Joy won out when she returned to her home in the South, and her sisters ran out to greet her. She embraced each of them, half laughing, half crying. They all settled down around the fire for Tally to tell of her travels.
It was a nightly ritual, these stories around the fire. But before today, all the stories told had been of dreams and legends, faraway adventures the sisters had never experienced for themselves.
When Tally was finished with her tale, and the sisters had all their questions answered, their heads were full of dreams, and the next phase of storytelling began.
"Why didn't you do it before?" Stella asked.
"I was scared," Tally said, "It's not easy to leave, but I'm glad I did. Thing is, now I don't think I can stay in one place."
"So we're going to the Emerald Mountain?" Stella said.
"Who said that?" Tally laughed.
"Who wants to say the poem?" Lulu said, "Someone tell it!"
"Olivia!" Stella said.
"Oh, let Eloise tell it," Olivia said, "I told it last time."
Eloise recited the poem from memory:
A mountain rises to the sky
Beyond the clouds where dreamers fly
Past the storms cold wind and rain
Past the horrors, grief and pain
Out beyond all plans and paths
Beyond reason, science and math
Through dark caves and twisting trees
Over boulders, marshes and streams
There is a garden full of light
Healing power glowing bright
It is a land of peace and rest
After a long and difficult quest
The healing gift takes shape in earth
With the promise of rebirth
The gifts the Emerald Mountain holds
Are far more than jewels and gold
"We could do it, you know," Stella said.
She'd said it every time after the poem was recited, and every time Tally laughed it off as impossible. This time, however... She had explored the Western lands alone. She had learned more of her magic, survived danger, and now... "I think I could do it," she said.
"What?" Tess said, "Tally, that's crazy."
"Alone it's crazy," Lulu said, "We could do it, together. Duplication of your healing products can only go so far. Just imagine what we could do if we had treasure from the Emerald Mountain!"
"You couldn't do it alone," Eloise said, "But if we all came with you..."
"I'm in!" Stella said.
"Me too!" Lulu said.
"You're not going without me," Tess said.
"Then I'm coming too!" Helena said.
Olivia and Eloise looked at each other. "You're not leaving us behind."
So it was decided. The seven sisters were leaving for the Emerald Mountain.
The Emerald Mountain stood among others that might have been called nothing but hills in comparison. There was a train that ran through the mountains, and tourists often took it to get a view of the Emerald Mountain, but none of them ever dared climb it. There were no hiking trails, and too many stories of unknown dangers.
Tally and her sisters were as prepared as they could be when they boarded the train. They had food, healing herbs, blankets, warm clothing, a tent, and maps of the area, all packed up in their backpacks, shrunken by transformation magic.
The train carried them into the mountains, and thick woods surrounded them on all sides. Stella began to hum, and Eloise and Tally joined in. Lulu was the first to sing out loud, but all the sisters soon joined her in a chorus.
The song made the journey pass quickly, and before they knew it, they were stepping off the train, and the Emerald Mountain was before them.
The air was colder here, and foggy. The mountain rose high into the clouds, and none of the girls could see the summit.
A brief check of the map confirmed where to go, and Tally led them into the trees, starting up a song to give them courage. Up they went, their boots crunching on leaves and twigs underfoot, their hands reaching out to find another to hold.
They hiked through the day, watching the trees thicken and the branches entangle. It seemed like all the trees were one being, they were so connected. Perhaps the entire mountain was all one being, but Tally hadn't found any healing magic yet.
"There should be a clearing up here," Tally said, checking the map, "And a stream not far from it."
"We should make camp when we get there," Tess said.
The clearing wasn't an ordinary one. All the trees had bowed their heads, and stretched their branches across the ground, making a field of leaves. "It's beautiful!" Stella exclaimed. The girls were still hesitant as they made their way into the clearing, and unpacked their gear. They didn't make a fire, for fear of setting the forest ablaze. Despite that, it was an ordinary night for the sisters: food, storytelling, singing, and sleep.
The first few days were similar. The only struggles were their own aching muscles, and running short of breath during their songs. As they hiked further up the Mountain, strange mixes of magic began to cross their path.
Fortunately, these mixes were only dangerous if provoked. These were the currents the Mountain gave life to, for it was a being of magic itself. There were glittering lights moving about in the treetops, and occasionally they came to the ground. When they did, Tally knew to get herself and her sisters out of the way. That light had business to do, and did not want to be slowed down.
Tally had read about the guards of the Mountain. All the guards were there to discover if the Mountain's visitors were too greedy. The treasure was plentiful enough for a healer to gather her share of supplies, but so many desired to take too much. There were stories of wars here, foolish armies who dared declare battle with the Mountain. The Mountain won every time. Tally didn't know if any of those stories were true, or if they were just lessons about greed told to children.
One type of guard was the fireball hovering in place in a clearing, far from any tree. It wasn't made from ordinary fire, but a rare mix of magic unique to the Mountain. Rarer even, than the Mountain's treasure. This mix wasn't in any part of the healing garden. Researchers who studied it from a distance found it was made of nearly every one of the twelve gifts. It's light was enchanting, and ever so tempting to capture, but the moment a traveler made a move toward it, it would attack.
"Don't look too closely at it," Tess said.
