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 ship’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.  Though they tried to shout, no sounds could escape from their lips. Virpan grew desperate, knowing what was about to happen. Zhar’oth, the great monster that towered over her life appeared from the haze and cackled at her.

“You still fight on against the impossible, don’t you?” 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. Zhar’oth plucked it neatly out of the air.

“Tsk! Tsk! Such an important relic and now it is lost to you,” 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.

‘No!  It can’t end this way!’ She thought through the pain, Zhar’oth’s laughter ringing through her being.

“Don’t fight it, my dear, you cannot beat the fire, for you no longer posses your precious Karuzat charm.”

“Give it back!” Virpan shrieked.

“Get a hold of yourself.”

“Give it back!” Virpan howled in tears waking up delirious with fear.

“Virpan, wake up!” Risawal shouted, shaking her out of the nightmare. She stared up at him, feeling drained and exhausted.

“Another nightmare, wasn’t it?” Howngthirr asked. “You think it means something?”

“We have to stop Zhar’oth from getting the Helm of Valtor, or we’re all going to die in flames,” Virpan said grimly. “I know this, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

Risawal touched her shoulder.  “Relax, it’s just dream.”

“No, it’s more than that. I’ve glimpsed the real Zhar’oth there, seen the monster that walks as a man.”

“Alright, alright, we believe you.”

Virpan smiled a little. Then the fear returned to her eyes. “I just don’t know how we’re going to do it now. I’ve lost my Karuzat charm.”

“There are others, you know,” Kialiki said helpfully, “maybe we’ll find one.”

“No. I truly believe that that Karuzat charm was destined for me.”

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 Ha’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.

“Liakau,” she whispered.

“Good to see you,” he said, smiling.

“What are you doing here?”

“I brought you this,” he replied, tossing something into Virpan’s hand.

Stunned, Virpan turned the object around in her fingers. It was her Karuzat charm. “How, why did you?”

“Let’s just say my girlfriend has contacts,” he replied smiling.

“Thank you, so much,” she breathed.

“It’s the least I could do,” he replied, “Farwell.”

With a final wave, Liakau sank back into the deep blue sea. 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 Virpan’s restraint to keep from skipping across the deck. Somehow she managed to keep a façade of calm up as she descended back into their cabin, her friends beginning to awaken as she arrived.

“You’ll never believe what just happened,” Virpan said, on the verge of laughter.

“Do tell,” Kialiki said, smiling as well. “I’m waiting with bated breath.”

Virpan lifting the glowing Karuzat charm from under her shirt.

“Wait, what?” Howngthirr stammered, sitting up.

“How did you get that?” Risawal asked, approaching her.

“That’s a pretty necklace.”

Virpan laughed softly. “It seems our old ship captain is still watching out for us.”

“What do you mean by that?” Howngthirr asked, scratching his head.

“It was Liakau, repaying his debt.”

“That’s great,” Risawal said, clapping his hands, “now we have something to work with.”

“And we’re going to take over this ship with it,” she said.

“How?” Howngthirr asked flatly. “We’ve got no weapons against a crew of at least three dozen men, and we’ve no idea where we are or how to sail this ship.”

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.

“I’m going to set the ship on fire,” she explained.

“That seems like a really bad idea,” Howngthirr said, concerned. “Wait, let’s think this, like, you’re not listening, are you?”

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.

“This ship is on fire,” she said calmly. “Shouldn’t you be fleeing?”

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.

“Uh, Virpan,” Howngthirr began nervously.

She looked at him “Yes?”

“Could you please put the fire out?” 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 didn’t take long for the crew to notice.

“Back to the ship!” The captain bellowed.

“I wouldn’t try that if I were you!” Virpan called to him.

“I’ll not allow you to take away my ship! I’m under contract!”

Virpan frowned. “I’m sorry, Captain, really. You’ve been very kind to us, but the fate of the world rests upon our quest, so no, you don’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.”

“The fate of the-oh, listen to me, please. You’re making a huge mistake,” the captain called. “We-we can discuss this. I’ll contact Mister Rotyrov”

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.

“Now, Kialiki,” Virpan called.

“Yes?”

“Can you get us to Nadiana?”

“Yes, I’m good at navigation, and other things.”

“Splendid.”

-#-

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.

“So, are we to return and tell Mister Rotyrov the bad news?”

“Yes, but we mustn’t dally. I overheard him, and, we’d best get home as soon as the tide allows it.”

-#-

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 Valtor’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.

“Hello, Hongtil,” he said brightly, walking over to his comrade, “how are you?”

“Fine, I’d say,” Howngthirr replied, tapping on an unresponsive winch with his hammer. “And it’s Howng-thirr.”

“My mistake,” Risawal said quickly, “those clouds don’t look too friendly.”

“Yeah, Kialiki told me there was a storm brewing.”

“Good thing we have Valtor watching over us.”

“Whatever,” Howngthirr muttered, finally getting the winch to wind. “Finally, stupid thing.”

“Oh, interesting necklace,” Risawal said, eyeing the hammer pendant around his neck, “And quite appropriate given your current task.”

