A week had crawled past, leaving Enrique largely in solitude in Lower City. The prince, now an exile in his own kingdom, had taken special care to hide from his mother and his cousin's forces; he wore the garb of a commoner and kept his form concealed in the folds of a hooded cloak, passing his time by scouting the slums for secret passages the likes of which Vyse had once used to slip into the colosseum. What he found was that Madera's sewer system was actually a network of catacombs built by the Yellow Civilization, a labyrinth that linked Upper and Lower City to, he suspected, the Maw of Tartas. Judging by the condition of the tunnels, he doubted they were still in tact enough to actually reach the Maw now, but it gave him hope that other cities in Valua had similar underground escape routes. The challenge would be providing his people with such information and evacuating them in time, while somehow himself remaining hidden...
As the days passed, he found himself thinking more and more of Moegi. He knew Crescent Isle had been attacked, yes, but Belleza had never given him a death count, and for all he knew she was among them. The very thought turned his skin cold and nearly made him sick, and he forced himself not to think of it. The prince thought instead of the better times he'd had with her, walking in the gardens of Yafutoma, or watching the clouds pass atop the Delphinus' lookout tower, or even their shared language lessons, but the more he thought about it, the more he missed her, and the more he struggled to keep his spirits high.
Belleza herself had been in and out of the Martillos' inn frequently, although she never stayed long. When she came to Lower City she donned a disguise of her own to avert the palace's eyes, taking the identity of a scullery maid named Isabella. She told Enrique she was about gathering information and following Alfonso's movements, but so far she was yet to present him with any actual findings. The prince began to fear more and more that she was actually gathering information for Galcian instead, and began to prepare himself for what he may be forced to do should her loyalty belong to him.
But as the second week began to draw to a close, Belleza appeared in the inn one day, dressed in her uniform rather than the gypsy dress she wore as Isabella. Enrique was surprised and confused in equal amounts, pulling back the hood of his cloak as he descended the stairs to study her.
"Isn't it a bit dangerous to be walking around here in uniform? What if Alfonso sees you?" he asked.
She shook her head. "He won't. I don't intend to stay here long. We're going straight to Upper City after this."
It took a moment for her words to register in Enrique's mind. "But why would you – wait, 'we'? 'We' who?"
To that, Belleza leveled a mysterious smile on him. "You and I, Prince Enrique."
"But...why?" he asked, blinking. "I can't go there dressed like this. They'll throw me out. And if I reveal myself, I'll be thrown in jail instead!"
"Enrique, honestly. I'm hurt." Belleza folded her arms across her chest and looked smug. "I am Valua's master of disguise and deception, and you think I hadn't thought of that?"
"Well..." He rubbed the back of his head.
But Belleza only laughed. "I've got a simple solution for that. There's some spare armor on board my ship. I'm going to dress you as one of the Red Guard – then you can walk with me freely, and no one will have the slightest chance of guessing your identity."
"Simple enough." He nodded. "But you still haven't answered my other question. Why are we going there?"
She glanced out the window a moment, then looked back at him, her mirth giving way to seriousness. "These past two weeks, I've been scouring Madera in search of information. Not only am I trying to root out Galcian's moles, but I'm also trying to keep track of what the remaining fleets are doing. Not for Galcian, or for your mother...but for you. I know you don't trust me, but please believe me, Prince Enrique – I'd never betray you."
The admiral paused a moment, then continued. "Another thing I've been searching for are more of these sewer entrances you've been talking about. I wanted to see if Upper City had as many secret passages as Lower City did. Instead, I found...well, you'll just have to believe me when I say you need to see it for yourself. I don't think even the Royal Family knows about what I've just discovered."
"What is it?" he asked.
"You'll see." She nodded to him. "Here, let's get to the Lynx and sail across the bay. You'll have plenty of time to change."
"Very well. Lead on."
Together, the two made their way to the docks, where one of the Lynx's lifeboats waited. Once on board the flagship, Belleza took Enrique down to the armory and had him try on different suits of armor her men had left laying around. Though none of them fit the skinny prince just right, he finally, after a great deal of trouble, managed to find a set that for the most part stayed on him. Uneasily, he belted his sword around his armored waist and tried to stand under the weight of all the metal.
"How do your men fight in this?" he asked Belleza, his voice hollow-sounding as it rang around in his helmet.
She laughed. "It takes a great deal of practice, to be sure. A little more rigorous than fencing. Do you think you'll be alright?"
"Do I have much of a choice?" He grinned at her, then realized she wouldn't be able to see it and shook his head instead. "I think I'll be fine. I just need to watch where I walk."
"Good. Then let's go." She turned for the door and gestured for him to follow. "We may have a long walk ahead of us."
They made their way back above deck, where a legitimate soldier of the Red Guard was waiting for them by the gangplank. He saluted Belleza and then handed her a small pack and a coiled whip, which she accepted with a nod. The former she slung over one shoulder, while the latter was secured neatly to her waist.
"What is all that for?" Enrique asked, confused. It was rare that Belleza armed herself; he had seen her brandish a weapon all of twice.
"As I said," she replied, "We may be gone for a while."
Enrique's curiosity ate at him, but the lady admiral would say no more.
As they stepped off the Lynx onto the cobbled streets of Upper City, Enrique realized just how long it had been since he'd last been there. The last party he'd been forced to attend had been well before his brash escape with Vyse, and now Madera's noble district seemed as foreign to him as Yafutoma. He knew nearly every house and every family that lived there, as he'd been by at one point or another, but in contrast to the meager lifestyle the Rogues led, the elaborate mansions and their sprawling gardens seemed like wasteful excess. His young mind churned as they climbed into a carriage and cantered off down the street, trying to figure out how his mother could have possibly allowed such a divide between the classes to occur. If his father were still alive, he wondered, would it have been the same?
The scents of glazed meat, spices, and garden vegetables lingered with that of perfume – both from the flowers and from some of the women they passed – in the air. Music and laughter were carried to them by the wind, bothering the prince more than it should have. The world was preparing to engulf itself in a war that had the potential to destroy Valua utterly, and here these people complacently ignored it, too lost in their material comforts! Didn't they care about the fate of their own country? Did they even know?
"Belleza..." he started.
"Shh," she whispered. "When you're dressed like this, you must act the part. It's 'Almirante.'"
He sighed. "Nevermind."
The carriage took them down the main street and then turned, winding up into the hills that the largest mansions climbed. There, perched upon the highest point in the city, rose the Iglesia de la Luna Amarillo, or the Church of the Yellow Moon. The cathedral was huge even from afar, its spires thrusting high into the sky, crowned with copper rods to attract lightning. Angels perched like sentries from on high around the towers and the tiled roof, watching those who passed below with stony gazes. Stained glass windows sat as faceted beacons of multicolored light, glowing between the artistically twisted iron bars crowning the windows or forming balconies around them. The facade was the most impressive part, embossed with gold-leafed reliefs depicting various scenes of Valuan lore, from the founding of Madera by the Tartas to the terrible earthquake that swallowed an entire city. It glimmered dully from afar, warm and inviting to all who beheld it.
The Yellow Moon seemed to hover directly above the Cathedral as they approached it, a single draconic eye watching their every movement. Carefully, the two of them slid from the coach and Belleza tipped the driver, sending him off with the wave of her hand. She turned then to face the steep flight of stairs leading up into the great hall, positively dwarfed by the building's sheer height and mass. A prism of light from one of the stained glass windows fell down over her slender form, wrapping it in a pale shroud of colors.
"You've been to the tombs before, haven't you?" she asked, without looking back over her shoulder at him.
"Only once, when I turned sixteen," he replied. "It was to visit my father's grave."
"Did you ever go deeper, to visit your ancestors?" she asked.
"I...no. Never." He blinked. The thought had never really occurred to him.
"Perhaps you should have. You never know what you might learn from them." And with those cryptic words, she began to climb the steps. Enrique hastened to follow her, his armor clacking loudly with every movement. Why did Belleza insist on leaving him in the dark?!
