TERTIUS HAD SAID he was going to show her a wonder.
Septima had never been this far from the central caverns before. They had been on the run for days, but up until now they had skirted around their old haunts—swiping food parcels whenever they could, making do with drinking from deep, clear pools of water when they could not. She felt an ache in her belly sometimes, but she was still buzzing with the thrill of it all. She knew that the guardians would catch up soon.
So when, an hour ago, Tertius had told her that he had scouted ahead, and found something marvelous, she was sure that he was lying. Maybe the guardians had threatened him. Maybe he was leading her into a trap.
That didn’t stop her from going, of course.
They walked through new and mysterious caves. There was no crystal light here, so they both lit their lanterns. The metal was smooth and warm under her fingers. Everything looked different under lamplight—Tertius’s pale face became burnished gold, and his large, dark eyes gleamed with excitement.
Septima stroked back her long, ash-colored hair.
“Is it far?” she asked, daringly. It wasn’t her turn to ask a question, but out here they could break all the rules.
“Just a couple more caves away,” he said. His voice was high and tense, with none of the music it normally had. She bristled a little. This was his wonder; he wasn’t supposed to be frightened of it.
Septima was about to speak again, when she heard a strange echo, too far away to make out. Suddenly, she was afraid too, and shrank into her long robe.
“We’re near the Cacophony,” she whispered. “You never said the wonder was out here. What if it’s moved?”
“It won’t have,” he replied, irritated. “Don’t fuss. I don’t need to answer you. You haven’t shown me anything new for days.”
She lapsed into silence, sulking. But it was true. She would have to find something for him soon. She didn’t want him to lose interest in her.
She had been near the Cacophony only once before. Back when she had been too young to sing, her tutor had taken her and the others in her section to the outer caves. She would never forget that visit.
She remembered the unfamiliar silence. Their tutor had forbidden them to talk. To speak near the Cacophony invited it to come and find you.
Then there had been the darkness. The tutor had made them douse their lanterns. One girl had refused to go any farther. She had never been out of the crystal light. But the rest of them were braver. They left her, cowering, and walked into the pitch-black caves, stumbling over little cracks in the ground.
As Septima walked now, she felt those same irregularities beneath her feet, so unlike the smooth stone at the Hub. She stared defiantly at the still-burning flame in her lantern. There was no tutor here to make her walk in darkness. For the first time in her life, she was abandoning the rules. She was a rebel.
But now, as she and Tertius moved deeper into the outer caverns, Septima began to hear again what had so terrified her years before: the echoes. They emerged out of the silence—quiet at first, but growing in intensity. Roiling, rushing sounds, like the pounding of a river made up of words and shouts and wails. Septima pressed her hands over her ears, but it didn’t make any difference. These echoes seemed to well up from the ground itself.
It wasn’t the voices themselves that frightened her, but the passion behind them. Each one roared with joy, or cried in pain. A million voices, all talking at once, each demanding that she listen. She quickened her pace, her heart pounding. It was said to be madness to walk through the Cacophony. The impenetrable barrier that circled their home was an ocean of sound that filled the outer caverns with insane howls and mind-destroying whispers. But that didn’t stop people going as near as they dared.
“We don’t have to go through the Cacophony, do we?” Septima asked as the echoes faded a little. Tertius didn’t respond. He wouldn’t talk now. Not unless Septima gave him some new information in exchange.
“I’ve been here before,” she ventured. Still silence. “Six years ago. Just before we first spoke.” She bit her lip. Was it enough?
Finally, Tertius turned back, looking satisfied. Septima breathed a sigh of relief. She had balanced their knowledge; they were even.
“No, we don’t need to go through. The wonder is just at the entrance to one of the outer caverns.” He grinned, his teeth shining in the lamplight. “Not afraid, are you?”
“A little,” she admitted. He stepped closer to her. Involuntarily, she pulled back; she could almost feel his breath on her face. That wouldn’t do at all.
“Let’s get going,” she mumbled, her cheeks flushing.
They walked on. She tried to relax, but the rumble of the Cacophony left her on edge. The stone above her seemed to shake with it, as though any moment it might burst out, burying them in the awful sound.
And then, Tertius held up his hand, cutting across her thoughts with the sudden gesture.
“We’re here,” he breathed.
She squinted into the distance. Just ahead, at the mouth of one of the smaller tunnels, she saw something on the ground. It looked like a pile of cloth. She wrinkled her nose in disappointment.
“Doesn’t look like much of a wonder to me,” she said, doubtfully. But as they drew near, she could make it out more clearly. No … it wasn’t cloth … it was …
“But that’s impossible!” She gasped. “Is it one of the Choir? It must be…”
“Who?” he asked, triumphantly. “Have you ever seen her face before?”
She looked down. Crumpled at her companion’s feet was a girl of maybe fifteen years. Her long, black hair was loose, and fell over her face in swaths. Her skin, too, was dark, and contrasted with her off-white woollen dress, weighed down with dried, flaking mud.
Septima had never seen her before in her life. And that was amazing.
“Is she … one of the Orchestra?” She asked, breathless, so excited she forgot that it was not her turn to ask a question.
“Only one way to find out,” he said.
Slowly, he extended one foot. She felt the breath catch in her throat.
He looked up, a look of fierce excitement on his face.
He prodded the form with the toe of his boot. Septima squealed in delighted fear. He was amazing; he could do anything.
The form groaned. They both jumped back. She felt like screaming, but already her squeal from before was echoing around the chamber, and she didn’t want to add to it. The guardians might hear them, and take their wonder away.
So she watched, in amazed silence, as the girl raised a hand, and brushed the hair away from her face.
“What … I … where?”
The girl stared up at the two of them, her eyes wide.
“Where am I?”
Septima’s mind raced, trying to come up with the right response. Was this wonder, this girl, really asking a question, without first offering some knowledge?
“Don’t you remember?” she asked, cautiously, deciding the only proper response was another question.
The girl seemed thrown by this, and she pushed herself into a sitting position.
“I remember … the steps,” she began. “So many steps. Going down forever. And the darkness. And then … voices … calling my name. Getting louder, and louder…”
Tertius nearly dropped the lantern.
“You’ve been through the Cacophony?” he said, abandoning all the rules. “What was it like? Where do you come from?”
Septima turned and stared at him in astonishment. They certainly hadn’t earned the right to ask questions like that. Not yet.
“Let’s start with something simple,” she said, turning to the girl. “Tell us, what shall we call you?”
The girl shook her head for a moment, as if clearing it of smoke.
“I’m … Lily. My name is Lily,” she said. And then, looking more confident, she rose to her feet. “My name is Lilith d’Annain, from the city of Agora. Now you tell me,” she said, looking Septima in the eyes without fear. “Where am I?”
Copyright © 2013 by David Whitley
David Whitley, a recent graduate of Oxford, wrote his first children's novel at age 17; it was shortlisted for the Kathleen Fidler Award. At 20, he was the youngest person ever to win the Chesire Prize for Literature for a children's short story. He lives in England.