Chapter 10- The Jewel of the Sea
The Princess and I hovered into the air and over to what appeared to be a rooftop. A wooden awning, faded and decayed to a sickly green, was strung around the building on one side, held aloft by log supports slotted into the stonework. As we landed, we looked over the edge. Underneath the water were submerged streets and small homes, their edges eroded so that they were more round than the buildings above the waterline. On the roof and on the walls, glowing orbs lit up the entire city, as if a fire burned bright inside them. Oddly enough, they seemed to be fashioned after the Sol Emerald. We were on the right trail then.
Stairs led up either end of the roof to other buildings. Unlike the buildings’ material, the stairs seemed to be constructed out of dried mud and clay. In the distance, decrepit swinging bridges connected verandas and rooftops separated by large portions of water.
I looked around, noting the solid structure of the cavernous area. As far as I could tell, there was no sign of where the water was coming from. I supposed some underground spring or reserve. That would explain why the city was flooded. But why was the city down here? Had it always been here? More importantly, was the Sol Emerald really hidden here?
Princess Blaze seemed to be questioning the same thing. Her eyes narrowed, searching the water for any clue, but the bottom was bare. She rubbed her chin beneath her lower lip that jutted out slightly. The dull water caught a few reflections from the orbs on the walls that then cast sparkles into her eyes, as if she was intrigued with delight at this mystery. It was, dare I say, cute.
“So,” she said, catching me off-guard and I turned this way and that, studying the city, “a sunken city in the desert. What are you thinking?”
I fumbled. “Uh, er, that we should start combing the deserts for Atlantis instead of the oceans?” She gave me a side-long look, but chuckled, which made me proud of the stupid joke and warm in my chest. “But how does a city like this get underground?”
A rope unfurled from the hole we had fallen out of. Gardon, carrying the history book on his back, and five soldiers slid down the rope. “Let’s look it up,” she said.
I floated Gardon and the others over to our roof. While the soldiers gawked at the odd sight of the underground city, the three of us poured over the book. “Guess you’re not satisfied finding only buried stuff, huh?” Gardon asked, flipping through the pages. “Got to up the ante and find half-sunken and buried sites.”
“Maybe I should become an archaeologist,” I said, smirking.
“Here,” Princess Blaze jammed a finger to a page, stopping Gardon. “The city of Blue Mirage. Originally built in the middle of the massive Coral Sea a thousand years ago, the city’s structural foundation buckled. Historians are unsure what caused the collapse. Popular theories include a design oversight with the materials used, an especially violent sea storm, or damage from the infighting and turmoil in the city as a result of the recently crowned monarch at the time.”
“Some legends even talk of a massive sea serpent constricting the city and swallowing it whole,” Gardon read, raising an eyebrow. “Still, the exact cause is unknown. What is known is that the city disappeared into the sea without a trace. No pieces of buildings or homes were found, and no bodies were recovered from the tragedy. Since the Coral Sea dried up centuries ago, many efforts have been made to search for the lost city, but none have been found.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” I said. “This entire city sank into the sea and is right here? Intact?” I waved my arms around at the erect buildings. “How does that work?”
“I haven’t any idea,” Princess Blaze said. “And it seems neither does anyone else. Regardless, it is here. Maybe we’ll discover more if we search the city.”
“Good idea,” Gardon said, snapping the book shut.
“We should leave some people up top to keep an eye out for Nega.”
“One step ahead of you.” Gardon pulled out a walkie-talkie from his pocket. “Got this from our vehicle. I ordered the rest of the troops to stay up top and call us on theirs if they spot any trouble.”
“Excellent,” she said. “Then let’s spread out and get to work. Silver and I will start at the far end,” she said, pointing to the other side of the cave. “The rest of you, split into two groups. One takes the left side, one to the right,” she indicated the stairs. “Meet in the bell tower.”
The bell tower in the center of town stood high above any other standing building, like a vigilant sentry. In the rafters, a large bell hung silent. Although surely once a brilliant gold, its luster was long gone and was now only dirty and rusted.
Gardon and the soldiers saluted her, then broke off into their groups. The Princess faced me. “Ready?”
“Yeah.” I flew us over to the far end, where we landed on a squat building that the water had already started to overtake. Our shoes splashed in the water and we hurried up a stairway to a building’s inner room.
