Chapter 22: End of the Isles
Risawal trudged, exhausted, down the jungle trail. The others followed quietly in his wake. Try as he might, he could not stop playing the events of the beach back in his mind. Over and over he imagined them, wondering if there was a way he could have saved Jaâ€™eshuk from her fate.
He was a failure. She had been a test thrust onto him. It had been his task to guide her back into the path of light, and now she was lost forever. Even as she had held the blade to his own throat, he knew she would not have harmed him. He could see the desperation in her sweet eyes. So lost was he in swirling thoughts that he failed to notice the tree branch directly in front of his face.
â€œAargh,â€ he sputtered, reeling from the impact.
â€œRisawal, maybe I should take the lead?â€ Virpan asked. â€œYou seem to beâ€¦â€
â€œNo, no, Iâ€™ll be fine,â€ he snarled, shaking his head several times. â€œNot much further.â€
After gathering his thoughts for several moments, Risawal resumed the lead. Exhausted mentally and physically, he barely made it to the edge of the field. He staggered out of the trees, unable to keep his eyes open, before Haâ€™olewe finally stopped him. He seized the torch from Risawal while Kialiki and Howngthirr took his arms. With the monastery now in sight, they dragged him the rest of the way to the structure.
In the ruined entryway they found a clear space and laid him on the softest bit of tile they could find. The fatigued boy fell into a restless sleep, leaving the others to continue exploring the building. As they ventured deeper into the ruins, the Karuzat charm began vibrating against Virpanâ€™s chest. She ducked past Kialiki, knowing where the library was.
At the base of the stairs she pulled out the real key and slotted it into the lock, tapping the glowing Karuzat charm against it. A rumble emanated through the chamber. The stone slab slid aside, a gust of cold air blasting from the dark interior. A long set of stairs lead into the darkness before them. Guided by the charm, Virpan descended the long stairwell. Soon the low ceiling began to rise; ornate arches widening the tunnel before them.
A vast room emerged from the darkness. Haâ€™olewe raised the torch aloft, barely illuminating the nearest shelves. They rose as high as rooftops, tomes and scrolls filling every nook and cranny of space. They walked through the halls of knowledge in silence, gazing in awe at the collection before them.
â€œUh, Virpan?â€ Howngthirr asked uncomfortably, looking at the next pair of tall shelves. â€œWhat are we looking for?â€
â€œHavenâ€™t the foggiest,â€ she breathed, quickening her pace.
Hewr sense of wonder vanished as she took in the sheer volume of paper around them. She dashed down the aisles, grabbing random scrolls and holding them to the light. Frustrated, she leaned back against the wall and pondered going back to Risawal. On a whim, she pulled out the Karuzat charm and held it up, the stone now clearly glowing.
A sudden urge overcame her. She closed her eyes and tossed the charm. An audible â€œthunkâ€ reverberated through the room. All eyes turned to the spot, the charm leaning against an unassuming tome. Silently they approached it, and Virpan pulled it from its shelf and opened its musty pages.
She flipped through it quickly, looking over the glyphs for any clue. Finally she came to a page bearing an image of a golden helm. A pang of excitement flowed through her as she ran her fingers along the text. But the unfamiliar writing was unintelligible.
â€œIs that it?â€ Howngthirr asked.
â€œProbably,â€ she murmured, looking back toward the entrance. â€œBut we need Risawal to be sure.â€
Hoping he could read the glyphs, Virpan turned to leave. Then the charm pulsed in her hand. She turned back, holding the charm before herself as she walked towards the back of the room. Confused, the others followed her into the gloom.
â€œUh, Virpan, I thought we were going to be leaving?â€ Haâ€™olewe asked anxiously, â€œthis place, is, creepy.â€
â€œI kinda like it,â€ Kialiki murmured, a book in her hands.
â€œWhere did you get that?â€ Howngthirr asked poking it.
â€œWhere do you think?â€
â€œOk, dumb question.â€
â€œQuiet back there, I have to check something,â€ Virpan called, arriving at the very back of the room. There sat a small table of scrolls, a large mural of Valtor staring down from above. She ignored the scrolls and slid the table aside, holding the charm up to the wall. A small indentation jumped out at her. Her instincts told her something was hidden just out of sight.
She inserted the charm into the indentation. Another rumbling began to reverberate through the room. The plaster cracked, revealing a circular door. It rolled aside, the charm falling to the ground. She scooped it up as she raced into the small room beyond. A single shelf along the wall was covered in scrolls. She pulled them off one by one, her hand landing on the correct one. Heart racing, she unfurled the scroll and looked it over.
