Chapter 11- The Serpents’ Lair
From atop the bell tower, we could see the shapes in the water below. Long, monstrous shadows that slithered through the streets, circling our position nonstop, waiting for us to make the first move. On the bright side, they had stopped thrashing. I also noted that none of them seemed as large as the serpent of legend that sank the city. Offspring, perhaps?
Right now though, we were more concerned with leaving. “We should just go back the way we came. Climb up the rope,” one soldier said and pointed at me. “He could fly us up there one by one.”
“That hole is well within their reach. You would have to get close to them to climb out. And if these things are longer than they appear?” Gardon asked, looking at each soldier in turn. “They could break into that tunnel and swat you off the rope. Or swallow you whole like a worm on a hook.”
“What about digging a way out?” another suggested.
“We’re too far underground,” a third soldier argued. “We need tools to get out of here.”
“Surely there’s some explosives in the vehicles. Or their weapons—”
“Are all disabled, remember?” Gardon said.
I half-listened to the arguments from the stairs and looked out one of the slotted windows at where the bubbles had appeared. Every now and then, the tip of a fin broke the water’s surface, reminding us of the danger, and then would surf through the water, dipping beneath slowly and leaving a large wake that soon settled. Then the water was calm again, like clear, green glass.
Blaze noticed my absence in the discussion. “What are you thinking?” she asked, standing beside me.
“Those things appeared after the bubbles died down,” I said. “They weren’t here before, which means that bell freed them. So there must be some gate to a room or some grotto on the other side. Maybe even a way out.”
The magic words reached everyone’s ears. The group’s arguments died on their lips and they listened closely.
“And if there isn’t?” she said.
“Then there’s something important on the other side. Something worth keeping safe.” I gave her a knowing look and she understood.
“The Sol Emerald.”
“That would explain why no one has ever found it,” I said. “The serpents are protecting it.”
“And just how do you propose we get there?” Gardon asked. “Don’t suppose you can knock out the wall.”
“There’s only one way through,” I said and all their eyes turned toward where the gate would be. I could already see the fear swallowing some of the soldiers whole. They wanted to flee, but put on a brave face for their Princess. The rest were in the same boat as me. Terrified beyond belief, yet we knew this was our only option. That simple fact stared us down with its ugly face and we had to meet it, no matter how repulsed we were by it.
I spoke up before any of the soldiers lost their nerve. “I-I’ll go,” I said, my voice croaking. I coughed and repeated myself. “I’ll go. I can create some shadow forms as a distraction if I need to. If all of you get up somewhere high, but close so you can tease them and make as much noise as possible to draw them away, I just might have a shot.”
“And if they come after you?” Gardon asked.
“Scream loud enough and they won’t,” I said, dodging the thought of that frightful outcome. “We better hurry. Otherwise, they might use those tails of theirs to knock over the tower and bury us alive.”
Gardon sighed. “Very well.” He rounded up the troops and sent them off to find high spots that were out of danger. He glanced back before leaving, his worried eyes hoping that I made it back. I assured him with a nod that I would.
I was happy they left first. My knees were about to give out and a cold wave of nausea settled in my stomach. I reached out for something to hold onto and found Blaze. I had forgotten she hadn’t joined the others.
“Are you okay?” she asked, helping me sit down.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” I said. “Yeah, no problem, yeah.” That was too many “yeah”s and she easily saw right through it.
“You don’t have to do this,” she said.
“I know I don’t, but it’ll be okay.” I shoved the image of a gaping maw of a giant snake out of my mind.
“We can try to find another way.”
“Like you said, Nega could show up any time. If the Sol Emerald is in there, we can’t afford to wait.”
“We could let him deal with this, then swipe the Sol Emerald before he can get to it.”
Appealing as they sounded, it wouldn’t work. Nega had too many robots at his disposal and too many guns. “He could take it before we have a chance. And we would be outnumbered. It’s too risky.” And he would likely expect that of us.
She bit her lip, as if she wanted to protest, but deep down knew that I was right. She looked at her hands in her lap and gave the same heavy sigh that Gardon had. “Please be careful then.”
