Chapter 25: The Crossing

“Tribute,” Howngthirr murmured, cursing himself for not interrogating the Valtorites on the spot. Now he found himself squatting in a dingy alley waiting for their wagon to arrive. Though it was not their wagon yet.

Behind him was Kialiki, while Risawal and Virpan waited in a doorway across the road. The two Valtorites who had hosted them were milling about the street, joined by six more of their brethren. They had, in their own way, cleared the street of the few people who had wandered past.

The mere presence of so many hooded figures had been enough to dissuade most pedestrians from approaching. The one stubborn old woman how had ventured close had been driven away by an unsettling murmur from the hooded cultists and their unflinching stares. It had almost worked on Howngthirr, as well.

He stayed in place only because he knew that Virpan needed at least one sane companion, and it seemed that had to be him. The fact that he had no other way home was also in the front of his mind. He scratched his arm, finding the thick wool of his new outfit uncomfortable.

Down the road appeared two wagons loaded with goods. The men who drove them, four in all, wore a thick orange cloth getup which concealed most of their forms. Flanking the wagons was at least half a dozen guardsmen. The Valtorites retreated into the abandoned houses around them before they could be seen, preparing to enact their part of the plan. As the procession passed by the trap was sprung.

The older Valtorite, now clad in filthy rags, chased the young woman from a nearby house, holding a cane in his hand. The young woman was screaming, doing a fairly accurate portrayal of a woman in distress.

As expected the guards moved to intervene, leaving the wagons and their drivers unprotected. Virpan and Risawal rushed out to subdue the two drivers on the rear wagon, while   Howngthirr and Kialiki rushed to the one in the lead. He snuck up behind the old man holding the reigns and put a gag over his mouth. His muffled cry was silenced as Kialiki worked her magic over his head, putting him to sleep.

Quick as a flash, Howngthirr lifted him out of his seat while Kialiki put his compatriot to sleep. Once the two drivers were bound he concealed them beneath the canvas with their goods. He and Kialiki took their places, both clad in identical outfits. He took the reigns as one of the guardsmen glanced his way. The man didn’t bat an eye.

Howngthirr smiled, his hands quivering as he took in his fist real victory. Their foes had been subdued and their path to Abhetallqames was clear, all without spilling a drop of blood. He reached his arm around Kialiki and shook her shoulder jubilantly. She snorted at his gesture, though did not push him away. Before them was a comical spectacle. The guards were attempting to keep the young woman and old man away from each other, the pair either playing their parts spectacularly well or they had allowed their true feelings to bleed through.

A glint flashed in the young woman’s hands. The guard behind her fell to the ground, clutching his chest. Before Howngthirr had fully processed what was happening it was already all but over. The other Valtorites spilled from the houses along the road, the stunned guardsmen falling in a frenzy of killing. Kialiki squeaked as the last one fell to the ground dead. Howngthirr swayed in his seat, almost overcome by light headedness.

His stomach churned as the cultists pulled the bodies from the street. Once the road was clear they remerged dressed as the guardsmen, forming up around the wagons. When two approached the unconscious drivers beneath the canvas Howngthirr at last broke his silence. “What are you going to do with them?”

“They will be dealt with,” the young woman replied, “don’t worry.”

He watched, worried, as the prisoners were hauled through the dark doorways and out of sight. With everything taken care of, the commandeered wagon train began again, rolling through the streets of the dilapidated city. Everything became a haze as Howngthirr drifted through his mind. He passed the reigns to Kialiki, his hands trembling uncontrollably.

He barely noticed as they passed through the city gates and into the countryside. Gradually he became aware of the yellowy grasslands surrounding a sickly forest. He also became aware that their Valtorite guards had left them, which made him feel marginally better. As they passed beneath the bows of the skinny trees he felt a tugging on his shoulder. He turned, looking into Kialiki’s worried face. “Are you alright Howngthirr?”

Howngthirr opened his mouth to speak, only to turn away from her, shivering. Then, feeling her hand on his back, he leaned over the edge of the wagon and threw up.

-#-

Virpan stared out over the strange forest land they passed through, feeling an awful weight lingering over the entire expedition. She concentrated on the trees, noticing that they lacked branches. Instead they were tall pillars topped with tufts of giant leaves. They looked similar to those on the islands, though much taller. The woods formed but a thin barrier separating the seaside with a vast, arid plain.

