09:33 ST

Chapter 5: Buried Treasure

Seelby woke up convinced that her house was about to collapse. She thought at first that she was dreaming. Then she realized that she’d never had a dream that was so violent before, and she clawed her way out of her bed, her heart pounding.

By the time she fought free of her blankets and got all four feet on the ground, the shaking had stopped. She could still hear thumps echoing distantly outside, though, as if something large and hard were falling on something else equally large and hard. Seelby wondered if she was hearing a landslide, but the earth here wasn’t elevated enough for that. The closest mountain was at least three caverns and half a day’s travel away, and that was unlikely to be loud enough to be heard out here.

An earthquake, however. That could happen anywhere.

Seelby stood still for a few minutes, waiting to see if there would be any more tremors, but the ground had settled. She made her way to the door and stepped outside, walking cautiously the whole time. She was a little afraid of what she might find there — she remembered earthquakes from Before, and some of them had done more than their fair share of damage — but the street, to her surprise, was largely unchanged. A handful of other Mycenians were looking out curiously as well, but most of the doors around her home remained closed. Apparently, her neighbors slept very soundly.

“Woke you up, too?”

Seelby turned to see a familiar Drasillis approaching. “Do earthquakes happen often here?” she asked him.

Kerric shook his head, silver horns glinting in the light. “That was a cave-in,” he said. “They happen now and again. I’ve been waiting for this one, actually.”

It was then that Seelby noticed the pack slung over his shoulder, the strap nestled down between his wings. “Are you going somewhere?”

Kerric flashed her a toothy grin. “Exploring, of course.” He stretched his wings experimentally before flipping them neatly against his back. “Something’s bound to have changed. A cavern might have been closed off, but it’s just as likely that one’s opened up. I plan to find it before anyone else does.” He added, generously, “You’re welcome to tag along if you’d like. We can share the treasure.”

“Treasure,” Seelby repeated flatly.

Kerric flicked an ear. Somehow, it felt like he was rolling his eyes. “Yes, treasure. Why else would anyone bother to explore?”

“For knowledge,” Seelby replied, thinking of Ambrose and Tam. “Or to find other Mycenians.”

“Jewels are much more useful,” Kerric said. He started toward the yawning hole that led out of the cavern, though he continued to talk, as if he expected Seelby to follow. “There’s gold beneath our feet, you know. Silver, too, and probably pearls and sapphires. Everything you can dream of, and more.”

Seelby frowned. “How do you know?”

“Someone found the Blue Lady a few years ago in a cave.” Kerric glanced over his shoulder at Seelby and slowed down just long enough for her to catch up. Once she’d fallen into step beside him, he picked up the pace again, long stride eating up the ground. “She’s the figurehead off of Sea Queen, Conwaer’s ship.”

There was a significant pause here as Kerric waited for Seelby to react. When she didn’t, he turned to her and said, “Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of Captain Conwaer.”

Seelby shrugged. “I don’t really pay much attention to pirates.”

Seelby had always been more interested in the things that were immediately in front of her, and less so in the things that probably existed out in the world somewhere but which didn’t affect her much at all. Pirates fit firmly in this second category. She didn’t remember everything of her previous life — as with most Mycenians, her memory had become faded from her time in the stone — but she knew she’d lived far from the sea. She’d never thought much about ships or sailing or even swimming, really. She didn’t particularly care for water, beyond what she needed to keep her plants alive.

Kerric was talking about Captain Conwaer and his Sea Queen, his voice growing more animated as he described the pirate king’s exploits and all the plunder he’d gathered before the Great Winter froze the world. Seelby tuned him out. She listened, instead, for the sound of rocks falling, just in case the cave-in hadn’t quite sorted itself out yet. She was glad to have moved into her own small house in the main settlement, and she didn’t want to be caught in a random tunnel outside, unable to return to the home she’d carved for herself in the vast, unknowable Cave.

The tunnel that Seelby and Kerric traveled now was one she had taken countless times before, but there was an odd smell about it today — almost like the damp, musty smell of a sky about to rain. She turned her head, following her nose, and abruptly reached out to tap Kerric’s shoulder. “There,” she said when he looked at her. She pointed at the shadows that lay against the wall, narrowing her eyes as she tried to decide if the darker patch she saw was a hole or just a trick of the mind. “Do you see that?”

Kerric cocked his head. Then, with a few bounding steps, he crossed over to the wall and crouched down to peer into the hole. “Oh, you have a good eye, Seelby,” he said approvingly. “There’s a passage through here.”

