Chapter 20: The Talisman of Akulu
Kangangk Island had filled the horizon for the last hour and a half as Laikau tacked neatly toward one of several bays in the island. Virpan marveled at its beauty. The lush jungle was broken by sandy beaches and four separate mountain peaks stood in the distance, one of which emanated smoke from an unseen crater. A warm breeze drifted off the waves as they arrived at the tropical haven. Laikau dropped anchor and they cast off in the dinghy.
The island seemed to have an ancient aura, as if many civilizations had claimed it as home and were still lingering just out of sight. Virpan could almost feel their presence. The boat ran aground in the surf, the little crew jumping out and hauling the craft the rest of the way onto the sand.
â€œI like it here,â€ Virpan said quietly, taking a deep breath of the heady air.
Laikau grabbed her by the shoulder. â€œHold up, itâ€™s not safe here.â€
â€œAnd why is that?â€
â€œThe cultâ€™s main base is here,â€ Haâ€™olewe replied.
â€œIndeed,â€ Laikau said. â€œA lost book of Allushuk, King Eshthowthâ€™s bastard son, or something like that.â€
â€œErm, what does that have to do with us?â€
â€œThe Amulet of Akulu, is the thing I seek. Itâ€™s why I agreed to transport you, because I canâ€™t get it myself.â€
â€œAmu-wha-? Explain to me what that is,â€ Howngthirr said.
â€œI-I, very well.â€ He cleared his throat. â€œIn the depths of history, there was once a powerful Principality on Kagnangk Island. Many sorcerers made a home there during the second age of magic. The ruling Prince fancied a mermaid and wanted her as one of his lovers.
â€œUtilizing the magic of his finest court sorcerer, he had a talisman forged that would allow him to become a merman whilst it was being worn. A golden medallion, imbued with blue magic dust. A small prayer to Akulu would activate its power.
â€œUsing the talisman, the Prince could join with the young sea maiden at will.
â€œThree months into their affair, the mermaid became concerned that her love could not seem to remain permanently in his form. Upon her questioning, the young prince informed her that his sorcerers could not finish its power.
â€œHoping to solve this problem, she traveled to the temple of Akulu, and had him complete its power.
â€œThe prince, only interested in the pleasures of the mermaid, discovered too late that his change was permanent. He cursed his undoing, Trapped below the sea, he had lost his office, his family, and his dreams of ruling all the isles. In impotent rage, he hurled the talisman onto the beach below his castle and vanished forever into the night.
â€œHis sorcerer discovered the talisman and buried it the family crypt. The tale soon spread through the court and became a legend throughout the isle and eventually the mainland. Over time the principality fell, the second golden age of magic come to an end, and the crypt was buried and forgotten.â€
Silence fell as Laikau paused, Howngthirr looking as confused as ever.
â€œHeâ€™s in love with a mermaid.â€ Virpan said. â€œSheâ€™s named Siwari. I saw her last night.â€
â€œStrange,â€ Haâ€™olewe murmured, â€œthe way I heard the legend, it was the sorcerer who cursed the talisman to remove the prince from the throne. A plot hatched by his younger brother.â€
â€œYou brought us all the way out her for a nonsense bedtime story?!â€ Howngthirr exclaimed, burying his face in his hands. â€œAnd I thought Nathlit was out of it when he got lost searching for a branch of the world tree.â€
â€œNo, itâ€™s real,â€ Laikau insisted, â€œit was painstaking work, combing through old libraries, sleuthing, and a bit of luck, but I was able to piece together an approximate location of the crypt.â€
â€œYouâ€™re kidding,â€ Haâ€™olewe said amused.
â€œHere is the final piece of the puzzle,â€ He said, pulling out a scrap of parchment. â€œThis old map shows the location of the old castle, the ruins of which were used as a foundation for a temple of Valtor. They built right on top of the thing, but never knew it was there. The Order used the upper levels of the crypt as a basement, leaving the lower levels undisturbed.â€
â€œSo, you want it so you can become a merman.â€ Virpan murmured, taking the map scrap from him, â€œAlright, a little tomb robbing shouldnâ€™t be too hard.â€
â€œHang on,â€ Haâ€™olewe interjected. â€œThat temple will be crawling with cultists.â€
â€œExactly why I needed the help.â€
â€œBut, weâ€™ll never be able toâ€¦â€
â€œNo, I made a promise,â€ Virpan said, turning on him, â€œWeâ€™ve got to go there and find a way in.â€
Haâ€™olewe sighed, nodding weakly. â€œWhen this is all over, Virpan, I, I hope thatâ€¦â€
She took his hand, blushing, and slowly led him down the coast. Howngthirr snorted, checking his hammer, before starting down the beach.