“Eh? This, my mother gave this to me,” Howngthirr said, tapping the pendant, “Kagnzatb, or his hammer at least. He carved the pass where my village sits with a swing of the real one.”

“Interesting,” Risawal said a knowing smile crossing his lips. “Kaginzatbab, that’s the local name for Allushuk correct?”

“No, Aelwooshook has nothing to do with Kagnzatb.”

“But they’re really the same,” Risawal countered, “just under a different guise.”

“What are you going on about? Kagnzatb: son of Dwishol and Nlitprig. Simple.” Howngthirr said, tucking the hammer into his belt. “Now, is there anything that needs hammering?”

“But all are servants of Valtor, the lower demigods you named.”

“Wait, what!?” Howngthirr exclaimed. “Dwishol is a god, the king of gods, there’s nothing lower about him.”

“Valtor is the true high god, the lord of fire.”

“Nlitprig is the lady of fire, there is no lord of fire.”

“No, she is his concubine.” Risawal said quickly, “I’m afraid that you’ve got it wrong.”

“Why would she serve one who is less powerful?”

“Valtor is not less powerful!” he spat, “H-how dare you! He is the one who saved us from captivity!”

“No, he didn’t, Virpan did that!” Howngthirr roared, “She’s a mortal descendent of Nlitprig, that’s why she has power over fire.” Lightning flashed overhead, and a huge thunderclap boomed in the sky.

“Valtor has been watching over us this entire trek, giving more of his power to her over time!”

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.

“Take down the sails!” Kialiki called.

“I’ll do it,” Risawal said, grabbing a line, “you know this is a sign from Valtor for your unkind words!”

“You’re nuts,” Howngthirr cried, putting the winch to use, “it’s been darkening all day; if anything, it’s Dwishol showing you what a nitwit you are.”

“Your small mind couldn’t understand the workings of something so grand as Valtor’s designs!” Risawal exclaimed, collapsing the sails.

“Well if you’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?”

“Fool, this is a lifetime’s worth of misdeeds,” Risawal replied, wiping the rain from his face. “From everything you’ve said with your foul little mouth I’d say…”

“Enough!” Virpan shouted, sending out a wave of fire. “Batten down the hatches you idiots or we’re going to die!”

“He started it!”

“And I’ll finish it!” 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. It boggled his mind how someone who had grown up within a few hours’ 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 lantern’s dim light he trudged down the hall, searching for the hold. 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.

“Oh, I was just going to inform you of the water here,” he said breathlessly.

“Yeah, I figured. Liakau’s boat was full of the stuff too.”

“Listen, I’m sorry about, about that thing with your friend,” he said quietly, turning his head. “It was not appropriate.”

“It was,” she began, biting her lip, “understandable; we’re all under a lot of stress.”

“You can say that again,” he muttered. “How are you holding up?”

“I’m, really not sure. I might be in love with a man who betrayed me, yet, also tried to make up for his crime.”

“You mean Ha’olewe? Wait, what do you mean?”

“Yes, him, he gave Liakau the charm. Dropped it from his boat I suspect.”

“I need to lie down for a minute,” Risawal muttered, turning back to their cabin. “Gather my thoughts.”

“I know the feeling,” Virpan said, following after him. “This whole journey, its, not, I wan’t prepared I don’t think.”

“Uh, shouldn’t you be up on deck?”

“I believe Kialiki and Howngthirr can handle it for now,” she replied, “besides, I need a little rest too.”

Risawal nodded, passing by several empty rooms. It occurred to him that they didn’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.

“Huh, looks like we got the best cabin on the ship,” Risawal mused, hanging the lantern on hook beside the door. “I wonder if they were trying to win us over.”

“Perhaps,” Virpan said, flopping down onto her bed. “Honestly, when it comes to Zhar’oth, everything just gets bizarre.”

“I noticed. You, uh, you ever think he might be on the level?”

“Not once,” she replied flatly. “I mean, I know he’s trying to get the helm, but, nothing else he says could be true.”

“To what end, I wonder?” Risawal asked the wall, sitting down on his bed. “Surely he knows that its power is useless to any but the one chosen champion.”

“Perhaps he has knowledge which we lack?”

“A chilling thought, though I doubt it. This Zhar’oth may think himself clever, but he knows nothing of Valtor’s true glory. He will fail, of this I am certain.”

“I hope you’re right,” 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. “Hey, we’re back on course, don’t look so forlorn.”

“Hey yourself; I told you, it’s about Ha’o-uh-olewe.”

“Do you love him?”

“I don’t know. So much, so fast, it’s difficult to form anything coherent.”

“I know what you mean. There are times when I wonder what’s real and, things; it’s been a strange couple of weeks.”

“Do you think that after this, what happens after?”

“Huh?”

“When everything is over, what happens?”

“Once I’ve completed my destiny, we can all go h-home.”

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.

“What am I doing?” he whispered, thinking back over everything that had happened to him.

“Did you say something?”

“No, nothing,” he replied, the lie pushing him dangerously close to the edge. He tried to refocus his thoughts, landing on rage as a good motivator. “Bah, doesn’t know Valtor, a man who knows everything, men in black coats.”

“Risawal, are you alright?”

“I-I’m fine, just fine.”

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