Once past the trees, the desolate landscape stretched to the horizon. Yellow, lifeless, and flat. Time passed, though in the nearly featureless waste, Virpan couldn’t be sure how much. Out of nowhere a band of green appeared in the distance and soon they were riding through a fertile oasis. At its centre floated a mighty river.

They crossed it on a mighty arched bridge, spotting a small fleet of boats sailing down below. On the other side was a lush land of farms and orchards, long irrigation ditches and aqueducts cutting through the ground. By the time night fell they were on the outskirts of a large town. Using the tribute for barter, she purchased a fairly nice room for them all. When asked, the innkeeper informed her that it would be two days journey to Abhetallqames.

After considering their options, they pawned off the rest of their cargo the following day, allowing them to travel lighter. Yet even trimmed down to a single wagon, the weight remained.

-#-

From beyond the horizon rose the great spires of Abhetallqames. The gleaming imperial capitol rose elegantly from the plain, standing on the slopes of an ancient tel. Virpan looked out in awe, leaning around Risawal to get a better glimpse. The road descended into a valley filled with farms and vineyards, surrounding the raised city like a green moat. The wagon passed beneath a great arch, which held aloft an aqueduct the breadth of a river.

Though the others looked on in awe, Risawal clenched his teeth in resentment. The empire had rejected Valtor, had desecrated their temples, humiliated his servants, and had finally stolen a number of priceless treasures. The words of Father Torvipan and the brothers rang through his head again and again. Fire in his heart, he looked up and finally took in the city.

“You’ll feel the flame,” he whispered, “Once I have the helm, you shall feel the burning fury of Valtor.”

“What’s that?” Kialiki asked. “Flame something?”

“Nothing,” he replied shortly, eyeing her suspiciously. “I have, shall we say, ambivalent feelings for this city and the Hanesttaalan Empire.”

“Yes, empires are terrible,” Virpan muttered absentmindedly, “Always warring, telling people where to go, hiding things, nothing good about them.”

“My father once traded here,” Howngthirr said, oblivious to the previous statements, “This really could be the closest place in the whole world to the home of the gods.”

“Hey, looks like someone important is here,” Kialiki chimed in.

Near the gates of the city was indeed a great procession of people all crowded around a central litter. Virpan looked closer, feeling something was amiss.

“Oh, no,” she breathed, reaching for the driver. “Risawal take us to a different gate.”

“What?” He asked, turning indignantly.

“Those are Eagle Warriors,” she hissed, looking around at the confused faces. “Karriv’s men!”

“Who?” Kialiki asked quietly.

“Oh, yeah, that jungle warlord,” Howngthirr said quietly. “Just keep your head down, you should be fine.”

Stunned at their calmness, Virpan leaned down as the wagon stopped behind the procession. At the head of the crowd a pair of city guards were arguing with a high ranking Eagle warrior. After a minute of arguing, the two guards finally parted and the procession of slaves and guards advanced into the city.

Still unnerved, Virpan asked Risawal to remain stationary while the Eagle warriors vanished into the city. Risawal silently complied, drumming his fingers as the guards beckoned him forward. Several wagons loaded with fruits came up behind them and began shouting at the holdup. With angry yells and dirty looks all around, the Risawal was forced to move. The guards shook their heads, one walking up to them and demanding an explanation.

“Sorry,” was the only reply he gave. After several pointed questions Risawal handed him a bag of coins and was waved through. Though it cost them the remainder of their pawn money, Virpan was glad that they had put between herself and Karriv’s men.

Well dressed people walked to and fro along the clean streets. Virpan took a moment out of her worry to marvel at the tall buildings stretching as high as a tree and the bright colors in every direction. Vivid blue and red drapes hung in windows with miniature gardens blooming in the cramped nooks between buildings.

Risawal turned them down a narrow alley just as a marching procession of musicians approached.

“Awe, I hoped to see more of them,” Howngthirr said glumly, “oh well, I wonder if we will have time to get some cloth. I’m certain mother would love…”

“How can you even think of material goods at a time like this?” Risawal demanded.

“I was thinking about home, about after we’re all through with this,” he retorted, “could you lighten…”

“Shut your mouth,” Risawal snapped. “My home, my family was-was destroyed by Shvalah. This is all I have, my one task in life.”

“Whoa, seriously Risawa, I-I’m sorry, I just-I’m trying to think about things.”

The wagon fell into silence, Virpan looking over Risawal with concern. The air was still filled with quiet animosity when they came to a stop. After checking the sign above the adobe inn several times, the four of them disembarked. Virpan surreptitiously glanced all around them, checking for spies or worse that might be following them.

