Side A – Yasgrid
There are many methods of descending from a great height. Yasgrid disliked all of them.
“Hurry up!” Kayelle said from much farther below that she had any right being.
Unless she was in freefall. Yasgrid couldn’t believe that Nia’s sister would have leapt to her death just to prove a point. Even with elves being a different species from her own, there were limits on how far apart the two peoples could be. Looking over the railing however, Yasgrid couldn’t see Kayelle on any of the ascending or descending ropes below them.
“How in the fiery pits am I going to manage this?” Yasgrid whispered to herself.
“Sorry,” Nia said. “I forgot you wouldn’t know how to get around. Frost Harbor is so flat.”
It didn’t startle Yasgrid that Nia had appeared beside her the moment she spoke. She was speaking in Nia’s voice and hearing the words with Nia’s ears. It did concern her though because of how surrounded by people she knew Nia would be in the Gods Dome.
“I can’t stay like this long,” Nia said. “You want to look for the thick ropes. Those lead right down to the ground. If you’re in a hurry you can drop from one to the next rather than climbing. When it’s time to come back up, just follow Kayelle. She’ll take one of the lifting ropes back. Those you just need to hold onto.”
“Thank you,” Yasgrid said as Nia faded from her view.
The thick ropes. To a Stoneling’s eyes none of the ropes looked particularly thick or sturdy. Yasgrid narrowed her eyes and considered them for a moment, trying to think like an elf would.
Nia was much smaller than Yasgrid. Adult Darkwood Elves seemed to be about the size of a Stoneling child, but the difference went beyond height. Even as a child Yasgrid had been solid and stocky. Stonelings weren’t literally born from the rocks as foreigners liked to believe. Nor were they composed of stones, despite how gray their skin was. They were however built of sturdier stuff than many other races and, as a result, were denser and heavier than most.
The ropes which Yasgrid saw strung around and between the trees of Nia’s home didn’t look like they could ever catch a falling Stoneling, but Nia’s elven body felt like a good gust of wind would be able to support it if that was required.
That didn’t make it easier to throw herself off a perfectly good platform though.
Thoughts of plummeting to the ground below, of leaping for a rope and missing only to feel the dizzying pull of gravity claim her, pounded Yasgrid’s heart harder than a Shatter drum.
There would be the moment when she touched the rope, when it might almost be in her grasp, but with the slightest miscalculation it would race across the tips of her fingers and she would drop sickeningly beyond reaching it. And then there would be nothing to grasp at all.
Yasgrid had fallen, as all children do, and failed to learn a respect for heights, as some children fail to. At least until she’d been foolish enough to race with her best friend across the rooftops of Frost Harbor.
Nia’s claims aside, Frost Harbor was not a flat city. Buildings varied between two and five stories and were packed just close enough together than moving from one to the next was feasible if one had the proper nerve.
Yasgrid and Belhelen had nerve to spare, and the lack of sense required to test how far that nerve would take them.
In the end it was fortunate that their race had focused primarily on the poorer section of the city, where the buildings were shorter and more tightly spaced. That had meant that when Yasgrid missed a jump between two houses she smashed into a wall and then an overhang which broke her fall without breaking her neck. Her wrist did not fare quite as well but it healed in time. What did not heal however was the memory of that terrible, yet briefly delightful, feeling of falling.
Yasgrid didn’t fear heights, but after that fall she couldn’t help but respect them.
And yet she still needed to get down to the meditation ceremony.
Looking over the railing again, she spied a rope attached to the bottom of the walkway she was standing on. Tracing the path with her eyes, she saw that she could climb down to one of the thicker ropes, then to another, and so on, eventually getting to the forest floor. It would have been much faster to drop from one to the other, as Nia suggested, but Yasgrid couldn’t do it. Despite wearing an elven body, she wasn’t one of them and pretending otherwise could get her, or Nia, or both of them killed.
Side B – Nia
Nia had to pretend better than she ever had or the volcano was going to eat her.
She didn’t have any confirmation of that, but the lava inside was definitely rising and from the murmuring around her among the other Pledge candidates it seemed like it was rising a lot faster than people were used to.
Pretending to inspect her drum was easy in the sense that all she had to do was look at it and frown a bit. It was a simple instrument though, without an enormous amount of ornamentation, so after a minute of just gazing at it, the action began to seem a little pointless.
She tried sneaking a glance at the people around her to see how they were inspecting their drums. The man to her right was lost in thought, or perhaps prayer? His lips were moving without making words and his eyes were closed, but whether the silent words were addressed to the carved effigies of the gods that surrounded the caldera or were some mnemonic to ensure he played properly Nia couldn’t guess.
Nia turned and looked up to find another Stoneling woman with a bright, beaming smile, staring at her from the empty space on the step above the one Nia would be performing on.
“I know I’m not supposed to be here, but I had to wish you luck,” Belhelen said. “The Conductor’s saying this is going to be a lively surge this year, so you should be able to really show your stuff. Just, try not to drown out the rest of us ok?”
She bapped Nia on the arm with enough force to start a brawl in any elven city, but her eyes held so much mirth and kindness that Nia knew it was meant as encouragement and not an attack.
“We’ll see,” Nia said, forcing a note of wry humor into her voice.
Keeping her performances as Yasgrid brief seemed to be the key to making them work. Belhelen, though Nia had no idea that was her name, looked satisfied at the reply and blew Nia a kiss before clambering down the steps past her to join the performers who were assembling on the next lower level.
“Kind of unfair having a seat all picked out for you in the Shatter Band already,” the woman on Nia’s right said.
“No one has a seat yet,” Drum Master Pelegar said. “You’re all going to play it, just like everyone else. Doesn’t matter who you are. Doesn’t matter who you know. Doesn’t matter how good you’ve played before. Play the best today and you’re in. If you can’t beat out a rhythm though? Then we all die in fire. So, there’s your motivational pep talk. How did you like it?”
“We’re not really in any danger of the lava reaching us though are we?” Jarben, the man on Nia’s left, asked as he opened his eyes.
“Yeah, there’s all the real players down there,” Margrada, the woman on Nia’s right, the one who’d first spoke up, said.
“You think they’re going to protect you?” Pelagar said. “You think as long as they play well, everything will be fine?”
“The lava’s never made it up this high before,” Margrada said. She sounded defiant, but she was looking away from the Drum Master, unwilling to challenge her superior eye to eye.
“And it never will,” Pelagar said. “But that doesn’t mean you’re safe. If the gods find your effort lacking, they can reach out and smite you without the lava getting any higher at all.”
“Has that ever happened?” Jarben asked.
“Yes indeed,” Pelagar said. “Not in a long time. We don’t let anyone even near the drums until they’re ready to not embarrass themselves, but we had a woman in the year I pledged. Ravenna. Wasn’t happy with the part she was given and when it came time she made a mockery of it.”
“What happened to her?” Nia asked, wondering what she might have to look forward to.
“She was a dozen beats into messing up the rhythm when the lava spit out a single firestone,” Pelagar said. “It arced through the air like a bird before it came home to roost right on Ravenna’s chest. Burned her clear through the middle and took the spot where her heart should have been. You know what though? None of the rest of us stopped playing. We couldn’t.”
“Why?” Nia asked.
“Because if you don’t respect the volcano and the gods, one or the other of them can and will kill you,” Pelagar said.