Inside the cathedral, it was warm and dark. Towering stained glass windows lined the walls, separated at regular intervals by great wooden pillars carved in the likenesses of saints. A sea of pews covered the floor in neat, perfectly straight rows, enough seating for at least the entire population of Upper City, and between them down the center aisle ran a plush yellow carpet so thick that their feet sank slightly when they stepped on to it. The ceiling above rose in a high arch, and between the support beams were painted classical frescoes of more scenes of Valuan lore. At the end of the great hall, a large altar sat upon a raised dais, surrounded by burning candles and flickering prisms of yellow moonstone.
Raised upon the back wall was the most magnificent piece of artwork of all. The Yellow Moon was cast from a massive disc of solid gold, easily twenty or thirty feet in diameter. It was held aloft by angels, all of whom bowed their heads humbly to the Valuan dragon in the center – a sacred figure which, he realized, had been the image of Yeligar all along. The Church of the Yellow Moon had always depicted Yeligar as a sort of avatar for the Moon itself, but now, beholding the dragon's image, Enrique had to freeze and stare at it in fear. He'd never been overly religious, but knowing that he had played a part in killing that creature filled him with dread nevertheless.
"En—uhh...Sergeant?" Belleza asked, turning to look back at him quizzically when she noticed he was no longer following her.
"Oh! It's nothing. Apologies, Admiral," he said, quickly.
"Very well..." she replied, although she did not sound entirely convinced. "Here, follow me."
Belleza led him to the end of the hall and then to a door tucked into a corner there. It opened up into one of the towers, which allowed them to either ascend a winding flight of stairs up the spire, or follow a narrow corridor deeper into the cathedral. Belleza took the latter path and followed it as far as it would allow, where it ended in a small staircase that twisted sharply downwards. They emerged in a dimly lit hallway that clearly saw little use, and he heard her count the doors under her breath as she passed them. Abruptly she stopped, turned to face a tapestry, and walked into it. Recognizing it, Enrique followed and found himself descending another, longer flight of stairs.
Sure enough, when the stairs finally came to an end, Enrique and Belleza emerged in a cool, dry, musty chamber, with a ceiling so low that they almost had to duck in order to safely move around. It was lit only by dying moonstone shards, which cast long, eerie shadows into every nook and cranny possible. He didn't need light to know where he was, however, for it was unmistakable to him; they'd descended into the tomb of the Royal Family, where every ruler since the very first Emperor of Valua had been buried upon their deaths.
"Belleza...why did you bring me here?" he asked, pulling off his helmet and tucking it under one arm. "Why would you explore the tombs in the first place?"
Belleza didn't reply until after she had pressed her hands together and conjured a ball of fire into them. The flickering red orb rested harmlessly in the palm of one gloved hand, adding a scant bit more light to the barrow chambers. "I'm not sure what first drew me down here. I guess you could call it a hunch," she admitted. "There's always been rumors of a secret labyrinth underneath the cathedral, but they're usually waved off as tales the priests make up in order to scare young children into obedience. I always figured the rumors simply referred to the Royal Tomb, but..." She paused, looking around. "I figured if there was any one place likely to have the kind of secret passages you were looking for, it would be down here."
"And did you find anything?" he asked, curiously.
She laughed a little. "Find anything? I found something, all right. Something that predates the Nasr war, the Conquistadores, and even the era when Valua was not one country, but many small kingdoms bickering between themselves. Prince Enrique, I've found something older than even Valua itself."
"Something from the Old World, then," he said, eyes widening a little.
She nodded. "Here...come see for yourself."
The tomb before them branched off into three directions. To their right was the most brightly-lit of the barrow's hallways, where the most recent kings from his great-great grandfather to his father and their families had been buried. Straight ahead were the kings that predated even them, back to the days before Valua had discovered how to properly harness electricity. To the left was the dustiest of hallways, not even lit anymore, and it was here Belleza went. Hesitantly, the prince strode after her.
He found himself in a forgotten, narrow corridor where the elaborate tombs of the Royal Family had no place. Here, the graves of the departed were little more than small niches carved into the wall, just long enough for a body to fit in laying down. The corpses were wrapped up in blankets but many had rotted away, exposing skeletal remains to the stale air. Enrique's heart fluttered in his chest slightly as he continued to follow Belleza, unable to help feeling a bit jumpy.
How old were these people, he wondered? Valua had only been unified under one emperor for the past two hundred and fifty years, so they could not have all been his family. Perhaps, he reasoned, they were the old kings of Madera, which had been its own kingdom before becoming the capital of the Empire. Evidently, the city had more history than anyone realized.
At the end of the long hallway, Belleza stopped and faced a stone door. It was half-buried in a wall made of earth, but showed signs of having recently been cleaned off and used. It had obviously been engraved at one point, but the shifting soil had since rubbed it away, leaving the artwork completely unrecognizable save for the faint symbol of the yellow moon crest. Waving the fireball away, the lady admiral braced herself, grasped the door with both hands and gave it as mighty a heave as she could manage and, with some protest, it slowly ground open just enough for the two of them to slip inside.
Waiting on the other side for them was a narrow tunnel, where a hand-carved stone staircase descended into darkness. Resting on either side of each step was what looked to be a single candlestick, but upon closer inspection Enrique realized they were wax sticks cradling little yellow moonstone shards, which flickered dully like candlelight. They were dusty and scratched and looked to be quite old, and he doubted that Belleza had placed them there.
Quietly, she began to descend the staircase, and he hesitantly followed her. The walk took several minutes, and during that time the prince's ears began to pop. They were descending quite a ways, he realized, enough that the atmospheric pressure was already beginning to change.
Eventually, the stairs ended in a small chamber, lit only by the false candlelight from the stairwell. Belleza conjured up another fireball and held it above her head, continuing on without hesitation into another room. This one was larger and equally as dark, and try as he may, Enrique was unable to make out any details of it. But through the windows and the door on the far end, a pale yellow light shone through, casting anemic squares of color onto the dusty stone floor. It was here Belleza headed, stepping through the door into the light outside.
As Enrique emerged behind her, his eyes widened. They stood on a small balcony overlooking a colossal cavern, likely ripped into Valua's mantle by one of its many violent earthquakes long ago. What amazed him, however, was that nestled into it was a darkened city much like Terga Daré in the Maw, with houses carved from the stone itself. It wasn't nearly the deep-running metropolis that Terga Daré had been, and somehow it was mostly devoid of the twinking lights of its sister, but it was still sizable enough that he couldn't see how far into the cavern it ran. His eyes tried to follow the various bridges and walkways weaving back and forth across the chasm, but inevitably he found himself lost every time. So far as he could tell, they stood on the far southern end of the city, on a rise overlooking several small, darkened houses. Or...were they tombs?
"Belleza..." he breathed. "It's just like the Maw of Tartas. Where are we?"
"I wish I could tell you, Prince Enrique," she replied, gazing out at the city below. "As far as I can tell, this is a small city left behind by our ancestors. I've spent some time exploring it, and it's amazing. I've found markets, store rooms, bath houses, theaters...everything our people might possibly need to live safely and comfortably away from Lord Galcian, if only we could figure out how some of the things down here work."
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"Well, for instance, water. They have some sort of aqueduct down here that delivers them fresh water from somewhere," she explained. "We'd need it so the people can drink and wash, but I have no idea how to get the aqueduct flowing again. It seems to be controlled by a complex machine. I'm not sure I want to touch it."
"Hm." He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "At least the electricity won't be a problem. Fina said these cities have enough power to run for the next thousand years."
She nodded. "We have light and heat, and more than enough comfort if we clean things out. But that will perhaps be the biggest challenge."
He blinked. "Why?"
Belleza made a sweeping gesture across the chasm, indicating the entirety of the city. "To be honest, I haven't been able to explore even half of these ruins. I ran into trouble the last time I was here. In the heart of the city, the guardians are still active. They're protecting something there, and I don't know what it is. But as long as they're there, they present a danger to any refugees we might evacuate down here. I can't bring my men down to root them out; Alfonso will notice the Fourth Fleet moving. So that leaves..."
"You and I." Enrique paused, then chuckled despite himself. "Isn't that always how it goes, though?"
Belleza was wry. "You've become adept enough at dungeon crawling, haven't you? What do you think? Should we try to secure this place ourselves, or search somewhere else?"