Before Seelby could say anything, Kerric pressed his wings tightly to his sides, laid his ears back, and shimmied into the hole. Seelby watched in disbelief as his tail disappeared through the wall; she hadn’t expected him to just go. “You’re not at all prepared for this,” she muttered to herself, wishing briefly that she were still in bed. She hadn’t even had breakfast.

Seelby wasn’t about to be left behind, though. With a small sigh, she squeezed through the hole after Kerric, her muscles bunching up as the walls closed in around her. The smell of rain was stronger now, and she could only just see Kerric in front of her, a vague, dark blot several feet ahead. Rocks scraped her sides as she moved through the tight space, and she thought she felt something nip her between the shoulders. She hoped it wasn’t a spider.

Long minutes passed. Kerric was uncharacteristically silent, and Seelby was too focused to talk, her concentration mostly on feeling out the ground. The stone floor sloped gently downwards beneath her paws, and water lapped at her pads, rising almost imperceptibly higher the deeper into the hole they climbed. She could hear, in the distance, the sound of dripping water.

Thankfully, the passage grew wider several feet in, opening into a tunnel that was too narrow for Kerric and Seelby to stand in side by side, but which was nevertheless a vast improvement on the hole they’d just squeezed through. Kerric came to a sudden stop, and Seelby pulled up short, narrowing her eyes at the vague shape in front of her. “Kerric?”

The Drasillis shifted slightly to the right, so that Seelby could see over his shoulder, and whispered, “Look.”

Seelby looked.

The walls surrounding Seelby were mostly black and featureless, but straight ahead, a short ways from where Kerric stood, small lights burned in the shadow-washed rocks. They were only pinpricks in the darkness, but they seemed to pierce Seelby’s eyes, each white point of light somehow brighter than it should have been. They made Seelby think of warm summer nights Outside, when she had spent hours beneath the velvet sky, watching the stars that moved slowly overhead.

“They’re pebbles,” Kerric said. He had approached one of the lights and was peering closely at it, tapping experimentally with the tip of a claw. “They’re glowing from the inside out.”

“They almost look like constellations,” Seelby said, cupping a paw around one of the larger pebbles. The small stone was embedded in the wall, and silver dots swirled through it, each one emitting just a hint of light.

There was a sharp, scraping sound beside Seelby, almost like talons digging against stone. She looked over at Kerric, but he was already moving on, walking down the tunnel with what Seelby thought was foolhardy speed. “Watch your step,” he said. “It’s pretty wet here.”

Seelby took her time following after Kerric, putting each paw down carefully. The glowing pebbles weren’t quite bright enough to light their way, but they eased the darkness so that Seelby could at least see a little bit of the walls around them. Damp trails shimmered around the starry stones, and she felt, more than once, a drop of water landing on her fur. At least the water didn’t seem to be rising any higher than her ankles; Seelby didn’t know what she’d do if she were forced to swim.

“Story says he found an underwater kingdom,” Kerric said, interrupting her thoughts.

Seelby blinked. “Who did?”

“Captain Conwaer.” Kerric shifted slightly, adjusting the strap of his bag. His voice was muted by the weight of the tunnel’s shadows. “The Sea Queen disappeared a few years before the Great Winter. Hundreds of treasure-hunters went looking for it. Sailors, too. No one ever found anything, though.” He reached out and absently swiped a talon through a rivulet trickling down the wall. “I remember the stories that came in from the coast. Most of them told of a handsome male in a pirate captain’s coat and a beautiful Ineki with a fish’s tail, tangletailed in love. They say the real queen of the sea took a liking to him and decided to make him her own.”

The story was eerie, in this dark tunnel with cold water lapping unseen at their toes. Seelby shivered and said, as dismissively as she could, “Likely he just drowned.”

Kerric looked over his shoulder at her, his eyes bright. “Where’s your sense of romance?”

“Piracy isn’t romantic.”

“The pirate king found his way to the queen of the sea,” Kerric replied. “You can’t say that’s not romantic. Or fated.”

Seelby held her tongue. She swatted irritably at her shoulder as another drop of water fell, then shook her head, nose wrinkling. Something smelled fishy — and, strangely enough, of lavender — here.

“There’s a bend up ahead,” Kerric said, at the same time that Seelby said, “Kerric. We’re not alone.”

Too late. Kerric had already rounded the corner, and Seelby had no choice but to follow. She hurried around the bend and was greeted by sudden brightness, blinding after the dark passage. She closed her eyes and pressed up against the wall,  her muscles all tensed, ready to claw and bite should something attack her.

Nothing happened, though, and as her eyes slowly adjusted to the glow, Seelby cautiously opened them. The first thing she saw, of course, was Kerric, standing in the middle of the tunnel, his wings half-flared. And then, over his shoulder, she saw the source of the glow, and she made a small sound low in her throat of surprise.

