A deep groan filled the cavern, followed by a series of loud cracks. Chad climbed onto the wide ledge and then swiveled to look down at Dae on the edge of a thick slab jutting out over the ravine at an angle. His backpack toppled to the side as he set his torch down and angled it to shine over the twelve-foot drop. The climb wouldn’t be so bad if the stream they had crossed a month ago hadn’t grown into a manic river.
The rapids raced along the gorge in angry fluxes, shadows collapsing, reforming. Spray flew upward as the tides rammed into boulders. The dank scent coated his airways with an iron tang.
Where did all the water come from?
Chad tossed the rope to Dae. She reached to grab it, but her boots slipped on the slick rock and the line fell. It tripped and tugged along the wild current. His breath hitched as her arms flew wide, and she buckled to regain her balance.
He quickly reeled the rope in to try again. “Don’t lean so far over. I’ll throw it harder.”
She nodded and swiped the wet hair from her face.
Thick splashes hammered into the channel to Chad’s right, and he glanced at the wall at the head of the ravine. The light from his torch highlighted the falls as they surged from the fissure near the low ceiling. A series of deafening pops echoed through the canyon, and as if the mouth of the stream was made of crusty dirt, it crumbled. A large fracture traveled up the length of the partition.
He flung the rope to Dae again, and she snatched it from the air. “Don’t try to climb! Tie it around your waist. I’ll pull you up.”
Her hands fumbled the rope into a knot and then she gripped the line. “Okay, I am ready.”
As he wedged his boots for a firm hold, water spewed from the fissure and blasted rock through the canyon. Dae’s scream rode the roar of water as it swept her from the thick slab. The rope snapped tight, and air punched from Chad’s lungs as he clung on with everything he had. He threw a glance at the hooks wedged between two stalagmites and hoped by all that was good they’d hold. He cursed himself for not securing the line more fully before he’d tossed it to Dae. But something had told him to act fast and get her up there.
He tugged on Dae’s rope and quickly wound it around his arm, inching her closer. “Dae?”
No answer rose from the din.
He pulled harder, leaning into sidesteps for more leverage. “Dae!”
Her hand rose from the currents, and she rolled, coughing.
“Unclip your pack!”
She craned her neck and bit at the clip on her shoulder strap. The large canvas bag whisked away, and the weight on the line lessened. He quickly tugged again, and Dae reached up the tether. Three more hauls and then Chad dropped to his knees to reach for her.
She clung to the leash, shoulders above the water’s crest, as her gasps parted the sheet of hair over her face.
“Dae, give me your hand.”
She looked up, her lips pinched together as she peered at his hand through drenched locks. “I cannot touch you. You are my Keeper.”
She’s worried about that right now? He tempered a growl at the idiotic placement decrees imposed on their peoples. “I’m well aware of the appropriate actions of a server. Will you disobey a direct command? Dae, give me your hand!”
She inched up the rope. He dropped to his belly, grasped her wrist, and then dragged her along the rough ravine wall and out of the water. As soon as she came within better reach, he hooked his finger through the shoulder weaves on her tunic. Hefting her over the ledge, he thanked the Fates she’d made her clothes with such care to durability.
Containers attached to her belt clanked against the rock ledge as Dae rolled onto her back. Chad joined her, draping a forearm over his brow. His ribcage jumped with each hard thump of his heart. Had it been hammering like that the whole time? He heaved a breath and then rolled his head to look at her.
Shadows hid most of her heart-shaped face, but the torch cast a slight glow along her profile. He traced it with his gaze. Her chin trembled, and her chest rose and fell in a jittery rhythm. But she was safe—safe and lying three feet from him.
He blew a long stream of air through his pursed lips.
Fates, what if I had lost her?
Quivers spider-walked along his arms, and he dragged his hands down his face to regain composure. The last thing Dae needed right now was to have her Keeper show weakness.
She brushed her long hair back and then let her arms drop. Her mouth moved with silent words. Rolling to the side, she pushed herself onto her knees. Small tremors shook her hands as she placed them on the ground and bowed her head low. “I questioned your command,” she whispered with a croaky voice. “I will serve penitence.”
Chad sat up and rested his arm on his knee. “No penitence is necessary, Dae. But…” She’d been born to their keep when he was two years old, and he couldn’t keep his eyes off her since. Now, at nineteen, how could he bear to live without her? “Don’t you understand I can’t lose you?”
She lifted her gaze. “I am sorry. Do you require service now?”
He sighed. Of course he would require vitality again at some point, but that wasn’t what he meant by the comment. A glower tempted to erase the proper response he should give as master.
It’s always about the service. Always. He allowed a low rumble in his throat to dispel the urge to spit the fact from him. Placement. Never forget your placement. Picking up the torch, he leaned into a stand. “No, Dae, I don’t require service.”