“I will,” I said. “Be sure to yell at the top of your lungs for me.”
“Of course.” She leaned in and planted a chaste kiss on my cheek. I blinked and the next moment, she had pulled back, her face a mixture of deep concern, pain, and something else. “Stay safe.” She rushed out to find a spot to distract the serpents as well, leaving me to sit there, rubbing the spot on my cheek softly and grinning despite the impending suicide mission.
What on Earth was I doing?
* * *
Whenever I attempted to stand on the building above the underwater gate, the serpents swarmed around the gate, fiercely protecting it. No amount of taunts or calls from the others could change their minds. This reinforced my belief that the Sol Emerald must be on the other side.
The only way to distract them was to climb to the top of the bell tower, far out of their sight. Then the serpents split up, following the echoing yells from the others on rooftops and bridges. They never raised their heads above the water, only their tails. Blaze stood on one rooftop, calling down as what seemed like a third of the serpent’s body rose out of the water. It just cleared the building and swatted at her. I wanted to run over and help, but she hurried inside the building, escaping before the tail touched her.
I breathed easier and returned to the task at hand. I had to hurry or someone could get really hurt. Staring at the water below, I checked the distance to the underwater gate. A good hundred yards or so. And these things moved with lightning speed around corners and through the water.
I waited until the serpents were in the far corner of the city. Once they were, I said a short prayer, held out my arms, and dived into the water. The chill once again wormed its way into my core. No time to focus on that. Had to move quickly.
Putting one arm in front of the other, I swam as fast as I could, with no idea if the serpents realized I was in the water or how far away they were. I had to keep swimming for all my worth.
One block passed by. Then another and another. If my heart was thumping so loud in my ears and every passing shape didn’t seem like a deadly predator, it would almost be peaceful down here. The buildings were simple on the bottom and the kid in me thought it would be fun to dart in and out of the windows and doorways, playing underwater hide ‘n’ seek in the shadowy homes.
Hide ‘n’ seek happened sooner than expected. I felt a powerful surge through the water, like a humongous object was darting toward me. I swam faster, hoping to outrun it. The gate was ahead, less than forty yards away. The force gained on me and I thought I could hear a hungry rumbling around the corner.
Crafting a shoddy doppelganger, I flung it behind me and it zoomed backwards, off into the waters and around a corner. Cutting to the side, I dove for safety into one of the buildings and crouched beside a window, wishing the beast to pass. The building shook at its roots and I held on.
Slowly, slowly, the surge seemed to pass and fade away. The monster had taken the bait and I relaxed. Or I wanted to relax. Something was off. The water was eerily still and a looming shadow darkened the area.
Then I saw it. I could scarcely believe my eyes and I blinked several times, hoping my fear was imagining things. A sea-green mammoth of a serpent slithered past and its body never seemed to end. Its scales like thousands of glittering gems and spiny blue fins running the length of its back that folded and sprung to life, communicating its malicious intent. What struck me cold were its sickly yellow eyes, with a sliver of a pupil, that seemed to see all and regard everything with cold disinterest. Everything was a toy, a plaything before it. Or food.
The serpent swung its head side to side, checking the buildings, its searchlight eyes glowing in the depths. Please pass, I urged it. Please pass.
It swam past me, then stopped, and turned around. I cursed my luck and carefully moved away from the window, sticking to the shadows. The serpent seemed to have my scent. It swept across the buildings, glaring at each with a penetrating gaze. Could they see in the dark? I assumed so and prayed I was hidden enough.
My lungs ached for air. My head was starting to feel light and I didn’t have much time. The serpent opened its mouth, a muffled hiss rolling off its silver tongue. I could create another doppelganger, but the light might attract the serpent before I was ready to move. Yet if I was quick, I could make a poor one by the entrance, quickly throw it, then swim like lightning—
The serpent reared its ugly head in the doorway.
Crap. It saw me.