They were fish. Or rather, Seelby thought they looked like fish, though they floated gently in the air instead of hanging suspended in water. There were five of them, each about as large as Seelby’s head, and they all glowed from within, much like the starry stones did. Their translucent fins trailed behind them, giving off a faint blue light like the moon’s.

Moving slow and careful, Kerric took a step forward. He kept his eyes on the fish, as if he, like Seelby, were afraid to intrude on their peace, though they didn’t seem to notice either of them. One of them swam slowly around to look at the two Mycenians, but there was no curiosity in its placid gaze, which made Seelby wonder whether or not it actually saw them.

It drifted towards one side of the tunnel, and its movement created a path down the center, just wide enough for Kerric and Seelby to pass through without coming into contact with any of the fish. Kerric exchanged a look with Seelby over his shoulder, and then, in silent agreement, the two of them walked cautiously forward.

The fish didn’t respond to Kerric and Seelby’s presence in their midst, and the two Mycenians were past them soon enough. Kerric stopped to look at the fish again, his expression thoughtful and luminescent in their lambent light. Then he shook his head, horns glinting. “Come on. There’s a door ahead.”

Seelby immediately balked. “I don’t think it’s wise to open it.”

“Who said anything about opening it?”

Seelby didn’t dignify that with a response. They both knew perfectly well that Kerric was planning on going through that door, wherever it led.

Kerric sighed and turned around to face Seelby. “You don’t have to come in with me if you’re not comfortable,” he said. “Why do you live so safely, though? It seems like a shame to miss out on everything the Cave holds. Besides,” he added pragmatically, “it’s not as if you’re guaranteed to be much safer out here.”

Seelby looked over her shoulder at the fish. They were still drifting aimlessly in the tunnel, and she doubted they were going to turn ferocious as soon as Kerric opened the door. Kerric had a point, though, as much as Seelby hated to admit it, and anyways, it didn’t feel very neighborly to let him face the unknown by himself.

“We go in together,” Seelby compromised.

Kerric looked dubiously at the door. “I’m not sure we’ll both fit.”

“We go in together, or not at all.”

Kerric sighed again, but he also shifted over, making room for Seelby beside him. She squeezed in, and he waited for her to nod before reaching out and pushing down on the door’s plain wooden handle.

Kerric nudged the door slowly, craning his head around to peek through the crack as soon as one appeared. Seelby didn’t smell anything particularly worrying: just dust and something floral. She held her breath as the door eased soundlessly open, and then she and Kerric stepped through it as one, jostling each other only slightly before they stumbled into the room beyond.

There was no one inside. What Seelby saw, instead, were rows and rows of glass bottles — bottles of every size and shape imaginable, in every possible shade of every color of the rainbow, stacked on tables and on shelves and hanging by blue line from the ceiling. Some glowed with an inner light, while others were half-full of an amorphous substance that seemed to cling to the glass walls. The starry stones and the glowing fish were enough of a wonder, but Seelby still stood mesmerized, gazing at the myriad bottles.

“Magic,” Kerric announced, with deep satisfaction.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s magic.” Kerric made his way to the closest table, peering at a tall yellow bottle. “You can trap magic for a little while, if you know what you’re doing.”

“Is that what the stories say?” Seelby asked. She’d meant it sarcastically, but she was too in awe of the room to quite manage it.

Kerric ignored her. He had moved on from the first table and was making his way around the room, examining the hanging bottles and gently rummaging through the knick knacks gathered here and there. “Look,” he said, holding something up between his talons. “It’s one of those pebbles.”

Seelby had found one of her own. She held it up, expecting it to be cold in her paw, but it nestled with surprising warmth against her fur. It smelled of lavender and grass, and she wrinkled her nose before turning towards a bottle nearby. The peach-colored bottle was uncorked, and Seelby caught a stronger whiff of the same smell, like a great field blooming in the middle of spring.

She didn’t want to say that there was magic in the bottle. She didn’t know how magic worked here in the Cave, but she was fairly certain it wasn’t something that could be bottled and kept. Still, if there was magic in this pale orange bottle, and if it was leaking slowly out, it could explain the existence of the fish just outside the door. The Cave could be a strange place, and some of that strangeness was surely due to spells and potions gone awry. And it made sense, somehow, for magic to smell like flowers and sunshine here in the depths of this dark cavern.

Seelby raised her head to call Kerric over, but he’d disappeared from view. She put the starry stone back down on the table and walked deeper into the room, careful not to jostle anything. “Kerric?” she said softly.

