The Orbs of Power: Part Four
Another storm was descending as I arrived back in Neovia. I was in desperate need of sleep; the testing four-day journey into the Haunted Woods to retrieve the Orb of the Forest had left me exhausted and drained. My next destination would be Maraqua, but before I could set off to find the Artefact of Water, I needed rest to recover my strength. Lightning flashed around me and the thunderclaps shook the ground as I stumbled into the Mountain Lodge on the outskirts of town, booked into a room on the ground floor and immediately collapsed into bed.
It was five days until I felt strong enough to leave for Maraqua. I took out my map and examined the drawings - the Artefact was located close to the Maraquan Ruins, in a deep ravine. The Cyodrake's Gaze had already left Neovia, bound for Terror Mountain; since I could not hitch a ride, I would have to travel on the wing. But there were preparations to be made before I could begin the journey.
First, I walked to the market in the centre of the village and came across a shabby stall manned by a rough-looking Gelert. He was selling faeries that I knew had been captured by Balthazar. Aware of the criminal nature of the business, but in need of help, I bought a bottled water faerie, taking care to avoid the Gelert's eyes as I handed over the money. I turned into the next street and released the faerie, who returned the favour by granting me the ability to breathe underwater.
Returning to the main street, I visited the Neovian Printing Press. Having already ensured a lasting supply of oxygen during my trip to the Maraquan Ruins, I now needed to take measures to protect the four maps I still needed. If I didn't waterproof them, they would be soaked and ruined. I therefore asked if I could use the Printing Press's laminating machine.
The Pteri at the counter replied, "May I see the papers you want laminated?"
After a split second's hesitation, I showed her the four hand-drawn maps that would take me to the remaining Artefacts. "Sure, we can cover those in plastic for you. It'll take two uses of the machine, so it'll cost you 500 Neopoints."
Another moment's hesitation. I was considering waterproofing the map that had led to the Orb of the Earth as well, to keep it safe. But then again, I had given the Orb of the Sky map to Chenn, and the Earth map no longer led anywhere, so I decided not to bother. Maybe it was better this way.
The Pteri returned the now waterproof drawings, and I paid her 500 NP. I left the building and gazed up at the sky: there was no rain, the wind was gentle and the cloud cover was high; good conditions for a long flight. I swung my backpack over my shoulder and launched myself into the sky.
The journey took a surprisingly short time. The wind picked up as I flew, carrying me closer to my destination as the sea slipped by far below. As I passed Krawk Island, I flew lower, my tail skimming the waves. Eventually, I could see a shadow of the Maraquan city rippling beneath the surface, and I dived.
As I plunged into the warm tropical ocean, I gulped down the sea water, taking my first underwater breath. The salty taste was very strong, and the water felt heavy in my chest, but nevertheless it provided me with the oxygen I needed. I folded my wings and swam downwards, deeper into the ocean.
When I reached the sea floor, I realised I had come out miles from the centre of Maraqua. The ocean life here was sparse, and so were the houses; it seemed I was on the very edge of the settlement. I took off my backpack and consulted the third map, which was untouched by the water: I had to travel further east to find the Maraquan Ruins, where the Artefact of Water was situated in a coral structure at the bottom of a trench. Luckily, my compass still worked, despite a small leak. I set off over the seaweed plains and the rocky outcrops, and headed east...
Within minutes, I began to see crumbled buildings and towers jutting out of the sand and seaweed as I headed toward the place where the Artefact of Water was hidden. The ruins of Old Maraqua were more forbidding than I could have imagined; even fish seemed to avoid the place, giving it an eerie silence that made it seem even more desolate and empty. There were streets full of old houses, some with furniture still inside, and the remains of a market square near the destroyed palace, with several of the stalls torn down but the shelves for goods still visible. The abandoned city bore endless evidence that it had once been a thriving community, but now there was no sign of life except for corals and seaweed.
I could feel sorrow welling up inside me, but I tried not to focus on it; I was here to find the hidden Artefact. I continued on, past a school building with its roof caved in, over a sandy plateau dotted with dozens of deserted houses, and finally I reached the edge of the ruins. The ocean floor seemed to fall away beneath me, as the rocky plain gave way to an enormous chasm, so deep and dark that I couldn't see the bottom of it. Near the top of its cliffs, the walls were peppered with brightly coloured corals, clinging tightly to the rough rock. The reef extended down into the depths of the gorge, where the coral structures were much larger and sturdier; the sunlight filtering through the water lost its strength before reaching the very bottom, which was home to the most massive corals of all. I did not even need to double-check the map; this had to be the place.
I knew from memory that the map identified the location of the Artefact of Water as the centre of the largest coral. I gathered my courage and dived, knowing by now that these challenges were meant to be a gruelling test of strength. But as I plunged deeper into the ravine, and the darkness slowly swallowed me, I was in for a surprise.
My eyes slowly adjusted to the lack of light, and an immense brain coral loomed out of the inky water at the very bottom of the abyss. Even in the darkness, I could tell that this massive dome could easily cover the Maraquan royal palace, and perhaps even cover most of Terror Mountain if it was placed on top. Its surface was encrusted with rope-like structures about two yards across, winding around each other in a labyrinthine pattern. Strong currents swirled around the base of the enormous coral, where an arched doorway led into a corridor that lay just below the coral surface. The rope-like structures were tunnels. I had to solve a maze.
I had no idea where in this tangle of tunnels the Artefact lay, but I would do my best to plan ahead. I reached into my backpack to take out my notebook, intending to make a drawing of the coral surface to help with navigation - but one obvious fact had slipped my mind. The notebook was a soggy mass of pulp; nothing was left except the plastic cover. The ink had run from my pen, leaving me with no way to create a map of the maze. Of course, that would have been too easy; so I returned to the door, realising that I would have to find my way through the labyrinth without any navigation. I took a deep breath, feeling the water pressure in my chest, and entered the passageway...
