Chapter 23: A Fish Story
The day dragged on, the others slowly settling into their surroundings. Virpan was the last holdout, only emerging from their cabin the following morning when the captain saw fit to let their leash out a bit. For the entire day she watched the others, Kialiki and Howngthirr first, then Risawal, begin to let their guard down and enjoy some of the recreations on the ship.
An odd game where wooden disks were shoved by brooms seemed to keep Howngthirr and Risawal occupied for a few hours. Though they might have simply enjoyed watching Kialiki, who played the sport with her natural talents rather than the regular equipment. It was only when she launched one clean through a closed door that a crewman got them to try something else.
As the second day wore on, Virpan slowly began to relax as well, though a lurking sense of fear and melancholy remained just under the surface. By the time night settled, Virpan had made use of the shipâ€™s baths and was now cleaner than she had been in weeks. She admired the orange sunset from a deckchair, almost able to lose herself and feel at rest.
But as she drifted into sleep, terrible visions bubbled up from the depths of her mind. Before a fully fledged vision could form a crewman bumped into her, jarring her awake. She descended back into their cabin, suddenly back on edge. She lay down on her comfortable bed with a growing sense of dread, knowing that terror awaited her.
Just as her previous nightmares, Virpan watched her friends falling along with her, unable to find purchase or control their direction.Â Though they tried to shout, no sounds could escape from their lips. Virpan grew desperate, knowing what was about to happen. Zharâ€™oth, the great monster that towered over her life appeared from the haze and cackled at her.
â€œYou still fight on against the impossible, donâ€™t you?â€ He sneered at her. Then the Helm of Valtor hovered in front of her, just out of reach. She clawed at it futilely, the unfairness eating away at her. Now, the Karuzat charm was wafting through the smoky haze as well. Zharâ€™oth plucked it neatly out of the air.
â€œTsk! Tsk! Such an important relic and now it is lost to you,â€ he said, adding it to his collection before grabbing the Helm. He grew larger and larger, his frightening powers growing. Her friends began burning. Then she was ablaze, the flames now to her waist, consuming her flesh with searing agony.
â€˜No!Â It canâ€™t end this way!â€™ She thought through the pain, Zharâ€™othâ€™s laughter ringing through her being.
â€œDonâ€™t fight it, my dear, you cannot beat the fire, for you no longer posses your precious Karuzat charm.â€
â€œGive it back!â€ Virpan shrieked.
â€œGet a hold of yourself.â€
â€œGive it back!â€ Virpan howled in tears waking up delirious with fear.
â€œVirpan, wake up!â€ Risawal shouted, shaking her out of the nightmare. She stared up at him, feeling drained and exhausted.
â€œAnother nightmare, wasnâ€™t it?â€ Howngthirr asked. â€œYou think it means something?â€
â€œWe have to stop Zharâ€™oth from getting the Helm of Valtor, or weâ€™re all going to die in flames,â€ Virpan said grimly. â€œI know this, Iâ€™ve seen it with my own eyes.â€
Risawal touched her shoulder.Â â€œRelax, itâ€™s just dream.â€
â€œNo, itâ€™s more than that. Iâ€™ve glimpsed the real Zharâ€™oth there, seen the monster that walks as a man.â€
â€œAlright, alright, we believe you.â€
Virpan smiled a little. Then the fear returned to her eyes. â€œI just donâ€™t know how weâ€™re going to do it now. Iâ€™ve lost my Karuzat charm.â€
â€œThere are others, you know,â€ Kialiki said helpfully, â€œmaybe weâ€™ll find one.â€
â€œNo. I truly believe that that Karuzat charm was destined for me.â€
Slowly, overcome by their fatigue, the others walked back to their beds one by one. Eventually Virpan was left alone with her thoughts, which soon turned to the man who had betrayed her. She gripped her pillow, dreaming of a tropical island, and laying in the sun beside Haâ€™olewe. The man she loved. The man she barely knew.
The unwelcome dawn arrived far too early, though she soon rose and walked up to the deck. For a time she simply watched the crew as they worked. Trying robes, mopping the deck, chipping paint from the aft house. Half asleep, she wandered to the railing and looked out over the ocean. A strange object in the water caught her eye. She looked down, spotting a mermaid swimming up alongside the ship.
Virpan realized that it might be Siwari, who could help them escape. Grasping at her last hope, she glanced back over the deck to make certain the cost was clear. she grabbed a length of rope and tied it around her waist. Then she carefully slipped over the railing and lowered herself down the side. At the waterline she stopped, checking around for the creature. A familiar figure emerged from the sea.
â€œLiakau,â€ she whispered.
â€œGood to see you,â€ he said, smiling.
â€œWhat are you doing here?â€
â€œI brought you this,â€ he replied, tossing something into Virpanâ€™s hand.