For a long moment, neither of us moved. The serpent flicked its tongue, opening its mouth partly, enough to see the bottomless gullet that awaited me if I got caught. I searched the building. There were stairs to my right. A window to my left that led to a dead end.
The serpent hissed and jammed its head in. I swam up the stairs. Its tail waited for me up top. I saw another set of stairs and tore up them. No serpent up here. Yet.
The building shook and rocked me around. I raised my hand, a green body emerging in the water. Not enough time for detail. As soon as it had some vague quills and my body shape, I sent it out the third story window, then swam back down to greet the serpent’s tail.
Edging to the window, I hid in a corner. The serpent rounded on my creation and snapped at it. Taking my chance, I swam like mad for the gate.
However, the water behind me swirled and I dared to look back. The serpent had realized the glowing body was a fake. It found me in the water and coiled into a spring. Then it shot forward at me, its body swaying in the water, left and right as if trying to fake me out with which side it would attack.
Twenty yards to the gate. Almost there. The serpent was already on top of me. It raised its head, gauging its target, and striked.
I put up a round, teal ball and it sank its fangs into it. I kicked the ball further into its mouth, blocking its throat. That should hold it, and I flipped around, concentrating on the gate.
The serpent swirled around, attempting to break the ball into pieces. I stopped powering it, instead pouring my focus into my speed. The serpent snapped the ball and it showered into dozens of light fragments. Its murderous eyes zeroed in on me and if snakes could growl, I thought it would.
I ran smack into the wall and felt the rocky surface. Where was the gate? It should be here. My chest was on fire and I couldn’t last much longer. Where was this gate? Not above or below me. It was off to the side, several feet away. And the serpent was shooting toward me, throwing his all into one last effort.
So did I. I swam like no tomorrow, slicing through the water with all my strength. The serpent opened its jaws and I entered through the open steel gate. Home free!
Or so I thought until I remembered that the serpent could fit through the gate too. It had first entered the city through the gate.
The serpent chomped shut and I tucked my legs in close, barely avoiding its sharp fangs. I had to stop it. My eyes landed on the gate and I grabbed it with my power. The thing seemed stuck and it was hard to focus when I was staring down a deadly creature like this. Not to mention my vision dimmed, zoning in and out as my body begged for air, on the verge of blacking out. At least I wouldn’t know that I was being eaten alive in that case.
Again, the serpent opened its mouth wide. I jerked the gate loose and it slammed its weight onto the serpent. It must’ve been made of something heavy, for it trapped the beast underneath it. The serpent thrashed wildly, whacking its head against the walls and the gate, desperate to free itself. But it wasn’t going anywhere. It was stuck tight under the gate and I could breathe easier.
Instead, I rose above the surface and breathed heavily, sucking down as much air as my lungs could hold. I flopped onto a bit of ground like a dying fish and rolled over, calming down from the intense terror I just experienced.
Below the surface, the water stirred up angrily, but all the serpent could do was struggle. I had won. For now.
Sitting up, I looked around. The ground I was on narrowed into a single-person walkway along the wall further into a large recess and ended in a flat wall. I shot a ball of light into the air, illuminating the place and saw nothing besides rock and water.
Didn’t really have time to waste sitting around. Protest though my body may, I rose to my feet, hunched over still, and walked deeper into this new cave. By the time I reached the end, I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of anything. No exit, no Sol Emerald. Only a dead end.
I checked the water, wishing for at least an exit. I couldn’t see much in the dirt and darkness and I dreaded the thought of climbing back in. But I had to be thorough. With that thought, I crawled back into the water. Thankfully, my nerves were too far frozen to care about the sudden chill rushing up my spine.
The bottom was a mixture of dirt and rock that had crumbled off the cave over the years. I sifted through it, here and there, digging up what I could. In the far back corner, I found something gleaming among the dirt.
With a shaky hand, I brushed over the mud and found a shimmering gem, the same cut and brilliance as the one at the castle. Only this one was a royal purple that seemed to belong on top of a scepter or woven into a beautiful tapestry. I picked it up and swam to the surface, climbing out of the water.
