Chapter 17: Ghost Town

The sound of the sea washed over Risawal, a sound he was still getting used to. Now only a few feet away from the waves, he was surprised how pleasant it was. Something tapped against the side of Risawal’s head. He blinked, momentarily forgetting where he was. Above him appeared Kialiki holding a pair of brown spheres.

“Oh, it’s you.”

“Wanna coconut?” Kialiki asked, dropping one of the spheres into his lap.

“Sure, is this one?”

“Yep, it’s a refreshing beverage.”

“Oh so you drink it,” he said, giving it a shake. “How?”

“Out of the little eye, take a swig.” She tilted her own back to demonstrate. A bit nervous, Risawal sipped from the strange fruit, finding the taste not unpleasant.

“Hmm, it’s alright, um, what are wearing?” He asked, taking a good look at her.

“I made myself a traditional dress out of leaves, grasses, and other stuff lying around the beach.”

“But you were wearing a proper dress already.”

“It was slowing me down while I swam, so I got rid of it. You can never be too careful in these waters.”

“How interesting,” he muttered, looking down at his soaked garments.

“I’m quite surprised you didn’t get rid of yours, given how much you were struggling.”

“Must’ve slipped my mind.”

They sat together on the shore for a time, looking out over the waves.

“Hey, you two,” Ja’eshuk called, “It’s been far, far longer than five minutes. We’ve got to get on the move.”

“What’s the rush?” Kialiki asked content to bask in the sun. “Oh, and that black outfit is neat, Watul.”

“Erm, thanks. Let’s see, we need supplies, and weapons, and a ship, and shoes. Did I forget anything?”

“I know where we can find that stuff.” Kialiki said brightly, “follow me.”

“Uh, how are we supposed to pay for it?” Risawal asked, unsure if he would like the answer.

“Just a magic trick or two and we’ll be golden, trust me.”

Unconvinced that it would be so easy, Risawal followed her into the brush, stepping carefully to avoid the sharper looking things. Kialiki brushed the undergrowth aside with a wave of her hands, guiding them deeper into the island. Before he knew it, the sound of the ocean vanished behind them, and they were swallowed up by the trees.

Kialiki seemed to know the way, leading them to the base of a hill. Most of the top soil had weathered away, leaving behind a root system which formed a cascade of stairs all the way to the crest. After clambering to the top, a small village of mud huts appeared through the last few trees, tucked into the bend of a creek. They crept into the village, not a living soul in sight.

Feeling anxious, Risawal drew out a hefty stick he’d collected and held it out in front of himself like a sword. He turned to Kialiki, who appeared confused.

“That’s funny, this place was a nice little trading post not three weeks ago,” she said, walking up to the nearest hut. “I wonder what happened.”

“Not sure I want to know,” Ja’eshuk said, pulling out a dagger. “Is there anything inside? Anything at all?”

“Nope,” Kialiki replied, rounding to the front and barging inside. “This place is a ghost town.”

“Can we leave, please?” Risawal asked.

“Uh, the thing is the next good trading town is a day away and it’s starting to get late.”

“Hey, does anyone else hear horses?”

No sooner had Risawal spoken than a terrific rumble emanated from just out of sight. As quickly as they could they rushed into the nearest hut. From the north came six mounted knights, flanking a small wagon train. Much to their chagrin, the men stopped in the town centre and formed a circle, patrols starting to search the buildings.

Thinking fast, Risawal scrambled out the window and onto the leaf roof, the other two following suit. They clambered up like rats fleeing a sinking ship, huddling around the backside of the roof. They pulled leaves over themselves, trying to blend in. The sun was setting, and they hoped to wait the strangers out.

As the light faded, the men lit up torches, patrolling in twos and threes. Risawal looked out over the encampment, cursing the loss of his sword. Tired and hungry, he turned over and looked up into the sky, knowing that it was going to be a long night.