As I entered the maze, the first of my fears was instantly dispelled: these corridors were lit. The walls were dotted with tiny specks of blue light that cast a very dim glow over the walls, just enough to see by. I had no idea what the source of the illumination was, although I knew that some creatures in the deep ocean can produce their own light. Perhaps these tiny specks were marine Petpetpets. I swam on through the passageway, which curved to the left so that I lost sight of the entrance.
My mind was weighed down by the knowledge that this coral was extremely vast, and there might have been a hundred miles of tunnels inside it. My search for the Artefact of Water was going to be a long one. I was not relying solely on dumb luck to find the correct route; I also had my wits. If I could memorise the tunnels I had travelled through already, I could avoid backtracking and save time. I looked carefully at the patterns formed by the lights on the walls as I passed through the corridors: four in a straight line, a square, the letter S... but I soon lost track. Worse still, there were currents flowing inside the coral that changed unexpectedly, throwing off my sense of direction. Perhaps I would be relying on dumb luck after all.
I soon learned that many of the passageways were caved in, or too small to swim through, making the task of finding a route even harder. As I moved deeper and deeper into the twisting labyrinth, I encountered passages with too little light to see properly, and others that had no lighting at all and were pitch black. I continued along my chosen path, and soon reached a four-way junction. Exasperated, I decided to take a break.
After a few minutes trying to clear my head, I turned right and ended up back at the door. I yelled in frustration, releasing a huge stream of bubbles; that was a whole afternoon gone to waste. It would surely take days to solve this maze - and I had to wonder if, when I finally found the Orb, I would have to head all the way back through the maze to get out again...
I buried my head in my hands, and felt the scratches I still retained from my previous quest - and that's when the brainwave came to me. I could mark the corridors I had already been to, and this would allow me to find my way much more easily. Unlike my pen and notebook, my hatchet would still work underwater; I took it out and proceeded to the intersection I had just left, where I cut a notch in the wall to mark the spot. I then took a different route, but the long tunnel led to a dead end; returning to the junction, I cut two notches in the wall. Not that way. To ensure I didn't get hopelessly lost, I decided to turn left wherever possible, as this would allow me to rule out more passages that led back the way I had come. I slowly worked through the maze, using the hatchet to mark the places I had already been and eliminate more routes that led to the same place.
Finally, after a few more hours of meandering through the winding tunnels, I felt like I was making progress. But my head felt heavy; I needed sleep. I looked around. Could I sleep in here? The answer seemed obvious - there was no way to pitch the tent, and without it my sleeping bag would be washed away by the currents swirling through the tunnels. I had no choice; I headed back to the entrance.
Finding the door again took a surprisingly short time; my strategy of using the hatchet to mark the tunnels was working well. I was able to erect my tent under the shelter of a vast coral plate, situated just above a ledge on a sheer cliff. In seconds I was asleep; it had been a very long day.
But there was more to come. Now that I had a system in place, it was much easier to make progress, because I knew where I'd already been and where I had yet to go - but one false mark would mean a false lead. Over the next couple of days, I made several errors that cost me valuable time; it was a very good thing I hadn't needed to bring oxygen, because it would have been long gone by now. The frustration was enormous, but I had to be patient; I could not give up the quest now. Although I didn't know it, I was making my way out into the maze in great spiralling circles, gradually moving further away from the door, but taking the longest possible route.
However, a problem was arising. The tiny light sources were becoming less prevalent as I moved further away from the entrance, so the corridors were darkening. Nevertheless, I ploughed on, learning to feel the walls for the marks I'd left, and making more mistakes that lost even more time. It had now been four days, and my food supplies were again running out. As I retraced my path back to the entrance, I wondered when it would end.
But on the fifth day, my destination was finally in sight. The path I took was lit again, not with random dots, but with neat rings that ran around the circumference of the passageway. My strategy and patience paid off at last, as the tunnel I was following turned sharply, and a strong blue light emanated from the room ahead.
The passage led to the interior of the massive coral. I had no idea what the inside of a brain coral is supposed to look like, but I didn't expect it to look like this: enormous branches, resembling the above-ground roots of very tall trees, supporting the labyrinthine structure above; and in the very middle of the cavern, an enclosure of thinner, neater branches that formed perfect semicircles around a tiny stone brace in their centre. The Orb set in the brace was not giving off all the light in the room; the same luminescent life-forms that lit up the corridors in the maze above were everywhere here, creating so much light that it dazzled my eyes. The enormous room seemed to heave as though it were breathing; the dark water was creating a powerful whirlpool, rushing around the central core. Fighting the currents, I made it to the stone brace and took out the Artefact, my feeling of triumph smothered by an overwhelming sense of relief. This was the Orb of the Sea, the artefact containing the power of water. I felt its power coursing through me, but it didn't matter; it was over, I had solved the maze at last. I wasted no time in taking out the Holder and placing the Orb of the Sea into one of the four empty braces; its azure light was drawn into the central stone, which was now shining a blinding white. The whirlpool had calmed, but nothing else happened.
The first two Orbs had granted me a quick escape from their hiding places as soon as I had retrieved them, but this one was an exception. Apparently, anybody who found the Orb by sheer luck would have been lost and trapped, unless they got lucky twice. But I was able to return through the route I had marked out, reaching the entrance to the maze an hour later. Now the triumph was truly taking hold; I was rushing upwards, the currents helping me on my way as I headed out of the chasm and towards the surface, ready to face my next challenge...
To be continued...