When the tide started to roll out again, Slate, Arianna, and Pilotte set off along the widening beach, to locate the entrance to the mysterious Navel of the World. In half an hour, they came to a tiny bay surrounded by seawall. Arianna noticed the timeworn carving of a face at the top of the seawall, consistent with their map’s description of the Navel entrance.
“The entryway should be below that face,” Arianna said.
“And we have to be in position underneath it when the tide falls, right?” Slate asked.
“That’s right,” Arianna said. “The way the water’s moving, that’s going to happen soon. We need to hurry.”
The tide was receding as quickly as it had come in, as Slate and Arianna quickly bobbed and paddled themselves into position underneath the face carving and started to tread water, struggling all the while to keep their packs above the water, which proved harder than keeping themselves afloat. The more waterlogged their bags got, the less it seemed like Slate and Arianna would be able to hold on. Pilotte sensed this and so swam between them, so they could use his huge frame as a buoy.
It wasn’t too long before the water level had descended low enough to reveal the expected entrance. The travelers swam into the entryway and the water poured out, leaving them on a smooth, stone floor. Jewel-inlaid bas-reliefs were carved around the frame of a stairway, which lead up from the entryway into waiting darkness. Though the reliefs had suffered the damage of hundreds of years of the battering ocean, enough of them remained to stun, executed in geometric patterns and organic forms as beautiful as the finest masterpieces in Jaidour.
The tide kept rushing out, until the little bay outside the cave entrance was a rocky beach.
“We’re stuck until the tide changes again,” Slate said.
“Then it’s up the stairs, isn’t it? Go on, you first,” Arianna said.
Slate toed hesitantly up the slippery stones. The staircase was long, so long that it wound up into the darkness until the light from the entrance could no longer penetrate it.
When he couldn’t see any farther, Slate stopped.
“I don’t know how we’re going to be able to go any farther in this darkness,” he said.
“Wait,” Arianna said. “Let me get a flare from my bag.”
“You brought flares?” Slate asked.
“You bet I did,” Arianna said. “I told you, I pack with a purpose.”
“Good thing one of us does,” said Slate.
There came a dull scratching noise, and then a yellow flame sprang to life from Arianna’s hand, sending the shadows fleeing and revealing the stairwell.
“Look at that,” Slate remarked.
“Good thing it still works,” Arianna said. “A lot of my stuff got soaked.”
“I’m sure my luck has got to be running out,” Slate said. “Let’s keep going.”
The team continued its way up the stone steps, pressed close together. The circular passageway eventually ended in a long, narrow hallway that stretched out beyond the reach of the flare’s light.
“Now what?” Slate asked.
“Let’s check the map before we continue,” Arianna said. She struggled for a moment getting the soggy, cloth map out of her waist bag, then pressed it against the rock wall. “According to this, we should follow the hallway in front of us.”
“Well, obviously. There’s no other option. But where does it lead?” asked Slate.
“To the Navel of the World, I expect.”
The narrow hallway was slippery on account of a fuzzy moss growing over its stones, and it made for slow walking, especially as Slate, Arianna and Pilotte were huddled so close to one another.
They were so concentrated on moving as one mass that they reached the end of the hallway without realizing it. Slate almost fell out into the black void that yawned open before them, but Arianna sensed his body starting to pitch forward and managed to grab his shirttail and pull him back. He fell the other way, onto his side, with a surprised yelp that echoed loudly around what must have been a huge space below.
“I think we found the Navel,” he grunted as he stood back up.
“But how would we get there?” Arianna wondered, staring down the nothingness. “I can’t see a thing.” She moved back to study her map once more.
“How deep do you think it is?” Slate asked as he joined Arianna in study.
“There’s one way to find out,” said Arianna. She dug a second flare out from her bag, dragged its fuse against the stone to activate it, and then heaved it off into the darkness below. The flare hit the ground quickly, bounced, and then rolled for a while, before coming to rest on what appeared to be broken tiles.
“It’s tiled,” said Slate. “Is the whole thing tiled?”