Stunned, Virpan turned the object around in her fingers. It was her Karuzat charm. â€œHow, why did you?â€
â€œLetâ€™s just say my girlfriend has contacts,â€ he replied smiling.
â€œThank you, so much,â€ she breathed.
â€œItâ€™s the least I could do,â€ he replied, â€œFarwell.â€
With a final wave, Liakau sank back into the deep blue sea.Â Virpan grinned, sliding the Karuzat charm back where it belonged. Almost laughing now, she clambered back up to the deck, a plan already forming in her head. It took all of Virpanâ€™s restraint to keep from skipping across the deck. Somehow she managed to keep a faÃ§ade of calm up as she descended back into their cabin, her friends beginning to awaken as she arrived.
â€œYouâ€™ll never believe what just happened,â€ Virpan said, on the verge of laughter.
â€œDo tell,â€ Kialiki said, smiling as well. â€œIâ€™m waiting with bated breath.â€
Virpan lifting the glowing Karuzat charm from under her shirt.
â€œWait, what?â€ Howngthirr stammered, sitting up.
â€œHow did you get that?â€ Risawal asked, approaching her.
â€œThatâ€™s a pretty necklace.â€
Virpan laughed softly. â€œIt seems our old ship captain is still watching out for us.â€
â€œWhat do you mean by that?â€ Howngthirr asked, scratching his head.
â€œIt was Liakau, repaying his debt.â€
â€œThatâ€™s great,â€ Risawal said, clapping his hands, â€œnow we have something to work with.â€
â€œAnd weâ€™re going to take over this ship with it,â€ she said.
â€œHow?â€ Howngthirr asked flatly. â€œWeâ€™ve got no weapons against a crew of at least three dozen men, and weâ€™ve no idea where we are or how to sail this ship.â€
Virpan cupped the Karuzat charm in her hands and the glow intensified. Heat radiated from her body, becoming hot enough to force the three to back away.
â€œIâ€™m going to set the ship on fire,â€ she explained.
â€œThat seems like a really bad idea,â€ Howngthirr said, concerned. â€œWait, letâ€™s think this, like, youâ€™re not listening, are you?â€
With the heat of the charm Virpan set the door on fire, smoke soon causing a number of crewmembers to rush to it and begin trying to break it down. She blasted it outwards with a wave of fire, knocking several men hard into the wall on the other side. Virpan advanced out through the doorway and turned on the crew, an aura of fire enveloping her.
â€œThis ship is on fire,â€ she said calmly. â€œShouldnâ€™t you be fleeing?â€
The stunned crewmen looked at each other, then at her. With a wave of her hand Virpan set the ceiling above them on fire. The frightened men bolted down the hallway, screaming all the way to the top deck.
In seconds, the ship was a massive wave of panic and disarray as the flames forced the crew toward the lifeboats. Virpan calmly strode over to the command deck and guided more flames to urge the crew to abandon ship. Howngthirr, Risawal and Kialiki joined her by the wheel.
â€œUh, Virpan,â€ Howngthirr began nervously.
She looked at him â€œYes?â€
â€œCould you please put the fire out?â€ Kialiki finished.
She smiled at them, nodding. As all the lifeboats floated a good distance away from the ship she squeezed the Karuzat charm, causing the flames to slowly die out. Soon the ship was completely fire-free and it didnâ€™t take long for the crew to notice.
â€œBack to the ship!â€ The captain bellowed.
â€œI wouldnâ€™t try that if I were you!â€ Virpan called to him.
â€œIâ€™ll not allow you to take away my ship! Iâ€™m under contract!â€
Virpan frowned. â€œIâ€™m sorry, Captain, really. Youâ€™ve been very kind to us, but the fate of the world rests upon our quest, so no, you donâ€™t get your ship back. If you attempt to follow us, I will set your lifeboats on fire. Please, make your way back to the islands and let us on our way.â€
â€œThe fate of the-oh, listen to me, please. Youâ€™re making a huge mistake,â€ the captain called. â€œWe-we can discuss this. Iâ€™ll contact Mister Rotyrovâ€
Virpan shook her head slowly, and set his hat on fire to prove her point. The captain knocked it into the sea, patting down his hair. With a final desperate glance he issued some commands. The small flotilla began the long row back to Kagnangk.
â€œNow, Kialiki,â€ Virpan called.
â€œCan you get us to Nadiana?â€
â€œYes, Iâ€™m good at navigation, and other things.â€
Far out to sea, the captain watched as his ship turned away, a sinking feeling in his stomach. He punched the gunwale, cursing his lax precautions. One of the rowers tugged on his sleeve.