â€œWhat does it say?â€ Howngthirr ask breathlessly, looking around the secret chamber in awe.
â€œPlease, enlighten us,â€ Kialiki added.
â€œI still canâ€™t read these glyphs,â€ she confessed, turning it over To Kialiki, â€œCan you?â€
â€œBut of course!â€ she replied, looking it over. â€œAccording to this, the helm was taken as a spoil of war to Abhetallqames and locked away beneath the great temple of Tamazjele.â€
â€œIsnâ€™t that the capitol of Hanesttaal?â€ Howngthirr asked, moving in close.
â€œIt is indeed!â€ called a triumphant voice form just down the hall.
â€œOh no,â€ Virpan murmured, her eyes shooting toward the stairs. â€œJust the person I didnâ€™t want to see.â€
â€œNow, now, donâ€™t be that way, my dear.â€
At the sight of Zharâ€™oth, Howngthirr drew out his hammer and prepared to charge. Suddenly, lights appeared behind Zharâ€™oth, torches approaching by the dozen. Howngthirr shrank back as nearly two dozen mercenaries filled the room. A wall of swords and shields fenced them in. They were trapped. Zharâ€™oth stepped in front of the line, flanked by the two largest mercenaries.
â€œMy dear, you and your friends have accomplished a great deal,â€ he said calmly. â€œAnd for that, I thank you.â€
â€œWhat are talking about?â€ Virpan demanded, barely able to contain her rage. â€œThe location of the Helm? Youâ€™ll never have it.â€ She raised the tome and scroll towards the torch in Haâ€™oleweâ€™s hand, threatening to set them ablaze.
â€œOh, that thing?â€ Zharâ€™oth said, sighing, â€œIâ€™ve known where it was all along.â€
â€œBut, then why are you here?â€ Howngthirr asked confused.
â€œThis,â€ he replied, gazing abound the library, â€œIt would have taken weeks to tunnel through the mountain to reach this chamber, but youâ€™ve saved me a great deal of time and effort.â€
â€œSo, you did this for the books?â€ Kialiki asked quietly.
â€œIndeed. Soon work crews shall descend on this place and haul out generations of knowledge hidden by the order.â€
â€œI still donâ€™t get it,â€ Virpan said. â€œWhy are you doing this?â€
â€œDonâ€™t you see my dear? A fortune lies on these shelves. Every playwright, author, philosopher, nobleman, inventor, sorcerer will want to get a hold of these. A thousand years of culture, rediscovered to help usher in a new era.â€ He looked longingly at the shelves, â€œand, Iâ€™ll pocket a small fortune for my troubles.â€
â€œSo thatâ€™s it then,â€ Virpan spat. â€œMoney. This was all for money?â€
â€œNo, not just for money,â€ he replied in harsh tone, â€œMen, take them.â€
â€œNot so fast,â€ Kialiki said, a glow emanating from her hands.
â€œAh, the young sorceress, eh? Fortunately for me, I know your little display is a bluff. There are too many of us in here, and more waiting above. You could not hope to take us all.â€
â€œHow do I know you wonâ€™t just kill us?â€ She asked hesitantly.
â€œI give you my word; I will not harm any of you.â€ He replied. â€œPlease, surrender peacefully.â€
Before Virpan could laugh Kialiki let down her hands and sank to the floor. Instantly the guards were upon them. Without a struggle they were bound and helpless, Zharâ€™oth walking past them into the secret room. Pinned to the floor, Virpan looked at Kialiki, furious.
â€œWhy did you do that?!â€ Virpan screamed.
â€œHe said we would not be harmed, and there was no point in trying to fight our way out.â€
â€œAnd you believed him! Argh, how stupid are you?!â€
â€œHey, donâ€™t call her stupid!â€ Haâ€™olewe hollered, â€œWe could never have taken them all.â€
â€œHaâ€™olewe. Uh, what, what are you doing? Zharâ€™oth!â€
â€œCenturies of hidden scandals are recorded here for all to know,â€ he whispered. â€œWith these I shall bring down the Order of Valtor once and for all.â€ He looked at one of his bodyguards, â€œTake this note to Rvopteng on the far peninsula, tell him the goods will be delivered shortly.â€
â€œYou monster!â€ Virpan spat. â€œYouâ€™ll never win.â€
â€œMy dear, I have already won,â€ he said quietly, kneeling down beside her. â€œThe day I burned the scrolls in Wanevap telling of where to find the Helm was the day I won. Fortunately for us all you never had a chance at winning.â€
â€œAnd w-whatÂ are you going to do with us now?â€
â€œOh, Iâ€™ve already decided that,â€ he said smiling. â€œAfter everything youâ€™ve been through, Iâ€™ve decided you all deserve a vacation.â€
â€œA what?â€ Virpan asked, certain she had heard him wrong.