-#-

Deep red and orange smoke swirled around Virpan as she fell through an abyss. People wafted in and out of the clouds around her. Wukkar, Avuksik, Howngthirr were falling around her. A thick cloud slowed her decent, and the others vanished before her eyes.

Ja’eshuk leapt onto the cloud, Risawal slung over her shoulder. With all her might Virpan tried to cry out, but could make no sound. Even so, Ja’eshuk put a finger to her lips before vaulting away into the mist.

A most unwelcome figure emerged from the fog, towering over her. Zhar’oth stepped from the smoky nothingness. Virpan tried backpedaling but couldn’t find purchase anywhere. Zhar’oth laughed at her.

She kicked and flapped in frustration when she suddenly noticed a gold helmet floating just out of her reach. It was beautiful, gleaming in the light, and she knew that she needed to have it. But it was just out of reach.

Virpan began crying, desperate to save her friends. Zha’roth snatched the helmet out of the air and put it on.  As soon as it touched his head, he became a glowing red specter. “And now you will burn!”

“Aaaahh!” Virpan screamed, rolling off the table.

She stared up at the ceiling of Ha’olewe’s cabin, uncertain for a moment what was real. The visions seemed too vivid to have been a dream.

“Virpan, Virpan what’s wrong?” Ha’olewe moaned, toppling out of his hammock. “What’s the matter?”

“It, it was a nightmare. Zhar’oth was there and, and was burning me alive!”

Then as a fresh wave of tears burst forth. She grabbed Ha’olewe. He gently embraced her, softly stroking her hair and back. Slowly Virpan’s breathing calmed and she stopped shaking. Carefully, he wiped her face clear of the tears.

“I have to leave at once,” she said, “he’s getting closer.”

“Slow down Virpan, it’s midnight out there.”

“Pop, you talking?” Came his daughter’s drowsy voice.

“Just go back to sleep sweetie, Vilpani had a nightmare.”

“Hmm, uh, mm.”

“Vilpani, I’m sorry, but we can’t go anywhere, not now.”

“No, no you can’t go anywhere,” she spat, pushing him away, “I’m going to Kagnank Island, to find the helm.”

“But, but,” he stammered as she walked out the door. “Wait!”

Virpan refused to listen, tramping down the road, her sadness and fear turning to rage. Fists clenched, she jogged towards her destination, only vaguely aware that she didn’t know where to go. When she reached an intersection, she looked up both roads leading out of town, not sure which was the right direction.

She threw her head back, staring up into the starry sky and sank to her knees. Somewhere her foe was staring at the same sky, Virpan thought, knowing that he was at least one step ahead of her. The sound of footfalls signaled Ha’olewe’s approach. She turned to face him, loneliness gripping her. He walked up to her, lowering himself down to eye level.

“Are you going to be alright?” he asked softly, reaching a hand to her.

“You’ve been so kind,” she murmured, springing up and wrapping her arms around him.

“Eh, ah, it’s nothing at all, really.”

“No, it’s, it’s everything,” she replied, pressing her lips against his. “I’m sorry; I don’t know what I was thinking. I would accomplish nothing wandering into the night.”

“You had a nightmare, and weren’t thinking straight.”

“Yeah, it was just a nightmare,” she said, cracking a smile. “Heh, this was pretty silly of me.”

“Come on, let’s go back to bed.”

“Yes,” she whispered, kissing him again. “Let’s.”

-#-

The first ray of dawn fell across Virpan and Ha’olewe in their hammock. She stirred, the call of a bird startling her awake. Slowly Virpan opened her eyes, coming face to face with Ha’olewe. For a moment the sight of his peaceful face was comforting. The hammock they shared swayed gently, a cool morning breeze blowing in. Then everything of the previous night came crashing back into her mind.