The knowledge that Karriv’s men were in the city unsettled Virpan more than she liked. She entered the barroom on the lookout for unfriendly faces. There were few patrons present, several tables appearing quite clean. Within moments a robed man approached them and pointed toward a curtain in the back.

Hoping this was a good sign, Virpan lead the way around the bar through the veil. Behind was a broom closet, the small space filled with buckets and mops. She stood at the threshold, considering for a moment that they might have been tricked. Before she could work out who the conspirators might have been, the back of the closet gave way revealing a hidden room beyond.

There stood an elderly man, a symbol of Valtor around his neck. Fears alleviated, she and Risawal hurried into chamber. An old desk sat at the end of the room with ten chairs set out before it. Risawal immediately took a seat at the front of the room while the elder rummaged through the desk.

“I am Brother Vutuk,” the elder said quietly, “Welcome, to our little sanctuary in this sea of malice.”

“Greetings Brother Vutuk,” Risawal replied in awe, “I am…”

“Risawal, the Chosen One,” Vutuk said quickly, settling down behind the desk. “Yes, father Torvipan’s letter was quite detailed. And you, young lady, must be Virpan.”

“Indeed,” she said, bowing her head in respect. “It is good to see a friendly face.”

“Now, I suspect you must have some news for us,” the brother said leaning forward. “The Helm of Valtor, is it near here?”

“It is in this very city,” Risawal breathed. “Locked away beneath the vile temple to Tamazjele.”

“The fiends,” Vutuk moaned, “then we have no time to lose. I need to send out a few notes, contact some allies. I think there might be a great opportunity here to recover the helm.”

“And what opportunity is that?” Risawal asked.

“The wedding of Princess Nuki’a, daughter of Karriv, and Prince Atmaj, son of Bhima, is tomorrow.”

“Uh, what?” Risawal asked, confused.

“You don’t know?” he asked, surprised. “Atmaj and Nuki’a wedding will seal and alliance between Karriv and Emperor Bhima. They were going to have the wedding at the temple, but due to recent threats have moved it to the citadel. Tomorrow the temple will be empty.”

“So what do we do now?” Risawal asked quickly.

“Now, you shall have a nice dinner and rest.” He blinked, glancing past Risawal and Virpan. “Oh, who are these other companions? Father Torvipan mentioned only two.”

“Howngthirr and Kialiki,” Virpan offered helpfully.

“Ah, thank you, have a good rest dear Howngthirr and to you Kialiki. Shall I show you to your quarters?”

-#-

A hearty meal awaited Virpan and Kialiki in the room they were to share. Their quarters were fairly Spartan, but clean and a welcome change from their accommodations in Kyinoheig. After eating their fill of brown bread and runny cheese, Kialiki selected a book from the shelf and contented herself with reading for the hour or so of daylight remaining. Illiterate, Virpan drew out her dagger and began carving a spare bit of firewood.

At dusk they retired to their bed, a familiar dread washing over Virpan as she tossed and turned. The moment she crossed over into the realm of dreams, her nightmare returned.

“No!” She cried, her foe back once more to begin the torment anew. Zhar’oth laughed, flames rising around her bound friends. Virpan could do nothing but watch as they were consumed. Furious and fearful, she raised her hand to him and cried out for retribution. The sound of screaming pierced the smoky haze.

Suddenly a wave of water crashed into her. She sat bolt upright, realizing that the water had been real. Beside her stood Kialiki holding an overturned bucket. Virpan sputtered in shock.

“Fire!” Kialiki exclaimed. “You were on fire!”

“W-what?” She looked around, noticing the singed sheets around her. Kialiki was wide eyed and shivering. “You were tossing and turning and whimpering when suddenly you burst into flame!”

Virpan clutched the Karuzat charm for comfort as she digested what Kialiki had just said. It seemed as though her nightmares were now manifesting in the waking world.

“We have to get the Helm of Valtor, tomorrow, or we’ll all be consumed by the fire,” She moaned, knowing she’d have to stay awake lest she risk bursting into flames again. She rose from the soaked bed and started pacing, Kialiki eying her questioningly.

“Virpan, what are you doing?”

“I can’t go back to sleep now,” She explained. “The nightmare will come again and I might lose control.”

“Tell you what,” Kialik said. “How bout we sleep in shifts? You take the first half of the night asleep and I’ll stay awake with another bucket to put you out.”

Virpan smiled. “Thank you Kialiki.”

She settled down, hoping to get some rest before their big day. Amazingly, she fell fast asleep and the nightmare failed to return.

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