"Galcian could strike at any time. We don't have the time to search, especially when we're just taking shots in the dark, so to speak." Enrique frowned, studying the streets in the distance. "Well, Admiral? What does our enemy look like?"
A grin slowly spread across Belleza's face, and she knelt down to rummage through her pack. Gesturing for Enrique to get closer, she smoothed out a small map on the floor and settled her fireball beside it. It was crudely drawn at best, a sketch of rough lines done in fresh ink, and he realized she had likely attempted to map out the ruins in her time exploring them.
"This is the only portion of the city I've been able to explore. Right here is where we're standing – by the passage to the tombs." She reached into a pocket and produced a small glass marker, which she placed upon the indicated spot. "Down here is housing, leading to a market and forum in the northwest and the baths and aqueduct in the east. As you can see, past these points the canyon divides the city into several parts, leaving only a few dubious choke points for us to actually move through."
"Dubious?" he echoed. "What's wrong with them?"
Belleza indicated a few intersections of the map. "In truth, a lot of these bridges are either damaged or destroyed. They likely didn't withstand the centuries of earthquakes that have hit Madera, so it's unsafe, if impossible, to cross the canyon."
Enrique furrowed his brow, looking up from the map to gaze at the canyon. In the darkness, he couldn't see what condition the bridges were in. "But there's a way around it, surely?"
She nodded. "Thankfully for us, these people were used to living with earthquakes. They have a system of yellow moonstone magnets that helped them pull things across the chasm."
Something suddenly clicked in Enrique's mind, and he stared at the admiral. "Is that why you had me wear a full suit of armor?!"
Belleza looked guilty. "It's serving two purposes, Prince Enrique!"
"Belleza! I'll never be able to pull myself off!"
She laughed. "The magnets can be activated and de-activated using Yellow Magic. I think you'll be fine."
He grimaced. "Forgive me if I'm not reassured."
"If it's any consolation..." She tapped her chest lightly, causing it to make a dull plinking sound. "I'm wearing armor under my uniform. I'll likely get stuck too."
He forced a smile. "Oh well...might as well give it a try, right?"
She grinned, sheepishly. "I was hoping you'd remember what Vyse taught you. Good. Now with all due respect, my prince, don't interrupt again."
"Now...here in the center, from what I can tell, is what they're protecting." Resuming her businesslike demeanor, Belleza circled a finger around a sort of island in the middle of the chasm. "You can't see it from here, but this is a giant pillar of stone holding up the ceiling of this cavern. Carved into it is a building that's obviously important somehow. I've only observed it from afar, but as far as I can tell, there's...animated statues or something fending off creatures crawling up from below."
Enrique blinked, startled. "What could be living down here?"
"Given our proximity to the sewers, and considering what DeLoco used to dump in them?" She rolled her eyes. "Anything."
He hesitated, studying the map. "So we can only move in from one direction, and afterwards there won't be any room to run. No wonder you wanted an army."
"But good odds for a true Valuan, hm?" she asked, eyes dancing.
Enrique considered a moment, then laughed. "Belleza, are we desperate or crazy?"
She leaned back and tucked the map away, smiling with a touch of melancholy. "A little of both, Your Highness," she said. "I think a little of both."
Enrique and Belleza spent the rest of the evening camping out in the ruins and plotting their next moves. After exploring the immediate area, Belleza came to realize that the electricity in the ruins was generated in part by running water, and was dismayed to find that they would have to get the aqueduct working again before they could move further. That she elected to leave for the morning, curling up in her sleeping roll in defeat. Enrique sat up for a while simply pondering their situation, then eventually shed his armor and went to bed as well.
He couldn't tell if it was morning when he next awoke, but it was evident Belleza had been up long before him. Their makeshift camp had already been packed up and she was studying the ruins from afar, frowning to herself thoughtfully. Enrique groaned sorely and climbed out of his bedroll, reaching into his packs for something quick to eat. When he was finished, he reluctantly donned his armor and joined Belleza, who apparently had been waiting for him.
"You used to be such an early riser. What happened?" she teased.
"I started spending time with pirates," he replied with a grin.
Chuckling, the two set off.
The streets of the mysterious city were precariously narrow, at least on their side of town. They were little more than steep flights of steps that wound their way through cracks between the buildings, sharply scaling their way downwards. The two carefully picked their way lower but it proved to be quite the feat for Enrique, who had lost all of his dexterity beneath the Red Guard armor. After nearly falling several times, he finally stripped himself of his helmet, breastplate and leg guards and left them on the stairs.
"I hope you can remember where you left those. That is, after all, your disguise," Belleza said, with an arched brow.
"I'd rather search for these later than fall to my death now," he replied.
"I apologize, Prince Enrique. The streets widen out after this, I promise."
He nodded. "Either way, let's keep going. Time's not really on our side."
At last, the two reached the lower end of the city, where the buildings withdrew slightly to leave a lip paved with mosaic tiles around the gaping mouth of the canyon. Here they turned and began their trek east, following the edge of the abysmal pit towards a skeletal shape emerging from the cliff walls high above. As they neared, the strange silhouette began to take a more distinctive form and the prince was able to make out delicate archways shaped to look like the coils of a Tartas, stacked on top of each other as they carefully bridged their way out into the darkness of the canyon. He realized it must have been the aqueduct.
When they reached the foot of the ancient structure, Enrique craned his head back in wonder. The aqueduct was huge and towered high above them, likely deep and wide enough to sail a small ship down. Belleza considered it a moment and then beckoned him over to a darkened corner, where a strange jumble of pipes and other mechanical odds and ends sat beneath a thick layer of dust. They connected to a large console in the center, a flat-paneled creation that was completely alien to him.
"This is it. I think this is the machine that controls the flow of the water," she said. "But it appears to have been dead for a while. Nothing's flowing right now."
Enrique frowned, leaning over to wipe away the dust on the console's screen. "Will it turn on, at least?" he asked.
The admiral shrugged. "I've been afraid to touch it. Technology was DeLoco's specialty, not mine."
"Hm..." Enrique studied the buttons on the panel. A few of the words actually looked vaguely Valuan, and he furrowed his brow as he thought. "This almost looks like the Old Language."
"I bet it is," she replied, folding her arms over her chest. "Modern Valuan is supposed to have evolved from the Old Language."
"Maybe we can guess at the words, then..." he mused. "Let's...try...this..."
He reached out and pressed a button marked by a circle with half a line through the top. The machine made a scratching, whining noise, flickered once, and then died.
"Stand back a moment," Belleza said.
Blinking, Enrique took several steps back to watch her carefully. The lady admiral closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath, then shot an arm out towards the console. "Moons! Give me strength!"
Lightning responded to her instantly, a great fork materializing from above and striking the machine in a brilliant flash of light. It left a short crack of thunder that echoed for what seemed like an eternity through the colossal cavern, and suddenly, the console hummed to life.
"That should last it a bit," she said, with a satisfied nod.
Curious, Enrique stepped forward and studied the console as the screen on it scrolled by with numbers and figures that made no sense. After several minutes of making mathematical calculations, the screen produced a three-dimensional diagram of the entirety of the aqueduct and began to highlight parts of it in different colors. He furrowed his brow as he gazed at the picture, trying to decipher what words he could from the Old Language by comparing them to words he knew in Valuan.
"It's damaged," he finally decided. "The water's not going to flow through to all parts of the city."
"I expected as much, to be honest," Belleza replied. "Further in, you'll see that part of the city's sustained a lot of damage. It hasn't fared so well through the earthquakes over the years. But I'd say we may as well power as much of it as we can – it should make traveling easier."
"Well...let's see what I can do here..." Enrique leaned over the console again, searching for words once more. "Water...Agua..agua...aqua? Yes, that must be it." He pressed the appropriate button, and the machine buzzed at him. A block of letters popped up on the screen that he couldn't read and couldn't get to go away, and he growled at it in frustration.
"What's wrong?" Belleza asked.
"I don't know what it's trying to ask me," he replied.
She shrugged. "Just say 'yes' then."
He frowned and glanced the console over, but couldn't find a "yes" button. Finally he resorted to simply pressing them at random until something happened, and while the machine seemed very unhappy at him, it displayed water running down the aqueduct in a flickering animation.