I shook my water-logged shoes, but the chill crept into my toes, through my legs, and into my nerves. I hugged myself and braced the cold. I didn’t realize how much a simple chill affected me. Guess that’s the downside to living in a scorched wasteland all these years.
“What’s wrong?” Princess Blaze asked.
“N-Nothing,” I said. “Wishing we had a fire.” She snapped her fingers and a small flame leapt to life in her palm, already warming the entire room despite its size. “Thanks,” I said, holding my hands out to it.
“You’re welcome,” she said and headed deeper into the building. I followed the fire, staying right by her side. The flames helped light up the inner walls, revealing larger furniture, such as cabinets, tables, and wardrobes. Beds and benches were built into the walls and carvings of all kinds were etched above them. Some were squiggles and arranged lines that seemed like a language, but neither of us could read it.
“Look at this one,” she said, displaying a wall. Her fire grew larger, nearly singing my fur. “Oh, sorry,” she said, dialing the fire back down.
The wall depicted a series of images. The first was the city in what I assume was its prime. Little figures flocked to it like a shining beacon, and the heavens blessed the city with radiance and light. Then the next image showed the same figures fleeing the carved city as it broke and crumbled into the sea. Then, a final carving of the ruined city, a ghostly shell of itself, filled with bodies, and a serpentine creature swirling overhead. Above the city, a purple gem flashed and its aura shielded the city, drawling a clear line between it and the serpent. So the monster could only swim round and round and wait to strike down any survivors that ventured out of the city.
“The Sol Emerald?” I suggested.
“Perhaps. That could be how the city survived. The emerald protected them and prevented the sea from destroying them. It looks like they’re using its power somehow to protect them from that serpent as well.”
“Maybe there is some truth to that serpent sinking the city?”
“It’s hard to believe,” she said. “All the same, we should tread carefully.”
“Agreed. We better keep moving.”
We found some stairs that led to an exit. “I never expected this place would still be intact,” she said, looking out a thin slot of a window. “Nor that we would find it. I had heard stories, but those were legends and fairy tales.”
“You’re in it now,” I said, “and every good fairy tale needs a princess.”
She smirked as I passed her. “And does that make you a knight?”
I shrugged. “I wouldn’t mind that. I thought about being one when I was younger.”
“What stopped you?”
“I didn’t know if I could do it. And Iblis, of course.”
She nodded, her face solemn. “Of course.”
We exited the building, arriving at a sagging bridge that crossed to the center of the city. It was old and rickety and I didn’t trust the strength of some of the boards. But if we stepped lively across, we should be okay.
Then I looked back at the Princess and noticed her color had paled considerably. That’s right, her fear of heights. Her pupils, glued to the bridge, shrank and I racked my brain for a solution.
“Here, why don’t we find another way?” I said, pointing back to the stairs. “This thing doesn’t look stable.”
“It’ll be fine,” she said. “Besides, we don’t have time to dawdle. Nega could show up anytime and we need to find the Sol Emerald first.” However, her feet remained planted firmly to the floor. Great, all I had done was reinforce the notion that the bridge wasn’t safe. Stupid.
“Uh,” I leaned over, waving a hand in front of her, “I could fly you across.”
She shook her head at that. “No, no. I’ve had enough flying through the air today. I’d like to keep my feet on the ground.”
Okay, so flying was out. The only way to go then was forward. But how to get her across? I could grab her without warning and quickly take her over. Besides scarring her further, I could lose my hand for doing that to royalty. What if she didn’t realize she was crossing the bridge? A blindfold, perhaps? Yet I had nothing on me like that and with my luck, one misstep and it would fall off her. Then we would be in a worse spot. I also assumed she would want to brave the bridge with her eyes open. That was just how she was and I respected that.
Maybe I could distract her somehow. With what though? My eyes scanned the city and I had a flash of inspiration. I took her other hand that wasn’t holding the fire and huddled myself close, as if soaking up more warmth. That snapped her out of her frozen state and she looked up at me.
“So what kind of things did you used to hear about this place?” I asked.
“You know, the legends you used to hear about. I can’t say I’ve ever heard many, except for some city sinking in the Coral Sea a long time ago.”
“Oh, well, many of the legends say it was the crown jewel of the Coral Sea at its height. They traded with nations all around the world and they said the city was a sight to behold.”
