"Well, here we are." I said as we entered what seemed to be the final room of the lower levels. Like the temple above us on the surface, this room had a warlike Salacia statue and an engraved magic circle on the floor in front of the statue's base, but unlike the chiaroscuro above, this room was well lit by unknown sources coming from behind the waterfalls pouring down the walls.
In the light, I could see that it was a very nice room, with a ceiling mosaic depicting a bright blue sky with the sun above the magic circle, but before I could take the time to enjoy it just a little more, I heard Harcourt grouse next to me. "Great. A dead end. Now what do we do?"
As if to answer her question, the eyes of Salacia's statue flashed blue as they erupted into blue flames, and the magic circle in front of the statue's base glowed the same shade of blue with power that forced us to look away unless we wanted to go blind.
When the light died down, I looked towards the center of the magic circle to see a lion the size of a tank, with fur the color of marble and blue eyes that seemed to be burning with an aura that poured out of its eye sockets like two trails of mist.
The lion shook itself to get rid of the kinks in its body, its gray mane rippling as it then let out a loud, ear-splitting roar that forced us to cover our ears. As I looked up again, I noticed that there were some arrows and swords embedded into its mane from failed attempts to kill it, which did nothing to make me feel better about our chances against it.
I then noticed that blazing blue letters like holograms had appeared above the lion's head to form words: "THE PIRAEUS LION", and I heard Harcourt swallow from next to me. "Isn't that the lion whose statues are supposed to protect ports?"
I didn't have time to answer her, as the lion was already preparing to pounce, and I felt very small with my musket in hand as my knees began to shake. The lion snarled as it pounced, but before I could become a not-so-fancy feast for a really big cat, Harcourt football-tackled me to the side in a way that would make any professional linebacker proud.
"Keep your head, sailor!" Harcourt shouted at me as she got up to draw her weapons, and I hastily did the same with my musket, checking to make sure the socket bayonet was still in place, as I was going to need it soon. I ran off to the side as Harcourt fired the first shot with her pistol, and as I reached a suitable distance away from the lion, I turned around to drop on one knee and aim at the lion.
"Hey, over here, you fleabag!" I shouted, and the Piraeus Lion swatted Harcourt with its tail as it pivoted on its forelegs to face me. Cocking the hammer back with a deep breath and holding it to steady my aim, I still couldn't stop my heart from trying to escape my chest as the lion began running towards me.
In that split second, time seemed to bend and make everything go in slow motion as I saw the lion's eyes flash fire and the aura pouring out of its sockets blaze. I felt oddly calm as the black powder in my priming pan flashed and made smoke as I pulled the trigger and fired the gun.
The lion roared in pain as it reared up on its hind legs, blood streaming down its left eye like red tears, and I got out of the way as it stomped the ground with its paws. I lunged forward with my bayonet into the lion's side, and the lion roared again as it spun around to send me and my weapon flying in different directions.
My body skidded on the cold marble floor to come to an almost gentle stop against the base of a marble pillar, which I used as support as I shakily stood up. The Piraeus Lion had turned its attentions back to Harcourt, but there wasn't much she could do with her short sword.
I ran over to where my musket had landed, but unlike me, my gun wasn't so lucky in landing. It was broken in two from crashing against the nearby marble pillar so hard, and the bayonet was missing, most likely still embedded in the lion's body.
That left me only one option, and I took a deep breath as I stood to face the backside of the Piraeus Lion, still trying to swat Harcourt like a fly. The lion didn't notice the sounds of my footsteps running across the marble floor as I leapt onto its back, and my hands quickly took hold of the lion's mane and the hilt of a sword.
I nearly fell off as the Piraeus Lion leapt over Harcourt to attack her from behind, and twisting the long hairs of the lion's mane around my wrist, I managed to pull out one of the two short swords embedded in the lion's backside with a great effort.
The lion roared in pain at the freshly-opened wound on its backside, and suddenly, I found myself hanging from the lion's mane as it reared up on its hind legs. Then, everything went still for a split second, and the Piraeus Lion suddenly fell onto the floor to Harcourt's left, blood pooling onto the floor from a long slash down its stomach.
As I laid down on the floor, too tired to move, I felt the lion's hairs in my hand suddenly felt dusty, and in just a few seconds, I was lying in the ashes of the Piraeus Lion. I groggily sat up, and putting down the sword in my right hand, I felt my fingertips touch the ash smeared on my cheek. When I looked at them, they were dusty with the color of stone. "We really did it..."
I gazed up at the statue of Salacia, but unlike the stern countenance of an officer that the statue wore before, its lips had shifted into a smile, the light in its eyes reduced to a gentle blue glow of approval, though other than that, her warlike stance hadn't changed.
That same blue glow then appeared on the lines of the magic circle engraved on the floor, and a slight grating sound could be heard as the section of the magic circle within the outside line's blue glow began to rise into a pillar. When I looked up at the ceiling's mosaic, the sun above the magic circle had slid apart to make way for our elevator.
