Chapter 12: Weeping Maids

The morning fog was starting to break as Virpan and Howngthirr arrived outside the meandering walls of Sushwuk. They cautiously entered through the gate, the guards giving them a weary glance. Stone buildings lined the roads, towering as high as tree tops. The size of Shushwuk daunted Virpan. Not knowing if they had arrived ahead of Zhar’oth made their search all the more urgent.

Without a second to lose, Virpan lead the way down the street even though she had no idea where she was going. She looked around for any clue to the key. A large crowd shuffled past, several people giving her strange looks. Undeterred, she continued marching down the main road, though her pace began slowing.

“Uh, Virpan, where are we going?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” she replied. “Risawal mentioned something about a key within a Sarcophagus under the twelve weeping maids, though I never got a chance to read the scroll myself.”

Howngthirr looked confused. “Uh, you have no idea where we’re going, do you?”

Virpan sighed. “No. I was thinking since it’s a Sarcophagus, it’s in a temple or a cemetery; so why don’t we start there?”

Howngthirr nodded. “Makes sense.”

As the day progressed, they discovered that the Sushwuk Cemetery was sparsely decorated. Row after row of plain stone graves lined the field. With the cemetery maiden-less, they trudged to the temple district, but none of the five main temples had any depictions of a single weeping maid, let alone twelve. As they passed the sorry looking temple of Valtor, Virpan had a sinking feeling that the Sarcophagus was receding further and further from her grasp.

“How about some sort of artist guild? They might have some statues of weeping girls.”

Virpan shook her head. “I don’t think so. Ugh, we’re going about this the wrong way.”

“What do you mean?”

Virpan paced back and forth, racking her brain for ideas. “Maybe the words mean something else?”

“Like what?”

“Twelve Weeping Maids, uh, hmm,” she said, rubbing her chin. “What if these twelve weeping maids aren’t a physical marker? We’ve been assuming that they’re statues or pictures. But perhaps it’s the name of something?”

“Huh, might be on to something there.”

They began scouring through the city, reading the signs of every building they came upon.  Sure enough they soon came to a Tavern with the sign reading Sasaula Maz mo’o.

“Twelve Women’s tears.” Virpan whispered.

“I think you’ve found it.”

“Buy me a drink?”

“Sure thing.”

The Tavern was almost empty; a couple shady looking men near the back where the only other patrons. Virpan strolled up to the bar and smiled at the ancient Bartender.

“What’ll it be?” He sighed, adjusting his spectacles.

“Two pints of mead.”

The man ambled over to the cask and drew 2 mugs of frothy brew and placed it on the counter in front of the travelers.

“That’ll be four coppers.”

“Four, for Mead?” Virpan said, shaking her head, “How about three and some information?”

“Whu-you talking back to me?”

“Yes, look at the state of this,” she said, seizing the mug. “Watered down and unfit for my dog.”

“Ggrr, how about five and I don’t break your knees?”

“How about three, information, and I don’t tell everyone in town how much you water down…”

“Sh-sh-shutup,” he hissed, leaning forward, “Fine, what do you want to know?”

“Do you, um, have a Sarcophagus?”

The Bartender blinked. “Have a what?”

“You heard me.”

He leaned forward and whispered, “Listen, lass, I don’t know what you’ve been told, but there’s nothing in that coffin for you.”

Howngthirr pulled a silver coin from the Sheriff’s purse and placed it on the counter. The barkeep sighed, knowing that he had been beaten.

“Alright, fine. Back room, under the stairs to the left, check under the bench.”

“Thank you,” Virpan said quietly, “Nice necklace, by the way.”

“You saw nothing,” he said, pushing his Amulet of Valtor back under his coat. Then he stood up again as a newcomer entered the bar. “Sorry, folks, we don’t serve the Jungle Quaff in this establishment!”

“Why, hello my dear,” said an unwelcome voice.

A sense of dread took hold. Virpan sank forward over the bar, pretending she was mistaken. Several moments of silence passed before she turned to face her tormentor. “You must be pretty slow for us to have beaten you here.”

“Now, now, I arrived here yesterday, though in truth who got here first is irrelevant.” Zhar’oth said, taking a seat just down the bar. “No, the only thing that counts is who walks out of here with the key.”

Howngthirr stepped between them and glared at Zhar’oth. “I’ll crack your skull open if you even touch Virpan!”