“Really?” I took a slow step forward and, thankfully, so did she. “I mean, look up. All this seems pretty worn away to be a prosperous city.” As she raised her eyes, we stepped onto the bridge. She seized up at the sudden jerk of the ropes from our weight and the creaking of the rotted boards, and squeezed my hand tight, crushing my fingers. I grinned through the excruciating pain as she bent my fingers backwards. “So far, it looks like any normal ruins to me.” Her eyes were skipping around and her breathing became labored. She was panicking. Please, Princess, hang in there. You can do this.
“They…they…” she swallowed and took several breaths. “They were inlaid with coral from the sea,” she finally said. “Supposedly very beautiful to look at. All sorts of pinks, greens, and blues. Some were even coated in gems.”
I took another step forward and much to my relief, she followed suit. Her death-grip didn’t let up at all, but it was a start. As we took another, I kept up the conversation. “Wonder what happened to them. Eroded over the years?”
“Likely.” Her eyes started to trail down, but I pointed out a rooftop, my arm shooting across her face and tilting her head up.
“Yeah, I think I see some pink up there,” I said.
She peered closely. “I think it’s just discolored. The survivors from the city must have scavenged the gems and coral before they left for the surface. They also must have carved those images we saw after the city sank, to let future visitors know what caused it.”
That made sense. “So the survivors lived here for a while before re-joining the world?”
“That would be my guess.”
“But why wait so long to leave? And why leave if you’ve been in the city for so long?”
She shook her head. “Maybe it has to do with the serpent of legend. My best guess is they waited for an opportune time to sneak past the serpent or for the sea to dry up. As to why they left, well, remember the aura around the city?”
“Yeah, from the Sol Emerald.”
“Where is it now?” She was right. There wasn’t a trace of it anywhere. No Sol Emerald meant no protection for the city. “I’m sure we’ll find more deeper within.”
Suddenly, she stopped and stamped her foot. We were on solid ground, the bridge a few feet behind us. She blinked, looking between the bridge, her feet, and me, and then gave me a sincere, warm smile. “Thank you.”
“It was mostly you. I didn’t have to do much after a while,” I said and it was true. “I knew you could do it.”
She glanced down, her fingers relaxing, but still holding my hand. “For what it’s worth, I think you would have made a great knight.” Then she raised her eyes and I found myself entranced once more. Without thinking, I stepped closer to her, close enough that I felt her soft breaths on my cheek. My free hand reached absent-mindedly for her other one hand to hold…
Her fire-toting hand.
I jumped in the air, yelping and dancing on the spot like a mad man. Water! I needed water! The first thing I saw was the water below. I gathered up a large ball of it, too much for my hand. Pain overrode reason and I drenched myself and the entire rooftop in water. Including Princess Blaze.
Once my hand cooled down and I realized what I had done, I apologized profusely. “I’m so sorry,” I said as she pushed her sopping bangs out of her eyes. Her fur was soaked and her clothes clung to her skin. “I didn’t mean to—It’s just the fire and the pain and—”
Although she seemed annoyed and her eyes shot daggers through mine, as I continued begging forgiveness, a noise escaped the corner of her mouth. Was that a laugh? I paused, unsure what it was. Another broke through, then another and soon as she was laughing non-stop, guffawing harder every time she looked at me.
I examined myself and realized I was a mess too. Together, we looked like a pair of drowned rats. Her laughter was infectious and soon I was just as loud as she was, holding my side and begging her to stop. “Ah, ah, it hurts!” I said, in between chuckles. Guess my ribs weren’t fully healed yet.
“I’m—hah—sorry,” she said, trying to calm down. “Okay, heh, okay. I’m fine now.” Princess Blaze cleared her throat and took my burnt hand. My laughs slowly subsided as she traced the ashy marks and the small holes in my glove. “How does it feel?”
“Fine,” I said, wincing a little when she brushed a red mark in my palm. We stood there for several moments and I thought we might return to our previous position.
However, she dropped my hand and spun on her heel. “We better keep moving. I can see the bell tower from here.” She was right. The tower was a hop, skip, and a jump away and we still had a few buildings to cover.
“Right.” I tried to hide my disappointment and not dwell on it. Yet all I could do was relive the moment. “After you, Your Highness.”
“Please,” she said, “Blaze is fine.”
I nodded. “After you…Blaze.” And like that I sensed a stronger spark between us as she passed.
She had occupied my thoughts the more time I spent around her. The stories about the Princess truly did her no justice. Captivating was an understatement. I felt like I was falling down some hole that I couldn’t escape from and, despite the dangers and warnings, I wanted to continue down it and touch bottom.