“Over here.”

She found Kerric standing in the far corner of the room, his head tipped back. A delicate chain hung from the stone ceiling, glinting silver in the light cast by the nearest bottle, its small links woven through with glass flowers. This, too, smelled like lavender.

“I think I can reach it,” Kerric said, glancing at the bottles spaced around the chain. That was all the warning he gave before he abruptly leapt into the air, hooked the chain with a talon-tip, and tugged it on his way back down to earth.

Nothing happened.

“Maybe I didn’t pull hard enough,” Kerric said, eyeing the chain.

“You probably shouldn’t — “ Seelby began, and trailed off into silence.

The wall was melting. The stone dissolved before their eyes, washing away into thin air. Behind it lay a thick pane of glass, beautifully colored like the bottles, with patches of clear translucence here and there. Faint lines ran through the glass, dividing the colors, and Seelby saw what she thought was a multi-colored wheel carved near the center of the pane. Lavender hung heavily about it all.

“‘Go forth boldly, and in kindness,’” Kerric read. Seelby glanced at him, and he nodded towards an inscription at the base of the glass wall, etched in a neat, flowing script. “Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?”

Seelby tilted her head slightly, thinking hard. Then she took a few steps back, putting some distance between herself and the glass wall, and felt excitement shiver through her as it all came into focus. “It’s a map,” she said. “Do you see those lines? And that carving in the center — I think that’s the Sacred Tree.”

“And that,” Kerric said in an odd voice, “is a fish.”

Seelby looked down. There was, indeed, a fish, staring at them through the glass. With a disdainful flick of its tail, it turned around and disappeared into the gloom, leaving a trail of bubbles in its wake. She shivered again as realization dawned. “We’re underwater.”

“The Sea Queen.

Seelby opened her mouth to tell Kerric that he shouldn’t be concerned about treasure now, not when they were standing in an underwater cavern with magic heavy in the air, but the words died unspoken when she saw what he was staring at.

Something loomed in the distance, a shadowy bulk too far away to see clearly. It could have been anything. Because she had been listening all day to talk of pirates, though, Seelby thought it looked rather like a ship, with its mast yearning towards an unreachable sky.

Seelby didn’t think they had descended far enough to reach water so deep it could hide a ship, or a small hill, or whatever the hulking thing was. Time and distance had been murky in the dark passage, though, and she remembered the way water dripped from the tunnel ceiling, falling from some source she couldn’t see. Perhaps the magic in this hidden room changed the way distance worked in the places around it.

“We should tell Ambrose,” Seelby said, hushed. “He’ll want to see the map. If there’s a way to reach the water, he’ll know — “

Something moved at the edge of the ship. Seelby narrowed her eyes and looked hard, and the shape resolved into a long, graceful tail, edged with flowing fins. Then she blinked, and it was gone.

“What is it?” Kerric asked.

Seelby blinked again and shook her head. “I thought I saw something.”

Kerric watched her, waiting for her to explain. When she didn’t, he turned back to face the interior of the room and said, “Well. We should keep looking, I think. We might find something else.”

The two of them retreated away from the map. They did find a few other interesting things, and Seelby saw, but pretended not to see, Kerric slip one of the starry pebbles into his pack. None of that could compare to the glass map and the vast body of water beyond it, though, and after a while, Seelby stopped beside the door and cleared her throat to get Kerric’s attention.

“We should leave before someone starts worrying about us,” Seelby said when Kerric popped up from behind a table. “I don’t want Crou to arrange a rescue.”

“I leave the settlement all the time,” Kerric said. “They’re used to it.”

“Yes, but I don’t. Someone will wonder why I’m missing.”

Kerric grimaced but joined Seelby at the door, though not without a last wistful look at the bottles arrayed around him. “I’m coming back,” he said as he exited into the tunnel. “As soon as I can. Would you want to come with me?”

“I wouldn’t stay behind for anything,” Seelby said firmly. She shut the door behind her, pulling until she felt the handle click into place. She nodded at Kerric, and they walked together towards the floating fish, leaving the room and the magic behind them.

Within minutes, Kerric was telling stories again, recounting other great hidden treasures that had been discovered both Outside and within the Cave. Seelby followed after him and found, to her surprise, that she didn’t particularly mind. Stories were somehow more interesting now that she had one of her own to tell.

—————

Credit goes to lollobrigida for the idea of stones with stars in them; to Pine, Queen Elsa, ryontail, and Saeta Inoue for the underwater wedding and the Ineki with a fish’s tail; to Meesh for the word ‘tangletailed’; and to Hush for the image of the floating fish.