"But this is a once in a lifetime--"
"Lulu, do as I say or that lifetime will be cut short," Tess said.
Tally grabbed Stella's hand. "I'm going to look at it, but you have to keep pulling me forward. In a few steps, we'll switch, okay?"
"Are you sure?"
Tally nodded. "I trust you."
Stella's grip on her hand was firm, and Tally looked into the light. Brilliant colors flashed before her eyes, more of them unfolding with every moment. Warm, sweet, powerful energy lay within that glow, and a song she wanted to dance to forever...
"Tally!" Stella pulled hard on her hand. Tally shook herself, tearing her eyes away from the fire.
"I don't think I'd try to capture it," Tally said, "Just stare at it forever."
"Maybe that's what happens. Maybe it doesn't attack, people just spend their whole lives watching it. My turn!"
"Tally! Stella!" Helena waved them over from the other side of the clearing. Stella's eyes were already on the fire, but Tally grabbed her hand and ran. Stella's feet suddenly had roots growing into the ground, and Olivia had to run over to them and help, but at last they managed to get moving again.
"What were you thinking?" Olivia said.
"Once in a lifetime and all that," Stella muttered.
"Was it worth it?"
"I don't know," Tally said. Now that she'd experienced it, she didn't think she'd ever in her life look upon a more beautiful sight, and the thought was rather disappointing.
On they went, until a dark cave opened before them. Tally checked the map, and they marched inside, with lights and a song to fill the darkness.
The first cave only took a few hours to cross, but there were several more for the next few days. Sometimes they had to sleep inside the caves, and the sisters, Stella in particular, began to long for sunlight.
"We make the light," Tally said, as they settled down to sleep. "Wherever we are. We could be in the dark all our lives and make the light with song."
"My voice is tired."
"Then sleep, child," Tally said, "Rest to sing another day."
Another day, another song. Stella brightened again, and so did the rest of them. And so did the cave.
"I see the sun!" Olivia said, "Look! We're almost out!"
The girls shouted in celebration, basking in the glow of the sun. The air was still cold, but the light was bliss.
After a few more days of travel, they found water, streams decorating the woods, and only one of them was the right one to follow and eventually cross. Tally consulted the map, tracing with her fingers, trying to find where they were. She was so focused she didn't notice the change in the air.
Golden light surrounded them, closing in around each individual sister. It brushed against Tally's skin, stinging a little, then turning into a strange, tingling sensation, not entirely unpleasant, but certainly nerve-wracking.
Some of the sisters put up magical shields, Helena among them. The light burned through her shield, and into her skin. She shrieked, staggering backward, fighting to put up another shield.
"Don't fight it!" Tally said, "It's a test!"
Helena dropped to the ground, letting her defenses fall away. "It hurts, Tally!"
"Not for long," Tally said, "I've read about this. It's seeking our intentions. Let it, and it won't hurt you."
Tally stood still as the light sank into her, warming her skin, blinding her vision. We won't take too much, she told it, I promise, we won't...
We'll bring no harm to you, Tally, but can promise no protection. The light sent the message into her mind.
What are you?
The guardians of the Mountain. Demons, in stories you might have heard, but those are lies. We aren't the danger of this mountain, not to those pure of heart.
Then what is?
Past the storms' cold wind and rain, past the horrors, grief and pain. Be warned, Tally. The Mountain doesn't care what's in your heart. It'll destroy you like anyone else.
You can't protect us?
We can only decide whether or not to let you pass. You may pass, Tally. That is all.
The light vanished, flooding out of Tally's body so fast she felt empty without it for a moment. Cold.
"Is everyone alright?" Tess asked.
The light was still clinging to several of the sisters. Helena was on the ground, screaming and writhing in pain.
"Helena!" Tally ran to her side, grasping her hand. As she did, the light flew into her mind again.
Don't heal her. This is her test.
But you're killing her!
You passed, Tally. She did not. Don't interfere!
The last thought pierced her mind with a jolt of pain. Helena's cries died down to soft moans, and she curled in on herself, trembling.
"No... No! Helena..." Tally was helpless as the guards of the Mountain destroyed her sister. Helena fell still and silent.
Her sisters gathered around the body, embracing each other. Stella was already in tears, but Tally was still in such a state of disbelief she couldn't even cry. "Helena..."
"We'll bury her," Tess whispered, "sing for her..."
No. Leave her. She is ours.
"We should go," Tally whispered. She didn't think her legs would support her weight, but if they lingered in the guard's territory, they could die the same way. "While we can. We're going."
Hands clasped. They pulled each other to their feet. Tally wrapped her arm around Stella, and they walked on.
"This is my fault," Tally whispered, "I brought us, I..."
"No," Eloise said, "We did this together."
"Your knowledge kept the rest of us safe," Tess said, "You're protecting us."
"We can go back if--"
"No one's about to turn back," Lulu said. She added in a lower voice, "We'll sing for her later. When the cruel ears of this mountain can't hear us."
Tally brushed a tear from her eye, and nodded. In truth she was relieved to delay confronting her grief. She wasn't sure she had the strength to sing.
They consulted the map again. With Eloise's help, Tally found the right stream. It would lead them to a rocky path, only three days journey to the summit.
"We're so close now," Lulu said, "Tally, you've done it!"
"Not yet," she said, "But we'll get there."