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 Ja’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.

“Aargh,” he sputtered, reeling from the impact.

“Risawal, maybe I should take the lead?” Virpan asked. “You seem to be…”

“No, no, I’ll be fine,” he snarled, shaking his head several times. “Not much further.”

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 Ha’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 Virpan’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. Ha’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.

“Uh, Virpan?” Howngthirr asked uncomfortably, looking at the next pair of tall shelves. “What are we looking for?”

“Haven’t the foggiest,” 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 “thunk” 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.

“Is that it?” Howngthirr asked.

“Probably,” she murmured, looking back toward the entrance. “But we need Risawal to be sure.”

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.

“Uh, Virpan, I thought we were going to be leaving?” Ha’olewe asked anxiously, “this place, is, creepy.”

“I kinda like it,” Kialiki murmured, a book in her hands.

“Where did you get that?” Howngthirr asked poking it.

“Where do you think?”

“Ok, dumb question.”

“Quiet back there, I have to check something,” 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.

“What does it say?” Howngthirr ask breathlessly, looking around the secret chamber in awe.

“Please, enlighten us,” Kialiki added.

“I still can’t read these glyphs,” she confessed, turning it over To Kialiki, “Can you?”

“But of course!” she replied, looking it over. “According to this, the helm was taken as a spoil of war to Abhetallqames and locked away beneath the great temple of Tamazjele.”

“Isn’t that the capitol of Hanesttaal?” Howngthirr asked, moving in close.

“It is indeed!” called a triumphant voice form just down the hall.

“Oh no,” Virpan murmured, her eyes shooting toward the stairs. “Just the person I didn’t want to see.”

“Now, now, don’t be that way, my dear.”

At the sight of Zhar’oth, Howngthirr drew out his hammer and prepared to charge. Suddenly, lights appeared behind Zhar’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. Zhar’oth stepped in front of the line, flanked by the two largest mercenaries.

“My dear, you and your friends have accomplished a great deal,” he said calmly. “And for that, I thank you.”

“What are talking about?” Virpan demanded, barely able to contain her rage. “The location of the Helm? You’ll never have it.” She raised the tome and scroll towards the torch in Ha’olewe’s hand, threatening to set them ablaze.

“Oh, that thing?” Zhar’oth said, sighing, “I’ve known where it was all along.”

“But, then why are you here?” Howngthirr asked confused.

“This,” he replied, gazing abound the library, “It would have taken weeks to tunnel through the mountain to reach this chamber, but you’ve saved me a great deal of time and effort.”

“So, you did this for the books?” Kialiki asked quietly.

“Indeed. Soon work crews shall descend on this place and haul out generations of knowledge hidden by the order.”

“I still don’t get it,” Virpan said. “Why are you doing this?”

“Don’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.” He looked longingly at the shelves, “and, I’ll pocket a small fortune for my troubles.”

“So that’s it then,” Virpan spat. “Money. This was all for money?”

“No, not just for money,” he replied in harsh tone, “Men, take them.”

“Not so fast,” Kialiki said, a glow emanating from her hands.

“Ah, 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.”

“How do I know you won’t just kill us?” She asked hesitantly.

“I give you my word; I will not harm any of you.” He replied. “Please, surrender peacefully.”

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, Zhar’oth walking past them into the secret room. Pinned to the floor, Virpan looked at Kialiki, furious.

“Why did you do that?!” Virpan screamed.

“He said we would not be harmed, and there was no point in trying to fight our way out.”

“And you believed him! Argh, how stupid are you?!”

“Hey, don’t call her stupid!” Ha’olewe hollered, “We could never have taken them all.”

“Ha’olewe. Uh, what, what are you doing? Zhar’oth!”

“Centuries of hidden scandals are recorded here for all to know,” he whispered. “With these I shall bring down the Order of Valtor once and for all.” He looked at one of his bodyguards, “Take this note to Rvopteng on the far peninsula, tell him the goods will be delivered shortly.”

“Yes sir.”

“You monster!” Virpan spat. “You’ll never win.”

“My dear, I have already won,” he said quietly, kneeling down beside her. “The 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.”

“And w-what are you going to do with us now?”

“Oh, I’ve already decided that,” he said smiling. “After everything you’ve been through, I’ve decided you all deserve a vacation.”

“A what?” Virpan asked, certain she had heard him wrong.

“A vacation, in this nice little villa an associate of mine owns.”

“Run that by me again.”

“Listen 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.”