Her face turned scarlet as she hastily sat up, the blanket sliding off of herself. Ha’olewe yawned, the sudden movement awakening him. He looked up at her, smiling warmly. Embarrassed, Virpan tried to look away, shifting her eyes around the room, though she made no effort to rise. Ha’olewe chuckled, laying a hand on her leg. She stole a glance at him, then another, hesitantly running her hand along his chest.

She opened her mouth to speak, but couldn’t think of anything to say. Her embarrassment began to fade, a smile appearing on her own face. The memories settled in, Virpan gradually warming up to them. She settled back down, slowly embracing him and everything that had happened. They kissed, Virpan starting to laugh.

“Ha’olewe! Emergency!”

A bedraggled looking man appeared in the door. She flushed red again, grabbing madly for the blanket.

“What’s the cause?” Ha’olewe said, leaning over the side.

“It’s the Order, they’ve nearly overrun Leweowika village.”

“How is that possible?” Ha’olewe shook his head, sliding out of bed. “We’ve been monitoring their camp for weeks, they didn’t have the manpower.”

“Must’ve had a reserve somewhere, don’t know, don’t care. This is happening and we need reinforcements.”

“Great, and here I thought-go gather up some men, we’re marching in twenty minutes.”

The messenger nodded, racing down the street. Ha’olewe began scooping up his clothes, only noticing Virpan a moment later.

“Uh, uh,” she mumbled, holding the blanket over herself.

“What’s wrong?”

“Just about…”

“Pop. Was that We’eune?” Came the voice of his daughter. The little girl sat up in her bed, looking blearily around the room. “Who was yelling?”

“It was a messenger sweetie,” he said, sighing heavily, “So much for my day off. I’ve got to go; you get dressed and go visit auntie, ok?”

She nodded, stepping lightly to the floor. Moments later another person ran up to the wide open door.

“Hey, Virpan!” Howngthirr called, “something’s afoot.”

“I know,” she replied, hanging her head. “And to think, I was getting…”

“Hey, are you feeling well?” Ha’olewe asked, walking up to Virpan.

“I’ll be fine,” she said, looking down at her clothes, “could I just get a moment alone?”

Ha’olewe shrugged, turning to more pressing matters. He hurriedly dressed himself before walking his daughter out the door. Virpan stared at the spot where he had vanished, her mind in a state of flux. One moment it was blank, the next filled with a thousand different thoughts.

“Uh, you ok Virpan?” Howngthirr asked awkwardly.

“J-just give me a minute to myself, please.”

-#-

A large crowd had gathered around the central manor house. Still feeling uncomfortable, Virpan looked for Ha’olewe amongst the crowd, spotting him on the porch. She pushed her way to the stairs, still not sure exactly what she wanted to say. She approached him, pushing past several weapon wracks lined up against the railing.

“Can we help?” she asked.

“Of course,” Ha’olewe replied. “It’s all hands on deck. Erm, what’s your specialty?”

“A bow,” she replied, a soldier promptly handing her one.

“And your friend?”

“Oh, oh, war hammer, war hammer.”

“Good, take this. I think we’re close to all set.”

“Ready to move out,” called a voice.

“We march.”

Ha’olewe held a musket aloft, getting out in front of the crowd before leading the, into the woods to the west. The soldiers formed into three loose columns, filling up the entire pathway. Five wagons took up the rear, loaded down with crates and barrels. Virpan and Howngthirr rook up the rear with a few fellow stragglers. As they made their way through the jungle, Howngthirr began taking practice swings.

“Got to get a feel for it,” he said to Virpan.

“Understandable,” she replied, testing her bowstring.

After passing a fork in the road, their path veered northward and upward, the trees thinning as they climbed. Nearly an hour after they had left the trees broke entirely and Virpan got a clear view across the island. The jungles stretched in all directions, broken by lines that she knew must have been streams. A few stony mountains grew out of the carpet of trees.

Moments later several bloodied men ran to the head of the column, flagging down the leaders. Virpan dashed around the edge, wanting to know what was up. Half way there she spotted a line of horsemen assembling on the crest of the hill.