Up above, in the distance, he heard a grinding sound and then a loud clang. It echoed hollowly into nothingness, and for several heartbeats nothing happened. Then the pipes around them began to churn and there came a hiss of steam, and suddenly a great, low rumble caused the stone archways above them to creak and tremble. Wide-eyed, Enrique and Belleza stumbled backwards right as a great surge of water came crashing through the mouth of a tunnel high above, pouring down the aqueduct in a wave that came crashing down its sides. It spilled along where they had stood and then down into the blackness of the canyon, sparing them only by precious feet. Then the surge subsided and the water resumed a much more normal flow, leaving them wet and startled.
As they stood there trying to compose themselves and piece together what, exactly, had just happened, they became distantly aware of a grinding noise somewhere in the heart of the canyon. A low, lethargic hum reverberated from the base of the caverns, but it steadily picked up rhythm, until suddenly there came a great flash of light that momentarily blinded them. It did not go away, and it took a couple of minutes for their eyes to adjust before they could turn and see where the light was coming from.
The city was alive now, they realized. Electricity had returned to each of the houses, causing them to twinkle like the golden manors of Upper City from afar. The windows burned brightly and the streets were lit by frosted globes of glass that had flickering yellow lights dancing within them, reminding Enrique very much of fireflies. He could see much further now that the caverns were illuminated, and could see that further on, the city had indeed crumbled. Many of the houses blended together into a tangle of walls, wires and rubble, and they looked lost and forlorn in the midst of all the light. From them came only an eerie, greenish glow, which he decided was rather unnerving.
"Well. That's one way to do it." Belleza was wry as she reached up to wring her hair out, a faint smirk playing at her lips. "At least navigating the city will be safer now."
"Eheh...sorry." Enrique smiled sheepishly at her. "So where do we go from here?"
Belleza tied her hair into a knot to keep it out of her face for the time being, then turned to face the city once more. "From here we backtrack and head for the ruins in the distance. That's where the magnets are. Are you well enough to move?"
"Of course," he replied. "It's just water."
She nodded. "Good. Let's go."
Soggily, the two retraced their steps and followed the canyon lip northwest instead, their path illuminated by the glows from the houses and from the strange firefly-lamps along the streets. As they walked, the prince couldn't help but to admire the city and its remarkable craftsmanship, grateful to be able to see it up close after having simply flown by Terga Daré in the Maw. Each house was a work of art, he realized, decorated with intricate knotwork that embraced the stylized shapes of different people and animals over doors and along domed ceilings. Light, breezy curtains still hung in many of the windows, and painted glass lanterns were strung between the rooftops. Up close, he realized that there was a lot of metal included within the stonework, giving some of the more weathered buildings a bit of a patched-up, unfinished look.
With the aqueduct now active, water poured out of several parts of the cavern. It ran through the city and cascaded down into the canyon in several places, leaving only narrow, crumbling bridges for he and Belleza to pass over to the other side of the waterfalls. Other bridges spanned off into the darkness where the city's light could not reach, but he could see that many of their silhouettes had indeed crumbled away, leaving two arms of metal and stone unable to reach each other across the gap.
For a time, all he was aware of was the cascade of water and the hum of electric lights. But as they drew closer to the northern ruins, something else began to echo up from below as well. It was a strange chittering noise, and he noticed Belleza stiffen lightly as she heard it. He tried to ask her what was wrong, but the roar of the waterfall they were passing over cut him off, and he decided to simply leave it.
Finally, the ruins rose to block their path, and they found they could go no further. A large chunk of the ceiling had fallen from above long ago and shattered the road they walked on, smashing away parts of it and covering the rest in tons of rubble. Belleza considered it a minute and then turned to face him, readjusting the weight of her pack over her shoulder.
"This is more or less where my exploration ended. From here it gets difficult," she said. "These ruins are tricky to navigate, and they're crawling with...things. I don't know what they are. But no matter what, do not let them touch you."
Something about her tone unnerved him more than her actual words did. Enrique suddenly felt uneasy, but he nodded. "Let's go."
Belleza reached down and pulled her whip from her side, holding it tightly in one hand as she began to scale the rubble. Enrique followed with some trouble, and together the two climbed up into an alcove high above, where a protected street had once run through a forest of pillars into the rest of the city. They carefully shimmied along it but soon were forced to hop down into the remnants of a house when their path was blocked by another cave-in, landing roughly among shattered pottery and ruined furniture. They carefully squeezed their way out of the half-blocked door and then wormed their way through another house, forced to push away debris as they went.
They emerged in a crumbled courtyard, which looked like it had once been a part of an open-air market. In the center sat a shattered fountain, which now sputtered fresh water onto the ground and sent it flowing gently downwards into the houses several feet below. The two carefully picked their way to the other side but found a sort of fissure separating them from the other half of the city, neatly dividing the districts in two. Belleza studied it a moment, her gaze tracing the twisted support beams above them, and suddenly she raised her whip and lashed out at one of them. It coiled around a beam tightly and she gave it an experimental tug; it held.
Before Enrique could ask what she was doing, the admiral took a bit of a running start and then leaped out over the fissure. The whip pulled taut underneath her weight but it did not budge, and allowed her to neatly swing over to the other side. Then she swung it back for him and he fumbled to catch it between his hands. He hesitated a moment, but followed suit.
Belleza loosened the whip with a flick of her wrist and the two continued on, carefully navigating over the tops of crumbled walls like balance beams. Eventually they were forced to slide down and wander their way through a large building of some sort, jumping down its many floors and hiking its many flights of stairs. When they got to the third floor, however, it suddenly buckled and collapsed underneath them, sending them plummeting for the ground.
A stretch of awning broke their falls, but they still hit the ground hard. Enrique winced as some loose debris came raining down on his head, blinking his eyes open moments later to try and regain his bearings. They were in a large, darkened room full of statues, which he couldn't quite make out without light. The floor was made of fragments of tile shaped into larger squares, and in the center, where they lay, was a massive disk made of gold. It had circuit lines etched into it, two of which branched out and cut through the floor, vanishing into the darkness.
Suddenly, something came clattering down from above, causing the two of them to jump. It hit the disk on the floor with a loud metallic ringing and spun for a moment before coming to rest with a low clang. Blinking, the two crawled forward to study it, confused to find a smaller disk identical to the one they now sat upon. Carefully, Enrique picked it up and turned it over in his hands, studying it closely. It was only about a foot in diameter, and looked like it fit in to something.
"Before you ask," Belleza said, her voice wry, "I have no idea what that's supposed to be for."
He chuckled. "We should hold on to it, though. It looks important."
"A key, perhaps?" she mused. "If so, that'd be some pretty strange luck."
Enrique nodded in agreement, then stood a bit heavily. "Oof. That hurt. Are you sure I need all this armor? I haven't seen any magnets yet."
"We're almost through the damaged portion of the city," Belleza replied, standing as well. "Just a little bit farther and we'll be at the magnetic rails. I just hope we can find an easier way back."
"Me too. This is starting to hurt." Enrique winced lightly, tucking the disk away for the time being. He offered Belleza a hand up, and together the two blindly stumbled their way out of the strange room.
After clearing their way through a few more houses, they dropped down to the first floor of a two-storied building and stepped out to find themselves in a narrow, four-way intersection, two streets cast into complete shadow. Enrique could hear something scratching and shuffling around them, but could not see anything in the darkness, and immediately felt Belleza stiffen beside him.
"Prince Enrique..." she whispered.
"What's wrong?" he whispered back. "What's that noise?"
He froze, his eyes meeting hers in the darkness. She looked over his shoulder, and he felt his hair stand on end.
In a move so quick he couldn't quite follow it without turning his head, Belleza snapped her arm and sent the tongue of her whip cracking sharply just past his ear. He flinched and stumbled away as something shrieked and hissed behind him, splattering his armor with a bit of sickly-colored ichor. A second later, a huge green insect, somewhat resemblant of a cockroach crossed with a spider, tumbled to his feet. It writhed convulsively beneath the pain of a shell cracked neatly open, struggling in vain as its life fluids leaked from its body.
"Wh-what is that?!" he blurted, eyes wide.
