Chapter 19- Ahead of Schedule
We were packed and ready to leave the town before first light. The planes had been repaired and scattered among the various convoys to provide air support. Thankfully, Gardon and a choice pair of soldiers accompanied ours. Additionally, Blaze had unveiled three large vehicles for each group, courtesy of earlier battles with Nega and spacious enough to move small forces. The plan was that two of the three vehicles and the planes would scout ahead of each army, clearing the way and reporting any danger. Once the vehicles off-loaded their first transports at the site of a Sol Emerald, they would return to the marching army for more passengers, ferrying them quickly to the site, while those left behind at the Sol Emerald would prepare their defenses and begin their search.
As I checked our supplies and the wheels of a vehicle, I spotted Blaze by the driver door, discussing their intended path with a dignitary. The conversation ended and I caught her eye. A small smile graced her lips and her cheeks heated up like mine. I fumbled my hand around the tires, pretending to still check them, but leaned too far into empty space. I face-planted into a pile of grass.
Before anyone could see, I hopped up and noticed her shaking her head. She reached up for the door, feeling her way for the handle and missing by several inches, banging on the door instead. She finally grabbed the handle, tucked her chin into her chest in embarrassment, and crawled into the front seat.
“You know,” Gardon said, slapping my back and leaning against the wheels, “I don’t think I’ve seen teenagers as giddy as you two.” He raised a hand as I opened my mouth. “Save it. It’s plain on your face. If the Princess if happy, then I’m happy for you two. Goodness knows she could use something bright in her life.”
That makes two of us, I thought, looking at her door.
Then Gardon’s expression became serious. “But I’ll tell you the same thing I tell all my infatuated recruits when they find love. They’ll be time for all this later. Right now, your head needs to be in the here and now.”
“Right,” I said, nodding. “See you there.”
“Watch yourself,” he said and I climbed into the vehicle. Before I shut the door, he added, “And Silver.” I caught his amused grin. “I’m glad it was you.”
“Me too,” I said.
* * *
The drive was slow-going and hours passed by in silence. The soldiers talked very little and the dignitary in the front seat beside Blaze asked questions about Nega’s forces now and then. I sat behind her, with nothing much to do, but watch the landscape slowly freeze as we trekked further north. Frost tipped the trees and grass, and chilly air covered the window at first, then soon snow blew down from the steep mountains of ice and slush.
Several times, it almost seemed like we wouldn’t make it. The vehicle would stall in snow, digging its wheels into the ground furiously. I flicked my wrist and the wheels would lurch forward enough that we shot up the mountainside, nearly missing rocks, sharp drop-offs, or more dangerous inclines.
We wormed our way through narrow passes and around blockades of snow until we arrived at a flat clearing. Everyone bundled up in coats, scarves, wool boots, and anything else to keep them warm before exiting the vehicle. Nearby was a cave where the Sol Emerald in this area was supposed to reside. We quickly unloaded our gear, and hurried into the cave and out of the snowstorm.
Blaze dug a walkie-talkie out of one sack and radioed the vehicles to move on and bring back more troops. Then she called Gardon. “How is it up there?”
On the other end, I heard clicking static, then realized it was actually chattering teeth. “C-C-Cold. N-No sign of N-N-Nega.”
“Why don’t you fly up higher above the storm?” I asked.
“And m-m-miss this lo-lovely weather?” He gave a shivering laugh. “B-Besides, N-N-N-Nega may co-come in low-ow-ow.”
“Then come down to the cave. It won’t do us any good if you all freeze to death up there and crash. Land the planes at the clearing and come in,” Blaze said. “The snowstorm will mask our presence. If Nega comes, you’ll have time to take off.”
By the time the planes landed, the soldiers had already built a roaring fire in the cave that everyone crowded around. Gardon and the other pilots rushed in, with so much frost and snow clinging to their faces that they looked like snowmen pilots. I stepped aside to let them warm themselves and they flopped beside the fire, heating every inch of themselves and all but throwing their limbs into the white hot flames. Blaze had also taken her leave, joining the dignitary and a few captains in reviewing the history tome.
“We’ll give them some time to warm up,” she said, nodding to the soldiers. “Then we can split up. According to this, it should be deeper within.” The captains cast some doubtful looks at the dozen tunnels leading further into the cave. Each tunnel was made of pure ice, blues and greens that mixed and flowed together in all sorts of patterns beneath the clear surface. And all of them appeared to be the exact same, with no clear difference to distinguish one from another.
“Right, we’ll get the troops sorted,” the dignitary said and ordered the captains to their squads. I took the opportunity and sidled up beside her, whispering in her ear.
“Guess who,” I said.
She shook her head. “A rather naïve hedgehog?”
“That’s not what you were saying last night,” I said and she stuck her nose deeper in the book. I glanced up at the ceiling of the cave, my mouth dropping in awe. “Speaking of last night.” I pointed upwards.
