Five centuries ago,
on the island now called Hawaii,
there was a kingdom filled with adventure, beauty, and magic…
Chapter 1: Waimoku Falls
As I tumbled through the sky there was one thing I knew. I didn’t want to die. Not then, not that way, and surely not at my brother’s hands.
The thunder of Waimoku Falls reverberated off the sheer volcanic mountainside, ringing in my ears as I fell for longer than I thought a person could fall, until it felt like I was floating in mid-air. I was momentarily distracted by the abundant smaller waterspouts springing forth from the vertical cliff face, as though a reservoir within the rock was seeping through its crevices.
Then I filled my lungs one last time and braced myself for the plunge into the churning pool beneath me, praying the water was deep enough to spare me from being smashed to pieces.
* * *
It had still been dark when my brother, Nahoa, and I set out earlier that morning. The night sky was clear and the heavens filled with countless stars so bright they burned my eyes.
“Why are we going south?” I asked, still half-asleep. “I thought we were going surfing?”
My brother looked around the rainforest as if the trees were listening. “Last night I heard the Kahuna (holy priest, sorcerer, magician, or wizard) speaking to the elders about an abandoned temple. Haunted by spirits, the lost soul of an ancient king.”
“Father will not be happy,” I said, self-consciously aware that I sounded like a tattletale.
Nahoa smiled. “Well, Father’s not here, is he, little brother?”
Our father, King Haga, had been spending long stretches away from the Great Island lately, roaming Oceana and brokering alliances with neighboring island tribes to fulfill a dream of uniting them into one great nation.
“You should know me well enough, little omo (remora, or suckerfish). There’s no better way to arouse my curiosity than to tell me ‘no.’”
I hated it when my brother called me omo, his way of reminding me of my place. In his mind, he was a great shark and I was just a lowly suckerfish along for the ride.
Nahoa had just turned 16, and although he was barely a year older, he carried himself with the swagger of a well-fed tiger shark that could unleash its deadly force at will, while I had yet to shed what our mother teasingly called my baby fat.
When Nahoa and I stood side by side, our common bloodline was apparent. We both had Father’s strong jawline and Mother’s wide mouth. I wore my hair past my shoulders, but my brother cropped his short to swim faster through the swift currents and riptides. Nahoa had a scraggly beard to look menacing while my face was still smooth, without even a sprout of catfish whiskers.
People tell me my eyes are like Father’s, shining with kindness and understanding, but I’d heard the nervous whispers about my brother’s dull black ones, which never revealed his emotions.
We walked in silence until we reached a steep, winding trail and climbed through a lush tropical canyon. The rocky pathway was covered with slippery moss, and our legs brushed against an overgrowth of rain-soaked ferns. The high branches echoed with the chatter of finches and honeycreepers nesting above us, and the smell of mango and lilikoi (passion fruit) trees reminded me of the great orchards on the lower slopes of Mauna Kea.
As we approached the ridgetop, we stopped and watched the sun rise over the lush valley below us, filtered through gray and purple rainclouds. I drank in the spectacular view, and had no doubt that the Great Island was the most beautiful place in all of Oceana.
Nahoa led us along the crest of the ridge and then down a narrow path into a deep gorge known as the singing forest, a dense thicket of towering bamboo that swayed in the early morning breeze. As the hollow trees rubbed against each other, they performed a haunting symphony that sounded like a thousand bass-toned flutes playing slightly out of key. The forest seemed to moan with sadness, and the eerie melody made me jumpy.
“What weapon did you bring?” Nahoa asked, breaking our silence.
“A weapon? Do you expect the spirits to be armed?”
“I’ve told you, I don’t believe in ghosts,” he said, revealing a lava-stone dagger. “Ruins have treasure, little brother, and treasure invites thieves.”
“Like us?” I asked, trying not to sound nervous.
“Up there,” said Nahoa, pointing to the mountaintop at the far end of the valley. “See where that hawk is circling? That’s the spot.”
We climbed the backside of the canyon, still winding through the singing forest. A sudden gust blew through the treetops, causing the tall hollow stalks to cry a warning and my heart to beat faster. What danger was Nahoa getting me into this time?
By midday we reached the tree line, and the terrain became near vertical, with slabs of volcanic rock stacked in a series of small ledges and caves.
I turned around, looking out over the green bamboo treetops. To my right, the towering snow-capped summit of Mauna Kea dominated the sky. It was the tallest and most sacred spot on the Great Island, and on rare occasions smoke and ash billowed from its peak, rising above the icy white snowdrifts. Fortunately, there had not been a major eruption or lava flow in many generations.
“I’ll race you to the top,” Nahoa challenged. “I’ll even give you a head start.”