"I don't know what it is," Belleza replied, stoically. "But I do know that you do not, under any circumstances, want to let one get near to your head. And that's exactly what that one was trying to do to you."
The prince swallowed thickly. "What...happens if it climbs on your head?"
She gazed at him a moment, then shivered and turned away. "We need to keep moving. I know there's more around."
The lady admiral conjured a ball of fire into her hand and held it above her head, moving to take a few steps forward. But as soon as the light fell into the alley before them she froze, and she and Enrique could only stare in horror at what they saw. Carpeting the ruins before them, positively covering the walls and street in a writhing blanket, were hundreds of the giant insects, slowly clattering their way towards them.
Every instinct within Enrique screamed for him to turn and bolt. He drew his rapier and whirled around towards one of the other streets, only to find it crawling with insects as well. Desperately, he turned for the road behind him, and then to his right, only to find that they were similarly swarmed. The two of them had no way out.
"...I know." She swallowed and waved her ball of light away. "Oh moons, this is going to be ugly..."
Darkness fell over them again. A heartbeat passed. Then two.
Belleza made the first move.
"Moons...give me strength!"
The air grew heavy and flashed an angry red, before abruptly exploding into flames. They shot down each tunnel and instantly incinerated many of the insects, causing them to hiss and scream as they were rendered to ash. That seemed to invoke their ire, and all at once they charged, moving with frightening speed. Stumbling backwards, Enrique had just enough time to call to the Yellow Moon and form a meager bubble of light around himself and Belleza before they attacked. With a hair's width to spare, the lunging insects bounced harmlessly from his shield but immediately began to swarm all over it, covering it with their writhing bodies. Feeling it threatening to collapse beneath him, he cringed and poured more energy into it.
"I'm fine!" he grunted. "Keep killing them!"
Belleza turned around and invoked the Red Moon again, but this time it was an incantation he didn't recognize. The air around him became as heavy and unbreathable as that of Nasr in the middle of summer, and he began to perspire beneath both it and the strain of maintaining his shield. Suddenly, the lady admiral slammed a fist into the ground and the ruins around them simply exploded, catching him off guard and causing him to fumble the barrier. He and Belleza were thrown back by the force of the aftershock, down a street, through a window and into another building.
It took a while for Enrique to recover. Groaning, the prince sorely scooped himself up off the ground and dug himself out of fresh rubble. He got to his feet in time to see Belleza do the same, brushing ash out of her hair.
"What in the world was that?!" he demanded.
"Pyrulen," she replied. "As far as I know, it's the most powerful fire spell in existence. I guess I should have warned you. I'm sorry, Prince Enrique."
He winced a little. "Was that really necessary?"
"I could see your shield failing. I had to wipe them out somehow," she pointed out.
The rubble around them shifted. Without thinking, Enrique called to the Yellow Moon again and sent forks of electricity snapping out from himself in a shower of sparks. Three or four inhuman shrieks immediately came in response as he struck more insects down where they hid.
"I can't blow this whole place up. We need to keep moving!" Belleza cried.
"Right behind you," he said.
Hastily, the two climbed up out of the house and ran across a crumbled wall. Below them, they could hear scores of the angry insects skittering up from the shadows, and that spurred them on all the more. They scrambled up onto a dilapidated rooftop, but immediately leaped away as it began to collapse beneath them, instead diving through a window into the second story of another building. Here they raced down a flight of stairs and back into the street again, keenly aware of shadows scurrying after them right at the edge of their vision.
They jumped a fallen bridge and continued on, racing down an alley. It opened into another four-way intersection and they dashed down a tunnel, only to find the insects there waiting for them. Without thinking, the two sprang through the swarm and kept running, following the tunnel as it twisted and wound its way downward.
Suddenly, before them, a gaping hole emerged from the darkness where a portion of the tunnel floor had caved in during an earthquake. Without slowing, the two raced forward and jumped, just barely clearing the gap. But the insects behind them gave no pause, simply scurrying over the ceiling and walls to avoid the hole, and that provided them with no time to rest. They continued to flee, shooting around a corner only to find another, larger gap. Without thinking, without pausing, they cleared it with their heels left dangling over the blackness, and spurred on.
Then came a third gap. Belleza managed to clear it but Enrique, weighed down by his armor, fell just short. He cried out and managed to grab on to the edge, where he dangled precariously above the chasm below. Belleza scrambled to a halt and turned to grip his hands with her own, struggling against the weight of his body to pull him up again. He fought against gravity and dug his greaves into the rock beneath him, and slowly hauled himself back up.
But by the time he was safe again, the insects were upon them. One dropped from the ceiling and landed upon Belleza's head, and she screamed as its segmented legs began to wrap around her throat. His heart pounding in his chest, Enrique jerked his rapier out of its scabbard and, with great precision, ran the creature through. It immediately let Belleza go and she staggered away, leaving the prince to flick the impaled creature from his blade.
The two stood back-to-back, pinned against the confines of the tunnels and the pits around them. Enrique drove his rapier through the insects as they attacked, and Belleza likewise lashed them in two with her whip, but they came so quickly that soon they had to resort once more to magic to deal with their sheer numbers. When it became clear that they were getting overwhelmed once more, they turned and again fled; the tunnel mercifully ended, and opened into wide, paved streets once again.
Enrique's energy reserves began to drain fast. He wasn't sure how much longer he and Belleza could continue to run from these things. But what else could they do?
Darting between buildings, the two climbed their way up a rise, making a break for a large bridge up ahead. As they came over the hill, however, they were forced to skid to a halt, their hearts sinking in their chests as they came to discover that this bridge was out as well, plunging into blackness over the canyon. Behind them, the insects closed in rapidly, a dark wave spilling over the skeletons of the buildings and through and out their windows. There was simply nowhere else to go.
Setting her brow in determination, Belleza stepped forward and began to sling every spell she knew at the encroaching insects, searing them away with fire, frying them with bolts of lightning, blowing them into the canyon with gusts of wind, or smashing them beneath a hail of ice. Her spellwork was truly awe-inspiring, and time seemed to slow in the flashes of red, yellow, blue and purple light she cast across the pale stone around them. But for all her magical prowess, Enrique could tell she was tiring quickly, and there were simply far too many insects for her to clear out alone. They needed a way out before she killed herself by over-casting. But where?
The prince glanced around, frantically, his eyes finally darting to the ceiling in desperation. To his surprise, there was something hanging from the cavern ceiling high above them, some sort of rail that glowed dimly in the darkness. Suddenly remembering what they had discussed earlier, he reached up for the rail and called upon Yellow Magic once again.
"Moons...give me strength!"
Strands of electricity shot from his fingertips and up towards the strange contraption above. Immediately he was yanked from his feet and pulled into the air, and with a startled cry, he found himself pinned to the rails within seconds. All of the sudden he was left dangling upside-down several feet up; vertigo threatened to overwhelm him, and he was forced to close his eyes as his beret tumbled from his head and down into the chasm below.
"Belleza! Above you!" he shouted. "There's magnets above you!"
The lady admiral stumbled backwards, forced to the edge of the bridge. She glanced up, and without hesitation, shot a fork of lightning at the rail. The magnet immediately pulled her upwards and she gave a startled cry, pulled to safety right as the insects poured over where she stood. As she landed against the magnet with a low clang, she fought against an insect clinging to her leg and manage to kick it off, glaring at it balefully as it plummeted into the chasm far below.
"Cabrones..." she murmured. Enrique had to laugh despite himself at her sudden, uncharacteristic vulgarity.
Down below, the swarm convulsed in confusion at the sudden loss of its prey. They watched as it lingered a while, combing the area for the two of them, but eventually it gave up and retreated back into the ruins as one rolling black tide. Enrique and Belleza sighed in relief.
"I suppose calling that close would be an understatement," the prince said.
"Mm. Yes," Belleza replied after a moment. She shifted, then tried to stand. Slowly, she braced her feet against the rail and rose to her full height, and to Enrique's amazement, it held. All he could do was hang there pinned by his back while she took a few experimental steps forward – upside-down.
"How are you doing that?"
"The magnets are powered by electricity, like I told you," she said. "Currently it's holding us here by the metal in our armor. You should be able to walk too."