I brought my light closer to the gem and inspected it. Once I had washed and wiped away the mud and gravel so it shined all the brighter, there was no doubt. This was the Sol Emerald. It only made sense to hide it here, guarded by these serpents. I smiled at this victory.
However, that still didn’t get us out of here. There hadn’t been any sign of another passage underneath the water. So what did we do now?
I sighed and tucked the emerald away. For now, I needed to re-group with the others. They must’ve been worried and I didn’t want them taunting the serpents for long. These creatures might get fed up and lash out more violently.
The gate was surprisingly easy to bypass. I stuck close to the wall while swimming and stayed out of the trapped serpent’s reach. The serpent’s thick body held the gate up enough that I could squeeze through without too much trouble. Once out, I quickly flew out of the water and headed to the bell tower, rounding up everyone else on the way.
When the group assembled, everyone started grilling me for answers. I explained the cave and how it was a dead end, and showed off the Sol Emerald. Some of the soldiers marveled over it and Blaze smiled. “Well done,” she said and seemed relieved.
“Thanks,” I said, handing it to her.
“Well, we’re one step ahead of Nega now,” one of the soldiers said.
Another grumbled and looked forlornly outside. “Doesn’t matter much if we can’t escape. We’re back at square one.”
“I’m not so sure,” I said. “The only way to the Sol Emerald was past the serpents, right? A way to ward off thieves. But what if it was one of the people who lived here?”
“I see what you mean,” Gardon said, tapping his chin. “If one of the survivors ever came back for the emerald, they wouldn’t trap themselves. They would have a way out or a method to beat the serpents.”
The only question was where would they go? According to everyone else, nothing about the city had changed while I had been in the serpent’s caged area. Was there some other way out already that we had overlooked?
Blaze examined the Sol Emerald, her eyes intent and thoughtful. Then I saw the lightbulb shine on her face. She turned to Gardon and the soldiers from his group. “You said you found a carving of the bell tower and the Sol Emerald?”
“Yeah,” Gardon said. “It seemed to be pointing at the bell tower. But we know why that is. You ring the bell, the serpents are released, and if you can make it past them, you get the emerald.”
“Then wouldn’t the bell tower be pointing toward the Sol Emerald?” she asked. We looked at each other. “And,” she pointed to me, “we found a carving where the Sol Emerald shielded the entire city, protecting the survivors from a giant serpent.”
“I remember,” I said. “It was high above the city.”
“And where’s the highest place in the city?”
We looked up into the rafters of the bell tower. “No way,” I whispered. It made sense though and was worth a shot.
In minutes, Blaze, Gardon, and the other soldiers were watching from beside the bell and the stairs as I flew around the bell tower’s roof. So far, I hadn’t seen any place to use the Sol Emerald. “Try looking higher,” Gardon said.
Floating upwards, I searched the very top and found it. Right under the point of the rooftop, there was a tile that slid out. I checked the other three sides and found tiles that also slid out of place, leaving behind a perfect-shaped slot for the emerald.
“Found it!” I called down. “Here goes!” I slid the emerald into place, moved back a little, and waited.
“Nothing’s happening,” one of the soldiers said.
Thanks for pointing out the obvious, eagle eye. I twisted the emerald, this way and that, pushing it into different combinations. Without warning, the emerald suddenly flashed a brilliant purple light, blinding me. Guess I found the right one.
I dropped down to everyone else’s level and as the black spots faded from my sight, the emerald’s light swallowed the top of the bell tower. It looked like a large candle, illuminating the city and walls in an otherworldly color.
The light reached the orbs shaped like Sol Emeralds in the walls and ceiling. They caught the light and reflected it off one another, bouncing the brightness throughout the city and in the water, until the whole cave was overlaid in a violet hue. The serpents, wherever they were, didn’t disturb the display and watched with bated breath with us.
“What now?” Gardon asked.
I didn’t know. The purple light extended to every inch of the city and still there was no way out. Okay, we had had a little light show, so what next?
