity. They even swapped roles and traded back again. Humans couldn't do that so easily.
It went on. Shay knew a sense of comfort might only come once the aftershocks ceased. In the Reach, which she had left three intervals prior, Shay heard of islands washed away by bombarding stones ripped from the cavern ceiling. She wondered if her mother and Sewed Lips would survive this one. The half ruby embedded in her shoulder spread lines of warmth, and she knew, at least for now, that they were okay. Sleep eluded Shay. She played with the stories in the sapphire, emerald, and onyx and they blended as inks on her cave paintings. Beneath her Lumos mask, she watched the sand slip from the top end to the receiving container of her sandshell. She breathed. And her heart beat to the rhythm of the wilder tones.
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