“Come now, my boy, I would never dream of harming her. In fact, she’s a very dear friend of mine.”

“Friend?!” She snapped. “What is that supposed to mean?!”

“Please, my dear, you’re in over your head and in need of all the friends who will have you. That key will be in my pocket when I leave this place.”

“Hah, I’ll never tell you where it is.”

“You don’t have to, I’ll find it myself.”

“I wish you luck with that.” She began walking towards the door, pulling Howngthirr along with her.

“But my dear, the key is in this establishment, so why are you leaving?”

“I’m not going to show you its location, that’s why. You’ll have to find it on your own.”

“So it IS in this place,” he said, looking around, “thank you, my dear.”

“Whu-I-oh, you dirty…”

“Now, now, just tell me where it is or I’ll get in contact with a demolitions crew and knock this place down.”

Howngthirr gulped. “Virpan, do you have a plan?”

“No, he’ll find it eventually, with or without our help.”

“Good to see that you’re learning, my dear.”

Virpan moaned, putting her hands up. “The Sarcophagus is under the bench in the backroom.”

Howngthirr shook his head. “Damn you, Sharoth.”

“Now, now, take it easy on her, my boy. She just saved a very old establishment from destruction.”

“My name is Howngthirr!”

“If you insist.”

“You’re not a very good friend, you know that?” Virpan snorted.

“On the contrary,” he replied, “I’m your very best friend.”

He walked into the backroom and lifted the bench, revealing a small trapdoor. Below the opening sat the great sarcophagus, partially buried in the foundations. He pulled on the lid, but found it locked. Undeterred, he produced a set of lock picks and set to work. Unable resist, Virpan and Howngthirr cautiously approached the back room.

By the time they reached the door, Zhar’oth had released the lock and was pulling it open. There was a loud clunk as the heave stone fell aside. The sarcophagus was empty save for an oddly shaped bronze block. Zhar’oth snatched it up and turned to leave just as a dart hit him in his neck.

“Oh, it’s you,” he muttered, spotting Ja’eshuk entering the tavern.

Moments later he had collapsed to the floor. Virpan marveled at how many times the tables had turned. She didn’t know who the new intruder was, but she clearly out-classed Zhar’oth. The stranger marched through the barroom and right up to her victim. In a flash, she snatched the key out of his limp hand, eying the cube carefully.

“Excellent”, she said, pocketing it. “Guess now we’re even, old friend.”

“I don’t suppose you were sent by the order?” Virpan asked hopefully.

“No, though, you might be closer than you think.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I know someone from the order, someone who spoke of you. Virpan, I assume,” she said coyly. “Yes, Risawal told me about you.”

“How do you know Risawal?”

Ja’eshuk snickered. “Oh yes, he’s my companion. We’re traveling together.”

“Campion? Where is he? Tell me?”

“He seemed restless when I told him I was coming here so I tied him up to calm down.”

“Tied him up!? Who are you?”

“I don’t believe that’s important. Stay out of my way and we’ll all walk away fine.”

“Please, don’t hurt him.”

“You don’t listen very well, do you? I said everyone would be fine. Besides, I need him alive anyway.”

Defeated, Virpan sank to the floor and stared at the scuffmarks.

“Smart move,” Ja’eshuk said, stepping past them and out the door. “I’ll say hello to Risawal for you. I’m certain that will brighten his day.”

As quickly as she had come, the woman vanished through the door. “I’m sorry, Virpan,” Howngthirr moaned. “I should’ve, should’ve…”

“It doesn’t matter now. As long as she has Risawal, I can’t risk stopping her. She has the key and the Chosen One.”

“Incorrect,” came a familiar voice. Virpan looked up to see the Bartender rising up from behind the counter, his eyes twinkling. In a single motion he held up a jade block that looked almost exactly like the key. “She’s got the wrong key. I always knew my hiding place would be insufficient. If you leave something in one place long enough then somebody’s bound to find it. So I had to keep my key moving around.”

“You’re not really a bartender, are you?”

“Of course I am,” he said, winking, “Anyway, you two need to get going. I’ll clean up this mess back here.”

Virpan smiled at him, rising to her feet. Key in hand, she and Howngthirr hurried out the door. The barkeep watched them go, hoping he hadn’t just made a huge mistake. With a sigh he walked over to the prone man at the back of his bar.