A bit of sand fell on my head and I brushed it off. More fell and I looked up. Above the tower, where a particularly bright orb caught my eye, a thin trail of sand fell through the air, silent and steady, onto the roof of the tower. Blaze noticed it too and by then, the trickle of sand had grown into a wide column.
Cracks appeared in the ceiling, snaking their way through the orbs, and forming with an Earth-shattering ker-raaack! The middle of the ceiling split into two uneven slabs and lifted into the air, dumping bits of sand on us. The far ends of the slabs at either side of the cave swung down, upending the desert above and into the water, building large sandy hills. The slabs scooped the water’s surface, breaking it into two halves, then stopped when they were perfectly parallel to one another’s rocky surface.
And like that, the hue disappeared over the city and the light receded into the Sol Emerald. I grabbed the gem and floated back down to Blaze and Gardon, marveling at the new exit with them.
Blaze was the first to react and break the spell. “We better hurry. Those things won’t stay open forever.”
* * *
It took us a while to climb up the slabs, using the orbs as handholds. Blaze commented on the genius of the ancient people and how inconspicuous the orbs were. “Using the orbs to climb out,” she said, shaking her head.
“Never would have guessed that,” Gardon added.
I heard most of the soldiers grumble through the trek and more than one shot me the evil eye as I flew past them. Then again, they had been more than grateful to accept my help bypassing the beginning of the slab climb near the water, where they would have been prime targets for the serpents. I didn’t pay attention to them and zipped out of the cave, arriving at the top to help the others out.
The soldiers Gardon had left above surrounded the hole, pestering us with questions and exclamations. Yet my interest was Nega. I scanned the skies, expecting his fleet to at least be on the horizon. But it was all clear, baby blue all around.
Blaze’s first question when she finished the climb was “Where’s Nega? He should’ve been here by now.” All the soldiers up top shrugged.
That didn’t make any sense. Last report said he was far ahead of us. Even if we arrived beforehand, he should’ve been here by now. The soldiers swore up and down they hadn’t seen him as we headed back to the vehicles.
“We’ve been watching the skies closely,” a troop leader said. “I’ve had my scouts out for hours, but there’s no sign of him.”
“Any word on the radio?” Blaze asked, entering the driver’s seat.
“None so far,” the leader said. “We did get a brief call from our unit in the White Jungle southeast. Since then, no contact and no update from them.”
As if on cue, the radio interrupted the conversation. “Now I wouldn’t say that.”
The voice was unmistakable. Blaze hit the push-to-talk button on the radio. “Nega.”
“Your Highness,” he said, his mocking tone oozing over the speaker. “Is Silver there as well? Did he survive your little excursion?”
“I’m here, you soulless wretch,” I said.
“Good. It would be such a shame for you to die now, my little pincushion. The fun hasn’t even started. It’s nice to talk to you both again. I’m sorry we missed each other, but I couldn’t resist a safari trip through the jungle. Lots of interesting wildlife here, local legends, and the natives are quite hospitable. We even joined up with another sight-seeing tour.”
Blaze growled. “If you harmed my people, I’ll—”
“Settle down now, Your Highness. Your people are fine. Well, some of them are fine. I’ll let one of them explain.”
A new voice was shoved onto the phone, a stoic, calm person who muttered some curses at Nega. “Apologies, Your Highness. I fear he got the jump on us. His ships appeared out of nowhere.”
Cloaked, I would wager. That still didn’t explain how he fooled the scouts who reported his fleet heading east.
“He has the Sol Emerald from the jungle. He already knows you have the other one.” I glanced by habit out the window, afraid of a drone nearby. Not that I would be able to see one anyway. He would keep any drones high and out of view. “Nega demands you bring your Sol Emerald to him. Or else.”
“Or else what?”
A gunshot rang out and a body dropped to the ground on the other end. Blaze gasped and my voice caught in my throat. “Or else I start eliminating everyone here in the most violent ways I can think of,” Nega said. “And believe you me, I have quite the imagination. Isn’t that right, Silver?” He paused, letting the situation sink in. “You have three hours to make it here. Better move. Tick-tock.”
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