â€œSo, are we to return and tell Mister Rotyrov the bad news?â€
â€œYes, but we mustnâ€™t dally. I overheard him, and, weâ€™d best get home as soon as the tide allows it.â€
Risawal strutted down the deck with renewed vigor. At the direction of their navigator he tacked the mainsail several degrees, whistling as he did so. A bank of dark clouds to the west barely gave him pause. Their delivery from the custody of the corrupt captain was a testament of Valtorâ€™s unseen hand aiding them in their mission. Sighing at the thought, he glanced over at Virpan, his eyes falling to the charm around her neck.
It glowed as he looked over it, a symbol of their divine master. Then the glowing charm vanished as Virpan stepped aside. Howngthirr walked past, holding a hammer in one hand. He walked over to the mast and began tapping the winch, trying to get it moving properly again. After tying down his own rope, Risawal straightened up and gave Howngthirr a second look. He realized they had never really been introduced.
â€œHello, Hongtil,â€ he said brightly, walking over to his comrade, â€œhow are you?â€
â€œFine, Iâ€™d say,â€ Howngthirr replied, tapping on an unresponsive winch with his hammer. â€œAnd itâ€™s Howng-thirr.â€
â€œMy mistake,â€ Risawal said quickly, â€œthose clouds donâ€™t look too friendly.â€
â€œYeah, Kialiki told me there was a storm brewing.â€
â€œGood thing we have Valtor watching over us.â€
â€œWhatever,â€ Howngthirr muttered, finally getting the winch to wind. â€œFinally, stupid thing.â€
â€œOh, interesting necklace,â€ Risawal said, eyeing the hammer pendant around his neck, â€œAnd quite appropriate given your current task.â€
â€œEh? This, my mother gave this to me,â€ Howngthirr said, tapping the pendant, â€œKagnzatb, or his hammer at least. He carved the pass where my village sits with a swing of the real one.â€
â€œInteresting,â€ Risawal said a knowing smile crossing his lips. â€œKaginzatbab, thatâ€™s the local name for Allushuk correct?â€
â€œNo, Aelwooshook has nothing to do with Kagnzatb.â€
â€œBut theyâ€™re really the same,â€ Risawal countered, â€œjust under a different guise.â€
â€œWhat are you going on about? Kagnzatb: son of Dwishol and Nlitprig. Simple.â€ Howngthirr said, tucking the hammer into his belt. â€œNow, is there anything that needs hammering?â€
â€œBut all are servants of Valtor, the lower demigods you named.â€
â€œWait, what!?â€ Howngthirr exclaimed. â€œDwishol is a god, the king of gods, thereâ€™s nothing lower about him.â€
â€œValtor is the true high god, the lord of fire.â€
â€œNlitprig is the lady of fire, there is no lord of fire.â€
â€œNo, she is his concubine.â€ Risawal said quickly, â€œIâ€™m afraid that youâ€™ve got it wrong.â€
â€œWhy would she serve one who is less powerful?â€
â€œValtor is not less powerful!â€ he spat, â€œH-how dare you! He is the one who saved us from captivity!â€
â€œNo, he didnâ€™t, Virpan did that!â€ Howngthirr roared, â€œSheâ€™s a mortal descendent of Nlitprig, thatâ€™s why she has power over fire.â€ Lightning flashed overhead, and a huge thunderclap boomed in the sky.
â€œValtor has been watching over us this entire trek, giving more of his power to her over time!â€
The two fumed at each other, suddenly overcome with rage. They shook their heads, wondering why Virpan would travel with such a person. A wave crashed into the ship, washing over the deck. The shock of the water brought them back to reality.
â€œTake down the sails!â€ Kialiki called.
â€œIâ€™ll do it,â€ Risawal said, grabbing a line, â€œyou know this is a sign from Valtor for your unkind words!â€
â€œYouâ€™re nuts,â€ Howngthirr cried, putting the winch to use, â€œitâ€™s been darkening all day; if anything, itâ€™s Dwishol showing you what a nitwit you are.â€
â€œYour small mind couldnâ€™t understand the workings of something so grand as Valtorâ€™s designs!â€ Risawal exclaimed, collapsing the sails.
â€œWell if youâ€™re right, then he sent a storm at his own chosen one because one of his companions said something nasty about him! Sounds like a mighty petty god. Why are you risking your life for him again?â€
â€œFool, this is a lifetimeâ€™s worth of misdeeds,â€ Risawal replied, wiping the rain from his face. â€œFrom everything youâ€™ve said with your foul little mouth Iâ€™d sayâ€¦â€
â€œEnough!â€ Virpan shouted, sending out a wave of fire. â€œBatten down the hatches you idiots or weâ€™re going to die!â€
â€œHe started it!â€
â€œAnd Iâ€™ll finish it!â€ Virpan roared.
They exchanged a final glare before fastening every hatch good and tight. Waves crashed over the bow, sending them scampering to the upper deck. Howngthirr took the helm and steered the ship as Kialiki called out directions. After awhile the waves began to calm, though the sky remained dark and the rains poured from above.