â€œA vacation, in this nice little villa an associate of mine owns.â€
â€œRun that by me again.â€
â€œListen to me, my dear, I have never had anything against you. Now, these good men will take you to your cabins on a waiting ship. She will sail you to a lovely estate in the west. There you will have a few weeks of fine dining, sports, adventure or perhaps just some relaxation.â€
Virpan waited for the punch line. â€œYouâ€™re kidding, you have to be kidding,â€ Virpan said, staring into his eyes.Â â€œThis is a deception, one of your tricks.â€
â€œIâ€™ve never lied to you my dear,â€ he replied, â€œOf course; it is a month travel both ways. Better get a move on.â€
Two mercenaries hauled Virpan to her feet. She stared daggers at Zharâ€™oth, practically foaming at the mouth.
â€œIâ€™ll get that Helm!â€ Virpan spat. â€œYou will regret this, mark my words!â€
â€œAh, yes, the Helm, I suppose I should collect that,â€ Zharâ€™oth said calmly, â€œSpeaking of which, Iâ€™m curious, what do you suppose the Helm of Valtor actually does?â€
â€œI, what do you mean?â€ Virpan asked.
â€œAll this time youâ€™ve been chasing that thing, risking life and limb, following cryptic clues. Have you ever stopped and wondered what it was you were actually chasing after?â€
â€œYouâ€™re just trying to spook me!â€ she roared, the mercenary pulling her towards the exit.
â€œOh, and nice one with Jaâ€™eshuk,â€ he said quietly.
â€œWhat do you mean?â€ Virpan blinked.
â€œSee you later my dear,â€ he called, beginning to look through the scrolls. â€œYour sleepy friend is waiting for you.â€
â€œWait, wait no!â€ Haâ€™olewe screamed, struggling against his bounds.
â€œOh what do you want?â€ Zharâ€™oth asked, rolling his eyes.
â€œI want to go, go home!â€ He cried. â€œMy daughter, Iâ€™ve left her far too long, I canâ€™t get mixed up in all this!â€
â€œStop, stop,â€ Zharâ€™oth sighed, walking out to look at him. â€œWhatâ€™s this about a daughter?â€
â€œI canâ€™t leave her, please, let me go.â€
â€œOh great,â€ he muttered, glancing at Virpan. â€œGreat you had to drag one of them into this.â€
â€œHaâ€™olewe, what are you doing?â€ Virpan asked, on the verge of tears.
â€œIâ€™m sorry, Iâ€™m so sorry, but I canâ€™t leave her for months.â€
â€œUgh, Iâ€™ve not time for such dramas. You may go back to your people, in fact, Iâ€™ve got an idea.â€ Zharâ€™oth walked to Virpan and snatched the Karuzat charm from her neck. â€œTake this to the founder; heâ€™s a friend of mine.â€
â€œYou canâ€™t do this,â€ Virpan shouted. â€œNo, donâ€™t.â€
â€œItâ€™s this or a month on the far side of the sea,â€ Haâ€™olewe said helplessly. â€œFarewell Virpan,â€ he said, choking on the words. â€œI-I, argh!â€
He ran up the stairs, leaving the room in a strange silence. Zharâ€™oth looked puzzled, glancing between the three remaining prisoners.
â€œEither of you two want out?â€ he asked dryly, â€œItâ€™s really that chosen one and my dear here who ought to get a breather.â€
â€œGo eat dirt,â€ Howngthirr muttered.
â€œI-I could use a nice vacation,â€ Kialiki said, smiling weakly. â€œHonestly.â€
Zharâ€™oth shook his head, pointing towards the stairs. The mercenaries grabbed hold of their prisoners and hauled them out.
Virpan marched up the stairs in a mental haze. Surrounded by mercenaries, bound hand and foot, her fate was now in the hands of Zharâ€™oth. She shuddered at the thought. At the top of the stairs they passed by work crew standing at the ready, small carts and boxes stacked behind them.
The corridors had been cleared of the worst debris, a pair of men with shovels scooping up the last muck from the entry hall. When they reached the outside any hope of escape melted away. A small army of mercenaries patrolled the area, a dozen wagons and donkey teams standing by. Virpan also noticed three prisoner wagons filled with members of the cult of Allushuk standing near the edge of the woods.
â€œHe wasnâ€™t joking,â€ Howngthirr breathed.