Suddenly it dawned on Enrique just what Belleza was planning. His pale gaze flicked out towards the blackness surrounding them, following the hanging magnetic rail as it wound its way out over the canyon. It must have gone on for at least a quarter of a mile, and he couldn't tell if there were any breaks in it further on or not. At most, it was only eight inches wide.
"You...want us to walk across the canyon like this? Upside-down on a tiny little rail?" He swallowed, thickly. "Isn't there some sort of car that rides on this or something?"
"If there is, it isn't on this side of the city," she replied, turning to face him. "What's the matter? I thought you did this kind of thing all the time with Vyse."
He tried to grin, but it betrayed his nervousness anyway. "Not...exactly. Vyse was the one who did all the cliff-jumping and sky-diving and gigas-taunting. Not me."
Belleza only smiled, amused. "Well, Prince Enrique, there's a first time for everything." And with that, she turned and began to carefully walk down the rail, balancing gracefully upon it.
With a sigh, Enrique shifted his weight and tried to get his feet underneath himself. He bent awkwardly at the middle, and when he tried to push himself up, he only managed to get his gauntlets pinned to the rail instead. Twisting, he pulled his hands out of the gauntlets and suddenly swung downwards, crying out in alarm. Belleza whirled around and lashed out at him with her whip, catching him around the wrist and pulling him towards her in order to steady him. For a long time the prince simply froze, trying to calm the racing of his heart, as he stood there upside-down on his own two feet. He could have sworn he was falling.
"Are you alright?" Belleza asked, studying his face from afar.
He nodded, slowly. "...Yes. Yes, I...think I'm fine now."
"Stay near to me, Prince Enrique. I promise I will catch you if you fall."
The prince smiled a little, taking a few cautious steps out. "Thank you, Belleza."
She returned the smile, then turned and carefully strode off.
The world was surreal turned upside-down, and it wasn't long before he had to fight against the feeling of the blood rushing to his head. He winced and tried to focus on Belleza instead, walking where she walked, moving as she moved. Ahead, a large shape began to emerge from the darkness, defined more in shadows than it was light. It was a massive pillar of rock several hundred feet in diameter, standing among other, smaller columns that helped to hold up the ceiling of the colossal cavern.
As they drew even nearer, he was able to make out the details of the great pillar. What looked to be a monument of some sort was carved into it, sporting rounded facades, many windows, and images of dragons everywhere. Balls of electricity lazily floated all around, pale and ghostly lights that moved erratically but never left the presence of the structure. At its foot, the aqueduct ended and cascaded down upon a great water wheel, which churned slowly and powered a complex-looking machine he couldn't even begin to fathom before spilling down to another level of aqueducts below. He could hear the water flowing somewhere far beneath them, but only barely.
The more they neared, the more the curtain of darkness was pulled back, and finally Enrique simply froze in his tracks when he realized something was moving on the monument landing ahead. He stared in wide-eyed horror as he recognized the shapes of the insects, clinging to some sort of shambling, four-legged creatures that scaled the sheer face of the pillar up to the monument itself. There, four stone golems shaped like stylized versions of Yeligar relentlessly fought them off, caught in what seemed like an eternal stalemate. He couldn't even begin to guess at how many there were.
"What now?" he asked Belleza, as he finally caught up with her.
The lady admiral pursed her lips, studying the scene below critically. "It's been like this for days now. I don't know how long those things have been attacking or even what they're after, but apparently they've got steady numbers."
"Would the golems attack us too?"
"That I don't know," she admitted. "This is by far the closest I've been to here."
Enrique frowned. "Let's get a little closer. As long as the magnets hold, we're safe up here."
She nodded. "Of course, Your Highness."
They followed the rail as close as it would allow them to the central pillar, relieved to find that it actually ended at the landing. Sure enough, a sort of gondola hung from it far on the other side, although it looked wanting for serious repair despite being sheltered by a rocky outcropping. They carefully swung down on top of it, swaying uneasily as the blood quickly poured out of their brains. It took the prince several minutes before he could move properly again.
Ducking behind the outcropping, the two watched the ongoing battle carefully, although they could not see much behind the bulk of one of the golems. Enrique watched the construct move, wondering how such a thing could remain powered over the centuries. Then it turned, and his eyes widened slightly as he recognized a familiar shape between its shoulderblades and wings, embedded into its back: a golden disc like the one he had found earlier.
Before he could say anything, he felt Belleza grab his arm, and when he turned he found that her expression looked sick. She gestured hurriedly for him to remain quiet, then pointed out past the golem to where a few of the creatures they were fighting had managed to crawl up nearby. He followed her finger, and immediately regretted it; what he saw made him nearly sick too.
Now he understood Belleza's warnings about not letting the insects get near his head. The creatures that they "rode" upon were, in fact, human beings, all dressed in the tattered garb of Lower City residents. Somehow the insects had attached themselves to the tops of their skulls and taken their bodies over, leaving them as little more than walking corpses. Although they weren't quite at the point of decay, their skin was veiny and ashen, their bodies emaciated, and their eyes sunken and hollow. Many had lost their hair, and several were beaten quite badly. It was like something out of a nightmare.
He couldn't tear his eyes away, even though he inwardly yelled at them to stop looking.
"Those poor people..." she whispered. "They must have been homeless, living in the sewers..." Slowly she shook her head, her gaze going distant. "I...I don't know what to do, Prince Enrique. These are our people. Innocent people. But I don't think they can be saved..."
A golem whirled around and struck at the nearest puppets with its tail, sweeping them from the ledge they clung to. They fell soundlessly, simply vanishing into the darkness, not even attempting to save themselves.
"We cannot leave them to this fate. Even...even if we must end them, it would be a mercy compared to this..." he replied, already feeling a pit grow in his stomach.
"Could you really do that?" Belleza asked, watching him carefully.
Enrique hesitated a moment, then sighed. "...No. No more than I could kill my own mother. And even if I could, it would be foolish to throw ourselves up against such numbers."
She nodded, slowly. "In battle, one must always manipulate the situation in their favor. This most certainly is not in ours." The admiral smiled a little. "I suggest we try to get in through the windows, and see what it is they're after. Perhaps we can clear them out if we get our hands on it."
To that the prince craned his head back, finally tearing his eyes away from the morbid sight of the cadaver-puppets to the windows high above. If they were careful they would be able to scale the carvings in the wall up to the closest window with relative ease, but would it attract attention?
Belleza didn't give him time to think about it. Standing, she flicked her whip out and secured it around the neck of a Tartas carving coiled high above. She gave it an experimental tug, then began to scale the wall, bracing her feet within the engravings beneath her. Enrique watched her a moment and began to follow her once she was halfway up, keeping a wary eye upon the battle below. They were just barely within the puppets' and the golems' sight, but so far they gave no indication of noticing the two.
With a bit of effort, Belleza hefted herself up into the closest window and peered through cautiously to the other side. It was just barely big enough for her to squeeze through, but she offered Enrique a hand up once she was there. The prince found it much harder to pass in all of his armor, and wound up having to twist at an odd angle while she pulled him through. He hit the ground unceremoniously on the other side, the red-tinted metal rattling sharply.
Cautiously, the prince hefted himself up and took a look around, his eyes widening slightly. The inner chambers were rounded and rose to a conical peak, supported only by five arches that rose to the pointed ceiling. Stained glass filled the spaces between them, depicting images of different dragons interacting with people, but they were highly translucent and behind them he could see stars and the moons moving by lazily. If it was magic, it was a very potent, very mesmerizing illusion.
Electric light filtered down from above, beaming steadily upon a rune-etched platform that hovered some twenty feet above the actual floor in the center of the room. Here, an even larger dragon-golem crouched, wrapping its claws around a stone ring that looked like a gate or a doorway of some sort. Both were silent and still, sleeping as far as he could tell. But something bothered Enrique. Other than the golem and the ring it held, the chambers were completely empty. What was in here that the other golems wished to protect so badly?
As if sensing the question on his mind, Belleza carefully dangled over the edge of the landing they stood on and dropped to the platform below. She glanced around and then slowly approached the statue, but neither the dragon nor the ring it held did anything as she approached. After a moment, Enrique followed suit, pulling the golden disk out from where he had secreted it away.