Hoping they were in no imminent danger of drowning, Risawal headed below decks, taking one last look at Howngthirr as he descended the steps.Â It boggled his mind how someone who had grown up within a few hoursâ€™ walk of the monastery could doubt Valtor, let alone speak against him with such vigor.
He struggled through the charred interior before arriving back in their cabin. Another wave crashed against the boat and a splash of water came through the back window. He hurried to it, fastening the porthole tight. It occurred to him that they might be taking on water elsewhere. He picked up a lantern and lit it, tired of staggering around in the dark.
By the lanternâ€™s dim light he trudged down the hall, searching for the hold.Â After a few doors he found the one he was looking for, a stairwell into the bilges. There he found what he had feared: a pool of water sloshing around in the bottom of their ship. With a curse he turned to run up to the deck, only to find his path blocked by Virpan.
â€œOh, I was just going to inform you of the water here,â€ he said breathlessly.
â€œYeah, I figured. Liakauâ€™s boat was full of the stuff too.â€
â€œListen, Iâ€™m sorry about, about that thing with your friend,â€ he said quietly, turning his head. â€œIt was not appropriate.â€
â€œIt was,â€ she began, biting her lip, â€œunderstandable; weâ€™re all under a lot of stress.â€
â€œYou can say that again,â€ he muttered. â€œHow are you holding up?â€
â€œIâ€™m, really not sure. I might be in love with a man who betrayed me, yet, also tried to make up for his crime.â€
â€œYou mean Haâ€™olewe? Wait, what do you mean?â€
â€œYes, him, he gave Liakau the charm. Dropped it from his boat I suspect.â€
â€œI need to lie down for a minute,â€ Risawal muttered, turning back to their cabin. â€œGather my thoughts.â€
â€œI know the feeling,â€ Virpan said, following after him. â€œThis whole journey, its, not, I wanâ€™t prepared I donâ€™t think.â€
â€œUh, shouldnâ€™t you be up on deck?â€
â€œI believe Kialiki and Howngthirr can handle it for now,â€ she replied, â€œbesides, I need a little rest too.â€
Risawal nodded, passing by several empty rooms. It occurred to him that they didnâ€™t have to stay in any particular cabin anymore. After peaking in several other cabins along the way, he decided that their first cabin was quite sufficient.
â€œHuh, looks like we got the best cabin on the ship,â€ Risawal mused, hanging the lantern on hook beside the door. â€œI wonder if they were trying to win us over.â€
â€œPerhaps,â€ Virpan said, flopping down onto her bed. â€œHonestly, when it comes to Zharâ€™oth, everything just gets bizarre.â€
â€œI noticed. You, uh, you ever think he might be on the level?â€
â€œNot once,â€ she replied flatly. â€œI mean, I know heâ€™s trying to get the helm, but, nothing else he says could be true.â€
â€œTo what end, I wonder?â€ Risawal asked the wall, sitting down on his bed. â€œSurely he knows that its power is useless to any but the one chosen champion.â€
â€œPerhaps he has knowledge which we lack?â€
â€œA chilling thought, though I doubt it. This Zharâ€™oth may think himself clever, but he knows nothing of Valtorâ€™s true glory. He will fail, of this I am certain.â€
â€œI hope youâ€™re right,â€ Virpan murmured, turning towards the wall.
Restless, Risawal rose from bed and paced around the room. He gazed out the porthole at the churning waves for a time. Then he turned to Virpan, who seemed quite down. Cautiously he approached her, hoping he could alleviate her melancholy. â€œHey, weâ€™re back on course, donâ€™t look so forlorn.â€
â€œHey yourself; I told you, itâ€™s about Haâ€™o-uh-olewe.â€
â€œDo you love him?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know. So much, so fast, itâ€™s difficult to form anything coherent.â€
â€œI know what you mean. There are times when I wonder whatâ€™s real and, things; itâ€™s been a strange couple of weeks.â€
â€œDo you think that after this, what happens after?â€
â€œWhen everything is over, what happens?â€
â€œOnce Iâ€™ve completed my destiny, we can all go h-home.â€
As the final word rolled off his tongue a strange discomfort returned. Images of the monastery flashed through his mind, yet, they seemed strangely foreign to him. Confused, he lay down onto his bed, unable to shake a terrible feeling that now began to take hold.
â€œWhat am I doing?â€ he whispered, thinking back over everything that had happened to him.
â€œDid you say something?â€
â€œNo, nothing,â€ he replied, the lie pushing him dangerously close to the edge. He tried to refocus his thoughts, landing on rage as a good motivator. â€œBah, doesnâ€™t know Valtor, a man who knows everything, men in black coats.â€
â€œRisawal, are you alright?â€
â€œI-Iâ€™m fine, just fine.â€