“Perhaps one of the other stairways leads down there,” suggested Arianna.
“Where are the other staircases?” Slate asked.
“There,” Arianna said, pointing on the map. “I think we passed them, on the stairs up from the entryway. Before I lit the flare.”
“Oh. So then it’s right back where we came from?”
“Looks that way.”
Backtracking, the team found that two other stairways did in fact branch out from the one they had entered in on. They followed one of these stairways down a path that grew tight and twisted, and, after many reversals, the team finally spilled out into the cavernous expanse of the main chamber.
“Well, here we are,” Slate said through chattering teeth. “And it’s freezing. What happens now?”
“Why do you always ask like I’ll know?” Arianna asked.
“You are a member of the Protectorate, after all,” Slate joked.
“Ha. Probably not anymore,” Arianna said.
Light suddenly flooded the ceiling of the cave.
The sun had reached a point in the sky outside where its rays could penetrate the series of square openings carved along the domed roof of the cave. The squares of light grew brighter as the sun poured through them, displacing the darkness in the watery grotto.
With illumination, it became apparent that the walls of the cave were cut flat, and adorned with huge mosaics, beautiful, marvelously intricate murals made of seashell and gemstone. There were three main mosaics, larger than the rest, on the wall just opposite the sun portals and above the entrance to the chamber. The first showed columns of fire descending from the skies, volcanoes, earthquakes, mass destruction. The second showed Alm ravaged on the surface, and people living underground. The third showed radiant beams of light streaming from underground back into the outside world, and the people returning to the surface.
“Navel of the World…” Slate whispered in awe.
“It’s where the Book comes from, Slate,” Arianna said. “I’ve seen pictures of these murals, in my library back home. It was right here! This is where they wrote them. This is where our ancestors waited out the aftermath of the Fall!”
“Could it really be?” Slate asked, dumbfounded.
After the team spent hours exploring the storerooms and bunkers of the cave, and admiring and trying to decipher the hundreds of mosaics in the subterranean museum, Pilotte started to grow restless.
“I don’t think Pilotte likes caves. He never gets like this. And he’s probably hungry. I’m hungry, too,” Slate said. “What I wouldn’t give for some roasted boar.”
“Roasted boar… oh… or potala, with butter and salt… or a great big piece of cheese and a hard loaf of bread… oh my,” Arianna gurgled.
“And for dessert, cinnilla pie with dream cream and bitterberries!”
Pilotte couldn’t handle all the talk of food, and whined desperately for it to stop.
“Soon enough, old boy,” Slate said to the wulf. “Soon as the tide comes in, we’ll get you a feast.”
“I think we’ve explored all there is to explore,” Arianna said, “But I fear we still have an awful lot of time on our hands, before the tide returns.”
“Probably still a few hours.”
“You know, we do have the translation key to the books.”
“Arianna, no. We can’t...” Slate stopped to think. “Wait a second, sure we can.”
He went into his bag and pulled out the watertight skin that contained the Books. He also procured from it a metal flask. “Forgot about this!” he said. He unscrewed the top of the flask and took a drink, wincing at the bitter sting of the brite inside.
“What’s that? What do you have there?” Arianna asked. Slate offered her the flask. She took it and bettered his swig with a great gulp. “Ah!” she cried, nearly spitting the gulp back out. “That’s awful! What is it?”
“Tenury Ale! From the gift shop at the inn in Aurora Falls. This drink courtesy of the Protectorate,” Slate said, raising the flask up in a mock toast.
After sharing a bit more of the awful drink, Slate pulled one of the heavy Books into his lap and cracked it open. “There it is. Just like before, just like the one I saw,” he said. “Nice pictures and nonsense.”
“That’s why we have a translation key,” Arianna said.
“Translation key!” Slate cried. He got up and stumbled over to his pack again, and dumped everything in it onto the ground.
“Shhh! You’re making a mess!” Arianna giggled.
“Yeah but it’s a quiet mess, though,” Slate laughed.
