Deep Secrets: Part Ten
The first town he found, the second, fifth, tenth: all as Demetrius had somehow known they would be.
Covered in sand.
The streets were heaped with it, and the roofs cracked and caving in under it. It drifted through windows and filled rooms. Doors burst out of their frames, powerless against the weight of it.
The Aisha walked slowly through all of it, taking it in. The Ring of the Deep weighed heavy in his pocket.
He walked and walked. He didn’t know where he was any more.
Once he wondered where Sakhmet City was, and found the direction with the sun, but then he turned and walked deliberately the other way.
He didn’t know who he was any more.
Once he wondered why he avoided Sakhmet City, and almost turned back toward it, but something kept him away.
When he ran out of food and water, he found packets of dry biscuits and jugs that had been out of the way of the sand, filled his pack and kept walking.
He didn’t know what he was any more.
Once he wondered what was in his pockets, and turned them out. He found a ring.
It reminded him of something, but he couldn’t think what.
He put his paw around it, clenching tightly, and then hurled it into the air. It flew, sparkling, over the next dune, and disappeared.
A moment later he ran after it, but it had already been covered by a little drift of sand, and he couldn’t find it.
Turning his back on the spot, he walked away.
The Desert was like a sea; and, like all oceans, it had currents, whirlpools and eddies, jet streams, calm parts.
After the gapers had stopped coming to the edge of it to stare across the empty wasteland—the view, in truth, not too different from before—a shabbily dressed yellow Krawk made his way across the Haunted Woods to search along the shores, where things washed up.
Among sun parasols, broken shards of pottery, and one shoe of a pair, he found a ring half-buried in sand.
“Well, that’s a curiosity,” he said, clearing it out with a finger. “That’ll sell for a pretty penny, won’t it? A nice little shiny, all for Paddington. Yes, the jewelers’ll snap this one up in a moment...”
The Krawk giggled and put the ring in his pocket, and then patted it to make sure of its safety.
“Not likely to find anything better in the day, then, eh?” He scanned the shoreline of the Desert. “No, not likely...”
He turned his little two-wheeled cart around and stumped back to where the road parted the trees of the Woods.
The Desert watched the ring go, not entirely disappointed.
“Oh, look at that!”
A blue Bruce pointed into the window of a well-lit jewelry store in Neopia Central. She was dressed snugly in a dress and warm coat; the hood of her winter jacket was pulled up neatly around her face.
“Which?” asked the red Gelert escorting her. His coat hung open, but underneath it he wore a waistcoat in addition to his fine white shirt and jacket.
“That ring.” She leaned against him as she pointed. “The blue and turquoise. Oh, it is pretty.”
“You’re right, Bella.” The Gelert smiled down at her. “Would you like it?”
“Rupert! You don’t need to spend money on me.”
Rupert’s smile widened. “No,” he said, “but I like to.” He opened the door and bowed her through it gallantly. A little bell above it jingled, and for a moment a flame flickered within the Ring of the Deep where it lay on velvet cloth: reminiscence, and something like longing.
Outside, snow fell, and was swept by the wind into little heaps around the feet of lampposts and up to the walls of buildings. It was very near the Day of Giving.
“As a special treat for you girls this year,” Bella’s father said, “we’re taking a trip to Terror Mountain for the last day of the Advent Calendar.”
Bella’s sisters gasped and squealed, but Bella looked away. Her father, a speckled Lupe, looked at her, concerned.
“What is it, Bella?”
“Oh—nothing.” The Bruce shrugged.
Her father studied her. Rupert, he thought. Well, he was a nice enough boy.
All he said was, “All right,” and turned to answer her sisters’ questions as they recovered from their fits of ecstatic hysterics.
They took a boat from Neopia Central: the prow cut through the chilly water easily. Snowflakes drifted down, one, two, onto the water and melted into it.
Bella stood at the very front of the ship and stared down into the water.
I wish, she thought—but then her smallest sister, Katherine, who was a purple Eyrie, called out to her, and the Bruce turned to smile at her.
“I can do a trick now, Bella, want to see?” Katherine fluttered up into the air, attempted a loop-the-loop, and fell, giggling, onto the deck.
Between making sure Katherine was all right, and taking charge of her sisters until the boat reached the docks of Terror Mountain—because their parents were busy with tickets, or something, somewhere, and she couldn’t find them—Bella’s half-finished wish went clear out of her mind.