â€œQuiet,â€ came a gruff voice. â€œPut them on the wagon, they get the first ride.â€
The mercenaries lifted them from their feet and deposited them one by one into the nearest wagon. Their ropes were lashed to loops on the wagon, utterly trapping them. Six of the ruffians got onboard as well, the driver getting them underway once the last had clambered up. The wagon trundled down the jungle trail, passing another wagon train inbound.Â The three of them sat in silence, having nothing to say.
Despite knowing the futility of struggle, Virpan still looked upon theÂ Kialiki with distain, feeling that if they had at least offered token resistance she could rest a little easier. Weary of her, Virpan stared at past the sorceress, her mind turning to Haâ€™olewe. A terrible sadness washed over her, tears welling in her eyes. Then rage filled her, a burning fury rushing down her frame.
He had betrayed her, far worse than the sorceress had. To have made a deal with Zharâ€™oth and abandon her was too much to bear. She hung her head and stared at the wagon bed, trying to wrap her mind around what was happening. The words of Zharâ€™oth spun through her mind. She tried to work out what was truth and what was a lie.
Had he really set everything in motion, she wondered. Had he been close enough to see Jaâ€™eshuk on the beach? Was he after something more? â€œOr, is he just a thief,â€ she whispered, â€œTrying to appear something more.â€
â€œHmm?â€ Kialiki mumbled looking up at her. â€œYou sayâ€¦â€
â€œQuiet.â€ A guard snarled. â€œNo talking.â€
An even more terrible thought struck her. She realized that one of her companions might be working with Zharâ€™oth. She eyed the sorceress suspiciously, instantly thinking the worst. Then she faltered, seeing no malice in the girlâ€™s eyes. Then she thought it could all be an act, the will of Zharâ€™oth seeming to physically press in around her.
Back and forth she wavered, one moment imaging him the head of a terrible cabal, the next an opportunist seeking his fortune. Virpan was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she barely noticed when the wagons came to a stop. It was only when the mercenary pulled on her bindings that she looked around the bay.
Six ships sat at anchored just offshore, at least four of which she had seen in Ilvrin. The three of them were taken to a small launch at the shoreline, where a familiar face awaited them.
â€œWeâ€™ve lost,â€ Risawal murmured, reclining against the gunwale as he stared into the empty sky.
â€œI know,â€ Virpan replied. She gave him a look of sympathy before sitting down.
The boat was pushed out into the surf, the rowers taking them towards the furthest ship. As they approached Virpan hung her head.
The launch drew up to the ship, ropes cast down from above. The sailors one by one unfastened their chains and forced them up the side. Archers above dissuaded any attempt at escape. When they were all on the deck a finely groomed man approached them. He wore a white uniform and peaked cap, gold buttons running up his overcoat.
â€œWelcome on broad,â€ he said in a kind voice, â€œIâ€™m sorry about the circumstances under which youâ€™ve arrived here.â€
â€œIâ€™ll bet,â€ Virpan spat. â€œLet us go.â€
â€œYou know I canâ€™t do that,â€ he said sighing. â€œNow, Iâ€™ll have dinner sent to your cabins in a few hours. Please, make yourselves at home.â€
â€œC-can we stay out on deck?â€
â€œNot until weâ€™re well underway,â€ he replied. â€œIâ€™m truly sorry, madam.â€
â€œNot yet youâ€™re not,â€ she growled.
â€œI understand how this must look,â€ he said nodding, â€œbut itâ€™s for the best.â€
With that, a pair of deck hands led them below decks. Two porters pulled open an ornate door, revealing a large, finely decorated cabin. Virpan stepped inside, stunned, and looked around the white washed walls and filled water basins. Six beds flanked by dividers sat along the wall, though only four were prepared. A small table sat in another corner, with a basked of fresh fruit and several different games.
A skylight above and portholes on the back wall illuminated every corner of the room.Â The four of them walked around for a minute. The realization that Zharâ€™oth had at least been partially honest was a bit hard Virpan to swallow. She leaned into a padded chair, looking back towards the door.
â€œWhat is all this?â€ she asked, â€œWhat is Zharâ€™oth playing at?â€
â€œZharâ€™oth?â€ the porter said confused, â€œUh, this was all arranged by Mister Rotyrov, a friend of the captain.â€
â€œOf course,â€ Virpan muttered, adding the alias to her list.
â€œDinner is in two hours. Have nice rest,â€ he said, pulling the door closed.
In an instant Howngthirr was at the door, pulling on the knob. To the surprise of no one, it was locked.
â€œWorth a shot,â€ Howngthirr said, walking to the table, â€œSo, Virpan, whatâ€™s our next move?â€
â€œWe go on vacation,â€ she replied quietly.