Without much food in their systems, the alcohol had them both in hysterics.
“Got it!” Slate proclaimed, picking the translation key out of the pile of books and papers.
“Okay! Chapter one, page one,” Arianna began. “Let’s see… Well, this isn’t easy. With the…hiccup. Oops. Perhaps we shouldn’t have drunken gotten?”
“Drunken gotten? Is that what the translation says?” Slate asked.
“Stop, stop, stop,” Arianna plead as she laughed and struggled to breathe.
“Okay, okay. Hiccup. Let’s see,” Slate said.
The two focused as best they could and began to work through the first paragraph on the first page of the Book. The translation code was easy to understand; there were two versions of a story contained within it, one written in Protersian and the other in Proto-Protersian, the language of the Books. To complete the translation, Arianna searched for a word from the green Book in the translation, and Slate wrote it in a notebook. Soon, they had the first few sentences translated.
“Okay, we have words! Should I read them to you?” asked Slate.
“Yes, please,” Arianna said.
“I don’t think it makes perfect sense, but that’s the translation. Okay, here goes: Book Two-Origins- In which is recorded the history of the human race prior to Fall. From earliest terrestrial wanderings to journeys amongst heaven. And that’s it.”
“And that’s it?”
“It’s doesn’t say and that’s it, I said and that’s it.”
“But that’s it?”
“But that was such hard work,” Arianna sighed. “Journeys amongst heaven?” she repeated.
“I have no idea what that means,” Slate admitted. “And my head hurts.”
“Mine too. Next time we do this, let’s not get drunk.”
The two passed out shortly thereafter, leaving hungry Pilotte to further explore the little pockets and niches of the Navel of the World in search of something, anything, to eat.
Some indeterminate amount of time later, Slate awoke feeling much more lucid.
“Ugh. Tenury Ale. Did you sleep well?” he asked Arianna, who was bent over another of the many maps from the watertight sack.
“I did, but I was just about to wake you up,” she said.
“Because of that.”
Arianna pointed to the water rising slowly over the floor tiles; the tide was coming back in. Slate jumped to his feet and began cramming Books and papers back into his bag. Pilotte raced ahead, disappearing up the stairs. He wasn’t gone long before he reappeared, barking in a panic, followed by the first trickles of tidewater, which soon grew into a steady stream, and then a spray. The stairwell was unusable; the team was trapped.
“Is there any other way out of here?” Slate hollered.
“Not according to the map, no!” Arianna screamed over the growing white noise of the water now surging through fissures all about the walls of the cave.
Pilotte was the first to take the high ground, a worn stone altar in the middle of the chamber, where he was soon joined by Slate and Arianna. The ocean water flowed in waves, cascading down from the high ledge the team had first entered onto, and gushing out of the stairwell as if it were a giant nozzle. As the water rose, overtaking the last few patches of dry ground that remained, Slate and Arianna looked on helplessly.
“Slate,” Arianna cried, pointing up to the square sun portals near the cave ceiling. “Do you think those holes are big enough for us to fit through?”
“Probably,” Slate shouted over the roaring waters. “But how can we get up there?”
“We’ll wait,” said Arianna, pointing to a piece of flotsam rising with the water.
“Yes!” Slate cried. “I told you, you always have the answers!” He grabbed Arianna and gave her a kiss.
Arianna looked stunned. She wiped her lips slowly and then took Slate’s hand, as the rising water met the top of the altar. When it was at their waists, Slate, Arianna, and Pilotte began to float.
Slate lost hold of Arianna’s hand as the water in the huge space began to form a whirlpool. After being pulled around the whirlpool a number of times and becoming completely disoriented, he felt his body being pulled on by a different force. The volumes of water exiting through the sun portals splayed Slate flat against the cave wall, and then slowly dragged him along it, which tore a hole in his coat and reopened the laceration on his back. He gasped, taking into his lungs a great volume of salty water, and then screamed full-throated as his body was squeezed through the sun portal and he shot out into the open air.