“Silver?” she asked from up ahead.
I shook my head. “Coming.”
* * *
During the rest of our search, we were quiet and stole glances at one another. I hoped an opportunity like the one before would present itself, but it didn’t. By the end, I figured I would have to make such an opportunity myself.
Before I could, we ran into Gardon and his group in the center bell tower. “Find anything?” he asked.
“Only that there may have been survivors from the city sinking and that the Sol Emerald is probably here,” Blaze said and explained the carvings.
“Same as us,” he said. “We also found one that pointed to the bell tower and had a jewel beside it.”
“The Sol Emerald?”
“Could’ve been. Hard to say for sure. Whatever the case, I would say we should search the bell tower while we wait for the rest.”
“Good idea,” she said. The guards took the bottom area, while we traipsed up the stairs to the top of the tower and started there. The place was empty, save for the bell, and was open on all four sides for a perfect view of the city. Blaze kept away from the edge and took more interest in the bell.
“It’s covered in rust,” she said, wiping a finger across it and coating the tip in muddy red flecks. She dusted off her hands.
“If that Sol Emerald carving was next to the bell tower, maybe we have to do something with the bell. Like ring it,” I said.
“I’m not sure if it will ring, but be my guest,” Blaze said, standing back.
I hefted the bell up with my power and swung it. The wooden beam it was attached to groaned and I feared it would snap off. Thankfully, it held as the bell swung to the other side and the clapper clanked against the bell. It rang with a dull toom throughout the tower and echoed into the town below. We waited and watched the bell and the town, hoping that it illuminated our next path.
The bell halted and we swept our gaze over every building, every street, every bit of water. Nothing.
“Maybe we need to clean it,” Gardon said. “I’m sure there’s something in the vehicles that could do the job.”
I turned to the far edge where Blaze and I had started our search earlier. At the base of the building, small bubbles popped on the surface. A few at first, then dozens as something churned up the water. “I don’t think that will be necessary. Look,” I said, showing them. The disturbance spread out further, turning the water into a tumultuous storm of bubbles popping as if the water was boiling.
As soon as it had started, it stopped and the bubbling stopped. Nothing seemed to have changed under the water. Then again, we couldn’t see very well from here. I wanted to go down and check. Maybe the bell’s toll had opened some new area where the Sol Emerald was hidden.
A piercing shriek raced up the stairwell and caught us off-guard. It sounded like one of the soldiers! In a flash, Gardon and Blaze flew down the stairs and I chased after them. At the bottom, the last group of soldiers had burst into the tower and crashed into the other soldiers.
“Whoa, what happened?” Gardon asked.
One of the new soldiers was pale as a sheet and kept babbling nonsense about how he “saw it” and “it almost got me”. His search partners tried to calm him down, but he would have none of it.
“What happened?” Gardon repeated.
“We don’t know, sir,” one of the new soldiers said as the other patted the frightened soldier’s back. “We were checking out one of the bottom floors that was covered in water. We hear the bell and figure we better get a move on and meet all of you here. Next thing I know, Pip here throws a fit, says he saw something, then hightails it here, the whole time saying ‘it’ saw him and followed him.”
“And what is ‘it’?”
The soldier shrugged. “I haven’t got a clue. I thought I saw a shadow in the water, but I can’t be sure.”
Blaze knelt in front of Pip and his terrified eyes found her. “Ssh,” she softly shushed his whimpers and placed a hand on his shoulder. Her palm glowed orange, as if warming him, and the sensation slowed his hyperventilation. “Tell us what you saw.”
“A s-snake, Your Highness,” he said. “Biggest I ever seen! In the water! It was after me.”
I leaned towards Gardon. “Could those bubbles have been the serpent?”
“It’s possible,” he said. “We may have summoned it.”
“Then the legend really is true?”
Outside the tower, something massive rose out of the water, kicking up a high wave. What appeared to be a fin peeked over the wave, then the object splashed into the waters again, throwing a second heavy wave that smacked the tower.
“It’s true!” one of the soldiers said.
Another large tail burst through crashing waves. And another and another. All of them hit the surface of the water and soaked the area.
“There’s more than one?” Gardon cried incredulously.
Pip screamed. “They’re angry! They want us out!”A warning from very ancient creatures. That couldn’t be. But I had seen it with my own eyes. And I no longer felt as confident about obtaining the Sol Emerald as I had been.
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