â€œBe safe,â€ Laikau said meekly.
â€œDonâ€™t worry,â€ Howngthirr replied, â€œOh and we can pick it up without it up without changing into a mermaid, correct?â€
â€œOf course, you have to put it on and say the prayer. Ipo ukune eâ€™uwa wona niawia. Ipo eâ€™uwa mau maopi pioku.â€
â€œThatâ€™s a mouthful.â€
â€œYou think your language is any easier for me?â€ Laikau called. â€œJust get back here with it, then weâ€™re square.â€
Virpan felt immediately at home in the lush jungle, picking up on nearly hidden trails and signs. Without looking at the map she guided them through the foliage, bypassing a patrol with ease. For a minute she stopped and examined their foes. The gaunt faced men huddled together, their bodies wrapped in little more than tattered rags. The torchbearer led the way, the others peering into the jungle in fright.
Feeling emboldened, she snapped a twig to see what would happen. The men pulled out bows and began shooting wildly at the source of the noise. She pulled Haâ€™olewe to safety as the shots landed all around them. When the arrows stopped, the sound of unsheathing blades caught their attention. Without hesitating they crawled away through the foliage, Virpan cursing her little stunt. She vowed not to underestimate them again.
They stopped for a moment at the banks of a creek, Haâ€™olewe looking at Virpan with a bewildered expression. Ashamed of her action, she took a few drinks of water before dunking her head. Still feeling stupid for her action, she hesitantly led the way forward. Soon they were back on the trail, the temple now visible in the distance. They stopped behind shrubbery at the edge of the tree line, a village coming into view. Virpan carefully peered out to take a closer look.
A number of dilapidated huts radiated around a crumbling temple, many of them illuminated from within. They silently made their way into the village, sneaking through the darkened houses. As they drew nearer to the center, the sounds of banging metal and harsh voices met their ears. Virpan ducked into a small shop, not surprised to find the place ransacked. Through a crack in a boarded window she peered out into the central courtyard.
A large forge dominated the village square, men scurrying around the thing with ingots of iron and half finished spear tips. A pair of bulky looking men stood at the base of the temple stairs, another less intimidating man sat behind them, busying himself with a stack of papers. Since they had the least ragged clothing and appeared well fed, Virpan guessed these were the leaders.
â€œTheyâ€™re in the way.â€ Virpan muttered.
â€œWork harder!â€ The right hand bulky man shouted. â€œIn three days Prince Shukvuri marches on Trigathar, and we need to be at full strength.â€
â€œWe need a way past them,â€ she murmured. â€œAny ideas?â€
â€œIâ€™ve got one,â€ Howhgthirr said, standing up. â€œHaâ€™olewe, Virpan, go as soon as the coast is clear.â€
â€œWait, what are you-stop, stop!â€ Virpan hissed as Howngthirr marched out into the open.
Hammer in hand, Howngthirr marched up to nearest brute. The man turned on him, blinking at the stranger. He parted his lips to speak but never got the chance to speak. With a mighty thwack Howngthirr knocked the man sideways. Instantly the manâ€™s partner turned on him, drawing out a sword. Howngthirr easily dodged his swipe, racing out into the jungle.
An alarm went sounded and most of the men began forming into search parties. With a gap now open, Virpan and Haâ€™olewe raced around the square through the shadows to the temple base and began clambering up. At the top they found a crude statue of Allushuk staring down the main stairwell. He glared at them as they hurried past.
Inside the temple was another set of stairs leading down, a barred door at the base. A smell of decay wafted from within. Hesitantly, Virpan undid the latch and pushed into the room proper. A mob of ragged men came into view, the nearest flinching from the light. Then he looked at Virpan more closely, his parched lips parting.
â€œFREEDOM!â€ he cried a pale man.
Within moments bodies began barreling towards her. She flattened herself against the wall, hoping this would provide further distraction. Once the main body of prisoners had departed, she and Haâ€™olewe walked down into the dank interior and grabbed a small lamp the escapees had left behind. The ruined temple proved difficult to navigate. Many of the rooms were so blocked by debris that Virpan feared they would be unable to find their way to the crypt.
At last they stumbled into the basement, a change in architecture evident around them. At the far wall was a stone seal bearing the image of Valtor welcoming the dead. With a feeling of dread, Virpan pushed the loose bricks away and stumbled into the ancient crypt.