She eyed him. "You think that's the key to all this? That's a bit of a long shot, Your Highness."
He gestured to the golem. "Didn't you see? These disks were powering the other ones. Perhaps once activated, it can make more sense of this situation."
Belleza turned wry. "Or it could attack us."
"Well...yes." He grew sheepish. "But shouldn't we at least try to get to the bottom of this mystery?"
The admiral laughed. "I'm not stopping you, Prince Enrique. I am prepared for whatever happens."
"Then watch my back."
So said, the prince began to scale the dragon's back, bracing his feet against its intricately-carved stone hide. As nimbly as he could in his still-clumsy armor, he managed to work his way up between its shoulderblades, resting between its small, folded wings. Here he found a shallow hole, just big enough for the disc he held to rest in, with small wirelike protrusions that matched the circuit-like etchings in the object's face. After studying it for a moment, he slid it into place, and an electric pulse shot through the dragon's "veins".
For a few breaths, nothing happened. The golem sat in complete silence, still sitting stone-still. Then suddenly it shifted and came to life, its eyes illuminating with a yellow glow as it shifted and mechanically hefted itself upright. Enrique gave a small cry of surprise and fumbled to grab a hold of one of its wings before he was pitched off, as the golem turned to look at Belleza.
Quid est nomen tibe? it droned in a hollow, metallic-sounding voice.
The admiral took an involuntary step back, blinking up at the construct. "Er, I don't...I do not understand you."
Quid est nomen tibe? the golem repeated.
"Moons..." Belleza murmured, rolling her eyes.
The golem sat back in response, its eyes dimming as it began to make a series of strange clicking, grinding and whirring noises somewhere internally. This persisted for several minutes, and during that time Enrique debated climbing down from it. He wasn't sure whether or not it was a good idea to alert the construct to his presence.
Lingual shift detected. Analyzing language corruption. Does she understand it now?
Belleza blinked. "I...yes, yes I do!"
What is your name? the golem asked.
Belleza hesitated a moment. "I am Belleza. And the man upon your back is Enrique."
Names Belleza and Enrique are not on the list of personnel authorized to access the Gate. Please remove yourselves from the chambers immediately.
"Wait. What does the gate do?" Enrique asked, leaning over the golem's shoulder. "Please, we need to know."
This is an advanced warp gate leading to the Quorum. At present it is deactivated as its moonstone resonance was attracting subterranean parasites to the city.
"A bit late for that now..." Belleza murmured.
Enrique slid down from the golem's shoulder and landed back on the ground, craning his head back to look up at it. "What is the Quorum?"
That is knowledge restricted to the Royal Family and their retainers only. Please issue another inquiry.
"Ah, but I am of the Royal Family!" Enrique insisted. "I am the prince of Valua and its only heir!"
The golem stared at him unblinkingly. Name "Valua" does not register.
He felt Belleza grab his arm. "Prince Enrique, it's pointless. This thing has no way of knowing about the modern world. The only knowledge it has is thousands of years old."
Request for database sweep acknowledged. Checking logs of last maintenance...
Belleza blinked. "What? But I didn't--"
Last estimated date of maintenance was approximately one-thousand, four-hundred and sixty-two years ago. Status: database is out of date. Please update with current data.
"What...is it going on about?" Enrique boggled.
Please enter name Valua into the database.
The prince blinked. "Valua is the name of this country -- the country now beneath the Yellow Moon. It was built over the lands that once belonged to your empire."
Draegos is no more?
"Yes...Draegos is no more."
Who has conquered Draegos?
"Er...nobody," Enrique replied. "Draegos was destroyed in the Rains of Destruction. The survivors went on to build Valua in its place."
Does the Dragon Pact still stand, then? the golem asked.
Enrique blinked, glancing to Belleza for a moment. "You mean the one between humans and the Tartas?"
"We're...not sure," he replied after a moment. His mind drifted back to a few months ago, when the Tartas in the Maw had emerged to guide the Delphinus to Yeligar. "They are holding up their end of the bargain to humans...but I think the people of Valua have forgotten the dragons."
The golem sat back again, beginning to make strange noises once more. This continued for a great many minutes, and after ten or so had passed Enrique was ready to give up and move on. But as he turned to speak to Belleza there suddenly came a burst of light, and his eyes widened as he watched a pool of swirling yellow energy fill the stone ring at the dragon's feet, rippling like water. Outside, he heard a terrible shrieking sound and dozens of claws scratch against the walls, with a sudden urgent frenzy he could not ignore.
"What are you doing?!" he cried.
It is my duty to guard the pact. The pact must be renewed. If he is truly a member of royalty, he is to pass. If he is not, the Tartas shall exterminate him. Please move with haste. It cannot leave the portal open for long.
Enrique moved to reply, but Belleza shoved him into the gate without warning. His voice was cut off as soon as he found it, and together they drowned in a sea of white.
Time seemed to freeze. Enrique felt as though he was suspended, floating forever, and he was never sure exactly how long the white was there. The world returned to them slowly, fading in sense by sense: first his hearing, than his sense of touch, smell, taste, and finally sight, leaving the bewildered prince sprawled upon cool, weathered stone. Slowly, he picked himself up and looked around, blinking in confusion. Where were they?
Somehow, the two of them had wound up outdoors. The sky was perfectly clear and offered a beautiful view of a deep blue blanket, speckled with stars and illuminated by the pale glow of the Yellow Moon. The silhouettes of great craggy mountains rose as jagged black spires in the distance, ringing them on all sides. Where they sat now was in a bowl-shaped valley, where towering pines and fir trees spilled down from the rocky slopes and carpeted the land around them. The wind whistled through them faintly, leaving them to bend and sway in the breeze.
A great rocky upheaval, almost half a mountain in itself, rose up from the forest floor. It was here a great platform had been carved, composed of several stone rings that rose some fifty feet above his head and interlocked together. All but one of the rings had crumbled away, their carvings stripped by the wind and the rain.
It was upon this platform that he and Belleza lay, apparently dropped there by the strange gate. He peered around, but there did not appear to be a gate back; all that existed nearby was a small stone altar, upon which rested a single carved Tartas horn. Panic began to creep in at the edges of Enrique's mind, but he forced himself to remain calm. Surely the ancients of Madera would not have made a one-way portal. Surely there was a way back.
Belleza spoke first, gazing around as she slowly pushed herself to her feet. "Pine trees? How far north did that thing send us?"
"I don't...recognize this place at all," he replied, standing as well. "I don't recall this landmark ever being mentioned on any maps."
The lady admiral strode forward, picking up the horn and turning it over in her fingers gently. Her eyes were searching as she studied the instrument; somehow, despite having been outside for generations, it had stood defiant against weather and time.
"That statue spoke of a pact," she said, halfway thinking outloud. "You seem to know more than I do. Care to fill me in?"
"There's not much to tell," he replied, with a bit of a chuckle. "It is said that in the old days, the people of Valua had a pact with the Tartas. They agreed that neither would hunt the other, and they would instead care for each other, so that both could thrive. Each year it was supposedly the duty of the Royal Family to renew the pact, but then something happened that sent the dragons into a deep sleep, and the people forgot about them."
"And that is why they say Valua was built on the backs of dragons," she finished. "Interesting."
Enrique strode forward then, joining her in the study of the object. His hand fell to the altar, where an inscription in the Old Language was carved into the surface, weathered into unintelligibility. The prince lightly traced his fingertips over the foreign words, frowning in thought.
"I wonder if this is the pact? The statue said it had to be renewed somehow."
"You think there's truth to that legend?" she asked, arching a brow.
Enrique turned to her, speaking with conviction. "I witnessed it, Belleza! When I was down with Vyse in the Maw of Tartas, a pair of dragons came to help us out! The stories must be true!"
She blinked, turning back to the altar. "Then...how would we go about doing it?"
He hesitated, biting his lip as he stared at the altar in thought. If there was an official ceremony of some sort involved, he certainly had no way of knowing it. But then his eyes strayed to the horn in Belleza's hands, shaped like a musical instrument, and he got an idea.
"May I see that?"
She nodded, handing it over.