We had always enjoyed a spirited rivalry, feeding off each other’s competitive nature. I surveyed the cliff, picking my route.
“You’re on,” I said as I hoisted myself up and grabbed onto a small lava finger hold. Just above me was a long fissure in the rock, sloping upward to my right and then back to the left. While this path would take me on a longer course, it was less demanding, and my best chance to beat Nahoa to the crest.
He saw my plan. “Good, little brother. That path is safer.”
I carefully moved forward, while Nahoa soon got stuck above me on the sheer vertical wall of lava, his legs dangling and his feet probing the cliffside.
“Fingers getting tired?” I asked him as I moved closer to the top. I was going to beat him, for once.
“I won’t be here long,” he said.
As I followed the crevice back to the left, Nahoa whipped his body to the right and leapt off the cliff, his foot landing on my shoulder. He pushed off my neck and hoisted himself onto the ledge above me, just below the crest.
“Thanks, omo,” he said with a wicked laugh.
As I pulled myself onto the ridgetop I saw Nahoa ahead, following a fast-moving river that disappeared in the distance.
“Move it!” he yelled above the sound of the rushing water.
I hurried to catch up and we crossed the river along a jagged path of partially submerged boulders smoothed over by the rapids.
Before us, the river gained strength where it merged with a smaller tributary and formed a swirling vortex that plummeted off the cliff as Waimoku Falls.
“That’s it,” said Nahoa, pointing at a small hill piled with rubble just in front of where the two rivers joined.
There we found the remains of a crescent-shaped fortress made from stacked lava rocks. The curved wall was crumbling, with crusty orange lichen growing in the crevices and bright green geckos sunning themselves on top. The ground was littered with shark teeth, razor sharp and bleached by the scorching tropical sun.
I was disappointed. I’d hoped to find a great temple with cryptic markings or intricate carvings. What lay before us was nothing more than a pile of weather-beaten rocks.
“Well, this is a waste of time,” said Nahoa. He picked up a stone and hurled it at the remains of the fortress. From beneath the broken wall, a gathering of centipedes scrambled to escape the sunlight.
An icy wind went through me. It wasn’t like a tropical breeze that cools your sweaty cheek. No, it pierced my flesh like I was no more solid than a palm frond. Disturbing the centipedes was a bad omen—they were minions of the shadows.
“Did you feel that?” I asked.
Nahoa stood frozen, the hair on his arms standing on end.
He swallowed. “Feel what?”
“I don’t think we should be here,” I said, motioning for us to leave. For once, I hoped he’d agree with me.
“Do you want me to hold your hand, little brother? We’ll just have a look around, that’s all.”
Nahoa walked over to where he’d thrown the rock and knelt to examine the rubble. He picked through and uncovered a wooden tiki head. The carving was badly weathered, its left ear missing. Its mouth snarled, and its eyes glared with menace.
I looked at my brother’s face. He was in a trance, his head tilted down and his eyes looking up. They were cold and lifeless.
“Nahoa,” I screamed. “Stop playing around. That’s not funny!”
But he just stood there. I yelled again, “Nahoa! We shouldn’t be here. Let’s go!”
He blinked, but otherwise remained perfectly still.
As I stepped toward him, Nahoa pulled his knife and backed me toward the rushing river.
“It’s you that doesn’t belong here, little brother,” he said in a hushed tone.
Then he charged at me like a wild boar, knocking me into the water. I stood up, knee-deep in the fast-moving river, and dug my feet into the rocky bottom, bracing myself so the current didn’t pull me downstream. Nahoa leapt again and landed on top of me, sending us both tumbling into the whitewater.
Since we were old enough to walk, Nahoa and I had been schooled by the masters in lua (ancient Hawaiian school of martial arts)—wrestling, hand-to-hand combat, and the use of our tribe’s most savage battle weapons. From years as sparring partners, I knew all his offensive moves and counter attacks as though they were my own. But as we raced downstream, bouncing off the rocks and plummeting down the rapids, I felt as though I was fighting a stranger. And I was fighting for my life.
Up ahead, jagged rocks rose above the waterline. I flipped onto my back with my feet below me, struggling against Nahoa’s hands wrapped around my throat. I kicked free of him, but that only quickened my pace down the rapids. I slammed into a boulder, my feet bracing my impact. I was exhausted, but knew I had to get out of the water before I reached the falls. I managed to clamber partway up a slippery rock, then gathered the strength to hoist myself completely from the rushing current. Upstream, I saw Nahoa dangling from a tree branch, the rapids churning below him.
My footing slipped and in an instant I was back in the river. The turbulence engulfed me, pulling me into the foaming whitewater. Then I was weightless, freefalling.