We entered the chiaroscuro again, and only our eyes and the undersides of our bodies were lit by the blue glow of the magic circles, and the four strips of the same blue light that ran up the circular walls of the "elevator shaft" as we slowly ascended topside. "So... how did you join the navy?"
I saw Harcourt shift in her seat on the floor uncomfortably at the icebreaker question, and I immediately regretted asking her anything, but to my surprise, she answered anyway. "Well... my father used to be a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, and back when he was alive, he used to tell me and my older brother stories about his voyages, and they were what inspired me to go to sea."
"Oh... how did he die?" I asked tentatively, and Harcourt swallowed nervously and shuddered slightly; it didn't take a genius to figure out it was a difficult subject for her, and I immediately regretted asking. "I'm sorry, I've shouldn't have asked."
"No, it's alright." Harcourt spoke up, startling me into silence as she answered. "He died during the Battle of Aboukir; he led a boarding party aboard the Gaulish flagship, L'Orient, and was killed during the explosion when one of the Gauls set the powder stores on fire."
Harcourt let out a slow and shaky sigh, and I couldn't blame her. Confessing to a close friend was hard enough, and it couldn't have been any easier telling a subordinate that you're supposed to keep a stiff upper lip around. "Well... that's one thing we have in common. Or rather, don't have."
Harcourt looked up at that, and I continued. "My parents split up ten years ago due to 'irreconcilable differences'; my dad was a free spirit, while my mom was content just where we were. So one day when I was five, he left without a trace, and I haven't seen or heard a word from him since. I'm alright though - I've always been..."
My voice then faltered unconvincingly, and Harcourt nodded as she spoke up. "I especially hated it when people I didn't know kept apologizing to me at his funeral, like I was the one who died."
I nodded knowingly. "I know. The apologies are never really sincere, but at least they try to fake it. And I can see how you can pull the disguise off - you're taller than most girls, not to mention more athletic, you've no boobs to speak of-"
The last remark earned me a bop on the head with her (fortunately sheathed) sword, but despite my lack of tact, Harcourt was smiling. It was the first time I had ever seen her without an officer's stern countenance, and personally, she looked a lot better with a smile. "Thank you. It was... not at all unpleasant speaking with you, although your accent is still ridiculous. Seriously, loo-tenant?"
I groaned as I slapped my face, keeping my hand over my eyes as I shook my head, and I heard Harcourt laugh as I opened my mouth to ask another question. "So what's your real name, anyway?"
"Elizabeth, Elizabeth Harcourt, but my family calls me Liza." Harcourt answered as she sat up from laughing on the floor of our elevator, and I nodded as her expression suddenly grew serious. "If you tell anyone, I swear to God that I will-"
"-Kill me in the slowest and most excruciating way possible." I guessed. "Don't worry. I promise not to tell anyone, not even my messmates."
Harcourt studied my face for what seemed to be minutes, checking to see if I was lying or not, but finally, just when I was beginning to sweat a little from such close scrutiny, she grunted in satisfaction with just a hint of surprise on her face, as if she couldn't believe I wouldn't try to blackmail her.
Believe me, I wasn't going to; I knew full well what would happen if people found out she was a girl. If they did, she'd be lucky not be hanged, much less stay in the navy. Besides, I'm a subscriber to the radical notion amongst teenage boys (and indeed, many grown men, as I've found out on potty breaks at the head) that girls are actually more than boobs or butt and have these things called brains.
"Do you want to shake on it?" I asked, extending a hand out to her, and she nodded, doing so with a slight stiffness in her fingers. "There. Now it's officially a deal."
"Yes... I believe it is..." Harcourt said slowly, and as I glanced around, I noticed that the strips of light, which probably indicated the height we had left to go, had gotten a lot shorter during our conversation.
As our elevator came within thirty feet of the ends of the light strips, a circular hatch above moved apart almost silently with a faint grating sound, and we both stood up to brush ourselves off as I spoke. "Well, sir, it's seems we've reached the end of our little adventure."
"Yes, I believe so." Harcourt said, nodding as we reached the top. We had ended up on a small terrace barely big enough for our platform overlooking the empty shrine where our adventure first began, and I noticed that the magic circle that had disappeared beneath our feet had returned.
Before us was a coil of vine wrapped around a large stone pulley hanging from the ceiling, and I gestured to what would be our makeshift rope. "After you, sir."
Harcourt harrumphed as she took a short running leap onto the loose end of the vine, and plummeted down onto the marble floor with a graceful landing. Not wanting to be shown up, I did the same thing with my descent, though admittedly, my landing was a bit off at the end.
"Ready to go, Arden?" Harcourt asked as she turned towards the still-open double doors, and I nodded backas I began walking towards the sunlight. "Yes, sir."