They were staying in a hotel for three days before the final day of the Calendar. Bella unpacked her carefully pressed dresses and hung them in the closet she shared with her sisters, half listening to them chatter on in the background.
“—near the Scratchcard booth, he must be some hero down on his luck, he must be,” Roberta was saying passionately. “Don’t you agree, Bella?”
“Hmm?” She turned quickly to her pink Acara sister. “What were you saying?”
“She saw some muscly Lupe and she thinks he’s a hero,” Katherine said, falling onto her bed. Bella smiled.
“Well, it’s possible,” she said. “A lot of people come here for the Advent Calendar, after all.”
Roberta nodded, looking severe and grown-up, and then turned to stick out her tongue at her sister. “See? I told you he could be!”
Katherine rolled her eyes. “Whatever,” she said, sounding more mature than her older sister for a moment.
Swallowing laughter, Bella nodded.
“Girls? Are you decent?”
“Yes,” Katherine said promptly, sitting up.
Their father came in, snow dusting the shoulders of his jacket and the top of his cap. “If you want to come with me to the Advent Calendar tonight, you may—otherwise, there’s dinner downstairs or you can have it brought up, and your mother and I got tickets for the Giving Day play they put on in the Caves—it’s still running, apparently. We’re going to that tomorrow.”
“I’ll come!” Katherine hunted out her shoes. One was by her bed, and the other all the way over by the closet, upside-down.
“Bella, do you want to come, or stay here?”
Bella shrugged as if it made no difference to her. “I’ll stay here,” she said.
Keep an eye on Roberta, she meant. Their father nodded.
“All right, then. Have a good evening!”
Katherine hopped towards the door, one shoe on. The Lupe caught her as she wobbled and steadied her so that she could pull the other onto her foot.
“Ready? Good. ‘Bye!” They vanished, and the door closed behind them.
“I don’t need a babysitter,” Roberta said the instant the door was shut.
Her sister looked mild. “I know that. I’m not your babysitter.” The Bruce sat down on her bed and took a book out of her suitcase. “I just felt like a quiet evening in.”
Roberta stood up, wavering. “So if I wanted to go downstairs for dinner by myself,” she said, probingly, “you’d let me?”
“Probably.” Bella gave a fake yawn, but she didn’t think her sister could tell the difference.
“Good. I’m hungry.” The Acara grabbed her jacket, put her shoes on, and trotted out of the room.
Bella did read her book for a few minutes, browsing through the pages. Rupert had given it to her: A History of the Jetsam. However dear Rupert was to her, however, she was soon suppressing real yawns.
She set the book down on her bed and got up to put on her shoes. Maybe she’d wander down to the dining room, join Roberta in some dinner—she was getting hungry—
The Bruce paused. She replayed Roberta’s exit in her mind. She had put on her shoes and taken her jacket...
Why would she need her jacket, unless she were going outside?
Bella shoved on her shoes and ran out of the room, locking the door as an afterthought. She had to find her sister.
Terror Mountain around the time of Giving was crowded. Bella pushed through the crowd, holding her skirts up with one hand. She hadn’t even bothered to check the dining room before she left the hotel. She knew Roberta wouldn’t be there.
“Roberta!” she shouted, looking around. A sea of bobbing heads, some higher and some lower: Lupes, Grarrls, Yurbles. The cold air made her breath into clouds of white mist.
“Roberta,” she called again. Still no answer.
Bella could spend hours here, and if Roberta didn’t want to be found, she wouldn’t. There were just too many people. Where might she be?
The Bruce searched through her memory. The Lupe—the one with the muscles, that Roberta thought looked like a hero. Where had her sister seen him?
She hadn’t been listening then. Still, she must have heard something, retained it, must still remember it—she had to.
Bella thought. It was hard to do, in the crowd and the noise. But she had to do it. She had to find her sister.
The Scratchcard booth!
She caught in her breath with relief and ran up the hill, not even minding her skirts any more. If Roberta wasn’t there, surely someone would know where she’d gone—or where the Lupe had gone—she was saved!
The Ring of the Deep, a little too large for her hand, slipped off as she ran. It fell, tumbling, onto the snow packed hard by thousands of paws, flippers, and feet, and slid a little before it found a hollow to rest in.
Bella didn’t think of her ring until much later, when far too much time had passed to go back and look for it.
To be continued...