High above us, the ceiling was packed with hard snow and ice, forming a watery spread like sunlight hitting the ocean. Thousands of glittering ice pieces winked back at us and I understood the meaning behind the name. “They look like hundreds of diamonds.”
“Yes,” she said and then surprised me with a peck on the cheek while no one was watching. “Now, let’s stay focused,” she said, clearing her throat.
Little chance of that now and I snuck a kiss back in, earning a playful elbow and a muttered, “Silver.” Yet there was no hiding the delighted look in her eyes
Fifteen minutes later, we had separated into two groups to explore the tunnels. Blaze and I had paired off, but Gardon volunteered to accompany us with a few soldiers. “No telling what could happen to the Princess in there,” he said, giving me a long look, as if reminding me of our mission.
The tunnel we chose was long and snake-like. Each group was assigned a soldier who doubled as a cartographer that sketched out the layout of the tunnel as we explored it. There was no sign of anything as far as we could tell. Ice, ice, and more ice that glowed in the light of Blaze’s fireballs, and only one lonesome, solitary path
As the tunnel curved around and straightened again, we bumped into the other group exploring an opposite tunnel. Blaze halted our group and asked, “Was there only one path for you?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” one of the soldiers said. They produced their sketch of their tunnel and we compared it to ours. It connected perfectly. The tunnel merely looped around into two ends.
“Alright,” Blaze said. “Let’s head out and try another.”
Unfortunately, the next tunnel we selected turned out to be no better. Once more, we ran into the other group and determined that the tunnel looped. So it was for every tunnel after that until we had exhausted our options. The soldiers, Blaze, and the dignitary looked over the maps, studying them for any clue to set us on the road to the Sol Emerald.
“Is there anything in the book?” the dignitary asked.
Blaze was ahead of him and already flipping through the history tome. “It says we must find the cave in the tallest mountain and climb up to find the Sol Emerald. In the heart of the highest peak, we will find the jewel of the north.”
“That’s what we’ve done,” Gardon said. “This is the tallest mountain and we found this cave by climbing up. Is there perhaps a higher cave?”
“Not that I can think of,” she said, checking outside. “This is high up to begin with. And there’s no path in the tunnels leading up.”
“Maybe we have to scale the peak of the mountain,” the dignitary suggested. “It could be located in the middle of the peak, the ‘heart’, as it were.” Murmurs spread throughout the group, as many declared it far too cold outside to brace another climb.
I zoned out and stopped paying attention, instead focusing more on the tunnels themselves. Since I wasn’t needed, I headed back into the first tunnel, taking a torch with me.
Scouring the ice high and low, I didn’t see anything except my own reflection in the walls. And like before, there were no forked paths anywhere. Just the single tunnel loop.
“Find the cave in the tallest mountain and climb up to find the Sol Emerald,” I repeated to myself. “In the heart of the highest peak, we will find the jewel of the north.” Climb up to find the Sol Emerald. In the heart of the highest peak. Something about the phrasing of that nagged me. Climb up, heart of the peak, climb up…
The flickering flames of the torch directed my eyes up to the ceiling. Like the ceiling in the main cavern, there were sparkling snow all around. But there seemed to be a gap above the ice, where the twinkling lights were high and far above me.
Excited, I floated up and held the torch to the ice. The ceiling began to melt, one slow drop at a time. This wouldn’t work. Ditching the idea, I raced back out to the cavern, nearly slipping several times on patches of especially slippery ice.
Once out of the tunnel, I cupped my hands to my mouth. “Bla—Er, Your Highness!” Everyone looked up and I beckoned them over. “This way! I think I found it.”
Within minutes, everyone had gathered around the spot that I pointed to. “See? Up there. It’s a hole.” Several people looked unsure, peering at the dark corner.
Blaze gestured for everyone to stand back. She crafted a fireball and shot it into the ice. Shards broke apart, collapsing on the ground, as the fire seared through the icy ceiling and up into the center of the mountain. We checked the spot again and sure enough, there was a tunnel leading upwards. It seemed never-ending, stretching to the very top of the mountain.
“In the heart of the highest peak,” Blaze said, reciting the text. “This has to be it.” She flashed a smile at me. “Good find. Let’s get going.”
Due to the narrow size of the tunnel, there was only enough room for one person to squeeze through at a time. Blaze took a hammer, rope, and a bag of pitons that she strapped around her waist. A few of the soldiers that were going with us took the same items, including Gardon. Everyone attached a harness to themselves, as we weren’t sure how far the tunnel led. We would need to hook ourselves regularly to the pitons just in case.
Once we were ready and fed a connecting rope through all of our harnesses, I lifted the group into the air one by one. Blaze started hammering pitons in one by one on our way up with another soldier. The others tied the ropes through the pitons, allowing the ends to dangle down to the ground for any other soldiers who followed.
Every now and then, we hung to the wall, taking a short break so my energy could recharge. But we made good time through the darkness and eventually reached a ledge at the end of the tunnel.