“They’re attacking, form a line!”

The columns split as the horsemen sallied down towards them. The men tried to organize themselves, but it was too late. Everyone ran for cover amongst the trees as the knights slammed into the wagons train.  Virpan concealed herself behind a tree, several gunmen taking shelter just a few feet away. They fired several potshots, but the only hit barely dented the target’s armor.

Carefully, Virpan drew back the bowstring and sent an arrow into the nearest knight’s horse. The animal reared back, nearly knocking him from the animal. A militia man jumped up from the wagon bed and buried a hatchet in the knight’s chest. As the eleven remaining knights rallied, Virpan took careful aim and shot the leader. The arrow flew into the slit on his visor, ending him.

Most of the other ten panicked, though two of them caught sight of her and charged. She jumped out of the way, the militia soldiers shooting them point blank as they passed into the trees. Though their horses were mortally wounded, the two armored knights took to their feet and drew out maces. One marched directly at Virpan.

She fell under his first swing, falling to the ground. As he rounded on her one of the gunmen fired, the bullet slamming into his helmet. He staggered, nearly losing his grip on the mace. Virpan took her chance, lunging for the weapon and wrenching it out of his hand. Then Howngthirr ran up from across the field and knocked the man sideways, sending him to the grass.

“Thanks,” Virpan murmured, looking out across the field.

A line of pike men had rallied and were now driving the six remaining horsemen off the field, a platoon of militia men flanking them and moving to the crest of the hill. The men who had been hiding near were moving the same direction, Virpan quickly following them. At the top of the hill was a large village sprawling around a central mineshaft dug into the ground. The town appeared quite lovely. Save for the battle raging across it.

The militia men had reached the outskirts across town and were now fighting through the houses against a number of ragged looking fighters. Sounds of fighting also emanated from the other side of the town, possibly from the besieged locals. She hurried to the nearest building and checked the window. It was vacant, as was the next one. The third building, a larger one full of mining equipment, had several enemy soldiers inside.

The men by her side, including Howngthirr, charged in through the door, thrashing the men in no time. As Virpan watched, she spotted one man slipping away from the melee, and chased after him. He ran into a nearby house, slamming the door behind him. Virpan grabbed a long spear up from the ground and began ramming it through the thin walls. On the fourth stab she felt it embed in something and couldn’t pull it free.

Hoping she’s hit her mark, Virpan looked through a window whereupon four hands seized her and dragged her into the building. She hit the floor, three men gathered around her. A few feet away her spear was stuck harmlessly in sack of flour, now forming a tacky coat rack. One of the greasy attackers leaned down close to Virpan, examining her like a piece of meat.

“Tis no a total loss,” he called to his compatriots, reaching into her shirt. “We ‘ave a prize for King Etiluivuza.”

He grabbed hold of the Karuzat charm and pulled it out for all to see. Virpan desperately grasped for one of her arrows, hoping against hope that one of the others would arrive in time. The man grabbed the charm and gave it a yank. The cord dug into her skin, and she yelped. Out of nowhere a ring of fire erupted from around her and blasted the ruffians.

They shrieked in terror, fleeing from the building, their clothes and hair now quite singed. Shakily, Virpan got to her feet, realizing that some of the timbers had caught fire. She hastily got out just in time to watch the final rout of the attackers. The three men she’d singed had apparently caused the whole contingent to flee, the communists giving chase. From the other side of the town came Ha’olewe, a grateful look upon his face.

“Good work, your fire magic seems to have spooked them.”

“I-I don’t have fire magic.”

“Sure, sure,” he said, nudging her gently in the shoulder. “Now, once we’ve secured the perimeter, I’ll take you to Paualunu’e village, it’s the closest costal town.”

“That would be nice, thank you.”

“Please, don’t mention it.”

He leaned over and embraced her, bringing his lips to hers. She blushed, closing her eyes and pretending for a moment that she could settle down on this island and call it home.

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