The force of the water launched him from the cave like a stone from a blastporter, straight out for ten feet before he began to plummet. In a flash Slate saw the sparkling ocean, and then his body twisted and he could see Arianna and Pilotte flailing through the air above him. As he tumbled to the waves below, Slate could feel his heartbeat pounding in his skull. And then the loud rush of air past his ears and the calls of seabirds in the bay were silenced when he broke the surface of the water headfirst.
Down into the depths he plunged, his body turned up to the refracted sunlight. He saw Arianna and Pilotte splash into the water above him, trails of bubbles tracing their path as they fell. When the water had slowed the team’s downward trajectory enough, each began paddling back to the surface. Slate broke first, with a loud gasp for air. He spun in the water, searching for Arianna and Pilotte, the gash on his back turning the ocean water around him red. Arianna bobbed up next, coughing, and then Pilotte appeared, closer to the shore. Next were the team’s bags, which popped up reluctantly from the water and looked like they would soon return to it.
“Get your bag!” Arianna called to Slate.
When he tried taking hold, the young man realized the extent of his injury: his right hand could barely grip at all. He pulled himself through the water with his other arm, dragging his pack behind him with his feet. Upon reaching the shore, he crawled up after Arianna to a sandy ledge high enough to avoid the still-rising tide, and collapsed.
“Well,” Arianna said, as she squeezed seawater from a twist of her hair.
“Well,” Slate repeated.
“Is this the kind of adventure I’ve been missing?” Arianna asked.
“I haven’t done anything like that before in my life,” Slate said. “Actually, strike that, I did go over that waterfall in the raft. Anyways, you call it adventure, I call it damn lucky. I really don’t know how much luck I could possibly have left.” He winced as he peeled off his tattered coat to get a better look at the gash that wrapped around his side. The deep cut was oozing blood and a yellowish liquid.
“Oh no, Slate, that looks awful,” Arianna said when she saw. “Here, lie down on the sand.”
Slate did so, and Arianna dug her medical kit out of her bag. The balm from it that she applied to Slate’s wound stung worse than the salt water.
“Ah! What are you doing?” he shouted.
“Be still, Slate. You’re going to get sand in your cut,” Arianna scolded.
The young man did remain still, except for his mouth, from which many curses flew before Arianna managed to finish treating his wound and covered it with gauze.
“How does that feel?” she asked after she was done.
“I’ve been better,” said Slate. “But I’ve been much worse, too. I’m just glad you are here, and that we’re all safe. And, that was kind of incredible, I’m not going to lie.”
“It was absolutely amazing,” Arianna agreed. “When we were churning around, and how we flew through the air? It was like… the most exhilarating… nightmare!”
“I really didn’t think we were going to make it. Good thinking on rising up with the water, though, I wouldn’t have considered that.”
“Well. We would both have found out sooner than later, I imagine.”
Slate watched the wind play with Arianna’s long brown hair, blowing it all about her, creating an effect like a halo. Her dark eyes shone from within the aura, warm and bright.
“You’re very pretty, you know, Arianna,” he said without thinking.
“Oh, Slate,” she giggled. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”
“Actually, I don’t.”
“No? Well, you’re rather handsome yourself, you know.”
“You think I’m handsome?”
“Well, you know…” Arianna murmured.
“I…” Slate began, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. His heart was racing. There was a strange feeling growing inside him, one that he didn’t have the energy to assimilate. “I’m sleepy,” he finally blurted out.
“You’re sleepy,” Arianna said, throwing her arms up. “Fine, Slate, fine. Go to sleep.”
The young man rolled over onto his side, careful not to disturb Arianna’s treatment of his injury. He lay awake for some time, unsure of what to think or what to say to the girl next to him.
“Are you mad at me, Arianna?” he eventually asked.
“No, are you mad at me?” she asked.
Wordlessly, Slate and Arianna inched closer to one another, until their backs were pressed as close as Slate’s wound would allow. They lay like that for hours, saying nothing, synchronizing the rise and fall of their breaths with the crash of the waves.