Virpan waited for the punch line. “You’re kidding, you have to be kidding,” Virpan said, staring into his eyes. “This is a deception, one of your tricks.”

“I’ve never lied to you my dear,” he replied, “Of course; it is a month travel both ways. Better get a move on.”

Two mercenaries hauled Virpan to her feet. She stared daggers at Zhar’oth, practically foaming at the mouth.

“I’ll get that Helm!” Virpan spat. “You will regret this, mark my words!”

“Ah, yes, the Helm, I suppose I should collect that,” Zhar’oth said calmly, “Speaking of which, I’m curious, what do you suppose the Helm of Valtor actually does?”

“I, what do you mean?” Virpan asked.

“All this time you’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?”

“You’re just trying to spook me!” she roared, the mercenary pulling her towards the exit.

“Oh, and nice one with Ja’eshuk,” he said quietly.

“What do you mean?” Virpan blinked.

“See you later my dear,” he called, beginning to look through the scrolls. “Your sleepy friend is waiting for you.”

“Wait, wait no!” Ha’olewe screamed, struggling against his bounds.

“Oh what do you want?” Zhar’oth asked, rolling his eyes.

“I want to go, go home!” He cried. “My daughter, I’ve left her far too long, I can’t get mixed up in all this!”

“Stop, stop,” Zhar’oth sighed, walking out to look at him. “What’s this about a daughter?”

“I can’t leave her, please, let me go.”

“Oh great,” he muttered, glancing at Virpan. “Great you had to drag one of them into this.”

“Ha’olewe, what are you doing?” Virpan asked, on the verge of tears.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but I can’t leave her for months.”

“Ugh, I’ve not time for such dramas. You may go back to your people, in fact, I’ve got an idea.” Zhar’oth walked to Virpan and snatched the Karuzat charm from her neck. “Take this to the founder; he’s a friend of mine.”

“You can’t do this,” Virpan shouted. “No, don’t.”

“It’s this or a month on the far side of the sea,” Ha’olewe said helplessly. “Farewell Virpan,” he said, choking on the words. “I-I, argh!”

He ran up the stairs, leaving the room in a strange silence. Zhar’oth looked puzzled, glancing between the three remaining prisoners.

“Either of you two want out?” he asked dryly, “It’s really that chosen one and my dear here who ought to get a breather.”

“Go eat dirt,” Howngthirr muttered.

“I-I could use a nice vacation,” Kialiki said, smiling weakly. “Honestly.”

Zhar’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 Zhar’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.

“He wasn’t joking,” Howngthirr breathed.

“Quiet,” came a gruff voice. “Put them on the wagon, they get the first ride.”

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. The three of them sat in silence, having nothing to say.

Despite knowing the futility of struggle, Virpan still looked upon the  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 Ha’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 Zhar’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 Zhar’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 Ja’eshuk on the beach? Was he after something more? “Or, is he just a thief,” she whispered, “Trying to appear something more.”

“Hmm?” Kialiki mumbled looking up at her. “You say…”

“Quiet.” A guard snarled. “No talking.”

An even more terrible thought struck her. She realized that one of her companions might be working with Zhar’oth. She eyed the sorceress suspiciously, instantly thinking the worst. Then she faltered, seeing no malice in the girl’s eyes. Then she thought it could all be an act, the will of Zhar’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.

“We’ve lost,” Risawal murmured, reclining against the gunwale as he stared into the empty sky.

“I know,” 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.

“Welcome on broad,” he said in a kind voice, “I’m sorry about the circumstances under which you’ve arrived here.”

“I’ll bet,” Virpan spat. “Let us go.”

“You know I can’t do that,” he said sighing. “Now, I’ll have dinner sent to your cabins in a few hours. Please, make yourselves at home.”

“C-can we stay out on deck?”

“Not until we’re well underway,” he replied. “I’m truly sorry, madam.”

“Not yet you’re not,” she growled.

“I understand how this must look,” he said nodding, “but it’s for the best.”

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. The four of them walked around for a minute. The realization that Zhar’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.

“What is all this?” she asked, “What is Zhar’oth playing at?”

“Zhar’oth?” the porter said confused, “Uh, this was all arranged by Mister Rotyrov, a friend of the captain.”

“Of course,” Virpan muttered, adding the alias to her list.

“Dinner is in two hours. Have nice rest,” 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.

“Worth a shot,” Howngthirr said, walking to the table, “So, Virpan, what’s our next move?”

“We go on vacation,” she replied quietly.

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