Sh’ra fell, the air howling past her, jagged rocks much closer than comfortable. Had she misjudged the direction? She oriented her feet downward, causing her dress to billow upward, slapping her in the face. Just as she began to wonder if she would ever stop falling, she struck the surface of the lake and plunged beneath icy waters. Down and down she continued into the cold depth until the water finally stilled her descent. She floated, motionless in the black, her mind at peace in the nothingness, her gut wanting to only sink further, while her lungs cried for new air. As she kicked herself upward it sank into her that she was a creature of the air as much as earth or water.
Hands grabbed her as she neared the surface, hauling her up and out. Her dress was stripped off, replaced by a thick fleece. They wrapped her hair in a separate blanket. Within the fleece she clung to the stone still safely on her chest, thwarting their attempts to remove the soaked cloth.
A solemn group lined the bank some distance away, clad in firs held on by thin strips of leather, their legs and arms wrapped in the same. As the boat carrying Sh'ra approached, the man beside her holding the torch stood and waived it in a circle over his head, throwing fire around them onto the water. Sh’ra watched as a flame burned briefly on the surface of the water to her left. The roar of the crowd washed over her. She lifted her head to see them with arms raised, yelling. They were cheering and dancing.
“Stand, young one,” the man said to her.
Steadied by the woman next to her, she complied, still confused. Were they celebrating her failure? The man raised both arms outward and the raucous shoreline quieted. The boat swayed gently beneath their feet as he held the stillness.
“Welcome Sh’ra. Welcome, daughter of the Air. Welcome, Sh’ra al bin Ka’tur!” He bellowed across the water, the wave of his voice crashing against the rock behind the crowd before reverberating back out over the lake. For a moment, there was silence as the words reached them. They stood as one, then erupted into a frenzied many as the celebration was rejoined and redoubled.
“I don’t understand,” Sh’ra whispered to him. “Did I not fail?”
“Fail?” The man’s deep voice bellowed even when he spoke softly. “No one has made that leap since the days of my father’s father. And that fool died when he hit the water, for he was no son of the Air. No my daughter, you did not fail.”
“But I… I crawled. I crawled across the bridge.” She breathed the last out, still afraid to admit it — afraid someone might overhear. They would change their minds once they knew. The truth gnawed at her, refusing to let go. It’s teeth gripping tighter at each sound of jubilation from the shore. They were wrong. All of them were wrong about her. She was not one to be celebrated. She had failed. They just had not realized it yet.
“Crawled?” The man looked at her in confusion. “Of course you crawled!”
He bellowed again in laughter, throwing one of his giant arms across her shoulders. “Did you think that was failure? Everyone crawls! Only a fool would try to cross that bridge standing!” He laughed again, it’s low rumble breaking through the wall of tension that had drawn tight around her, slicing the cords of fear that bound her.
He released her, turning once more to the crowd. Raising both hands, he roared, “Al bin Ka’tur! Al bin Ka’tur!”
On the shore, she heard the crowd take up the chant.
Instead of taking her to the edge of the lake with the crowd, the boat rowed parallel to it until they reached a small dock. A man and woman waited on the dock. They greeted her with smiles and hugs and many questions of if there was anything she needed. She turned down an offer for a blanket at least a dozen times. After a short walk, they shuffled her onto a railed wooden platform. The woman moved to a corner of the platform and pulled on a taut rope that extended upward. Sh’ra followed the length of it until it disappeared in the darkness above. The woman pulled the rope again, muttering about how someone could possibly be asleep on this night.
Sh’ra nearly fell over as the platform lurched beneath her. She looked to the man and saw him steadying himself with the railing. She was thankful to follow his example for the platform soon began swaying sickeningly back and forth as it rose.
“There is usually more weight on it than this.” The man said apologetically.
Sh’ra squeezed her eyes shut and bent toward the railing, trying not to vomit from the motion. As they rose, the platform steadied and she was able to open them again. Above, the rock formation they were being lifted up blotted out the stars. Given how much they were able to sway without ramming into the anything, she guessed there was a large overhang. Below, the crowd continued to dance near the lake, her presence unnecessary for the festivities to continue. She had never imagined the Air clan being a joyful people. How could a group of trained killers dance so?
“Is this the only way up?” She asked through the queasiness.
“There are a few more lifts. This was the closest. And there is a path, but it is a steep climb and we did not want to ask that of you after today.”
Sh’ra nodded, doing her best to feel grateful. The platform slowed. Around them a sort of funnel had been built, guiding the platform along a channel. As they rose over the ledge, Sh’ra gasped. She had always been told the Air clan were disorganized nomads, never seen together in groups larger than five or ten. But here before her, an enormous city came into view, at least equal in size to the Stone clan capital. Built directly into the side of the mountain, it rose beyond the height she could crane her neck to see. Its lights must have been carefully guarded from view for she had seen no hint of them from below. Her mind reeled as the couple guided her off the large lift and onto a smaller one that seemed to have been meant for only two people.
As they rose, she was given a full view of the city beside her — countless doors and windows carved into the rock face, wooden pathways joining them where the stone did not provide a way of its own. Some of the dwellings looked like there were formed by natural erosion of the stone, others had clearly been shaped by hand. She also saw why no light was visible from below. Each window was angled upward such that light would leave obscured from beneath.
“They say all of this was once at the bottom of a great ocean. You can find shells embedded in the walls of even the highest homes.” Spoke the woman beside her.
The lift halted about halfway up the city, as best Sh’ra could tell. Hundreds of tiny lit windows filled the space below them, stone and wood the only barriers from the abyss beneath as they exited onto a narrow walkway. Her head felt light and her stomach churned as she walked over the wooden planks. The couple led her to an entryway not far from the lift. The woman opened the door and stepped aside to allow Sh’ra to enter first. Confused but without the energy to object, Sh’ra walked through the door.
“Welcome Sh’ra, to your home.”
Sh’ra turned as the man said it from behind her. The woman stood beside him now, her arm linked through his.
“I don’t understand. This is mine?”
“Yes, as a member of the Air clan, this is your home. None may enter, except with your permission. It is yours and yours alone.”
Sh’ra marveled. This was hers. Her home.
“But, where do you live?” She asked, turning back to the couple.
“We are a few doors over and down.” The woman responded, pointing to her left. “Three grey ovals mark the wood.”
Sh’ra nodded her understanding. On her own door, the shape of a diamond was traced in black. The couple stepped forward and embraced her, as if she were a long lost child who had just returned home.
“Good night Sh’ra. Welcome to the Air clan.”
Sh’ra called out to them as they walked away.
“Wait! I don’t even know your names! What should I call you?”
The stopped and turned to look at her. The man spoke.
“You may call me Heya’t.” Then he paused and the woman spoke.
“And me, you will call O’lum.”
The woman smiled kindly at the perplexed look on her face.
“It will make more sense tomorrow.”
With a kind smile, he bowed to her deferentially before grasping O'lum’s hand and strolling away casually into the night. Sh’ra was not well versed in the ancient tongue, but those two words she knew. Heya’t and O’lum. Life and Death.