A great roar snapped Risawal awake. He rolled over, staring around his unfamiliar surroundings. The events of the previous night came crashing back into his mind and made him panic anew. Fearing that he was now on a route to an alien land on the far side of the ocean sea, he pulled the cloth covering ajar and stole a glance at the surroundings.
An island rose out of the sea, just a few hundred yards away, though if it was the correct one he could not be sure. Another roar ripped through the quiet, emanating somewhere just up the deck. Kialiki popped up beside him, yawning calmly and taking in the sight. A moment later Jaâ€™eshuk pulled them both down, staring at them with furious eyes.
â€œAnd you thought I was acting recklessly,â€ she hissed. â€œWhat were youâ€¦â€
â€œThatâ€™s Manali out there,â€ Kialiki said quickly, â€œmight wanna get there before these guys start for home.â€
â€œYouâ€™re sure?â€ Jaâ€™eshuk and Risawal asked simultaneously.
Apparently forgetting what she had just said, Jaâ€™eshuk slipped out onto the deck. Risawal followed, noticing a single sentry just up the deck. Fortunately he was looking out at the island and didnâ€™t notice them. A terrible squeak came from just behind him. Jaâ€™eshuk was attempting to move the boat from its bindings, only to find that the mechanisms werenâ€™t oiled.
Both of them turned white, glancing at the guard. The man hadnâ€™t moved. Another roar emanated from just behind where he was standing, though this time Risawal could see a jet of flame shooting out as well. Terrified, he ran up the winch and began franticly turning it. The boat swung out over the side of the ship, dangling over the railing.
Jaâ€™eshuk inspected the ropes to see how it might be freed. As she reached up to test a small lever, a shout came from above. Risawal looked up, spotting a man standing on the shipâ€™s roof. He was pointing at them, which he knew was a very, very bad sign.
â€œKyaptchne!â€ He shouted, the sentry just up the deck turning on them as well.
In a panic, Jaâ€™eshuk jumped into the boat and cut the line, hoping for the best. The thing dropped straight down into the ocean with a sickening crack. Dazed, Kialiki managed to do her trick again, blasting them away from the boat. Risawal grabbed a paddle and began to stroke.
A loud crunch came from the bottom, water starting to pour in through long cracks in the hull. The shore was tantalizingly close. As they paddled with all their might, Risawal stole a glance back at the strange ship. On the front of it was a long pipe attached to a box. Oddly, it was pointed at them.
Another roar erupted, Risawal finally aware of its source. The roar was coming from the pipe. Something impacted the water just a few feet away, blasting a spray of mist all over them. The boat rocked in the churning waters before snapping in half.
Once again they were plunged into the sea, though this time there was no harrowing swim. Risawalâ€™s feet hit bottom and he waded into shore. Once on the beach, the three dashed into the cover of the trees, none certain what they had witnessed.
Risawal stopped for a rest at the bank of a wide river, his companions joining him a moment later. As Kialiki washed off her silk robe and Jaâ€™eshuk looked for supplies, Risawal sat and stared down the river valley, spotting a mountain in the distance.
â€œI do believe thatâ€™s Juâ€™une, site of the library,â€ he said.
â€œAre you sure?â€ Jaâ€™eshuk asked quickly, looking as well. â€œThere are multiple mountains on these islands.â€
â€œIâ€™m sure,â€ he said, rising to his feet. â€œKialiki, letâ€™s get going.â€
With their goal in sight, the three began the grueling hike along the riverbank. It grew difficult at times, hopping between boulders and clambering up vines, trying to avoid the thick jungle whenever possible. On a particularly calm stretch of the river they passed by an abandoned town. Risawal spotted a large statue of Valtor which had been broken off at the knees. The sight of him face down in the mud was unsettling.
Not a hundred yards past the village they came to a tall waterfall. Knowing they could never climb it, Jaâ€™eshuk cautiously advanced down a nearly overgrown path into the jungle. With the mountain cloaked from view by the green canopy, the three stumbled around for nearly an hour before arriving back where they had started.
Frustrated and with night fast approaching, they returned to the small town for shelter. Jaâ€™eshuk sparked a small fire in the least destroyed hut as darkness fell around them. Risawal stared into the flames, his mind starting to wander and fade. He saw dark figures moving though a haze; one of fire, one of ice, one coming towards him. An ax was raised.
He threw himself to the side, a very real clunk jarring him from sleep. A figure was indeed standing in their cabin, an ax buried into the floorboards where he had been seated. Jaâ€™eshuk shoved him aside, jumping to her feet. Two more brutes crashed through the rotten back wall, causing the whole structure to wobble unnervingly.