I set everyone on the ledge, then plopped onto the ground myself. Carrying others sure takes the wind out of you, I thought. No time to rest though. Blaze and the others had their harnesses unhitched and were delving further into the upper cave. I loosened my harness and followed the guiding light in Blaze’s hand.
Surprisingly enough, the path was rather straightforward and soon opened up in a round chamber, as large as a theater, with no openings whatsoever. “This is it?” Gardon asked.
“Maybe there’s another secret tunnel,” I said. “Let’s spread out.”
While they each took a different section of the circular room, I floated up, checking the ceiling and curves of the wall. This all seemed too easy. I had expected a guard or something dangerous by now. I hit my forehead. Don’t jinx it, I told myself.
“See anything?” Blaze asked.
It was difficult to see much beyond the ice with a teal orb of light. “Not really,” I said.
She sighed and nodded. “Okay, bring me up then.”
I lowered down to her side, taking her hand, and we rose to the ceiling together. She seemed less nervous of the height now. Not completely unafraid, as she never once glanced at the floor, but a little calmer. She held my hand in a bone-crunching grip that I suffered through as she cast flames all along the ice, temporarily lighting it up.
“There!” I said, pointing to one spot near us. “There, light that area up again!”
She did and I was sure I saw a flash that time. A red twinkle like the snow. We moved closer to it and I could just make out a small shape buried deep in the ice. “I think this is it.”
Blaze held her hand up to the ice, heating it up. It quickly melted and evaporated before her power and her arm sunk deeper into the frozen ceiling until she suddenly stopped. The fire died down and she grunted, tugging at something inside. It clinked and shifted around until she finally freed it.
I held a teal orb up to the prize. A ruby red Sol Emerald. Blaze and I looked at one another. We had actually done it.
“This is about the time where something tries to kill us,” she said, eyeing the only exit. “Or a trap activates.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. The others gathered beneath us in curiosity. “I think this time, we got off easy.” At least that’s what I wanted to hope. It that was going to happen, it would’ve happened by now.
We floated back to the ground and showed the emerald to the others. The soldiers gaped in awe at it, unused to seeing a jewel of that size and splendor. It still impressed me as well, even after we had found others.
“So this means we’re already finished?” one of the soldiers asked.
“I,” Blaze hadn’t thought about it. Neither had I. “I suppose so.”
* * *
We returned to the rest of the army in triumph and the soldiers and dignitary congratulated Blaze on locating the emerald so expediently. “We just got word from one of the vehicles that they will be arriving soon with another load of soldiers,” the dignitary said. “Should be any minute now.”
“Too bad they’re already late to the party,” Gardon said. “May as well get packed up and start heading out as soon as they get here.”
Blaze agreed. “Yes, we need to get this back to the castle, then see if we can assist the others. No doubt Nega will have his eye on one of the other emeralds soon enough now that we have this one.”
“So much for his plan of gathering all seven,” I said.
By the time we returned to the front of the cave, the next load of soldiers had already arrived. We informed them of the situation and Blaze proudly presenting the emerald for all to see. While the soldiers cheered and celebrated, the driver pulled Blaze aside. Gardon and I followed.
“There’s a call from the Thunder Mountain army, Your Highness,” he said, opening the vehicle’s door for her.
Blaze hopped into the seat and pushed the talk button on the console. “This is Princess Blaze,” she said.
A general responded. “Your Highness, we have engaged with Dr. Nega.”
“Dr. Nega?” She gave me a confused look, but all I could offer was a shrug. I was as lost as she was. Why would Nega turn his attention to their group?
“Yes, some of his troops started to attack. We’re fending them off and are close to victory.”
“That’s good then, isn’t it?” she asked.
“Not exactly,” he said. “The force attacking us is too small to be a true threat. They’re meant to delay us.”
“Delay you for what?” Gardon asked.
“That’s why I’m calling,” the general said. “One of our scouts reported a few minutes ago that Dr. Nega’s main fleet entered the Thunder Mountain range. They’re going after the Sol Emerald there.”
“The Thunder Mountain emerald? Why?” Gardon turned to me. “That’s the most difficult one. Even we can’t reach it.”
No, we couldn’t. The army heading there had planned to defend the range as best as possible against Nega. The other emeralds were much more accessible for us and Nega. But he was aware of that. He knew we would be expecting him in the other areas. True, if he wanted all seven, eventually he would have to head to the Thunder Mountains. Yet his fleet was damaged and it was far from the easiest to obtain. So why seek it out first?
Unless, he wanted to find it first, even if he lost half of his fleet in the process. He was desperate to get this emerald first and add it to his current collection. For what reason though? Then the answer popped into my head and dropped into my throat, forming a lump that choked off any air. “He’s moved up his time table,” I said in a hoarse whisper.
Blaze tilted her head. “What?”
“He knows he can’t beat us to the other emeralds. So he’s grabbing the Thunder Mountain emerald now. He’s going to wake Iblis with three Sol Emeralds!”
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