Enrique studied the horn a moment, noting how it had been skillfully hollowed out. It was nearly as long as his forearm; the tip had been fashioned into a mouthpiece, and the ends were connected by a leather cord, presumably so it could be carried and transported. Shifting it so that he held it in both hands, he carefully climbed upon the altar and stood so that he was facing the moon, aware of Belleza's gaze upon him the entire time. Then, the prince closed his own eyes, drew in a deep breath, and blew as hard as he could into the horn.
A deep resonance bellowed throughout the valley, echoing from every mountain wall. It hung long in the air before it finally faded into silence.
"What was that for?" Belleza asked, after a long moment's pause.
"Just wait," he said. "I think I understand."
He blew into the horn again. This time it was echoed with a low rumble from the far end of the valley.
Belleza stiffened beside him, warily. "Prince Enrique..."
Now he blew a third time, and the ground beneath them began to tremble, nearly knocking him from the altar. He and Belleza reached out to grab it in order to keep their balance, glancing around wildly as the trees began to quiver and rock and then began to heave. Without warning, the earth suddenly burst before them, spraying dirt and rock everywhere. The old arbors splintered as two colossal shapes thrust from the ground, coiling into the night sky.
Enrique and Belleza ducked away for shelter as soil, rock and wood showered down upon them. When they looked up again, they received quite a shock: two enormous Tartas had emerged from the ground, one with scales of copper, and the other with scales of bronze. The copper dragon had a whole mess of horns on its head, worn and tangled like a crown of dried brambles. Its partner, in contrast, had a long and elegant fin trailing down its back, held up by rigid dorsal spines, and looked decidedly more feminine.
The prince could not help himself. He stood there, awestruck, as he stared at the two enormous creatures. Beside him, Belleza's reaction was much the same.
He wasn't certain if it was fear or awe that paralyzed him, but Enrique could not get his body to move as the two dragons lowered their heads to study the pair with gleaming eyes. A pointed muzzle butted up close to his stomach, and he felt it lurch in response; hot, moist breath was blown against his skin, tousling his hair as the great reptiles exhaled. Slowly, carefully, he lifted a hand and placed it against the nearest snout. Through his glove, their skin was tough and hard as stone, but noticeably warm.
"Can...you understand us...?" he finally asked, peering up into the Tartas' face searchingly. The Tartas lifted its head slightly, and bobbed it in what was very much a clear nod.
Belleza exhaled in wonder as the copper dragon turned its head to study her with one eye. "I can't believe this. We're standing with real dragons..."
"I told you they remembered," Enrique said. "It's the humans who forgot."
To that, the dragons snorted and pulled back, gazing down at the two as they rose to their full serpentine heights. They still watched with curiosity, but Enrique got the feeling that he had somehow hit a nerve. Belleza shot him a sidelong glance.
"That-That's why we're here!" the prince immediately protested, holding his arms out to the side. "We remember! We wish to renew the pact!"
Now the Tartas turned their attention to him, canting their heads to the side in unison. Their expressions seemed to ask, "Who are you?"
Enrique took a deep breath. "I am Enrique Hidalgo Ferdinand Diego Valdez de Madera, Prince of Astorias, Prince of Galcia, Prince of Vialla, Duke of Madera, Count of Cevero and Lord of Alague. I am heir apparent to the throne of Valua, built by the combined strength of humans and Tartas after the Rains of Destruction annihilated the kingdom of Draegos. I come before you now to ask for your aid, just as my ancestors did in the past -- Valua has again been threatened with the Rains, and now we have no power to stop it. Please...I know humans have broken the pact, but I will do everything within my ability to repair the harm we've caused. Valua needs her guardians. She needs protection that we alone can no longer provide. I...I must get my people to safety, and defeat the man who threatens us all! If Valua falls, the rest of the world will surely follow..."
He trailed off, realizing that he was pouring his feelings out to creatures that weren't even human, however formal they were worded. What use had dragons for politics and diplomacy? What did they care now of kingdoms rising and falling? It did not effect them or their well being, not in the least -- and that was assuming the two Tartas actually did understand him. He could feel their eyes boring into him, as if searching, weighing his very soul. Deep down inside, he feared what their judgment of him might be.
"We may have forgotten the pact, but Valua has never forgotten the dragons," Belleza said at last, pulling a shining medallion from her chest -- one of several -- and holding it up for the two creatures to see. Upon it was the crest of the Armada, of two Tartas intertwined. "You adorn our flags and our warships. You appear everywhere in childrens' tales. Sailors take trips to areas where you are said to have been sighted, hoping to catch even a glimpse of you. You still have our imaginations held captive, whether you realize it or not. My prince would not be here before you making this plea if he was not sincere, and if the need was not both urgent and dire. If Valua is lost now, you truly will be lost forever -- for the one threatening it has no love of the country or its past."
Enrique gaped to that, staring at Belleza in shock. He had never, not once, heard her speak even remotely disparagingly about Lord Galcian -- and up until recently, she had sworn up and down that he was still loyal to Valua!
Now the Tartas lowered their heads again, staring hard at Enrique. He felt his pulse quicken.
"Please..." he said, quietly. "If the Rains fall, you will be hurt too. Any dragon caught above ground will die..."
The Tartas looked at each other. The coppery male gave a low rumble, to which the bronze female responded with a soft hiss. Then they slithered up, out of their holes, the scales of their massive bodies scratching roughly against the worn stone of the platform, and approached the altar. Sucking in a deep breath, the male leaned forward and released a powerful electric charge from his mouth, striking the altar and causing its carvings to glow. After a moment, a ghostly image appeared above it, of Enrique.
"What is that...?" he whispered.
"Some sort of...magic. I don't know..." came Belleza's hushed reply.
The image of Enrique began to animate. He held his rapier over his shoulder, as it emitted a soft green glow. As he swept it out in front of himself, the light sank into his body and bled down through his feet into the ground, forming a familiar image -- that of the dragon on the royal crest. He lifted his sword, and the light evaporated into the sky, where it instead coalesced together into a swirling portal of crackling energy. From it emerged a Tartas, fierce and snarling, but not at him -- rather, at something unseen before him.
And then, the image all at once faded.
Before he could react or even say anything, the female Tartas leaned over and, parting her teeth ever so slightly, carefully plucked his rapier from his side. He winced as the leather straps holding the sheath to him snapped, watching helplessly as the dragon took his weapon away. She dropped it on the altar with a soft clink, and there she and her mate hovered over it, humming low in their throats as they entwined their necks together. They closed their eyes and seemed to focus.
Enrique had never seen anything other than a human use magic before. He watched in wonder as the dragons' bodies began to glow, wreathed in the same green he had seen in the image. It streamed down their coils and down onto the altar, whereupon it was absorbed by the golden blade. Slowly, it lifted itself from the altar and began to hover in midair, leaving the entire platform bathed in an unearthly sort of light.
After a time, the dragons parted. The sword slowly sank back to the stone of the altar, and rested there as if nothing had ever happened. The light faded, and all was still once more. Enrique could not move until the Tartas turned to look at him expectantly; only then did his body kick back into gear.
Slowly, the prince strode forward and picked up his rapier, drawing it out of its sheath. The blade shimmered but did not appear to be any different upon first glance -- but as the light of the moon hit it, he could just barely see faint traces of an image beneath the metal. A Tartas coiled around his blade, etched in thin green lines that he knew had not been there before. He marveled at it, turning it to inspect it from different angles, unaware that the dragons were watching him with both amusement and satisfaction at the same time. He wasn't entirely sure he understood, but he did know one thing: the Tartas had just granted him a tremendous boon.
"Thank you..." he whispered, unable to meet the dragons' gaze. "I promise to honor this gift. I will not take it for granted."
The pair rumbled at him in acknowledgement. Then they turned and, looking back at him once, slithered back into their holes in the ground. The glade fell silent again as Belleza picked up the horn from where he had dropped it and gingerly placed it back on the altar, gazing after the disappearing dragons. For a time, neither she nor Enrique said anything.
"Prince Enrique..." she said at last, "...what just happened?"
"I'm not entirely sure myself," he admitted quietly, staring down at his blade. "All I know is that I've been judged...and they somehow found me worthy."
(( For a dev blog featuring progress, updates, and theorycrafting on the story as I continue it along, please visit princess-paola . livejournal . com ))