“Not looking too good for you, is it?” he asked, kicking the stranger gently, “I’ll send for the consta-ahh!”

He jumped back, a dart sticking from the side of his leg. The world started to rush around him, painful images resurfacing. He reached back for support and fell to the ground. Before his mind went completely blank, he saw the stranger rise to his feet and stand over him.

“Perhaps not,” Zhar’oth wheezed, “But it’s looking worse for everyone else.”

-#-

Virpan took in the sight of the huge port of Shushwuk, awestruck at the scale of it. Lines of piers and jetties lined the beach for at least a mile. Dock houses and cranes tall as trees dominated the ocean view. Cart tracks crossed the boardwalk leading to warehouses and offices on the opposite side. Gulls called out, making their midday rounds. In the distance there stood a lighthouse, with a great mirror shining out to sea. There was just one thing missing.

“Where are all the ships?” Howgnthirr asked uncomfortably.

“Uh-oh,” Virpan murmured, strolling down the boardwalk.

Not a single boat was anywhere to be seen, save for a pair in a nearby dry-dock. Alarmed, she sped down the road, searching for transport. The dock slips were all empty, not one ship lay at anchor. A sinking feeling washed over Virpan. Somehow this was Zhar’oth’s doing, she thought.

“He knew,” she muttered, “he did something; he got them out of port.”

“Perhaps we should visit the harbormaster’s office?”

Virpan nodded, knowing there was nothing else to be done. The large office stood at the very center of the port, a trio of guards patrolling the front way. A large statue stood in the front, which she did not recognize. It was an imposing figure, its stone eyes following her as she approached. Undeterred, Virpan pushed through the front doors and into the waiting area.

The place looked deserted, save for a few clerks sifting through papers in the back and a drunken sailor being lead away by a rather annoyed guard. Determined to find out what was going on, Virpan walked right up to the nearest clerk and tapped on her desk. The bespectacled, brown haired clerk set some papers down and frowned. Virpan cleared her throat noisily. She looked up, blinking at the intruder.

“What do you want?” The clerk asked, annoyed, “I’ve finally got a chance to do some catching up.”

“Where are the ships?” Virpan asked, leaning close, “Please, this is important.”

“Oh, that.” She said quietly, “Not much to say, really. A firm hired the four in port for a run to the islands. Not much shipping this season and the pay was too good to pass up. The ship owners all jumped on it.”

“They all left?” Virpan asked incredulously.

“All of them,” the clerk said nodding, raising her eyebrows.

“Isn’t that odd?” Howngthirr asked.

“Hmm, I suppose. The firm had been inactive for years and had no business on record for some time. Then a representative just showed up. All the paperwork checked out, but, yes, it was odd.”

“When will the next ship arrive?” Virpan asked desperately. “I need to get to Kagnangk island, and I mean yesterday!”

“Wh-what? Kagnangk?” The clerk repeated, alarmed, “no ship goes out that far, miss. Not with the, erm, complications going on.”

Virpan gulped. “Is there any way to get there?”

“I suppose if you could get to Port Ilvrin, you might be able to then get a fishing boat or something to take you the rest of the way. Might. Let me see when the next ship is in.”

For what seemed a nightmarish eternity the woman pulled out various bits of paper, checking incessantly. Finally she found something.

“There’s a schooner inbound from Nadiana that should be here in two weeks. She’s been requisitioned to haul some lumber out to Port Ilvrin, might be able to get you cabin on her.”

“Two weeks!”

“Or I could have the guards throw you out,” the clerk said coldly.

“We can’t wait that long.”

“Not my problem. You want me to do something? Or are you leaving?”

Virpan deflated. “I guess we’ll take it.”

“Good, now why do you just go outside and calm down some, ok?”

Virpan turned around and walked away from the exasperating woman. Knowing that Zhar’oth would find faster transport somehow, Virpan trudged out into the bright daylight and looked out over the vast ocean. The water stretched out until it met the sky. From her pocket she pulled out the jade key and held it up to the horizon.

“Fat lot of good this will do us.”

“We’ll get there somehow.” Howngthirr said encouragingly. “I’m sure of it. For now, we should find someplace to stay.”

With a heavy sigh Virpan walked back down the dockside, contemplating what they were going to do for two weeks.

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