â€œIn the name of Shukvuri, the true Mahlapren king,â€ The ax man cried, holding his weapon high, â€œYou shallâ€¦â€
A stiletto hit his throat, silencing him. Jaâ€™eshuk kicked him into the embers of their fire, setting him alight. The other two charged in, their swords pointed directly at her. With a blast of blue light Kialiki sent the two men backwards into the last stable beam. The roof trembled and began to collapse. Jaâ€™eshuk leapt at her companions, carrying all three to safely outside as the roof fell in.
Flames consumed the hut and the three attackers with it. A fourth man, bearing a torch, attempted to retreat. Before he made it two steps something heavy landed on him. He fell to the ground, the thing on his back bringing a knife to his throat.
â€œDonâ€™t move,â€ she advised. â€œYouâ€™re going to lead us around the falls.â€
â€œDead. Now get up, weâ€™re leaving.â€
The torchbearer marched at knife point through the darkened jungle, easily leading them around the falls and to the upper shore. Knowing he might have tricked them, Jaâ€™eshuk stepped towards the river to be sure they were really above the falls. The man seized the opportunity and rushed her.
She sighed, grabbing the idiot and flipping him into the rapids. Within moments he was swept over the falls. A blood-curdling scream and then a wet crunch was all that marked his departure. Kialiki frowned nervously at Jaâ€™eshuk, looking between her and Risawal.
When neither reacted she sighed and the tired group resumed their trek. Within a mile the jungle broke and the river now flowed through a wide field. At the base of the mountain stood the impressive Vurinesho Monastery.
Risawal took in the sight for a moment, his fatigue and hunger melting away. With the great library now so close, he broke into a run outstripping even Jaâ€™eshuk for awhile.Â His enthusiasm dimmed when he got a closer look. The decade of neglect had not been kind. Already the ornate exterior paintings had almost completely peeled away.
The great doors were gone; what must have once been a welcoming entry hall was now a rubble strewn wreck. Jaâ€™eshuk pulled out torch and illuminated the trashed interior.
â€œThis way,â€ Risawal said nervously, â€œthe great library is this way.â€
As they clambered through the increasingly forbidding corridors, it occurred to Risawal that there was a real possibility the library was similarly in ruins. They passed by an odorous room, the signs of squatters and refugees left all over the utterly soiled floor. At last they arrived at the Fatherâ€™s living space. The room was almost completely empty, sending him into a panic.
The stairwell to the library was in full view; the shelves that had hidden it had long ago been stolen for some purpose. He raced for the opening, passing several discarded picks and axes. To his great relief the door was still sealed, the attempts to force it open had been in vain. The torch was shoved into his hands, Jaâ€™eshuk hurrying down the stairs.
She pulled out the key, slotting it into the obvious space. For several moments they waited in silence for the path to be cleared. Nothing happened. Frustrated, Jaâ€™eshuk began pulling and pushing on the stone door, knowing that there had to be a way to open it. She ripped the key out and forced it back in with all her might. Nothing.
â€œWhy wonâ€™t this work?â€ she growled through grated teeth.
â€œP-perhaps youâ€™re doing something wrong?â€ Risawal suggested nervously.
â€œGet down here,â€ she snapped. â€œWhat do these inscriptions say?â€
â€œUh, erm, â€˜you must let the charm guide you,â€™â€ he read, â€œâ€™only then can the way to knowledge be unsealedâ€™, or something to that effect.â€
â€œHelpful,â€ she grumbled, â€œTell me, what charm?â€
â€œPerhaps a Karuzat charm?â€
â€œWhere might I find one of these?â€ she demanded, looking back up the stairs, â€œnot here, Iâ€™d imagine.â€
â€œThe Father gave one to Virpan,â€ Risawal said, â€œPerhaps if we locate herâ€¦â€
â€œYes,â€ Jaâ€™eshuk said smiling, â€œand sheâ€™s coming to this island. I think itâ€™s time to return to the beach.â€
â€œWhat are you thinking?â€
â€œIâ€™m thinking we should meet up, have a little talk,â€ Jaâ€™eshuk replied innocently, â€œWeâ€™re all after the same thing, really, so this should all work out fine.â€
â€œW-Watul, you seem different.â€ Kialiki said quietly. â€œYou wanna talk about it? I might have some experienceâ€¦â€
â€œDonâ€™t worry. Everything will work out fine.â€